Life in Code
Kung Fu High School
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Ultraluminous

9780374716646 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2017
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Katherinefaw donmorris

Katherine Faw

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Girlfriend. Prostitute. Addict. Terrorist? Who is K?

The daring new novel from Katherine Faw, the brilliant author of Young God, is a scintillating story of money, sex, and power told in Faw’s viciously sharp prose. A high-end, girlfriend-experience prostitute has just returned to her native New York City after more than a decade abroad—in Dubai, with a man she recalls only as the Sheikh—but it’s unclear why exactly she’s come back. Did things go bad for her? Does she have scores to settle?

Regardless, she has quickly made herself at home. She’s set up a rotation of clients—all of them in finance—each of whom has different delusions of how he is important to her. And she’s also met a man whom she doesn’t charge—a damaged former Army Ranger, back from Afghanistan.

Her days are strangely orderly: A repetition of dinners, personal grooming, museum exhibitions, sex, Duane Reades (she likes the sushi), cosmology, sex, gallery shows, nightclubs, heroin, sex, and art films (which she finds soothing). She finds the pattern confirming, but does she really believe it’s sustainable? Or do the barely discernible rifts in her routine suggest that something else is percolating under the surface? Could she have fallen for one of her bankers? Or do those supposed rifts suggest a pattern within the pattern, a larger scheme she’s not showing us, a truth that won’t be revealed until we can see everything?

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An excerpt from Ultraluminous

1

I met a man, when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He was trying to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.


I am cold and naked except for a G-string and money rubber-banded around my ankle. We are in a private room and already I took off my shoes. I put my hands on the soft wall to frame either side of his face. I bite my lip and then I look at him. I am back in New York so I can ask right away.

“What do you do?” I say.



2

On Broadway and Twenty-Eighth I stand in the middle of a bike lane. I look at a bike coming at me. A woman rings her bell furiously. She has a basket on her bike. She’s wearing a helmet.

“Get out of the bike lane,” she screams.

I don’t.

“Get out of the bike lane.”

The bell rings louder and louder and her eyes, nose, and lips pucker more and more toward the center of her face.

“Are you fucking deaf?” she says.

She swerves. New York is different.


On the menu are all the stomachs of the cow, first through fourth.

This guy orders the calf’s brain special.

“Excellent,” the waiter says.

“Are you a zombie?” I say to the guy.

The guy laughs.

“Are you a peasant?”

“What?” the guy says.

“Are you afraid you might die from lack of protein?”

“It’s a delicacy.”

“That’s what you want me to think.”

I hand the waiter the menu.

“I’ll have the tongue sampler,” I say.

After the waiter is gone the guy scowls at me.

“I should burn your hand.”

Set into the table between us is an electric grill.

“God, I was just joking,” I say.


I get off the L train and go into a bodega. The floor looks new. I examine it.

“So this is Brooklyn?”

“Yeah,” the bodega guy says.

“You don’t have to put down cardboard when it rains?”

“We have rugs,” he says.


They stunned me at first, the towers on the Williamsburg waterfront. They’re a growth of glass with crooked-looking balconies. This guy’s in one of them. On his balcony he has long-haired AstroTurf.

“It’s the closest you can get to real grass. It took me six months to find it.”

“Do you worry this balcony will fall off?”

“No,” he says.

I sit on the railing and lean back into Manhattan. The guy grabs a lawn chair like he’s catching me.

“Let’s go inside,” he says.

His kitchen is shiny chrome. He has a quartz island. This apartment looks like a show apartment. It’s like he doesn’t live here at all except for his coke. He puts his computer in front of me.

“Just hit the space bar to flip through.”

“Is that you?”

“Yeah. That’s in Cuba. Before everybody could go there. That beard is real hair,” he says.

He’s also wearing the Castro cap. In the photo he’s fucking a Cuban girl from behind on a motel bed.

“You’re a photographer?” I say.

 “They’re stills from video. I’m an artist.”

He’s a banker. I bend over to do a line. His lines are short and thin.

“Political art is the worst,” I say.

His laugh is short, too.


I wander into this bar in the morning.

“Surprise me,” I say to the bartender.

On the bar he puts a plastic cup inset with a plastic shot glass. He pours cherry vodka in the center. He cracks a Red Bull and dumps it over the top.

“Cherry Bomb.”

“Gross,” I say.

It tastes like Robitussin. The others are watching me. I’m the only one in here who isn’t the color gray. I light a cigarette and look at the bartender.

“Am I breaking the law?”

“This is a cop bar,” the bartender says.

I slide my pack to him. He lights one for himself.


Every girl at the gym has a tattoo but very few have fake boobs. The girl beside me has a big circle on her back. In the middle it says TODAY. It looks drawn by a child or mental patient. I wait until we both turn off our hair dryers.

“When you die everybody will know it’s you.”

“What?” she says.

I look at her back. In the locker room mirror she looks at us.

“That’s good,” she says.


I collect my empty heroin bags. They are stamped, which is a thing I have missed. The stamp on this brick is lv. As in Louis Vuitton but without the checker pattern, just floating. There is a right way to do heroin and that is with a structure. I’m not supposed to be saving anything

____


I left in Dubai a closet of beautiful dresses. They were every color and fabric. It gave me a shot of pleasure to open the door and see the seductive pattern they made out of chaos.


On Sixth Avenue I stop on the street to look at a dusty Polish fashion magazine from the 1990s. It is priced at two million zlotys.

“Just two million?” I say.

The man selling it looks up from under his hood and I see that his nose is grotesque in every way. It’s long, twisted, bulbous, and pitted. I suddenly feel like I’m not in America, where no one has a nose like this. I wait for what he’s going to say like he has a message for me.

“Five dollars,” he says.

“Here we have checks on hyperinflation,” I say.

“For you four dollars,” he says.


This guy wants to buy me something. We go to Barneys. I am disconcerted that no one offers me coffee and dates. Behind a rack of see-through shirts he sticks his hand up my skirt.

“Shopping makes you wet,” he says.

“I’m always wet,” I say.

I try on a pair of red velvet and also gilded Mary Jane stiletto pumps that look like teacups. I turn a little circle in front of the foot mirror.

“Now I can’t run away from you.”

“Exactly,” he says.

In the brushed metal of the elevator I am much taller than him now.

“Kata?”

I forget this is my name.

“Yes, baby,” I say.

___


I’m back in Brooklyn. I can look up and see the art guy’s apartment but I’m not with him. Under a pink tent with a top that appears blood-splattered, a girl is selling anarchy-branded jam.

“Are you an anarchist?”

The girl looks at me from behind a table.

“I just work here,” she says.

“Are the people who make this anarchists?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Like sometimes they piss in the jars?”

“Definitely not.”

She laughs.

“Anarchists wouldn’t do that,” she says.

I pick a spicy orange marmalade.

“How much, then?”

The tents are pitched on a slab of concrete that’s roped in. They all have aesthetic logos. The fumes from their gas stoves are nauseating. Everything looks clever and smells flammable. This guy is crouched at the end of a crowded picnic table. He has a fried fish sandwich dripping with coleslaw. He has what appears to be beer but is cold coffee.

“Tell me about yourself,” he says.

“No,” I say.

“You look Russian.”

In Dubai that statement was a question: “Can I buy you?” I swallow a spoonful of jelly.

“I’m not Russian.”

“You want some bread?”

He’s old enough. He was a junk-bond trader in the 1980s. I really look at him for a second, as much as I can because we’re both wearing sunglasses.

“Remember when eating was just a thing you did, not a thing?”

He shrugs. I stab the spoon in my jelly.

“Shit was eight dollars,” I say.

___


I danced for one week in three freezing strip clubs. My one requirement to make a date was that he have a good job in finance. When a man grabbed the back of my arm I had to turn around and smile. It didn’t matter who smiled back. I move out of a hotel and into an apartment.



3

“I want to crawl on my hands and knees until I get to your feet and then I want to look up and ask you to please fuck me,” I text to CBG.

The doorman at this club later is a midget. I look at the calf’s brain guy in a weary way.

“What? This place is supposed to be hot,” the calf ’s brain guy says.

I don’t snicker with the doorman.


I gallery-hop with the art guy. We don’t see any stills of artists dressed like dictators from faux-porn videos.

“All this shit sucks,” I say.

“No, it doesn’t,” he says.

He seems agitated. In the biggest and whitest gallery in Chelsea we stare at ourselves in a gray mirror. Like any mirror, it rationally reflects what steps in front of it. I step to the side.

“I like this,” I say.

I point.

“The blank wall?” the art guy says.

“It’s the best thing we’ve seen all day.”

__


The cop bar is locked. But I knock on the door and they buzz me in.

“Cherry Bomb,” I say.

The bartender throws the empty Red Bull at the trash and misses it.

“That shit’ll kill you.”

I look at this guy two stools down. He’s young, too. He’s wearing a

bad suit.

“That would make it easier,” I say.

He nods at his beer.


“What’s the most fucked-up thing you’ve ever seen?” I say.

Now I’m sitting on the stool next to him.

“At this club in Bogotá I bought some coke off this girl. It turned out she was a prostitute. Anyway, later I was following her, like down all these alleys, and out of nowhere the Colombian cops run up on us. They’re yelling. They got guns. I got an eightball in my sock, you know, my whole fucking face is numb. So this chick pulls out a knife, slashes both her arms, and starts flinging her blood at the cops. She’s screaming, ‘AIDS, AIDS, AIDS,’ and me and the cops are like, ‘Holy fucking shit.’ And then she said run and I did and they didn’t follow us,” he says.

I drink my Cherry Bomb.

“That’s fucked-up,” I say.

I feel a familiar happiness. I wait for it to go away.


There is a planet where it rains blue glass in 4,350-mile-per-hour winds. It rotates around a star that is not our sun. The Sheikh told me that, one afternoon when we were naked, and I remember closing my eyes and trying to see it and laughing.


I give my hands to a girl who is supposed to be special, a pro in from Kyoto for two weeks only. 

“I want my nails to look like galaxies,” I say.


These new Duane Reades confuse me. They have their own granola mixes. They’re wide-aisled and well lit. I wander through one aimlessly. I squat down in front of the moisturizers. On the bottom shelf are zero off-brand tubs of cocoa butter covered in dust. Near the registers is a refrigerated display of sushi rolls. I am incredulous. I buy the spicy tuna.


The brick is stamped RPG. I stare at the delivery guy.

“RPG?”

“Shit’s fire,” he says.

I shut the door in his face.


At Opening Ceremony I try on a tank top and leggings with a matching print like a pajama set. The design is wolves’ heads endlessly. The guy who buys me things shakes his head.

“I don’t like that. It’s tacky,” he says.

“I want this,” I say.

“Awesome,” the salesgirl says.


The junk-bond guy takes me to the movies. We sit in the back row. As soon as the lights go down I give him a hand job. He tips his head into the black wall and grins. At the last second I put my head down and catch his come.


I watch a Romanian movie where nothing happens for probably two hours. Then the guy starts shooting people with a rifle.



4

A man shakes up a bottle of champagne and fizzes it over a girl’s tilted-up face. The calf’s brain guy and I are sitting on top of a couch.

“Everywhere you take me is so douchey,” I say.

This club is thudding. It looks like a bunker.

“What?” he says.

I yell in his ear.

“Douchey.”


This club has a stage show. On stage a naked guy is pulling condoms out of his ass and throwing them at the audience.

“Shit’s crazy,” the art guy says.

I roll my eyes. We’re sitting at assigned tables. Our coat-check tickets are in my purse.

“Everyone’s so professional like you,” I say.

I turn around to see the naked guy behind me, just as he’s dropping one of his condoms down the back of my dress. I jump like it’s a live animal.

“Fuck,” I say.

The art guy is laughing hard.

____


“I did four tours in Afghanistan.”

I turn around on my stool until our knees knock.

“That makes sense,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because of your face.”

“My face?”

The guy in the cop bar scratches his cheek. I wave at the bartender.

“Another Cherry Bomb.”


I don’t charge the ex–Army Ranger in the ladies’ bathroom of the cop bar. He sits on the closed toilet seat and I bounce up and down on his cock. He laughs. He buries his face in me.


Alone at home I snort an RPG bag and then I lick it. I have this water stain on my ceiling. It’s curling and brown. I sit on my couch and in my mind I rip it out. I replaster and repaint, again and again. It never stays fixed. Sometimes it expands. I did notice it before I rented the apartment.


Near my apartment is a place that is just juice. It’s all refrigerators.

There are bottles in every color. They make a muted rainbow.

“Which one’s the thickest?”

“The thickest?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“I mean, the coconut milk’s really filling,” the cashier says.

I open the refrigerator and pull out three white bottles to coat my

throat because heroin drip is disgusting. He smiles at me.

“Are you doing a cleanse?”

“Yes,” I say.


I get my pussy waxed by a Brazilian lady all in white. She can tell I’m a whore. It’s the tiniest smirk.

“Cute piercing,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say.


The dancer with the bigger tits has a little rip in her fishnets. It’s an irritating flaw. I see it in the space between every strobe. She’s not topless but she must be getting paid enough to keep her stockings new. Fog cannons boom. The guy who buys me things pulls rosé from an ice bucket. When confetti drops from the ceiling the girls onstage open black umbrellas.

“That is such bad luck,” I say.

“I don’t believe in bad luck,” he says.

“That’s because you’ve always had good luck.”

“I believe in reason.”

I step down from the chair I’m standing on without explanation.

I go outside to smoke and the sun squints my eyes shut.


All his molars are gold. I ask him to open his mouth wide.

“I thought I was the customer,” the junk-bond guy says.

I run my tongue on them. He runs his finger up my arm.

“What’s this?”

“Probably glitter,” I say.

If I stay alive long enough, even though I do heroin right, a few at a time my teeth will snap off in my dry mouth.

“If mine fell out I’d get gold everywhere but I’ll be dead by then.”

He pulls down my bottom lip with his thumb.

“That’s what everybody thinks,” he says.


Once I was dumb. I would walk into a slippery restaurant on the arm of a slippery man in slippery clothes he had bought for me, and feel what he must have felt, like it was mine, and that was the feeling of victory.


________


I put on an outfit that is head-to-toe leopard-print. Sometimes I wear snakeskin instead. I walk around the block to the Polish diner and sit at a table by myself. I keep looking at the woman behind the register. She’s been there all my life. Her eye shadow is as blue and thick as always. 

The waitress says something in Polish.

I’m not Polish,” I say.

“You look beautiful.”

I look at her. I’ve never seen her before. She must have started sometime in the last decade and I don’t care what she thinks of me. I shove the menu away.

“Pierogi. All cheese,” I say.


5

The stamp’s versace, not floating this time but with the rest of the logo’s design, which is the Medusa’s head.

“This is much more sensible,” I say.

“Can I have my money?” the delivery guy says.

I give it to him. I shut the door in his face.


“Tell me a story,” the Sheikh said.

“In New York the heroin comes in bags with stamps that are pictures or words, like a bomb or boom, like a brand,” I said.

“Like for children,” he said.


The calf’s brain guy is telling me about the famous chef. I’m not paying attention. This restaurant is claustrophobic. There are ten of us at a bar and the famous chef is behind it wearing a spotless suit. There’s no menu. We get what he makes us and that’s it. I feel the woman beside me is listening attentively to everything I say.

“This is like a dinner party you have to pay for,” I say.

“Okay, you can pay for it,” the calf’s brain guy says.

I smirk at him. The famous chef slides white saucers in front of us, each with a single scarlet wafer. Then he steps back and tucks his hands in his vest.

“I snorted a bag of heroin before I came here so I don’t really have an appetite,” I say.

Then I laugh. The famous chef laughs, too. So does the woman beside me. I put the red wafer on my tongue.

“Dehydrated pig’s blood,” the famous chef says.

The calf’s brain guy forces a finger between two of my ribs. I swallow it.

“Metallic,” I say.

A feeling of illness lingers.


The art guy takes me to an exhibit of erotic nudes. I stare at a girl with her hands between her legs. She is skinnier than the rest, sallow and cat-faced, and just sketched, like she could be erased.

“You can tell by the look of contempt on their faces that these women are prostitutes,” I say.

He looks at me.

“I read it on the wall.”

“Mine too,” the art guy says.

“What?”

I slide my fingers inside his cuffs.

“All of my models are prostitutes,” he says.


There’s a knock on the door. The ex-Ranger gets buzzed in.

“Good morning,” I say.

He orders a beer but he says nothing. It’s six a.m. We watch the weather on one of the cop bar’s TVs.

“Who was that guy?”

“Who?” I say.

“The one you were with.”

“Are you stalking me?”

The ex-Ranger drinks his beer. My tongue tastes like all the chemicals of a Cherry Bomb. I will give him the chance not to start this with me.

 “Sometimes he pays my rent.”

I look at him. He doesn’t look at me. He nods.


A kid does a backflip on the overhead poles and almost smacks a woman in the face. I’m on the subway. This makes me feel better.


On my phone I scroll through the pictures of my ass. I text an anatomical one to GBT.


The guy who buys me things tongs a snow crab onto my plate. The grand seafood platter is always three tiers. Not until we pull all the flesh from all the shells will we get to leave.

“I used to want everything and now I don’t want anything,” I say.

He snorts like he doesn’t believe me. I don’t know if I believe me.

“You know how to crack that?” he says.

I summon something deeper than contempt. I pick up the crab by a pincher.

“Can you show me?”

He is instantly pleased.


I ask the counter guy for Russian dressing.

“You’re from New York,” the junk-bond guy says.

“So?” I say.

The pastrami is the same.


Cigarettes are fourteen dollars and it’s hard to get over it.



6

I get a lobster roll from a truck. I sit beside a street kid near the horse statue in Union Square. He looks at me.

“I’m sorry to bother you but could you possibly spare ten dollars?” he says.

“I read in The New York Times a bag of dope’s only six dollars now,” I say.

He looks like he might laugh. I cross my wolf legs Indian-style and bring the lobster up to my mouth.

“Cunt.”

He gets up.


I meet the calf ’s brain guy at a chartreuse bar on the Lower East Side with a bouncer outside. A waitress brings us two cocktails, yellowish and greenish, in dainty glasses.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” she says.

“Is this a money-laundering operation or what?”

The waitress puts her hands up. It is impossible to get drunk.

“How do you clean your money?” the calf’s brain guy says.

“How do you clean yours?” I say.

“I work at Goldman Sachs.”

I laugh.


I never thought of there being anything out here before. I never thought of it at all. It was an outer ring. I catch sight of us in a warehouse window. We’re wearing costumes.

“Someone’s going to stab us,” I say.

“Not anymore,” the art guy says.

At a party there are people suspended from the rafters by hooks in their backs. Their flesh is stretched. I forgot this was even a holiday. The art guy brings a girl into the bathroom with us.

“This is Louisa. She’s in some of my photos. The New York series.”

She’s wearing a sweatshirt that says I’M A FUCKING ZOMBIE.

“No,” I say.

I can do bumps through the nose holes but I push up my mask so the art guy can see my face.

“No doubles,” I say.

“Why not?” he says.


I go into my building and the light’s out in the stairwell between three and four. There’s a guy coming toward me and I think about mugging him.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I say.

I come out later and everything’s blaring again.


I watch the ex-Ranger. I watch him walk into the cop bar and decide to sit down beside me.

“Listen, I can’t pay your rent,” the ex-Ranger says.

“Okay,” I say.

“How many other guys pay your rent?”

  “Four.”

He laughs. I hold my face in my hand, looking at him.

“Right now,” I say.

The bartender comes up and leans on his forearms in front of us.

The ex-Ranger takes his phone out of his pocket. He puts it on the bar.

I feel happy. Like this is what I wanted to happen. I light a cigarette and point it at him.

“Cherry Bomb for me and whatever this alcoholic wants.”


The ex-Ranger lives in Queens, which is truly mystifying. He lives in one room above a store on an avenue. His apartment’s almost as empty as mine. The closet is locked. When he kisses me everything sucks away, as if we are the only things in space. It makes half of me hate him.


Once in the snow, at two or three in the morning, I saw a toddler struggling to stay upright, trailing after his grandmother, who was half a block in front of him. This was in Chinatown in the 1990s.


I snort another VERSACE bag. I think how I will see snow again. If I had a baby I would kill it. I would kill it before it was born because it’s the right thing to do.

At Agent Provocateur a salesgirl laces me into an elaborate corset.

“You can take off the hip panels if you want.”

I look at myself in the mirror. I touch the two half-moons jutting from my waist. They make me seem more like a machine than a girl.

“No, I like them,” I say.

While he’s signing the receipt I stand beside the guy who buys me things but with good whore’s etiquette look the other way.


The junk-bond guy lives in a classic six. We’re in the maid’s room off the kitchen. He uses it as an office. He smokes in here and when my face is close to the couch it smells deliciously like cigarettes.

“You look like a mean doll,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say.

  • “Poetic, grim, and beautifully dark . . . Morris writes with splendid economy, chapters short as contes, and plenty of slashing insights on the rough world of throwaway lives and varieties of wrong.”

    Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone
  • “Katherine Faw Morris delivers a brassknuckled gut-punch.”

    Alex Houston, Newcity Lit
  • “Like a bullet, like a bolt of lightning, like a speeding car, this debut novel goes faster and harder than anything you're likely to read this year.”

    Stacey D’Erasmo, author of The Art of Intimacy
  • “Radical, and at times shocking . . . An altogether remarkable debut.”

    Peter Carty, Financial Times
  • “Sweet Jesus is Young God terrifying and great. Katherine Faw Morris’s style is singular and ferocious and Nikki is one of the toughest, most electrifying, most unforgettable heroines I have ever encountered on the page. This is a furious blaze of a book that will rough you up and reorder your sense of the world and what’s possible in it. It’s a debut for the ages. Read it.”

    Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth
  • “Invoking the dysfunctional families and bleak landscapes of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Allison . . . Young God is boundary-pushing fiction at its best.”

    Julie Hakim Azzam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • “A powerful portrait of humanity in the face of everyday atrocity . . . It’s a quick read but likely to leave even the sturdiest stunned.”

    Eimear McBride, The Guardian
  • “Seductive . . . Reading [Young God] is like having a bottle rocket go off in your hands.”

    Lisa Shea, Elle
  • “Addictive.”

    Jeva Lange, Vice
  • “Badass.”

    Vanity Fair
  • "Faw’s second novel (after Young God) pulses with an irresistible voice and the sense of impending catastrophe . . . Faw’s writing is raw . . . an exceptionally clear and memorable prose style."

    Publishers Weekly
  • "Startling, poignant, raw . . . The success of Faw's seismic story lies in a protagonist who, however improbably her life, is dynamic, true, and ultimately her own savior. Daring and original."

    Katharine Uhrich, Booklist