Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
“Close-up of the plaid bathing suit above a double exposure of a fish,” writes Lorca, in “Trip to the Moon,” a cinematographic poem, a poem not only written under the sign of cinema, but mimicking the tactics thereof, such that we get
Eisenstein, quoted in this novel, Canicule, the name of a film and the name for that stretch of long and hot days as summer peaks: “Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage,” he says. Montage gives us surrealism, something Lorca appreciates, but cinematic montage is super-realism, thing linked to thing, a suturing of images undeniable on the big screen, illuminated.
This novel offers a meditation on the image, alone and in progression. It, too, is written under the sign of cinema, mimicking the tactics thereof, narrative interspersed with stills from films, or those images intercut with narrative pieces, assembled out of order but in their own insistent order. Montage / Juxtaposition / Shock. Suicide-by-petrol, a bathing suit, the sun, Black September, Sarajevo:
Like being locked in an editing room with a pile of random out-cuts I’m supposed to splice together into sequence. To establish some sort of continuity my any means possible. With the added constraint that I’m only allowed to see each of the frames once.
I start with the sea, citation, marine life on the beach and in the water, both because Lorca offers an uncanny echo to this entrancing novel but also because so much comes back to the sea, its motions, its force, its mystery and smells and possibilities and uses as flat but richly associative landscape. The shape of the so-called jellyfish matters here, to Armand, a creature which inflates like a burn mark across celluloid, pulsing, its own engine, and named in French for the Gorgon Medusa, she who cast things as images via her gaze: freeze-frame. Scenes of beaches repeat: a girl in a red bikini, a man kneeling in a suit, a crowd examining some sort of creature... Juxtaposition / Montage / Shock. History as a string of fragments, spliced together, characters overlapping and then gone...
Black sand stretches away as far as the humid mind’s eye can see. Branching, in the middle distance, an inky channel flows north to the sea, flanked by tidal flats. Sheets of greasy water in which heron stand, thin, grey, calligraphic. The longer you look, the greyer they become, drawn shapes bleeding at the edges, contrast dialled to zero. To the left, a strip of shaly beach slopes into the water, fringed with pines, grassed dunes where the broken ends of stormwater drains vent their discard. A saturated, estuarine smell lingers in hot unshifting air like sex or effluent. Reminding of wet concrete floors in public shower blocks. Grey-white flowers loll above reeds and spear grass, casting no shadows. Across the sandbar, seagulls swoop at a carcass exposed by the surf, chased away by a yapping mutt.
A tracking shot, to establish the sort of chops Armand brings to this game. Writing, ladies and gentlemen. Armand may pay tribute to filmmaking, to the medium that is film, but he knows from writing and he writes, even speaking of and to cinema in a way that cinema itself, locked in images, cannot:
I went alone to cinemas and watched the same films over and over again, absorbing the lives of others, trying to divine the secret of the tortured soul. But my conscience would never be pure. Staring into the screen the way a man stares at a mirror.
Having established a narrative voice, a narrator, Armand flashes back and forth, a memory of rosemary, the Paris heat wave, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, George W. on Iraq, corporate capitalism as the only true revolutionary force in the world, 1983 and the US embassy bombing in Beirut, the trajectories of our main characters overlapping. An encounter, in memory and imagination, fanning out to events, global and intimate. All in an image:
I wait facing the dead Indian outside Wenzel’s concession. The old chief always seemed bigger when I was a kid. Perhaps he just shriveled up as the world got smaller. I want to ask him if humanity can ever be content, but it’s an idiotic question. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s last letters, when he wrote how he’d go around the streets tapping strangers on the shoulder, and shout at them: Are you happy? I’m God, I made this caricature.
One character is an explicit, which is to say self-identified, revolutionary, for whom “politics . . . was and always has been a sadistic little boy’s adventure. An endless erotic struggle with death.” Film in the French tradition, titles of Freud and Marx, assigned in one case as arrows pointing to the head and crotch, respectively, of a nude girl on the beach, or one that in any case seemed nude, as the image flashed by, was perceived and remembered as such. Entertainment or enlightenment? Art and capitalism. A cigar store Indian, icon of the New World and genocide, addiction, expansion, the fable of the ever-West. Stills in shot and countershot. Shock / Juxtaposition / Montage.
Is there any good reason for blowing someone else up? This is another question Armand wants to ponder, in slow-motion, a botched execution on some tarmac somewhere temporary. History: “Like a film driven by internal tensions only incidentally related to the characters and plot. Is history just 24-hour news fed on a loop?” Wolf, the revolutionary character, says that history doesn’t exist. Only memory and dream. And in this book, the mechanics of which follow those of film, this is expressed by a character proposing an image, on Reinaldo Arenas: “He was a Cuban writer. He committed suicide in New York, where he was dying of AIDS. Before he killed himself, he wrote that an exile is a person who, having lost a loved one, keeps searching for the face he loves in every new face. And forever deceiving himself, thinks he’s found it.” The image as an image of an other, which is another way of saying the image as ineluctable, irreplaceable, though even when presented in endless waves, seemingly the same, crashing and crashing, eroding everything else, such that self and time or politics and history are so much powdered glass swallowed and spread, a shifting horizon visible only in extreme time-lapse.
But do images have meanings? This, to me, seems key to Armand project, or, rather, a recurring question in the book, predicated on an answer, a dynamic, which is key to the project. Our narrator keeps a notebook, no longer for the purposes of building a film but now as something like a source for potential divination, “a repository—for scraps, pieces of evidence to prove the inner life hadn’t yet completely withered away.” This is beyond politics, resisting the category of production, work. Rather than splicing such images into chronological order, forcing them to become a piece, the images are appreciated for their own innate quality, which is like that of being alive, flickering with association:
The tiniest fragment breathes forth its connection to everything else. The unknown under the surface of the water. A suppressed thought about to return, threatening to return, having already returned.
The image, received always as alive. Film stills as anything but—vibrating, rather, or, in Armand’s phrasing, “breathing forth.” Film as revolution, the array of images, their flickering projection. Marx here, Freud here: and in between, that ocean of the organic, just beneath the concrete; the beach, just below the pavement.
1. Translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White, pp. 749-55 in Federico García Lorca, Collected Poems. Revised edition, with an introduction and notes by Christopher Maurer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.↑
Official Louis Armand Web Site
Official Equus Press Web Site