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.
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Explosion is a book about America, a series of stories set primarily in Russia, a scream raised in protest against an oppressive state, and a meditation on the fetishization of freedom.
1) Art for protest’s sake. Zabrisky is a name you should know. A Founder of the Arts Resistance, she has mobilized literature, theater, and visual arts as public protest against Putin’s control of Russia, against his invasion of Ukraine, against the imprisonment of members of the punk protest collective Pussy Riot. Zabrisky has performed Gogol outside the Russian consulate in San Francisco, for instance. She’s published analyses of art protests in Russia in an academic journal of anthropology. As a performer, she’s read poems and stories exploring oppression and its discontents. On February 10th in San Francisco, she’s interviewing members of Pussy Riot.
What she does in these pages is, by one narrator, explicitly compared to the work of the shaman, art as doing (healing, fighting, sacralizing) as opposed to “art for the sake of art . . . and all this crap.” The alternative, functional art, does at least four things, two of which involve amplifying the voices of the subaltern and conveying contagious rage. Explosion gives us voice after voice, dream after dream, “of running away, but I’m seventeen and I have no place to run to. And, in the Soviet Union, you go to prison if you don’t work.” We see the survival strategies adopted, from drugs to drinking to sex, tactics for keeping your head high in a world run by rats. And we hear the righteous anger against that world: “I refuse to follow the rules. Fuck their rules, their power, their steely, dead eyes, their money and guns.” In a world of corrupt cops demanding payola at home and zinc coffins coming home from the front, one response is to “drink some vodka and tell stories,” to cry, to scream. But before passing out or being dragged off to prison or being beaten to death, one can explode into language, “speak. For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers. And women with voice—even more so.”
2) The fetish of freedom. If Zabrisky’s project is predicated on the power of individual voices, the force of the individual, it is not naïve about the track record of change or the ideal to which struggles for freedom aim. The voices of dissent here are clear that “whenever anyone—Decembrists, Lenin, Gorbachev—tried to change anything, it always went terribly, horrifyingly bad, all good intentions turned into bloody nightmares in our history,” and, moreover, that “freedom is the major illusion. But I still want it.”
Zabrisky’s model of art-as-action works in two further ways, simultaneously gesturing toward an ideal and offering a critique of that ideal. The transformation of God to “grown-up truth,” for instance, which “Transparent and distinct at the same time, sleek, graceful and ugly, uncanny in its clarity and its mysterious and terrible purpose” is at once an expression of something like transcendence and a canny wariness about the very notion—an illusion we feel and are motivated by, even as we’re clear-eyed about its illusoriness. One is reminded by Marx, on the commodity, that which “appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood” by which, upon closer examination, can be read as “a very queer thing,” abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
The metaphysics of commodities is beautifully explored here. A young woman obsesses over an imported plastic shopping bag; not only is it printed with an image of white-toothed smiling free Americans, but this woman associates even the smell of the bag with the American dream of liberty. Another character clutches her iPhone as a representation of everything she immigrated to America for, while yet another questions her children about an American pop star making jewelry out of human teeth. The commodity, like butter rubbed into boots to make them shine, is at once miraculous and grotesque. Indeed, the very disposability of American things is presented here as part of what “freedom” means in the everyday sense, and Zabrisky gracefully considers this from multiple points of view, seeing in the disposability of a beautiful and well-made plastic bag something of the exorbitant promise of the capitalist West while also viewing the placating barrage of “Barbie popcorn action movies, bubblegum soap foam of goods made in China, and glitter of churches and rattles of crucifixes” as so much “glazed pink of kitsch and new lies.”
This is a book that provokes thought and feeling, a book to make you itch, like radiation sickness. “Why do you scream so loudly?” a man asks one of the narrators here. The answer is all around us, from Crimea to the strip mall, the Kremlin to the Apple Store.
Official Zarina Zabrisky Web Site
Official Epic Rites Press Web Site