Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), 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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The history of utopian communities is always also the history of their sexual politics—from free love communes to gender-segregated Shaker communities, from the birth control innovations at Oneida to the celestial marriage of early Mormonism. Several utopian experiments try it both ways, first banning sex altogether on the familiar logic that the sexual encounter reiterates and reaffirms the capitalist ego, then permitting it free-for-all in the hope that such a situation would fuck the oppressive cultural norms of the status quo. Of course—and certainly no pun is intended here—it is women who get fucked, who get knocked up or abandoned for a newer bride, who get left with the kids or die in childbirth (the main motivation for Oneida’s restrictions on ejaculation), who get reduced to something somehow less than equal when all the men sew their equality around—objectified, dehumanized, reduced to something to be used, owned. And a given utopia reveals itself to be just another slice of the status quo, albeit with better views or worse roads, less plumbing, fresher food, whatever.
In War of the Crazies, the stab at utopia is a farm full of fairly unstable, well, crazies, united in their opposition to Reagan and war, more or less. Their politics is vague, confused. At one point one crazy suggests a double suicide, and it’s unclear to what degree he’s being facetious. “What does Nietzsche say about freedom?” he asks, presumably rhetorically, but it is the sort of rhetoric that risks putting a reader to sleep. There is a sculpture that gets made, “the Gravestone Of The Human Race,” with an “aluminum vulva” at its top, which would also be something to snooze past were it not for how it stitches into a deeper theme of this text, causing one stoned character to imagine “claws tearing through tender folds of womanly skin, pulling them apart.” War of the Crazies is a violent book, characterized particularly by sexual violence. In the early pages we hear from one of the craziest of the crazies, a woman named Silva, of her life. The story may be false, it may be true, but it is swiftly told, rattled off, and is brutal. This character, at least claiming to be a victim of profound sexual violence, later inflicts such violence, saying, all the time, “I love you. I love you.” Is this an expression of desire, disconnect, distance, insatiability? Ultimately Silva is as ambiguous as she is creepy, a statement which is true for all of the lightly drawn characters here, and, disturbingly, the narrative as well. One character gets severely burned, and we’re told: “All over her were smears of soot and blood and grit and burned clothes and dirt. Some pubic hair curled out from the hems of her panties.” Why those pubic hairs? Why this detail from the periphery? Why the story about the wire cutters and the clitoris? Why the drugged hallucination of urethral pain? Why the woman who compares ejaculation to a blast of “ratshot” who tries to figure out if she bled the first time, “pretty sure she’d seen some dried blood in that awful crust in the crotch of her tights.” Why a story about religious madness in Africa, a village that goes spontaneously insane, all the men killing each other, leaving the women alone to become pariahs in the wider world?
One zombie-loving character pontificates that the function of fiction is “to change things around.” He’s writing a zombie saga. Another character, at the close of the book, espouses the view that “those people who believe their own lies” are those capable of making “great art.” “Hitler called it degenerate art,” this man says—and he has some history with Nazis—“but I see a higher order in it. Only the opposite of what you want to think will make you think.” What does Nietzsche say about that? And how does it speak to the horrors we’ve witnessed in this book, the profound pain—albeit unexamined, expressed in the odd licked hand or the occasional bad trip, the sinister “I love you”s, and un-climactic gunplay that we knew was coming all along because the guns were always, a la Chekov, right there (along with the violence, the violent minds, the pseudo-Nietzschian will-to-violence or whatever)? I was disturbed at the end of this short, strange book, to be sure. I wouldn’t compare it to what the Nazis termed “degenerate art” nor do I feel any need to quote Hitler on the notion of “serious mental disorders.” But I felt like so many utopians have felt, when they finally throw in the towel: the project, in hindsight, seems confused, its true motivations and path of action unexamined. And the women—the women get pushed around and put on display, whether they have guns in their hands at the time or not.
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