Reruns

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11

Thinking about Cam, the recently released movie by screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber (streaming on Netflix), I’m struck by how long I’ve been trying to do the same things.

  • I keep wanting the world to be other than what it is.
  • I keep imagining other ways it could be.
  • I keep trying to figure out how to move the world, or some small corner of it, from what it is toward what I imagine.
  • I keep realizing that I can’t do it, or that it can’t be done.
  • I keep making phase shifts, from imagining changes in the world-that-is to imaginary alternative worlds-that-aren’t.

There have been times in my life when I’ve allied with others who also want to change the world incrementally from what it is to what it could become. Mostly those efforts proved disappointing, to me at least, and arguably also to the world, though lots of people have made their careers that way.

A prototypical conversation between my father and mother:

Father: I did my best.
Mother: Your best stinks.
Father: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.

A prototypical conversation between me and myself:

Me: No reason it can’t be.
Myself: No way it ever will be.

If you’re chronically dissatisfied with the world as it is, don’t you at least once in a while have to acknowledge that the problem might be yourself as you are? It’s more adaptive to take what the world gives you by making the world a little bit more like itself.

###

Take Cam. Alice the cam girl is taking what the world gives her by giving the world what it wants. She’s good at it, but she’s insatiable: she wants more. The world is insatiable too: it doesn’t just want what she can give; it wants all of her. She resists. With no allies and no resources other than her own ingenuity and pluck, she reasserts herself as an autonomous agent in the world. The movie is smart, arty, engaging, exciting. It might be the sort of movie you make if on some level you’re satisfied with the movie world as it is, if you can take what that world will give you, if you’re prepared to make that world a little bit more like itself. Maybe you can resist, can retain your autonomous agency while immersed in an insatiable world, can climb the charts to a position where you’re able to call the shots. Maybe, if you’re prepared to do what it takes, you deserve what you get. You have to work at it, but you also have to want it. Not only do you have to accept the world as it is; you have to love it.

I can’t do it. I lack the drive, the energy, the desire. I lack the love.

When I started writing fiction it was mostly because I loved the world of fiction. Not pop genre fiction, but what for lack of a better adjective has to be labeled literary fiction. I wanted to adapt to that world of fiction, to exert personal agency in that world by writing my own fictions, to make that world more like itself through what I wrote. In retrospect I concede that I misread that world, that I was adapting to a fictional version of the world of fiction, a world riddled with holes and lumps and contorted by digressions and loops, unreal as psychosis, as science, as theology.  Since coming to that realization I’ve wanted to make the fictional world-as-it-is into something closer to my imagined fictional world-as-it-is-not. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. My best stinks; expect the worst and I won’t be disappointed. No reason it can’t happen, no way it ever will.

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When I first met Danny he was a senior at our daughter’s high school, introduced to me by Isa, the older sister of our daughter’s best friend from early childhood. At the time I was thinking about starting a film project among high schoolers who wanted to make movies, not for class credit, not as a program they’d have to pay for, but as an endeavor motivated by shared enthusiasm. I imagined a project called Reruns — here was the gist:

It’s a zombie world. Sitting zombified on the couch, you click through the TV channel changer. Every channel is showing reruns of old zombie programs. The collaborative project is to write and film these short clips of zombie TV shows, assembling them into a simulated trip through the channel changer. The clips will be short — from 5 seconds to a minute long — and fragmentary. All genres of programming are fair game: drama, comedy, reality TV, quiz show, news, documentary, sports, ad… The unifying structure or narrative isn’t imposed on the fragments; it emerges from flicking through them one after another.

Sounds a lot like Son of Strands. I presented the idea to Isa and Danny, both of whom were adept at cinematic art and craft. They liked the idea and were prepared to help me get it going. Around that time, out for an afternoon run, I came across the father of one of our daughter’s other childhood pals. The dad was a PhD physicist who worked in a government alternative energy lab but who had toyed with the idea of quitting to become a science teacher. Figuring him for a fellow traveler, I ran the Reruns idea by him as we ran along the Boulder trails together. Now’s the wrong time of year, he said; you should wait till the summer. And do you have any experience with filmmaking? with teaching? I told him to go fuck himself, to shove it up his ass — the last conversation I ever had with him. But I abandoned the project shortly afterward, having decided that I was attempting to manipulate kids into doing something that I wanted to do. It would be better if the high schoolers themselves initiated and ran their own project — as Danny had done a couple of years earlier, starting and running a kids’ theatre troupe.

Son of Strands. Do I write short stories? No. Have I ever edited a literary magazine or anything like it? No. Go fuck yourself and shove it up your ass. But you’ve got a point. I’m an outsider to that world; I don’t like many aspects of that world; I’d want Son of Strands to take shape in an alternative world of short fiction that’s more to my liking. Shouldn’t this sort of project be launched by people who already live inside the world of short fiction, who love that world, who want to carve out a niche in that world by making it more like itself? I’m the wrong guy for that job.

###

Around the time I was sketching out the Reruns project I wrote “Looking Up” for an Open Mic event at a nearby bookstore. It’s a 2,000 word story about an unknown novelist who suddenly achieves worldwide fame, reading long portions of his work in progress aloud to a vast and rapt audience, a novel that seems to be writing itself as he turns the pages. I asked Danny to read my story, giving particular attention to the ending: should the writer continue reading his self-writing novel and increasing in renown, or should a sniper from the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in subsequent rewrites I stuck with the B version. Analogously, in my imaginary ending to Cam Alice wins the competition against her AI döppelganger by snuffing herself on-screen; the audience, oblivious, celebrates AI-Alice for having staged such a clever CGI performance, propelling “her” to the top of the charts.

 

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Cam by Mazzei & Goldhaber

A postcapitalist interlewd:

I.  The cam girls and boys organize themselves into a collective syndicate, ousting the corporate platform that takes 50% off the top of their earnings and replacing it with their own DIY platform.

II.  The Syndicate develops a profit-sharing program in which a substantial proportion of the revenues is divided among all of the members of the Syndicate, substantially leveling the income disparity between high and low earning cammers.

III.  Instead of a free-for-all of individual cammers copying the top earners to boost their ratings and earnings, the Syndicate establishes an R&D lab for developing routines, props, staging, acting techniques, etc. with proven audience appeal.

IV.  With competition being minimized as a motivating force, many of the more ambitious and high-achieving cam girls and boys quit the business.

V.  The Syndicate establishes a school for novice cammers, with courses taught by experienced practitioners based on their own experiences and lab findings.

VI. The cam customers organize themselves into a purchasing co-op, negotiating a per-performance price paid to the Syndicate for unlimited open-access viewing instead of individually paying subscription fees to the cam platform and/or tips to the cammers.

VII.  No longer able to juice their competitive sense of power and status through extravagant tipping, many of the big-spending audience members abandon cam world.

VIII.  Together, the cammer Syndicate and the customer Co-Op promote camming not as a consumer commodity but as a performance art, a liberated form of entertainment, a collective intervention for enhancing pleasure among the populace, a valuable cultural resource.

IX.  The cam audience dwindles, the covert thrill of indulging covertly in naughty behaviors being replaced by the wholesome patronage of the arts.

X.  The Syndicate’s R&D lab launches a fleet of cam AIs, able to perform 24/7 at a high level without taking a share of the revenues.

XI.  The cam audience dwindles further, no longer positioned as sadistic voyeurs paying to watch human cam girls and boys abase themselves for money but as rubes watching simulated girls and boys perform simulated masochistic acts.

XII.  A revival of old-school camming springs up, with cam girls and boys competing for ratings and tips while audience members compete for sugar-daddy spending status.

XIII.  Rumors circulate about an alternative underground camming movement in which cam girls and boys perform for no money before simulated audiences or no audiences at all, motivated solely by self-expression and the perfection of art for art’s sake.

XIV.  Solo onanism, unaided by device or gaze, enjoys a resurgence, while copulation, experienced by those who’ve tried it as too interpersonally threatening, sags into impotence.

Cam the movie can be streamed on Netflix.

Standards of Anarchy


A couple of days ago Jonathan Erdman wrote a comment on one of my posts, and my reply to his comment has extended itself so much both in time and in length that I’m putting it up as a separate post. In his comment Jonathan wrote:

Another possibility as regards anarchist-leaning writers…..Anarchistic folk tend to be difficult to herd together — for any project… The original philosophical anarchists were called “libertarians,” in truth the two terms were synonymous. In any event, anarchistic folk tend to be very independent and opinionated. Again, not easy to get them to commit to a large-scale movement… I also tend to believe that markets work, on a small scale. So, my idea of anti-capitalism would be more along the lines of Ebay: bring together the collective works of all the authors of the world and let them run their own massive publishing house, with no Jeff Bezos to skim billions of profits off the top.

There are three established mechanisms for herding individual writers together: the traditional publisher-bookstore apparatus, the edited literary magazine, and the online platform. In theory the writers could have self-organized any or all of these herding schemes; in practice it’s typically been imposed on them by managers, operations people, marketing people, investors. Amazon is like that: the writers and readers could have banded together to create a collective anarchist platform, but they didn’t. Now it’s too late: Amazon holds a monopolistic stranglehold, and it’s well-positioned either to crush alternative models, or to buy them out, or to imitate them and beat them at their own game. The writers might see themselves as anarcho-libertarian entrepreneurs as they send out inquiry letters to agents or submit short stories to magazine publishers or self-publish novels on Amazon, but they’re being herded nonetheless.

I’m picturing an Amazon-like platform for short fictions — there are some out there. Writers self-publish their own stories on the platform, readers look through the offerings to find what they like. Let’s assume that no money changes hands: it’s all open-access. Writers write from whatever passions motivate them, and they respond to the call of the audience as they see fit. No doubt an emergent order would arise from this anarchist swarm, not necessarily in the pyramid shape of commercial fictions but in a kind of N-dimensional clustering, with writers and readers who share particular interests or tastes finding one another and generating enough critical mass to form an asteroid, a planet, a solar system… But it’s a big universe, so there’s plenty of room to expand before either the singularity collapses everything back down in its black-hole gravitational field or entropy splits everything back apart into isolated atoms floating in the void.

Like you, I find that sort of emergent order idea appealing. What draws me to a more collective form of anarchism is a concern for excellence. The converging forces pulling together a totally bottom-up self-organized system would seem to involve the interplays of passion and calling, of supply and demand, unencumbered by the external constraints imposed by the owners and managers. It’s a kind of laissez-faire capitalism without the money and top-down organization, the invisible hand freed from the shackles of capital. Or maybe like democracy without political party apparatus and lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors.

It’s not certain that unfettered bottom-up democracy would turn into mob rule, nor that unfettered capitalism would generate a bunch of commodified junk. I am, however, concerned about a possible loss of excellence, overwhelmed by the mediocre tastes of the herd. Writing options would be generated as variants on what already achieves popularity, not on what ought to be or even what could be. So too with judgment: it’s a matter of deciding among the options on the table rather than comparing those options to some sort of standards.

All the same I’m skeptical of the standard-setters and the tastemakers, the elite who separate the sheep from the goats. Who anointed them; by what standards are they rendering judgment; who holds them accountable? In a republic the voters, the elected officials, and the government appointees are all held accountable by laws and the Constitution. Capitalism too is held accountable to laws and regulations. But as we well know these standards are subject to interpretation, to selective enforcement, to change. In a post from February 2018, also inspired by a comment from Jonathan Erdman, I wrote this:

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

I agree that anarchists were originally libertarians, but typically with a collective orientation toward ownership and management, as opposed to the individualism that tends to dominate contemporary use of the term. “Anarchy” doesn’t mean lawless; it means leaderless. Laws and standards can be promulgated and enforced by collective agreement, rather than being pushed down everyone’s throats by the authorities.

I’m not advocating some sort of eternal ideal of beauty and justice against which every work is measured (and inevitably found wanting). Surely standards too can change: they can emerge bottom-up from a free democracy or a free market. They can also descend top-down from a political and economic Olympus.

In my posts on this website I’ve been reluctant to render any sort of judgment about the short stories I’ve read. It’s not that I harbor no opinions; it’s that I wanted to engage those texts on some other dimensions. My sense is that, when most people finish reading a text, they quickly arrive at an opinion as to whether they liked it or not, whether they thought it was good or bad. It’s nearly instinctive. Consciously or otherwise, people compare the new text with what they’ve read in the past, not just specifically but generally, as a sort of composite image or template. Some readers are able to make explicit the evaluation criteria they’ve abstracted from prior readings, from discussions with friends, from reviews. These templates and standards, built and refined on an ever-expanding experiential base, shape the experience of evaluating an actual text. But the standards and templates aren’t actual texts; they’re products of memory and imagination and thought. I.e., the standards and templates are fictions.

So I’m interested in exploring these fictional criteria by which people judge actual fictional texts. Readers spontaneously render judgments even if they can’t make their evaluation criteria explicit. Writers want to know what readers think of their work even if the opinions aren’t well elaborated. The Bestseller Code (2016) described a self-learning AI that was able to predict bestsellers based on variables it abstracted from data on previous bestsellers — these variables constitute a kind of bottom-up set of standards emerging from the marketplace. I’m curious also about the more top-down standards imposed by editors and publishers, the vetting process by which they decide which texts readers actually get to read. Maybe by understanding judgment — the comparison of actual fictions with fictional abstractions — from both the bottom up and the top down, some sort of meaningful convergence could result.

 

Son of Strands

In the last post I revisited Strands, a possible project idea from the early days of Ficticities. Back then I abandoned the project as weak tea that can’t be brewed, but based on subsequent experience I’m reconsidering. So, walking it through by example, here’s how a new issue of Son of Strands might take shape…

Strand. Let’s say that the topic for the upcoming issue is “Funeral.”

Request for Manuscripts. Son of Strands will be listed in online registries of short fiction magazines, issuing an open call. In addition, specific individual requests might be extended to writers whose work the publisher/editor admires or who’ve had pieces previously published in the magazine. Writers finding their way to the Son of Strands website are presented with an issue-specific call for submissions: Funeral, in this example. Consider the various elements that surround a funeral: obituary, announcement, hearing the sad news, organizing the funeral ceremony, prep/presenting the remains, gathering the mourners, wake, cortege, hymns/readings, eulogy, interment, etc. The deceased can be a human or a group of humans, an animal or a species, an inanimate object or an abstraction; the funeral can take place in this world or some other world, in the past or present or future. You can write a story, a fragment, a list, a lyric, a lamentation, a dream, a theory, an instruction manual, etc. Any mood is appropriate: reminiscent or absurd, realistic or weird, adventurous or introspective. The 2,000 word maximum is a suggestion rather than a limit.

Manuscript Vetting/Editing. The call for manuscripts might elicit hybrid writings intended specifically for this publication and this issue — texts that might be difficult for the authors to shop around to other magazines if they’re rejected by Son of Strands. Consequently it would seem preferable that a manuscript selection policy be adopted that operates according to an iterative revise-and-resubmit cycle rather than the usual binary logic of accept/reject. How many individual texts make up an issue of the magazine? The magic number I have in mind is 14, which might add up to around 15K words. Is it fear of success to be concerned about receiving too many manuscripts? They could each be published separately online of course, but Son of Strands wants to focus attention not just on individual pieces but on the issue as a whole. Maybe two separate issues on the same Strand?

Issue Editing. Putting the individual pieces together into an issue will be like assembling a sculpture from found objects, an abstract mosaic, a cubist painting, a Frankenstein monster. Each piece, while possessing its own unity or integrity, won’t be framed in isolation from the other pieces. Each piece is also a fragment or shard. Is it possible to reassemble the shards into the lost whole to which they originally belonged, like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or reassembling a shattered Grecian urn? Assuredly not. The edited assemblage will accentuate the jagged edges and the angular facets and the misfitted junctures — a creation among the ruins, a mid-apocalyptic creation. The issue might include a brief Intro about the issue topic — Death — and the assemblage. At the end there might be a single topic-related Interview question to which each author crafts a very brief response. A concluding Contributors section will include hotlinks to authors’ websites, recent publications, etc.

Formatting. The issue will be published in an online open-access format. Most online litmags emphasize the individual texts while losing sight of whatever holistic aspects the texts collectively comprise. Son of Strands’ formatting will accentuate the issue-ness while also highlighting each piece separately. Some litmags emulate the look and feel of a print mag, with readers turning virtual pages to work through the entire issue from front to back. The emulation format respects issue-ness, but it makes it hard for a reader to flip to a specific text within the compilation. Maybe the way to go is to publish the entire issue as a single “post” on the website, but with a navigable Table of Contents, a page break between each individual text in the issue, and an easy way of navigating between individual texts.

Distribution. Distribution will be open access and online: no print versions. The magazine acknowledges and links to each contributing author publicly on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc). This way of promoting the authors’ work will let their friends and associates know about Son of Strands, hopefully luring them to read their friends’ pieces and maybe more of the issue as a whole.

Next Issues. The unifying thematic strand might go upstream from Funeral to Death — cause of death, bedside confession, last words, last rites, murder scene, forensics, autopsy report, etc. — and downstream to Afterlife — pearly gates, zombification, loved ones’ reminiscences, reading the will, trust funders, discovery of secrets, etc. These three issues could be further edited and consolidated into a single compiled ebook.

Toward Postcapitalism. The issue-specific themes, explored via the assemblage of disparate fragments, bespeaks an ambiguous apocalyptic world, a jagged reality that’s either falling apart or pulling itself together, a mad scientist’s laboratory where something “post” might bubble up from the beaker. The big-tent inclusiveness of its short fictional texts extends the realm of creation beyond the traditional narrative limitations upheld by commercial publishing. The editorial commitment to revise-and-resubmit, the emphasis on the issue as a coherent collective text, and the direct correspondence of publisher/editor with authors all point toward the possibility of authorial collaboration in writing, editing, and publishing. Open access supports the decommodification of fiction. The continuity of topics and the movement toward ebook compilations opens up the possibility of collectively editing, publishing, and distributing single-author open-access ebooks.

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So here’s the problem. I like this scheme. In fact, I like it so much I can imagine writing the whole freaking issue myself, and doing it in less time than it would take me to solicit and edit a compilation of texts written by other writers. But if I wrote it myself, who would read it? The multi-author compiled work would reach out via social media to 14 writers each issue, and at a second degree of separation hundreds of the authors’ online friends and followers would be alerted. With twelve issues per year, Son of Strands could reach thousands potential readers, not counting word of mouth and reblogging. But if I write 12 issues in a year I’ve got the same handful of friends who might be interested enough to take a look.

So suppose I go ahead and launch Son of Strands as editor-publisher of a compilation of short fictions written by others. Suppose I manage to get one issue out, then follow it up with a second issue, and a third. Writers like it; so do readers. As far as I’m concerned proof of concept has been established; the pilot testing phase is ready to transition into full production mode. Time to hand the machinery over to somebody who actually finds enjoyment and fulfillment out of turning the same crank over and over again. Meanwhile, I’m ready to try something else. That’s why I set up Ficticities as a laboratory in the first place: I’m not an ops guy.

Random Irruptions of Surreal Absurdities

On Friday I tentatively concluded that the introduction of radical anomaly into ordinary reality, with grim comic effect, is a literary deployment of hammerspace — a reminder that even a seemingly realistic narrative is, after all, imaginary. More aptly, a fictional narrative never corresponds fully to the real world; it’s a mongrel entity, combining aspects of both the actual and the imaginary. Roadrunner drawing a door on the face of solid rock and running through it, Bullwinkle pulling a roaring lion out of a top hat: even little kids who’ve grown accustomed to cartoon animals talking and scheming like humans respond with surprised delight when sheer impossibilities show up in cartoon world.

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Thus spake the Cardinal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu, or the Conspiracy (of course I’ve never seen or read it: that’s what Wikipedia is for). Writers of fiction can, like sorcerers, use words to conjure things in readers’ imaginations, can deploy imaginary objects metonymically or metaphorically or symbolically, can build up whole realities out of thin air. But actual little kids literally pick up pens and joust with them like medieval knights. The kids know that pens aren’t real swords, that they themselves aren’t real knights, that the loser lying slain and bloodied in the castle keep is going to hop back up for another round. It’s fun to pretend.

Is pretend play instrumentally useful, a kind of practice session for later in life when kids grow to adults, wielding real weapons in real battles or staging real theatrical enactments of imaginary battles? Kids often gloat when they win and sulk when they lose, just like adults do; kids try to get better so they can win another day, just like adults are encouraged to do. The justification of playground as training ground has been extended to “serious” fiction, the reading of which purportedly enhances language skills, or the ability to navigate conflicts, or empathy. Even kids though know that sometimes winning is beyond your control. You need a miracle, but you know you don’t deserve one. Or luck, but you’ve found that it tends to work in the other guy’s favor. You need hammerspace to open up a portal for you, like it does when Bugs Bunny needs to escape the clutches of Elmer Fudd. It’s kind of like cheating, but you’re not morally culpable. Hammerspace is the instrumental irruption of a surreal absurdity, letting you beat the odds and your opponent.

But kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of  the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

 

The Jolly Surreal of Hammerspace

In yesterday’s post I explored three interrelated aspects of Elizabeth Bruenig’s WaPo piece on millennial humor: grim jolliness, absurdity, and nihilism. These three aspects can be regarded as moods: not just subjective emotions, but ecological responses to being-there, to being immersed in a world that generates these moods.

Comedy sketches, TV ads, short stories: they’re all forms of narrative fiction. Comic routines and commercials deploy grim-jolly absurd nihilism tactically, as a means of distracting their audiences from the darker manifestations of being-there. What about short stories: do they offer distraction or immersion, lamentation or cure?

Of the 21 short stories in the latest Gone Lawn issue, the most prevalent mood is serious nihilism. The characters in those stories are immersed in a meaningless world, instilling in them a sense of loss, anomie, isolation, drift, inertia, confusion, sorrow, rage, and other variants on grimness. Arguably this mood has pervaded serious fiction for a hundred years or more. When in these narratives the realism veers into absurdity, it often takes on a symbolic cast, with the world and its denizens literally falling part, fragmented into shards, becoming collections of inanimate objects that stand in isolation from one another rather than cohering into a whole. It’s the kind of artistic move away from realism that characterized cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

In a few of the stories the absurdity twists toward dadaism and surrealism. Things aren’t just falling apart; they’re morphing, multiplying, hybridizing, reassembling themselves into bizarre configurations, filling up of the formless void, the nihil. Creative destruction: when the old rules no longer hold and everything collapses, then the constraints are relaxed, allowing strange mutant forms to explode across a grim and barren world. The explosion might be disconcerting — it might even signal the end of humanity — but it does offer some interest, and maybe even something like anticipation, that this incongruous congeries of mutation might assemble itself into an alternate reality that’s more fecund, more alive than the desolate and dying world in which we’re immersed. Maybe this new reality assembled from the detritus of the old might even restore some sense of meaning — or else meaning itself will fall by the wayside as no longer relevant, a dead aspect of the dying world it had once inhabited before being cast off.

The surrealistic explosion of mutant plenitude might instill curiosity, awe, abstract speculation, poetics, but what about jolliness? I don’t see it, don’t feel it in these stories. They’re abstract, literary, serious. Sorrow, regret, rage — the old negative affects might fall away with the collapse of the old reality, but so too do the old positive affects. Jolliness seems like a particularly archaic mood, the manifestation of a childish innocence and delight that’s been crushed under the weight of time. Jolliness feels a lot like nostalgia, a return of the old dying world to an earlier, more vibrant and surprising era.

Maybe that’s where the absurd jolliness shows up in the neo-dadaist and the neo-surreal — not in mass destruction, exodus, and burgeoning alternate realities, but in small unexpected interruptions of the preposterous. Grandma dies on the living room sofa, a grandson tosses an ugly quilt over the body, and life goes on pretty much as it did before. Eventually the family wonders what happened to Grandma. They shrug and carry on, looking forward to Christmas. Childish innocence? It sounds hard and cold, either autistic or psychopathic. But isn’t that how children deal with the disturbing, the annoying, the uncomfortable: throw a comforter over it and act like it’s disappeared? Hammerspace in reverse: throw something in and it’s gone. Of course Freud and a panoply of B horror movies have warned us about the return of the repressed, but as the severed hand in Evil Dead II demonstrates, even the return can be a laugh riot.

Not a succession of realities, the replacement of one with another, but the irruption of an alternate reality into the already existing one, a two-way hammerspace, a bidirectional portal tenuously linking ordinary everyday reality with an alternative reality. The juxtaposition proves dadaesque, surreal, absurd; it might be grim, but it might just as plausibly be jolly.

Does an irruption of absurdity, however limited and brief its appearance, reveal a gap in the matrix of the everyday, a gap that with attention and imagination can be widened until the whole artifice crashes? Or does the irruption offer an exit strategy, a way of stepping through the portal out of this reality into a different one? Or is it a reminder that any narrative, no matter how serious and how realistic, is an invention, an illusion, a fiction, no more real than hammerspace?

Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.

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I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.

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Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.