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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A Review of Daniel, Damned
Damn, you say, in amazement, for the meme—as form, as phenomenon—is partly a striking pose, partly a startlingly deft and swift performance. Half sidewalk signifying reduced to a one-liner, half after-effect of glancing at the naked sun, the meme is simultaneously an aikido of imagery and words, and a one shot, endlessly looped. It is a moment, over and over, a reaction, trapped in twitching gif. Damn. Damn. Damn. Hence its pleasure, which is the pleasure of repetition and therefore of an acknowledgment of belonging (the in-joke shared among those elite enough to get it) but also always the pleasure of juxtaposition, every take a remake, and therefore a delicious destabilization (though safe, again, because we, the chosen, understand its particular, punning syntax). Damn. Back at it again. That’s the dynamic. The meme becomes the milieu for particular types of virtuosos: those able to create and keep tweaking these viral devices as well as those with a knack for reading them, for that rush of uncracking and that ego-stroke of connoisseurship acknowledged by decipherment and appreciation. Dude, I get it. Damn.
Decipherment, not merely an individual pleasure but also something like membership in a select club, a community of knowledge, opens to darker experiences. There is the act of cooptation, boundary-drawing, as, recently, when Pepe the Frog became such a contested figure. And, deeper still, there is an existential dread that finds manifestation in the in-joke aspect, the meme’s elite audience. What happens, for instance, if you don’t get it, if you’re suddenly unhip, exiled, even, dare I speak the term, old?
In this small book, Jones-Yelvington delves not only into the grammar of memes, he also ponders—gives voice to—this dread of being on the outside, out of fashion. The boys from the “Damn, Daniel” videos suddenly find themselves in a thicket, a mucky, dark woods (The adult world? The mundane world of “irl” outside all instant digital connections?). Lost (unplugged, off the grid), these kids are soon seduced by smells, the sensual, in Jones-Yelvington’s hands defying conventional bounds such that heat is heard and the olfactory is at once a force and a presence.
A retake on well-known fairy tale conventions, this trip into the woods is also a trip into eros: the boys’ bodies rippled sinuously, sweat, and heave. They grunt. They bushwack. Damn. Daniel is wearing the wrong shoes for this kind of mess.
The narrator is, in the tradition of the wolf and the witch, greedily hungry, attempting a purr that cannot mask his snarl as he greets the “dear boys” who, in an instant, he traps inside an oven. Their howls, the crackle of their candy-coated boy flesh as it burns, this “is the sound of my adolescent need,” the narrator says, that line between sexual tension and nightmare entangled, as it is entangled in adolescence generally, from horror movie make-out sessions to those initial frightening forays into the dark thickets of others’ bodies, their smells and tastes.
Daniel, his shoes as white as fresh paper, is almost overdetermined as the virgin at the edge of experience, the Fool of the Tarot, unaware he’s being observed as he steps forward off the cliff. Damn, Daniel. And the wolf, the witch, the cannibal in the candy house clutching at crumbs of lust for what’s lost, he, here, appropriates that mantle, those kicks. The shoes aren’t just made of white canvas; they are a white canvas, “youth’s fashion,” seized by the narrator, that child-killer, for their “beauty.” He laces them up, then flies away on a swan, having arranged for “camera crews . . . to catch, [and] upload my triumph,” a new meme, ready for vitality that comes from the clicks and likes of a community that embraces the exile, again. Damn.
Morality tale or merely sugary morsel? Winking, in any case, and flaunting a mastery of style and the power of style, of fashion—again, the fresh, not merely as quality but as ontology, as freshness, as what makes you say Damn—Jones-Yelvington gives us, in very few words, a dreamy little confection that can’t but bring to mind a whole chorus of previous poetic and psychological voices—Anne Sexton, Kathy Acker, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Sigmund Freud, not necessarily in that order—all of whom, like the boys lured into the cottage, are now trapped in the context of memes, such that we reread them, after Jones-Yelvington, in relation to the flashy, fresh, sticky-sweet. Or we at least are left with the question—our urges triggered, as the author says—what would the confessional poet, the post-Marxist pomo punk, the composer, or the doctor have to say about, say, “Damn, Daniel,” or the layers of funhouse refraction wrapped up in a pair of frogs sporting the coiffure of the famous bigoted billionaire linked to the phrase “don’t talk to me or my son ever again”? Something far more than lols, we can be sure. And maybe that’s Jones-Yelvington’s ultimate meme trick, using the leverage of the fairy tale format to destabilize—to render visible, to open for discussion—the dynamic of the meme. And at the same time, while this is serious stuff—with real ramifications for thinking about and doing art in the twenty-first century—it still smells good and looks fresh and moves fast, always poised, always with “glamour.” Damn.
A Review of This Is a Dance Movie!
“One may assume that happiness is only from the neurotransmitter endorphin and that they make you happy,” reads a “Toilet Talk” memo posted in the bathroom stalls across the small college campus where I teach. Ignoring the jagged prose, let’s consider the base assumption that our moods are merely chemical. The memo goes on to note that if you feel bad, that chemical problem can be diagnosed as one of “various illnesses,” for which “various drugs have been developed,” drugs which, in paraphrase, let a person be happy again by tweaking the ways the “four main neurotransmitters associated with happiness” work.
This logic, this clear linkage of inchoate feeling with simplified brain chemistry (a color-coded schematic accompanies the text, various shades of pastel) finds echo and parody in Jones-Yelvington’s collection of stories, where—as with “Toilet Talk”—good intentions manage to get mangled in delivery. One character turns to chemistry to explain away his crush on Adam Lambert and the “past twenty-five hours [spent] on YouTube” studying clips of his performances, awash in “the physical experience of infatuation.” In the series of blog posts that follow, this character descends further into infatuation with Adam Lambert, repeatedly defending his own objectivity in the face of momentary lapses thereof, his own self-control in the face of evidence to the contrary. Another character, speaking through online profiles of the Grindr type, fumes over the euphemisms and double-speak of hookup culture: “Sometimes people invite me to watch a movie when what they really want is sex. This bothers me when the movie is one I actually want to watch.” A straight liberal, with glee, declares that her gay neighbor “can teach tolerance to my children!” while the title story imagines and reimagines a dance movie, via edits that cross-out words, cutting the dross of platitude and liberal expectation, getting to the meat of things: “Robert . . . must win this competition in order to get
a scholarship the girl laid. Robert must get laid.”
While Jones-Yelvington is skilled at parody, he’s strongest when he homes in on desire, circling it and at once musing on and attempting to describe the inherent mystery thereof. Awakening into desire, or into recognition of the contours of desire, is particularly powerful here. Jones-Yelvington gives us characters trying to figure out what they want—why does the slime from that TV show seem so appealing?—and traces the tingly warmth of rise of such want. Some characters get smart about this, quoting Judith Butler and conceptualizing all behavior as performance, as simulation, but the most compelling voices here just don’t know why they want what they want, and their desire is thus slightly terrifying, slightly out-of-reach. This variety of desire is sometimes explicitly associated with growing up, with that adolescent move from one world to another: the kid pondering kids slimed on TV, for instance, dreaming of bondage scenarios; or the kid, recognizing that he’s no longer a child, who finds himself overcome with emotion over a teddy bear: “He felt nauseous. He balled his hands into fists.... He wanted to kiss Terr-bear’s head, to inhale his dried saliva where it caked in her fur. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to hump her. He wanted to explode.” That’s desire. And the satirical lens helps frame that in these pages, too, as Jones-Yelvington’s invocation of those who, via a learned remove, speak of sex as “grounded theory,” helps to contrast just how un-theorized, how beyond language and thought, desire truly is.
Our contemporary enlacement of individual identities with representations, with communities real and imagined—fictive, fandoms—provides Jones-Yelvington with another sweet spot: his “Law & Order: Viewers Like Us” could stand alone, and is, again, more than mere parody (though it’s nicely that, too). Here he gets meta on getting meta, imagining a show about viewers, by viewers, and locating that show within the broader network of cultural phenomena—slash fiction and coinage of words on Urban Dictionary, reenactment and that frequent ritual of rewatching in which old stories become part of the ongoing texture of our lives. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an artist so attuned to the myriad social ramifications of art conceives of his own work as, in part, an experience of community. His “Acknowledgments,” appearing in the book like a final piece, offers gorgeous and poignant witness to art as a way of living and thinking and dreaming together. These pages moved me when I first read them; they take on a new urgency and offer a new valence of hope in the wake of the election.
Official Tim Jones-Yelvington Web Site
Official Solar Luxuriance Web Site
Official CCM / Tiny Hardcore Press Web Site