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.