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When you admire a writer you become curious. You look for his secret. The clues to his puzzle.
--ZUCKERMAN TO LONOFF IN PHILIP ROTH'S THE GHOST WRITER
Prem Rustum was tired. Seventy-five and tired. Thirty-odd books, countless awards, and a Nobel Prize later, he argued with Pascal over the phone that this was allowed. He regretted the conversation. Pascal hadn't won the prize yet, and it was not clear anymore that he would.
Pascal had taken the slight in his stride and pushed on. "It is the manner in which you write, my friend. You cannot stand at that tall table forever writing longhand. Move with the times, type on a computer, get online, buy your Viagra over the Internet. Prolong your youth. Learn to sit down."
Prem was already online; he just couldn't write fiction sitting down. He couldn't think of overarching themes and transcendental moments with his ass stuck to a seat, not with the same cleanliness as while standing up. He suspected that no one could. In fact, he was sure that his novels had an edge over Pascal's and Pedro's because he did it standing up. The foremost of the three Ps, he had been called.
Prem's ankles were stiff. There was a time not so long ago when he could go until noon without a break. He walked over to his bulletin board, where he had pinned the acupuncture chart that Homi had sent him from India. Prem traced his index finger over the drawing of the foot and its pressure points. Homi had sent a box of presents along with a card signed by Ratan that read I miss you, Grandpa. Ratan had probably chosen none of the items in the box other than the small G.I. Joe figure.
If the chart were to be believed, the stomach and spine regions of Prem's foot were causing trouble. But his stomach and spine felt fine--only his feet hurt like mad. Prem lowered himself into the tan leather couch in the corner of his studio. For a few minutes he looked at nothing in particular. Then his eyes settled upon the stack of hardback books piled in the corner, their spines all blue, his own name in italicized yellow in a speedy font. This jacket cover was different from all the ones before. His publishers had called him to the office instead of sending him a mock-up by mail.
"We've made the cover very sexy this time," Rudolf had declared at the meeting, when he had shown Prem the cover. Rudolf and Stern pretended that the jacket designer was caught up in a meeting and used an extra few minutes to praise the book cover before the sample arrived.
"The cover is fine," Prem said, dismissing it when it was presented. He had approved it because he knew instantly that this yellow was Ratan's favorite color. Ratan was still too young to read his books, but he would have an opinion on the jacket as soon as he saw it.
Rudolf and Stern had not been able to hide their collective relief. The designer--white, late twenties, nervous--seemed upset. On his way out Prem tugged at her elbow to pull her closer and whispered, "It's my last book. I'm glad you did such a good job with it."
In his studio, his eyes mildly out of focus as they stared at the blue and yellow tower labeled Prem Rustum, he was sure this was indeed his last. He had played with ideas for another novel, but they were going nowhere. Standing at the high lectern writing had become arduous. Prem felt his body getting slower and slower each day as if it were preparing for the full stop. Maybe it was time to move back to India and live with his family. In the absence of women, sex, and further mountains to scale, Ratan alone made Prem's life meaningful.
Prem rose from the couch and made his way to his desk. His laptop was on. He hadn't touched the power button since Kenny had hooked it up. Sometimes when Kenny would drop in, he would shut off the laptop and come back a few hours later to turn it on. Prem peered from the bottom of his glasses at the screen. He clicked on his messenger icon to see if Ratan was online. He wasn't. Prem calculated the time in Delhi--it was late. He leaned over to his phone and called Kenny.
"Could you come over?"
"I thought we already made an appointment for noon."
"I mean now. If you're free, that is."
"You're not working, Mr. Rustum?"
"I'll be right over." Prem wondered if he should add that everything was okay. Of late it seemed that everyone had become more anxious about his health. A minor headache, and Mrs. Smith and Kenny would make a grand fuss.
Kenny was at the door in fifteen minutes.
"I just wanted to deal with the books," Prem said, pointing to the stack of By the Thread, which had been variously hailed, debated, and dismissed as an opus on old age, a self-congratulatory sensationalist sermon, and a pompous preposterous piece of mediocrity.
"Yes, Mr. Rustum. Do you want me to send them to the usual list?"
"Could you, Kenny?"
"Of course. Anything else?" Kenny looked at Prem's entire body as he asked the question, scanning Prem's face, heart, and knees for an answer.
"Oh! I don't know." Prem ran his hand over the surface of his laptop.
"How is the computer coming along?"
"The computer!" Prem chortled. That crazy day when Krishnan, his friend from Oxford, and Krishnan's colleague ran like rats in a maze over the blueprints of his manuscripts was etched in Prem's memory.
"Do you use it more?" Kenny asked. The old man had a tendency to lapse into a reverie at times, and Kenny had learned to keep the focus on his questions by asking them without pausing for too long.
"Not for my writing, but I send those messages to my grandson."
"Would you like to learn how to use a search engine, Mr. Rustum? You can do your research online."
Prem nodded. Kenny opened a browser window and started a demo. Prem squinted a little to see what Kenny was pointing to. He grunted once he had seen it.
"In this window type in whatever you want to find out about. Let's just put your name here." Kenny pointed to the screen, taking care not to touch it.
"Here we go--five hundred and sixty thousand articles."
Prem angled his head to read properly from the half-moon of his bifocals, his attention captured by a sentence in which the words Rustum, bad, and sex were in bold.
"Go here," Prem said pointing to the screen.
Of the three Ps Prem Rustum is by far the least articulate about sex. The Indian is no match for the Latin lovers! Rustum's words ring hollow when he attempts any description of sexual activity. To his credit, he doesn't do this often. Speculation about his private life in the past has linked him with ballerinas, actresses, and even two schoolgirls in France who were below the legal age in America. It is therefore hard to understand why Rustum is bad with sex. On this front, his archrival, the second P, Pascal Boutin, is Rustum's superior.
"Can I do a search in French too?"
"Yes. Would you like to try? You can put in multiple words separated by commas." Kenny slid away from the laptop. In the first months Prem had noted everything Kenny had said. But as he got more familiar with terms like start key, escape, and control, he stopped taking notes. Instead, in Kenny's presence, he fumbled to replicate what Kenny had done.
"Let me see, P-a-s-c-a-l space B-o-u-t-i-n comma c-r-i-t-i-q-u-e."
Prem moved his head closer to the screen and used his finger to read off each line that had appeared.
"Let's see. Yes. Good." Prem was already absorbed in the articles.
"Can I take the books and go now, Mr. Rustum?"
"Yes, that will be fine, Kenny. Thank you." Prem didn't turn his head.
Kenny thumbed some sheets on a side table in the studio for mailing labels, gathered a pile of books, and left.
The rest of the afternoon Prem experienced deep satisfaction from finding out that the majority of Pascal's compatriots thought that Prem Rustum was definitely the greatest of the three Ps even if he wasn't French. But even the French repeatedly poked fun at Prem's passage on drinking a lactating woman's milk in Raga and at the scene when Kochi sucks his young mistress's toe in From Kerala to Karela. Aside from these slight unflattering infractions, the rest was pure gold. Prem browsed through a myriad of French articles on Pascal, chuckling to himself at the things Pascal had failed to report to Prem on their biweekly phone conversations. There were even tongue-in-cheek references to Pascal's new engagement with youth after his article in defense of Viagra was published in Le nouvel observateur.
At six Mrs. Smith called Prem on his intercom to remind him that the car would soon pick him up to take him to dinner. Eddy Parma of Patriots Publishing was throwing a party in his house.
Prem reluctantly left his studio and went back to the house, where he changed into a fresh shirt and a rarely sported yellow tie. It bothered him, this near-universal view that he floundered when it came to sex. Prem had always been aware of the criticisms of his writing--after all, they were as old as his books--but on the screen, stacked one after another, they were like a litany of complaints. It seemed that none of the critics had understood that he wasn't really trying to write about sex at all. Maybe an essay was what was really called for. An essay on why sex should be done, not written about. Words, when written down, tampered with the reality of experience. Sex only worked, was only good, when it was fluid, but words were all about fixing. Moreover sex, unmediated by language and the morality necessarily innate in language, was the only way to have sex. The spoken word was more fluid than the written; it could be modified with new words and adapt itself to the situation. He still remembered the words he had used with Vedika. Were words the opposite of sex?
The drive from Prem's mansion in New Jersey to Eddy Parma's was an hour long. He let out a breath at having painlessly made the journey wrapped up in the past, musing between his books and memories of Meher and Vedika. Parma's invitation had suggested that it was to be a schmoozing party, but instead there were assigned seats, four courses of food, three courses of booze, and as many butlers. To Prem's left was Eddy's wife Sebi, and to his right Roger Johnson. Johnson was so awkward that Prem couldn't help pay him attention. There were no pretty young girls at the table, just the literary wives he had known for twenty years and an odd collection of dipsomaniac spinsters. Roger Johnson seemed more promising than anyone else. He was young, fresh blood. Maybe he was screwing someone and could be persuaded to talk about it. Prem could try writing about Roger's sex life the next day as an exercise.
"I have only written a couple of short stories, Mr. Rustum. As I was saying, I did a Ph.D. in literature before I started writing."
"What was your topic?"
"You." Roger Johnson lurched for his drink as soon as he said you and spilled the champagne on his tie as a result.
"Here," Prem said, handing him his napkin as he looked at the boy's face again. Twenty-six or twenty-seven.
"Excuse me," Johnson apologized nervously.
"Me? Is that what you said?"
"I had already read all your work by the time I went to college. I reread everything and did my undergraduate thesis on you. Your work is so rich and complex, Mr. Rustum, I decided to do my graduate work on you as well."
"Obviously not on 'the great P's treatment of sex,' " Prem quoted from one of the Web pages he had surfed earlier in the day.
Johnson gulped some more of his champagne.
"Look, tell me about yourself," Prem said, smiling graciously. The thrill of knowing how much he was adored by yet another stranger had dulled. And in America the praise he received could not hold a candle to the adulation, the adoration, and the sycophancy he got in India. But Johnson was still so green and naïve in his admiration that Prem felt soft. By the time Eddy's retinue of servants, as Prem called the catering staff, were serving chocolate ganaches with pepper ice cream and port, he and Roger had almost become friends.
"Listen, I just don't have the time to read most of the younger writers who approach me, but send me one of your stories and I'll tell you what I think."
"Mr. Rustum, thank you so much."
"You can send it by e-mail."
"Oh! I read somewhere that you didn't believe in computers."
"I don't write on one, but I'm wired just like the rest of you."
"My story is about online dating."
"One tip, young man. Never tell them what your story is about. Let them read it."
Prem returned home tired but invigorated.
Johnson came home equally invigorated, high from the port and the peppery Prem Rustum. He logged online to a dating site under his screen name, Plume, and met Maya.
Maya walked into the no-name diner a little after noon. The short run across the street from her apartment had left her cold. The rain was coming down so hard that her gray sweater already smelled of wet dog.
"What are your soups today, Costas?"
"Chicken noodle, shrimp bisque, potato leek."
Maya ordered and sat at the counter. Mrs. Nonagenarian was seated two stools down. Maya nodded briefly and unzipped her sweater to retrieve the hardbound tome, weighing in at four pounds, she had carried inside to shield from the rain. She pulled her baseball cap farther over her head and settled down to read.
"Coffee shop/diner/coffee shop. Gotta think outside the box," Costas said emphatically as he tapped his pen on the napkin holder as if it were the box.
Mrs. Nonagenarian nodded.
"I'm a guy who thinks outside the box. Got to have a new menu. It's coming. It's all changing. Outside the box." He tapped the napkin holder again.
Mrs. Nona nodded again.
A customer walked in, her sharp high-heeled shoes clicking forcefully on the ground. Her leather skirt elicited a raised eyebrow from Costas as well as Mrs. Nona. She asked to see a menu at the cash register and remained standing.
"I'll just take three hamburgers to go," the leather skirt said, folding the menu closed.
Maya bit her lip as she read. At the beginning of the book she had been sure that the narrator just had a secret crush, a longing for his cousin Meher. But now he was suggesting that he had actually acted on it.
"Here's your potato leek. Try not to feed your book," Costas laughed as he placed the bowl in front of Maya.
Papa Beard walked in and tipped his hat to Mrs. Nona. Then he took the stool beside Maya.
"I'll have the same thing this beautiful lady is having," he said, pointing to her soup.
From the Hardcover edition.