This year’s Mulholland Classic, BEAUTY by Brian D’Amato, was hailed by Dean Koontz as “absolutely irresistible,” proclaimed by Peter Straub a “breathtaking” novel “bristling and humming with intelligence,” and acclaimed in the Chicago Sun-Times as “superb” when first published nearly twenty years ago.
Read on for a sneak peek at the novel’s first chapters–and don’t miss the D’Amato-penned illustrations and reading group guide exclusive to our edition, now back in bookstores everywhere!
An egg floated in the void. It rotated on its vertical axis as the blackness behind it gradated toward a dark ultramarine purple. It moved closer, in microscopic increments. Its surface was absolutely pure, smoother than any real egg and scaleless in its non-space. Rose-colored light fell on it from a source apparently somewhere between the egg and the implied observer, and the light pooled one-third of the way down the surface in a spot that suggested its texture was, perhaps, slightly more glossy than that of a real egg.
Then an irregularity seemed to appear in the lower center of the oval. At first it was so slight, it might have been imaginary: a faint depression, with perhaps a slight bunching-out above and below. The depression and swellings grew, becoming more distinct with agonizing slowness. It was an order of motion that animals or machines never approach, the slowness of plants, or of crystals forming in solutions. Above the irregularity, two more slight indentations, identical round concavities in the pristine surface, manifested themselves with the same intense deliberation. They were symmetrically aligned along the vertical axis. As they worked their way into the surface of the egg, the light highlighted over and under them and shadows began to form, first soft like airbrush marks, then soft only on top and hard-edged on their lower sides.
Suddenly the egg passed over the threshold of abstraction, the invisible barrier that separates a geometric form from the most basic figurative paradigm.
It was a face.
The eyes and mouth became more distinct. The outlines of cheekbones and the hollows under them began to alter the silhouette of the egg itself. A nose began to protrude ever so slightly, and tiny indentations under it developed into near-nostrils. Buds sprouted that would eventually be ears. A peach color began to spread beneath the surface like an Icelandic dawn. Now the eyes had a hairless eyebrow ridge and closed lids not quite separated from the flesh beneath them. The lips were still fused, but they were lips, complete with hollows at the corners and the depression beneath the nose. The wings of the nostrils extruded slightly. The forehead broadened. It was a face, but not a human face. It was a face from some idealized realm beyond death and life, ageless and silent and beautiful. It was still embryonic, and more like mathematics than flesh. But it was becoming an entity.
I typed out halt f9 on the keyboard. There was no perceptible change, but somehow you could tell the growth had stopped. And I’d stopped it before it had left the land of the undead for the land of the (at least in appearance) living.
I punched in a few coordinates and moved the mouse-cursor over the face, up to the command line at the top of the screen. I clicked it on wire frame, and instantly a small screen appeared on the lower left of the image, blocking out part of the face but showing it again, schematically, with triangular facets etched in orange lines against dark blue. I moved the cursor down to the region of the eyes and began to program.
After eighteen minutes, I clicked off the wire-frame screen and typed resume image generate on the command line. The egg disintegrated itself, then reappeared a few seconds later, slightly closer. Very, very slowly, the eyelids began to rise. A mirrorlike surface appeared under them, a strange, cold, wet-looking lavender substance. Then the circle of the iris came into view, emerald green against the lavender, with magenta and golden facets shifting under the green like the spicules in Mexican fire opals. And then, as the lids passed the halfway point, the pupils should have come into view. But there were no pupils. The eyes were fully open and the face looked straight at me with the blind, soulless, malevolent blank stare of a demon.
I looked back for what seemed like a long time. I heard a scratching sound at my left wrist and recoiled from the desk, hitting my head against the wall. A coil of paper was extruding itself from my fax machine. I peeled it off and read it:
have you turned your ringer off?
don’t forget, penny penn appointment 2:00
I’ll be there in 45 mins. david.
I allowed myself to look back at the screen for a few minutes. I rotated the head through 360 degrees, thinking about the profile and the three-quarter views. The Face was becoming a thing of awesome beauty, I thought, unless I was just flattering myself. I didn’t think I was, though. I wondered whether I’d ever really get the chance to implement it. I typed save and shut down the computer and got up. My back cracked a bit. I’d been sitting down for quite a while.
Somewhere in the microscopic binary code of sixty-four megabytes of memory, the demon slept with open eyes. The ghost in my machine.
“Laugh lines. I cried when I got laugh lines. That sounds so stupid, too. What a stupid name for a terrible, terrible thing. I just can’t deal with it. I also have three horizontal lines in my forehead, and there’s one more starting up near my hairline. And I’m getting crow’s-feet. That’s an ugly name. What a stupid name for eye wrinkles. And there’s four really, really really big huge acne scars. One’s right here, right to the left of my nose, a quarter inch away. And there’s one right above the center of my upper lip, on the—on the septum. It’s called a septum, right? And the other two—they’re right here, on this cheek—you should know that these two have had some collagen shots already. The pores on my nose and to the sides of my nose are too big. They’re really unattractive. But my facialists say there’s not much they can do about them besides keep steaming them and then putting on the astringent. Well…besides the big problem, there’s a whole bunch of little things…but anyway the biggest problem with me, as you can see, is eye bags. Eye bags. They upset me a lot. I was kind of overweight for a while. Maybe I got them from that. I drank a lot of milk shakes in college. You went to that school, too, didn’t you?”
Like many of the people I know who went to Yale, Penny Penn said “that school” instead of “Yale” when she was talking to other Yalies. “Yale” is hard to say because it’s so pretentious and monosyllabic. It’s like saying “fuck.”
“I was in your class,” I said. “You used to hang out with Hilary Pearl and Andrew Moskowitz.”
“Sure. That’s great! Do you see them at all?”
“Hilary just bought a theater on Essex Street a few blocks from here. And Andrew’s working for Richard Foreman, you know, the sort of avant-garde director—”
“Sure, yes,” she said. “Well, I should give them a call sometime. I suppose—maybe I haven’t been a really good friend to them. But the thing is, with films, you know, you just get bound up in a really specific kind of social thing, you know, it’s really stupid….I really liked being at school, thinking about real thinking stuff….I mean, imagine getting to study with Jacques Derrida, he really is one of the most brilliant people of the century, I think….Is the camera still running?”
“Listen, can we erase that last part, so we don’t have the thing about Hilary and Andrew?”
“Nobody’s going to see these tapes. They’re just for legal protection. But I’m sorry, if they have traces of erasing, they’ll be worthless. You know that. We discussed this.”
She looked at me suspiciously for a split second. She had a cold streak in her, and it surfaced at me. I hadn’t seen Penny Penn offscreen since school, where it seemed she didn’t remember me from, and I was a little unprepared for the hard-nosed-businesswoman act she was pulling on me. But people who see me in these situations are always tense. They’re in a vulnerable position. I should remember how empowered I am at these times. It was a switch since she was the school movie star girl, slinking around with her boyfriend Theodoro, whom I couldn’t stand, and her old bodyguard with the walkie-talkie, and I was just the earnest art student.
Actually, I second-thought, not as much of a switch as I’d like. She was still incredibly famous, and I was just a medium-hot New York artist, not any fame at all, really. Only insiders know who artists are, unless you’re Andy Warhol. Well, maybe I was on my way to the Warhol level with my new direction. He “did celebrities,” too. He didn’t have to keep it a secret, though.
“Well, okay, then let’s be professional,” she said. I had to watch it. I was in something of a position of power, but she could still probably have me crucified if I screwed up.
“Eye bags,” she went on. “Dr. Weil said I wasn’t a good subject for a tuck because of my delicate skin. He said my eyes would look tight and the scars could show. And tucks just don’t last. I mean, I know Cher and she really looks strange up close. And Joan Rivers looks really strange. Anyway, they use a kind of greenish foundation there for filming, and that pretty much gets rid of them, but I’m no good in person or even on TV sometimes with these things. And Virginia suggested I come and see you.”
I had done terrific work on Virginia Feiden.
“Well,” I said—I felt like a doctor—“all this seems really minor to me. You look great. And your career hasn’t really been based on conventional beauty anyway. I think people respect you as an actress partly because you look different and halfway real. And a lot of this is stuff you could handle, with dermabrasions and ordinary plastic surgery.”
“The hell with looking real. The hell with plastic surgery. It’s not just little imperfections. I’m not talking about looking in a mirror, I’m talking about watching myself in the dailies and I just don’t have what I used to have. I look puffy. My face used to have a really specific memorable quality about it, and it’s just lost it. I was bigger when I was fifteen than I am now, and it’s entirely because of the face thing. I mean, it’s actually harder if you’ve been like, a child star, everyone in the industry’s afraid that no one wants to watch you grow up. Seriously, I can’t do ingenue roles anymore as it is. And there’s plenty of time to be some old grande dame of the screen anyway. And my career is always on the edge anyway because I look real. It’s really, really difficult. Okay? It takes constant work. And anyway, I’m just not thrilled about getting old. All right?”
She really wanted it badly. For the same reason everybody else did. She was simply afraid of getting old. She was twenty-nine, like I was, and she looked older than I did.
“All right, I know,” I said. “Women just age much faster than men, and their faces age much faster than the rest of them, and it’s not fair.”
“You’re damn straight it’s not.”
I snickered inside. A bond had been established. She knew I understood her problems, and she was going to trust me. This was my biggest commission so far. I was excited.
“All right. Let’s take some pictures, I’ll do a set of drawings, and we’ll start in a week. You can look at the drawings on, uh, maybe Wednesday the thirteenth, and we can start next Monday at two. Okay?”
She did the number with her electric date book and said it would be okay.
“Now…you know to be prepared for a twelve-hour session, if necessary. And a few days of resting around, not touching anything, and then maybe another session. So I suggest you get a hotel room, anonymously. Somewhere everybody minds his own business, like the Mark. Not an apartment you could be traced to. Try not to schedule any business except phone calls for all of next week, just in case. And I’ll want the waiver forms signed then, and we’ll make another videotape.”
“Can I have a copy of the waiver thing to show my brother?”
Her brother was her manager.
“I can’t do that. It’s just bad policy. And really, the less your manager or anyone hears, the better it is for everybody. I know that sounds really corny, but that’s the way it is.” Take it or leave it, I thought.
She said okay.
We went through the photo session. I tried to do it the way Timothy would do it. She was a professional, and we were only interested in the head, but it was still a little embarrassing. Photography is a very intimate thing. Nothing remotely like what was going to follow, though.
At about ten, I figured not enough was enough. I switched off the lights and the video camera—I’d run through two cassettes just filming the shoot—and stacked my giant pile of film holders on the kitchen counter. I still photograph with an old Speed Graphic four-by-five, and so I have to switch film holders like a madman. It’s a dinosaur of a camera, but it knows what I need and does it. Penny was sort of draping on her coat—a comfy-looking duffel coat—and she got an envelope out of her big floppy bag and handed it to me with a certain amount of reluctance. I walked her downstairs and let her out the door onto Rivington Street. She said, “Bye, Jamie,” stepped over some Lower East Side garbage, and let herself into the back door of an ordinary Mercedes. It whisked her away. An unassuming woman of the people. I couldn’t resist tearing open the envelope and looking at the check. “Penny Penn, Box 131, Encino, CA. To: James Angelo. Three hundred and fifty thousand and no/100s———dollars.”
I’d shot about sixty four-by-fives. I walked over to U.S. Color on Beecker and Lafayette and dropped off the boxes, marked normal/rush. I walked home, cleaned up the photo-mess, answered some calls, and walked back—walking’s a big part of the down-town lifestyle—and spread the just developed four-by-five transparencies out on one of the light boxes there.
I picked out the ten best shots and laid them out on one side, put the others back in one of the boxes, taped the box shut, and marked it flush. The little place was crowded, even at eleven-thirty at night. Mainly magazine people and one or two grade-B models and fashion and product photographers and their delivery persons who had to get their shots of Naomi Campbell in Agnès B. or Bart Simpson Tofu Bran Cereal or whatever back in time for a morning meeting. Sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done in these photo places. I’m trying to cut something neatly, to do a quick paste-up or something, and these models come in with their books and pick up topless shots of themselves and wave them around, just in case the art directors from Vogue walk in. It’s really distracting. I didn’t recognize anyone, except for a cute Japanese-looking model/girl with a strange haircut—some club kid from the neighborhood—so I was a little careless.
“Hey, is that Penny Penn?”
Some goon was leaning over my light box.
“I wish,” I said instantly. “She’s just a look-alike.”
He didn’t believe me.
“No, seriously, I’m a professional….I’ve worked with Paulina and shot a lot for Elle and Interview—what’s the project with Penny? It’s an endorsement, right?”
Jesus, I should be more careful, I thought. But I was too excited to wait. I just smiled nicely, scooped up my transparencies, and went over to the counter. At least the place is run by Pakistanis who, I thought hopefully, might not recognize her. Sri Devi, yes, but not Penny Penn.
“Yes, please?” said the Counter Kid, who knew me.
Just to show off to the girl and frustrate the goon’s curiosity—he was still hanging around—I hit the kid with a little Urdu. “Mu je paanch sixteen-by-twenty Cibachromes chai hyee, of each. Samje?”
“Haa,” said the kid. He wrote out my name and account number on the blue slip. I checked it and nodded. “Four o’clock tomorrow?”
“Accha, shukriyaa,” I said, overdoing it.
I left. Maybe I should have skipped the Urdu thing, but I just didn’t want the goon to know I was ordering over a thousand dollars’ worth of Cibachromes. Why would anyone need ten identical blowups of each of ten shots?
Penny was human-looking in real life, but in two dimensions she was stunning. Even though I’d photographed her to accentuate her flaws, even using fluorescent light a few times—something all actresses fear like death itself—she still came out looking great, a little pockmarked and baggy but still sexy and just herself, with that weird, wistful, incredibly famous strange look in her eyes that millions and millions of people were absolutely gaga for. I should get into photography, I thought. I could be a Robert Mapplethorpe for the nineties, especially now that he’s dead.
Still, I was more excited about my own medium. It’s less of a pure medium, but it’s very cutting edge. Science is very hot in art right now. I put one of each chrome aside in an envelope and closed it, suppressing an urge to mark it before.
I wasn’t going to use the computer on this job. I wasn’t quite comfortable with it yet. I wanted to do this one the painstaking, old-fashioned way. I spread the remaining shots out on a clean sheet of white homosote on the floor of the studio, dug my gas mask out of its three layers of plastic bags, and put it on. I switched on all the air vents, sprayed invisible adhesive over the photos, and rolled a big roll of prepared acetate over them. I pushed the air bubbles out from under the acetate and sliced the sheets apart with a razor knife. Then I spray-mounted the double sheets to thick sheets of foam-core, cut those apart, and stacked them on the drafting board. I rolled over my painting cart—which was stocked with small jars of Golden Brand Acrylics—sat down, and spooned some titanium white, ivory black, burnt sienna, and gel medium onto a Chinette paper plate. I mushed the paint around a bit with a nylon brush and started playing around, rather freely, on the first photograph, a left-side profile. This was like a dry run for next Monday. This was what Penny Penn was going to look like.
There was a mole on the side of her forehead, above her eye. I whisked it away with a flick of the brush. I feathered a little tone into her cheek and added some cadmium red light into the mix. I’m so good, you couldn’t see where the photograph ended and the painting began. That’s what’s so great about Cibachromes, too—they have a nice even painterly surface with no dots, almost like an Ingres painting. After whisking away a few more imperfections on the cheek, I went right to work on the eye bag, lateral view.
This required a bit more skill because the bulge had to be cut into a bit and the nose had to be redrawn slightly behind it. But it wasn’t hard. I put the shot aside in less than an hour, and she already looked a hundred times better and ten years younger.
But what if we allowed just a little more poetic license? I picked up an identical view, whisked out a few bumps and bags like before, and just tucked in her very slight double chin a bit. She hadn’t mentioned the chin thing, but it wasn’t fabulous. It was something an ordinary plastic surgeon could deal with, but with Mark’s help I could probably handle it, too. I should get more into structural: The Architecture of the Face, I thought. What I’d mainly been concerned with up to now was surface. Surface and Gloss. Still, those are the things that really matter.
You can do a lot with contouring. What if she had just a little more of a depression under her cheekbones, maybe to make them just a little bit higher—not enough to turn her into Katharine Hepburn, not enough to diffuse her essential Penny-Penn-ness, but just a bit, to bring her into the “sophisticated” class…not that she wasn’t already…but just a hint of those waspy aristocratic wing-tips…and she looked really different. But not bad. And not like someone else. Audiences around the world would be captivated by a new Penny Penn, a mature yet perfect Penny Penn, a Penny Penn mellowed by suffering and compassion, yet more alluring than ever.…
I figured the fumes from the spray glue had dissipated, so I took off my mask and wrapped it up to protect the filters. I picked up a full-frontal shot. Now here I could do much better. On frontal, eye bags were the least of her problems. We’d lengthen the eyes a bit, for one thing, and clean up a few problems under the lower lip. Tuck in the cheeks, definitely. It wouldn’t be too bad to recover the whole nose, either, and launch those pores she hated once and for all. But I wasn’t sure where to stop. Should I recover the whole face? Some of the things I wanted to do were things you could approximate with makeup and lighting. And most of her skin was in pretty good condition. It would be a shame to take too much of it off. And she was young. We still weren’t completely sure how long the work would hold up. You shouldn’t go crazy over this job, I told myself. Don’t get perfectionistic. The most important thing in art is the ability to compromise and make excuses. Still, it would be a coup to redesign a real icon. And she’d be really perfect, not just a freakish combination of nature, makeup, lighting, and good camera angles. She’d be an Über-wench. An elf. An icon. I went to sleep thinking, she’s such an icon, icon, icon…