The Killer As Aesthete
By Will Self
The End of Alice
The End of Alice sneaks us in the back doors of our upright suburban neighborhoods to reveal the impulses that even in our frank, outspoken times we don't talk about. This is a tale told by a pedophile in his twenty-third year in a maximum security prison. He is intelligent; he is witty; he is profoundly dangerous. Beyond the reality of his stark cell and the violent perversion of the other inmates lies his imagination, which he turns to his past, to an "accident" with a little girl named Alice, and now to the erotic life of a nineteen-year-old suburban co-ed who draws him into a flirtatious epistolary exchange. At home on summer break from college, she writes to the prisoner about her taste for young boys, her lust for one twelve-year-old in particular.
She is inspired by the convict's crimes; he is excited by her peculiar obsession. Into the veneer of middle-class convention—the tennis lessons, baby-sitting, and family dinners—she casts her line for the boy. He bites. As her reports of their strange affair progress, the prisoner's memory unravels, revealing the appalling circumstances of his captivity, his deadly and lingering infatuation with Alice. The intertwined fixations of these unlikely correspondents give The End of Alice its haunting, unsettling power. A.M. Homes, whom The New York Times Book Review calls "exhilaratingly perverse," lures us into the lives of characters simultaneously repellent and seductive.
Excerpt from The End of Alice
Who is she that she should have this afflicted addiction, this oddly acquired taste for the freshest flesh, to tell a story that will start some of you smirking and smiling, but that will leave others set a fire determined this nightmare, this horror, must stop. Who is she? What will frighten you most is knowing she is either you or I, one of us. Surprise. Surprise.
And perhaps you wonder who am I to be running interference, to be acting as her translator and yours. Mine is the speech, the rhythm and rhyme of an old and peculiar man who has been locked away for too long, punished for pursuing a taste of his own.
Fair to say that I see in her the seeds of my youth and the memory of another girl I couldn't help but know.
Alice, I hand you her name gently, suggesting that if you hold it, carefully as I do, pressed close to the heart, you might at the end of this understand how confusing the beating of two such similar hearts can be and how one finally had to stop.
And by now, if you are anything at all, you know who I am—and find my disguise the silly childish senility of the long confined, of the good mind gone sour. But know, too, that as I tell you this, I feel like a contestant on What's My Line; before me is my tribunal, the three members of the panel, blindfolded—that detail should cause some excitement in a few of you. They ask me questions about my profession. The audience looks directly at me and recognizing my visage from its halftone reproductions is entirely atitter. I am the first pervert, the first lover of youth, they've had on the show. I am honored. I am touched. When I think no one is looking, I touch myself.
And let it be said that I have the utmost admiration and respect for the young woman to be discussed—for young women in general, the younger the better. Serving my sentence, I have become the chief correspondent, the conversant majora, in these matters. From near and far, by youth and beauty, and for those not so fortunate, I'm sought for my view, my sampling of these situations.
In the beginning, the words sent were often kept from me, the letters delivered opened and marked with long black passages, the jealous ink of my jailers' heavy hand. It bothered them that I had fans—and I still do—but at some point it was acknowledged, supported by the research, that we are not a kind to operate in groups, tribes, or packs. We are not an organization, a political machine, we have no common goal and are therefore considered too diffuse, pathetic, and self-centered to cause a revolution. And so my mail began to arrive unencumbered, to simply be delivered, unopened, uninteresting. Then, too, over the course of time, my keepers have changed two, three, and four times, subject to the varieties of administrations, the warming and cooling of the social climate, etc. And while I have largely been forgotten or dismissed by my keepers—no doubt due to my advancing age—the mail still arrives for astonishing regularity. Unfortunately, I am not the correspondent I once was. I do read everything, but too often perhaps for some of you, I do not write back. I no longer feel that every question deserves an answer and can no longer afford to spend my pocket money on postage.
However, there are exceptions. What drew me to this particular offering, this large flat envelope—I find significance in the page not folded, the document of such value that it cannot be tampered with, altered to fit through the thin slot of the mailbox, that its contents are of such import that they need be taken by hand to the postmaster and left in his care for quickest delivery—what interested me about this well-typed tome was the willingness of its author to transcend, to flirt, outside her chosen category or group.
Among our kind what annoys me most is the unwillingness to explore, or even acknowledge, an attraction other than one's own. We—like the unaffiliated—act as though our pleasure palace is superior, as though no other exists. This lack of appreciation for the larger world of activity causes a sadness in me that damn near ruins the whole thing. Why not celebrate the full range? That she too, raised this question is perhaps near the root of my attraction to her—that and the fact of her attraction to him, attraction to telling me, the way she reminded me of my beloved Alice. And to be honest, I don't get much mail from girls. I immediately write back a short introductory note: "Most interesting. Please do send a photograph of yourself as it would help me to understand better."
She responded with a note of her own. "Fuck photos. What are you, a pervert?"
Caught again. Returned to my humbleness, my place.
"Yes, dear," I jot back on a plain white card.
I had hoped that in a photograph of her I might find some part I could enjoy, some piece still a child—there often is a little something left until one is well into the second or even third decade. Sometimes it's just the chin, a bit of the neck, or the lobe of the ear. Sometimes there is one perfect sliver that has thus far gone unmarked. From that, I am able to go on, focusing on the place, that segment of youth, filling in the rest, whatever is needed, from my memory of how it once was. But now I am getting ahead of myself.
Call me old-fashioned in that my concentration here is on an arrangement that according to many of my peers has long since passed. My fellow esthetes in this great colony of philes insist that I am a classicist. I'm interested in the coupling that throughout history has propagated the human race. I realize that for many the real interest, the contemporary current, is what some consider the greatest refinement, the linkage of related parties either by marriage, familial bonds, or the nearness and dearness of the same sex—the mind-bending adjustments, fascinating alterations, and gesticulations associated with the pairing of two like objects. But I ask that you bear with me, that you allow for this reconsideration of the more traditional of our species. All will not be lost.
She writes: The way you talk is so peculiar—did you go to school in England? Or is it a speech impediment? One of my friends had to have a "talking tutor" all the way through high school.
I answer: University of Virginia, B.A., 1961. The speech impediment is an affectation.
Before continuing I must also ask that you excuse the idiosyncrasies of my sound, of my thought, for I so rarely speak these days that all I do say seems to hurl itself forward, collecting references, attachments to both past and present as it goes. My access to society is limited, making what does filter through so much more dear, filled with import and meaning. I am often moved to tears, or worse, or more. Here, too, I could go on, I do go on, but it is best if we stick to the story at hand, that being hers not mine. Mine, all too familiar; mine, now a life of late nights in my room, cot against the wall, color television set—a gift from an anonymous admirer—on a distant chair, the spectral color wheel of light radiating across the white walls, throwing shadows into the stillness of night. Alone, I watch with the plug of a headphone pressed into my ear, and then sometimes I have company—I share my set with Clayton, a Princeton boy cum murderer, well adjusted, having taken the prison fantasy to heart. We have cable here, stolen in from a wire in the hall, working well when the winds are right. The volume is kept low, lest the keepers hear our groans, our howls, our tears, and take the toy away. We sit perched on the edge of the cot and watch: Voyeur Visions, Nude Talk Show, Robyn Byrd, ads for outcalls, Dial 970-Peee (the extra e stands for extra pee), Chicks with Dicks. And lest I sound like a hypocrite, I am horrified, breathless. For the first time I feel my age, as weak bones and heartbreak. But I am drawn to these things, that is the nature of my disease, to be drawn to far too many things. And I am horrified and I am sad.
Prison. The bell rings. Upstate New York—the cornerstone reads 1897. My room, housed in a wing known only as West, has not been redecorated for ninety-seven years.
I've been up for hours. There is no rest. I make notes—beginning to feel that the clock is ticking faster, there's not much left for me. The bells—punctuation marks of the day. The bell rings and suddenly I am back. I am here, in prison, just as I was beginning to escape.
Morning count. I stand at the door, the gate to my cell. Halfway down I begin to hear the names—some days I hear as far as Wilson, but more often the sound come in either at Stole or Kleinman. I hear their names, I know their crimes. Some days I think Kleinman should have gotten fifteen to twenty, and other days it's five to ten. What makes me change my mind?
"Jerusalem Store," the sergeant calls—they are four doors down from me.
"It's a mistake—call me Jerry," Jerusalem answers.
I tuck my shirt in and attempt to pull myself together.
"Frazier," the sergeant calls, and Frazier, my next-door neighbor, answers, "So what about it?"
I stand ready. When my own name is called, I review myself, my crimes, and am strangely silent.
Again, the sergeant calls my name. He presses his face to the bars of my cell and asks, "Everything all right?"
"How come you don't answer?"
"You got nothing to say?" His keys jingle. There are doors here, locks, that I believe serve no purpose at all. Trick doors. Fake doors, passageways that are roads to nowhere.
"What time is it?" I ask the sergeant.
Above the entrance to this place, and I saw it only once, twenty-three years ago, as I was coming in, above the entrance is a giant clock with only one hand.
"What time is it?"
"Ain't it a shame," the sergeant says, fitting his keys into the lock and undoing me. "It's breakfast time."
Wet eggs. Dry toast. Little bowls of cereal. Milk.
The girl. She is home for the summer, returned to her people after sophomore year at a prominent girls' college, whose name I will keep secret, to spare the institution the embarrassment or perhaps the pride, depending on which of the trustees you might ask. And while one can recognize the benefits of a single-sex education, the high pursuits of the few remaining such colleges, one rarely discusses the drawbacks, the demand that the body suspend its development, its inclinations, while the intellect is encouraged to grow. This lack of balance causes difficulties, a uniquely female disorder where the majority of physical evidence is displayed in strange postures (political, social, and sexual), a vicious and hostile lethargy, an attractive perplexity of the eye, and as has been reported a not entirely unpleasant kind of tingling sensation in the body's more yielding spots.
From her letter it is clear that she has been looking for years, searching out the places where all variety and versions of her chosen kind are on display, where one can browse, where it is easy to shop unnoticed. She goes to the public parks that dot every town in America, the baseball diamonds/soccer fields where they frolic in uniforms of youth and league. They trounce and trample each other, jumping one atop the other, hurling their light flesh against that of their friends, slapping and smacking each other as though nothing else matters, as though no one is looking, or cares.
She sits on the sidelines, cheerfully applauding. "Go, go...