The Prompt: Julian Opie

The Prompt: Julian Opie

Some guessing games are higher stakes than most. In the latest installment of our series, Torrente Dos Santos brings Julian Opie's faceless figures to (after)life.

Some guessing games are higher stakes than most. In the latest installment of our series, Torrente Dos Santos brings Julian Opie's faceless figures to (after)life.

Julian Opie, Sian Walking; Jeremy Walking in Coat; Verity Walking; and Kris Walking (C. 147-150), 2010. Editions Southampton


Written by Torrente Dos Santos 

A businessman walks into a bar in hell, sits next to a poet. He’s scribbling on a receipt, the poet, lost in his own world. Curious, the businessman pays attention to the young man. The poet crosses something out and puts his head in his hands, starts crying. The businessman gives the bartender a meddling look. She’s not interested and turns away to pour a glass of rye. She places the drink next to the poet, who composes himself and swallows a finger. He’s clean-shaven and looks otherwise together, the businessman thinks, probably drunk but holding it respectably, tears aside. He decides he wants nothing more to do with the poet and asks for a drink. Again, the bartender shows him no interest. The businessman pats his jacket for his wallet; he’s conflicted, reaches for the wallet in his breast pocket and smells himself, wonders if he offends. He slides some money across the bar in expectation. The bartender slides the money back towards him. The businessman slides it back again. The poet writes something on the receipt and the door opens; in walks a slight woman in a green anorak; the bartender slides the cash back to the businessman and the poet crosses out his writing and puts his head in his hands, starts crying again.

He has enough of it all, the businessman. Can’t deal with the whole thing. The bartender cleans the poet’s glass and pours him another. The businessman grabs the poet by the shoulders, begs him what’s wrong. Says he’ll listen to anything the poet has to say if he can let him have a drink. He’ll pay for it. He slides the money over to the poet and looks at the bartender with malice. She warns the businessman that if he makes any movement towards the poet’s drink she’s beating him senseless.

Julian Opie,Verity Walking, (C. 147-150), 2010. Editions Southampton.

While he’s alive, the poet says, he tries to write the most beautiful poem in the world. It’s all he does. Never so much as swats at a fly as he roams the earth. All of his effort goes into this work. He’s quite well-known for a poet, respected even. People think if anyone’s going to accomplish such a feat, it’s him. Should be him, even. Then he walks into an empty elevator shaft and plummets eighty feet onto his face. He laments for a spell at the life he loses, all the beauty he’ll never again see and so forth, but then he wises up to his situation. He’s got all of eternity to write this poem. Suddenly he’s invigorated, his head swells with inspiration. Every image he could ever conjure comes to him without friction, fully matured extensions of his words, each finding its receiving point, each a lariat of brilliance that pulls in the horizon until it becomes too familiar to extract and then spirals outward for the next prospect. They arrive with such velocity, these words and images, that the poet has to brace himself, but he adjusts to the overload as a considerable weight is tamed by a lifter. Soon he’s solving the abstrūsus with ease, the great subjective problems winnow until they aren’t problems at all, rather they add to his inviolable verse: the delicacy of form and message, gaps in individual acumen and the limits of transmittable language compress into a vast, flat nothing and fall before his absolute poem. The poet can replicate it endlessly if he wants to, build it over and over again with different words, experiment with his meter until it grows unrecognizable from the original and yet still arrives at the same work in the end. Bespoke and perfect every time, he says, can’t be topped. Total dominion over the written word.

Julian Opie, Jeremy Walking in Coat (C. 147-150), 2010. Editions Southampton.

At some point, no idea when now, he says to the businessman, he overhears two women across the bar playing a game: they’re guessing who walks through the door next. First woman says Cleopatra. Wrong, it’s an older man with a beard. Second woman says a name the poet is surprised she knows, thinks it could be a relative, he says, but there’s no way. It’s a lesser writer, a contemporary of his actually, Jeremy, and in he walks. He’s floored, the poet says, obsessed with the unlikelihood of what he sees. He watches man order a shot and leave. The poet goes through the logical motions: he asks the woman how she knows the man (she doesn’t), how she can pick his name from the ether of history, the sheer volume of the past and present, (she doesn’t know), and it only makes things worse. The enormity of his burden dawns on him; at last he understands why he’s here, he says. He fixates on this game, reasons it to be decipherable to his mastery, something to overcome as he does the complications of expression. He is determined to predict the next person to walk into the bar. He fails time and again. He is shameful, pathetic, constantly reeling.

Julian Opie, Sian Walking (C. 147-150), 2010. Editions Southampton.

So what’s the matter then, the businessman says. Too much of a good thing, he bets. The poet gets everything he could ever want and now he’s stuck with something so stupid that it tortures him and him alone. If that’s hell for him, then he’d love to trade places, he says.

The poet goes on. He starts with the evil names, he says. The ones he expects to be there. Then the not-so-evil ones because he figures maybe the truly evil ones have a separate bar. He goes down the line: people he knows, good people, great people, he runs out of people, he starts making up names. He ruminates on one historical figure for as long as he can endure the thought of the person and moves on to the next. None of it works. He goes to other bars, he says, it’s no easier anywhere else. It’s never that person who walks through the door, but it’s all he can do. Half the time he doesn’t bother asking whoever walks in for a name he’s so down on himself. The businessman was supposed to be a woman, Sian something, the poet doesn’t even remember her full name. If he can get it right once, just one time, he says, he’ll tear up the poem and never write another word. He says the correct guess alone is greater than the work. He says to be doomed is to suffer from fate, but when fate occurs and doom doesn’t satisfy, it’s something worse, something too extreme for words.

Julian Opie, Kris Walking (C. 147-150), 2010. Editions Southampton.

That’s nothing, the businessman says to the poet. Says he’s not a businessman at all, he’s a dead apparatchik, a failed maestro, finds joy in nothing he encounters on the mortal coil beyond his record collection. Not a thing compares in his miserable life, detests his wife, leaves her cold and hungry any chance he gets but shares an apartment and he’s stuck there, finally blows his brains out. Calls in the favor of a lifetime to see a live performance and the Zhdanov Decree is published that week; the concert is canceled, he throats a gun. Every day now he calls his most beloved composers into his office, just up the road, he says. Khachaturian, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev sulk into his waiting room while his secretary clacks away at a typewriter. Every day, he says, he calls them into his office, one by one, tells them they’re blacklisted for formalism. The looks on their faces, they can’t be more pained, he says, and he experiences it just as intensely as they do, but he can never tell them. The words of sympathy don’t form. He’s paralyzed. Wants to drink it away, learn to forget, but every bar he walks into, every single one so far, his wife’s the bartender. He can’t make it up, he says. Every day he denounces, every night he is denounced. Can’t make it up.

That’s all it is, he says, it has nothing to do with who, what, and why. All he asks for, just a moment outside of this time, little more. Everything else repeats endlessly, but there’s a moment when it might not, and that’s when it becomes unbearable.


Torrente Dos Santos is a writer, professor, and translator originally from Ilhavo, Portugal, and raised in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. His works have appeared in English and Portuguese and he is currently a visiting scholar at the Eça de Queiroz archives in Coimbra. 


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