HO CHI MINH CITY, 2016
In the 20th century, the number of ‘past times’ that are simultaneously available is so vast as to create cultural anarchy. When all the cultures of the world are simultaneously present, the work of the artist in the elucidation of form takes on new scope and new urgency.” Marshall McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype (1970)
I have a lot of sky.
I sit at my big black-glass table writing, or contemplating a horizon roped out by the encroaching towers of Ho Chi Minh, the highway, and the feint baleen-like arrays of two suspension bridges above it. I peel back the sections of glass, and the balcony, with its furniture, becomes an extension of the room, and the sky my fourth wall. A warm breeze blows through the apartment, funneling through the kitchen with a moan and out into the vertical spaces between columns of concrete and glass.
The sky is always changing. I see monsoon squalls approaching, blocking out the city or the bridges. On nights after rain, my fourth wall open, the apartment is filled with cross-rhythms, through-breezes and night-dazzle, and my place is more outdoors than interior, the whole room one huge balcony facing a glittering horizon.
I sit writing, pausing between sentences to listen.
Dogs barking. Serial music of frogs and crickets. A scrunch of gravel from the perimeter road; deep horns of ships negotiating the bends of the Saigon River. Tinny voices echoing from motor-stalls mooching past. Garbled chants from the nearby temple complex.
This apartment has high ceilings, thick walls. Corridors open to the air, channeling breezes. Light and lights, a white, windy space, cityscape and skyscape, a black-glass table, an erotic ashtray, a small wooden dragon exhaling incense through its nostrils.
My scriptorium of breezes. My god, I could stay here for ever. But I can’t. I have just one month left on my visa, one month to write, to go up and down in the talking lifts, to the gym, to the pool, to my motorbike.
Everything’s coming into focus now. This is what happens, I think, when the end approaches: the past all comes back, and everything is revealed, just… not for long. Moments before the end; and then it’s all forgotten again. And again, and again.
The year is 2559 and I’m as old as the century.
I always said I would write, when there was nothing else.
One month. Is it enough?
Make that two. I’ll head for Phuket for a while, and maybe Bali, with everything I own in one case. The clothes I’ve been buying recently weigh almost literally nothing.
Two cases. I can’t go anywhere without my yellow Fostex.
After that, I may find myself back in 2016. Not a thought that makes me all that happy.
At times this place hardly seems real.
Too bad it won’t last. But then again, what does?
Satia found the hub for me, when I was looking to move out of the city. That’s what it calls itself – not just a condo but the ‘MOST SOUGHT-AFTER LIFESTYLE HUB’, according to the posters, and it stops there. Not the most sought-after lifestyle hub in Vietnam, or Ho Chi Minh City; the most, period.
‘It’s like another world in there,’ Atchara said, and she was right. It was what I needed. Living here, I’ve been in my own world, following a quiet and disciplined life – well, you know: relatively speaking. There are lapses. But most days I get to the gym, if only for half an hour. And most days I’m at the pool, preferably in daylight so I can soak up some D through the cataracted, injected air. And every day I write.
The most sought-after lifestyle hub consists of a cluster of high-tech towers, like a vertical village in two concentric henges, connected by little Rialto bridges whose only purpose is to support trees, silhouetted against the sky, and all centered around a magnificent pool, the glittering blue eye of the hub. The pool is a thing of beauty, fringed with dwarf palms, a complex tessellation of azure pools and wooden decks, jacuzzis and salas, fountains and falls, with a long main stretch which is great for doing lengths — if lengthing is your style, your lifestyle at the lifestyle hub.
The people of the hub – the people, I presume, who most sought the hub – are civilized, and when not in work-attire present themselves in matching sports gear with electronic accessories. Koreans, Japanese, and rich Vietnamese mainly, with a smattering of Europeans and neo-Europeans, but it’s mostly well-heeled Asian: handsomely-shirted dads and yummy mummies with the latest strollers and toddlers with super-cool shoes; teens with good ball skills who stop and let you pass in the leafy walkway before continuing their game; trim grandmothers in their loose, comfortable day suits.
I’m friendly to the people of the hub — a few lines of chat in the lift, a little bonhomie and the gift of an orange for the old security guard who does twelve hour shifts watching my section of the perimeter. I smile at the pleasing receptionist in the Club House as I head up to the gym. I smile at the slender mothers and their adored, well-behaved kids. Otherwise, I keep myself to myself to a degree that I realise is bordering on the sociophobic. I hardly see anyone from work, just a couple of people who know me from Bangkok and literally two other people whom I’ve taken up with here. Atchara and her adoring Satia come to stay every couple of months. Literally seven pairs of feet, including my own, ever cross this threshold. My social life is an extension of this minimalist style, the equivalent of a black glass dining table. I even got rid of my Vietnamese maid, because he was just too eager to please and kept bringing me things: a table-cloth; a frame for the only hard copy photograph in my possession; a mat for my red ceramic crocodile to pose on. The reasons for this minimalism are complicated; they are the reasons I can’t make small-talk any more — my communication problems, if you like. There has always been a tendency towards self-exile, and now it has reached its logical conclusion. Its purpose, and the purpose, perhaps, of the whole long grinding process that has led up to it, has been to force me to write.
Don’t we all love that teleological error?
Purpose, effect – it’s academic. An illusion of the narrative form.
I see now that for ten years I have been part of a cult. I have struggled with it, tried to find a voice within it, but now I have stopped believing I can influence it or serve the interests of its young acolytes. I crave a return to reality. On the other side of the highway is An Phu, where the cult is based. HQ is an international school, recently bought up by a globalist corporation.This is only my third job in such institutions – Amsterdam, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh – but I will not take another. My students will have to survive as best they can.
I don’t go there much, in any case – I only work part time, so I go in for a couple of hours each day to teach, eat lunch at my desk where kids can find me, and away, driving home past the improbable mansions of District 2, where many of the cultists live, in huge, wedding-cake structures, architectural chimaeras nodding in all directions, with their Greco-Roman porticos, Georgian windows and Renaissance towers, sunny atriums and tiny private pools.
I stay on my side of the highway as much as possible. I stay home, or fly up to town over bridges and through echoing tunnels to visit my old haunts, buy leaf or pills or listen to my Japanese guitar heroes and Vietnamese drummer-gods in small clubs in District 3.
When I cross the highway I see the people of the cult gathering in coffee bars and restaurants, or powering their push-bikes, panting virtuously through the tropical heat. The initiates of the cult – its teachers and administrators – have become increasingly strange in my eyes. Utopian globalists, carbonazis and feminists almost to a man, rule-followers and mental gymnasts, the people of the cult have some bizarre beliefs.
They believe, for instance, that one of the essential components of the life-cycle — sunlight, water, oxygen, and … carbon dioxide … is out of balance and will destroy the planet, which has no control systems of its own. Because humans beings produce carbon dioxide, they see humanity as a disease, inferior to the rest of Nature, and acquiesce, consciously or unconsciously, in the necessity of depopulation.
They believe that injecting toxic metals, engineered DNA, animal viruses and human fetal tissue directly into the bloodstreams of their infants will make them immune to disease, while viciously excoriating anyone who wants to protect their precious ones against these poisons.
They believe that only the devastation of the immune system by toxic chemicals can heal the body of cancer. Rather than resisting this absurdity, when one of their number is caught by the white-coats they organise head-shaving rituals, or dress up and dance around in pink clothing to show solidarity with the victim.
They believe that the white race – predominantly their own – is the only race which has ever done wrong on this planet, and that its cultural suicide is therefore necessary and virtuous. Meanwhile they celebrate ‘Diversity’ by reducing children of all cultures to a homogeneous pseudo-Americanism, which is called globalism.
They are appalled by the notion of a free man or woman bearing arms.
Fearing the sun, they are obsessed with hats.
They carry not their hearts, but their virtues, on their sleeves.
The people of the cult do not understand what they are part of, of course. To them, I must appear equally strange. I took me a while to understand what I had signed up for when I entered the international sector. In the summer of 2001, my own political awakening had not begun – though it would soon enough, on that day of impossible things in September. Before long an administrator was asking me: ‘Just how far out on limb are you?’ after I discussed the profitability of war in a poetry class. I kept crawling – the further out I went on that limb, the sturdier I felt it grow. I made myself unpopular with my peers – but no one wanted to debate. I challenged school authorities on their censorship. I was called to numerous meetings where lists of complaints based on hearsay and spurious bureaucracy were leveled at me. Nevertheless, I survived for contract after contract, motivating my students through an honest, egalitarian ethic: I thought, and read, and ‘modeled’ curiosity and critical thinking; all the things I was supposed merely to simulate, I did for real. Mainly in time I saved on paperwork.
But there’s a limit. At the beginning of this year, my second in Vietnam, before school opened, the entire faculty spent two whole days lying flat on its back with its eyes closed in a darkened assembly room, meek as mushrooms, listening to a couple of Kiwis in elephant pants schooling them in Buddhoid meditation techniques, with a view to inflicting such ‘mindfulness’, in turn, on their own students.
Flat on their backs, they jumped the shark. Things were getting too spooky.
I was out of there in ten minutes, and heading for the pool. My spiritual life is none of their business, and that of my students is none of mine.
I find my mindfulness in the azure eye of the hub.
My favourite time to swim is around nine or ten at night, to clear my head and cool my skin. There’s hardly ever anyone in the water at this time. One or two other lengthers, invisible at first among the ripples and reflections; a young couple sprawled together on cushions in one of the poolside salas, their faces illuminated by electronic devices.
After dark the pool area is tastefully lit from below water and behind trees, creating counterpoints of waves of shadows and shadows of waves. I especially love it if it’s raining a little, each drop creating a tiny instantaneous spout of light a couple of inches high, so that it’s like swimming through a luminous, flickering forest of bean shoots.
I lie on my back in the water and admire the monolithic reach of the towers against a blank sky. A big moon is rising in a gap between the blocks. Refractions and reflections wriggle around and below me. Daguerrotype bats turn like keys in the air and skim the water close to my head.
I lie on my back in the enormous, sub-lit pool and look up at nine towers leaning in on me. I drift in blue tears in the bright eye of the hub, which floats like a hologram on a pool of darkness.
The lifestyle hub could be a settlement on the moon.
Back in my night-filled room, I light my smoke and stare out at the city of Ho Chi Minh in its primary neons and pulsing, light-sucking clouds. A wall of iridescent blocks; other, darker ghost towers sketched out in construction lights.
In front, a dark bowl of vegetated land extends into the illuminated distance, ringed with trees, a mallowy sweep of swampy patches crowned with fluffy-headed reeds which catch the light nicely in the late afternoon, and beyond that, a different kind of lifestyle hub, a village of grass-roofed long-houses almost hidden in a ruck of palm trees, a kinked column of smoke lazily rising. There are, if you look, lakes and fish-ponds, a long flimsy bridge you can ride a motorbike across, carefully. A net set up on a patch of shale, where ten or twenty boys play volleyball after school. In the evening I see their mums and dads trooping home, in yellow hard-hats and matching shirts. The village is in fact an itinerant workers’ dormitory; they’re making the best of things down there, while they build District 2 into the new fashionable heart of the city, a hub for foreigners and the fantastically wealthy elite of this communist country.
As Marshall McLuhan said, in the future all times will coexist.
And just before the the end, the past comes flooding back.
There are no stars, only the luminescent clouds.
Only they’re not clouds – not real ones, anyway. Clouds used to be formed in certain known ways. They had recognizable structures, different types. I learned them as a kid. cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, nimbostratus, stratocirrus.
What I see in the sky every day is different. Formless flat sheets of suspended particulates – lakes and pools of chemicals – different from clouds, with a different sheen, and different behaviour. A lifeless canopy above the tropospheric drama of the clouds.
It’s there every morning. Sometimes you can see the trails within it like veins in meat, but usually it’s just drifting in like this, in hazy milky-opaque mats and striations. Or it gets blown into wisps and mare’s tails, or beach-sand patterns, but none of it is natural.
The press says nothing. Official discussions and references exist, but are rare. Experiments in climate remediation, they say, an artificial albedo to save the planet from our exhalations. Solar Radiation Management. They’re running a few test programs, they admit.
Aluminum, barium, strontium.
Nobody else seems to notice it. Nobody talks about it. Nobody looks up.
Filaments, polymers, nano-tubes.
A self-propelled boy glides past without moving a muscle.
Cross-domain bacteria, mold spores, dried red blood cells.
A girl walks with her father, her face illumined by what she holds in her hand.
Nanotech, synthetic biology, pseudo-life.
The breeze animates the banana leaves, throwing shapes on the wall.
Time was, if a man stood and stared up at the rooftops or the sky, a knot of people would gather around him, wanting to know what he saw.
People hunch past, faces lit by their upturned palms.
I stare out at the milky-blue, striated sky.
The most sought-after lifestyle hub: as good a place as any to wait for the end of the world.