Thursday, 20 October 2016

The No-Verandah Room

For the last six months I've travelled the States in book form; fictional form, not encyclopedic tourist guide whose recommendations and maps are not, as they intimate, user friendly. No, my approach was more haphazard but perhaps less lost, unlike the protagonists I read of who were frequently more lost than I. And most of them were male. The females where they featured seemed, if unsure of themselves, to latch on futilely and quicker to something, some spark or gem, whereas the male, however aged, tended towards the farcical.
Disillusionments with the white picket fence life was a common theme, as was escapism; and as they made their escape, I from the comfort of a unrealised verandah went with them, a cocktail in hand. The truth, if it has to be told, is that although I may occasionally sit next to a large window overlooking a pub garden and tarmacked car park, I sit enclosed as if I were the ice cube in my imagined drink, but why deprive you of the fantasy?
Warning: I am as notional as the novelised characters I attract. And I do attract them: they find me, like an all-night café that suddenly leers at you alongside a dirt track, almost as if it were a shimmering mirage, only it doesn't disappear when you swerve, reverse, double back and park with the old Dodges, Chevrolets and Ford trucks, step out and walk in to its wipe-down, cosy interior. And in there, characters corner me, whether I seat myself at the counter or in a red leatherette booth, and beguile me with their tales, however lunatic or soul searching, as I nurse a coffee and a piece of pie which to my inattentive eye the solicitous waitress keeps replenishing until the character sitting across or next to me heaves him or herself up and throws a few folded bills down and with a cursory nod to the waitress, but without so much of a backwards glance to me, exits. Then I, like him or her, after passing a paper napkin over my mouth, take my leave, to continue my journey elsewhere.
And so it goes on...except throughout I've never left my home town, or on some days even my apartment. I have two, maybe three, active parallel universes. I make believe as I prepare to read that I sidle gracefully through an open door onto a verandah, as if I was attending a glamorous party thrown by Fitzgerald's Gatsby and had come up here for a different view of the proceedings, and yet when I commence reading another projection of myself is transported to 1950s and 60s America, to small towns, to bustling cities, to picture shows, to all night cafés, roadside diners, hotel bars and restaurants, and it's there, regardless of the novel's actual setting, that its characters choose to accost me, usually after they've ordered a cheeseburger or an egg and sausage breakfast. The Jazz starlet's gone and I'm more bubblegum poppin' with a small town attitude, used to roughnecks and cowboys; occasionally though the Jazz starlet will disrupt the flow and will look up from the book before her, which she now sees is not a cigarette holder, and gazes into the middle distance to watch a picture show of that future America, not realising this is where a part of her has travelled to, and wonder at her sense of deja vu. Whereas the modern original will never see either of those bygone eras, except in her conjured imaginings, and who, in reality, is standing by a closed window, novel in hand, and most probably subconsciously untying, retying and tightening the belt of her dressing gown, which you should know is her autumn-winter attire and her take on the 1940s housecoat.
The American Dream, but not the America of now. Her person retrogressive in taste and entertainment. Someone who wants the big open road and yet her country of birth being in comparison a very small island cannot tick that box, and neither can America as it is now, for the power of uninhabited nostalgia is stronger than modernity. And so she (and I am that she of whom I've been latterly talking for it's easier in the third person to explain) turns to American-set novels and American novelists, to drink it in, and let the current world she lives in slip away. Goes on the road from a room which has large windows but no verandah.

Picture credit: Woman on the Verandah, 1924, Edvard Munch