Terseness keeps the rhythm raw: “he was probably handsome, when he had his skin.” Rawness pervades, even as this world that has claimed you uncloses: “it’s been twenty-four days since everyone else floated up. / you haven’t been out since then; Momma doesn’t like you leaving the flat without her, and the effort of getting down the stairs hasn’t been worth it anyway.” But if all you know are walls, how do you learn the horizon? “it is big. it is threadbare. it is forbidden.”
And you know what it is like to be forbidden. An unexpected kiss, unexpected pleasure, leads to immediate reprimand: “do you want to live in sin? is this what you want? She had roared as She dragged you towards the water.” The water which drowns every gasp for air, which seethes over us, sears, sears us: “why does the water have to be hot, sweet girl? / because fire washes away the sin. / that’s right, She’d said, but I can’t wash you in fire because I love you. so this is the next best thing.” Full of sin, aren’t you, isn’t this the cause for all their cruelty? Sinful inescapably, self as a source of wrongness, an understanding of the body only as broken, how they insist we cease, pliable, sermonable, able, just like God’s precious first martyr. How Christian hyperguilt cycles lead to the perpetuation of cruelties, holiness as absolute denial of any self outside a productive blankness: “do you know why you’re in a chair, child? / you shook your head. you honestly didn’t. / he nodded, somewhat sadly, and then he told you. / it’s because you’re a sinner.” Sin as a perpetuation of abuse down a hierarchical chain; the closer to holiness, the more paradisical your removal from the rest of the community: “this is… his private garden? it’s nearly as large as the entire Community farmland. / and the food growing here! grapes and corn and mint and broccoli and… peaches. / as if by God’s own will, a peach falls from its tree and lands directly in front of you. you lean forward and snatch it immediately. when you bite into it, the juice dribbles down your chin. / you briefly ask yourself why Prophet Hunter would keep all this to himself, when the rest of you had barely enough to get by. there’s a revelation somewhere in your brain, but something else blocks it from surfacing.” Those who hurt you and their self-satisfied nonneed to hurt. You too can nonhurt, just smother yourself, dulled to everything, finally holy, indefinably null, numb: “the bottom drawer opens with a rattling sound. it is absolutely full of the same kind of little yellow bottles that Momma’s meds come in. you sift through them. they’re almost all empty. you pluck one out and hold it up to read the label. / what in the world is oxycodone?”
But the wrongness isn’t inside you, it’s everywhere, and you can’t bring yourself to return to the insularity prison of projections, even though “it looks so comfortable, but you just got up. it’s not worth the effort—swinging your body up, manually pulling your legs over—that would be required to lay back down.” Traveling along a map, inspecting everything, a fugue of memories that build and leave nothing there but the bareness: “they are still and cold and silent. / inside, no hymns are sung. / inside, no breath is drawn. / The Beast is laughing. / you wonder if there might be some unspoiled food in someone else’s apartment. / you imagine an icy hand closing around your throat. / you doubt you could make it up the stairs, anyway.” You look for any hint of the holiness that was supposed to protect you, but the thin veneer fails, you peek behind it: “on closer inspection, it’s not a lamb. it’s… something else. something wrong. / it regards you cooly with seven insectoid eyes, spaced evenly around its head. / bony spurs protrude, seemingly at random, from its body. you count 1 before your eyes begin to hurt. / for a moment, your surroundings seem to flicker. you see a throne behind it, and four beasts surrounding it, and a sea of men extending into infinity, watching it.” As you wander, looking for the hope that is not here, you realize it must be elsewhere, it is out there, somewhere, beyond the gate, these memories, this stillness eternal.
If the message is laudable, it is perhaps too determined in its despair to cohere its grays to delve beyond surface severities. Relentlessness of terse miseries with no variations crumbles like desiccated dust, especially as it loops through tropes, with no space for individuality to make the prebuilt circuit sparkle. The bleakness flattens everything, and the story seems almost self-aware of its own predictability, as in some footprints we find: “as unpleasant as the thought is, you know they’re made of blood. what else would it be?” Indeed, what else? The lack of range in the emotions also compresses the scales of expression, such that even a child not receiving a peach wrings the same cords as the bleakest scenes: “you were awash in a sea of grief. the bereavement, the shattering of your hope, it was all too much.” The story, again aware of its own straining to more than strain, tries meekly to emphasize itself at certain points, but doesn’t know how except to mine the same veins: “of all the things you’ve seen today, this makes you go cold. bleak. desolate.”
The brutalities are unsubtle, however, and in those scenes the story excels in its terse cruelties so raw they resist presentation, as when the prophet enchains our guilt once more in a ritual public performance of abuse: “i’d like to thank delilah, daughter of ẗ̴̬̤̲̼͍͙̼̼̟̤̘͗̒̈́ȃ̵̙̲͎͕̯̑́̌́͒̃̅̔M̴̡̻̯͍̖̭̰͒͂̓͌̓̾̆̍̐̑͠ͅr̵̡͍̬͕̲͕̬̩̿̀͒̿͛̏̑̎̓̅̃̏͘͜͜ ̴̛̻̻̣̿̓͊͛̓́̌a̵͔͔̾̅̏̿̀̋̃̄g̸̨̻̹̣̯̱̥͙̘̑͝ͅͅŗ̸͓͉͖͉̲̗͔̠̻̊̍̍̿y̷͈̘͔͇̰͖̓̒͋̌̋̏̍̀͛̈́̆͘͝ͅṂ̶̨͇̲̩̪̫͎͛̆̆͜͜ê̶̦͔͕̪̰̪͙͂̃̌͐̐͑ͅȧ̶̗̈́͊̈́̓͝r̴̡̧͎̝͓̳̹̲̥͕̿̐̍̑̿͋̒͛͊̈́͜ͅ, for bringing these grave offenses to my attention.” The terseness, when used to its maximal effect, slows down the reader’s engagement, jolting physical each passing moment: “it’s a slow process getting yourself down without it—a lot of scooting your rear end down one stair at a time, using your arms to push and move your legs so your center of gravity doesn’t shift too far forward. you stop halfway to catch your breath.” And, in that slowing, we can feel the trickling inklings of how memory fractures into lifetimes of wounds: “when you were little, Momma would spray it with wormwood perfume. the smell is long gone, but you still hold the blanket up to your face and inhale deeply before laying it across your legs. you feel comforted.” Comforted? And there, amidst the relentless bleakness, is perhaps the starkest anguish.
You live in a city and it’s expensive to eat and it’s expensive to get around and it’s super expensive to live even though your apartment is a bathroom stapled to a bed but you’re glad at least you have it because when you went looking for places at your price range you were shown a room with a shattered window glass all over the floor and the guy said oh don’t worry we’ll repair it and there will be five people who live here and if you sign the lease today I’ll give you ten percent off rent um um um so you showed up to another place that looked like it was condemned and when you called the landlord who said he’d show you around he said the visit was cancelled as if he didn’t even know who you were but you have only a few weeks to find a new place and you feel like the walls are closing in in the way your smile overwrites when someone asks you how much you like living in the city oh you live in the city how is it what a wonderful opportunity there is so much to do in the city and i visited it once and we just loved it yes yes it really is a nice place i enjoy it and maybe at some level you do enjoy it even though most nights you come back from work with a paycheck that seems by the deductions and the work expenses to shrink each period and you should save money and go out less and everyone loves all the things to do in the city and really a ticket costs that much and maybe you should save by eating less but food is often the only pleasure you genuinely feel like the one moment you as an animal are satiated you like to eat but the food you’re eating is fast food it’s trash full of salt and fats and you don’t know what and your health is declining you don’t quite feel like you used to but you just like if you could just order a pizza several times a week that’s all you want is just to cuddle up and feel physical pleasure so that you’re not just sitting there alone in your room bathed in your phone’s blueglow staring at something in the darkness something in the darkness is more alive than you and knows more about you than you and night after night you converse with it this ambient hum there’s always the hum the hum of traffic night and day cars whining through your dreams and the hum of the grumble and whinny of the bus and the hum of chatter and the trains and the airplanes and the elevator and the bike bells and you once got out of the city and what shocked you the most was the suddenly earpopping veinquelling quiet.
““I really like Aegis-Liora,” you say. “The weather is nice and there’s interesting things to see…I could imagine myself staying here for a while.” / “Wow. I never thought you’d become so comfortable in the city! I’m glad you’re finally starting to like it. What have you been up to?”” Oh, just joined a new biotech firm: “Running programmed simulations all day is not the life you would have chosen for yourself”, but then again neural networks get a billion iterations and you’ve just this one and anyway this firm is great, you’re doing fine, you’re not even terrified or frustrated when your boss singles you out, more just kind of depressed, and anyway you kind of agree with him, maybe if you’re good enough he will like you: “Tobias is right; your proposal still has a long way to go. But the day will come when he decides there is enough room in the department’s argevan budget for a new funded project, and you are determined to be the first person he thinks of.” Everything is fine. Your boss asks you to follow them into the basement: “If the upstairs elevator resembled a crystal box, this one would be compared to a rusted cage. It clearly hasn’t been maintained in years; as it lowers you into the earth, its flickering light skims over the rocky surface of the elevator shaft, just barely illuminating it. When the elevator stops, you find yourselves on a suspended walkway.” It’s good like that’s fine this is a startup, gotta disrupt the industry, gotta be dynamic, everything is fine, just remember that your coworkers are not your friends and you cannot confide in anyone and just keep your head down and everything is fine and it will all work out and you really just need at least a few years for the resume then you’ll have the bargaining power to get a more comfortable situation and “Below you is vast rippling shadow—a shallow lake. The surface of the water is draped in a grid of stars, each purple point a ripening gem. It extends in all directions until the cave walls carve it a dark, jagged hem … / “Where is everyone?” you whisper. The faint outlines of dormant machinery hang silently above you; this cave is devoid of sound except for the low, distorted echo of faraway chambers.” And you’re not really sure about your company’s business plan, you think maybe, I mean you know we have to make a profit and all but “there’s no denying how unprofessional this setup is compared to the rest of the lab. You wouldn’t trust the machinery to stay attached to the ceiling if you had to work here every day. The air is tolerable for now, but the accumulated fumes from these argevan colonies could easily suffocate you given enough time.” But what are you going to do? Tell people? Who? “Your cousin Miriam is like an older sister to you. You could tell her anything. But you haven’t been yourself these past few weeks, and you couldn’t bring yourself to pick up the phone when she called, no matter how many times she tried to reach you.” Why would you choose to humiliate yourself by showing the mess you’ve gotten yourself into? This is all standard industry practice, every business is like this: “The underground employees have been trying to unionize for years, but every time they show signs of getting their act together, the company steps in to purge their leadership.” And besides you’re only “a lowly research assistant” so you have nothing to say about the company’s strategy, you’re just here to clock in and clock out and have an apartment and food and the hum.
“The lab is on fire. Most of the building is obscured by dark billowing smoke. The helicopters circle the scene, trying to put the fire out, but at this distance they look so insignificant, like flies hovering around a wounded creature. The smell is making you sick.” Um. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. “Under normal circumstances you’d never contact a stranger for advice, but from the way Miriam describes her, Rebecca seems to know her way around tough situations. I’m sure she would know how to respond to something like this. You find her number and send her a text” and get the heartswallowing reply: “who’s this? miriam’s cousin?” Oh god, oh sorry yeah, sorry, I was just wondering, but um thanks, never reach out to anyone, never reach out to anyone, it’s all just super embarrassing, everything is fine, you can learn to love being alone, and “As you go through the motions of your old morning routine, however, you feel that things are starting to return to normal” and “You read the signs hovering above the mass of protestors. PROSPERITY IN AEGIS-LIORA IS A LIE. YOU TOOK OUR HOMES FROM US. YOBEL IS BLEEDING OUR CITY DRY” and “we are an institution. We follow procedures, and we come to rational conclusions. We do things the proper way. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good” and “Wait, don’t I need to renew my lease by tonight?”
It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re okay. “You nod slowly, letting his words sink in. “That sucks,” you say. “Well. At least we have these sandwiches.” / “Seriously,” he says, taking a bite. "Eat your sorrows away.”” Your friend asks you why you first moved to the city.
On the first day of the Decameron, in which the storytellers engage on the theme of the social structures of religion, one story relates the tale of two friends, a Christian and a Jew. Of course, the former tries to convert the latter, and the latter promises to go to Rome to study the new religion. The joke is that the Christian immediately panics: if his friend goes to Rome and sees the absolute debauchery of Church leadership, there is no way he will convert. Boccaccio obliges his Christian audience, however, with a comfortable out: returning from his trip, the Jewish friend does convert, reasoning that if a religion can prosper when so poorly led, then it must be blessed by God. Boccaccio affirms the power of individual religious devotion as a power unblemished by the inevitability of corruption of religious organization.
Bitter Karella’s A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat denies this hope, trying to directly tie an aesthetic repudiation of Catholicism to the naivety and complicity of the believer. I emphasize aesthetic, because, besides nods to hypocrisy or institutional cruelty, the brunt of the ire is aimed, not towards any concrete element of Catholic belief, but rather towards a phantasmal essence of decrepescence within rigid hierarchy: “A wail goes up from a gang of nude flagellants to your left, their bodies oozing black and red, as one of their number slaps a studded whip across their backs. / To your right, a clot of pilgrims chants a Gregorian hymn, their voices merging together into one dull drone.” Straightforward associations of devotion as violence: a gang of self-harm, the stagnation of being into community. Position within religion blunts individuality, a pseudonatural harmony of roles with a prelapsarian absence of the human, where “a steady stream of priests” leads inevitably to you being “swept along with the throng.” An endless motion carried seemingly of its own accord, throwing bodies this way and that, Dante’s punishment for lust writ large. Industry on a mass scale, in which roles are inhabitation of velocity, a way you move through the world, and yet never truly is it you moving: “Priests and officials, many carrying stacks of scrolls or stone tablets, constantly bustle in one door and out another in a never-ending flow of activity” as they slowly build: “No man alive today will live to see the completion of this basilica. The construction will take decades, possibly centuries, but when it is done it will be a monument to the righteousness of the faith …” The underlying threat of all this motion is that if, for any instant, you stop, if your office no longer pertains to the maelstrom, then your role will drag you down to some subterranean terminus, where you shall officiate over the nothingness, as when we find one unlucky bureaucrat as a skeleton: “Presumably this WAS the administrative official in charge of the Imperium department de Lucifugia. It doesn’t look like anyone’s checked in on him for a while.” Stripped of individuality in a brutal, bodily process, you are replaced with a decay of officiation, in which your agency is repurposed as a tool, as when we affirm that serving the Church is equivalent to serving God: ““Well said! They ARE one and the same, aren’t they? So when you work in the interests of the church, you can do no wrong, right? And when a man can no longer work in the interests of the church, then that man can no longer serve the interests of God. Isn’t that right?””
The higher up in the process you are, the more you decay, yet the more privileged of the mire you become, as in a character lucky enough to receive a name, Henricus, whom we meet as “A tall, nearly skeletal man, dressed in white sacerdotal robes caked with black soot” with “a long sour face with rheumy bloodshot eyes above a beaky nose and a fringe of stringy white hair around his ears”, and just in case we didn’t get the point, we’re told “His face is smudged with ash.” He then informs us that St. Peter’s is not open for pilgrims, so “If you have a pennance [sic] to make, you can deposit your payment at any Mammon kiosk in the city." This is a nearly smothering level of camp, relishing expectations as they cavalcade, as when the payment to Mammon results in a rather unsurprising reference: “Below the imp’s mouth is carved the word INDULGENCES.”
The anti-Catholic tropes rattle off with such aplomb that one would envision some sort of Protestant jeremiad, were the story not at pains to connect its criticisms with a wider judgment of Christianity, as in the cat, who cites a number of unsettling verses about sexuality, regularly reminding you just how much weird stuff there is in the Bible: Onan, unsettling and dense Torah commandments, a hadithesque involving circumcision. The real target of criticism is not the literally monstrous clergy, who are machinelike tendrils of corruptions, but the true believer, whose quest dovetails with ours, as when we first meet him, and he enthuses: ““Can you believe we’re finally here? In the very beating heart of Christendom?” / God, this guy. He’s so annoying. You’re glad you won’t ever have to see him again.” However, we do see him again, deep beneath the Vatican, near the Pope: ““To think, we’re about to meet the pope himself,” says the true believer. “What an honor! And to be able to give the ultimate gift to God’s ambassador on Earth? What Christian could ever dream for anything more?”” After feeding his blood into the Pope, being literally consumed by the religion, he continues to babble pieties before being led away. The message of the story is clear: don’t be that loser! Which seems to me an unserious dismissal of religious devotion.
The story can rage itself into over-the-top condemnations which lose contact with substance and become aestheticized screeds connected to no particularly tangible criticism, for instance in the description of the Pope, surviving on the blood infusions of the faithful: “From this position, you can see the pope lying in his bed. He is so thin that even the soft feather bed bruises him, large purple welts spreading across his back and hips, across skin like paper stretched tightly over bones. His eyes sunken so deeply into his skull that they resemble empty black pits, staring sightlessly up at frescoes of cherubs and saints. His dry blackened lips have curled back from his teeth, leaving his mouth an open hole of blackness. You would think that even know he was already dead, but the physician in all his wisdom has detected the faintest intake and exhale of breath. The body is connected to a network of artificial tubes, plugged into incisions along his arms and chest, extending up to be lost in the gloom of the domed ceiling. Dark fluid circulates through the tubes, doubtless part of the physician’s plan to help the pope cling to life.” This visceral distaste swirls the story into heady fumes of recrimination, so that our cat begins to cite strange heretical verses: “You feel the cold of this place in your bones. You wonder if there something about this place, about being at this depth, about being thing close to the very epicenter of Christendom, that might be causing the cat to… / pick up signals that it shouldn’t be.” The disdain that drips through these descriptions culminates in the story’s final sentence, the nail in the coffin: “The pope has nothing to say.”
I’m not here to defend the Catholic Church, although I think the story comes from a place of dismissive incuriosity, which renders elements of its emotive verve jejune. Calling chants “dull drones” for instance ignores the beauty and intention that has been poured into a rich tradition of music; like, listen to how beautiful and sincere this is. However, the deluge of resentment spares no one, resulting in a rather distasteful application of the monstrous aesthetic to sex workers: ““Welcome to Our Lady of the Evening,” says the procuress, her piggy eyes gleaming. She licks her cracked lips eagerly, leaving a slug-trail of spittle.” No humanity exists here, not even for victims, who are, unfortunately, aestheticized in the story’s usual camp: “Upon the mattress is a slender young woman naked other than a scandalously altered yellow samarra cloak, decorated with red devils and dragons and cut so that you can see… most of her flesh. The left side of her face is disfigured by severe burns, her flesh scarred and blackened and oozing, her left eye a milky white. The flaming red hair on the right side of her head falls over her right shoulder like a crimson waterfall; what little hair grows from the blistered left side of her head is brittle and wispy.” But no, she likes being this way, delights in it, making sexual interplay about being burned at the stake: ““Tell the pope I DESERVE the pyre,” she says as she shoves you out the door. “And this time, tell him to make the flames hot.”” That this is an insensitive treatment of a grave historical circumstance is an understatement, but very well, there’s room for that in art, yet the dehumanization really seems to exist for its own sake: “her talons lightly trailing against your skin to raise goose pimples”, a whisper “hisses the whore”, it’s all a bit tasteless. The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended? I did not see what happens if you select the “virgin” rather than the “whore”, and I do not seek to find out.
I think these problems arise in part because the engagement with Catholicism seems driven less by polemic or emotive engagement and more by the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the caricature stylistics. The game seems to think of itself primarily as fun in the way that a haunted house is fun. Enter into the spoooooky Vatican: “You pass though [sic] another gate, this one carved to resemble a hellmouth, an image in bas relief of a grinning demonic mouth chomping sinners between its teeth.” Religious terror, it’s a carnival ride! Catholic traditions, like the release of differently colored smoke to indicate the status on electing the next Pope, are ripped out at random as set decor: “Great plumes of black smoke are visible from behind the walls; occasionally a sudden burst of new smoke is accompanied by a cacophany of inhumanly high-pitched screeches.” All the appropriations create a successfully disturbing Catherine’s wheel, but perhaps with a bit more patience and curiosity, rather than only a suffusive delight in plasmatics, the animosity could be channeled more purposefully. As it is, we have a German Expressionist nightmare, in which you can choose whether to delight or despair.
The hardest part of the day is the alarm, the moment when an internal world shatters under the invasion of a contingency of compromises, obligations, alienations, austere actuality in which what is hidden is suppressed, in which what matters is imposed, is erased by the imposed. After you manage to stir out of bed, then momentum takes hold, you stream down the river, unable to hold onto anything, you are thrust towards an endless depth we know will one day swallow us, but there, before all the fractious and fracturing, in that serene moment you lie where dreams still suffuse about you, you can almost believe you elsewhere awake, spared in the glossy otherwise, commingling of toucheds, what is more powerful than a dream shared?
Fandoms create communities of possibility out of a shared passion, in which we can exist more real than real, hyperreal. Enter into this new world, the Shadowverse, in which new powers take hold, truths denied in the silent austerity of other communal interpretations of reality can flourish. “You scroll through your dashboard for a few minutes. Nightblogging has begun. People all over the country, all over the world, all connecting for a few brief moments to revel in their love for a certain media franchise.” Strewn across continents in isolated pockets, far from friends and family, we craft little homes on an internet so vast and inhospitable, dreams we inhabit long into the night, a life more real than the moonlight stark machinery of living.
You fill your home with stories, a framework in which life can flourish afresh. Fanfics create characters as avatars, inviting you to inhabit their world, with physical attributes like hair color being worth repeatedly stressing so that you can identify yourself in a representation: “the blonde boy”, the girl “with raven black hair”, where do you fit in? Take a “Which Nebulaverse element are you” quiz to solidify an identity in the terms of a shared communal referent. Who am I in the context of this fandom? How do the stories told herein create a language in which I can be told? When I get a “Stone” result, perhaps I can see it in myself, it almost feels true, I can reach through the arbitrary shifting layers of fandom lore to discover some underlying seed (totes a Stone thing to do obvs #StoneArmy #StoneAugurs #QuizLyfe #Shadowverse). Immersion in fandom as a kaleidoscope by which to grasp unexpected elements of your generatables. “You know what you are, deep inside. You contain within you a seed, the germ of an entire story, the story of your life and the stories of your world. It will take root one day, and it will germinate, and it will change not only you but all those around you. You will become someone…” In a fandom, the community builds, story by story, a liveable fantasy, dreams intersecting, even in contradictions, an artifact which grows deeper, more real, more human, more capable of your humanity, the more you lose yourself within it. This is a real place, with real people, with its own digital landscape: “Online weather report: vibes steady. Chance of callouts: <1%. The blogging equivalent of a bright, cloudless summer day.”
The fantasy recasts itself back on the real world, granting us the terminology to rephrase the terrifying and chaotic contingencies of history into a cohesive storyline: “Does anyone else think that Gali’s character arc in Book 4 is a metaphor for the Obama presidency? Think about it: the heir to the empire sacrifices the Administrator (academia) and betrays Astra (social programs) in order to suck up to the fascist dictator Ariel (the GOP), who feels an irrational loyalty to the Demiurge (Reagan), a figure whom Ariel does not truly know or understand. / Gali then goes on to confront Tycho (the increasingly dispossessed and disillusioned middle class) and Bruno (Bruno), and is increasingly becoming distant from the Creator (true leftism), who nevertheless has an unreasonable amount of trust in him despite his failures at enacting the Creator’s goals. / It just makes too much sense.” It does make too much sense, but isn’t that why we need to believe it, out of fear of the other option, that it all just makes no sense at all?
But, more importantly, the fantasy recasts ourselves into the real world, as one fanfic writer discovers: ““Are you okay, Gali?” asked Astra. “You haven’t spoken this whole time.” / “Y-yeah,” she replied. “I’m okay.” But the secret weighed heavily on her mind. No one knew that Gali wasn’t a boy anymore, but they would find out soon enough.” Using the comfortable and familiar as a way of processing the difficult and unknown. “What is the “true nature” of a person, anyhow, Gali wondered. Was there some essence that made her, her? Were there alternate versions of her?” Using the colors of a new world to paint ourselves anew, to discover portraits we cannot see mirrored in old containments. Possibilities furnish us with vibrancies that seem to thrum stronger than our own pulse, a system of magic powerful enough to capture our most arcane vitalities: “Astra pulls you by the arm, from the library you found yourself in, through the sunlit corridors of the academy, to the labs where she always seemed to make her home. Metal magic courses through labyrinthine machinery, illuminating the otherwise bleak surroundings in a dazzling prism of color.” And yet it remains virtual, both fragile and powerful. In a message between you and Luna, you briefly discuss real life, come to disappointing conclusions, then swiftly retreat back into the safety of the virtual. You’d rather speak the language of the Shadowverse.
But you can’t hide there forever. Is there any way to inhabit alterity inside the numbness normative? Our intrepid fanfic writer seeks to discover it, writing a fic in which the Shadowverse characters enter the real world, experiencing it as a strange place, an uncanny flicker of the escapist dream struggling to reintegrate, to find some way to approach the real world with the identity constructed in the fandom, hold together the power and meaning of a community as it glitches out of its phantasmal surface, creeps into the way you interpret your own world: ““So, how do we get back to our world?” you ask. / But before anyone can answer, then you begin to taste cherries once more. You feel a falling sensation. The two girls disappear from view. It, whatever “it” is, begins again.” What is it we are immersed in, and why is not us who are so immersed?
The real world is creeping into your safe harbor. You wake up and log onto your fantasy world only to see that it has fallen apart in your sleep, you sift through the shards, try to put as many of them together as you can. Waking up again and again, day after day, trying to subsist on the new content, to feel real within it finally, even as you see others disappear, as the world seems no longer to open up through the fantasy, the fantasy is collapsing, you are simply in the world again. Nothing is real, everything is simply real. In the despair, can you cling to each other, rebuild safety between each other? What happens when the online world proves as dangerous and hateful as the real world? The fandom shatters as, a la Rowling, the creator threatens the canon with their flaws. We watch Luna panic: “So I got called a brain-dead degenerate by gtm. Fun fun fun fun fun I’m fine I’m doing fine I’m doing fine I’m okay I’m okay” The virtual is always contingent upon the terms under which we are allowed to participate. The ability for others closer to the heart of the fandom to nullify our participation, to cast us out as a deviation. How our real world status continually reappears even in the depths of escapist fantasy. All of these painful ideas are doused in gasoline and set alight by the weird obsessiveness of online hate comments, the way such messages feel almost unreal, demonbabble of some gremlin latching onto your consciousness, how so impossible it seems that a human being would actually write something like that to someone else, and yet it happens en masse every single day on social media, that terrifying mediator, in which are we constantly gauged as products: “You’ve gained 1 follower and lost 2 followers, for a current total of 109 followers. Your top ship has been inconsistent, which might have lost followers. You haven’t been reblogging enough posts, which might have lost followers.” Social standing as marketing. The extent to which your brand appeals to consumers. What does it mean when a foundational element of human connection is the Like? Every statement measured by the extent to which it wins us approval. If they don’t like you, they will turn on you. You will lose everyone. You will reach zero and be judged deserving.
As the digital too denies her, we follow Luna’s confrontation with the lies that have overwritten her, as she tries to reclaim the self she constructed in the terms of the fandom, even as the fandom dissipates its power, becomes a hostile noland. Our own fanfic empathizes, as at the end of an adventure, a character says, “Yeah, Capella told me about what happens with you wanderers when you find yourself in a world in which you’re no longer needed, where you don’t belong…” We understand that we must be able to survive this shattering, that we must become more than this place: “Capella stares at you. “Sometimes I wanted to stay too. Sometimes there was a place that seemed good. But it was always too good to be true. I don’t know how I ended up here, but… something felt right about this place. Maybe you’ll find a story of your own one day.””
And yet, how do we sustain ourselves without the magic that once empowered us? Born into a new name, yet struggling to reframe: “@icemoongirl: sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about without the n*bulaverse fandom stuff like, providing a guide.”
Who can speak, when the language is lost? We can only follow our passions one at a time, as in that first album by Lorde that this story delights in referencing, a fragile beauty that has never quite been recreated by her subsequent albums, yet which can still sound within us eternally, remind us of a time when this passion gave us the life and color we needed to make it just beyond the riverbend.
Neural network image generators, with their dreamlike quality of semi-figurative outputs that have been processed through deeply uncanny layers of inscrutable mediations, the genuine beauty of something produced without intention towards the beautiful or the genuine in objects which never cohere, impressions that give an impression without having been left by anything, raw data composed into vector graphics, the feverish feeling of plumbing it deeper and deeper but never quite reaching anything; there is no there there; the map is not the terrain.
Universal Hologram delights in this vibe, not just in its AI-generated images, but in its refusal to underlie its vibes with coherent aesthetics or commitments, a purplish nutrient paste that has some ideas or whatever, and I mean that whatever literally, here’s how the story frames its climactic moral choice: “Gen wants you to take our little simulation-container and remove it from the grid. Then, they want you to bestow that Terminal grain of yours back into the simulation, like an inheritance, so the folks inside can move in the matrix and visit other simulations or whatever.” Yeah you know man, just like, you can change the universe, if uh, if you’re into it, or…
Most characters are like this. During a heady conversation about astral projection, dialogue like ““No, dipshit. You’re a rudimentary sentience in a computer simulation experiencing a facsimile of a fake ancestral phenomenon.” / “Oh, that’s right. We live in a highly realistic simulation, and everything we experience was programmed by someone in the actual real world.”” syrups into ethanol, a simulacrum of human dialogue. Basically every serious conversation is a weird mash of Big Ideas and a slacker ennui that assures you that it’s so post-post-ironic that it couldn’t possibly care, as in this expositional shrug: “Here’s the state of things: in the original, actual, material universe (let’s call it U1, or ‘universe one’), that is, the universe that is currently simulating our universe (U9), there were some morons who imagined it was possible to project their spirits/souls/astral bodies out of their physical bodies and into the energy plane or spirit plane, and then they could float around and look at stuff and shit.”
That’s not to say the characters necessarily need to take anything seriously. The game’s vibe works to the extent that it effuses its computer hell tone, with gleeful distortions of familiar inputs, like this description of gun-soccer: “Soccer was a video game popular among foot fetishists. / A gun was an L-shaped piece of metal that produced a loud noise and the death of one or more people.” or this hilarious description of paper: “Our ancestors on Earth used to harvest a renewable resource called “wood” and smash it until it was basically two dimensional and then dye it white. The resulting substance was flat, smooth, and capable of lacerating human skin.” When the descriptions wheel free of all earthbound concepts, it can become delightfully machinelike, truly synthetic synaesthesia: “You float peacefully, drifting slightly on the Z axis in the astral breeze.” and “At each point when a U-level is breached, you hear a brittle click and watch yourself rise up and out of a series of brackets. Each function containing other functions like a fractal, onward in each direction: too tiny to see where you’ve been, too enormous to comprehend as you move further toward the outer edge.”
However, the game’s thrusts towards the serious feel clunky precisely because they clatter into the miasmatic eyeroll of images. This is not exactly elegantly delivered exposition: “Dion sighs and gestures you into their room. They drag two battered chairs over, and the two of you sit. / “Gen is our universe’s messiah. Without Gen… well, it used to be called the ‘Simulation Hypothesis.’ Now it’s confirmed fact. Gen proved undeniable truths about our reality, and then also gave us an entirely new way of experiencing it: through the Terminal, and later, when that become inconvenient, through astral projection.””
The result is like if you took Brave New World, used it as an input for a neural network text generator, then collectively had your Discord channel edit the outputs into a Twine. We have some similar concepts, the idea of minimizing suffering through the technological attenuation of existence to mere basking, but interlaced with a surfeit of cyber-sorta-punk internetisms. Thus, some of the disconnect is intentional, as grand philosophical gestures like ““Well, for example, there were huge protests on Earth when wild animals were chemically sterilized and allowed to die off. The amount of potential suffering in a wild animal’s life is enormous, of course, but there were many who felt that there was something inherently good about the natural world.” / “Something inherently good about suffering?”” set up our narrator’s childlike inability to process these thoughts: “Dion, that story was a massive bummer.” So we have the stage for a character arc, which sort of happens, as we have our consciousness digitally overwritten to be capable of entering an underlying digital layer. But for the most part, the story relishes its condemnation of our accelerating naivety: “Light, please, uh. Stop emitting light.” An inability to conceive of light except as a command, a variable to turn off and on. Our narrowing band of experience compresses us into binaries, even as we glimpse the grandeur that lies outside: “Your mind springs out of your body, rocketing forth past whirling clusters of stars and technicolor twinkling flecks of astral energy. / In the distance, beings made of pure light and pure darkness traipse between constellations.” There is so much noise and color, and if we could just find a way to navigate the between, enter into the place where “The door opens on an expansive, brightly lit room filled with humming white boxes. Simulated worlds inside simulated worlds inside simulated worlds.” perhaps we could entune all this chaos into genuineness, contact, humanity, something transiently biotic in the endlessly replicating machinescape kaleidoscope: “The tingling, searing sensation fades. You take your hand back. The residue of the gel leaves a wet handprint on the plastic.”
Universal Hologram, in that mode, scintillates with an urgency that it shunts off into nervous laughter. “The light goes dark, and inside Dion’s room, you hear unintelligible screaming. The Internet communicates differently with everyone.” And if we could, as a tone poet, reach through that communication, render the screaming intelligible, there’s a chance, not for redemption, not for healing, but for a transformation not merely translation, an escape from the cycle of rebirth. The story stands as a touching testament, a story that can reach through all these mediating layers and achieve it, the touch, touching, the chance to connect to someone other than online.
In this fragile world, how can we cling to our seams, hold everything together? Falling to pieces in the absence of the smile that used to hold everything together. Lives are built by those who fill it; how do you rebuild in desolation? Not the same life, not the one that rings in your mind memory after memory, beams that glimmer through your sinews so briefly you barely have time to register the rusts.
There you are, immersed in the economical dreaminess of the child’s eye view, hardcoded networks we lose as we learn to stitch together the world as adults: “The front yard is green and has lots of grass, but you’re not supposed to play there.” Everything latches together effortlessly, the world overgrowing always with new thoughts, new rules, simply Russo and Liz as they wheel out into ever opening possibilities: “Her legs are longer than yours so she catches you and makes you it, and then you’re too slow to catch her so you don’t feel like playing tag any more now.” The way children apply inflexibilities, certainties that as things are, so they must be necessarily, in the core of their beings these things entwined. Things just are, as a pagoda that defies the reader’s capacity to imagine it, which just is, as if there is no reason it could not be: “The pagoda is made out of concrete and looks like a little temple … It’s maybe half as tall as you are.” A toy pagoda made out of concrete, like a garden sculpture, but one that’s half the size of a child? Maybe the disjunction of a dream, the way our memories overload with presences, as in the aside ellipsised from the quote earlier: “(“pagoda” is probably the fanciest word you know right now, though there are lots more to come).” Your memory is flickering, things are appearing which should not be there, as when we try to GET ON SWINGS: “Wait, there wasn’t a swing set yet when this happened – my mistake.” The future is invading; there’s something wrong; we feel a sting.
There you are in the bay tacking to the wind, Russo and Liz deluged in a turbid stream of sailing terms immersing us in the quiet industry of movement, a ballet gauntlet of cues demanding poise, demanding you ride the stream as if you were generating it. Movement that can’t be explained, that supersedes every action, an orchestration. We are plunged into the unspoken connection between two twins who are in the sea both unified and utterly alone, an elemental dialogue. “You play the sheet out an inch or two, loosening the jib. Liz sees what you’re doing and adjusts the mainsail to match.” Everything rushes forward, you cannot hold on, the linear progression of the game, its mercurial and impatient parser, feels like its racing along without you, annoyed at how you’re slowing it down, and yet the momentum is too much, you cannot let go, you cannot let go, electrified suddenly with the sting, you try to heal it, but still the world comes back together in a light voice: ““That’s salt water, genius,” Liz says.”
And yet the world pulls. Liz returns from France, and Russo takes a moment to explain how much he missed her. She half laughs it off, again excitable Liz against the trying to be gracefully perpetually dismayed Russo, who, “as Liz has never tired of informing you, you are lame, and after sixteen years you’ve finally learned to embrace it.” And yet the world pulls. “Since summers stopped being sailing in Nantucket and started being bussing tables on Long Island, you’ve stopped liking them nearly as much.” Soon, Russo will be cast again upon the whirlwind zeitgeist in which across continents we are stranded with only a phone to communicate with those whom our hearts hold closest, though we admit this bridge does not hold, with Russo supplying reasons why he cannot call anyone on the phone, how he, jolted with the thought of Laura, decides to let the silence swell.
To fill the silence, as Russo gets older, the prose starts to presuppose the listener, reflecting a growing selfconsciousness, a nervous enmeshing of everything in a skein: “Liz’s stuff is a) hers and b) honestly pretty boring, just clothes and jewelry and that sort of thing, while her room is almost always c) a godawful mess, so you don’t see much reason to go in.” Things have to hold together, there has to be a way to fill in the world with details, details that stay where they are, that do not vanish, per this sentence which tries to ensure the reader’s brain buzzes with connections: “There’s no reason to go down into the basement. It’s small and unfinished, crammed with boxes and pieces of furniture that your mom couldn’t find a place for, plus the laundry machines. The only interesting thing about it is that it gives onto a crawlspace running under the rest of the house, which you spent a bunch of quality time in when you helped your uncle install some security cameras last month (the neighbor kid was sneaking in and stealing cash).” Russo’s repeated assertions that we should not pay attention to the basement collapses into his breathless attempts to fill it in with details. Everywhere a story to be told oozes glue between seams, and yet they widen just as Russo reaches a story so poignant, one he relishes being able to tease Liz with forever, we feel it, the stinging, the fraying, and the reader finds themselves in a house unwelcoming, with furniture that holds no stories, not for us, a place in which we feel like a stranger, in which Russo’s thoughts are, much like House of Leaves, “jammed into a space too small for it”, a house so much emptier on the inside than the outside; is it so strange, then, to expect the sting, to see it coming, to simply put on a sweater first to protect as much as we can? And the voice rings true from across another distance, even as it falls into silence: “There was an awkward minute when she asked how things were with Kaylee, and when you said “fine,” she got a little intense and asked if you were really happy. Even you could tell your “yes” was unconvincing, but while Liz can see through you as easily as you can see through her, she didn’t call you on it, just said a couple times that you deserve to be happy, and then let it drop.” The way we overcompensate for distance with sudden thrusts of intense emotional intimacy…
And the memories cannot hold, we find Russo in a post-pandemic world, and yet there is something the present holds: “Since last March, there are fewer cars and more people in your neighborhood, which is about the only thing about the past year that’s a change for the better – well, you revise your thought after glancing down at Paria’s belly, maybe one of two.” Russo goes through some names, deciding why they all don’t work. Paria and he go for a pleasant walk. And yet there is the bitter sting, but this time the world does not fray with the sting, the moment holds on, the memory holds together, because there is something to build a life with, and you can see it there, already filling up the world with stories. There will be someone to tell this one.
Putting together a resume is soul crushing, literally, it crushes your soul into one page of paper which in ink which may as well register parish burials dissects you into places you have been, titles you have worn, activities which once you tried to pretend to yourself that you did. Your time is eaten, your life elided, and what remains is sheer time, what to the machines all this sound and fury signifies. “The days all run into each other these days, and it’s hard to distinguish time, at times,” Laura Paul writes, muddling expressions with definitions to merge them in a haze. From this month of that year to that month of this year you held this title: because what else, where else could you have gone?
Jackson hears in himself a call that he chases, never reaches. Every freedom sought seems in its own way a constriction: watching others swimming naked, Jackson grumbles, “I’m supposed to just strip down and expose myself to these perfect strangers? Maybe if they stay away from me for long enough I can endure this.” The freedom you cannot have and do not want. This commune, high in the Black Mountains, seems alive with possibility; several times the novella links you to Wikipedia, inviting you to immerse yourself in the endless interconnection of knowledge forever floating within this web in which are we enmeshed, teasing you down lanes you can pretend leads you to a story that will make you feel less alone, though time and again you feel more, more, ever more alone, as every home reminds you you do not belong. Greeted with a bit of hospitality, Jackson immediately reaches its limit: “Standard’s kinda been peanut butter sandwiches and brews around here, but it does the job.” An invitation that puts you on edge, reminds you that your presence is provisional on your ability to provide, as indeed Jackson feels always upon the limits of what this place can provide: “I thought it’d be a bit nice to get established here, but now I’m not so sure I want to contort myself to fit into this place, and my fate is definitely not going to be dependent on whether or not I earn a college degree.” The specters of freedom loom their constrictions, with the futures you cannot project upon such space, with the fear that you are fleeing something you cannot always escape, because, perhaps, you are this very fear: “Part of me wants to run and flee and drive away again, an old me, a deep reflex hidden in the shadows of my heart. The person I couldn’t accept, the person I no longer want to be. I leave the door open, unlocked, and let whoever sees me see me and whoever finds me find me and I am what I am. A man with irrevokable [sic] visions, one of the thousands, or millions, that the system forgot. I won’t run this time though. I’m going to stay. If not with this place, then with these people.” Commitment to continuity despite the disjunctures inevitable; desire that something, anything remains of the dream, that it is not all just waking up on another tomorrow, that it will not end up dry ink on dead tree, that anything exists into which you can slip, discover some other way to live…
That the story does not find an answer is germane to its cigarette jitters vibe. We get a notional hope unwavering: “We’ll spread, we’ll head in opposite directions, alternate directions, separate paths. We’ll keep going north until we end up at the bottom of the world. We’ll keep going as long as we need, until we maybe end up right back where we started. We’ll convene again.” Yet this is but a Pynchonian entanglement of karmas, with its hope for futures, with its understood pessimism that they shall not coalesce. To some extent, this very despair through hope seems almost the theme, as we might surmise that our Jackson upon the cutting edge of 50s American abstract art is, perhaps, someone we already know, perhaps a Pollock to whom such a statement might seem apt: “I pretended there were no hallucinations, that there were straight and firm lines between real and imagined, what was perceived and what others told you—and I found that there wasn’t.” That Pollock dies in a car crash, that he finds only death in his wanderings increasingly drunken, well, at least he painted it first, how many of us can say the same?
Still, one wishes perhaps a bit more stability from this work, that it might not so easily shiver off the hook. Every sensation, every concrete attachment to the world, is doubted: “I’ve made it to Texas. At least that’s what the signs say.” Insofar as there is a bit of roadtrip propulsion behind it, this jitteriness can work out well, as in this sentence that manages to anxiety its way into an impactful thrum: “But after driving through both sunrises and sunsets, there’s a tunnel, no light but a tunnel, and then there’s light, there’s the light, the trees, the leaves as I speed, I speed on down 40 to someplace Jim calls home.” When, however, the momentum sloops languid and sentences double back on themselves to no avail, the result tends towards bumbling ramblers that trip and stumble and stagger and splat: “Bluebird hasn’t been showing up as frequently though, from time to time I don’t hear from her at all. She doesn’t call out my name anymore, I don’t hear my name. That’s why I have to write everything down now. I have to write everything down now to find her, to remember what she said, in case her voice has left me for good. I think she hasn’t shown up now for almost twelve days, at least that’s what the scribble on the back of the discarded receipt in the glove compartment said the last time I checked. I need to review everything I wrote down to make sure. I can’t help but think she’s disappeared completely without a final message I can hold onto.” At the core of this is an efficient subtlety, but the writing is too committed to a confessive effusiveness to apply the red pen. The novella is bloated with such sentences that do not quite achieve their effect, for instance: “Other times, I’d be sleeping, but sometimes I’d be awake.” which doubles us back onto an idea that perhaps does not require elaboration. The novella’s structure itself commits to this impatient effusion, as when we suddenly deal with the possibility that the college could close down despite never having attended a class. Lines like “I had just come to terms with myself here, the ultimate shape shifting of my mind” ring false when basically all I’ve done is refuse to skinny dip. A bit more patience could really help to sell many elements that feel tacked on, like our partner Ashleigh or the hallucinations of Civil War soldiers.
Yet I did feel worn down through the story, matching with Jackson in how little, by the end of it, we could harbor any desire to trace another road, to seek in a destination all we will never there discover. How so much roadtrips remind us we would wish for nowhere other than home! Fear and anxiety overload the reader, as in the razor’s edge exchange with the gas station attendant, as in Fielding slipping away only to appear out of nowhere to offer you a beer; the fear of the open road, the anxiety numbness that cakes up within you from constant threat assessments. You are not safe; you are not welcome; you are not anyone; you are only motion, and yet motion is perhaps freedom pure, the jinn that cannot be captured in any stability, as when Jackson admires more the flight than the foundation as the college disintegrates: “But it wasn’t that I had never found happiness, it’s that I never found the end.” And, for us at least, it is the end. The wandering has to be enough. There can be no line to the page to contain us when we are the quill.