take shelter [film review]

[Third in a series of ekphrastic responses to the films of Jeff Nichols, written following a recent second viewing. First. Second.]

A cloud formation, colored rain falls.

The wavery grass—below seething sky confounded by murmurations.

A failure to communicate—an oily sheen—some of it you cannot rub away.

Open mouth gasps wake from dark dreams. A life unbalanced.

A state of confusion within your small family. Your wife and daughter. Your hallucinatorium.

Silence stretches except when thunder strikes…

A visit to mother—there was a history:

‘Do you remember what happened before you were diagnosed?’

[…]

‘I just want to know what happened before you had to leave…’

‘There was always…there was always a panic that took hold of me.’

Electric sky at night—jagged streaks above the fields: ‘Is anyone seeing this?’

Dig a big hole in your yard. It seems logical—like the only thing to do.

‘Are you out of your mind?’

‘I’m doing it for us.’

‘You’re right I don’t understand.’

‘There’s nothing to explain.’

But you sit across from her and try anyway.

‘Dark thick rain like fresh motor oil…’

‘It’s not just a dream, it’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming…something’s not right. I cannot describe it.’

Brother checking on brother. No love lost but the fronts dissolve a little in the goodbye.

‘Take care of yourself.’ ‘Okay, little brother.’

There is this feeling, this stark feeling of separation, of alienation from family and community.

‘You did this to yourself.’

Closer and closer it creeps in.

‘I was in one of your dreams?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can you deal with that?’

‘Yeah.’

So you make an exception. But then it’s dinner rimmed by the faces you want to avoid.

‘What are you doing here?’

Fisticuffs. A loss of control. An upending of the table, of your control.

‘You think I’m crazy? There is a storm coming. And not a one of you is prepared for it!’

Faces blur as huddled family exits.

A racing line of birds. Before they begin to fall…

Middle of the night. The siren. The shelter.

‘What if it’s not over?’

‘I don’t hear anything.’

‘I’m sorry. I can’t.’

‘This is something you have to do.’

[rising strings]

_______________________________________________________________________

[Coda: this is my favorite Nichols film. The ambiguity is so perfectly sustained all the way to the very end—those final few scenes arriving like gut punches. The questions—are they answered or do they only birth more questions. The wide open spaces throughout—both literal geographic in the settings and auditory in between the sparse dialogue. The soundtrack pitch perfect—always complementing, never interfering.]

‘caught between writing and life’: peter holm jensen’s the moment

The first psithuristic wisp of autumn arrived this week. Early August and the heat retreated with a whimper in the presence of the death season’s harbinger. Odd to experience this with all the news of raging fires out west. It has been dry here, though, it has been that. Will we too one day be engulfed in flames? More likely floods.

I have been occupied with and preoccupied by disruptions and transitions in my quotidian existence. This has led to feeling disconnected from the written word, excepting my dealings with it for which I receive monetary compensation. However, I did finish reading a book—The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen. A subdued but riveting read, it was calling to me from a special box I’d packed of most-likely-to-be-read-next books. So I answered its call.

Per its publisher Splice, The Moment is a novel but it reads like a journal of its author. Is this an important consideration? Probably not, at least not to me. Frankly I long ago grew tired of the inevitable questions around the mingling of autobiography and fiction. I like works that resist being genrefied. Even the term autofiction seems absurd to me—as if any fiction exists that does not contain parts of its author. What exactly those parts are and what percentage of a book they represent should not matter when it comes to evaluating and appreciating the finished work.

These days I find it far easier to filter my reflections through others’ written words (or music) rather than document them using my own words. It actually feels like it has been this way for far too long. And this is a significant part of what resonated so deeply with me in Holm Jensen’s book: the struggle of living with the paradox of a simultaneous passion for and distrust of language, and in particular the written word.

As the narrator grapples with this paradox, he is also documenting a blurring of the intentional and unintentional experience of living in ‘the moment’—of finding over time that opening into greater awareness, from which more insight may flow. And because the transition to moment living is continuing to happen as the narrator is writing about it, there is a sense of gradual unfolding, with attendant periods of uncertainty and confusion. But what accumulates through the narrator’s journal is evidence that each moment is indeed unique, provided one is open to noticing it.

I was reminded of how all the books I’ve read by Buddhist teachers seem to repeat the same simple ideas over and over until it eventually becomes clear that what at first appear to be the simplest concepts are actually the most complex when it comes to putting them into practice. While Holm Jensen’s book is not overtly Buddhist in nature, it does touch on ideas and questions common to Buddhist practice. But it also entwines these with questions around the act of writing and its significance, leaving those questions—as they can only ever remain—unanswered.

The Moment is a book I think best read without much foreknowledge of its contents, which is why I’ve not delved into any of its narrative specifics here. However, I did write a brief review on Goodreads that offers just a skeletal overview. I hope you consider seeking out the book.

The moment lurks inside everyday time; always new, always the same. It waits to give you back your life, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate. It needs you: your ragged past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

—Peter Holm Jensen

A Set of Lines turns one

Today is the one-year anniversary of the publication of my novel A Set of Lines. To mark the occasion I thought I would offer a little history on its genesis. In a halfhearted attempt to ‘market’ the book when the ebook edition became available, I characterized it as ‘quotidian dystopiary meets nouveau roman,’ realizing even as I did so that this descriptor would likely either repel potential readers or simply generate blank stares. Chances are, even if you know and appreciate the French literary movement known as nouveau roman (see also: antinovel) that arose in the 1950s, you are unlikely to approve of or could even conceive of its integration with dystopian genre tropes. But to me it seemed like the most accurate way to describe the book, regardless of the likelihood of such a description alienating rather than engendering potential new readers.

I didn’t set out to write a novel blending these two types of fiction, nor did the revelation that this was what I had done immediately occur to me after finally finishing it. I was just reaching for a way to explain the book, which is typically something writers hate doing, but must at least attempt if they wish to attract readers. And, to be more precise, the nouveau roman doesn’t necessarily indicate a certain type of fiction. As a so-called movement it’s somewhat controversial, in that many or most of the writers grouped within it (notably by reviewers and critics, in general) did not see themselves as particularly unified in style or theme. That said, similarities do exist between some of their approaches.  

Eight years ago when I started writing what would become A Set of Lines, I had been gorging on nouveau roman writers—specifically a lot of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet—and they had fully captivated me with their unique styles and focus on tone and mood over plot. As to the source of the novel’s dystopian tropes, I had always been drawn to this subgenre of science fiction, ever since I was a young reader. In my early 20s I’d even played in a concept band based on Orwell’s 1984. So I guess dystopia was in my blood from an early age, though I hadn’t been actively reading it as I began to write A Set of Lines.

I had, however, begun to see elements of both dystopian fiction and my favorite nouveau roman writers’ novels collide in my own daily life: stark repetition, circuitous conversations, blurring of dreams and waking life, hyper-exposed moments of quotidian life, endless meetings, rewriting and/or writing off the past by various overseers. Steeped in this milieu, from the kernel of a long-ago dream-memory (or was it a memory-dream) I began to write…

A Set of Lines review

The writer Rebecca Gransden posted an incisive review of A Set of Lines on Goodreads. Excerpt below:

There is a shorthand inherent in tackling dystopian themes, and Stewart moulds a knowing backdrop, using that shorthand to create a scaffolding which amplifies the atmosphere of benumbed melancholy. Throughout, there is an overwhelming sense of longing underneath the surface, a longing obfuscated and perhaps suppressed for so long, that its very function is being forgotten. The unconscious mind and its rebellion against passivity in the face of the denial of human wants and dignities is very present in this novel.

spectral rabbits

In an ongoing series depicting the After People world, GPA archivists report on an infestation of spectral rabbits, as seen through the eyes of one G. Hogg—a disgruntled groundhog just woken from her months-long nap.

a word was unfolding

I made this erasure earlier this year as part of a collaborative inquiry with Archivist NG into the origins of the Ghost Paper Archives. Full text in lined form appears below the images.

A Word Is Unfolding erasure

A Word Is Unfolding

An erasure made from a sibylline text created by splicing together excerpts from two public domain texts. Sources: The Night-Side of Nature, or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers by Catherine Crowe. B. B. Mussey & Co., 1850 (courtesy of Project Gutenberg);  The Dissociation of a Personality, a Biographical Study in Abnormal Psychology by Morton Prince. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906 (courtesy of Internet Archive).

a word was unfolding the present
as the present is hypnosis
one being involved in the other
when the victim of action she was a spirit
what loss is to happen
what has happened
what peculiar circumstances
since last fall

this condition we do not know
but that certain thing
telling frightful lies
the worst condition
all experience the moment to feel mortified
however they tell these lies to only one person
and her friend falls into doubt

at a much later date I had opportunities,
his Creator a hundred times might say
we admit this and witness that, for more reasons
in automatism they sleep,
early beginnings exercise the here
in prophetic dreaming

seeing in dreams
may be spontaneous
time and phenomena form no obstruction
to the dreamer things near and far are later
in the nothing mirror self
and nothing to connect what took place
she knew she was the future

such phenomena interest him
man has lost his faculty of seeing
but in sleep the body in a state of passivity
even normal minds split in two
by shutting the senses
we perceive the spirit
when freed from impediments
they enjoy original design

the mirror of two minds at one still moment
receives in dreams rays from above
foretaste of the condition

at this date history has been opinion
the mental ancient life
the original state dubbed from his Creator
that unexpected process
the waking pain self
transformed into the slang of “It”

for his sensuous organs she had the objects
his soul field post-hypnotic
mirror pointed out
everything was reflected

a doubling is induced
a spirit no longer independent
a condition to perceive
degraded and distracted
by the multiplicity

ship of fools

I recently participated in Surrealist provocateur Merl Fluin‘s flash fiction game, Ship of Fools. My contribution is entitled ‘Sea Legs’. You can read all of the responses here.

2020 in books and music

The less said about this year the better (at the moment and in this space, at least).

My current total of books read for the year stands at 136 and I’m sure I’ll finish a few more before year’s end, though they probably won’t make this list, so I’m posting it earlier than usual. I will update later if this changes. As it turns out I read more books last year, but I suspect I spent more actual hours reading this year due to the circumstances. I think I read more longer books this year, which probably accounts for the difference. Once Goodreads provides my year-end stats I can compare number of pages read and see if this is the case (Update: turns out my suspicions were off the markso far I’ve read about 10,000 less pages this year than my total for last year. Definitely not going to make up that difference in the next couple of weeks).

Concentration was definitely a problem this year. As a result I found myself switching between books, starting and stopping books, and completely abandoning books more than usual. But reading remained my top leisure activity and provided a safe refuge from the chaos and negative energy in the world.

If you’re a Goodreads user you can view my entire list of books read here.

Top reads (in order within each genre by date read):

Note: in most cases links are to my Goodreads reviews, not all of which are actual reviews)

Novels/Novellas:

The Box Man / Kōbō Abe (review)
Wide Sargasso Sea / Jean Rhys (review)
The Atrocity Exhibition / J. G. Ballard (review)
The Doll / Lukas Tomin (review)
Dézafi / Frankétienne (review)
The Golden Cut / Merl Fluin (review)
The Diary of Mr. Pinke / Ewald Murrer (review)
Mount Analogue / René Daumal (review)
Rogomelec / Leonor Fini (review)
Mangled Hands / Johnny Stanton (review)
The Model / Robert Aickman (review)
The Narrator / Michael Cisco (review)
The Undying Present / Syd Staiti (review)
The Warren / Brian Evenson (review)
Yesterday / Ágota Kristóf (review)
Such Small Hands / Andrés Barba (review)
The Bridges / Tarjei Vesaas (review)
Malicroix / Henri Bosco (review)
The Left Hand of Darkness / Ursula K. Le Guin

Short Stories:

All of Your Most Private Places / Meghan Lamb (review)
Secret Hours / Michael Cisco (review)
The Sleep of the Righteous / Wolfgang Hilbig (review)
Waystations of the Deep Night / Marcel Brion (review)
Unreasonable Hours / Julio Cortázar (review)
The Delicate Prey and Other Stories / Paul Bowles (review)
Morbid Tales / Quentin S. Crisp (review)
The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny / Sarban (review)
The Sea-Rabbit; Or, the Artist of Life / Wendy Walker (review)
The Unsettled Dust / Robert Aickman (review)
The Earth Wire / Joel Lane (review)

Poetry:

Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems / Georg Trakl (review)
A Certain Plume / Henri Michaux (review)
Coma Crossing: Collected Poems / Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (review)
The Last Gold of Expired Stars: Complete Poems 1908–1914 / Georg Trakl (review)

Drama:

Complete Plays / Sarah Kane (review)

Cross-Genre:

The House of Illnesses / Unica Zürn (review)
Nights as Day, Days as Night / Michel Leiris (review)
The Star Opens Slowly / Casi Cline (review)
Desire for a Beginning Dread of One Single End / Edmond Jabès (review)
Wasteland / New Juche (review)

Literary Anthologies:

Man in the Black Coat: Russia’s Literature of the Absurd / Oberiuty (review)

Nonfiction:

The Trouble With Being Born / E. M. Cioran (review)
Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk / Sam McPheeters (review)

Comix:

The Portable Frank / Jim Woodring (review)
Nijigahara Holograph / Inio Asano
Gast / Carol Swain (review)
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters: Vol. 1 / Emil Ferris (review)

________________________________________________________________

MUSIC

I listened to a lot of mixes this year, as opposed to full albums, so I’m keeping the list short, tailored mostly to bands whose songs I keep replaying. I will note that not much has changed with my favorites over the past few years. Occasionally a new band gets added to the heavy rotation roster, but it’s often within an existing favored genre. Nearly everything Justin Broadrick touches continues to floor me. The drone doom and wider post-metal genres in general are popular zones, supplemented with frequent forays into ambient, post-punk, industrial, and retro trips to hardcore, punk, and 80s alternative rock. Much like with my reading tastes, a solidification seems to have occurred. I blame middle age.

The (very) abridged list of what got me through 2020, in no particular order (links in most cases direct to artist Bandcamp pages):

True Widow
Emma Ruth Rundle
Helms Alee
Thou
Jesu
Final
Transitional
Scorn
Nadja
Pelican
Seefeel
Dead Can Dance

A Set of Lines ebook edition

A Set of Lines front cover

At long last the ebook edition of my novel A Set of Lines is available. The book can be downloadedfree for a limited timein a reader’s choice of all the usual formats. Many thanks to GPA archivist-technician Nathan Grover for his amiable tenacity in making this happen. For more information on A Set of Lines, including how to order the paperback edition, please visit Ghost Paper Archives. Reviews of the book can be found on Goodreads and at A Wild Slim Alien.

 

the sleek ones

In a new post on the Ghost Paper Archives site, three GPA archivists collaboratively ruminate on the arrival of ‘the sleek ones’.

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