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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Garish oneiric pop art

These are the pictures I made as part of my experimental review of M K L Murphy’s novel, The Isle of Minimus. Each comprises a photo of a page from the book, over which is superimposed an object that in some way (and for a particular purpose) represents a human being: a baby doll, a first aid dummy, Barbie dolls, a mannequin. I gave each picture a border, made the colours as gaudy and unnatural as possible and, in two cases, added large symbols and references to the viewer and/or artist (eyes, cameras). I wanted the pictures to connote playing cards or perhaps the starting point for a Twentyfirst Century tarot deck. Their garishness and symbolism sprang naturally from Murphy’s book.

Each of my four pictures became the stimulus for a short text, in which I played freely with characters, themes and images found in The Isle of Minimus. The four-part text-and-image piece is not so much a review of Murphy’s book as a rear view of it, an irreverent but affectionate take on it. I approached Murphy’s theatre not from the front, with its impressive facade, but from the back alley and through the stage door.

You can read my rear view at Minor Literatures.




Donald Trump on immigration

  
Now, we have to build a fence. And it’s got to be a beauty. Who can build better than Trump? I build; it’s what I do. I build; I build nice fences, but I build great buildings. Fences are easy, believe me. I saw the other day on television people just walking across the border. They’re walking. The military is standing there holding guns and people are just walking right in front, coming into our country. It is so terrible. It is so unfair. It is so incompetent. It is so impotent. And we don’t have the best coming in. We have people that are criminals, we have people that are crooks. You can certainly have terrorists. You can certainly have Islamic terrorists. You can have anything coming across the border. We don’t do anything about it. 

  
So I would say that if I win, I would certainly start by building a very, very powerful border. I am not impotent. Who can build a better border than Trump? I can build fences to the sky. I can build electric fences to the sky. I can build electric fences to the sky that fire nukes when criminal Islamic Mexican terrorist rapist immigrants try to go near them or look at them or talk about them or imagine them. 

  
My fence will be a beauty. I get hard just thinking about all those nukes. And who’s paying for those nukes? They are! The criminal Islamic Mexican terrorist rapist immigrants. Because we need a very powerful, very beautiful border, with gun towers and men in masks and nukes all lined up and water cannon at the ready and insect repellant and weed killer and rat poison and chemical weapons. That will stop those people coming into our country.

  

A review in tweets of an apocalypse in tweets

  
On the Twitter-blue cover: a robotic eye or camera lens or egg being fertilised by one of several eerily linear spermatozoa. #reliantreview

Is a tweet still a tweet when it’s printed on paper, a butterfly pinned? One certainty: the assured, witty, understated style.#reliantreview

The collected tweets sketch out a story in 3 parts: 1. Technobabble in our technobubble. 2. Our defeat. 3. Post-apocalypse. #reliantreview

The writing is often funny, sometimes disturbing. Speculative whimsy, shot through with NOW. #reliantreview

Each tweet is immaculately conventional in its spelling, punctuation & grammar. No 😳, no #hashtags. Pre-digital sensibility. #reliantreview

Many of the tweets are brilliant. Selfies and sexbots abound. A camera points at our digitally connected loneliness. #reliantreview

Post apocalypse, Mother Earth’s interests are served by the machines that destroyed us. Irony is a dominant mode. #reliantreview

The illustrations are wonderful. Diagrammatic, deadpan, surreal, flickering between abstraction and weird figuration. #reliantreview

Reliant is a book. This is important. The tweet is used but contained. The book warns us about the dangers of technology. #reliantreview

Messages aside, the book is not a homily. We are invited into a playground where the climbing frames are made of elastic. #reliantreview

Lots of blank space on each page. The publisher would be horrified at this, but blank spaces are conducive to poetry. #reliantreview

Reliant is a quick read, but the images linger. My favourite: “I paint abstracts with my thumb out of ashes.” #reliantreview

An Owl’s Tale

  

I’m unapologetic about the fact that my favourite book is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a book that has fascinated me since I was a small child. Magical stories, or at least narratives in which the tyranny of reality is overthrown or subverted, have fascinated me since. At different stages in my childhood and adolescence I read such fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else. In my teens and twenties, intoxicated by the rhetoric of the bygone European avant-garde, I dismissed realism as an innately reactionary way of presenting the world, and although now (in my forties) I can see that my anti-realism was ill-informed and quaint, my predilection for the bizarre, the mythical and the surreal remains. Kneel Downe’s books satisfy that craving, and An Owl’s Tale does so in a particularly idiosyncratic way. 

The book is a collection of mythopoeic tales, told by Owl to a little girl called Amelia, who makes significant appearances elsewhere in Kneel’s work. The framing device of Owl’s narration allows the reader to sit at the author’s knee and accept each magical story in the same way that a young child accepts Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. This is a children’s book for adults, and it makes an enchanting alternative to the conventions of story-telling we accept as the norm when we are beset by mortgages, career ambitions, money worries, responsibilities. The language of An Owl’s Tale is artfully archaic, full of syntactic inversions and olde worlde vocabulary, but at the same time it is terse and punchy. Take this example, from “The River That Fell in Love with the Sea”:

Slipped the seasons and cold came unto the world… 

And her back turned harsh and white.

Solid.

But beneath she endured.

Grain by grain…

This style looks at first like an acquired taste, but the fluidity and confidence of Kneel’s writing carries the reader along, and the stories quickly become accessible and engaging. The book taps into ancient story-telling traditions that we greet with a smile of recognition when they manifest as “The Wolf Who Lost His Reflection” or “The Prince Without a Throne.” 

The best children’s books are objects of beauty, with windows to other worlds in the form of illustrations. An Owl’s Tale offers its adult readers the same aesthetic joy, thanks to Susan Omand’s elegant ink drawings, which introduce each tale. The combination of Susan’s pictures and Kneel’s words is powerful and exciting. 

If you love traditional tales and myths or are fascinated by the act of story-telling, you should buy this book.  

The Afflictions

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The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar is described in its blurb as “a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopaedia of archaic medicine,” a claim that is slightly at odds with the brevity and fragmentariness of the book. The reader is treated not to an encyclopaedic experience, but to a series of excerpts from the 327 volumes of a fictional Encyclopaedia medicinae, linked by a framing narrative. Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I have nothing against brevity and fragmentariness per se (quite the opposite), but in The Afflictions there is a tension between those qualities and the way the book has been put together and presented to the public that I find unsatisfying. More of that later.

Paralkar’s prose is balanced, genial and articulate. It has an olde worlde quality that is difficult to pin down to a particular setting. Syntax and diction feel predominantly early Twentieth Century, while the story seems to be set in an unspecified feudal Catholic country (possibly Spain), in which writers use quills and the schism between science and superstition has yet to occur. Learning and enquiry are at the heart of the book, and the notion of empire is subtly present throughout; perhaps Paralkar has located his fictional world in the Sixteenth Century. But the intention is clearly not to provide the reader with an obvious milieu. I felt as if I had entered the archetypal world of a Calvino or a Borges, removed from mundane reality yet connected with history.

The escapism provided by The Afflictions is one of the chief attractions of the book. Another is the ingenuity of the author in defining and exemplifying his invented ailments. Paralkar is a writer of Twitterature, and in this book he shows his formidable talent for the creation of concise, witty, crystalline prose. Each affliction is neatly contained in a couple of pages, offering the reader a delightful promenade from one to the next, like a saunter through an art gallery. The tone is light and easy. Distinctions between the physical and the metaphysical don’t apply to the symptomatology of the diseases listed here: “the sufferer of Cursed Healer Syndrome… finds himself taking on the disfigurements of those around him”; victims of Oraculum terribile see the future damnation of everyone they look at; the Curse of Sisyphus keeps those afflicted in a cycle of development and regression, perhaps to keep them free from sin. Paralkar’s inventiveness in devising maladies is stunning.

The writing is complemented by some striking illustrations by Amanda Thomas, which provide an extra treat. The pictures are decorative and quietly fanciful, but they have the orderly stasis of textbook illustrations.

Despite all these excellent qualities, The Afflictions has one significant flaw, namely the framing device, in which an elderly librarian introduces a dwarf called Máximo to the Central Library, housing the Encyclopaedia medicinae. The device attempts to impose a narrative but proves insubstantial and disappointing; there are hints that Máximo is deformed and suffers from some sort of affliction (which might explain his interest in the encyclopaedia), but this plot strand is cursory and undeveloped. The book half promises (but doesn’t deliver) a labyrinthine narrative, in which Máximo’s life and story become intertwined with the grotesque vignettes of the encyclopaedia entries. This is just speculation on my part, but it looks to me as if Paralkar wrote his encyclopaedia entries first and then wondered how he could bring them together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps he should have resisted the urge to make his book resemble a novel; unlinked fragments from the encyclopaedia would have been enough, and might have made for a more satisfying read. He should have let the book be what it wanted to be, and not shoe-horn it into an established form.

But don’t let my little grumble about form put you off. The Afflictions is engaging, entertaining and enchanting, and Paralkar is a writer to watch.

You can buy the book here.