Attending Poppy

Christopher Tayler

  • Louse by David Grand
    Quartet, 255 pp, £10.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 7043 8115 X

In its fifties heyday 7000 Romaine was the operations centre of Howard Hughes’s organisation, and lent its name to an unusual document known as the ‘Romaine Street Procedures Manual’, an attempt to codify both Hughes’s memoranda and the instructions set down by his compliant lieutenants. Its guidelines for employees, generously quoted in Barlett and Steele’s 1979 biography of Hughes, are extremely precise. They range from general conduct (‘Do not fraternise with persons outside the office ... Tell your wife as little as possible’), to the most minute detail: when opening the cinema door for Hughes’s future wife ‘do so with the feet, not the hands’; ‘When crossing any bump, dip, swale, ditch, railroad track or any uneven part of any road’ in the course of chauffeuring one of his contract starlets ‘the speed should be reduced to such a minimum ... that no violent motion ... would tend to disturb the position of the party’ – Hughes feared that their breasts might be damaged by jolting. The main preoccupation, however, is hygiene. In January 1958, for example, Hughes dictated three pages of single-spaced instructions on how to open a can of fruit:

The equipment used in connection with this operation will consist of the following items: 1 unopened newspaper, 1 sterile can opener; 1 large sterile plate; 1 sterile fork; 1 sterile spoon; 2 sterile brushes; 2 bars of soap; sterile paper towels ... The man in charge ... should first soak and remove the label, and then brush the cylindrical part of the can over and over until all particles of dust, pieces of paper label, and, in general, all sources of contamination have been removed ... If possible, keep the head, upper part of the body, arms etc, at least one foot away from the can ... [there must be] absolutely no talking, coughing, clearing of the throat, or any movement whatsoever of the lips.

As David Thomson remarks in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, this was a life ‘so primed for legend, it leaves one feeling that the doleful, suspicious Hughes had some hygienic plan for missing life altogether and going straight into myth’. Hughes was, after all, someone whose business interests comprised a military-industrial-entertainment complex in their own right; and this, combined with his fantastic depredations, has made his story seem almost embarrassingly ripe with sententious melodrama, conspiratorial politics and emblematic Americana. In her 1967 essay about Hughes, ‘7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38’, Joan Didion attributed the fascination Hughes exerted to a return of the repressed: for ‘a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues’, Hughes is ‘the antithesis of all our official heroes’. David Grand’s first novel Louse sees Hughes and his memos more mischievously, as bold historical forerunners of the age of the empowered manager. Hughes’s role as a monstrous double of the conventional tycoon is extended, with deadpan solemnity, until the demented procedures and obsessional constraints of the Romaine Street Manual come to stand in for the absurdities of corporate employment – and many other constraints of human existence.

Louse is set ‘sometime in the present’ – as words such as ‘Ms’ and ‘downsizing’ attest – and takes the form of a collection of texts compiled ‘using the most sophisticated contemporary documentation methods known to man’. As well as first-person, presenttense narration, its chapters are made up of memos, surveillance transcripts, two screenplays (one a ‘hagiography’, one ‘the untold story’), and a confession left ‘in a hot, dark glove compartment somewhere outside the resort town of G.’. This town is where Herman Q. Louse, the protagonist and, for much of the book, the narrator, lives and works in a penthouse smelling of ammonia above a gambling complex. His job is to attend the ‘Executive Controlling Partner’, a drill-bit heir, Hollywood mogul and aeronautics magnate turned casino operator named Herbert Horatio Blackwell. Blackwell, who is addressed throughout the novel as ‘Poppy’ – a name presumably chosen for its paternal as well as its narcotic associations – spends his days in bed in a sealed room, fearful of infection from dust, insects and bacteria (‘one of the simplest forms of life and the most nefarious infidel’). Louse’s tasks include injecting Poppy with his ‘Valium Librium Empirin #4’ and supervising the preparation of his meals, including the opening of his tinned fruit:

Ms Lonesome leans over the kitchen washbasin. She lifts a scrub brush and applies it to a can of peaches. She turns on the water and scrubs ... She scrubs the metallic container until all remnants of the adhesive once holding the wrapper are gone. She scrubs until the canister is shining. She wipes. She polishes with a fresh paper towel and places the can on the tray ... then walks about the kitchen collecting all the paper goods, which she disposes of in the incinerator next to the sink.

    The tray is prepared, all but for the beverage.

With the exception of Poppy, his doctor and the senior security personnel, none of the staff remembers anything about their lives before their employment in the resort town of G. They are not allowed to leave, nor are they paid; instead, they work to pay off debts which they apparently incurred while gambling in the casinos below. The staff are also subjected to a system of surveillance which registers the slightest breaches of the regulations. When Louse is caught humming an inappropriate tune, for example, his debt is increased: ‘staff members should know better than to mix forms of behaviour appropriate to one particular task with similar forms of behaviour associated with a completely different task.’ In response to more serious infractions, they are publicly tortured by Poppy’s physician, Dr Felonius Barnum.

Although there are strict ‘boundaries of authorised speech’, the staff are encouraged to discuss rumours, especially about malefactors. One constant topic of conversation is Paradise, a new development on the town’s desert outskirts, to which it seems employees will be admitted by lottery. Another project, known as Paradise Beyond Paradise, is also mentioned; this may involve escaping into germ-free outer space. Unfortunately, a group led by Mr Moorcraft, the Head Engineer, has embezzled the funds for this project. Mr Moorcraft has now disappeared. No one asks how the conspirators could possibly have evaded the omnipresent surveillance cameras, since ‘Contradictions and illogicalities discovered by staff members are to be ignored and not spoken of unless a formal query is made.’ The security forces are rapidly unravelling their trail, unearthing traitors everywhere, and at this point Louse is slipped a note giving him unusual orders and informing him that he is now a ‘sanctioned conspirator’. What follows will have far-reaching consequences for the inhabitants of the resort town of G.

The novel’s overall effect is difficult to describe because, although most of its elements are familiar, their combination is unusual and slightly unsettling. Much of its material is an investigation or rewriting of the myth of Howard Hughes, while the complicated plot, in which multiple revelations go off like strings of firecrackers, is structured like a paranoid conspiracy thriller. But the novel’s setting satirises the idioms and practices of the contemporary corporate workplace and makes Louse much less shrill than it might sound. On this level it is a comic novel – the 1984 of management consultancy. The dry conflation of legal, motivational and managerial idioms and euphemisms with the deadening, affectless language of a typical Romaine Street memo can be funny. Louse often has to contemplate ‘a quality of life assignment’, or learn to use a ‘system of analytical reviews’ to assess his ‘behaviours’ in the light of the documented ‘social contract’. He is constantly being told that it is ‘an exciting time’ to be with the company, and bombarded with slogans: ‘To be a trustee is to be a forward thinker.’ Louse is a fairly short first novel and these shifts in genre can make it dense and disparate, but surprisingly and somewhat mysteriously, it works.

Like Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts or Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, a novel it strongly resembles in many ways, Louse alludes quite heavily to its precursors. The Modernist kitsch of the truncated locations – ‘the resort town of G.’, ‘the oil town of H.’, ‘the marshy tributary linking S. and T.’ – and the incomprehensible, unforgiving bureaucracy allude, obviously enough, to Kafka; Louse’s unfathomable duties recall those imposed by Mr Knott in Beckett’s novel Watt; and the dreamlike figure of ‘Madame’, who comes to comfort Poppy in his sleep, initially seems to have wandered out of a late Beckett play. But, while the book’s Post-Modern allegiances are flaunted fairly insistently, the only reference that really grates is the clumpingly Foucauldian name given to Poppy’s surveillance arm, ‘Pan Opticon’. What saves the novel from making too much of all this is its attractively dry sense of burlesque, and an air of bafflement constantly teetering on the edge of Gothic: like Dracula’s hapless assistant Renfield, Louse occasionally suffers from ‘perverse thoughts of eating flies’.

Louse is obsessed with images of flight and falling – butterflies, paper planes, the aeronautical epics Poppy used to direct – which it associates with freedom, but also with death. There are inescapable overtones to all the talk of Paradise (not to mention the renegade Head Engineer’s ability to ‘walk invisibly and silently among us’); and these, along with epigraphs from Kierkegaard and the Bible, hint at some half-buried and possibly half-baked existential allegory about election and free will. Like Flower and Stone in The Music of Chance, Donald and the Hall Brothers in The Restraint of Beasts, Mr Knott, or the emissaries of Kafka’s Law, Poppy starts out as a mysterious and inscrutably motivated figure. As the novel progresses, though, we are told more – by means of interpolated memos and documents – about the Executive Controlling Partner’s history, the origins of his fear of bacteria, and even his desire for a kind of redemption. His career, his habits, even the names of his properties (Poppy, too, has a Romaine building), are closely tied to those of the historical Howard Hughes, and this has conflicting effects on the novel. On the one hand, the specifics of his career undercut the allegorical overtones, making it harder to see Poppy as a straightforward stand-in for a malignant deity. But, by drawing so heavily on Hughes’s life, the novel also takes on some of the resonances of his legendary career. This leads to a tactful and sometimes uncomfortable vacillation between the metaphysical and the specific, which steers clear of sweeping points on either side. Despite the occasional mishit (‘The sonorous expression on his face’, ‘the round inadequacy of my pupils’), some wearying crowd-scene dialogue, and an over-insistence on the cheap slow-motion effect of one-sentence paragraphs, this is a persuasive and suggestive exercise in intellectual slapstick.