The backstory to the story is the story of the House on Shady Blvd. This is the past to which the author must return. He must tend to old wounds to enable future flourishing. Do we need a Time-Turner like the one used by Hermione Granger? Or is the Device that enables travel simply the trance-script itself? Does the author sift through unpublished entries from the past? Or have we gotten ahead of ourselves, trying to lead when what the story demands is that we let ourselves be led?
Benedict Seymour’s Dead the Ends takes Chris Marker’s La Jetée as its Ur-text. Seymour’s film is a found-footage concoction, and thus incorporates much of the Marker film into itself. But Dead the Ends is also database art, as Seymour pairs these bits of La Jetée with their many echoes in subsequent time travel narratives (Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, etc.). These works that Seymour reanimates in Dead the Ends all feature romance at their core: lovers seeking each other across time. The narrator of my story, meanwhile, feels growing within himself some similar romantic core. It is there “in the belly of this story,” as Leslie Marmon Silko says of her novel Ceremony. I trance-scribe these texts in the time-stream of the paralogy, but they are words received from another timeline, spoken by a shadow-self whose desires led him West. Or not spoken by the shadow-self, but in dialogue with it. Trance-scribing is not the same as channeling. The shadow-self wants to access the acid diaries of Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. The shadow-self is headstrong — discontented — and then enlivened — reawakened — through an encounter with another. Whereas the paralogical self is a family man: loving father, loving husband. But grown weary from excessive self-silencing, and (given the nature of the karmic cycle) the expectation that he plod on and endure.
Without yet knowing in advance the form of this narrative, or even whether it is to be a story or a novel, this thing, this experiment in living theater that we’ve method-acted our way into — let us nonetheless speculate as to what it might mean and how it might happen. At minimum, it means a shift in genre. This Work we’re trance-scribing would become a fiction, a fantasy: something other than the author’s lived reality. This despite being tied indexically to that reality through its temporal adjacency. The world contributes, the world participates in the coming-into-being, the trance-scription, of the text’s episodes. It is to the rhythm of the day that the text is sung. What happens is: I realize I’m already in the alternate timeline. The shift occurred with the paralogy of “Wednesday January 6, 2020.” Publish as is and we can continue to remain in this timeline, thinks our traveler. Edit the date and we enter a timeline that occurred otherwise. Or so I imagine as I sit with the idea, the realization unfolding slowly as I water the plants in our garden. “Otherwise how?” I wonder. “What would happen?” We couldn’t know in advance, could we? We would have to become part of the experiment, like seed in soil, attending to the unfolding of each day amid conditions of precarity and love. Yet this we’ve already done by gifting ourselves the paralogy. Swapping the zero with the one would be like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
So begins the tale. Sarah green-lights the production and confirms my thinking about how to proceed. I go live with the paralogy intact mid-afternoon, and encounter several immediate forms of resistance. A troll, for instance, posts a comment proposing that the work has “hit a new level of faggotry,” while someone I care to know better sings out into the void of social media Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” On a more hopeful note, though, the room (acting collectively here as Greek chorus) replies by sounding the passing of Donald Rumsfeld. Have I succumbed to cruel optimism? Should I have proceeded to the “unknown unknown” of the one? Perhaps the Work moves toward personal and collective flourishing as the one and the many learn to live in fidelity with both love and desire.
I wake to an announcement from a “witch of Instagram” whose readings have proven insightful in the past: we’ve entered “Mercury Retrograde.” Her advice for the next three weeks is basically “stay calm, go with the flow, despite feelings of postponement.” And the day is a good one: a friend invites us to her new home, with its beautiful porch and garden. I stroll around admiring the latter’s rocks and stones and many varieties of plants. The place seems magical: an apt terrain for psychedelic psychogeography, with its porch swing and its side porch overlooking the garden, and its meditative loft and its stained-glass window. It reminds me of a house from my past: a house that before my time belonged to a gay wizard. Someone from the home’s past — the wizard or one of his successors — had mounted on the wall above its side porch a cattle skull. Let the home’s stories and images be brought back into awareness. Write it, I tell myself, as if it were a weird tale: flotation tanks, rock boy. A spooky tale, certainly — but not a work of horror. The narrator is a bit like the Edward Jessop character from the movie Altered States: a professor who embarks on a psychedelic journey. The journey occurs during the period of the professor’s tenancy in the home of the gay wizard. Imagine him here recalling it now in retrospect. His spiel is, “It never occurred to me at the time that the place might have been haunted.” This, despite the fact that he grew up only a few towns away from the infamous ‘Amityville Horror’ house, raised by a mother who herself was raised down the street from one of the houses upon which the story of Poltergeist is based. Let our soundtrack be as follows:
The Unconscious talks across the divide. Through dreamwork it produces aspects of itself, events and encounters of each day “affected,” given to rise amid the lifeworld of the Ego, the Cogito, the “Subject.” Facets of the Akashic records surprise as they arise like flowers from the soil of routine. The process I’m describing is a bit like “hyperstition,” CCRU’s term for the way fictions make themselves real. (One could also liken it, though, to those acts of “time-walking” or “time-spinning” practiced by the creatures in the Deborah Harkness-inspired TV series A Discovery of Witches. Bodies of past selves inhabited by future minds.)
Joanna Ruocco’s Dan is a book I read with students. Dan is a place and a state of mind, through which moves a perplexed, brilliant young woman, the book’s protagonist Melba Zuzzo. Melba travels via bicycle, accosted by men and townspeople, en route to and at her place of work, the town’s bakery. Her morning customers include Officer Greg, who suspects Melba of a crime, and Don Pond, a man who brings her back to his apartment on behalf of a conspiracy involving all of the town’s men. The apparent head of this conspiracy is the book’s villain, Dr. Buck. Melba suffered Buck’s hands. He touched her inappropriately and claimed to be her father when she visited his office about chronic congestion of her sinuses as a child. She remembers the event over the course of her day. Buck haunts her, in a sense. He gaslights Melba, using his status as expert and authority to call into question her ability to know. She lays quietly on a sheet of paper in his office by book’s end. Some of my students unfortunately begin the book siding unknowingly with Buck. The course is designed, though, to demonstrate harms done to women by male doctors. Patriarchal patterns of abuse appear, for instance, once Dan is read in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.
What are we to make of Tommy Orange’s There There, with its story of a Powwow interrupted by violence? Why is that the event where the book’s interlinked narratives connect? Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as is his character Dene Oxendene, a young documentary filmmaker collecting stories from Native people in his hometown. Dene is thus a version of Orange himself, allowing the novelist to comment metafictionally about the politics of representing one’s community, particularly when one is a member of an oppressed people. Can the one allow the many to speak? Can the many speak through the one?
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Discovery of the AMC series Lodge 49 sends me back to Thomas Pynchon’s slim but not slight second novel The Crying of Lot 49, a book I read many years ago as an undergrad. This time around I’m delighted to be re-acquainted not just with the book’s heroine Oedipa Mass, but also with her shrink Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist running an experiment in a community hospital in the book’s version of 1960s Southern California, “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (17). Hilarius calls the experiment the bridge, or “die Brücke,” as in “The bridge inward” (17). At the back of the book, my twenty-year-old self had written a set of clues to the book’s decipherment, composed as if they were a type of verse: four lines, four simple statements: “lot 49 equals tristero. / tristero equals the disinherited. / oedipa awaits the crying of the disinherited. / auctioning off america … who will win?” The morning after receiving a phone call from Hilarius begging her to participate in his experiment, Oedipa experiences an altered state of consciousness, an “odd, religious instant.” Looking down a slope over a vast sprawl of houses, Oedipa discerns a pattern of sorts. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle,” Pynchon writes, “sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. […]. there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). […]. As if, on some other frequency…words were being spoken” (24-25). I begin to wonder: is what follows an acid trip? Did Oedipa unwittingly take one of the pills Hilarius had given to her?
I re-read a friend’s novel, preparing to discuss it again with students. It’s weird and wonderful, terrifying and funny, the fictional consensus realities of Norman Rockwell paintings and Nancy Drew novels turned askew. The small town after which the book is named operates as a microcosm, patriarchy ensnaring the novel’s female protagonist, interrupting her attempts to see beyond her surroundings. Mansplaining townsfolk infantilize her, stripping her of self-confidence to the point where she doubts her own existence. All of this occurs in a limbo-like bizarro-world, some liminal Nowheresville halfway between Twin Peaks and Bikini Bottom. The book is a dystopian fabulation in some sense, its grammar taken from capitalist realism; but it leavens this weight with its slapstick and the joy it takes in language as a site of play — its reminder, in all of these ways, that Utopia is right there for the taking. Despite our society’s sometimes horrifying resemblance to the world of the novel, the book’s delight in the craft of writing shows that it needn’t be that way. The book ventriloquizes and caricatures ruling rhetorics. Institutions are made to speak: landlords wax eloquent about landlordism, mothers extol the virtues of shopping. All of these rhetorics in their recitation are shown to be evasions and denials, self-propagating fictions, avoidances of past and ongoing abuse. Against these rhetorics, the book celebrates and revels in the imaginative flights and associative leaps of its protagonist, whose mind races, a part of it still attentive, still wanting to know, still curious and free despite circumstance.