Seven bikes lean against the wall of Jim Papadopoulos's basement in Boston, Massachusetts. Their paint is scratched, their tyres flat. The handmade frame that he got as a wedding present is coated in fine dust. “I got rid of most of my research bikes when I moved,” he says. The bicycles that he kept are those that mean something to him. “These are the ones I rode.”
Papadopoulos, who is 62, has spent much of his life fascinated by bikes, often to the exclusion of everything else. He competed in amateur races while a teenager and at university, but his obsession ran deeper. He could never ride a bike without pondering the mathematical mysteries that it contained. Chief among them: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedalling? Why must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider?
Gathered around it at present, as on every Saturday, are Bannon and three other men, all nearing or past the far edge of middle age: David Solomon, David Finkelstein, and Simon Aronson, who is the owner of said table and the host of these weekly summits. Having duly impressed their visitor, the men get down to business, removing from their persons multiple packs of playing cards, like weapons for a gunfight, and stacking them neatly on black felt pads. Aronson prefers red-backed Bicycles from the United States Playing Card Company, which he purchases from Costco in 12-deck bricks. Bannon is a standard Bicycle man too. Solomon likes Bicycle Rider Backs that are “professionally cut”—that is, trimmed from the uncut sheet in such a way as to make a certain type of shuffle easier to perform. (You have to special-order those.) Finkelstein, the youngest of the group, has produced three decks today: Arrco Tahoe No. 84s, blue Bicycles, and Steamboat 999s, which are made of an especially smooth, thin card stock.
Next, hand lotion is applied—soft skin makes for better card handling. Aronson uses Cetaphil. Finkelstein prefers Neutrogena. Solomon favors Magician’s Choice Emerald Formula with aloe vera. Bannon does without.
How do novelists describe sex and still maintain a respectable distance from pornography? As a formal plotting technique, marriage offers respectable cover for the secretive impulses of sex. As readers, we no longer have to worry about what will happen to a character once she marries; we know what she’s in for on her wedding night. Likewise, waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark the sexual act within the respectable novel and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate personal experience. It alerts us to the fact of sex’s occurrence, and it absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are. More than this, though, fuzzy metaphor locates the description of sex as internal to a character. By describing a sexual act as a bloom or a wave, an author is not describing something in the external world. Instead, she is focusing on the internal register of sexual act — on orgasm and its felt experience, on seduction and its bodily effects. Metaphor, in other words, provides protection for writing about the internal experience of sex.
After all, tropes are tropes for a reason (and Sicilians really do eat ricotta, drink limoncello, and dance in the piazza). The novel does not suffer from the fact that it uses familiar building blocks, or the fact that the inner lives of characters mostly stay there. Instead, it has the gnomic and suggestive simplicity of a folktale, koanic rhythms that let you fill in whatever complexity you can into the elisions.
When my wife, Adri, and I spent a few months traveling through Asia a couple of years back, we made a pact on the very first day we got there, and it was this: If we see smoke or steam coming out of a dark alleyway, we will investigate.
That one simple rule served us well, sending us to everything from steamed buns to noodles and dumplings, but nowhere was it as useful as it was in the Singapore-Indonesia-Malaysia triangle, where satay delivers its smoke signals from nearly every alleyway you walk by.