As we reported earlier, Garrett Ashley’s “The History of Character X,” Sam Cha’s “The Conference of the Birds,” and Annam Manthiram’s “The Discrepancy Equation” will be featured in The &NOW Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, which is now available for pre-order via Amazon and will be released on May 25, 2013. You can also add it to your queue on Goodreads. Congrats to the authors involved!
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who applied for our assistant editor positions. We’re sifting through applications now, and once we reach decisions we will notify applicants and spread the word via the usual channels.
decomP is receiving more submissions than ever, which is great, but our editors need some help. We have two positions available: Assistant Prose Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor. Each editorship entails reading submissions via Submittable and deciding on which to recommend for publication. There is no pay, but there may be fame (and/or infamy). To apply, send an e-mail to decomp.magazine AT gmail DOT com with the editorship you’re applying for as the subject line, your CV attached as a .doc, .docx, or PDF, and a paragraph about why you want the position. Please choose only one editorship—prose or poetry. We’re looking for long-term commitments, so consider that prior to applying. Finally, we’ll be reading applications until March 31, 2013, and we expect to reach decisions and announce them in April 2013, our nine-year anniversary. If you have any questions, direct them to the e-mail listed above.
Congratulations to our 2012 Pushcart Prize nominees!
Peter DeMarco – “The Fireman”
Leisha Douglas – “Tentative”
Sandra Irwin – “Loss”
PD Mallamo – “Athame”
Joe Miller – “Conquest [translation]“
Daniel M. Shapiro – “Thomas Kinkade Drops by Andy Warhol’s Grave, Bethel Park, Pa., 2/22/07″
We wish them luck in the selection process.
There is a voice, predominant in these stories, always at some distance to itself. Not numbed, maybe, so much as slightly disassociated, tingling, like hands on the verge of sleep. Experiences slide by, then there is some odd prickling. Objects and events are studied, sometimes in detail, but the focus, narrowing in, verges on the absurd. The newspaper, for instance, reports “The economic indicators were open to differing interpretations, but some of the executives were quoted as saying the cycle could be near an end. The Semites were haggling over land. In athletics, one of the teams had won.” And of a girl, far from unattractive, we learn that “while her hips were rather wide, they didn’t quite protrude. Her buttocks did, however—just slightly more than was perhaps too far. The twin insane globes of that device heaved, they quivered and juked. They jiggled and jimmied independently, but also in supernal, near preternatural concord.” Wandering, dazed, through a world at once blurred and hyper-detailed, of vague Semite struggles and asses analyzed with everything but a physics equation. This is the straight face of TUND, to which time happens, events happen, and the actor, as if passive, presents himself as merely on the receiving end of events in which he plays, in fact, a vigorous, even initiating role: “And so I was hard again. I flipped her over. I had to work to make the third time happen. It was long strokes, then short stabbing ones, and sucking on her earrings, her hair, her neck. Finally it happened.” Yes, even that just happens, as the arousal happens, as the situation happens, as the relationship happens and as the collapse, gradually and then all of a sudden, happens, just comes to pass. “So suddenly everything was falling apart. It’ll happen like that. You know, things slipping right by you in one big flux—and there you are, trying to make sense of it. This was me.”
Some of these stories are set in Europe—“Eastern Europe, to be exact, in the time following what were popularly called revolutions,” a place presented as perhaps especially suitable to this sort of detachment, this approach to history as something that rolls in and over, then breaks for a little picnic weather. Narrators find themselves in places, with people, as if they are waking up or becoming aware of their existence, as a passive player, in a dream. Alcohol gets drunk; dreams get discussed. A mother, a castration, the size of the severed penis, its smoothness—all of this happens in proximity to a sauna scene, two men, wrestling, one “half-observ[ing]” the other’s “flaccid penis and heat-engorged scrotal sac, resting on the tiled slick floor.” It’s like a scene out of Saint Augustine, only it ain’t, quite, for while the Bishop seeks, in his prose, to cut to that which can be known, to express his visceral emotions and wrangle through the complexities of his own mental life, here a group of somewhat friends try to get high and take turns talking. Everyone and everything is disassociated, like pool balls after a break, sliding farther and farther apart. Here’s one friend on his companions:
He looked at the flesh, the flesh vaguely glistening in the low-watted light. Ugly flesh casting invisible rays, nipples casting shadows, deep crevasses in the fat like expired sausages bundled in twine. He concentrated on shriveled ghostly penises, saw gaping, dripping vaginas—layer upon layer of them, piled on one another, hairy and shaven, blurring into a single folding, receding, bifurcating, suffocating pink-red sludge, and scabs and little holes, dozens of them, woven into the red-pink walls themselves. And new noises came to him, the crunching and cracking and grinding of bones, and scalps tearing from heads, skulls smashing against stone, faces grimacing in howl.
Such a paranoid trip is, in TUND, our world, more or less. The folks here don’t always know whether to ralph or jackoff, to cite some parlance used.
Meanwhile—as with those Semites and their “haggling”—mayhem happens, and murder, mischief of various sorts. There are dog deaths, dog surgeries, dog torture, dog love (dogs predominate, like that detached voice). People watch porn, or make porn, or worry, aloud, about their sperm count. Meals are served, “tasting more like a recipe looks than a meal is supposed to taste” and artists endure “years of surviving on ketchup soup and kool-aid” until they are hailed as geniuses, become rich, and indulge peculiar habits like making a “handmade stone pornographic chess set.” To cite a somewhat similar writer, it is difficult to merge in these places. Here’s how a relationship falls apart, while waiting for a second opinion on the test results:
There were difficulties. I began to be troubled by some of her characteristics, which included drinking coffee from a cup the size of a small bowl. She was always making pasta dishes, which she would never throw out but leave sitting in the refrigerator, sometimes for a week or more. / We never went out together in public, and never once did I see her lay a brush on her paints. She had slender hips, a beautiful long back, hardly any breasts at all. I answered a great many questions, mostly of a technical, mechanical nature. Sometimes she smelled. She said it was infections and viruses, of the kind exclusive to women.
And here’s how another narrator feels about coming, finally, to the big city, to live the dream imbibed via advertising: “Bay City, I sneered. You bitch. You lying whore sack of come. You four-on-the-floor mother-cunt. Come on, you filthy bitch. You cheap whore. You dirty lying two-dollar strumpet.” But soon, despite his desire to rape and dominate the city, our hungry young narrator finds himself fantasizing about his own assault, the urban promise simultaneously a threat:
He would knife me first, surely, then drag me off and rape away at me frenziedly in some alleyway. I would beg him NO PLEASE NO. But it would mean nothing, to him. He would slap angrily at the back of my neck, as if I were some loose red-headed woman—his loose red-headed woman. I would shriek and cower as he pulled my shirt from my back and lashed me with enraged swipes. Onlookers would hoot down from the apartment blocks, giggling and turning up the television as my assailant pounded away, clubbing away into oblivion all my tender beliefs and chivalrous instincts.
Better, in such a world, to just give up, have another beer. Or so that narrator decides. And another. Then another after that.
I’d figured this out before, it was so damn obvious, but sometimes you’d forget. But it was always good to remember:
The first step was to surrender.
The second was to give up.
The third was to toss in the towel.
The fourth was to relinquish all hope.
The fifth was to forget any of it had ever happened.
The voices and happenings of TUND are not quickly forgettable. The panoramas may mesh together, the paranoias and detachments of the various characters may echo each other, but the overall result is a seductive, disturbing vision of life and one way of relating to it, as spectator to spectacle, as victim to one’s own agency, actions and inactions.
A brooding field is the dominant presence in this beautiful little book; a field that wakes slowly, sitting on the toilet in the morning; a field that “spends far too much time on Facebook” and “spends far too much time watching TV”; a field that has anxieties about photography and memories of sex in public; a field that believes “many who directly or indirectly accuse working people with conservative values of being complacent, superficial consumer fetishists, are, perhaps, without even having realised it themselves, hypocrites”; a field that “doesn’t know when it would find time to exercise . . . doesn’t understand how everybody else finds time to exercise”; a field that “has yet to decide whether it can be bothered to keep itself up to date with the risk of brain tumours caused by radiation from mobile phones.”
The psyche on display here, in the third-person, is presented as something radically other, a sentient non-sentient thing, a place, an absence even, because what is a field, exactly, other than a grounds for something and thus not quite something itself? A field is not landscape, at least not in this text. Indeed, the field, our protagonist, “can be jealous of the landscape from time to time, the landscape doesn’t have any colleagues it has to see again and again, the landscape doesn’t have friendly, superficial conversations in the kitchenette with them; the landscape, the field thinks, doesn’t find itself as a Christmas lunch confessing all to a boss.” The field here obviously isn’t a field at all, either; no field finds itself “On a trip to Paris without the kids,” let alone able, then, to ask, “do you think we’re having a crisis.”
It happens—though this is not noted in or on the book itself—that in Danish, the original language of this poetic meditation on identity, “Marken,” the field, puns on “Martin,” the author’s first name. So “The field wishes its brooding would soon be disturbed, that the telephone would ring, that the smoke alarm would start wailing” sounds quite different in the original, and interjects an explicit autobiographical valence lost in translation. Through this autobiographical valence—reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s explorations of psychology in the third-person—is generated a depth of field, as it were, an accumulation of opinions, echoed notions and claims, from all of which emerges a portrait of a particular self, a subjectivity, reflecting back on itself, critiquing its own opinions and ideas, relishing the taste of its personal pleasures. In keeping with the distance inherent in framing this slew of intimate (if they are intimate) bits and pieces via the abstract “field,” there is a recurring motif, philosophized here, on exile as an interior condition, on existential location as in some ways like the position of a field, subject to rather than agent in: “The field thinks it makes no difference what it’s interested in, the field will in any case have forced upon it and be exposed to both this and that, no matter what it’s interested in, and that’s what you have to take notice of, in the field’s opinion.”
Though, of course, this field is constructing its own field of meaning, quilting together tiny comments into a book, contrasting simple preferences—“The field is fond of long legs.” “Tits or arse, the field is a tit-field.” “The field notices shoulder blades.”—and idiosyncrasies—“The field finds words such as euphemism challenging.”—with seemingly important, formative claims—“The field remembers when it was younger; when it realized how a kaleidoscope works, mirrors, not magic, the disappointment, that feeling, like being abandoned by oneself, like having one little part of the world exchanged for another, coarser.”—and the sorts of deeply considered pleasures that reflect the guiding interests of the author as author, as poet, as constructor of texts:
The field loves talking on the phone, the intimacy of it, being together without being together, the sound of the other person in that person’s own sitting room, the sudden nearness that can be broken off as you wish like turning off the TV. It can talk for several hours until its ear gets warm and dark red and throbbing.
For all the anxiety about the “incredible amount of meaningless communication” and the contemporary anxiety about “missing out on something,” the need to keep “up-to-date . . . to know what everybody else is doing right now,” Serup is crafting a text that both moves at the speed of Twitter, page by page, quip by quip, but also builds like a novel, like a piece of music, dependent upon a lengthy engagement, focus. It’s hard not to read the obsessions over photography in light of the obvious preference for words, just as a line like “The field thinks that hearing as a sense will make a comeback in the near future” seems to speak, too, to the quality of listening involved in reading a text like this, in which the line speaks, both on a page by itself, quickly turned, and within a wider mesh or matrix or field. That “The weather . . . is the most watched TV programme in the world” is both a humorous line and a kind of commentary on public consumption, but it’s not, as I read it, within the scope of this book, a line lacking in hope, even in poetic appreciation. The book begins, after all, with the line “This is a nature poem which is also concerned with other things,” and, indeed, there seems to be little of the “nature poem” in it, but then again, a certain type of nature poetry is always, at its best, about the field inside the mind? Some such notion has been considered here, of course: “The field has thought about it, it has reached the conclusion that the most interesting things in reality don’t happen in reality but in people’s heads, in the imagination.”
On one page, it’s the early 1960s. Faces, first-wave Mods, cluster near their customized scooters outside a club from which bluesy rock emanates. “As self-regarding stylists they weren’t going to sweat it out inside the club for the Stones. They were too cool for that, and weren’t going to risk spoiling their clothes.” On another page, it’s a little past now, some dystopic alternative future, London, with terrorist bombs exploding in the distance, and Mod-obsessed journalist Paul, procrastinating from writing, is watching
parts of the grainy, extensive archive footage of Stones in Exile, a re-mastered documentary of the degenerately substance-fuelled band’s bitty recording of Exile on Main Street at Keith Richard’s villa, called Nelicote, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in 1971, as ultimate Stones cool, a kick ass blues album that sounded dirty, like mixing blue paint above a drain cover. After watching heroin-based seventies Stones footage, Paul shifted to scrolling the sci-fi marketing claims for resveratrol, as activating a longevity gene that theoretically extends life expectancy by 70 per cent; the was drug (sic) believed to ramp up the activity of SIRT1, a protein implicated in age, and was useful in stopping the progression of cancer growth. Paul was interested too in pulling info from the web on a new dopamine reuptake inhibitor MDPV, noted to have characteristic hypersexual effects, but still under clinical trial, and on the aphrodisiacal effects of yohimbine as an alpha-adrenergic antagonist, increasing genital bloodflow and inciting unusual sexual sensitivity.
Shot, count-shot. The Stones, something like time travelers themselves, are woven throughout this narrative as past and future open to each other, the sixties and their promise—Mod fashion as a new form of identity, new music as a transport to ecstasy—and the future’s grim but amped-up potential—pills for arousal and long-lasting erection, pills even for the cessation of aging, pills to combat time itself. Time, in this novel, is not what it once was. Or rather it is, in moments, precisely what it once was, and both Paul’s investigations and desires and the author’s attention to long-lost styles and feelings lead to an injection of then into the now of reading:
The Face stood apart from the Shepherd’s Bush Mob contingent busy investing in a tin of Smith Kline and French blues, clearly stolen by a wised-up dealer from a Boots chemist. The Face was his own creation, wearing a purple Dormeuil tonic-mohair jacket, with Prince of Wales dogtooth check trousers from Harry Myers in Bethnal Green. The trousers kept narcissistically attracting his attention, no pleats in the front, and a 1-inch step at the foot of the trouser leg that went halfway down his heel at the back, almost touching the floor, and the front half of the trousers had a button on the outside leg. Cloth covered in the same material, and sewn at the point where the step began, hung just right over the shoe, worn with a pair of short-point side laces on Cuban heels.
He really had the edge on all fashionista rivals. He was the Face, the acknowledged king of Mods, but he lacked Mick Jagger’s infamous celebrity, and he knew it, with an acute stab of jealousy.
This is addictive stuff, amidst a sea of addictive things. So Paul experiences something like a time warp, questing, all the while, after sex, in an increasingly herbal-and-pharmaceutically-
with tablecloths that were touch-sensitive screens, on which you could scan a menu, order a cab, or morph the screen saver on your tablecloth from clouds, to bamboos, to geisha girls etc. The table, she told Paul, was like a sexy kind of iPhone, and the place provided top quality pan-Asian food. Suzie was right up on iPhone games, gadgets, UFOs, retro-pop, Michael Jackson’s pigment whiteners, the fatty acid DHA, which increases acetycholine, the g-spot as sensory epicentre, Chinese girl bands, Ts with graffiti slogans, and being mutant Eurasian cool.
This “mutant Eurasian cool” is worlds away from the first generation of Mods, who started trends like “spiking shocking pink drinking straws into bottles of beer they never touched, but placed on the bar counter as artefacts viewed with visible disdain.” Or is it?
There is some plot here, obviously, and some boilerplate bafflement: Paul has trouble, as he explains it, with “the notion that you’re first-wave from the sixties, and that you’re still twenty-one, and that all the sixties icons, who are dead, still visit this place.” There is lots of sex, fucking “like re-immersion in a steamy Chinese river, the current working at him to come in rhythmic contractions, and they did, together, simultaneously, their skin like sauna, as they exploded into optimal sensual reward, kicking at each other ferociously until the climax subsided.” There is some jarring echo of imagery, as when Paul helps pull a girl “out of her skinny jeans, like squeezing a tube of black toothpaste,” and then, a few pages later, the same girl “squeezed out of her skinny jeans like a squirt of toothpaste from a tube.” But the real thrill of this book—much like those pink straws spiked in those beer bottles—is with how it looks, how it sounds, not the storyline, the engines of character motivation.
It is an endlessly quotable book, addictively precise in its prose. Here’s a bit of seemingly throwaway background noise, from a restaurant scene:
There were city suits to either side of them, men in conservative charcoal Paul Smith suits, who were part of an increasingly demoted corporate sector, exposed for their banditry, corruption, dodgy futures contracts, and consolidated fraud. There was a group of them, like a retarded planet, a species largely unable to individuate, and reliant on shared lo-fi intelligence. Their A-line skirted blondes were much the same, anxious to collectivize, drink beers, and industriously fork chewy sinew, by way of what looked like Wagyu onglet, slow-cooked beef served with braised yam bean. They were loudly talking company politics, and eliminating rival colleagues with bitchy rapid-fire verbal bullets…
And here’s Paul doing journalism:
“I’ve got a colour question for you, if you don’t mind,” Paul said. “I’m such a completist for detail that I’m curious from clips, and photos, about a very specific ice-blue, that is almost white, that seems to have existed in shirts only at this period. Can you remember it?”
“I can, now you mention it,” Max said. “The shirt was a favourite with Mods in the early sixties, and was worn with black knitted ties. You’re right: it was a blue indistinguishable from white, almost the colour of vodka.”
And here’s Paul’s notion of the coming apocalypse:
…an imminent London flameout, with ministerial armour-plated Jaguars screaming out of the city, discharging oil-and-tack slicks to de-road pursuing vehicles, lasers scanning the road up to 300 metres ahead, towards an underground warren of cells concealed somewhere in Oxford for Cabinet usage. These warlords, and their lugubrious killing fields, were all part of London’s B-side, ministers who employed organised crime as a means of personally stockpiling weapons, food, pharmaceuticals, Tamiflu vaccines, and boxes of scotch and gin—as provisions for their intended resistance to the militant, Soho-based Blackjacks, who were looking to establish lawless supremacy in a capital in which a discredited government was harnassed to the army for its unsanctioned defence.
Sometimes, the task of the critic is to lean back and say, wow, that’s sharp, and these passages make me do that, have that sheen, that crispness. There is much that could be said about this book as a meditation on time’s arrow—from metrosexuality to gay-hatred, from hippies to Hells Angels, or the thought Face, after some exposure to both anti-gay slurs and Hells Angels spit, has: Mod, he realized, was irretrievably over, like the thought he had just left behind as part of his continuous biological acceleration towards death.” But this book is more fun as a romp through and against time. Paul is given an offer: “You can join us in the sixties—the orange sunshine decade. You can cross the time barrier.” But it doesn’t really matter what he decides; the time machine is the book itself, its realizations of specific moments with addictively cool prose, prose the color of vodka.
“You will not,” one story here informs us, “at your boss’s annual summer evening Hawaiian pool party walk up to your associate’s wife and pluck the nursing newborn from her disbelieving arms and dash it on the mossy stones of the Japanese rock garden.” But the idea is there, and that level of violence, explosive, cruel, and horrifying, is veined throughout these otherwise dull tales.
The stories here disturb, but less in any sense that art should; more the way images of pain and suffering appropriates for pornographic purposes do, the way Faces of Death did back in middle school when kids would make out in front of it, or certain Web sites today that show photographs of white phosphorous burns for the titillating “gross out” factor. Williams is poking his finger at something he takes to be profoundly American, a bone half-buried in this blood-soaked soil of ours, but his response to that undercurrent of violence is another layer of violence, reading like a photocopy of a photocopy, numbed to its own force, distanced from the reality it signifies.
In another story, a man with a gun takes a hostage and then blows up a Hooters. They speak, terrorist and victim, in stripped-down dialogue, lacking, as all dialogue here does, punctuation marks. This can be confusing, as a tactic, though in its implications of purity it, too, is almost violent, an over-worked minimalism, clenched, like the fists of a man who will soon flare up in magnesium, eradicating his physical form due to some unspoken anger. Men draw guns and fire, randomly, in anger or something like a toothless joy. Not that there aren’t also career criminals here, and agents of various sorts, and myriad occultists. And some of the violence, for all its wild lashing, does have a motivation: there are hate crimes against Muslims, a protagonist obsessed with dealing revenge for the imposition of sounds into his world. Yet under both the clear, caused rage and the inchoate, frothing anger, there is a sense, from Williams, that violence has a deeper, religious root.
Religions recur here, as well, from caricatures of Scientology to those wounded Muslims, the blood of the lamb that washes over revivalists in the pine woods, the blood rites of various imagined initiatory communities, the secrets of and related slanders associated with the Masons or the Templars or Hubbard’s own sect. Even the ghost of a young girl blames something like religion: “My father made us believe he was god. We believed him. That’s why we killed ourselves. God said it was time.” More than one story involves the idea of a coming anti-Christ, a new nativity, the incarnation of evil itself. One couple wants to revamp “the Cult of the Sacred Whore.” “In three years their web site had 786 million hits, five percent paying. Their latest adventure: traveling through Spain. The goal: to get pregnant. The phases of the moon, temperatures, graphs of peak ovulation.” There is a riot in the wake of Easter. Skulls are smashed. This sacrality of violence, not merely the notion of violence as something ancient and incubating but its unleashing as somehow transcendent, even a good in itself: this echoes through the museum hallways lined with weapons, the Quixotic old man who unsheathes a sword, even the excessively effusive epistolary responses, spinning out fantastically, to singles ads, which culminates in a sinister new paganism: “In my garage I am building a gift for you, a sacrifice.”
While one narrator, struggling to contain himself, repeats to his own disbelief the claim that America “is not a rabid behemoth of greed idiotized by advertising and stupefied by cathode rays and narcotized by Twinkies. America is not a land-fill,” this sense predominates, and some of the return to a sacred violence is out of a sense of needing to purify a polluted land. Blast the Muslims away with sonic weapons, for instance; plow through the Virginian suburbs with a tank. But Williams treats the employ of this violence like he treats the lack of question marks, a literary tactic only, rather than taking such things, even when only on the page, seriously as already a reality, a real force. Consider: “You motherfucker, the woman said to Leland. You killed my boyfriend. I’m like God now and like God I’m like God now like God I’m like God now goddamn you killed my boyfriend you goddamned son of bitch.” The quote is accurate, and here maybe Williams is capturing something of the shock, the physiological force of violence not on the body but on the nervous system, on perception and speech, but the story is too slick, transient, for this statement to have much force or give the reader much pause.
Imagining the events described here, away from the book, is much more viscerally affecting than reading the prose. The congregants outside the mosque buckle and drop, and in my mind, this matters, this hurts, whereas in these pages there is an immediate moving on, an insulation in the prose, a retreat from engagement with the power of the violence that gets thrown around here as reference but without respect for its weight. In one scene, a woman climbs out from under a table to examine the consequences of a Tarantino-like shootout scene: “The room filled with the keen odor of cordite and blood. Eight bodies.” It is oddly bloodless, this writing, for all the blood shed within its narratives. And this distance—like that “you will not” that conditionally adjusts the opening quote to this review—heightens the disturbing reality of violence even as the violence here is inserted, imagined, and shuffled around as a plot device.
Congratulations to our Best of the Net 2012 nominees!
Alicia Catt – “On Lashes”
Carroll Beauvais – “You Are Here”
Sarah Carson – “For Valerie”
Eileen Hennessy – “Memorial Day”
Alisha Erin Hillam – “Centered”
Heather Sommer – “Traveler”
Helen Wickes – “What Is Implanted In The Body”
We wish them the best of luck.
Also, we’re going to revive the blog by publishing new book reviews on a weekly basis, so stop by now and then to get the latest from our resident critic Spencer Dew.