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Authors: Rachel Cusk

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She would have to go without nourishment, she added, since the queue had barely moved in all this time: she had to be up early in the morning to take care of her grandchildren, and in any case she no longer had the constitution for staying late at parties.

‘I hope we meet again,' she said, withdrawing a small white card from the folds of her shawl and putting it in my hand. ‘As I told you, many writers have found my home an ideal place to work, and since there is plenty of space you wouldn't be disturbed. I expect you to take me up on it,' she said, her large unblinking eyes moving slowly around the room. A few feet away from us stood an etiolated man who was leaning on a walking stick, and for a moment I thought it might be Gerta's husband since she looked at him so penetratingly, but then I saw that despite his gaunt appearance and elderly demeanour he was in fact no more than forty-five. He came limping towards us on his stick and greeted Gerta, who kissed him warmly on both cheeks.

‘You've caught me creeping away,' Gerta said. ‘I'm too old for so many people and so much noise.'

‘Ah, nonsense,' he said. He spoke in an Irish accent that had a faintly transatlantic note. 'They just haven't put your favourite music on yet. How're you doing,' he said, to me.

‘You know each other, of course,' Gerta said.

It had been some years, Ryan said, but yes, we'd met a few times before.

He crinkled his forehead, apparently in the effort to remember the last occasion. His skin hung so loosely on his face that it formed clown-like folds that accentuated his changes of expression, and the room's harsh light gave it a ghastly, almost ghoulish cast. He was wearing a pale linen suit that similarly hung on him in loose folds, and the electric light dramatised the folds so that he almost looked as if he were wrapped in bandages. He had the appearance of someone who had been hit by extremity, even by some retributive force that had harried him and then left him, chastened and depleted, to limp on, an impression to which his walking stick contributed the final touch. I found myself wondering what he had done to deserve it, and whether I myself was in some way responsible for it, because at one time I had believed that people like Ryan lived their lives with impunity.

‘Ryan spoke at the town hall this evening,' Gerta
said, raising her voice tremulously above the noise. ‘It was a huge success.'

‘They were a great crowd,' Ryan said.

‘The subject was unity in an era of self-interest,' Gerta said to me. ‘It was an interesting panel. Ryan caused quite a stir.'

‘All I said,' Ryan said, ‘was that I didn't think the two were mutually exclusive.'

‘It is a topical issue,' said Gerta, ‘since you British are thinking of asking for a divorce.'

‘Not guilty,' Ryan said cheerily. ‘I'm a happily married Irishman.'

‘It will be a great mistake,' Gerta said, ‘as perhaps it always is.'

Ryan waved this away with his spare hand, gripping his walking stick with the other.

‘It'll never happen,' he said. ‘It's like the wife threatening to leave me every Friday night after she's had a few. Not only can the falcon hear the falconer,' he added significantly, ‘it's got into the habit of eating out of his hand.'

Gerta laughed.

‘Marvellous,' she said.

‘The one thing you can say about people for sure,' Ryan said, ‘is that they'll only free themselves if freedom is in their own interest.'

‘You must come and see us in the countryside,'
Gerta said, reaching into her shawl and giving him one of the white cards she had given me. ‘Who knows, you might find the inspiration there to write a follow-up to your phenomenon. I would like to think we had contributed a little bit of the magic.'

‘Absolutely,' Ryan said, his narrow eyes moving around the room. ‘Great to see you,' he added, clasping Gerta's hand between his.

‘I could see you didn't recognise me for a second there,' he said to me, when we had watched her walk slowly away. ‘As a matter of fact it happens all the time so don't worry about it. I've got used to the change,' he said, running a hand through his hair, which was longer than I remembered and worn in a looser, combed-back style, ‘but I know it's a shock to folk who haven't seen me in a while. I came across some old photos the other day and I could barely recognise myself, so I know how it feels. To be honest, it even still catches me out sometimes. It's not every day you lose half your body weight, is it? The strange thing is,' he said, ‘it sometimes feels like that other half is still there. It's just nobody can see it any more.'

A waiter came past with a tray of drinks and Ryan put up his hand in a gesture of refusal.

‘I've weaned myself off that stuff, for a start,' he said. ‘The old mother's milk. It helps you sleep though, I have to admit. I'm up at all hours these days. It turns
out a lot of people are,' he said. ‘Thank God for social media. I had no idea how much was going on. It's almost as if I was living in a different century. Now I'm chatting away with people in LA and Tokyo at three in the morning instead of sleeping off my hangover. The wife's delighted,' he said. ‘If the kids wake up they don't go near her any more.'

He had turned so that the light fell on him from a slightly different angle. I saw now that what I had interpreted as the signs of misfortune were in fact those of success, and I wondered how these two extremities could be mistaken for one another so easily. His baggy suit was of a fashionably unstructured design and, like the artful disorder of his hair, was clearly expensive. As for his gaunt appearance, it was the result, he said now, of deciding to put away his knife and fork. In fact it was his wife who started him off on the whole regime, he added, though she never imagined he'd go as far with it as he did.

‘The thing is,' he said, ‘we're obsessives, aren't we? We don't just leave an idea alone – we have to keep going at it until we've dug it up roots and all. I've noticed that a lot of writers don't take care of themselves physically,' he went on, ‘and I have to say I think there's a bit of a snob factor there. They worry that if they were caught doing exercise and watching what they ate, people would think less of them as
intellectuals. I prefer the Hemingway model,' he said, ‘though without the guns and the self-abuse, obviously. But the physical perfectionism – I mean, why not? Why treat your body as if it's just some carrier bag for your brain? And especially with all this publicity we're involved in now – to look at some of them, you'd think they'd never seen the light of day. They might act like it's because they're a bunch of geniuses, but like I say, it's a bit of a snob thing. Personally I get put off if a writer looks like a tramp – I think, why should I trust your view of the world if you can't even take care of yourself? If you were a pilot, I wouldn't get on board – I wouldn't trust you to take me the distance.'

His transformation began a couple of years ago, he said, when his wife gave him a smartwatch for Christmas. It measured your heart rate and pulse and the distances you covered. It had all the hallmarks of a thoughtless offering, something she'd just randomly picked up, but isn't it the case, he said, that it's the random thing that is so often the tool to lever yourself out of your rut?

‘Still, I'll be honest,' he said, ‘initially I was disappointed. I mean, I wasn't exactly a couch potato – I went to the gym and I more or less ate my five a day and I thought, is there something I'm missing here? Is this one of those things where you start giving each other meaningless presents because you can't be
bothered to work out what the other one wants any more? Obviously,' he said, ‘I've moved on since then to something much more sophisticated. This one,' he said, pulling back his cuff and holding out his wrist to show me, ‘doesn't just tell you what you've done – it tells you what you've still got left to do. At any point in the day,' he said, ‘it can give you the consequences of your actions in terms of a future. The other one was basically just a recording device: you had to interpret the data yourself, and the danger there,' he said, ‘is that things can get very subjective.'

But like he'd said, it had started him off, and if the wife had got a bit more than she'd bargained for, she'd reckoned without his tendency to take the ball and run with it. It was amazing, he said, to think that most people looked after their cars better than they looked after their bodies, but in fact there was no more mystery to the human organism than to the average engine. It was mostly just maths, and with the numbers now at his disposal he quickly came to an overwhelming realisation: where until now he had believed himself to be driven by want – a force he had managed with varying degrees of success over the years but never mastered – he began to understand that in fact the driving force was need; and of need it was possible to be not merely the master but the victorious champion. People could want an infinite number of things, but
what did we really need? Far less than we thought we did – with the right knowledge, that engine could run so cleanly and economically it barely left a trace of itself. For the seeker after advantage, this was priceless information: it represented a whole different sphere of control, in which one could become virtually invisible and therefore invulnerable. To ask oneself the question of what one wanted, on the other hand, was to bog oneself down in the mire, where any and everyone could see you.

‘This thing –' he tapped his wrist ‘– tells me not only what I need but what I've earned, what I could have if I chose to. There's quite a margin there,' he said.

He started to consume only half of what this device told him he had earned and marvelled at the feeling of power it gave him to leave the other half untouched, as though the numbers were actual money in the bank: he was accruing mental capital, as well as running three or four times a week and swimming on his rest days, thereby earning even more. He had wanted to take up cycling too, but at the time he couldn't afford all the fancy equipment, until he realised that the fancy equipment made cycling easier and therefore less profitable, and that he'd do better cycling uphill on his rusty ten-ton three-speed. He didn't know if I'd ever tried running, he said, but it was actually quite meditative: there was a fashion now for writing about
it, and if he could find the time he would give the form a go. As for eating, he could take it or leave it these days. Sometimes, watching people eat, it struck him how vulnerable they were; he remembered himself, chomping and chowing through the years, and it seemed to him that by eating he had been trying to make himself safe, when in fact he had been exposing himself. It was as if, by eating, he had hoped to bind himself to the world, to erase the boundary between inside and out. When he thought of all the junk he'd ingested, he wondered how he could have abused himself in that way.

He quickly lost a lot of weight, sure enough, but it was the mental leverage that really made the difference, and with his career going in the way that it had, he thanked God he'd finally seen the light. His book had sat at the top of the
New York Times
bestseller list for six months: I'd doubtless heard of it, though unless I was party to the industry gossip I'd probably never guessed it was anything to do with him, since it was written under a pseudonym. He'd taken on a writing partner, a female ex-student as it happened, and they had made an anagram of their names, though obviously, he said, since he was the front man, as it were, it made sense for their fictional author to be male. At first it had bugged him, he admitted, that success, when it finally turned up, did so under an alias; part of
him would have liked to have shown all the doubters back in Tralee. Still, the pseudonym had some of the same advantages as the Nietzschean gimmick on his wrist: it made a part of himself – the part that always seemed fated to the repetition of certain patterns – invisible. There he was sipping wheatgrass juice in first class on a plane to LA, off to meet the people who'd bought the film rights, unrecognisable in every way. The person he'd always been – the Ryan of old – seemed more and more like a childhood friend, someone he was fond of but had left behind, someone of whom he might one day say that he lived in a prison of his own making.

Sara – his writing partner – was happy for him to do the jetting about, since she had her kids to take care of in Galway; and besides, if we were talking about writers letting themselves go, she was a textbook example. She'd once turned up to a meeting with their agent wearing her old slippers, though what she didn't know about fifteenth-century Venice – where the book was set – wasn't worth knowing. The book had originally been her PhD thesis, and as her supervisor he'd found himself giving her all the sterling commercial advice he'd never quite managed to follow himself, so to be able to co-own the project felt like justice at last. It was a sort of marriage, he said, with the books – they were working on another
right now – as the offspring. Marriage is still the best model for living, he said, or at least no one's been able to come up with a better one, so why shouldn't it work for writing? And though the offspring were hard work, at least they paid their own way. The wife didn't mind at all – in fact it was she who had suggested it in the first place – and since she'd just bought herself a brand-new Range Rover with the proceeds, he didn't see she was doing too badly out of it either.

I asked him whether he still did any teaching and he grimaced so that the loose skin of his face stood out in eerie folds, before composing his features into an expression of mild regret.

‘Much as I'd love to,' he said, ‘I just don't have the time any more. Obviously I miss the contact with the students – there's the feeling you're giving something back, isn't there? But to be honest, in the end I started to feel I was selling them a bit of a dud, because there you are encouraging them to think they can write a bestseller and solve all their problems, when actually most of them just don't have the talent. And they take so much from you – to be honest I was desperate to leave, but actually,' he added confidentially, ‘they gave me the boot, just before things started to take off. I was on the big dipper there for a while, what with a wife and three kids to support. Obviously,' he said, ‘that's not something I'd want put about. But you know,' he
said, ‘in a way they did me a favour, because I'm not sure I'd have done what I've done if I hadn't been out in the wilderness. You know what it's like,' he said. ‘You earn just enough to get by but at the end of the day there's nothing left mentally, and so you cling to the job even harder. The book has changed all that of course,' he said. ‘I've been approached by universities in the US – there's some very nice offers on the table, but I'd really have to think about it.'

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