His earliest dolls, the little characters he had made, when younger, to populate the houses he’d designed, were painstakingly whittled out of soft whitewoods, clothes and all, and afterward painted, the clothing in vivid colors and the faces full of tiny but significant details: here a woman’s cheek swollen to hint at toothache, there a fan of crow’s-feet at the corners of some jolly fellow’s’ eyes. Since those distant beginnings he had lost interest in the houses, while the people he made had grown in stature and psychological complexity. Nowadays they started out as clay figurines. Clay, of which God, who didn’t exist, made man, who did. Such was the paradox of human life: its creator was fictional, but life itself was a fact.
He thought of them as people. When he was bringing them into being, they were as real to him as anyone else he knew. Once he had created them, however, once he knew their stories, he was happy to let them go their own way: other hands could manipulate them for the television camera, other craftsmen could cast and replicate them. The character and the story were all he cared about. The rest was just playing with toys.
The only one of his creations with whom he fell in love—the only one he didn’t want anyone else to handle—would break his heart. This was, of course, Little Brain: first a doll, later a puppet, then an animated cartoon, and afterward an actress, or, at various other times, a talk-show host, gymnast, ballerina, or supermodel, in a Little Brain outfit. Her first, late-night, series, of which nobody expected much, had been made more or less exactly as Malik Solanka desired. In that time-traveling quest program, “L.B.” was the disciple, while the philosophers she met were the real heroes. After the move to prime time, however, the channel’s executives soon weighed in. The original format was deemed much too highbrow. Little Brain was the star, and the new show had to be built around her, it was decreed. Instead of traveling constantly, she needed a location and a cast of recurring characters to play off. She needed a love interest, or better still a series of suitors, which would allow the hottest young male actors of the time to guest-star on the show and wouldn’t tie her down. Above all, she needed comedy: smart comedy, brainy comedy, yes, but there must definitely be a great many laughs. Probably even a laugh track. Writers could, would, be provided to work with Solanka to develop his hit idea for the mass audience that would now come into contact with it. This was what he wanted, wasn’t it—to move into the mainstream? If an idea didn’t develop, it died. These were the facts of televisual life.
Thus Little Brain moved to Brain Street in Brainville, with a whole family and neighborhood posse of Brains: she had an older brother called Little Big Brain, there was a science laboratory down the street called the Brain Drain, and even a laconic cowboy movie star neighbor (John Brayne). It was painful stuff, but the lower the comedy stooped, the higher the ratings soared.
She had outgrown her creator—literally; she was life-size now, and several inches taller than Solanka—and was making her own way in the world. Like Hawkeye or Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves, she had transcended the work that created her, had attained the fiction’s version of freedom. She now endorsed products on television, opened supermarkets, gave after-dinner speeches, emceed gong shows. By the time
She had become the Maya Angelou of the doll world, as relentless an autobiographer as that other caged bird, her life the model for millions of young people—its humble beginnings, its years of struggle, its triumphant overcomings; and, O, her dauntlessness in the face of poverty and cruelty! O, her joy when Fate chose her to be one of its Elect!—among whom West Seventieth Street’s own empress of cool, Mila Milo, was proud to be numbered. (Her unlived life! Solanka thought. Her fictive history, part Dungeons & Dragons fairy tale, part dirt-poor ghetto saga, and all ghostwritten for her by anonymous persons of phantom talent! This was not the life he had imagined for her; this had nothing to do with the back-story he had dreamed up for his pride and joy. This L.B. was an impostor, with the wrong history, the wrong dialogue, the wrong personality, the wrong wardrobe, the wrong
The extraordinary thing about her fan base was its catholicity: boys dug her as much as girls, adults as much as children. She crossed all boundaries of language, race, and class. She became, variously, her admirers’ ideal lover or confidante or goal. Her first book of memoirs was originally placed by the Amazon people in the
All this Malik Solanka witnessed from a distance with growing horror. This creature of his own imagining, born of his best self and purest endeavor, was turning before his eyes into the kind of monster of tawdry celebrity he most profoundly abhorred. His original and now obliterated Little Brain had been genuinely smart, able to hold her own with Erasmus or Schopenhauer. She had been beautiful and sharp-tongued, but she had swum in the sea of ideas, living the life of the mind. This revised edition, over which he had long ago lost creative control, had the intellect of a slightly over-average chimpanzee. Day by day she became a creature of the entertainment microverse, her music videos—yes, she was a recording artist now!—out-raunching Madonna’s, her appearances at premieres out-Hurleying every starlet who ever trod the red carpet in a dangerous frock. She was a video game and a cover girl, and this, remember, in her personal appearance mode at least, was essentially a woman whose own head was completely concealed inside the iconic doll’s. Yet many aspirants to stardom vied for the role, even though the Little Brains Trust—which had become too big for the BBC to hold on to, and had broken away to become a booming independent business, projected to break the billion-dollar barrier someday soon-insisted on utter confidentiality; the names of the women who brought Little Brain to life were never revealed, though rumors abounded, and the paparazzi of Europe and America, bringing their own special expertise to bear, claimed to be able to identify this actress or that model by those other, non-facial attributes which Little Brain so proudly put on display.
Astonishingly, the glamour-puss transformation lost latex-headed Little Brain no fans, but brought her a new legion of adult male admirers. She had become unstoppable, giving press conferences at which she spoke of setting up her own film production company, launching her own magazine in which beauty hints, lifestyle advice, and cutting-edge contemporary culture would all receive the special Little Brain treatment, and even going nationwide, in the U.S.A., on cable television. There would be a Broadway show—she was in discussion with all the major players in the musical game, dear Tim and dear Elton and dear Cameron and of course dear, dear Andrew—and a new, big-budget movie was also planned. This would not repeat the corny teenybopper mistakes of the first but grow “organically” out of the zillion-selling memoirs. “Little Brain is not some plastic-fantastic Barbie Spice,” she told the world—she had started speaking of herself in the third person—“and the new film will be very human, and quality all the way. Marry, Bobby, Brad, Gwynnie, Meg, Julia, Tom and Nic are all interested; also Jenny, Puffy, Maddy, Robbie, Mick: I guess everybody these days wants a Little Brain.”
The ballooning triumph of Little Brain inevitably occasioned much comment and analysis. Her admirers were jeered at for their lowbrow obsession, but at once eminent theater folk came forward to speak of the ancient tradition of mask theater, its origins in Greece and Japan.
“The actor in the mask is liberated from her normality, her everydayness. Her body acquires remarkable new freedoms. The mask dictates all this. The mask acts.” Professor Solanka remained aloof, refusing all invitations to discuss his out-of-control creation. The money, however, he was unable to refuse. Royalties continued to pour into his bank account. He was compromised by greed, and the compromise sealed his lips. Contractually bound not to attack the goose that laid the golden eggs, he had to bottle up his thoughts and, in keeping his own counsel, filled up with the bitter bile of his many discontents. With every new media initiative spearheaded by the character he had once delineated with such sprightliness and care, his impotent fury grew.
The L.B. phenomenon had seen off the 1990s and showed no sign of running out of steam in the new millennium. Malik Solanka was forced to admit a terrible truth. He hated Little Brain.
Meanwhile, nothing to which he turned his hand was bearing much fruit. He continued to approach the newly successful British claymation companies with characters and storylines but was told, kindly and unkindly, that his concepts weren’t of the moment. In a young person’s business, he had become something much worse than merely older: he was old-fashioned. At a meeting to discuss his proposal for a feature-length claymation life of Niccolo Machiavelli, he did his best to speak the new language of commercialism. The film would, of course, use anthropomorphic animals to represent human originals. “This really has everything,” he awkwardly enthused. “The golden age of Florence! The Medicis in their splendor-cool clay aristocats! Simonetta Vespussy, the most beautiful cat in the world, being immortalized by that young hound Barkicelli. The Birth of Feline Venus! The Rite of Pussy Spring! Meanwhile Amerigo Vespussy, that old sea lion, her uncle, sails off to discover America! Savona-Roland the Rat Monk ignites the Bonfire of the Vanities! And at the heart of it all, a mouse. Not just any old Mickey, though: this is the mouse who invented realpolitik, the brilliant mouse playwright, the distinguished public rodent, the republican mouse who survived being tortured by the cruel cat prince and dreamed in exile of a day of glorious return…” He was interrupted unceremoniously by an executive from the money people, a plump boy who could not have been more than twenty-three years old. “Florence is great,” he said. “No question. I love that. And Niccolb, what did you call him?, Mousiavelli sounds… possible. But what you have here—this treatment—let me put it like this. It just doesn’t
He could go back to writing books, he thought, but soon found that his heart wasn’t in it. The inexorability of happenstance, the way events have of deflecting you from your course, had corrupted him and left him good for nothing. His old life had left him forever and the new world he’d created had slipped through his fingers too. He was James Mason, a falling star, drinking hard, drowning in defeats, and that damn doll was flying high in the Judy Garland role. With Pinocchio, Geppetto’s troubles ended when the blasted puppet became a real, live boy; with Little Brain, as with Galatea, that’s when they began. Professor Solanka in drunken wrath issued anathemas against his ungrateful Frankendoll: Out of my sight let her go! Begone, unnatural child. Lo, I know you not. You shall not bear my name. Never send to ask for me, nor never seek my blessing. And call me father no more.
Out she went from his home in all her versions—the sketches, maquettes, tableaux, the infinite proliferation of her in all her myriad versions, paper, cloth, wood, plastic, animation cell, videotape, film; and with her, inevitably, went a once-precious version of himself. He hadn’t been able to bear to perform the act of expulsion personally. Eleanor agreed to take on the task. Eleanor, who could see the crisis mounting the red cracks in the eyes of the man she loved, the alcohol, the rudderless wandering—said in her gentle, efficient way, “Just go out for the day and leave it to me.” Her own career in publishing was on hold, Asmaan being all the career she needed for the moment, but she had been a high flier and was greatly in demand. This, too, she concealed from him, though he wasn’t a fool, and knew what it meant when Morgen Franz and others rang to speak to her and stayed on the phone, coaxing, for thirty minutes at a time. She was wanted, he understood that, everyone was wanted except him, but at least he could have this paltry revenge; he could not want something too, even if it was only that two-faced creature, that traitress, that, that, doll.
So he left home on the agreed day, stamping over Hampstead Heath at high speed—they lived in a capacious, double—fronted house on Willow Road and had always both rejoiced in having the Heath, North London’s treasure, its lung, just outside their door—and in his absence Eleanor had everything properly packed and taken away to a long-term storage facility. He’d have preferred the whole caboodle to end up at the Highbury garbage dump, but on this, too, he compromised. Eleanor had insisted. She had strong archival instincts and, needing her to take charge of the project, he waved a hand at her strictures as if at a mosquito, and didn’t argue. He walked for hours, allowing the Heath’s cool music to soothe his savage breast, the quiet heart-rhythms of its slow paths and trees, and, later in the day, the sweet strings of a summer con cert in the grounds of the Iveagh Bequest. When he got back, Little Brain was gone. Or, almost gone. For, unknown to Eleanor, one doll had been locked away in a cupboard in Solanka’s study. And there she remained.
The house felt emptied when he returned, voided, the way a house feels after the death of a child. Solanka felt as if he had suddenly aged by twenty or thirty years; as if, divorced from the best work of his youthful enthusiasms, he at last stood face-to-face with ruthless Time. Waterford-Wajda had spoken of such a feeling at Addenbrooke’s years ago. “Life becomes very, I don’t know, finite. You realize you don’t have anything, you belong nowhere, you’re just using things for a while. The inanimate world laughs at you: you’ll be going soon, but it will be staying on. Not very profound, Solly, it’s Pooh Bear philosophy, I know, but it rips you to pieces all the same.” This wasn’t just the death of a child, Solanka was thinking: more like a killing. Kronos devouring his daughter. He was the murderer of his fictional offspring: not flesh of his flesh but dream of his dream. There was, however, a living child still awake, overexcited by the day’s events: the arrival of the moving van, the packers, the steady come and go of boxes. “I was helping, Daddy,” eager Asmaan greeted his father. “I helped send Little Brain away.” He was bad at compound consonants, saying
On children’s television, in comic books, and in audio versions of her legendary memoirs, Little Brain’s protean persona had reached out and captured the hearts of children even younger than Asmaan Solanka. Three was not too young to fall in love with this most universally appealing of contemporary icons. “L.B.” could be driven out of the house on Willow Road, but could she be expelled from the imagination of her creator’s child? “I want her back,” Asmaan said emphatically. Back was bat. “I want Little Brain.” The pastoral symphony of Hampstead Heath gave way to the jangling discords of family life. Solanka felt the clouds gathering around him once again. “It was just time for her to go,” he said, and picked up Asmaan, who wriggled hard against him, responding unconsciously, as children do, to his father’s bad mood. “No! Put me down! Put me down!” He was exhausted and cranky and so was Solanka. “I want to watch a video,” he demanded. Viduwo. “I want to watch a Little Brain viduwo.” Malik Solanka, unbalanced by the impact of the absence of the Little Brain archive, of her exile to some DollElba, some Black Sea town, such as Ovid’s barren Tomis, for unwanted, used-up toys, had been plunged quite unexpectedly into a condition resembling deep mourning and received his son’s end-of-day petulance as an unacceptable provocation. “It’s too late. Behave yourself,” he snapped, and Asmaan, in return, crouched down on the front-room rug and produced his latest trick: a burst of impressively convincing crocodile tears. Solanka, no less childishly than his son, and without the excuse of being three years old, rounded on Eleanor. “I suppose this is your way of punishing me,” he said. “If you didn’t want to get rid of the stuff, why not just say so. Why use him. I should have known I’d come back to trouble. To some manipulative crap like this.”
“Please don’t let him hear you talking to me that way,” she said, scooping Asmaan into her arms. “He understands everything.” Solanka noted that the boy suffered himself to be taken off to bed by his mother without the slightest wriggle, nuzzling into Eleanor’s long neck. “As a matter of fact,” she went on levelly, “after doing this entire day’s work for you, I thought, stupidly as it turns out, that we might use it as the moment for a new beginning. I took a leg of lamb out of the freezer and rubbed it with cumin, I called the flower shop, oh God this is so silly, and had them deliver nasturtiums. And you’ll find three bottles of Tignanello on the kitchen table. One for pleasure, two for too much, three for bed. Perhaps you remember that. It’s your line. But I’m sure you can’t be bothered anymore to have a romantic candlelit supper with your boring, no-longer-young wife.”
They had been drifting apart, she into the engulfing, full-time experience of first-time motherhood, which fulfilled her so deeply and which she was so eager to repeat, he into that fog of failure and self disgust which was thickened, more and more, by drink. Yet the marriage had not broken, thanks in large measure to Eleanor’s generous heart, and to Asmaan. Asmaan, who loved books and could be read to for hours; Asmaan on his garden swing, asking Malik to twist him around and around so that he could untwist in a high-speed counterclockwise blur; Asmaan riding on his father’s shoulders, ducking his head under doorways (“I’m being very careful, Daddy!”); Asmaan chasing and being chased, Asmaan hiding under bedclothes and piles of pillows; Asmaan attempting to sing “Rock Around the Clock”—rot
He was the young incarnation of their old high-bouncing love. When their child was flooding their lives with delight, Eleanor and Malik Solanka could take refuge in a fantasy of undamaged familial contentment. At other times, however, the cracks were becoming ever easier to see. She found his self-absorbed misery, his constant railing against imagined slights, duller and more of a strain than she was ever cruel enough to show; while he, locked into his downward spiral, accused her of ignoring him and his concerns. In bed, whispering so as not to wake Asmaan sleeping on a mattress on the floor beside them, she complained that Malik never initiated sex; he retorted that she had lost interest in sex entirely except at the baby-making time of the month. And at that time of the month, routinely, they fought: yes, no, please, I can’t, why not, because I don’t want to, but I need it so badly, well, I don’t need it at all, but I don’t want this lovely little boy to be an only child like me, and I don’t want to be a father again at my age, I’ll already be over seventy before Asmaan is twenty years old. And then tears and anger and, as often as not, a night for Solanka in the guest bedroom. Advice to husbands, he thought bitterly: make sure the spare room is comfortable, because sooner or later, pal, that’s your room.
Eleanor was waiting tensely by the stairs for his reply to her invitation to a night of peace and love. Time passed in slow beats, arriving at a hinge moment. He could, if he had the wit and desire, accept her invitation, and then, yes, a good evening would follow: delicious food, and, if at this age three bottles of Tignanello didn’t send him straight to sleep, then no doubt the lovemaking would be up to the old high standard. But now there was a worm in Paradise, and he failed the test. “You’re ovulating, I suppose,” he said, and she jerked her face away from him as if he’d slapped her. “No,” she lied, and then, giving in to the inevitable, “Oh, all right, yes. But can’t we just, oh, I wish you could see how desperately, oh, to hell with it, what’s the use.” She carried Asmaan away, unable to hold back her tears. “I’m going to go to sleep, too, when I put him to bed, okay?” she said, weeping angrily. “Do what you like. Just don’t leave the lamb in the fucking Aga. Take it out and throw it in the fucking bin.”
As Asmaan went upstairs in his mother’s arms, Solanka heard the worry in his tired young voice. “Daddy’s not cross,” Asmaan said, reassuring himself, wanting to be reassured. Cross was toss. “Daddy doesn’t want to send me away.”
Alone in the kitchen, Professor Malik Solanka began to drink. The wine was as good and as powerful as ever, but he wasn’t drinking for pleasure. Steadily, he worked his way through the bottles, and as he did, the demons came crawling out through the several orifices of his body, sliding down his nose and out through his ears, dribbling and squeezing through every opening they could find. By the bottom of the first bottle they were dancing on his eyeballs, his fingernails, they had wrapped their rough lapping tongues around his throat, their spears were jabbing at his genitals, and all he could hear was their scarlet song of shrill, most horrid hate. He had come through self-pity now and entered a terrible, blaming anger, and by the bottom of the second bottle, as his head slopped about on his neck, the demons were kissing him with their forked tongues and their tails were wrapped around his penis, rubbing and squeezing, and as he listened to their dirty talk, the unforgivable blame for what he had become had begun to settle on the woman upstairs, she who was nearest to hand, the traitress who had refused to destroy his enemy, his nemesis, the doll, she who had poured the poison of Little Brain into the brain of his child, turning the son against the father, she who had destroyed the peace of his home life by preferring the uncreated child of her obsession to her actually existing husband, she, his wife, his betrayer, his one great foe. The third bottle fell, half unfinished, across the kitchen table that she had so lovingly set for dinner
It was a big house and the smoke alarm had not woken Eleanor or Asmaan, who was already in her bed, Malik’s bed. Fat lot of use that alarm system turned out to be, huh. And here he was standing above them in the dark and here in his hand was the carving knife, and there was no alarm system to warn them against him, was there, Eleanor lying on her back with her mouth slightly open and a low burr of a snore rumbling in her nose, Asmaan on his side, curled tightly into her, sleeping the pure deep sleep of innocence and trust. Asmaan murmured inaudibly in his sleep and the sound of his faint voice broke through the demons’ shrieking and brought his father to his senses. Before him lay his only child, the one living being under this roof who still knew that the world was a place of wonders and life was sweet and the present moment was everything and the future was infinite and didn’t need to be thought about, while the past was useless and fortunately gone for good and he, a child wrapped in the soft sorcerer’s cloak of childhood, was loved beyond words, and safe. Malik Solanka panicked. What was he doing standing over these two sleepers with a, with a, knife, he wasn’t the sort of person who would do a thing like this, you read about those persons every day in the yellow press, coarse men and sly women who slaughtered their babies and ate their grandmothers, cold serial murderers and tormented pedophiles and unashamed sexual abusers and wicked stepfathers and dumb violent Neanderthal apes and all the world’s ill-educated uncivilized brutes, and those were other persons entirely, no persons of that nature resided in this house, ergo he, Professor Malik Solanka formerly of King’s College in the University of Cambridge, he of all people could not be in here holding in his drunken hand a savage instrument of death. Q.E.D. And anyway, 1 never was any good with the meat, Eleanor. It was always you who carved.
The doll, he thought with a belching, vinous start. Of course! That satanic doll was to blame. He had sent all the avatars of the she-devil out of the house, but one remained. That had been his mistake. She had crawled out of her cupboard and down through his nose and given him the carving knife and sent him to do her bloody work. But he knew where she was hiding. She couldn’t hide from him. Professor Solanka turned and left the bedroom, knife in hand, muttering, and if Eleanor opened her eyes after he’d gone, he did not know it; if she had watched his retreating back and knew and judged him, it must be for her to say.
It had grown dark outside on West Seventieth Street. Little Brain was on his lap as he finished speaking. Its garments were slashed and torn and you could see where the knife had made deep incisions in its body. “Even after I stabbed her, as you see, I couldn’t leave her behind. All the way to America I held her body in my arms.” Mila’s own doll silently interrogated its damaged twin. “Now you’ve heard everything, which is a great deal more than you wanted,” Solanka said. “You know how this thing has ruined my life.” Mila Milo’s green eyes were on fire. She came over and caught up both his hands between her own. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Your life isn’t ruined. And these—come on, Professor!—these are just dolls.”