As Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, the banality of some villains makes them all the more compelling. In the opening passages of Gordon W. Dale’s novel Fool’s Republic, the protagonist, Simon Wyley, is attended by a physician, the first of several seemingly bland bureaucrats through whose complicity he has been stripped of his rights and imprisoned against his will.
I float in an eight-by-eight cell of the purest clinical white: white walls, white sheets, white toilet, white sink, white light. Even the floor drain has been painted white. This drain worries me, sitting as it does in a slight recess in the floor, with no apparent purpose except to sluice away evidence. I stare at it, obsessed with images of red blood spilling down white tiles, like a pour painting by a trendy New York artist whose name I no longer recall.
I am attired in madhouse whites to match my cell: disposable briefs under white cotton pants, a white short-sleeved shirt, white slip-on canvas shoes without socks. My head has been shaved. I am denied access to a mirror, but no doubt my skull is also white, as white as the skin of my arms and hands. White skin over red blood.
It occurs to me that I am afraid.
They have stripped me of my name; I have become a number. I search my body for the telltale tattoo, but find nothing. Perhaps I have been marked in a way not detectable by the naked eye. The thought has nagged at me for some time, but now I shrug it off. What does it matter? My life has been a series of numbers: maternity ward number, student number, IQ number, juvenile corrections number, Social Security number, internal security file number. What difference could one more number possibly make? I’d let them number me till Judgment Day, if only they’d turn the goddamn light off, just for a minute. Just so I could rest my eyes.
Isaac Newton said that time flows equably, without relation to anything external. Imagine how much more subtle his thinking might have been if he’d been locked in an all-white room where time doesn’t flow at all but rather stops, becomes palpable, and takes on form. Time keeps up a companionable silence all morning, or at least what I fancifully decide to be morning. I have no real sense of morning or evening, of day or night. I am bathed in unrelenting white light. In white light time doesn’t flow; it lies on the floor.
I go to the sink and turn the handles of the faucet, yearning for the sound of water, for the sound of something passing. The handles turn silently and no water comes, not so much as a drip. I am alone in a silent desert of white light. Alone, but not unobserved. They watch me. I am particularly conscious of it every time I use the toilet. What do they hope to learn from observing me defecate? Nothing. They’re bureaucrats, mindlessly ticking off columns, pen-pushers completing forms. But, in truth, I don’t much resent their watching. I’ve done time enough in institutions to know that real privacy is what you keep in your head. What bothers me is that the toilet bowl flushes automatically when I stand up. There’s no relief to be found from the monochrome whiteness, not even in the sight of my own waste.
The cell door slides open. I crane my neck to see through the opening, desperate for a glimpse of color, a splash of something to tuck away and keep. Even a drab wall of army green would be a relief. But, to my disappointment, the outside hallway is painted the same blinding white as my cell. I regain my self-control, stare fixedly ahead. Desire is weakness. I can live without color.
A man wearing a white lab coat over a white jumpsuit enters my cell and the door closes silently behind him. He offers his hand, which I ignore, and mumbles his name, which I don’t catch. Apparently he’s a physician of some sort, come to check on my injuries. He carries himself with the same air of disheveled self-loathing Denholm Elliott affected as the abortionist in the first film version of Alfie. What transgressions, I wonder, have led him here? An excessive fondness for drink? An uncontrolled passion for little girls? For little boys? Mere professional incompetence, perhaps. I cannot look at him for long, and stare at the floor. But he’s obviously not regular military and for that I am grateful.
He asks me to remove my shirt and I do so with difficulty. He has me breathe in and out, then makes a show of examining my ribs.
“Have these been X-rayed?”
“Well, they should be.”
I take from his tone that it’s never going to happen. An X-ray of a non-life-threatening injury is a privilege. And privileges are not extended to uncooperative detainees.
I struggle back into my shirt and he has me sit on the edge of the bunk so he can look at my facial injuries. He doesn’t like what he sees and when he examines my left eye there is a sharp intake of breath. He makes me follow his fingertip back and forth, up and down.
“Is your vision blurred?”
He has me close my eyes, then bring my finger to the tip of my nose.
“What are the charges against me?”
He runs his fingers over my skull, palpates the vertebrae in my neck.
“Why have I not been given the benefit of counsel?”
“You have some contusions. No evidence of concussion. You’ll be fine.”
“I was drugged and blindfolded before being transported here. Where am I being held? What continent are we on?”
My questions seem to cause him personal pain. He opens his mouth to speak but, after a moment’s hesitation, simply shakes his head and turns away. He can only pat me clumsily on the shoulder. The door opens of its own volition and he departs and I am once more alone in the white light.
Time rolls onto its side and closes its eyes.
From Fool’s Republic by Gordon W. Dale, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2011 by Gordon W. Dale, reprinted by permission of publisher.
A finalist for the 2007 British Crimewriters Association Debut Dagger Award, Gordon W. Dale has lived in such disparate regions as the Sub-Arctic, the Canadian prairies and Central-East Africa, but presently makes his home in California. His novel Fool’s Republic was recently awarded Honorable Mention (general fiction category) by the San Francisco Book Festival.