A couple weeks ago, gazing out the window in search of a word, I noticed an unusual pattern in the sky to the north: two long contrails meeting in a perfect X, their ends beyond my field of vision. The white cross lingered, quartering the blue sky. It was strange enough that I sketched it in a notebook, complete with roof details of the building opposite me, as if it were important to remember the exact location. That day, rereading the start of Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s, I noticed the word connexion in the first sentence. Interesting, I thought: that x.
Soon after, I began William Boyd’s new story collection Fascination. (His 2003 novel Any Human Heart was, among other things, a nod to Powell.) Many pieces have an agreeable notebook quality (indeed, one story is titled “Notebook #9”), hopscotching across time, place, and source, as in “The Mind/Body Problem,” which mixes a weight trainer’s dealings in muscle-amping supplements with philosophy text passages. And the genres are also, gleefully, all over the map: a Chekhovian episode starring Chekhov himself, Updikean adultery on the Cape. But the story that stunned me was “A Haunting,” in which an architect, possessed, sabotages his career by drawing mysterious x shapes on an all-but-final design. Spoiler: The cross frenzy leads him to the work of a Scottish engineer who identified waves that “remember” their source: “In the paper, he proposed a mathematical symbol. . . . [T]he shape that ensued resembled an elongated version of the white x on the blue ground of the Scottish flag.”
Later, I watched a Law & Order: SVU episode that hinged on some x‘d boxes on a fertility clinic’s consent form. On Christmas I was looking at a globe, letting my gaze coast along the grid, and wound up scrutinizing an unfamiliar name: Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra. Two days later came news of the tsunami, waves generated by a seismic eruption, devastating Thailand and other countries.
This is all true. Though it goes unremarked by Boyd, fascination originated as the term for the evil eye.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 28, 2004