BLK MTN

by Laura Paul profile

Surreal
2021

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, October 2, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.