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.