Book extract: Sway, By Zachary Lazar

Lazar's new novel offers a hallucinogenic glimpse into the dark side of the 1960s
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The Independent Culture

It was eight o'clock in the evening, though it felt to Brian like midnight or afternoon. He had lost Tom Keylock somewhere in thefabric souks a few hours ago and now he was looking through the window of the cab, at the dense wedges of buildings, earth-coloured or eggshell-coloured, which appeared as if they'd been scraped together out of sand. A few electric lights burned like flares along the busier streets, bright orange or neon green. They made the city of Marrakech look more and not less ancient.

In the elevator up to the 10th floor of the hotel, he became aware of someone else's presence looming just behind his shoulder. It was a middle-aged man in a wrinkled suit, a closed umbrella at his side. Brian knew this without having to turn around, just as he knew who the man was without being able to remember his name. He hunched forward with an impatient smile on his face, hands fisted at his sides, not looking. When he closed his eyes, he saw numerals, first chiselled into gray stone, then colourful and stylised, like numerals on a Victorian signboard. Not more than three seconds passed before he was waiting in anticipation of the man's seizing him by the arms.

The elevator's doors opened with a brutal series of lurches. He walked down the hallway, listing slightly in response to the faint undulations in the walls. There were animal shapes moving in the plaster, hooves and hindquarters that seemed to press against the surface from the other side. Faint music was seeping out from the farthest suite down the hall. He matched the key in his hand to the number on the door. All the doors were an identical dark brown.

Next door, there was a crowd in Keith's suite. He and Mick were working on a song, ignoring the others, Keith with one heel resting on the edge of his chair, his guitar's body wedged awkwardly between his thighs. He hit the strings hard, then lightly, then harder, the process a kind of math, or like trying to coax a flame out of a few smoldering sticks. Mick was sitting on a little tapestried stool before him, trying to follow along on his guitar, watching Keith's fretboard. In the room with them were more than a dozen people, some of whose names they didn't even know. They were talking and playing Moroccan music on the radio and someone was setting up a movie projector on a table. He told everyone to turn out the lights. There was a confused grumbling, a cackle of laughter, then the room went dark. Keith and Mick kept playing, their guitars out of sync, a nonsense of rhythm that no one else in the room had any patience even to watch.

''Mortify the spirit in order to more purely inhabit the body,'' a voice said in the darkness. "Enter the nightmare until it loses the veneer of credibility.''

A film started in the projector. On the wall, there was a rectangle of saturated black, almost purple, and then a slow upward pan of words written in gold ink: A Film by Anger. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

Anita was still grinning at something when she looked up to see him. The room was lit by only a few candles and Brian felt the man in the wrinkled suit behind him, mocking him. They were all sitting on the bed – Anita, Marianne, Robert – sifting through a large opened box full of bracelets and rings.

''Brian,'' she said. "You've been gone for so long. We were worried about you.''

There were clothes all over the room. Robert had something on his head that looked like a stocking cap that had melted and blackened into a fine wisp. Beside him, Marianne was wearing a green sari and sunglasses, smoking a cigarette.

''I was in the square,'' he said. "I've just been checking it out. The Jemaa el Fna.''

He had forgotten all the specifics of how Anita looked, forgotten her wide mouth, the comic insistence of her eyes. Everything he said or did now created the exact opposite impression of what he intended. He could see small hooves pressing against the wet plaster of the walls. She took a long, heavy necklace from the box and held it out to him. "Look,'' she said. "I thought this would be perfect.''

''Sacred magical necklace,'' said Robert. "We stole it.'' He pulled the strange cap down over his face. It turned out to be a black nylon stocking. It made his face look angry and Mongoloid. "We stole everything in town.''

She held the necklace out to him, standing up and throwing her scarf back around her neck. It was a strand of mirror chips and colored beads and between them were a dozen or more jagged shapes that turned out to be human teeth.

"We're all very high,'' said Anita. "Are you all right?''

"I'm just very high.''

"Put it on. We want to see you with it on.''

"We need to talk for a while.''

"I can't talk now. You know that I can't talk right now.''

He looked into her eyes and she was smiling at him with the bland approval of a big sister. He saw now that they'd been playing a game in which Anita and Marianne were humiliating Robert with different kinds of jewellry and Robert was pretending to be him. The goats started scraping at the walls with their horns, others were kicking at the walls with their hooves. He wished that Anita would stop acting as though she couldn't read his mind.

In the darkness, Keith could feel the beginnings of a vague shape starting to emerge beneath the surface of what he was playing. He leaned forward in his chair, slowly nodding his head at Mick, adding a little ornament on the D chord, a bright suspended fourth that he played with his pinkie. Projected on the wall behind him was an image of a man in false eyelashes and black lipstick who reclined on a lavish bed. He was surrounded by pictures of dragons and Chinese gods, and on the bed's velvet coverlet was a large opened box full of rings.

Robert Fraser stuck his head into the suite's barely open door, the black nylon stocking on top of his head. Then Marianne came in behind him, taking his arm as she stepped inside. She was still wearing sunglasses, like a blind person. She had the kind of lips that made their own separate expression, reticent lips that curled mischievously upward at the corners. Mick looked over at her, but she was deliberately not looking back. On their way back from the medina that afternoon, he had noticed something that he'd seen happen several times now: for no reason at all, her eyes had started welling up with tears. She'd pretended it wasn't happening, but the effort had made her so distant it was like self-hypnosis. When he asked her if she was all right, she looked at him as if he were being deliberately confusing.

On the wall, the man in the film was twining a long silver necklace around his fingers. Then he dangled it above his face and began to coil it slowly into his mouth.

Keith nodded his head in that absent but emphatic way he had, which made Mick settle down into the music, forgetting himself. It made his face change into a near replica of what Keith's face had been just a moment before. He closed his eyes, his lower lip jutting slightly forward. The sounds they were making had no meaning yet, they were just a set of tones, but part of what was making the song take shape now was the sense that they were doing it in front of Marianne, that she was within earshot but had no idea what he was thinking.

© Zachary Lazar 2008. 'Sway' is published by Cape at £11.99

About the author

Zachary Lazar grew up in Colorado, where he saw his first rock'n'roll show at the age of 12: the Rolling Stones. Having graduated from Brown University with a degree in literature in 1990, he and his future wife moved to London, where he finally found work as a bookshop clerk. He has since worked as a Wall Street temp, a professor of creative writing, a shoe salesman and a gardener. He lives in Southampton, New York. 'Sway' is his second novel