(from “Nightmare World” in Weird Tales of the Future #3, by Basil Wolverton, 1952)
by Chris Randle
It’s often said that Tintin is the world’s most famous Belgian, perhaps because it sounds like a syllogism: a fictional character from a notional country. And the intrepid boy reporter has been appropriated far beyond Wallonia, for purposes alternately pornographic, postmodern and Spielbergian. My favourite of these detournements is predictably Breaking Free, which recasts Hergé’s characters as working-class radicals in a didactic struggle against Thatcherism. That almost seems pious next to X’ed Out.
Charles Burns’ new book is the first of a trilogy, oversized and full-colour in the Franco-Belgian tradition. Most people reading this probably know Burns best from the portraits he’s drawn for every cover of The Believer, but his major work up until now was Black Hole, a serial-turned-graphic-novel about teenage stoners giving each other sexually transmitted mutations. The horror in X’ed Out is more implicit; it unnerves by infecting Hergé’s bright, clean world with images from ’70s punk culture. You could call it Tintin and the Lower East Side.
Bandaged and bedridden for unexplained reasons, a kid named Doug slides through time and space whenever he swallows enough medication or stares at the wrong Polaroid. Burns’ alienated performance artist bounces from a no-future Pacific Northwest into some city out of the dystopian adventure Tintin never had. William Burroughs is a big, clammy touchstone here – the grumpy lizard-men, rivers of industrial sludge and North-African-ish setting all feel like his kinks. The two worlds eventually bleed into each other: Nitnit is Doug’s alter ego both in the realm of “the Hive” and on stage in Seattle, where he reads cut-ups over feedback before the main act runs out of patience. (“I mean, what do you call that, anyway? I guess it was art.”)
So far Burns is only gesturing at a plot. (Doug’s dying father and the self-destructive photographer he’s fixated on appear only briefly in the parasite landscape, the latter as a cliffhanger.) The primary attraction is watching a great cartoonist experiment. This one has never worked in colour before, and his deep, dark inks diverge sharply from Hergé’s ligne claire. Following his pastiche’s adaptation to those rounder, cartoonish lines, I saw new resonances between the two artists: Burns’ usual style is far more elaborate than his model’s was, but their techniques both feel methodical, controlled.
Not all of the riffs are so intriguing. While Tintin always chased after that little white dog, Nitnit searches for a cat named Inky, and the critter might as well bat readers on the nose. But I loved how Burns recycles one familiar image to fill Burroughsworld with mottled red-and-white eggs, culminating in the creepiest-looking omelette you’ll ever see. There’s a single notable female character in Hergé’s strips, matronly diva Bianca Castiafiore, and our hero’s intentions towards her or his bawdy sailor friend remain pure as Snowy.
Chris Ware once said: “Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America.” Yet Tom McCarthy’s poststructuralist romp Tintin and the Secret of Literature argues that “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind…[Castafiore’s titular emerald] is a clitoris, duh.” Burns’ pregnant allusions to “breeding” imply where his X is marked. Like fellow cartoonist Joost Swarte, who coined the phrase ligne claire, he draws out the fucking repressed by that flatness.
A smooth surface can intimate freakiness of its own, though. The hybrid sections of X’ed Out are filled with suggestive abstractions: Doug’s scar becomes Nitnit’s cartoon plaster, his hair spikes out into a punkish variation on Tintin’s trademark quiff, and entire panels are taken up by blocks of colour or symbols. It reminded me of TNT en Amerique, the most radical Hergé revision of all. Jochen Gerner’s comic, which sprang from the cartooning equivalent of Oulipo, reduces Tintin in America to a blacked-out series of broken phrases and neon signs.
Gerner later said: “I dismantle a given material to make something else of it…I did not see this book as a ‘technical feat’ but as the discovery of a secret passage, of a dark track followed to the end.” When William Burroughs and Brion Gysin joined forces to spread their gospel of divine deformity, they gave the cut-up technique a slogan: “Rub Out the Word.” You know what Tintin means in French? “Nothing.”
by Carl Wilson
If you’d asked me last week for a shorthand analysis of my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I would have called it his response to punk rock – inspired by it to a new rawness of sound, but on the other hand rebuking it for pitting subculture against mainstream rather than common man against plutocrat.
As an American, anarchy was all too present to him – the anarchy of the Badlands of Terence Malick’s movie and his own song. Rather than transgression for its own thrilling sake, Bruce wanted to betray betrayal and get fidelity; to sin against his country’s original sin and create virtue. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.
But this week I watched a new documentary about the making of the album. Turns out that though punk and politics were factors, Bruce was responding to a lot of other things. Namely, he and his former manager were suing each other, over the contract he’d naively signed that gave the manager control over how he made his records and half-ownership of his songs. This kept the band out of the studio for a long, frustrating time. It kept them from following up his first big hit, “Born to Run,” at the point conventional wisdom in the mid-1970s said they must or risk career death. He was terrified of losing everything, then jubilant when he could finally get back to work.
This part’s not politics. It’s careerism. There’s a daisychain of desire connecting Bruce to the elite. After years as a struggling artist he’d quite quickly become a rock star. He wanted to stay a rock star. All of which is in the songs: “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king.” But he knew he had to be wary of success as much as failure, of becoming his own enemy: “A king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything” (a duality always inherent in his nickname, “the Boss”). He talks in the documentary about the danger of losing yourself, the spark that made you do the work, made you who you are –not just as a human being, one understands, but as a rock star too.
He could see only one safeguard: He had to grow up.
Adulthood, he felt he’d learned from his parents, is a state in which you’ve learned what you have to compromise (song after song refers to paying the price, the cost) and what you must not, while giving up the fantasy that you can dodge compromise altogether: “When the promise is broken, you go on living,” he sings in the song that gives the documentary its title, one of many he cut from the record, dumbfounding his collaborators: When a song sounded like it could be an overshadowing hit, he’d cut it for the sake of the whole, giving for example “Because the Night” to Patti Smith, which became her sole radio success. Perhaps this was the adult thing to do. (A double-disc collection of those songs comes out in November. [Yes, please.])
Springsteen was moving away from kids like the lovers in “Because the Night,” who want escape – the heroes of standard rock’n’roll politics, even in punk. He turned towards the viewpoints of people like his parents – his father went deaf (symbolically enough) working on a factory floor – or those even more damaged and hopeless. It wasn’t the guitar sound or the shredded larynx that made Darkness seem almost more punk than punk. Its commitment to reality came with a bitter willfulness that was bigger than nihilistic escapism, the way Hank Williams’ does (another new discovery for Bruce at the time).
Like his earlier work, though, and in fidelity to rock, it still sought redemption in love. When Bruce had two versions of “Racing in the Street,” one just about the two drag-racing buddies and another that adds a painful love story, he asked a longtime female fan as well as Steve Van Zandt which one they liked better. They both said, “The one with the girl.” Bruce was surprised Van Zandt said so and asked why. “Because that’s how life is: You’ve got a friend, the girl comes along, then you don’t have that friend any more.”
At the end of the song, the couple plans to “ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” The abandoned Sonny has merged into the girl the singer’s somehow made hate her life. In the film, Bruce says the point was that you couldn’t get rid of sins, only figure out how to live with them. How to be faithful to your betrayals. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.
I’m sure he’d be surprised to be compared to Springsteen, but Jacob Wren’s Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a novel that seems to revisit many of the same problems a Christ’s age later.
Jacob’s a Canadian practitioner of experimental theatre of a sort, and a friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s another heir to punk, particularly to the communitarian-anarchist and more self-consciously avant-garde, dadaist strains of it that would develop in the 1980s, when he was getting started as a playwright prodigy with the wonderfully adolescent pseudonym “Death Waits.” (I know Jacob Wren isn’t his birth name either, though I don’t know what that is.)
He gained a lot of notoriety around Toronto at that time, and the traces of that child-star-type brush with fame continue to haunt his work – like Bruce he wants both to hold onto success and reject it, although probably in inverse proportions. He does his best to be no one’s Boss, even when he is directing a theatre company.
I’ve read this novel twice now and have trouble reaching a full verdict, but I find it very compelling. It’s set in the very near future, or perhaps an alternate now, and centres around a group of people who have decided to hold weekly meetings to discuss political questions. Specifically the questions, rather than the answers. They feel the left has gone wrong somewhere, stuck between emotional irrational reaction and well-worn quietistic analysis. They think that if they talk in circles, rigorously, critically, long enough they might somehow break through these impasses – political discussion as a kind of Zen meditation. I’d like to attend these meetings, but in themselves they wouldn’t make a very good novel, of course.
What begins to spin out of them, instead of never-attained political nirvana, is a love triangle between a political philosopher, a doctor-without-borders and a nondescript participant who strikes me as the main viewpoint character, though the actual p.o.v. shifts from chapter to chapter. The affair strains the whole group, but it’s especially disastrous for the three of them, who end up separately turning to sexual (mis?)adventure, an expatriate life of fraud and blackmail, and an improbably plausible career as a reality-TV radical activist. Meanwhile the society around them is descending into nearly open fascism, putting all of them in a danger that both attracts and terrifies them.
Like Springsteen’s, this work is about the problem of adulthood and what compromise consists of, and the meaning of fidelity – personal, romantic/sexual, idealistic. It has a more tragicomic sense than Bruce’s and lacks his heroic dimension, as seems inevitable three decades further on in post-industrial capitalism. But it certainly does deal with chains of desire and ambition, and how (or is it whether) to transcend mere contradiction, mere negation.
The question is what the darkness is on the edge of town: Global political exploitation, or the personal darkness that makes us both prey to and complicit with it, and on which nonetheless we have to make our stand? Both of course. But Jacob’s characters are middle-class educateds in despair over injustice, while Bruce’s are closer to the actual sufferers of injustice. What seems amiss in Jacob’s title is that his characters are not dispossessed in the usual sense (in interviews he’s speculated that what he means is that he’s without possession of a viable political position or stake) and they don’t really get any kind of revenge.
The story in some ways seems to sate an urge to experience a much more brutal and vicious western regime to stand against, for capitalism to become the caricature its most conspiratorially minded critics imagine. The title should be something closer to Dispossession Fantasies of the Politically Depressed. If there weren’t a darkness on the edge of town, Wren’s characters might be forced to invent it. Bruce’s version is more surely not made but found.
The paradox here is of course self-conscious. I doubt Jacob thinks we’re close to a state in which writing a book about non-monogamy, or even professors sleeping with their students, would get you disappeared and tortured, no matter how many Tea Party Republicans get into Congress (or lefty bureaucrats to university administrations). Much less if you’re living in Montreal.
So there’s a satirical spirit. But the writer Wren reminds me of most in this book, Wallace Shawn, has a much surer hand with that kind of escalation of absurdities into a harrowing thought experiment. I waver about how much to credit Wren’s relative messiness – whether it’s an admirable attempt to complicate such methods further, or just plain messiness. (Though it’s certainly praise even to make the comparison.)
On the other hand as he’s gone on Springsteen’s projective identification with the downtrodden – who’ve become less Jersey workers, more dust-bowl John Steinbeck characters – has become less and less credible. He wavers between fidelity to that tough realist voice on Darkness and rock-star do-gooder sentimentality. In that sense Jacob’s got a more adult, sustainable fix on himself. In the evasions they each still make, there’s that tension between Peter Pan romanticism and the cynical ruin it can become (as Joni Mitchell memorably warned in “The Last Time I Saw Richard”).
Yet both these artists make stirring leaps at a near-insurmountable wall. As they say about death and comedy (and the parallel’s pretty accurate): Punk is easy, adulthood is hard. I’d love to hold a meeting to talk about it. Or a rock show to shout about it. Or a bed to whisper it in. I’ll be there on time, and I’ll pay the cost.
By Margaux Williamson
(I went to a program of shorts called “Moonshine” at the ImagineNative Film Festival with my friend Kerry Barber who was in town from the Yukon. We sat in the middle of the seats at the Jewish Community Centre. The program was a mix of funny and serious. This movie was on the serious side. Something the filmmaker said in the Q&A afterwards stuck with me for awhile.)
The first thing they do is cover all of the windows with blankets. The girl does some more drugs. Then they get on the bed. On the bed, they take off each other’s clothes. It looks like something they have done many times before. Then they begin an elaborate ritual where they each take turns blowing gentle on each other’s wounds and scars. The girl has them all over her back and the boy, all over his legs. This also looks like something they have done many times before.
Other things happen and then morning comes. The boy wakes up and runs across to the kitchen in the blinding light of the outdoors. He makes tea. The kitchen is also very bright. At the last second, he thinks to put the teacup on a saucer and walks back out. Back in the bedroom, he sees that the girl hasn’t made it through the night. She has died, presumably from too many drugs. After some time, the boy cuts across the skin over his heart with a piece of the saucer that he had broken earlier and says goodbye by putting a touch of his blood on her lips. He goes back outside like this to tell the man in the jogging suit what has happened.
During the Q&A that followed the screening, the director, Katie Wolfe, mentioned that the man in the jogging suit was in the movie because the people funding the project thought that there needed to be more hope in the movie. She said that she had added this man who wasn’t doing drugs and who was jogging as a concession to this request.
Her answer seemed funny to me – and she seemed to find it a bit funny too. It seemed funny to me because hope was the primary element at the heart of the teenager’s story. The hope involved two people who think that they might be able to heal each other through this secret ritual of blowing on each other’s wounds. It isn’t the most practical act of healing, but it’s certainly the most elaborate act that a child could dream of. It involves two people who don’t know how to fix each other but who are trying very hard to do so. It almost seems like it could work – if they concentrate hard enough.
I like that Katie Wolfe was obliging and added the jogger. I think she used it to the movie’s advantage even if it doesn’t technically add what was perceived to be missing. I like the idea that if the heart of a project is truthful and strong, you don’t need to vigilantly protect it from new or foreign elements.
Here, the jogger mainly benefits the story by adding a bit of contrast and a small amount of comic relief. The jogger always looks a bit upset and irritated. His body is frustratingly less beautiful than the teenagers who are not exercising. His jogging outfits are somewhat defiant and… well… everything about him is less dramatic. He is also engaged in an activity of hope, just a more practical and grounded one – but no less difficult. His presence mainly reminds us that hope is the main activity all around.
(from The Killing Joke, script by Alan Moore and art by Brian Bolland, 1988)
Last night, I was at a reading of Tao Lin‘s. He was late, taciturn, monosyllabic, and more or less unpleasant as a performer, except when he was actually reading his novel, when his voice was resistant to the energy of the work itself, which made me want more.
I had read his poetry and found it funny and charming. I had read his earlier prose and found it so boring I couldn’t keep going. Yet when he read the first five pages of Richard Yates and kinda ducked out, I wanted to know more. It was an autobiographical novel, he acknowledged, in which he search-and-replaced the original character names and changed them to “Hayley Joel Osmont” and “Dakota Fanning” – because those celebrities’ ages corresponded with the characters’ ages at the time the book was set, 2006. I thought, “This provides a visual image, which is what we’re addicted to at the moment. The rest is irrelevant to the story.” It’s not stealing more than the personae people have already chosen to give away.
My friend Kyle Buckley was charged with asking him questions, which is obviously a difficult task, and Kyle probably didn’t feel great about how it went. But Kyle asked him one question that he spoke seriously to: “How do you feel about the number of young writers who imitate you?” (The quotation marks are rough and will continue to be.) Tao Lin said, “I like it. I know that most of the time when people talk about this issue, they do it like they are inventors who got a patent on their invention, and if someone steals it, they should sue. I don’t feel like writing is that.” He stopped and laughed nervously, and the laugh was the voice of global capital going, “Wait, as an artist your style is your brand. You have to protect it.”
Lin was coming back and saying, No, artistic style is a cultural moment. He said that the people who choose to work in the voice he does probably just feel the same way. I think of people my age who write in David Wallace/Dave Eggers rhythms. Lin made sure to say that he thinks individuals are unavoidably unique. So his imitators’ style will therefore be different than his even if it emulates the rhythm, even unwillingly.
Writing, unlike almost every art form, is (at least in the past 40 years of extended-lifespan luxury) usually mediocre when it’s made by people under 30. The dues you pay then are irretrievable. So if his work is shallow, fine – it matters more that it is brave. Since last night I’ve read three-quarters of the new Richard Yates and would say that I got absorbed by and attached to its depressive characters. Also I would say that they are depressive in a way that is political in its extreme apolitical apathy.
If you understand it as satire, and commentary, and self-critique, it is more powerful – Lin said last night that he never wants to write a line that isn’t funny “while being other things.” He’s struggling with the barrenness of the landscape, with the emptiness of trying to be heroic as a writer, in an age when heroism is automatically suspect. The people who try to call him out on insincerity are themselves playing a game.
And yet: In his notion of plainness and universalism, he’s not unlike Hemingway, who comes up conspicuously as the “book in the backpack” in his narrative. This idea of plainness reasserts itself again and again in American fiction as an ideal of democracy. There is always this sense that stripping down is the beginning of some more authentic, less evasive encounter.
And I have to say that it’s not my taste: Hemingway irritates me and so does (at least the edited) Raymond Carver, and I prefer the gamble with language made by the stylists whose jokes are not defeatist, whose heroism is not pyrrhic, whose language embraces and spars with existence, and the notion that complication is an opportunity to wrestle rather than a termination of ideals. It seems like the beginning of a life that is more alive.
But if I have to talk honestly, do I think that shoplifting not only goods but language from Whole Foods and American Apparel and Gchat is a less wishful confrontation with the limitations of literary and even emotional life today? I can’t choose between them. Tao Lin’s minimal, depressive narratives ring truer to the ways we don’t aspire but get through days. They seem necessary at least as a foil. The brutality and stupidity – within an urge not to be brutal and stupid, which he and Hemingway share – are not dystopian, just journalistic.
You don’t have to take every writer as saying, This is the last word. Sometimes it can be the first. Then the question is what to do next. If he’s much-imitated, surely it’s not just his thudding rhythm but because starting points seem hard to come by. How do you even survive to 30 without expressing what it’s like to be there? I may never have met a writer less imaginable as a founder of a social network, contrary to his image. And that may not be a writer’s job. If he were a painter, no one would blink at his blankness. He makes me think: Perhaps language now is more like paint. Though I still wish he weren’t clawing at a vagina dentata on the cover of his novel.