“A wild dream of a witch-meeting” | Westworld episode two reviewed

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Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” was thrumming through my head the second time I watched “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, a naive youth ventures into the dark evil woods—for reasons never fully expressed—and witnesses his community’s Satanic inversion: Witches and wizards and a “devilish Indian behind every tree.” The narrator’s gambit (Was it all just a dream?) doesn’t ultimately matter—Brown’s experience irrevocably change him. He crosses the threshold of his domestic door, traipses into unknown terrors, and becomes a new person.

Last week, in my review of Westworld’s pilot, I wrote that the series engages “that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would ‘sivilize’ him.” For Twain the territory is freedom; for dark Hawthorne the frontier is freedom’s dark twin terror. We find a bit of both in this episode of Westworld. (Along with wizards and Indians).

Our naive youth here is William (Jimmi Simpson). William arrives at Westworld for the first time, “guided” by his loutish friend Logan, who chooses to “go straight evil” (if I may echo a guest’s line from last week). Westworld’s pilot episode pulled a bait-and-switch last week, presenting Teddy Flood (James Marsden) as the naive youth, new to town, only to reveal that he is actually an automaton, a “host.” William provides a more traditional audience surrogate, and his opening sequences are closer to what we might expect from a traditional pilot episode. William’s entering Westworld also feels a bit like the beginning of a video game. (Westworld often feels like a video game. I mean that as a compliment).

We enter the Westworld with William; we savor the bespoke attire he’s offered; we glance with apprehension and desire at the guns on display. In a pivotal shot, William—and perhaps the audience—must make an important choice: White hat—or black?

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William chooses white, and much of his narrative in “Chestnut” is spent establishing his contrast to his “friend” Logan, who has donned a black hat, of course. William shows empathy, restraint, and civil humanity to the park’s automaton hosts, whereas Logan uses and abuses them with sadistic abandon. While Logan engages in an orgy (thanks HBO!), William rejects sex, declaring that he has “someone real waiting at home.” William hence represents a “family man” archetype. Perhaps he’s like Young Goodman Brown who just wanted to get home to his wife Faith.

Will crossing the threshold change William too? Yes. Of course. It’s a television show. For Hawthorne’s hero the results were dire: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” Maybe Westworld will find a more optimistic path for William.

But this isn’t a show that’s generally optimistic about domesticity. In the pilot episode, we saw that one android father can simply be swapped out for another android father. (Mothers, android or otherwise, remain absent). In the one glimpse of a full family we get in that episode, we hear the father advise that crossing the river is “too adult” for the son. The Territory is a wild space ripe for masculine domination. Westworld continues the American fantasia of exploration and destiny-manifestin’.

“Chestnut” continues Westworld’s breaking down of familial order in two plot lines that seem to converge. In one such plot, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills the cousins and then the wife of a host he claims is an “old friend.” (More on the Man in the Black in a moment). In a second plot line, told mostly in nightmare-flashback mode, Thandie Newton’s character Maeve is a mother whose family is apparently killed by Indians. (More on the convergence of these plotlines in a moment too).

I was happy to see Maeve get screentime this week. Her nightmares throughout “Chestnut” echo Hawthorne’s observation that our dreams alter our realities, that our night-consciousness is vital, real. (Perhaps this is Dr. Ford’s design when he injects “reveries” into his automaton’s new programming system in Westworld’s pilot). Maeve’s dreams begin to affect her work performance, so she’s hauled repeatedly into Westworld’s underground body shop for reconditioning—and a possible decommissioning. Maeve delivers the same monologue three times to different guests in the episode. Each segment feels like a separate audition, the producers leering offstage. Westworld again draws attention to its own form, its metatextuality, its “TV-showness,” as it were.

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Maeve’s “truest” performance comes underground—she somehow bypasses “sleep mode” and wakes up in the middle of the (real) nightmare: the Westworld labs and body shops. In an echo of the scalping motif that slices through the episode, Maeve grabs a scalpel and takes off, running deeper into the nightmare. The sequence is aesthetically arresting, wonderfully weird, and ultimately devastating when she finally happens upon the heaped bodies of her android fellows. Maeve’s underground odyssey furthers the Big Plot of Westworld thus far: How much consciousness–and self-consciousness –do these androids have? I’m digging how the series takes on memory, dream, and reality.

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Maeve’s performance is under pressure specifically because Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director (ahem, head writer), wants to cull dead weight to make room for his new campaign, “Odyssey on the Red River.” Sizemore, who we’re invited to view as a kind of Hollywood hack asshole, assures the assembled management team that this new storyline’s grotesque savagery (meta meta meta) will make it look like “”Hieronymous Bosch was doodling kittens.” Sizemore’s smugly assured that Dr. Ford, who hasn’t commented on the story in years, won’t interfere. So of course Ford shoots him down.

Ford is the true magician of Westworld. He regards Sizemore as a huckster, a fraud peddling cheap tricks. Ford blasts Sizemore’s claim that Westworld will “tell the guests who they are,” arguing that Westworld’s true potential is to transform and transmute the guests into what they can be. Ford notes at one point in the episode that the guests crave nuance, subtlety, mystery. They want witchcraft; they want a spell that transmogrifies chaos into magic.

Where does Ford’s magic come from? Boredom! In a wonderful discussion with (what I’m assuming simply has to be) a replicant version of himself as a child, Ford twists the old idiom and suggests that “only boring people cannot conceive of boredom.” He guides the replicant child to a desert vision of the “Town with the White Church,” pointing to the imaginative possibility of the Territory—to the frontier’s magic. The Black Sabbath in the wilderness is all in the wizard’s mind. “You see what a bored mind can conjure,” Ford tells the boy, and then charms a snake, declaring, perhaps a bit glumly, that, “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.” Ford dismisses the boy, and later brings Bernie Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) up to the surface to survey the desert terrain, the rocks where he will build this church. (Bernie dons a brown baseball cap. No black or white stetson for Bernie).

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But The Man in Black: He’s pure Black Hat. Compellingly, Dr. Ford’s thoughts on subtlety and magic parallel The Man in Black’s. (White wizard/Black wizard?). “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real” he snarls at an automaton he’s interrogating, echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of agony / Because I know it’s true.”

The Man in Black’s back in town, not a stranger, in search of something called The Maze, willing to scalp androids, smash families, kill cousins, wives, daughters, etc. to get clues—ah but wait, I’m forgetting, They’re just androids, right?

Is The Man in Black an android too?

“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” he reminds us. (Westworld  wants us to remember this three-decade benchmark—recall that the last time the park faced trouble was thirty years ago). But then, and perhaps without much of that magic subtlety, he tells us: “In a sense, I was born here.” Egads! 

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Black’s plot converges with Maeve’s nightmare in a Satanic reverie. Indian marauders have chased Maeve and her (dream)daughter into a cabin corner; one enters and shape-shifts into The Man in Black, knife out, ready to scalp her.

Is this now? Is this then? Is this real? Is this dream?

I started with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” so I’ll end with it. The Man in Black—but also Dr. Ford, perhaps—recall to me Brown’s traveling companion into the woods (lovely dark and deep), an old wizard who bears “a considerable resemblance” to the young (good?)man. The old mage steers YGB deeper into the Frontier, into the Territory, into the Weird, and he protests about going over the line:

“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”

Hawthorne here lays out an American history of religious persecution, the murder of indigenous peoples, and hypocrisy, themes that find their echo in Westworld’s continuation of the American myth.

Or maybe it’s the Territory itself, the dream/nightmare of the Frontier:

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.

Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)

William Burroughs and His Hatchet-Carved Jack O’ Lantern

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(Via).

The Abject Body and Spike Jonze’s Her

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1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.”  Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.

2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).

3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a weHer attempts to represent love without abjection.

4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).

5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.

6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.

7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.

8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream ColorLike HerUpstream Color explores the possibility of how an might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).

9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.

10.  In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.

100 Point William Burroughs Riff

1. William Seward Burroughs, born February 5th, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri. Died August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas.

2. Danger.

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3. William S. Burroughs, a writer no one reads and everyone references.

4. Point three is not fair: I’m sure you, dearest reader, have read Burroughs, continue to read Burroughs, will read Burroughs, etc.

5. But, points three and four, it’s the idea of Burroughs, Burroughs-as-luminary, Burroughs-as-symbol, that our culture persists in keeping.

6. Re: Points three, four, five: Burroughs the poser who posed for so many photographs, who couldn’t say no to a spoken word CD or a collaboration or a fucking Nike ad.

7. And always with the guns.

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8. And the knives.

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9. And the guns.

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10. If you want to know what licenses Picasso to break the human form (and other forms) into cubes and lines and colors and figured abstractions, go gander at Aunt Pepa or First Communion.

11. If you want to know what licenses Duchamp to call a urinal a work of art, go gander at Portrait of the Artist’s Father.

12. If you want to know what licenses Burroughs to call Naked Lunch a novel, go read Junkie or Queer.

13. Junkie, the first Burroughs novel I read, is a high modernist classic.

14. Typewriter.

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15. Shoes.

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16. The reader is invited, most cordially, to print this riff and cut it into little bits and rearrange it.

17. The reader is invited, most cordially, to cut and paste this riff into a new digital document and rearrange it.

18. William Burroughs, curator.

19. William Burroughs, collaborator. Continue reading “100 Point William Burroughs Riff”

William Burroughs Wielding a Big Ass Sword

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William Burroughs and His Hatchet-Carved Jack O’ Lantern

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(Via).

RIP Lou Reed

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RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013

I imagine other folks will put together overviews of Lou Reed’s career that contextualize his dramatic importance to contemporary music—to rock n’ roll—so I’m not gonna bother to do that. Instead, let me shoot from the hip here:

I’m surprised how sad I felt today when I learned that Reed had died. I don’t think I can overstate how important the Velvet Underground’s music was to me when I was young; more significantly, I still love their music today, still listen to it every week. Not all of Reed’s solo albums stuck in my brain, but many of them did, and so many of his songs are wedged so deep in my consciousness that I can hit “play” and hear them in toto without having to actually touch a stereo.

The first Lou Reed song I heard was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I heard on the fucking radio, some time in the late 1980s, when I was still a kid, when I was perplexed and stunned and weirded out by Reed’s storytelling, of Holly and Candy and Jackie,  when I didn’t know what to make of a signal phrase like, “And the colored girls go…,” as much as I loved the “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”

In 1991 my dad gave me a Sony Discman which I lived a good part of my life through. I bought a number of albums through a record club–maybe BMG or Columbia House, probably both (how to explain these scams to kids today…)—and the most important one in the first batch was The Best of the Velvet Underground: The Words and Music of Lou Reed. The songs and the liner notes opened up new avenues of what music could do. After that record I bought Magic and Loss, an album about loss and grieving and mortality that was just way too mature for me, but I loved and still love the single “What’s Good?”

I was one of those kids who scrawled Velvet Underground lyrics all over notebooks in high school; I still remembered the squareheaded jock who sat by me in American Government leaning in to mock the phrase “it’s so cold in Alaska” which repeated over my binder. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, like a lot of you weirdos, the Velvets were and are important to me, they helped me to live.

The cliche that everyone will cite is that line about the Velvets, how they didn’t sell any records but that everyone who did buy one of those records went and started a band…that cliche is true. The Velvet Underground birthed not just bands but whole new genres, art forms, experiences. It’s so hard to explain against the backdrop of the internet, this wonderful tool that grants immediate access to so much music, to the history of music, but pre-internet bands like the Velvet Underground—and the bands they engendered, like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth—were deeply important as curators, as taste makers, as starting points to access the real stuff.

Lou Reed, like any good artist, was an asshole, or at least that’s my suspicion informed by the many, many interviews and articles I read about him, an opinion informed deeply by Victor Bockris’s biography Transformer; I wrote about that book years ago on this site so I’ll cannibalize that writing now:

Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reed’s early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).

Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch).

As I’m putting this together, a friend texts me to chat about Lou. We were in a band together, this friend and I, years ago…We got to open for Moe Tucker’s band, that’s the closest we got to Lou Reed. My friend tells me that he wishes he could “trade Bono” to get Reed back.

It’s strange to feel surprised that a rock star who wrote a song called “Heroin” is dead, but I thought he’d keep living. I don’t know why. All those weird projects (Lulu?!), all that collaboration. And here is where I write some hackneyed line about Reed still living, still being alive through music, some nonsense, and then later when I get in my car with my kids to drive to a pumpkin to buy pumpkins to carve into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, I’ll push the “next” button on my CD player through tracks from the Smiths and Talking Heads and Luna and Beach House, tracks that I already know are on the mix CD in there, I’ll push through to “Rock & Roll,” one of those songs that inevitably ends up on half of the CDs I make for myself.

William Burroughs Portrait — Charles Burns

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Handsome Devil William S. Burroughs, Smiling

William Burroughs in his flat, London, 1971. Photo by Baron Wolman

(Via).

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Full Film with Narration by William Burroughs)

Tarzan (Via William Burroughs)

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“Tarzan Based on the works of Burroughs”— Comic by Kelly Shane & Woody Compton, part of their Is This Tomorrow? series.

JG Ballard on on Psychoactive Drugs and William Burroughs

From JG Ballard’s interview with The Paris Review; the Martin Bax novel he mentions, The Hospital Ship, is worth your time if you can find it:

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of stimulation, did any of the psychoactive drugs of the sixties give you any clues for your writing?

BALLARD

I suppose I’m a medium-to-heavy drinker, but I haven’t taken any drugs since one terrifying LSD trip in 1967. A nightmarish mistake. It opened a vent of hell that took years to close and left me wary even of aspirin. Visually it was just like my 1965 novel, The Crystal World, which some people think was inspired by my LSD trip. It convinced me that a powerful and obsessive enough imagination can reach, unaided, the very deepest layers of the mind. (I take it that beyond LSD there lies nothing.) Imagination is the shortest route between any two conceivable points, and more than equal to any physical rearrangement of the brain’s functions.

INTERVIEWER

Back in the sixties, Martin Bax and yourself, as editors of Ambit magazine, ran a drug competition.

BALLARD

Dr. Bax and I ran a competition in Ambit for the best prose or poetry written under the influence of drugs, and it produced a lot of interesting material. In general, cannabis was the best stimulant, though some good pieces came out of LSD. In fact, the best writing of all was done by Ann Quin, under the influence of the contraceptive pill.

INTERVIEWER

Dr. Bax is a novelist as well, isn’t he?

BALLARD

Martin is a physician, a research pediatrician, and consultant to a London hospital, and his book The Hospital Ship (published in the States by New Directions) is the most remarkable and original novel I’ve come across since reading William Burroughs.

INTERVIEWER

Burroughs wrote an eccentric and laudatory, in its way, introduction to the American edition of Atrocity Exhibition. Do you know him?

BALLARD

Burroughs, of course, I admire to the other side of idolatry, starting with Naked Lunch, then Ticket, Soft Machine, and Nova Express. I’m less keen on his later books. In his way he’s a genius. It’s a pity that his association with drugs and homosexuality has made him a counterculture figure, but I suppose his real links are with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beats. Still, I think he’s much more of an establishment figure, like Dean Swift, with a despairing disgust for the political and professional establishments of which he is a part. I have met Burroughs quite a few times over the last fifteen years, and he always strikes me as an upper-class Midwesterner, with an inherent superior attitude towards blacks, policemen, doctors, and small-town politicians, the same superior attitude that Swift had to their equivalents in his own day, the same scatological obsessions and brooding contempt for middle-class values, thrift, hard work, parenthood, et cetera, which are just excuses for petit-bourgeois greed and exploitation. But I admire Burroughs more than any other living writer, and most of those who are dead. It’s nothing to do with his homosexual bent, by the way. I’m no member of the “homintern,” but a lifelong straight who prefers the company of women to most men. The few homosexual elements in Crash and Atrocity Exhibition, fucking Reagan, et cetera, are there for reasons other than the sexual—in fact, to show a world beyond sexuality, or, at least beyond clear sexual gender.

“A Thanksgiving Prayer” — William S. Burroughs

Charles Burns Enriches His Wonderfully Weird Trilogy with The Hive

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In X’ed Out, Charles Burns created a rich and strangely layered world focusing on Doug, a confused and injured young man. In his parents’ suburban basement, Doug parcels out the last of his late father’s painkillers, slipping from haunted memories of his relationship with Sarah into fevered nightmares of abject horror and then into a wholly other world, a realm that recalls William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this alien world, Doug takes on the features of Nitnit (an inversion of Tintin), the alter-ego he adopts when performing spoken word cut-ups as the opening act for local punk rock bands. What made X’ed Out so compelling (apart from Burns’s thick, precise illustration, of course), was the sense that this Interzone was a reality equal to Doug’s own “real world” — that it was somehow more real than Doug’s dreams.

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The Hive (part two of the proposed trilogy) deepens the richness and complexity of the world Burns has imagined. The title refers to a location in Interzone. Doug (or Nitnit) has found employment in The Hive as a kind of mail clerk or janitor. His primary role though is secret librarian, catering to the reading needs of the breeders of The Hive. One breeder seems to be a version of Doug’s ex-girlfriend; the other is a double of Sarah, who asks Doug/Nitnit to bring her romance comics—which he does—only he skips a few issues. These missing issues stand in for the information Doug (and Burns) withholds from the reader, the missing fragments that have been x’ed out.

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Burns uses romance comics as a framing or organizing device, a motif linking the disparate worlds of his narrative. In the “real world” — which is to say the world of Doug’s memory — we learn that he buys a stack of old romance comics for Sarah on their first date.

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Throughout the narrative, Burns plays his characters against the extreme, often hysterical dramas of 1950s and ’60s romance comics; his strong lines and heavy inks readily recall the early works of Simon and Kirby, but more precise and careful—something closer to Roy Lichtenstein, only more sincere, more emotional.

In The Hive, we learn more about Doug’s troubled relationship with Sarah, who has problems out the proverbial yingyang (not the least of which is a violent psychopathic ex-boyfriend).

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Burns weaves the story of Sarah and Doug’s relationship into the fallout of Doug’s father’s death—a death Doug was completely shuttered to, we realize. Doug’s drug-dreams dramatize the missing pieces of these narratives, and the Interzone set-pieces propel the mystery aspects of the narrative forward, as Doug’s alter-ego plumbs the detritus of his psychic fallout. Through the metatextual motif of reading-comic-books-as-detective-works, Burns explores themes of trauma, abjection, and distance. Images of pigs and cats, freaks and punks, portals and holes litter The Hive.

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Burns has always been a perfectionist of dark lines and strange visions, and his last full graphic novel Black Hole was a triumph of atmosphere and mood. With the first two entries of his trilogy, however, Burns has showed a significant maturation in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. I often thought parts of Black Hole seemed forced or rushed (no doubt because Burns faced daunting production troubles during the decade he worked on the novel—including his original publisher Kitchen Sink folding). With X’ed Out and now The Hive we can see a more patient artist, working out an emotionally complex and compelling story in rich, symbolic layers.

I reread X’ed Out and then read The Hive in one greedy sitting; then I went through The Hive again, more slowly, more attendant to its details and nuances. We had to wait two years between X’ed Out and The Hive—and it was worth the two year wait. So if we must wait another two years—or more—for the final entry, Sugar Skull, so be it.

Portrait of William Burroughs — Robert Mapplethorpe

Tom McCarthy on William Burroughs’s Verbal Remix Software

A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix:”

It might be inferred, from what I’ve said, that any old remix will do. Not so: there are good and bad ones. Tristan Tzara cutting Shakespeare sonnets up and pulling their words from hats is an exercise in randomizing. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin mixing poems in with sliced-up pages of The New York Times is quite another matter: it is assiduous composition—composition understood in all its secondary nature: as reading, tracing, reconfiguring. Using the same technique, Gysin comes up with a few clumsy permutations along the lines of “Rub the Word Right Out . . . Word Right Rub the Out” and so on—whereas Burroughs generates such gorgeous sequences as:

Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.

or

The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.

Why does Burroughs conjure so much more richness from the same source material? Because (unlike the painter Gysin, whose skill lies primarily in the domain of images), he has uploaded the right verbal remix software. He has read and memorized his Dante, his Shakespeare, his Eliot—to such an extent that his activity as a composer consists of giving himself over to their cadences and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops, the better that these may work their way, through him, The New York Times and any other body thrown into the mix, into an audibility that, booming and echoing in the here-and-now, transforms all the mix’s elements, and time itself.

This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been.

“Fluck you fluck you fluck you” — Tangier Transmission from William Burroughs, 1964

From Number 5, Vol. 7 of Fuck You, (1964) a mimeograph magazine from editor Ed Sanders. The magazine featured Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Frank O’Hara and more. There’s a fantastic visual archive of Fuck You at Reality Studio, which is where I got this Burroughs layout.