Brendan C. Byrne


To Program a Prose Machine


 

Nanni Balestrini, Tristano, copy #10750 (Verso, 2014).

In order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning—or at least a good piece of it.

— Stanislaw Lem [1]

"All directions are of equal importance." This is the second sentence in the second paragraph on page 88 of my copy of Nanni Balestrini's 1966 novel Tristano, #10750. You cannot read this novel, unless I lend it to you, as each of the 10,000 copies Verso publish this month contain different iterations of the same text.


Ikarie XB-1 and the Socialist Sci-Fi Space Ship


Still frame from Ikarie XB-1 (1963).

In his 1964 philosophical opus Summa Technologiae (the first English translation of which was published by The University of Minnesota Press last year), Polish author Stanisław Lem refers to the SF convention of "space 'ships,' including a brave 'crew'" as symptoms of a kind of "'reverse' nineteenth-century historical novel." "We can surely amuse ourselves like this," Lem wrote, "provided we remember we are only playing."


S.D. Chrostowska, Marie Calloway, and the New Media Novel


1. The Email-Epistolary Novel

In a 2010 broadside subtitled "Where are the iPhone Addicts and Facebook ‘Stalkers’ in Contemporary Fiction?" Joanne McNeil critiqued the email correspondence in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story (2010) as having been "presented no differently than the epistolary passages in nineteenth-century literature." McNeil argued that the accurate portrayal of online communication today would resemble Burroughs and Gysin's cut-up technique.

If McNeil’s desired stalkers and addicts are still rarities in contemporary literature, the last several years have been bizarrely good for the email-epistolary novel. Besides Super Sad True Love Story (2010), S.D. Chrotowska's Permission (2013), Lynn Coady's The Antagonist (2011), Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2012) and Kimberly McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia (2013) are all either primarily composed of emails or structurally rely on the form. The traditional epistolary novel is not as antiquated as memories of Richardson’s Pamela (1740) or Stoker’s Dracula (1897) might suggest. Contemporary authors are, after all, chief among the fetishizers of dead media, and snail-mail epistolary novels get churned out regularly. But the email-epistolary novel, arguably kicked off by Matt Beaumont's e in 2000, has now achieved conventionality as well.

Perhaps, however, this isn’t so bizarre. Email offers fertile ground for the central elements (unreliable narrator, disjointed plot, use of multi-media etc.) of contemporary conventional literature. And then there is the fact that most people who write conventional lit are old; old, as in above thirty-five. And old people write emails. They might text and post on Facebook and Twitter-fight about the latest listicle, but they've been using email for decades. They’re comfortable with its possibilities, with the way they can control it.


Cyborg Humanism: Wangechi Mutu at Brooklyn Museum


Wangechi Mutu, A'gave you (2008). Mixed media collage on mylar, 93" x 54".

The violent and ambiguous encounter depicted in A'gave you (2008) encapsulates the force and intent of Wangechi Mutu's collages, the highlight of her ongoing retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. A blue, thick-rooted, and out-sized version of the New World monocot bends to a violated female pseudo-cyborg. Her eyes, cheap black speckled pearls, are replicated in the plant's ovary. The kneeling figure's torso, head, and left arm are thrown back in disinterested submission; her right arm is lost to perspective and/or trauma. Gold sparkle and blood explodes from her chest as she births, or pisses, a long, fat strand of bright yellow-orange which forms a new root-system beneath both her and the plant.

Mutu's strangely lucid mixed-media mylar pieces contort the sexualization of black women in consumer society into glittering, gorgeous grotesques. The twin pieces 100 Lavish Months of Bushwhack (2004) and Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies (2005) feature female figures hobbled with hippo hands, faces stitched together from pornographic images, golden skin, and exploding motorcycle high-heels. They also depict differing levels of power among multiple exploited figures. The End of Eating Everything (2013), Mutu's first foray into film, features the head of Santigold gnashing a gyring flock of black birds with bloody chompers. Slowly, the plane Santigold exists on expands to reveal that her face leads a massive she-planetoid, comprising writhing limbs and embedded, useless machinery, powered by her/its own gaseous effluent. The piece is truly disconcerting and accentuates Mutu's often overlooked theme of ecological disaster.


Thomas M. Disch's "Endzone"


Ariel Hameon, Science fiction author Thomas M. Disch at South Street Seaport (2008). Via Flickr. June 3, 2008. Some rights reserved.

"This Journal is a memorial. New entries cannot be posted to it." So reads the banner above Thomas M. Disch's Endzone, a LiveJournal kept from April 26, 2006 until July 2, 2008, two days before Disch's death. Disch left behind a prolific output of poetry, criticism, libretti, plays, film treatments, and text for computer games, but it is a series of highly-stylized and vicious fictions presenting a hopeless America as stand-in for mankind for which he is primarily remembered. His novels Camp Concentration (1968) and 334 (1972) are twin high points of New Wave science fiction. The former prefigures David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress in its referential narrative; the latter isa scabrous satire of the social novel circa 2025. Endzone does not live up to the stylistic mastery of its precursors; as its author's first encounter with what may be considered a bastard form, it is at times near amateur in composition. It is also xenophobic, vindictive, full of doggerel and despair, and altogether difficult to endure. Despite its shortcomings, though, Endzone should be considered Disch's final work, if only for its brinksmanship with his career-long obsession with death.