All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, 2012 by David Lynch (b. 1946)
All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, 2012 by David Lynch (b. 1946)
Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” is collected in Writers, a book available in English translation by Katina Rogers from Dalkey Archive Press.
Writers is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years: unsettling, bizarre, satirical, and savage, its stories focus on writers who are more than writers: they are would-be revolutionaries and assassins, revolting humans revolting against the forces of late capitalism.
Writers (which I wrote about here) functions a bit like a discontinuous novel that spins its own web of self-references to produce a small large gray electric universe—the Volodineverse, I guess—which we can also see in post-exotic “novels” like Minor Angels and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven.
Volodine’s post-exotic project refers obliquely to the ways in which the late 20th century damns the emerging 21st century. And yet the trick of it all is that the stories and sketches and vignettes seem ultimately to refer only to themselves, or to each other—the world-building is from the interior. This native interiority is mirrored by the fact that many of his writer-heroes are prisoners communicating from their cells, often to interrogators, but just as often to an unresponsive void.
“The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” takes place in such a void, a kind of limbo into which the (anti-)hero Maria Three-Thirteen speaks herself into existence. It’s an utterly abject existence; Maria Three-Thirteen crouches naked like “a madwoman stopped before the unknown, before strangers and nothingness, and her mouth and her orifices unsealed after death…all that remains for her is to speak.” She speaks to a semi-human tribunal, a horrorshow, creatures “without self-knowledge.” After several paragraphs of floating abject abstraction, Maria eventually illustrates her thesis—an evocation of speech without language, speech in a deaf natural voice–to this audience.
Her illustration is a list of scenes from 20th-century films.
I found this moment of the story initially baffling—it seemed, upon first reading, an utter surrender to exterior referentiality on Volodine’s part, a move inconsistent with the general interiority of Writers. Even though the filmmakers alluded to made and make oblique, slow, often silent, often challenging (and always beautiful) films, films aesthetically similar to Volodine’s own project, I found Volodine’s gesture too on-the-nose: Of course he’s beholden to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr!
Rereading the story, and rereading it in the context of having read more of Volodine’s work, I take this gesture as the author’s recognition of his aesthetic progenitors. Volodine here signals that the late 20th-century narrative that most informs his work is cinema—a very specific kind of cinema—and not per se literature.
This reading might be a misreading on my part though. Maybe Volodine simply might have wanted to make a list of some of his favorite scenes from some of his favorite films, and maybe Volodine might have wanted to insert that list into a story. And it’s a great list. I mean, I like the list. I like it enough to include it below. I have embedded the scenes alluded to where possible, and in a few places made what I take to be worthy substitutions.
Here is Volodine; here is Volodine’s Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking the loud deaf voice—
And now, she begins again, to illustrate, I will cite a few images without words or almost without words, several images that make their deaf voice heard. You know them, you have certainly attended cinema showings during which they’ve been projected before you. These are not immobile images, but they are fundamentally silent, and they make their deaf voice heard very strongly.
The chess match with death in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, with, in the background, a procession of silhouettes that undertake the arduous a scent of a hill.
The man on all fours who barks in the mud facing a dog in Damnation by Bela Tarr.
The baby that cries in a sordid and windowless apartment in Eraserhead by David Lynch.
The bare facade of an abandoned apartment building, with Nosferatu’s head in a window, in Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau.
The boat that moves away from across an empty sea, overflowing with cadavers, at the end of Shame by Ingmar Bergman.
The desert landscape, half hidden by a curtain that the wind lifts in Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai.
The early morning travel by handcar, with the regular sound of wheels, in Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The old man with cancer who sings on a swing in Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa.
The blind dwarfs with their enormous motorcycle glasses who hit each other with canes in Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog.
The train station where three bandits wait at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone.
The flares above the river in Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The prairie traveled over by a gust of wind in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.
She is quiet for a moment.
There are many others she thinks. They all speak. They all speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.
I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) last night for the first time in at least a decade (likely more than a decade). The Elephant Man is not my favorite Lynch film to rewatch, perhaps because it is his most realistic film despite its fantastic touches.
The Elephant Man is emotionally devastating, propelled by naturalistic performances unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre. Lynch teases the titular elephant man’s hideous countenance for the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, but when we finally see John Merrick (played by an unrecognizable John Hurt), we feel only pity for his circumstance and contempt for a world that can’t accept him.
Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) shares that mix of pity and contempt. Treves is the surgeon who moves Merrick from his freakshow prison to a respectable London hospital, where the young man can finally find some measure of comfort in his own skin. Away from his former handler, the sadistic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), young Merrick quickly becomes an aesthete, the toast of London society.
Merrick’s hospital suite becomes an artiste’s garret, where he builds a model of a nearby cathedral and takes tea with a famous actress. However, a cruel night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) intrudes into this peace, selling tipsy gawkers tickets to see the elephant man in his new minor paradise. While Jim’s invasions are horrifying, more subtly terrible is the notion that Dr. Treves himself is simply recapitulating the freakshow, only this time to a “higher society” — a sin that Ms. Mothershead, the ward’s head nurse, warns Treves against. She serves as the moral anchor of the film, proclaiming that care and attention—bathing, feeding, cleaning—are the truest forms of “love.”
Despite its subject matter, The Elephant Man is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward, even traditional film (this estimation includes The Straight Story (1999)). The plot is ultimately a character study of a lonely man who craves not wholesale acceptance or dramatic love but simple friendship. The emotional crux of The Elephant Man rests in Treves’ reticence to truly befriend his patient, a reticence Lynch refuses to resolve.
We feel pity for Merrick, but as his social status swells into a surreal ironic infamy, we feel a second pity—the fame goes to his head. Hurt portrays these strange emotional swings through thick layers of makeup, aided by Lynch’s impeccable framing and Freddie Francis’ dreamy black and white cinematography. (Francis served as cinematographer on Lynch’s next film, 1984’s Dune, as well as the aforementioned The Straight Story). Lynch’s sound design is haunting, but not as proficient as later efforts—too reliant on flange and echo, the sound design often subtracts through addition.
Visually, The Elephant Man plants seeds for any number of Lynchian set pieces to come. The nightworld Lynch creates for poor Merrick to endure repeats throughout his oeuvre, notably in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-2017). Michael Elphick’s night porter Jim is particularly sinister, a proto-Frank Booth. Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes is a loathsome first copy of Baron Harkonnen from Dune. It’s all quite horrifying.
Lynch always tempers the dark with the light. The subtle supernatural touches in The Elephant Man—halos and orbs, night spectacles, bewitched paintings—are motifs that repeat throughout his work. So much of The Elephant Man’s DNA is in Twin Peaks, and perhaps my favorite thing about watching it—aside from the rich blacks and grays and lights—was how much it evoked for me Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return—the best thing I saw on a screen last year.
Lynch finds light in life’s grotesque pageant, and this strange light is what colors The Elephant Man as such an intensely meaningful film. Merrick is more than a freak, but also more than a human—Lynch refuses to show his title character’s humanity as a series of banal platitudes. Such a representation would not be true to human nature. And in the end, The Elephant Man is about human nature, or, more importantly, one real fantastic unreal human.
How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, very late at night. I am indebted to the archive Film Grab as the source of the images used in this post.
This is the first part of the behind-the-scenes features for Twin Peaks: The Return. The other nine parts are up on YouTube as well (for now anyway).
As David Lynch and Mark Frost’s excellent series Twin Peaks: The Return approaches its conclusion this weekend, I have set myself the deeply important task of ranking all (okay, not nearly all) of the new characters we’ve been introduced to this season. They’re ranked from worst to best. The rubric I’m using is my own damn aesthetic intuition.
53. Steven Burnett
Damn. Steven is the worst. Just hated the guy. By the way, Gersten Hayward is not the worst, but obviously she can’t be on this list (even though she’s in that picture above) because she was in the original Twin Peaks, accompanying Leland Palmer on piano for “Come on Get Happy.”
52. Deputy Chad Broxford
Deputy Chad is a total piece of shit. Watching him get booted from the conference room with his sad ass lunch–two TV dinners and some soup!–was a highlight though.
51. Warden Dwight Murphy
Warden Murphy tried to get slick with Dark Cooper, but, nope. I’m almost certain we will get the whole Mr. Strawberry story by the last ep…right?
50-48. The Fusco Detectives
I loved the Las Vegas plot and I wanted to like these guys but they were so annoying. I mean, I guess that’s the joke, but the joke was vexing.
47. Freddie Sykes
Freddie Sykes telling that story to James is probably the most bored I got during The Return. However, he redeemed himself by punching those dudes who attacked James “James Has Always Been Cool” Hurley. I’m guessing his pugilist skills will come into play in the finale.
We hardly knew ya.
Jade was the first to be kind to Dougie, I realize, so I probably should put her higher on this list.
44-43. Sam and Tracey
Look, these two didn’t get much screen time, but the two-part opener is a classic, and their characters quickly showed that The Return was not going to traffic in nostalgic fan service but instead do something new—something somehow darker and weirder than the original series.
Mickey is obviously a very minor character, his presence inarguably enhanced by sharing the screen with Harry Dean Stanton’s Carl Rodd. I liked the dude.
41. Ray Monroe
I think we were supposed to hate Ray and I hated Ray. Typing out his name I realize that maybe he’s named after Ray Wise, who played Leland (?).
40. Special Agent Tammy Preston
Maybe when I go back and watch The Return again in full Tammy will do more for me. But I tended to agree with Diane…
39. Colonel Davis
Look, I know—very minor character. But it’s great to see a Ghostbuster on Twin Peaks…and the name echoes the actor who played Major Briggs, one of my favorite Twin Peaks characters.
I do so hope she survives.
37. Principal William Hastings
Not a particularly interesting character until his utter breakdown and eventual death. Loved seeing Shaggy bawl.
Like so many of the minor characters in Twin Peaks: The Return who show up for a brief monologuish-dialogue, Hank shows us a character drenched in his own paranoid concerns, ready to spin off into his own madness, or his own sitcom. Like, make that sitcom. I’d watch it.
35. Ike the Spike
Ike’s look when he realized that he’d bent his murder-spike was heartbreaking and hilarious.
34-33. The Evolution of the Arm and Philip Jeffries’ reincarnation.
Are these two a cheat? I’m not sure. I mean…I guess in a way they aren’t “new”…and in a way they aren’t really “characters…except they are and they are.
32. Gordon Cole’s date
I would watch this sitcom.
31. Becky Burnett
Becky at times seemed like an easy shorthand to show that not much has changed in the sweet dark little town of Twin Peaks. The “I Love How You Love Me” scene is one of the best in the series though.
Is Charlie ranked so high on this list simply because his introduction also brings the return of Audrey?
29. Beverly Paige
I was really hoping that Lynch would do more with Beverly.
28. Sonny Jim
Sonny Jim rules.
27. Wally Brando
So I accidentally watched episode 4 of Twin Peaks: The Return instead of episode 2 (like, I watched ep 1, then watched ep 4 the next night, thinking it was ep 2—I could probably write a whole essay on that). Anyway, Wally Brando’s monologue is the most ridiculous moment in a kinda ridiculous episode, an episode that contains maybe my favorite moment in The Return—Bobby Briggs breaking down when he sees Laura Palmer’s picture. Brando’s monologue, delivered to a Sheriff Truman who endures it with weary and forced goodwill, seems like a send-up of everything quirky in the original Twin Peaks run.
26-25. Wilson and Randall
Goddamnit, Wilson, get it together!
24+. The Farm Gang
Dark Cooper arm wrestling Renzo is a great scene in a series larded with great scenes—a dark and violent satire on Hollywood machismo, but one that helps subtly propel one of the major plots of The Return: “The starting position is much more comfortable.” It’s the out-of-place-looking guy at the end who asks Dark Coop if he needs any money who really cracks me up.
23. Anthony Sinclair
Tom Sizemore’s Anthony Sinclair freaking out to the conga line is pretty great. The moment when Dougie gives him an accidental, dandruff-inspired back rub that leads to his break down is transcendent.
22. Duncan Todd
Patrick Fischler was great but underused as Duncan Todd. I liked to pretend that he was the same character who got so scared behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive.
21. Constance Talbot
Jane Adams is a really underrated actor and every scene with Constance Talbot was a treat (especially her interactions with Albert).
As a character, the Eyeless Woman is obviously a cipher, but her introduction in the third episode is one of the most arresting moments of the series.
18. The Experiment
Again, maybe a bit of a stretch of what a “character” might be—but my affinity for the characters I’ve liked best in The Return is very much bound in the aesthetics of their scenes—and I don’t know if I’ll ever see a television show as aesthetically compelling and confounding as the eighth episode of The Return. (And I watched it for the first and second times that I saw it on a fucking iPhone on an airplane).
17-16. Chantal and Hutch
These two wandered in from a Tarantino movie. Again, a spin-off sitcom, please.
15+. All the minor characters in those end scenes at The Roadhouse
One of my favorite things about The Return is its rough pattern of ending up at The Roadhouse (or The Bang Bang Bar, if you like) to witness some tender grotesquerie.
MC proudly presents THE Nine Inch Nails. MC proudly presents James “James Was Always Cool” Hurley. MC proudly presents “Audrey’s Dance.” And best of all…MC proudly dances to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” in one of the most sublimely silly sequences of the season.
13+. All the bands who played at The Roadhouse
The first performance of one of these bands in The Return, the Chromatics playing “Shadow,” provides a wonderfully cathartic rush from the dark tension that builds up in the two-part opener.
12. ….but especially Rebekah del Rio
My dream is to go to that place.
11. Bushnell Mullins
Bushnell Mullins ended up being one of the characters in The Return who I found genuinely moving. I hope we get to see him again.
10. Sheriff Frank Truman
Look. I know we’re all holding out for Harry Truman to show up somehow at the end. But Robert Forster is a ringer, and he’s done a great job this season. It’s also fun to pretend that he’s a doppelganger of his Mulholland Drive character.
9-8. The Mitchum Brothers
Like Bushnell, I ended up surprised by just how endearing these two turned out. Their devotion and loyalty to Dougie and his family (and Candie) seem absolutely genuine. And like Bushnell, I hope we’ll see them again.
God bless Candie.
6. Richard Horne
Richard Horne is the worst. Okay, I started this stupid list by declaring that Steven Burnett was the worst…but Richard is, like, awful. Menacing, horrific, a little bit goofy—Lynchian. You sort of want to save him a little, which you also know is a stupid mistake.
5. The Woodsman
4. Janey-E Jones
Janie-E not being in the top three on my list is proof that this list is stupid. Naomi Watts is amazing in The Return. I hope (a version of Dougie) finds his way back to her and Sonny Jim, just as Agent Dale Cooper promised.
3. Dark Cooper
Dark Cooper, or Evil Cooper, or the doppelganger, or whatever you want to call him might not technically belong on a list of “new” Twin Peaks characters, because we know he was there at the very end of the final series. But c’mon. He can’t not be included. Dark Cooper was a cipher with depth, violent, but also radiating a strange sexiness as well as an ironic sense of humor. I’ll miss his black glowing energy.
I didn’t read any of the press stuff for Twin Peaks—I didn’t know that Michael Ontkean wouldn’t be back as Sheriff Truman, for example, or that Robert Forster would be in as another Sheriff Truman—which made watching The Return even more of a thrill. Probably the biggest little casting thrill though was Laura Dern showing up as Diane. (I gasped). Laura Dern is one of my favorite actresses, and she only seems to get better from role to role. (I’m still surprised how many Lynch fans haven’t seen Inland Empire, a film in which she is absolutely amazing). It would be difficult for me to overstate how perfectly Dern’s Diane fits into the visual logic of The Return—I have pretty much avoided all coverage of the new series, so I don’t know if anyone’s written an essay on all of her costumes yet, but I’d love to read one eventually. My hope is that we’ll see some kind of resolution with Diane (even if it’s a bizarre and unsettling resolution) in the finale—is there a non-tulpa Diane out there? Please.
1. Dougie Jones
Agent Dale Cooper’s return in episode 16 is a supremely satisfying moment, but I’ll miss Dougie dearly. I have often used the word “Lynchian” to convey ideas like sinister, paranoid, dark, and weird—and I think the word fits. But a glowing optimism underwrites all that’s dark in the Lynchverse, and this light finds its avatar in Dougie, a kind of holy fool who’s protected and guided by the kindness of others. Thumbs up.
It’s Twin Peaks: The Return Finale Week over at 3 A.M. Magazine. They’re running a series of essays about the new season for the rest of the week. Yesterday, we got to read Jeff Woods’s “Hurricane Bob: Part 1,” which deftly connects the many frequencies of current energy flows in politics, culture, and visual art in a discussion about The Return. Today, they posted my essay on mediacy & electricity (“Algorithmic Weather: Mediacy in Twin Peaks: The Return“) something that’s fascinated me this new season, and a long-term preoccupation of Lynch’s that perhaps reaches its zenith in The Return. Below is an excerpt:
Drone cameras hover over darkened Douglas (Dougie) firs, panoramic views of Las Vegas and Manhattan. The same point-of-view takes in the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. We are to believe that modern electricity, introduced to our world through innovations in military technology, expressed through wall sockets, telephone lines, Skype calls, and cellular data, has its roots in the creation of both the evil and good forces in the universe of Twin Peaks. The Mother, as she is known, spews out the evil force of BOB; the Fireman counters with the innocence known as “Laura”. A frog-like insect crawls into the mouth of a girl hypnotized into sleep by a Woodsman reciting a poem over compromised radio waves. Media determine the situation.
Bodies are made metaphors for data. In Episode 2, Sam explains to Tracy that all he has to do watch what happens in the glass box. Here, the show winks at us—the glass box of television, but also a metaphor for technologies that mediate and express electricity. Recall that they miss Cooper’s appearance, but are privy to what opens up between worlds: the Mother enters through the glass box and eviscerates them. Additionally, new faces are introduced in almost every episode, many of which rarely return. They are given names and ample screen time. They are there solely to deliver information, they are mere voice recorders.
I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN IN 25 YEARS
Chevron tiles swirl into swaying lush red curtains, into an impressionistic recap, into the framed and cabineted picture of Our Girl, into the opening bars of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Falling,” and we are back in Twin Peaks.
THE OPENING TITLES
Well, I shivered. I wish the opening titles had gone on longer.
The twin waterfalls cascade into silk fire curtains, and then we’re back on the dizzying floor, chevrons swirling into black. The red room.
The Giant speaks to Special Agent Dale Cooper. He tells him to “Listen to the sounds,” strange scrapings emanating from an old phonograph.” Is this the Black Lodge? “It is in our house now,” we learn. (But what is the “It”?). The Giant seems to send Cooper on a mission: “Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds…with one stone.”
Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, still sporting spectacles of varying hues, obtains shovels in a remote mountain forest location. The scene is slow, the sound of the wind in the tall trees seems just as important as the few lines of dialogue here. We’re not really in Twin Peaks yet, but we’re not far.
NEW YORK CITY
Oh, we’re in New York City.
THE GLASS BOX
We’re out of Twin Peaks. The lighting, staging, colors, the low rumbling hum in the background—Lynch paints something here closer to his films after Fire Walk With Me—something sharper, blacker, browner than the soft edges of the original Twin Peaks run.
Tracey brings coffee. Tracy’s curious about what’s behind all those locked doors. Pandora. “You’re a bad girl Tracey.” There’s no pie in the scene, and the coffee is not in the wholesome mugs we might find at, say, the Double R Diner.
THE GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL
The Horne Brothers are back. Ben survived the last episode of Season 2, apparently (But what about Audrey Horne?!). Ashley Judd is in Twin Peaks now. Jerry Horne has a weed business. There’s a zaniness to the scene, notes of preciousness even—we are back in Twin Peaks, in Twin Peaks.
THE TWO SHERIFF TRUMANS
There are two Sheriff Trumans. “One is sick and the other is fishing,” Lucy—still the receptionist of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office a quarter of a century later–informs us. The quirky vibes of The Great Northern Hotel carry over. But really, Where is Sheriff Truman? Could “sick” and “fishing” be taken as metaphors? Are there literally two Trumans, somehow both Sheriffs?
INTO THE NIGHT
Twin Peaks’s zany daymode could be read as a parodic inversion of television tropes; a quarter century later, it’s harder to see these inversions, simply because television as a medium (in storytelling, but more importantly, in aesthetics) has caught up to Twin Peaks. The zaniness has a twin—the sinister night, often equally manic, often casually brutal.
David Foster Wallace once described Kyle MacLachlan as “potato faced,” and I’ll admit that I have a hard time seeing him as a sinister figure. He’s no Leland Palmer (or Bob), but he wears his weight well in a scene that tip toes the line between grotesquerie and cartoonish parody. Distortion is necessary.
Dark Cooper—“Mr. C,” as moonshine-swilling addresses him—comes to collect two teens–Ray and Darya—for what? Are these doppelgängers of Richard and Linda? They go into the night, and we are in Twin Peaks.
We’re back in New York.
Tracey returns with coffee and sneaks her way into the locked room with the glass box and young man. We get something resembling exposition—a billionaire pays the young man to watch the glass box. “We’re not supposed to say anything about this place or that glass box.”
SEX & VIOLENCE
Tracey and the young man imbibe a bit of coffee, make out, and then she disrobes. Sex ensues. We are clearly in the realms of premium pay cable, and not the American Broadcasting Company.
The glass box fills with a black atmosphere, and a ghostly humanoid appears. The wraith descends on the couple and attacks them. Was Tracey allowed in to the locked room as a kind of bait?
This is perhaps the goriest thing I can recall in a scene directed by Lynch.
BUCKHORN, SOUTH DAKOTA
We are not in Twin Peaks, but parts of Buckhorn definitely feel like Twin Peaks—there’s a quirkiness here, an at-times belabored zaniness, and even a slowness to the South Dakota scenes. At this point in “My log has a message for you,” we perhaps realize that Mark Frost and David Lynch have no intention of milking nostalgia; they’re going to tell a new story, one with strange new strands. There’s a lot of material on the table by now, here in the episode’s second half. Jane Adams, who I think is a fantastic actress, is the detective who shows up to investigate a murder scene—a woman’s head, missing an eye, paired with a headless male body. Somehow Buckhorn and New York City will connect back to Twin Peaks.
MY LOG HAS A MESSAGE FOR YOU
“Something is missing and you have to find it. It has to do with Special Agent Dale Cooper,” the Log Lady tells Deputy Hawk. She tells him that he will find it by way of “something to do with your heritage.” A reference to the Black and White Lodge? The Giant sends Cooper on a mission; the Log Lady sends Hawk on a mission.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Jane Adams is really underutilized here. She turns up Principal Hastings as a murder suspect. Hastings is played by Matthew Lillard (who seems so much older here than my memory has preserved him).
SOMETHING IS MISSING
“But Agent Cooper is missing,” Lucy informs Hawk. She helpfully reminds him, in what I take to be a piece of jokey exposition that falls in line with the original series’ jabs at television tropes, that Agent Cooper has been missing for 24 years, since before the birth of her son Wally. (Recall that the second season ended with Lucy very, very pregnant). Hawk, who appears to be in charge of the Sheriff’s Office, tells Andy to pull out all the old files on Cooper. Hawk promises to bring coffee and donuts the next morning.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Principal Hastings is interrogated and he comes across guilty as hell. The cops get a search warrant. Detectives, one with an oh-so-Lynchian broken flashlight, search Hastings’s Volvo. In the truck, under a cooler, they discover a scrap of flesh. (I can’t help but see here an echo of MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont finding a severed ear in Blue Velvet.
DID I WATCH THE NEXT EPISODE RIGHT AWAY?
I wanted to but no, my wife had to go to sleep, but I’ll watch it tonight.
Lynch’s great strength is his evocation of color, light, and sound to create mood. The estrangement this mood often produces can threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and can also create the impression of tonal disjunctions—between characters, characterization, dialogue, motivation, and all of the other things we expect a television show should do. My primary interest in Lynch’s work is the feeling it produces in me, and the finest moments in “My log has a message for you” produced those feelings—feelings that words don’t refer to so easily.
In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.
The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs. J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.
The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:
Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.
The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.
These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:
She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.
The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.
But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:
She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.
Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.
Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:
At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.
The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.
There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.
What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.
Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in the spring of 2013; we republish it here in the spooky spirit of Halloween].