Show Trials, Part 4

The Courthouse. It really does have a plaque commemorating Colonel Lynch commissioned by the local chapter of the DAR, though the plaque is affixed to the external brick wall near the entrance rather than on the indoor landing. No cases are tried in the old Courthouse any longer, the Circuit Court having moved to the new building down the street. My in-laws have taken it upon themselves to champion, under the auspices of the local Historical Society, the restoration of the decommissioned Courthouse’s interior. They’ve painted, rewired, air conditioned, and refurbished the ground floor, setting up a museum, a genealogy library, a conference room. The courtroom is upstairs, well preserved. There really is an enormous carved wooden judge’s chair, allegedly once owned by Queen Victoria herself, with the Eye of Justice really plastered and painted onto the wall behind it. The Eye looks cartoonish, possibly touched up by an amateur’s hand during some earlier restoration, though maybe that’s how it has always looked. There is no heat up there: take your coats with you. In the summer I picture the gallery and the jury fanning themselves with those little paddles, like in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. If I was going to write a full-on ekphrasis of the Show Trials I’d want to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the location, work in more details to enhance the realism effect.

Recently the assistant county administrator used his little forklift to scoop up a large flat stone that for years had rested near the edge of the bank parking lot. He hauled the stone down Main Street to the Courthouse lawn, where his son and my father-in-law helped him mount it. The plaque calls it an auction block, which is true as far as it goes. It’s where the slaves were auctioned, an activity that in most small Southern towns took place on the courthouse steps or grounds.

Cue Act Three: Court takes a brief recess. The gallery is encouraged to go out to the lawn, where one of the rejected writers from Act One will be auctioning himself off: full-time services rendered in exchange for room and board. The Show Trials take place during the end-stage capitalist Decadence, where nearly all jobs have been outsourced to third-world sweatshops, robots, and AIs. There will be no takers at the auction until the writer starts sweetening the pot by offering to perform more degrading, more obscene services.

Intermezzo. Returning from the slave auction, the gallery is ushered into the downstairs meeting room of the Courthouse. One end of the room is set up as a bar. Arrayed behind the bartender is a small collection of bottles and phials, all opaque and unmarked. The bartender is an alchemist, preparing a concoction crafted specifically for this court, this session, these cases, this gallery. Let it be admitted that this is the bartender from the London Rik’s, tried for poisoning Pilgrims in the sixth movement of the Salon Suite. It wasn’t the cocktails, the bartender asserted during the interrogation: the drinks merely revealed toxins that were already there, in the drinkers. The bespoke cocktail produces unique effects for each partaker, as and when it will – maybe as it’s being drunk, maybe later tonight or tomorrow, maybe even yesterday. The bartender selects and pours ingredients with precision, sometimes stirring, sometimes shaking. Incantations are muttered. When it’s ready, the mixture is decanted into glasses tempered specifically for the occasion. Some who drink may detect a bitter note – quinine, they reassure themselves, or citrus rind. Others discern a tincture of pomegranate, perhaps tamarind. It’s what you can’t taste that really kicks you in the ass, somebody warns. Oh, you mean like vodka? I mean the homeopathic essence of damnation. Few will be able to claim unalloyed enjoyment in drinking it. Enjoyment is not the point. The point is to prepare the gallery for the Trial, which is another sort of incantation.

I’m about to take my first tentative sip when I see somebody I recognize from his online photos. “Hey man, long time.” It’s Jason, the post-evangelical sex addict in recovery, the former architect turned nurse. Jason and I used to comment on each other’s blogs. We’re reflecting on Act Two, the characters’ soliloquies from fictional Limbo. “It’s like,” I suggest, “what Jonah might have been thinking in the belly of the whale waiting to get vomited up, am I right? Or Jesus in the tomb waiting to get resurrected?”

“Yeah man,” Jason nods enthusiastically.” So, the theology of Act Four, what’s that going to be like? Vicarious atonement, sacrifice, redemption, justification, glorification?”

I shrug, but he’s right: Show Trials is in danger of turning into an allegory, a morality play. There’s no doubt that the themes played out in the first two acts, of unjust accusation and punishment, accumulate a forward thrust that’s too mythically predictable. Is there a messiah in the house? Maybe it’s time for a sidestep. At first I worried about diverting the show from its dramatic momentum, but now I’m thinking that a diversion is just what the doctor ordered. I take a sip of my cocktail: it tastes like chicken soup. Time to shift gears. “Trump or Sanders?” I ask Jason.

“Neither. It’s idolatry.”

“You mean the personality cult?”

“That, and the ideologies.”

I pause. “An idol is an image, a simulacrum. So sure, the candidates, the handlers, the parties, the fans – they might all be substituting images of right and left for the real thing.”

“There’s no difference. The image is the reality. The simulacrum is the original.”

Oh boy. Like Jesus, I want to reply. Like Christianity. Like God. In the image and likeness of their creators. I retort: “But images influence reality. Reality is some confluence of the imaginary and the material, of fict and fact.”

Jason considered that for a moment. “Sort of like this conversation.”

“True enough.”

“I’d call this conversation unreal.”

The lights flicker, signaling the end of the recess and summoning the gallery back to the Courtroom. I set my flagon of potion on a windowsill without finishing it. Of course, I reply to Jason’s unasked question. The Scriptorium, the poets’ collectives, the Show Trial – it’s not hard to trace a lineage leading toward an anarcho-syndicalist writers’ millennium. Consider now a fourth act, predicated on the communist library, inserted after cocktails and before the redemptive finale of Act Five.

Court is back in session. Same judge, same clerk. First case, Your Honor: Plaintiff seeks $XX cover price in exchange for a single copy of the published book entitled _____. The Plaintiff comes forward and takes a seat in the Box. Thank you, Your Honor. If it please the Court I would like to present People’s Exhibit A. It’s a photo of the cover art from the book. The Judge scrutinizes it, hands it to the Clerk. Exhibit B, C, and D are blurbs from the back cover. The Judge asks the book’s length in pages, wants to know if it’s hardback or paper. Can you tell me something about the author? Certainly, Your Honor – Exhibit E is the two-sentence bio and photo on the inside back flap. I’ve reached a verdict. Drumroll. I find in favor of the Defendant. Gavel smack. Tadaah! You may step down. Please hand over a copy of the book to the Clerk. And Clerk, please issue a voucher for the petitioned amount of $___, to be redeemed by the Plaintiff at the cashier’s desk in the lobby. Next case.

Fourteen cases are brought before the Judge in Act Four. He buys some of the books, rejects others (Colonel Lynch, if you please). The gallery may try to infer the Judge’s tastes in literature, but the decisions should be haphazard, perhaps randomly preassigned. It is essential that, during the proceedings, each published book be judged exclusively by its cover. Just like Act One, where all of the manuscripts are rejected for publication without the Judge ever reading a single line of the actual text.

Act One convicts the system. But doesn’t Act Four indict the reader for being so easily manipulated by hype? Cover art, blurbs, bios, photos, binding, placement on the bookstore shelves – a handful of packaging features are synthesized into a simulacrum, a fiction of the fiction, an algorithm geared to generate a profitable percentage of buy decisions in its target audience. But are the readers, so easily swayed by shallow marketing tactics, any worse than the fiction writers in Act One who comply with the agents’ and publishers’ submission requirements, willingly transforming their own books into three-paragraph formulaic caricatures, self-contemptuously playing the role of Loser in that tired old script, hoping against hope to receive an actual rejection rather than just being ignored? I’ve seen a website where fiction writers simulate agents in responding to one another’s inquiry letters, even though it’s clear to everyone involved that this S&M cosplay has nothing whatever to do with making the books any better and probably has no impact on improving the supplicant’s long odds of gaining a hearing at the Bench. Act One is a better simulacrum than that website: more realistic, potentially more pragmatically impactful on writers.

What’s wanted in juxtaposing Acts One and Four is a dawning awareness in the Gallery that the system is making suckers of writers and readers alike.

“But,” imaginary Jason interrupts as we head back up the stairs, “why are you talking about having a pragmatic impact on the writers, about inducing awareness in the readers? I thought this was an imaginary show.”

“Ah,” I reply, “but I’m talking about an imaginary audience.”

To be continued…

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