Seven Wonders of the Modern World (Your Winning Entries)
a short story by Jason Gould
The Gallery of Narcissus
Fifi of California
Along with her nomination, Fifi sent us the following account:
I, too, hang in the Gallery of Narcissus. In aisle eight-hundred-and-four, between Norma Jean Baker and Sid Vicious, my photograph is testament to the miracle of plastic surgery. Of course, it's not the real Marilyn or the real Sid that I hang beside, just glitterless wannabees who, through crime or honest toil, have amassed sufficient funds to align their hearts and their bodies. Others have done likewise. James Dean shares wall-space with Heinrich Himmler; Genghis Khan with Richard Nixon; and by a delightful coincidence (which some say was orchestrated), J. Edgar Hoover with Danny La Rue. The Presleys, who at the last census totalled in excess of two thousand, now occupy the recently opened Graceland Wing, haunted night and day by jump-suited hopefuls and jailhouse paupers unable to afford an operation of their own.
Not everyone who visits Narcissus leaves as a legend. If that were the case fame would be odious, and obscurity cherished. Only some mimic their idols; most mimic their idea of beauty. I, however, being an Oscarless native of Hollywood, belong to the former category.
Following my fifth divorce, and in a period when life was as grey as my natural hair colour, a Senior Executive at my company returned from a Christmas vacation resembling a slightly dishevelled Orson Welles. He'd been a fan since childhood, apparently, though the furthest his fanaticism had driven him thus far was a tattoo on his left shoulder, saying: Rosebud. But idolatry had at last procured his character, and he'd spent most of December strapped to a table in the Narcissus Complex while fat was spooned into his haunches and a tortured, ambiguous scowl knifed into his brow. Seeing my interest, he gave me Narcissus's business card, which had a reflective surface on one side and an address on the other. I checked my appearance then pocketed it.
Six weeks later, on the first of March, in the lonely days following my seventh divorce, I was packing my winter collection off to the incinerator when I discovered the card again. I called the number and scheduled an appointment.
In those days the Narcissus Complex was much smaller. It was situated in a structure that had once been a hospital, but which was now adapted to more practical use. Each wall, floor and ceiling was constructed from sharp, highly reflective mirrors; progressing through those corridors into the core of the building was like walking through a maze of yourself. It was ghastly going in but exquisite coming out.
Narcissus, an irredeemably ugly man who hid his ugliness - or tried to - behind a mass of facial hair, had dedicated his life to the modification of the human body. The day I first met him he said he'd spent the whole morning scooping out a millionairess's cheeks until she had what she wanted: a perfect pair of right angles. The day after he was padding out an unknown Country and Western singer's face with part of his ass, to make him more like Kenny Rogers, and the day after that he had a would-be Virgin Mary coming in. I was very excited.
'I want to look in the mirror and not be repulsed,' I told him when he asked what I wanted.
'I see,' he said, sitting down at his desk. 'And is there part of your face that repulses you most?'
'No. All of it.'
'And who, exactly, would you like to be?'
'Who?' I said.
'I presume you want to be a star...'
'Maybe. I've not really thought it through. I just don't want to be me.'
He reached into a drawer and produced a thick catalogue. He threw it on the desk. He said: 'Beauty is in the eye of the deceiver.'
'That you can be anyone you want, and if you were famous, or if you become famous, then anyone can be you.'
'First,' he said, pushing the catalogue towards me, 'the eyes.'
It was entitled: EYES, FEMALE. I opened it and a thousand faceless eyes stared at me. Each page contained ten rows of different sized photographs, the entire face, other than the eyes, inked out. Written beside each pair was the name of the owner. It began with corneas pilfered from the stage and screen: Garbo, Hepburn, Madonna et al. As I turned the pages so the owner's popularity diminished, and at the end I was leafing through pictures of unknowns, people listed by name, location and date, such as Marcia Z, 5th Avenue, August 13th 1998, or J.L.D., Venice Beach, June 2nd, 1997. At the very back were animal eyes, cats being the most popular.
'There are so many...' I said.
'You don't have to decide now,' he replied.
He tossed me another catalogue: MOUTHS, FEMALE. It was identical to its predecessor except it grinned and pouted where the other had glared, winked or frowned. Madonna was there again, beside Jerry Hall, Elizabeth Taylor, Twiggy. Next was NOSES, FEMALE, and next, CHEEKS; and then HAIR, and NECKS, and CHINS, KNEES, ELBOWS. I was overwhelmed and unable to decide who to be.
Narcissus left me alone. I browsed, kneeling on the floor surrounded by open catalogues. Muzak - Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending if I wasn't mistaken - was piped through the walls.
When he returned he had more product literature. He sat on the edge of the desk and handed them to me one after the other. He'd brought navels, hips, ankles, toes.
I said: 'I had no idea the range was so extensive.'
'Oh it's more than just faces and thighs,' he said. 'Surgeons are the tailors of the twentieth century.' He paused. Then he said: 'Now, what would you like to do about your vagina?' He passed me another folder. 'We have a discount at the moment on the Nastassja Kinski; it's a lot of work but the end result is superb. For a few thousand more there's the Marilyn Monroe, our most popular brand: not as symmetrical but with significantly more girth.'
I tentatively turned to the first page. It was filled with line-drawings, beside each of which was a name, and details of how the dimensions of the vagina in question had come to be known. The Cleopatra looked particularly neat.
'Oh, I almost forgot,' said Narcissus. He leaned back and picked up a pamphlet. 'As of next month we're doing sphincters. It's a new line so there isn't a great deal of choice, but you might like a look anyway.' He flipped open the pamphlet and pointed with his nail at a red, vein-twilled photograph. He said: 'The Davina Wright, Amateur Porn Star, London, England, is very good.'
I, too, hang in the gallery of Narcissus, eyeing the patrons with eyes that are not mine, smiling a smile filched from Grable.
AD, Operation Rhapsody, and The Trembling Isle of Fanaticus
The isle of Fanaticus in the heart of the Caribbean was once a retiring, nondescript community. The few people who inhabited its hundred square miles lived in a form of natural inertia, as carefree as the feathered rainbows that coloured the island's many branches. But then, several years ago, Credo AD purchased Fanaticus outright, from an almost bankrupt government, and Operation Rhapsody commenced. Some locals moved to the mainland. And some, once Operation Rhapsody was in full swing, moved back.
In the beginning, speakers and amplifiers, some as large and wide as houses, were positioned at key points around the island. They were wired into a purpose-built building that held a hundred turntables, thousands of records and a team of disc jockeys operating on twelve-hour shifts. An infrastructure was put into place to airlift supplies, recordings, substitute DJs and batches of hedonists in from the mainland. It took eighteen months to organise. The electricity was switched on on July 1st 1997; the rave commenced at dawn, August 1st, and hasn't stopped or paused since. Credo AD are adamant it won't.
Eighteen months in, the following story appeared in the national press:
"Intrigued by this seemingly Thelemic paradise, I took it upon myself to board a plane and investigate what culture-pundits have dubbed the twentieth century's answer to Xanadu.
Even as one leaves the mainland and cuts through the rich blue water towards Fanaticus, the skeleton-stirring bassline and mad, epileptic light show are plainly visible on the horizon, and one is overly aware of the world one is leaving behind.
I stepped off the boat and was accosted by a plethora of multi-national ravers and a kind of music that seemed to contain every sound known to man, musical or otherwise. If every noise that can be made in the world today was condensed into the very first atom then Fanaticus just maybe sounds like the original big bang. And it isn't only noise that greets you: walking on to the isle is like walking into a bedroom recently vacated by lovers: the smell of the body is paramount, and hangs heavy in the nose and throat, though the scents entice more than disgust.
As I made my way along the beach, squeezing through the hordes and stepping over those on the ground, I realised why the island felt so odd. It was the happiness. I had never been anywhere as happy. In my time as a journalist I'd been to Hell on Earth, at a number of different places on the planet, but never a place so simplistically happy. And happiness can be equally if not more shocking than misery.
Everywhere you wander on Fanaticus people are dancing. If you climb one of the many trees or step out on to a roof overlooking a clearing, the ground has the appearance of being alive. The manner of the Fanatican is unusual: they flop around as if with no sinew or cartilage to keep them upright, one second standing, the next in the midst of a fit on the sweat-slippery floor. Sometimes you can hear their bones crack if they land awkwardly. But it doesn't bother them, they continue with limbs bent at angles the human anatomy was never designed to achieve. I heard one young man say he was, 'owned by the beat'; and another that, 'it was in him.' Those who drop from exhaustion or injury are simply nudged aside by fellow rhapsodists; and if their hearts give out altogether the bug-eyed, smiling corpse is tossed into the ocean or left to stiffen where it falls. (I heard tell that several such bodies were piled inside a structure that had once been a café, but which was now SUN HOUSE II (SUN HOUSE I being an ex-doctor's surgery on the opposite side of the island), their flesh in varying grades of decay. At the door to SUN HOUSE II I was told by a Greek girl that the reek of the rot served to enhance the mental dislocation and altered state of the revellers inside. I took her word and didn't venture over the threshold.)
By the end of my visit I'd observed scenes which in a less enlightened age may have been answered by a vigorous exorcism. However, I was inspired by what I witnessed. They literally shine, the people of Fanaticus; shine like a race of new people unshackled from history. Perhaps they are a step further into evolution than the rest of us."
Jonathan Booth, Edinburgh Chronicle
The International Museum of War
Along with his entry, Mr. Nicole has provided his own description of the International Museum of War, reproduced here:
I must have been about eleven or twelve at the time. I can't describe how I was then because I still feel the same now. Imagine me as I am today, for those who know me, but shorter and skinnier and slow at maths.
The build-up to the trip had lasted all summer; in bed at night it was a physical need in my belly. I read all the books and leaflets; watched every television programme with the rest of my family, including the live broadcasts. Like everyone I immersed myself in it. I don't know why. Group pressure, maybe; or maybe I considered it a fiction, trapped on a page or screen, black, white: bloodless.
We arrived at the museum shortly after lunch, and were taken to our room by a porter decked-out in camouflage gear. He conned a tip from my father and left us to settle in.
That evening, after dinner, we retired to the main hall to watch the grand performance.
The central arena was in excess of fifty kilometres wide and over two hundred long. The viewing area was screened off by a Perspex-type shield that was reputedly able to withstand shocks from the heaviest artillery. The land beyond the screen was a churned, mushy battlefield; trenches were dug at either side, topped by sandbags and barbed wire; spent cartridges, abandoned weaponry and the occasional booted ankle were in the mud here and there, uncollected after the last performance. Cordite, like the smell of something good cooking, wafted beneath my nose.
Over to the left, in the betting quarter, tic-tac men were accepting bets and transmitting strange semaphore messages to one another. Tonight's favourites were Team A. The professional punters wore cravats and sipped sherry, and nodded nonchalantly to their bookies. I wanted to be a professional punter when I grew up. Or own my own soldiers.
We were shown to the cheap seats, where we watched VIPs, movie stars and even a member of royalty (who my mother was overwhelmed to spot) sauntering down the tunnel that led to the chemical warfare auditorium. My father became jealous and exchanged harsh words with my mother; they were always bickering about money. A minute later he put his arm round me, and said, 'Never mind, son. One day we'll afford it.' I didn't see the attraction myself: betting on who would choke on their own lungs first didn't sound much fun. Apparently, though, it was the sport of the future.
The MC appeared on our side of the partition and formally welcomed the audience. I can't recall much of his patter, but my parents laughed and my mother's eyes sparkled like the glitter on the MC's tux. He finished cracking jokes, and said: 'Without further ado...'
The lights dimmed, and I watched from the stands.
Troops were cajoled on to the field, literally flung in some cases, about two hundred in either battalion. Some looked as if they'd escaped from newsreels or emergency wards: stomachs had been stitched back together, wounds cauterized, shoulders rejointed; I saw one man whose left leg was missing from the knee down, and who hopped on to the battlefield, and crawled when he fell. I believe they envied those comrades who hadn't been able to prise themselves out of the bloodied sludge when the curtain had fallen on the previous performance. But I wasn't to let sympathy get a hold of me; these men and women were those deemed unfit to populate our streets and cities, and so were there of their own choosing. Before being moved to the museum they'd been imprisoned for murder or violent crime. Now, these murderers, if permitted, would drop their guns and grenades and other tools of the trade and flee, I imagine, and turn their backs on violence forever. Killing is only fun when it's a hobby, my father had explained on the way there in the car; when you do it for a living it loses the pizzazz.
The crowd around me erupted as the fighters went to work. Powerful microphones located in the trenches fed each shot, explosion and cry into a bank of speakers that hung over our heads. A large screen at the front of the audience showed the action from a camera (the head-cam) that was built into the helmet of an ex-armed robber in Team B. My father had rented a pair of binoculars and he shared them with my mother. They bounced in their seats and clapped like toy monkeys whenever a bomb or bullet found its intended target. I watched, terrified.
Some troops, unable to resist longer, put themselves deliberately on their own bayonets. One man, who according to the programme had once sold crack to five-year-olds, sprinted towards the glass and blew out his brains just inches from the front row. It was bad, bad sportsmanship, and the spectators booed. It spread, and a few more put their guns in their mouths. The crowd stood, and booed louder, and a couple of people walked out in disgust. The suicides would make page one of the newspapers tomorrow. It was obscene.
After perhaps half a dozen such acts of selfishness the war was postponed and the lights flickered on. An apologetic MC took the microphone, his face serious. He said that these men and women had already fought several times that day, and the audience would be entitled to a full refund on all tickets. He added that the next evening's show would feature fresh, healthy armies. Ripped up betting slips were tossed in the air in protest.
I glanced at my parents and saw that they were kissing. It was the first time I'd seen them show affection for each other. I asked if we could go back to our room. I said I was feeling unwell.
'Stay down here and explore the museum for a while,' said my father. 'We'll see you in about an hour.'
They disappeared towards the stairs, holding hands and talking in close whispers. I looked around and saw that many couples were enjoying similar embraces. I went outside and sat in the car park till one in the morning. When I crept into bed my parents were curled into each other in the middle of the mattress. Pulling back the duvet on the single bed at the side of the room, I saw that my father had placed on the pillow a rifle and a pile of shiny, polished bullets. The accompanying note said: To Tom, with love.
We stayed a full week at the museum, and though my friends begged me to relate every minor detail when I got home, I refused to say a single word about that terrible place. Today, of course, I realise how ill I am; but medication can do amazing things, and soon I hope to be able to return to the International Museum of War and enjoy as a man what I was unable to enjoy as a boy.
Soul Gadget (R.R.P. 99p)
This speech was delivered by Alexis Saakval after she received her Nobel Peace Prize. All acknowledgements have been edited out:
"All history is not the history of class struggle, but the history of emotional conflict. If you strip away the particulars you will discover human emotion bubbling away at the core. It is human emotion that keeps us awake at night, that causes us pain and grief each time we watch the news. Emotion is our weakness.
Better, then, would be a world free of emotion; a world in which there is no place for tears, for saying, 'Dear God! Dear God!' Such a world would, I know, be free of art, but this is the price we must pay for contentment.
Such a world is now within our grasp.
My work originated in Gdansk, where a colleague and I were researching the rare, undocumented phenomenon known only as shrinking skeleton. I won't bore you with the details, but essentially the disorder dictates that a human skeleton will appear to contract over very short periods of time, culminating with eventual death. To further our understanding of the condition we were injecting subjects with a form of synthetic calcium - and several other drugs that I'm not at liberty to disclose - and thence preparing a series of X-rays. It was a basic experiment.
The alien object first appeared lodged in the sternum of a forty-two year-old female. We believed it originally to be a fault on the equipment. But a similar shape was then found in the kidney of a twenty-year-old male. We replaced the equipment, and introduced a new batch of drugs, but the abnormality persisted. We removed the drugs, and it vanished.
The objects were scattered at random points around the body, often in the torso or pelvic region, occasionally the head, but never, we noted, in a limb. It took the form of a thin, curled shrimp; a spiral as if a thumb had been pressed against the organ. If we asked the subject personal questions during the examination it appeared to throb. If the subject was moved to tears it would curl into a ball, and only gradually uncurl itself as the grief subsided.
We transported our laboratory to the United States and acquired fresh subjects, all in perfect health. They, too, displayed identical traits when treated with the same combination of calcium and x-factor. It begged an in-depth investigation and after much persuasion we won a modest research grant.
The first shrimp we extracted was taken from the bowel of a thirty-nine-year-old white female. It had attached itself with massive strength to the wall of her large intestine, and with her permission we operated and successfully removed the growth. For a moment after the operation it appeared to retain life, but then it hardened into something not dissimilar to a fossil. Once the subject had recovered she began to display signs of what we eventually labelled diluted emotion. She seldom, if ever, grew angry, and when dropped into a typically frustrating, excitable or depressing situation she was utterly unaffected.
By the end of the year we hope to have perfected a device that can be produced quickly and cheaply anywhere in the world. Simply by visiting a hospital or clinic, citizens will be able to have such a device sewn into the skin of a forearm or calf; from there it will seek out and destroy the shrimp, passing the dead tissue out through natural waste.
History, my honourable colleagues, is about to change for the better. The history our children's children will make will be unmarred by the pettiness of the heart, by conflict, jealousy, love, lust. Our children's children will gaze through glass in museums at small, shrimp-like fossils; and not shudder, and not be glad, because those things will be past.
Midas Pits Ltd
Mrs Copeland sent in the following account:
No matter where you stand on the surface of planet earth you are never far from the rustle and clink of a Midas Pit. Amble along the main street of any town and soon you will hear the familiar cry of the green-suited barker, coaxing the crowds through those emerald doors and into fantasia. Like all Midas Pit's staff the street-barkers' tongues are hundred dollar bills, painstakingly tattooed on their day of induction or sometimes pasted with the melted-down collections of dead numismatists. Their breath smells of loose change, as if they've caught mouthfuls of pennies from heaven and are too greedy to spit. Their language is rich.
You stand inside the plush foyer and stare up at the menu. You immediately disregard the family room (you're on your own this evening), and also the communal hall where the hoi-polloi bathe and dream of a day when they can lounge there forever. You decide eventually to pay a little extra and rent your own private chamber for thirty heavenly minutes, including the take-home special. You hand over a thousand dollars and take a seat in the waiting area.
After a few minutes an old Shylock beckons for you to follow. He leads you along a verdant corridor and into a narrow cubicle in which you undress. Your heart beats faster than it has since you were here last. You think of how long it has taken to save up for this visit, how many days you've gone without food, nights without shelter. But as your guide unlocks the door to the chamber you decide it was worth it. Oh was it worth it!
He closes the door behind you, reminding you not to forget your take-home special. You gawp round the room, suddenly unable to catch your breath. Your eyes ache at all they see. You cover them a moment with your hands in a bid to calm yourself. Beneath your palms your eyes are wet with delight. But even sightless the room has you, largely through the dull metallic aroma in which you are engulfed. It is impossible to fend off. Alive like you have never been alive before, you tear your hands from your face and dive headlong into the twinkling lake.
It is the size and shape of an average swimming pool, and is filled in the main with dollars and cents, plus the occasional Deutschmark and ruble flung in for the tourists. At first the notes scrape your naked body and the coins are cold and uncomfortably shaped. But soon you remember their touch, and soon you are massaging the cash against your chest, washing with it, collecting up handfuls and allowing the notes and coins to cascade on to your upturned, bliss-becalmed face. It is a fantastic sensation; part sexual, part spiritual. Several orgasms arrive unexpected: one! two! three! four! You are in paradise.
Lost in your love, you lose track of time and are startled by the five minute alarm. The buzzer indicates your session is all but over, and you frantically start grabbing as much money as possible for the take-home special. You swallow coins until you are out of saliva, then you stuff a fistful of notes into your mouth. You insert a coin into each nostril and ear, and a dozen or more into the wound in your leg that you deliberately gashed open three nights before. You are too in the moment to feel pain. If you collect enough you might break-even on the day, but like a true addict notions of your original thousand are miles from your mind.
The Shylock appears at the exit and motions for you to leave. You stand up reluctantly and step away, all the while staring over your shoulder at the Midas Pit. It feels unbearable and you are helpless to do anything except wade back in, sobbing as you go. The Shylock calls for two security guards to assist with your departure. They have a blatantly overweening air about them, probably because you have shown such weakness, and they drag you out and into the corridor. When they put you down a clink sounds in your stomach, (the night will be spent in painful excretion, the early hours picking shit off the face of Abe Lincoln). The Shylock slams the door. Praying your next visit will be soon, because you don't know how you'll survive if it isn't, you get up and go to dress.
This advertisement first appeared in holiday brochures throughout the tourism industry in the late 1990s. Since then, the amusement park has gone on to be recognised as one of the biggest tourist attractions of all time.
We are indebted to the South American Tourist Board for the following piece:
There are no other prisoners incarcerated in Sao Paulo prison other than the naked man who paces the floor of cell number 96. His voice has never been heard, his thoughts never made public. He ekes out his sentence by moulding tiny, intricately detailed figures from a makeshift putty comprised of spit and loose earth. Though he has exceptional artistic ability, the Lilliputian men and women that come from his hands remain lifeless, like a child's wooden figures, despite repeated attempts by their father to swell their small lungs with air. He has been known, in his rage, to sometimes flatten these creations with a fist or foot, and to hurl the sticky brown pancake against the wall.
The older guards tell of a time when he would carve the figures with a sculpting knife, spending months on a profile, on each artery, on the innards. Now, however, he works only with his fingers, as sharp objects have not been allowed inside cell 96 since he drew a large mushroom in the dirt on the morning of August 6th 1945, knelt down inside it, and proceeded to stab himself through the ears.
History records the occupant of the cell as the Lord God, Jehovah, The Supreme Being; and, if you look closely enough, you can see that he, also, is a record of history. The struggles of civilisation rise and fall over his pale, sun-deprived flanks; each birth, each death, each second of bliss and solemnity is right there on his skin, made up of pores and wrinkles. The faces that shaped history - princes; kings; prophets - are the most prominent, and are visible from a distance; but there are also those who were part of that history, the peasants, the quiet people who by comparison lived a moribund, inconsequential life, but who died thankful for the privilege. It is they who are the most beautiful, however; there, scattered around his body, shown enjoying a kiss in a sun-dappled meadow, giving suck to a hungry child, praising the Lord in their beds at night for another day lived this side of the veil. They, the beautiful. And in his excreta, the ugly: the war mongers, the murderers, the despisers of joy. Not surprisingly, it sells well, the Lord God's sorrow-laden shit, and proves at the height of the tourist season a lucrative trade for the poorly paid guards.
All year, and more so around dates of deep religious significance, the corridors of Sao Paulo prison are thronged with holy people, each praying for a glimpse inside cell 96. They queue in silence, waiting for a few exquisite seconds in which they may hold their breath and press their eye against the crude circular spy-hole. Most live in the prison itself, sleeping in the empty cells, living off scraps and re-joining the end of the queue once the all too brief a moment with their maker has passed. It's hardly a home, but no one said the cloth was ever going to be easy.
And yet for all their devotion, they are dying, these men and women whose tattered cassocks trail the cold stone floor. They are not dying physically, though some are no more than skeletons in robes, they are dying in their spirits, from disillusionment. They don't announce it, but they feel it sure enough, and it's clear in their faces when they turn and walk away from cell 96. They are thinking, He looks but a man. The whites of his eyes are not blue. He does not pass from oak to antelope to rock in the blink of an eye. It seems that even the most faithful, at the moment of truth, crave a conjuring trick.
Rumours have circulated for the last year or two that the pilgrims are to stage a mass suicide. They have already held demonstrations, paraded banners daubed with such phrases as, Fair Miracle Rights for the Modern World!, and Turn Our Water into Wine!
If they do not top themselves they will be forced to leave anyway, or to restrict their presence to a limited area, and to designated viewing times. The decision has been made that there is no room here for religion, especially since we are now officially recognised as a family-friendly tourist attraction (with possible sponsorship by Pepsi, assuming we can persuade the big guy himself to be photographed drinking it). We will be opening up to the general public and space will have to be made for T-shirt stands, ice cream vendors, balloon sellers, souvenir boutiques, all of which will provide considerable local employment and economic regeneration opportunities. A turnstile will be erected at the main gate; crèche facilities will operate between 8am and 8pm in what was once the solitary confinement and dangerous offenders' wing; and the faint number 96 that is scratched above the cell-door will be ousted in favour of neon, already on special order from Loud! Signs, Las Vegas, which will read, The Seventh Wonder of the Modern World, and beneath, Insert Coin to See Him Dance.
All research carried out by Millennium Madness Magazine, unless stated otherwise.
© Jason Gould 2000
This story first
appeared in The Third Alternative.
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