Monthly Archives: September 2013

Your Cashier Today Was Self

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Christine did a double take as she looked at her receipt from the grocery store. Your cashier today was self, it read. A mistake? Little did she know that it was an indicator of the newly installed self-service check-out stations. Was it a joke? she wondered. Otherwise, everything was more or less as she expected: the milk, the beans, pinto and green, the chicken and the eggs, all cost about what she’d expected. Her coupons hadn’t worked on some items; they had expired already. She’d have to take the bananas to the express check-out, wherein there was a moment of self-disgust as one of the coupons  was again rejected. Stupid oversight, she thought, turning away briefly from the surly teenage girl at the check-out stand. Christine flashed on the girl’s face as she left the store. As she passed the receipt, there had been a stifled yawn, preceded by a slight grimace. Surrounded by food, this girl exuded contempt for the product. She was tall, enabling her to look down at people; and she was thin, painfully thin. The glance she made at Christine’s over-stuffed basket was fleeting. She passed the items over the screening device like someone holding their nose as they held at arm’s length a soiled diaper.

Christine showed the receipt to her mother as she returned home. Christine’s mother, also bemused by the phrase on the receipt, made a gruff, bemused sort of noise. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked incuriously. Mother’s questions often seemed like that: dismissive, judgmental rather than interested. “It’s…never mind,” sighed Christine. “She reminded me of Erica, though”. Mother was nonplussed. “Who did, dear?”. “The girl at the check-out stand,” Christine replied with a hint of impatience, thinking her mother obtuse; “The cashier, see?” Mother mouthed perfunctory acknowledgement, and then set the receipt aside. The two of them began planning for the evening meal. Christine’s sister, Fatima, was coming over, mother said, so they’d have to watch what they said about Erica, Fatima’s daughter. After finishing an inventory of ingredients, Christine said, “Actually, I think we should say something. After all, it’s not getting any better.” Mother gave Christine an evil eye, and performed her idiosyncratic motion wherein her forehead appears to recede to a lower angle. It was an effective illusion; a warning of imminent disapproval. “I don’t think so,” Mother decreed. “I do wonder what happened between her and that nice young man, Derek,” she instead proposed. Christine rolled her eyes. “Please, I think he decided to date someone who fed themselves properly.” Mother disputed the premise: “No dear, it was Erica who didn’t want to call him back. “Whatever,” said Christine rudely. “Sorry,” she immediately said afterwards.

Fatima arrived just as the meal was ready. As usual, Christine and her mother had prepared too much, and both had the habit of dashing back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table, ever looking to perfect the eating experience. “Want some more chicken?” mother kept asking of her daughters, despite the repeated refusals. “We should have added sour cream to this,” Christine would moan halfway through. Fatima, the cheerful younger sister, indifferent yet indulgent of her family’s obsessive ways, just smiled as she placed an obstructing hand across her plate. “How’s Erica, darling?” Mother asked, following the main course. Christine was “dear”; Fatima was “darling”. Why? Christine always wondered, thinking “darling” was preferable. She never said so. “She’s fine,” Fatima replied pleasantly, yet with deliberate shortness. Christine’s knife hovered above her plate; she was behind in her meal, having barely sat down in the last hour. She looked tentatively in her sister’s direction, and peripherally caught the eye of her mother. “Is she going seeing that Derek again?” Mother asked. Fatima paused, and was about to say something when Mother interrupted. “He’s such a nice young man, quite good looking.” Fatima’s face flattened slightly; her head tilted to an angle, as it often did when she was about to say something a bit patronizing. “That’s not what’s important to her, Mother. I don’t think she found him that interesting.” Mother’s eyes widened, like she was incredulous. “Well, I don’t understand. He seemed like a perfect choice to me. Maybe she should speak to Father Lopez.” Christine nodded, but touched her hand to her Mother’s wrist. “Maybe, but I think an expert may also be a good idea.” Mother’s expression narrowed. Confused, she thought: what did Christine mean by an expert?

“She’s not seeing anyone,” Fatima said succinctly. The placid smile remained, along with her shortness. She looked at her plate, which was empty finally, after several attempts by either her mother or her sister to re-fill it. She felt stuffed; fighting back nausea. “What’s for dessert, dear?” Mother asked. Christine licked her fingers clean of gravy, and skipped into the kitchen. In the freezer was her prize, the item she’d spent the previous day baking, and which she’d most looked forward to sharing: an almost two-foot wide, four-inch thick apple pie. “Looks great, dear,” said Mother as Christine delivered the pie to the table. Fatima inwardly groaned. Then Christine lovingly sliced two over-sized pieces, and set them down on plates for her mother and sister. She left her own plate clear. Fatima, with her fork dithering over the crust, asked “what about you, aren’t you having any?”. Christine rubbed her stomach, gave a beatific smile, and said, “Not for me. I’ve had enough.”

**photo by Helnwein

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Crystal Surreal: Revisited

 

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I’m not sure what an example of surreal fiction is. When I think of surrealism, I think of painters like Salvador Dali, or filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, or Luis Bunuel. I’m told Jacques Lacan is the man for those following the unconscious. Not sure that’s true. The author Polizzoti writes that Freud and the surrealists were nonplussed by one another, especially Andre Breton, who reportedly met the Viennese physician and was underwhelmed.  These writers were poets, stylists of the 20s and 30s, contemporaries of the absurdist Dada movement, and men who reported interest in the unconscious, and went about the task of creating images that simulated dreams. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried a modest and similar tact with Crystal From The Hills, having read some of Lacan and Breton, and then staring at that remarkable painting by Magritte: the one that frame a woman’s naked body within the contours of a feminine hairline. ‘Le Viol’ it’s called: the rape. Simplicity and genius.

Mine is a story that begins dreamily on the streets of Oakland, with an ambiguously aged man holding a sign that reads, “Hungry White Trash” as he panhandles by the side of a freeway. You might get the idea that it’s a joke, but it’s not entirely flippant. In fact, there’s a history to the joke: a serious underpinning. Chris Leavitt has suffered an accident. That’s the pitch, the beginning of the story and the forerunner to a back-story. There will be a few accidents depicted if you read on, as well as deliberate action, malevolent and kind. There is no hero per se, just a hapless everyman riding a string of bad luck, making several wrong decisions, struggling to act like an adult. He’s playing with life. He has a girlfriend, sort of. It’s Jill Evans, ten years before her stints playing support character in Living Without Blood, and almost twelve years before she takes the lead in The Big No. Jill gets around, and here she goes back in time, getting younger, lucky girl. I have a villain of sorts, a guy who’s not around, but who gets talked about a lot. He’s Weed, a drug dealer, video game aficionado, con artist—bad guy. His dark influence is balanced by Sweet, Chris’ other friend, who is even more childlike than Chris, yet affable and easy to have around. He sticks around. There’s an aged yet autocratic aunt—Chris’ only surviving relative, an endearingly caustic woman. Others in the story are lawyers, doctors, police, employers, street thugs, ghostly figures (dubbed “shadows”) that hang around with hallucinatory menace: not all bad people; just people with seeming power and a willingness to use it.

            CFTH is a story that concerns itself with many ideas. It’s a quick read, but one that depends on a certain momentum. Not many big words: nothing like “importunate” or “solipsism” in this one. I promise. But it relies on continuity and the experience of ideas, fragments that have been indicated previously in the text. If you read a few pages then put it down for three weeks, then I’m sorry if I bored you. If that’s not the case and you’re just dilatory in your reading habits, then I’m afraid you may miss out. A good read is like good therapy. You don’t go once a month, like it’s a check up. You’re supposed to remember bits and pieces, like it’s embedded in your experience, and just know where you left off—no bookmarks are necessary if it works. There are associations to be made along the way. Don’t look for patterns, just experience the sense of revisiting as you note terms, phrases that appear to get repeated in the novel; themes that seem to link to one another. This is a story about accidents; personal, physical, even sexual, and habitual. It’s a story about rejection: also personal, and also institutional. There is trauma involved, and the problems related to poor memory and dissociation. You might feel what my characters don’t: that’s the point. Chris doesn’t remember much in the beginning, but builds his story along the way, and tells others, and you, what’s happening in his own time, on his own terms. His friend Sweet has an even worse memory than he does, but low and behold, it is he that becomes the chronicler of events in the end; the witness. Trauma victims need witnesses. That’s written somewhere. Above all there is a problem with reality. Characters aren’t sure what’s happening. They lack real perspectives, real goals. They don’t even use their real names. Despite all this, CFTH is actually not a confusing novel; at least, not in this author’s opinion. It’s not all in Chris’ mind: things actually happen.

            Bad things happen. Evil lurks, as in any good action movie or pulp mystery novel. Darth Vader types hover, and towering infernos exist. If you read the novel some of these cheeky references will make sense. Meanwhile, like the “shadows” of Chris’ imagination or psychosis, the author and reader are witnesses to all that goes down. CFTH is a novel that may move you, or it may leave you cold, or I suppose—just to cover all bases—it may leave you feeling something (?) in between. Though, I suppose if you’re a Russian huckster or a peddler of dating sites looking to hijack a random blog site, none of this will mean anything to you. My art is an object and you are like rapists to me. Jean Luc Godard said of Weekend that it was like a film discovered on a scrap heap. Lucky scrap heap, I say. Perhaps, like the secrets of my protagonist’s past, CFRH may be found in a box one day: set aside, rejected; an obscure allegory by an obscure writer that aimed for the unconscious.  

 

 

 

**photo by Helnwein

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Everything We Love Vanishes

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A quote from W.B Yeats. In The Silent Past and the Invisible Present, Paul Renn writes about the traumatized, the pathological mourning of those whose ambivalent yearning for and anger with attachment figures becomes dissociated; split off and embedded into personality. Through Renn’s case examples, the reader learns that those with attachment difficulties, personality problems, are beset with distorted representations of self and others, and that time is lost; meaning, past and present become conflated experiences: the past denied, but acted out in the present. In Crystal From The Hills, protagonist Chris Leavitt (nicknamed Crystal) is an itinerant trauma victim, suffering from (among other things) post-acute withdrawal resulting from (you guessed it!) methamphetamine use. He is unconsciously playing out a conflicted identification with absent caregivers: a distant, self-absorbed father, and a protective yet similarly detached and secretive mother. The backstory has yielded his character and thus the first two-thirds of the novel, his “acting out”. Chris tries to be “nice” in life, but as often as not his attempts are disengenuous, especially when dealing with authority. His mentor, Aunt Jenny, advises, “there’s nothing nice about being nice”, articulating the demand that he be real. And he has acted out upon anger: Chris’ problems at work–his “suspension” for insubordination–reveals his impulses, his sporadic rebellion against authority figures and systems. More sinisterly, his present-day drama contains a mystery: the disappearance of his friend, the malevolently reptilian Weed. Chris is noticeably evasive. If attentive, the reader must consider some dark possibilities as the mystery unfolds: is Chris psychotic? a killer? a rapist, even? Meanwhile, ambivalence thwarts Chris’ other ambitions: sleep disturbed, his dreams are interrupted, and his perceptions are marred by visions, his so-called “shadows”. His ideas, such as his strange and somewhat silly diaper invention (an indicator that his dreams entail regression) are tentatively delivered, but easily withdrawn or dismissed with self effacing humor. Back in the day, he once tried to be an actor, and still does affect the odd scene here and there (incongruous quotes from film or literature), but surely the best actors must first be grounded in reality, and reality, through no fault of his own, actually, has also been elusive.

Above all, Chris has failed at love, just as his father had. That is, Chris has tried to sustain love and relationships, but the truth is that parents, friends, women, have all left. And so the story begins upon a two-fold leaving: the disappearance of his doppelganger, Weed, followed by Chris’ disappearance into the anonymous milieu of Oakland.

 

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