brain-chaos in the muffin factory

Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK pp. 175-225

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The patchwork of oral history continues with two long, strange stories, and some smaller pieces that introduce highly specialized knowledge and a peppering of technical language. We meet a character who changes from a “she” to a “he,” and the book begins to embody more characteristics of encyclopedic narrative and postmodern play. While there are a lot of mysteries going on, only one of which is “solved,” there’s still nothing yet about a scrapbook, lost or otherwise (apart from the work itself as a lost scrapbook, of course), but there are more corporate shenanigans.

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michaelangelo eden
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SUMMARY

Our speaker works at “the old Athanasian” theater, and he’s working on a hit. The production is a one-man show performed by its writer, Kenneth Flack. We get some details about Ken’s work, his lack of success with getting into the movies, and how the energy from a hit show affects the speaker. But then he’s in the blue room before the show with two other technicians, Billy and Natalie, and when Ken shows up he’s brought cocaine with him. “Aw, what th’ fuck?…; It’s our last week, i’n’t it…?”

So they all snort it, giggling at Ken’s sudden liberalness, when it’s time to “head to our battle stations.” The narrator works the lights, and at this point he’s “getting acquainted with some pretty serious chemical transportation.”

The next three paragraphs detail Ken’s performance and the choreographed lighting operated by the narrator. It’s a strange act, in which Ken embodies different characters in distinct vignettes. In one he’s a white collar guy on his way to the printer store bc the company’s xerox is broken and he doesnt want to be noticed by his bosses, when his ankle is seized by a homeless man. These different bits are random and distinct — he also chugs Coors onstage. And he gets a lot of laughs from the audience.

But then one of Ken’s acts, “the Ameliorator,” begins to contaminate another part of the show. The intrusive behavior persists, and the narrator is disturbed at first but then starts changing the lighting to that of the Amerliorator’s segment. Billy the sound guy goes along with it as well. The audience has no idea this metadrama is going on, but Billy and the narrator are making each other double over with laughter.

But then the show is interrupted by a loud raving man in the back of the sold-out auditorium, banging his head against the wall and shouting things like

BUT I DO NOT
I DO NOT

AND WHAT DO YOU KNOW
OF
AND WHAT DO YOU
DO YOU

and

AND I WILL BURY
I WILL BURY YOU IN MY BLOOD

The audience becomes a mass of panic. A stage hand named Kevin comes up to the narrator to witness the scene from their perch,

and we just stand there and watch the guy, the poor fuckin’ guy, just smashing his neck against the wall and raving away, just raving away, with his arms and jacket and tie-end waggling, and everything dithering — the poor guy, entirely taken by brain-chaos:

AND THERE WILL BE NO ETERNAL RE

Kevin then mentions, in a respectful voice, that he’s read about things like this, about how a guy can all of a sudden snap — about how some folks are just machined too close to tolerance, then one day this early weakness is somehow accessed, and the twist-tie comes loose:

A black security guard is seen trying to approach the raving man with no success, and at this point Kenneth has come off the stage and is now slowly walking up to the raver with his hands in the air, making an attempt to help him.

And there this block cuts off.

What follows is this staggering passage:

— Because the shore is stony, and steps jostle and pinch, but do not sink, I am stumbling toward a seam in time, here where the sky swallows sea: Let me come close enough to see that you are unreachable; tell me that this arrested falling, my progress, is movement toward tendency, so that I may reach evanescence and transparency — impermeable transparency; show me that my suffering grows because it is constant, while I diminish; make me see the tenderness in this terror — the permanence of my fragility; allow me to draw force from this endlessness, where step blurs into slide, and difference becomes commonness; enable my inexhaustibility; show me that I am the template to corroborate time, moving so quickly that i cannot see the change: You are the shadow on the inconceivable edge of me: be attainable, but impossible; prove my finitude, extended infinitely; make me see that I suffer, I continue; make of my evanescence something everlasting…

Like, im still not sure what exactly is going on here but man this writing is really nice. Like the rest of the book’s prose the clauses are crisp and short so that you never get lost. And not only the alliterations here and there but the way the sound goes through the whole thing.

[reading comprehension edit: im finished with the novel as im writing this, and looking back on this following bit, it’s obvious that the narrator who does the “others’ words” monologue is a friend of Robins, and the paragraph about Chomsky is the first of the three Robin letters we read, addressed to the woman who now narrates this block.]

And then we’re in another monologue. The speaker is a woman who’s just recently left a living partner. She talks a little on Chomsky — it’s so out of context you almost entertain the thought that she’s living with him, but she’s just reading his work on linguistics. Then she shares memories of a good friend from high school named Robin. They did lots of stuff together; a relationship of “ferocious closeness” and “boundless openness.” It was so tender that she never wanted to admit her sexual feelings to Robin for fear it might

in some way alter the tonality of our togetherness, and this would be a heavy cost; for, from that point on, I’m sure, things between us would lose a certain unreflective innocence,[…]

They had a game in which you pick a word and stare at it long enough so that it becomes defamiliarized, and even wrong-looking.

This transitions into a TV miniseries watched by her and her friends. It’s a mawkish non-fiction program about marrow donors and the like; it moves the speaker to make plans to donate her own blood or marrow, even though she’s of a rare type. But the following day while moving out of an office, when she hears her friends chatting about the show, she changes her mind. In fact the words of her friends rub her the wrong way:

I feel as if words, others’ words, have crowded mine out,[…]

The next two-page paragraph, to be excerpted tomorrow, is an amazing dramatization of a crisis of consciousness, in which the narrator ponders the boundary between the self and the external world that influences her consciousness. Why does she prefer Masaccio’s version of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden over Michelangelo’s (pictured above), and from where did this bit of taste come? What is originality or individuality if we’re all just composites of language and judgements and insights absorbed from elsewhere?

This gets her so worked up that she begins to speculate another life for herself, one in which she is a man.

This man has a morning routine of putting on fancy brand clothes after applying boutique deodorant and aftershave, taking a high class breakfast, and other trappings of yup life. Turns out this guy (who is the pov character of a new segment) is a lawyer for Big Tobacco, and he’s giving a PR conference.

Interestingly, we are not privy to the questions from the press fired at this guy in the wake of two high-profile court cases. We only get to read his answers, which proceed for about five pages.

Then we are in another one-sided conversation, this time between two film studies professors. Except at two points it switches from one to the other speaker — i actually missed this on the first reading and had to go back.

And then we get to my favorite block so far: that of a worker in a muffin factory.

After the above anxiety with individuality, distinction, and stable sense of self, this guy is actually pretty content to just be part of a larger, efficient system of production, of a big muffin-making machine. He goes on about how nice smelling and “sugar-warm” they are when they’ve just come out of the massive ovens, a freshness that is eradicated once they’re packaged for shipping. Our narrator does “handimannery” in inventory and shipping during the graveyard shift, and he likes to relieve himself at his favorite men’s room near the corner workstation behind the wrapping area.

That’s where he finds the guy — a “zony” dude who has accumulated a huge amount of junk and just sorts through it with some vague deliberation. Our narrator gets curious about the junk-collecting dude, who has only now shown up, and asks around. The supervisor says he’s there as part of a deal with the factory boss, and to make no more inquiries.

Our speaker starts watching the guy, in the shadows, as he assembles his “junk garden.” With each passing night he’s brought in more shit from outside.

…Such shit as what? — such shit as bicycle fenders, bent blades from Venetian blinds, a seated smiling rubberized Buddha with a good gash taken from his side, newspaper pages, spent batteries, beer bottles, kiddie Camaros made of tin, fence sections, photographs, crack vials, crushed cigarette packs, electrical cables, amputated table legs, plastic sleeves for guitar strings, laceless boots, forests of fast-food wrappings, tire sections, hemorrhaging audio cassettes, coverless paperbacks, unknobbed bureau drawers, a lobotomized clipboard, dragaways from the umbrella holocaust, single socks, a walkie-talkie doubled over into a sit-up…

After this topography the junk man hits the table and yells at a selected pile “You fuck… you fucking — fuck!”

without ever once considering that someone might hear him…; in other words, this was weirdness, this was a trip to the zone[…]

Then he takes the pile, which is on a factory baking tray, covers it with a thin sheet of rubber, and shoves it in the oven. And this is his procedure: he arranges a pile of junk, puts it in the oven calibrated a different temperature and a different duration each time. The result: an

ugly lumpen mass of diarrheic grayness

[…] a boulder, but a semi-shiny one, a magmatic chunk dislodged from the hawking earth…; in other words, the guy was deep in the zone, he was way blooming out there, making his garbage parmigiana…

He continues the process over the next few nights, baking junk piles, cussing at the top of his lungs at them. Then our narrator has their vacation week. After a paragraph of the stuff he did, he returns to the factory to find that the “shit master” is gone. And he’s prettty bummed about this.

it would have been nice to have just a little, what d’you call it, resolution…;

But four days later he’s asked to make a muffin delivery on his way home. The place is a converted church building, and inside he finds none other than “the zonester’s fry-babies!” arranged on pedestals under narrow arc lamps. These art pieces have titles such as “The Invention of Solitude (475°: 40 minutes)” and they’re going for prices like 25 or 35 hundred dollars.

And then our narrator bumps into the trash artist himself. It’s a brief scene, but the speaker comes away from it disenchanted. The guy seems “arrogant” and “snide” to him,

as if he had somehow let attitude substitute for inspiration; so rather than receptivity coming from his stuff, all you felt was closure, fixity…;

This kind of approach to creation would not be conducive at all to the work the speaker does in the muffin factory. So now our speaker is happy to put the junk garden man behind him. But a week later he’s back.

This time the “zonester” speaks to our narrator in the factory; we learn that the art show was a washout, he yells at the junk because “art is revenge,” that the gallery people liked the muffins more than his work, and some ramblings about monkeys. The speaker lets him be, but some time later runs into him again at the speaker’s favorite bar. This time he’s ecstatic, and drinking from a mix of Pernod and cough syrup. He’s learned that he developed the 100 millionth photo for the W.W. Berkeley Corporation. The ideas of random selection reclamation are the very kinds of procedures he’s invested in as an artist, and now he’s taking 10 grand for it.

Our narrator is glad for the guy, leaves the bar, calls in sick to take a long weekend, and is back at his job on Monday. But on Thursday, when the speaker is at the dumpster out back, the “shit-chef” is back. He tells a story of going to the W.W. Berkeley building to claim his prize, only to learn that the company men dont care for his photograph of one of his melted trash sculptures. They are willing to take any other photograph but these are the only pictures he has. They’re still willing to give him the prize money, but he turns it down flat and leaves in a huff.

And so here he is, back at his old workstation, looking completely despondent, before going into the men’s room to freshen up, then walking to the speaker’s supervisor Lonno to ask for a job.

VOCAB

Phoneme, any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.

Parmigiana, cooked with parmesan cheese.

THE IMAGINARY SIGNIFIER: PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE CINEMA, 1982 monograph by Christian Metz applying semiotics and Lacan’s ideas to film spectatorship.

COMMENTS

There’s a lot i admire about the writing style and the way it looks odd on the page but actually goes down easily, unlike the more gnarly sentences you find in other high modernist/postmodernist work. Each monologue has different verbal tics and mannerisms to give them distinction, and the flow of the language is so good that they dont annoyingly stick out. Raymond’s friend says “I admit,” the substitute history teacher uses “you know,” the lighting guy at Ken’s show is in love with the word “incantations,” and our muffin man leans on “in other words.” what i liked the most about this speaker was his use of “suspect words,” or rather words that are out of place but are perfect for the moment, like “sugar-warm” or “nice-shaped.” Every monologue has felt compelling, as if we’re floating from person to person at a party. And the worker’s tone is warm. Clearly it’s a recollection told in the present tense, as he might tell it to some drinking buddies.

Now the transition between the pirate broadcast and the theatre story is odd and worth looking at:

…Try to run away from what you know can not be true…

…Run…

Run

…That’s it — run

Try to run…

You miserable motherfuckers!…but no…; wait…; please, just wait…; now you listen…; now you wait and listen…; because there is something I want to say just now, there is something that have to say, and in the midst of this incessant self-suffused hurt-rant where is there room for such consideration…; faced with your endless incantations and propositions, where can I — where can anyone — talk of things, where can anyone really talk of anything…: of past and present; of tenderness; of yieldingness; of the infinite fragile things; of Ravel — yes, of Ravel, because i want to tell you, it does something to you to work on a hit; it really does; […]

Of course it’s wide open in terms of who you can attribute these lines to. It’d be funny if the broadcaster suddenly cussed out their listeners, but im also wondering if that “miserable motherfuckers” is the junk artist cutting into the narrative, or perhaps from somewhere else forthcoming in the work. (The “I want to talk about Ravel” also occurs once more in the block after the muffin factory.) Are these lines getting “cut-up” a la Burroughs? Or maybe it’s a weird notion that out of this whole potpourri of voices, seemingly by chance, similar expressions arise, and voices from all over the map converge for a brief instant. This might tie in with the concerns of the woman who reads Chomsky.

The play, well I dont know what to make of the play, except that it seems to me another example of parataxis, which is just university jargon for a mash-up of things that aren’t supposed to blend together via narrational direction or convention — the basis of postmodern play. So this could be another method comment along with the musical references.

The black security guard mentioned is interesting. i didnt want to say anything  before, but this was a concern that arose quickly: for a novel that’s exploring different barriers towards communication or connection, the barrier of race isnt getting a lot of attention. But we’re only halfway through the text so ill hold out. In any case, this guy does a much better job handling a situation with a mentally ill person than any white cops in real life.

The romantic prose poem after this bit: clearly working on the same concerns as the rest of the book. The speaker exudes a yearning for a connection (with another human being or with an aesthetic/historical sublime?) that would not exactly make them stronger or more complete but somehow illuminate their own vulnerabilities in a way that can lead to mutual understanding. The opening image of stumbling but not falling on the stone steps leading out to the horizon line strike me as a really open, almost abstract, presentation of the kind of postmodernist routines described by the theorists i read: a desire to make a genuine connection to Truth or ethical being while sustaining the limit of language’s ability to do so, revealing that there’s no difference between the “world” and the word. The movement towards understanding is futile, a never-ending pattern of broken falls, since the horizon line will always be receding. And to be serious about getting there and Understanding at last has only led to the objectification of people and rational instrumentality and gulags etc. etc. ive scrawled about this stuff before; im still really not sure what this passage is other than really strong writing.

The Big Tobacco lawyer’s press conference made me think about propaganda — how that word is used exclusively to demonize whatever message is being sent out, which is unfortunate, since it’s a word that nicely describes how virtually all media is operating these days. But it’s only propaganda when it’s harmless things such as portraying gay couples in a positive light, or anarcho-communist zines for high schoolers, the rest of the time it’s “PR” or “the news.”

The way the questions are removed so that we only look at the lawyer’s statements sheds more light on the propagandistic nature of his words, which of course includes the tactic of denouncing proponents of surgeon general warnings as propagandists themselves.


— Compelling doubts have been raised about the statistics and their interpretations involving smoking and health;

— Science does not know what role, if any, smoking may play in the production of disease;


— Smoking may cause illness; it may not; we don’t know and we don’t think anybody knows;

— It is not known whether smoking has a role in the development of various diseases;

— There is little evidence — and certainly nothing that proves scientifically — that cigarette smoking causes disease in nonsmokers;

Here’s a passage from Hannah Arendt’s TOTALITARIANISM

The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.

[…] The chief disability of totalitarian propaganda is that it cannot fulfill this longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense. If, for instance, all the “confessions” of political opponents in the Soviet Union are phrased in the same language and admit the same motives, the consistency-hungry masses will accept the fiction as supreme proof of their truthfulness; whereas common sense tells us that it is precisely their consistency which is out of this world and proves that they are a fabrication. Figuratively speaking, it is as though the masses demand a constant repetition…

And it’s repetition we get. “Weapons of mass destruction,” “The officer feared for his life,” “Own your dream home,” “One man one woman.” i have the feeling that things have only gotten more simplified since the horrors of the 20th century. The white supremacist hierarchy has only gotten more stark (compared to the ridiculously convoluted gentile system invented by the Nazis, misleadingly taught to kids as just a “blond hair blue eyes” reduction that has more to bear on us than them. And propaganda’s power has only increased — the people yearn for the fiction of “constancy” over the chaos of reality, so that the cop-loving propaganda from the “free press” after every lynching of an unarmed black citizen has the exact same justifications and narratives. It’s scary.

The next bit, the film-studies chat, felt more incidental but it was still fun since i sort of knew about the literature they were discussing. It was mostly the psychoanalysis-based approach to cinema, which emphasized fantasy, but also that all stories are just variations (haw) on the Oedipal narrative or what have you (the lawyer also uses the phrase “variations on a theme” in his spiel).

ive been going on for too long and i dont have much to say about the muffin factory story. It was fun to read, and funny that the text provides a “resolution” of sorts after the narrator pined for one. His contentedness with being a cog in the system is easy to dismiss but the more anxious and intellectual characters in the book, for all their alienation, want something similiar: a sense of belonging in a larger context or pattern or movement. i loved his use of “the zone,” perhaps as space of the madness of art or just plain madness. Whether or not it’s an explicit reference to Tarkovsky’s STALKER, the word and the notion has a strong running in postmodern literature (like GRAVITY’S RAINBOW).

Next: atrocious puns, shit-rants, and the ultra-postmodern Harlequin novel we’ve all been waiting for….

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