Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores April 2021.)


Common Snail

On the corner of the street, there is an old French restaurant with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Des Sables has been there for decades and has changed very little in that time. It has served the same dishes, with ingredients sourced from the same suppliers, and wines from the same vineyards. The bottles are stacked on the same shelves, and when they are pulled out and dusted off, the silky liquid is poured into the same set of glasses, or ones of a similar style, bought sporadically to replace those that have smashed. The plates are the same: small, round, porcelain.

When the weather is good, tables are placed outside. There is a space between the public thoroughfare and the exterior wall, and the tables are set tightly, with two chairs tucked beneath. One of the tables wobbles. Over the years, thousands of napkins have been folded and placed under the offending leg, hundreds of customers have complained and moved to alternatives, and thousands more have quietly put up with the inconvenience. They have spilled glasses of wine, grumbled, and considered asking to move, before deciding against it.

The restaurant serves escargots. The restaurant has served escargots since it opened. Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of snails. They have been thrown into boiling water, and their carcasses scooped out and served with garlic butter. The chewy pellets have been picked with forks and fingers, and the curled shells discarded.

It is lunchtime in midsummer. A box of snails has been taken from the fridge and placed on the side, its contents ready to be immersed and scalded. It is left unsupervised as chefs bustle around the kitchen with sharp knives, pots and pans, bunches of parsley and stalks of celery. A single snail, on the small side, wakes from its chilly slumber and climbs over the edge of the box, down the side, and onto the stainless-steel counter. Slowly, it descends to the floor, then to the back of the kitchen, where there is a door to the street. After about twenty minutes, the little snail finds itself in the alley behind the restaurant, feasting on the discarded outer leaves of a savoy cabbage. Once sated it continues its journey. It begins to climb the wall, flexing and releasing.

The building stands in Soho, in the middle of London. The foundations were constructed in the seventeenth century, during the Interregnum, in the space between a father and a son; the ampersand between The King is Dead & Long Live the King. Bricks and plaster overlaid onto a now-crooked timber frame. There are wormholes in the timber and snail licks on the bricks.

The district was once a suburb. London was enclosed by a wall, and to the north there was a moor. There were deer and boar and hare. North-west of London; north-east of Westminster. Men and women galloped out from the two cities to hunt, and their cries gave this place its name: So! Ho! So! Ho!

The stone came. Bricks and mortar replaced trees; people replaced deer; sticky gray grime replaced sticky brown dirt. Paths carved by the tread of animals were set in stone, widened, edged with walls and gates. Mansions were built for high society. There was dancing, gambling, sex. Music was played and plays were staged. Bargains were struck, sedition was plotted, betrayals were planned, secrets were kept.

New people arrived. Émigrés from France came to escape revolution, guillotine, war. Mansions were divided and subdivided. Drawing rooms became workshops; parlors became coffee shops. Whole families lived in single rooms, and disease spread. Syphilis erupted in sores on the skin and delusions in the mind. Cholera hid in the water, crept through the drains, came out of pumps and down human throats.

Books were written, ripped up, rewritten. Karl Marx dreamed of utopia while his wife cooked dinner and scrubbed the floor. His friends met on Great Windmill Street where wind was once the means of production.

When the bombs fell on London, Soho took a few. Dark lesions appeared in the lines of Georgian townhouses and people sheltered beneath ground.

After the war, the concrete came, and parallel lines, and precise angles that connected earth to sky. Houses were rebuilt, shops were rebuilt, and new paving stones were laid. The dead were buried. The past was buried. There were new kinds of men and new kinds of women. There was art and music and miniskirts and sharp haircuts to match the skyline. Films were made; records were cut. Soho came to be filled with the apparatus of sound and vision. Electric currents ran through cables and magnets and copper coils and pushed rhythmic air into dark rooms where people danced in new ways, and drank and smoked, and ingested new drugs imported from old places. And they spoke again of revolution.

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