GIF as effigy / molten centre: the fiction of Shane Jesse Christmass

 

©️James Knight


Meg. Is that you, Petey?

Pause.

Petey, is that you?

Pause.

Petey?

Petey. What?

Meg. Is that you?

Petey. Yes, it’s me.

Meg. What? Are you back?

Petey. Yes.

Meg. I’ve got your cornflakes ready. Here’s your cornflakes. Are they nice?

Petey. Very nice.

Meg. I thought they’d be nice. You got your paper?

Petey. Yes.

Meg. Is it good?

Petey. Not bad.

Meg. What does it say?

Petey. Nothing much.

Meg. You read me out some nice bits yesterday.

Petey. Yes, well, I haven’t finished this one yet.

Meg. Will you tell me when you come to something good?

Petey. Yes.

Pause.

Meg. Have you been working hard this morning?

Petey. No. I just stacked up a few of the old chairs. Cleaned up a bit.

Meg. Is it nice out?

Petey. Very nice.

(From Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party)

Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer believe… that this hand is too slow for his thought or passion… For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin – or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.

(From Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author)

As children, we have all played that game in which a word is repeated and repeated until it sounds alien, mysterious. Its sound shocks us with its new unfamiliarity; how did we come to use the word for so long, without stopping to think about its oddness? The word “dog” is no longer English; its guttural flatness belongs to some forgotten tongue, in which words exercise savage, earthy magic. Not only does the sound “dog” no longer belong to us, its meaning has slipped away, so that the signifier won’t align with its erstwhile signified, pointing instead with stubby finger somewhere wild and unknown. “Dog” might mean a diseased tree, a fall, a curse.

The fiction of Australian writer Shane Jesse Christmass does something similar with language. Christmass’s writing is circular, repetitive, driven by linguistic units (celebrities’ full names, phrases, and clauses) that recur in different combinations, sometimes together and sometimes in combination with new linguistic units that are then repeated, recombined and played out across the narrative. Main verbs are frequently absent; the result is a nightmarish accumulation of tableaux. Take this example from early on in Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze:

The door opens. Take that. Pincers. GIF living in an upstairs place containing a soft drink dispenser, a coffee table, a double bed in the corner, a refrigerator filled with foodstuffs and amphetamines. GIF as wax effigy/molten centre. Burton blots out the elemental residue caused by GIF melting.

Much later, towards the end of the novel:

GIF cleaned smoothly, systematically. GIF living in an upstairs place containing a soft drink dispenser, a coffee table, a double bed in the corner, a refrigerator filled with foodstuffs and amphetamines. GIF as wax effigy/molten centre. Burton blots out the elemental residue caused by GIF melting.

The GIF is a frequently recurring motif in Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze, and it serves as an important symbol of Christmass’s style. Like GIFs, Christmass’s linguistic units are set in loops, reiterating maddeningly, threatening our reason and our dependency on linear development and progress. “GIF as wax effigy/molten centre” is a reformulation of Breton’s “explosante-fixe”: surrealist image as paradoxically volatile, static icon. We cannot look at an inactive volcano without visualising its violent eruption. Like his other novels Belfie Hell and Yeezus in Furs, Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze is at once oppressively circular and disquietingly protean.

Christmass’s vast word machines mangle all meaning out of proper nouns, and it is here that his work is most subversive. Celebrities become ciphers, void of significance. In Belfie Hell, the frequent reappearance of the proper noun “Shia LeBeouf” (always in this form, never just “Shia” or “LeBeouf”) wrenches this signifier away from the signified. We soon stop picturing the famous actor, or if we do, he is a flat cut-out, a copy of a copy, functioning grammatically and dramatically, but bringing no depth or richness to the narrative. Moral significance is pulverised too; “the underage guy that James Franco fucked” might initially make the reader feel uncomfortable, with its connotations of rape, but the repetition ad nauseam of the noun phrase takes out the sting, normalises it, makes us numb to the value of the words. It is a truism that the proliferation and reproduction of information in our cyber-sexualised age has eroded knowledge and meaning. Christmass’s work iterates and reiterates this point, through nowhere narratives and characters that are nonentities. Reading him is like witnessing an economy spiral towards catastrophe; the hyperinflation of an over-abundant currency (here, linguistic units) becoming more devalued, more meaningless with every reiteration. Or perhaps it is more like watching a culture grow on a Petri dish.

To borrow Barthes’ terms, Christmass is a scriptor, loopily reenacting gestures of inscription. The Author is dead, so expression is out of the question.

Body of work as Dadaist mannequin.

You’re still watching television from last night. Nothing brings your attention to it. You get up from your bed. You’re dressed in polyester drapes. The diner is closed until dinnertime. You stop, look around. Respected guests inside the Waldorf Astoria. Cocaine dissolves on a placemat. You drop what you can into a metal bucket. Laugh track gets louder. (Yeezus in Furs)

Like Robbe-Grillet’s, Christmass’s tone is artfully flat and impersonal. He assiduously avoids anything that might resemble literary language, drawing instead on utilitarian lexis rendered useless by its glitchily robotic application. The narrative voice is that of an android that can simulate a human, but with limited success. This is story-telling stripped of the ghastly spectre of the human soul, though the ghost of William Burroughs can occasionally be glimpsed between the words:

Unfamiliar cocaine deals with those who believe people are irritating. GIF profiles on dating websites. Laughing fits. Language of GIF. Burton lays flat on the packing crate. Product placements on NBC. Earl C walking leisurely down to the East Village. Holograms of Lindsay Lohan’s autopsy. Pipettes of poisonous bacteria and Dilaterol. (Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze)

A word on how to read these books. Christmass’s robotic writing is predicated on superfluity. You could read only 20% of Belfie Hell’s 300 pages and understand the novel no less than someone who has read the whole thing. It is not necessary to read any of his books sequentially, from first page to last. There is no arc. The books offer stutters and stasis, not a journey. Instead, we channel hop. But in hopping and skipping and surfing, we are confronted time and again and time and again with the hollowed-out icons of the waste land around us, the mess and mashups and detritus and delirium of life in the mad, drunken now.

Wander in, lose yourself in the burning forest of symbols.

———-

Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze and Yeezus in Furs are published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe and can be purchased here.

Belfie Hell is available from Inside the Castle here.

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