Count from Zero to One Hundred
Penned in the Margins, Paperback
205 pages, 978-1-908058-08-9, £9.99
‘I was in Ireland and all I can remember thinking about was… I was in London and all I can remember thinking about was… I was in Berlin and all I was thinking about was… I was in a woman’s bed and all I was thinking about was what I wanted.’ What the narrator wanted, we are told, was ‘to cease to exist, to shout, to curse, to rage, to stop doing what I was doing and run out on to the streets and bang my head against the windows of cars, to scream, cry, to do many, many other ridiculous and necessary things. / She had looked at me.’
It’s a cliché to call anything the “last taboo”, but disability and sexuality is still, to a certain extent, unspeakable. Easy enough, perhaps, to discuss in abstract terms, but fraught with difficulty on a personal level, between disabled people and their loved ones. This deeply moving book initiates such a conversation, but in a manner shot through with paradox. The encounter between reader and text implies identification. I also found it impossible to read this text without those close to me who suffer from disability in mind. However, the text invites the first kind of identification whilst the narrator, sometimes with ambivalence, challenges the idea that there can be identification of the second kind. He continually questions whether friends, even lovers, can claim an “understanding” of his experiences which is anything other than highly artificial. The book, which probes such intimate depths, is thus a challenging read for anyone who has any indirect experience of disability – and is there anyone left who does not?
And yet, this is a conversation, not a sermon. As Cunningham states in the introduction, this book is a ‘shout out of pride, [a] dismissal of the limits that have been set, without distinction, by nature upon us all’. Sometimes he offers himself to strangers, expresses a desire to display his vulnerability. There is a lovely, quiet moment when the narrator sees a transgender woman coming out of a cafe. In response to her ‘momentarily nervous’ slide from his eyes, he wants to look with affection, ‘to look into those eyes and offer some comfort – trust me – but looking is always a dangerous thing, another is always looked at, another always looks, or does not, back.’ This moment, which mirrors the opening, demonstrates the shadowy borders between affection and condescension, or between curiosity and aggression. Ultimately, the core issue of the book is communication between persons, and communication is sometimes beyond our power.
Sometimes, the narrator is very gentle. At other times, he is very, very angry (‘“Fuck off.” / My first reply to the question, the always asked question: / “What happened…?”’). ‘Fucking’, which partakes of both moods, pervades the book. And it is only, ever, described as fucking, no matter how often or how incongruously it means that the word has to crop up. It might crop up in the middle of true ‘warmth’, something sometimes sought, sometimes unexpectedly found. It sometimes grates; sometimes I almost flinched reading it. It’s such a defensive word, a word full of anger and denial and distance, of fear of hurting or being hurt, but then, so is the narrator. The body and the self are combined in ways confusing, deceitful, and marvellous. In one particularly powerful image, ‘She writes words on my body, words worthy of ridicule, “protection”, “warmth”, “strength”, and I think she is mad, she is trying to write me, she is writing me as she sees me, I am not warm, I cannot protect, I am not strong.’
In form, Count from Zero to One Hundred most resembles David Markson’s This is not a novel, but I found it more effective, less mannered. I’ve thought hard about the book’s possible limitations, and it perhaps could have learned from Markson, for, despite being marketed as ‘a novella by Alan Cunningham’, this is not a novella. It is closer to a series of prose poems than to anything else, and I found that the magic broke somewhat when my gaze did. I read it in two sittings, but it would benefit from being read in one. Although short, the text is concertinaed with far more signification and variety than can possibly be evoked here.
Despite the compelling negativity which pervades much of the text, there are moments of humour. The ending is one such, a small surprise, and I laughed – a cheap laugh, but one expressive of hope. At one point, he says that ‘There is no redemption.’ The places we usually look for redemption – in writing, in love – are shown to be both fuller and emptier than expected. Redemptive or not – and whether or not redemption has any meaning – this is a raw and beautiful text which, in Cunningham’s words, delights in language: ‘beautiful, but it is only beauty, beauty nonetheless.’