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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


68. [Plate 56]
The Great Wheel of the World

Life is like an enormous wheel, forever spinning. Here's how it works. A young man is ambitious and clever and going nowhere. Then one day some dark chthonic force grabs him by the ankles and shoves him to the top of the pop charts. Everyone treats him like a king. There may be no solid ground underfoot, but it certainly doesn't feel that way! It feels like he's destined to live forever.

That's what happened to Richard. He'd fallen in love with theater - with Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling and Beckett's Endgame - and decided that was where his future lay. Or perhaps, since he could sing as well, in Oklahoma or Thoroughly Modern Millie. He didn't care. Theater was theater and that was that. Then, overnight, he became a celebrity. He was famous.

For what? It hardly mattered. He didn't even know himself. He was too dazzled by his good fortune to ask. Suddenly he was too big for Hollywood Squares. Barbara Walters interviewed him. His agent told Saturday Night Live to go fuck themselves. Richard was as hot as hot. Nothing was forbidden him.

Twin fourteen-year-old hookers? For anyone else, it would be sick. For you, sir, only your due. Heroin? As much as you want. Don't forget to have your blood changed every six months. You want to get drunk and wander into the lobby and piddle on the carpet? We'll keep it out of the papers.

For a brief, blurred season, everything was bright lights, money, and momentum. But then that same momentum plunged Richard downward with sickening speed. He walked off the set midway through Jay Leno. His accountant disappeared the same day he fired his agent, and he was deluged with bills for things he had no memory of buying. Nobody would return his calls. His movie deal collapsed. The public forgot him. His dealer downgraded him to a cheaper line of skag.

Richard hit bottom fast. When the camera crew found him, only two years later, he was living in a trailer camp and eating dog food out of the can. He burst into tears at the thought of being seen like this. But so burnt out, hopeless, and desperate for money was he, that for a pittance Richard let them film his squalor and despair for a documentary on washed-up has-beens.

Which, ironically enough, was how he became famous again.


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This is the 68th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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