Monday, March 15, 2010

The Most Downloaded Image in History

by Lawrence Shainberg

With rare exceptions of someone like WG Sebald, novelists don’t tend to think about illustration, but since Crust has always been a mock-dock in my view I decided early-on to add this dimension to the book. Fortunately, my good friend, Michael Flanagan, a painter and novelist who was once a book-designer, is also a fan of the novel, so he was enthusiastic to assist me.

Most of the illustrations I wanted -- portraits of major characters, brain scan images, historical and anthropological images, etc -- weren’t terribly difficult to develop. Anyone who knows his way around Google and PhotoShop could produce the sort of images needed to substantiate a novel which is explicitly about nosepicking and implicitly -- since this forbidden habit becomes a media sensation as well as an endless source of scientific, medical, theological and philosophical research and controversy -- about the terrifying world of information overload. One image however eluded us. George W. Bush is a close friend of the narrator who in the early stages of the book admits to being a passionate nose-picker. More important, his admission, which occurs (in one of our best illustrations) on Larry King Live, has cured him of a paralyzing depression which put him in a mental hospital when he left office in 2008. Needless to say, Bush is no ordinary picker. His public -- and much publicized -- embrace of the habit sends him on a complex paradoxical journey which has him -- publicly, of course -- embracing it, rejecting it and embracing it again, and finally, blaming it for his failures as a president. “Tell me how a man who can’t stand a moment’s discomfort in his nose is gonna deal with hurricanes or terrorists or global warming?” Finally, unable to resolve his dilemma, he leaves home and family and vanishes from public life. His disappearance produces a flood of rumor on blogs, websites and the whole spectrum of Internet news. There are reports of him working on a farm in Iraq, living with Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, hospitalized with depression, dead by suicide, and kidnapped off his Texas ranch by “terrorists of unknown nationality.” Most of these tales, of course, are accompanied by photographs, video streams, or personal accounts which claim to verify them. The last, shows him sitting with hands tied in a straight-backed metal chair, guarded by two men or women wearing masks, one of them armed with a submachine gun, the other with a pistol, was the one I wanted to illustrate.

Michael and I tried at first to fabricate the image but eventually we realized we had to create it ourselves. My wife is a good photographer; my office has a white wall for a back-drop; Michael and I in ski-masks could do a fair approximation of terrorists; and the doorman in our building, a stocky spirited fellow named Julio who shares my opinion of Bush, was more than happy to impersonate him. All in all, it seemed like a morning’s work at most.

I called my film-director nephew, Steve Shainberg (Secretary, Fur), and asked him to put me in touch with a prop-person who could help me obtain the guns. As it happened, the woman he recommended was busy on a film, but she suggested I call a source she used -- Kaufman’s Army-Navy store, on 42nd St in New York City. The prop-man at Kaufman’s was a guy named Jim. I told him I needed to rent “some equipment for a photo shoot.”

“Like what?” he said.

“A machine gun and a pistol.”

“Not in our store,” he snapped.

If I’d been less naive about such matters, his voice alone would have warned me off, but when he asked for my email address -- “in case I think of something” -- I gave it to him. It was only later, when I told my wife about the conversation, that I began to think I’d been less than smart to be so forthcoming.

She’s not inclined to overreact but her eyes spread with disbelief. “A guy calls and wants to rent a machine gun? I’d say his next call is to the police. For all we know, our phones are tapped already! The building is surrounded! But don’t worry. You can always explain when they arrest you that this is for a couple of terrorists who want to kidnap George W. Bush.”

As it happened, however, her reaction was off the mark. When I called Jim the next day to ward him off, he apologized to me before I could him. “Sorry I couldn’t come up with somebody right away. As soon as I got off the phone, I remembered the guy who can help you.”

He gave me a number in Soho. Weapons Specialists, on Grand Street. On the phone, they were discouraging at first, explaining that real guns require police permits and a handler to go with them. With its handler, a single machine gun would set me back $1200 a day. I was about to sign off and look toward Google again for my illustration when he added, “On the other hand, we’ve got replicas. A machine gun will cost you about $150. Pistol, $50 to $75.”

Weapons Specialists is a two-floor business, its basement a huge spread containing guns and ammo belts and holsters and swords and suits of armor from any age in history and anywhere in the world. Some of the guns were made of rubber, some of metal, and many were real, with firing pins removed. The replicas were convincing enough for any sort of robbery. As a matter of fact, the salesman who helped me explained that Spike Lee had used the same guns I rented in his last film, when bank robbers actually acknowledged that the weapons they used were dummies.

Thus it was that two days after forsaking the Internet I returned from Soho with a long black case containing a machine gun and a pistol. Michael and I donned ski masks, Julio sat in a metal chair for the photograph, and later that day, his head was replaced, courtesy of Google, with George W. Bush’s. Check it out in Crust. As the narrator reports, “No YouTube image has been viewed, downloaded, or emailed more often.”

1 comment:

Francis said...

Weapons Specialists is so onomatopoeic. Larry you've really outdone yourself in this back story which recalls Scorpio Rising and many nights not hanging around the Hell's Angels clubhouse in the East Village. Seriously Weapons Specialists should be a chain like Trader Joe's with long lines of people waiting to rent simulacra.