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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There is a place on the border, a town and an outskirts to that town, a series of factories and a repeating crime scene—a crime scene on a loop, as Joyce might have it, with rape and murder and mutilation playing out again and again, a different order each time, more than three-hundred, maybe more than a thousand, all women, all killed:
The smell is rotten in the desert. Putrefaction is scrambled in the heat. Some of the girls lie with their faces missing, brains leaking from the dead zone, but with their right arms or feet still covered in creamy flesh.
If you have not read Sergio González Rodríguez’s The Femicide Machine, exploring the murders in Ciudad Juárez, you should do so. In that book, Rodríguez connects the violence against women and their bodies to the “ultra-capitalist” ethos of the city, a location where broader trends in Mexican culture and economy lead manifest in murder, in mutilation, in an attempt at erasure, defacement. Joyce’s interests are not Rodríguez’s. She writes from the other side of the proverbial and literal border. For her the horror of Juárez echoes tropes of pornography and splatter-fest cinema. The gore on the sand behind the factory walls is, in Joyce’s view, much like the gore so glorified in Catholicism. Her book takes the Juárez murders as a launching off point for language that embodies the glee of certain cartoon horror types: the mad doctor, for instance, his glass eye tilting white as he gleefully digs, elbow-deep, into a corpse:
Finally she shows you how she does it, in real time. First she gets rid of the blood by hanging the girl upside down and slitting her throat. Then she sews the girl back up. The liquids collect in a glass tank. They layer down—watery red, yellow fat, with shiny white gobs of plasmic waste. In the centre blooms a starburst of hot red—the richest blood fresh from her heart. It pulses and steams, lazy drifts staining the fat, the plasma, the pinkish water. She stirs the mixture carefully, for hours, until the heart blood atomises and spreads its magic through the gloop.
A series of reels, parodying instructional footage, parodying snuff films, these pieces writhe around in that zone that is the escapism of cinema, with its still blue glow, so like the reaction of luminol to human blood. No matter how real the subject of a given reel, once projected, ghost-like, across a wall, engorging across the space, it becomes pure fakery, flickering fiction, a moving lie. Each of Joyce’s prose-poem pieces is a film in words, acknowledging the titillation of the visual while slathering on the signifiers, a screed of knifeplay and choking and sex-murder, masturbation, abortion, stillbirth, child-murder, slaughter and scraping and assorted liquids and solidifying appendages, pearls and blades and picks and chemical sprays and foams:
Once you are gowned, spray their cunts with white foam that smells like a custard of baby fat. Scrape it off so that the foam and the mess of hair comes away leaving raised sores on their prickly skins. Do not put your mouth near that. Go on, they will say, in a teasing voice, and not even that gently they will try to push you down towards that bare red place. If they do, you must lick and kiss and tongue. You must feel every bump as you flick over the flesh and think of every pore, bacteria—a yellowy jelly that might burst at any time—in your vulnerable mouth. Blackheads will scud their thighs where sweat collects; blue, dense. Put two thumbnails around the toxic place and let the poison flow away. Scrub the pore out with salt and lime.
Like the genre cinema to which it pays homage, such prose is an acquired taste. At times, in its insistence on the overlap between sex and violence, the spliced titillation there, the book thrusts the reader into the position of voyeur, the audience at a late night movie, spooked by the atmospheric found footage (“This reel is on a loop. It contains vintage footage of the master butcher. She guides you through the factory tasks.”) or peering between splayed fingers at the action, all flesh-and-liquid (“Her tiny heart bikini is ripped open by the clouds. Nacreous grains spray out of every hole and gap and slit. She is cut in pieces, shredded by its weight. Her flesh becomes confetti on her bones.”) But is Joyce suggesting something like a causal connection, a link between sorrowful, ever-watching virgin saints and the cultural phenomenon of sex-murder, an arrow between an industry devoted to mutilating young female bodies on screen and the enactment of such choreography in shadows, behind the concrete walls of another anonymous factory for the fabrication of cut-rate export goods?
There were stories about the desert—the parable of Old Jack, the parable of the Child Killer. But the girls still came. They came at midnight, they came early in the morning. They walked in bare feet carrying plastic grocery bags with their uniforms, food, rape alarms. Keys were splayed in their palms, knifed out. The buses did not come at night, nor in the early morning. The women came to the desert, walked over the bodies they found there, careful to avoid falling down into the mass graves, the limb-filled holes of the desert.
Luminol, after all, is the chemical used by investigators to track splatter patterns, streaks and stains of bodily fluids, otherwise invisible. While useful for forensics, luminol also manages to turn a crime scene into a spectrally-lit curiosity, a peep show for the pocket voyeur. Or most disturbingly—in keeping with how the gore and oyster knives of this little book lingering, unsettlingly, with me, as I thought about the real dead at Juárez, erased yet again in the exuberant slasher-fest that is Joyce’s prose—luminol hides as it reveals, making blood glow blue and thus appear as something utterly other than what it is. Our human juices appear as if traces of an apparition—heavenly instead of earthly. This distracting aspect of luminol can be defended, professionally, as allowing scientists to dispassionately analyze the crime scenes in which they kneel. Joyce, however, splashes the stuff around liberally, employing it as just another special effect, stage magic to add sparkle to the “gloop” of violated bodies, lending eerie light to a collection that relishes violence as an element of melodrama. Lighthearted romps through horror, these are not real reels, and certainly not footage from the ongoing reality that is Juárez. But perhaps one thread of commentary embedded here in Joyce’s work is the idea that delight in filmic representation of death, whatever else such a phenomenon might mean in the world, is certainly a privilege of those who are not, themselves, stalked, torn open, bled out.
Official Calamari Archive, Ink Web Site