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IFComp 2022: January, October 23, 2022
In the postapocalyptic physicalization of the shells which consume us, we wrestle life out of the myriad compounding pressures threatening unlife. Only the past’s remains remains, how we strain within it to undecay. Simplifying the complexities of rampant overurbanized hypercompetition, we sneak past faceless devouring crowds to find food enough to keep our microcommunities alive. Nomads of a landscape not designed for your survival, until slowly you accept you haven’t, merely await some sacrifice to suffice nobility in the sundering. Otherwise, no one left, why then you, who even are you? “He should have killed himself after they died.”
January struggles in its search for an answer, rewriting itself constantly, overcoming concrete patterns of distortion to rewind the words to soften the starkness of the silence that gulfs the calendar, find amidst the scatterings some story to live, some way to render the neutralizing distance into an inhabitable I. In postapocalyptic physicality, this survival is cobbled of exertions through too tangible excruciations, gag reflexes overcome to swallow this day’s sustenance: “It took two hammer swings to remove the doorknob. The pet store’s door sagged inward, and he made the mistake of following it. Instantly he gagged; the rancid fish-death stench hit his nose and bloated down his throat like chewed oysters coming back up, gelatinous and greased and rotten. He retched and stumbled back to the cart, shoving the cat aside to grab a pack of gingersnaps. He crammed two into his mouth. Then he stuck his face in the pack and breathed ginger until the bile drained out of his throat and down to his stomach.” Every act drains more than it sustains, you’ve never enough, it could be so easy to release, but you have to keep searching through the pain for shelter, the discomforts accreting your restlessness: “In an effort to outpace the storm, they had travelled too hard. Exhaustion soaked through him like melting snow and slushed his bones. By midday, the stormclouds had overtaken them, and his head throbbed with the weight of the imminent snowfall. He stopped and pitched the tent. If the storm trapped them here, at least they could boil fresh water from the snow. He should have made lunch for them, but dizziness unsteadied his hands, and his eyes closed and closed when he tried to open them. The stormclouds swelled in his head.” Strain you don’t have to think about, feeling is more than enough to try to process, no energy left to pretend a self of all the sweat, simply submit to an endless rush of incident in the vain hope for an equilibrium, despair that you are the disequilibria being crushed back to the empty serene.
Which curdles the postapocalyptic into a deadend, the deadening until at last in mercy the ending. Any home only for as long as fulfils an arc, then, with nowhere else to go, shunted off elsewhere, until the energy of the tropes run dry, and some violent denouement is wrested from the long taper. So January goes, until the exhaustion gives way to ennobling sacrifice, giving oneself as sustenance to ensure others endure: ““You’ll eat me, won’t you? As long as I get all the clothes out of the way.” / He rubbed his red nose and sniffed again as the cat wandered away. Abruptly he did not like the thought of it, lying there naked in the road like a plucked flower, his fat pink fingers and the red petals of head blood and the private white stamen of his stomach on display. It would be a shame—shameful, he meant—to be found looking like a picked flower. He consoled himself with knowing that he wouldn’t look that way for even an hour. After that, he would just be meat.” So it goes.
As we follow the calendar’s steady progression to the end, a January giving way to new January, the primary engine of engagement that drives us through the course is a painterly enjoyment: “Like ants spewed from a poisoned colony, dozens of bodies radiated from the firepit in dazed concentric circles. They had collapsed to the ground gently, some with enough time to fold their hands over their chest or curl up on their sides like drained spider husks. Many were naked, and all whole, unbloodied, unmangled. The morning frost powdered their skin, clumps of white offset by the black frostbite that stained their fingers and toes.” Heavy emphasis on choosing the view, the colors, their kaleidoscope. Visuals given careful touches, until the composition sits just so, gallery ready: “The cold air caught him like an old pair of jeans, familiar and tightly cinched around his middle. He tugged the collar of his coat over his mouth and looked back at the house. A Rockwell painting still. Nothing stirred. In the bottom-right corner of the painting the artist had added one detail: a parted curtain, hand unseen, and the sandy head of a child just tall enough to be visible over the window sill.”
In smaller fragments, a brilliance of details can be magnetic, tugging us from one surprise to another: from “the garden still smelled of sunrise” to “The sensation dredged him up from the tarry depths of another gasoline dream”. The postapocalyptic physicality can empower a pounceable poetry: “A fat green bottlefly veered into his eye. It plinked off his flinched eyelid, and he swore and swatted at the buzzy air.” We feel each jostle and twinge, yet a dexterous clarity keeps us focused through the recoil. Even when the colors fade and we find ourselves in chiaroscuro, hatches still sharpen the dynamics’ immersions: “Before then, he had tapped the water from time to time, hoping the shimmer under the surface might feign fishlike and lure the cat into something. But the darkness became profound.” January keeps its sketchbook ready to capture the filiation of moments that photographs cannot.
Much of this sharpness bruises on the caricature bleakness of postapocalypse grittiness, providing painterly insight into a doldrum of dours: “A wire bisected the empty silo. / From the well-water-blue circle of sky descended a bird. Black. Glossy and corvine of some kind. He never learned the difference between ravens and crows. The bird swept in and worked its wings to halt above the wire. Its dusty flapping dissipated in the sterile silo air like the fading ripples of skipped river stones. The instant the bird’s talons gripped the wire, it electrified. / The shock wired the bird in place. Every muscle contorted. The talons viced around the burning wire as the body shuddered, feathers a soft black buzzing sight. The electricity must have clamped the bird's mandibles shut, for it made no sound as the shock turned to heat. Its talons sludged around the wire, forming a dripping magmatic mass that hardened into long intestinal globs of black plastic. The feathers frayed, charred, black to black, ash shivering off the bird like fog rolling off the sea. / Below, the ash began to accumulate. / The bird lost its eyes next, weeping like hot rubber from the sockets, and its beak, cracking loose like a snipped nail. The fused halves of the beak landed in the swelling pile of ash below. The bird’s body was all stain, all mar, no feathers or skin now, only a curdled black carapace of burns. The pyramid of ash trickled higher. It shaped the silo into a perfect hourglass: the bird could have stepped neatly off the wire and onto the solid pile of ash.” Prestezza shocks in hues and shapes: a wire, a sky, a bird. Definition is resisted, with the opportunity to elaborate on “corvine” being swatted away for “never learned the difference”, emphasizing instead the motionblur swatches, a dizzy overlay of rigidity and contortions spilling out in a merged “black buzzing” that overtakes the logic of the scene, overriding into excess imagery that solders out any prior purpose, creeping in grotesques of “dripping magmatic mass that hardened into long intestinal globs” and “weeping like hot rubber”. The bacchanal surrealism of unbounded imagery helixes the reader from the initial grounding to an increasingly for-itself macabre. Unfortunately, much of the effect of such a rupture depends upon the sequence it is rupturing: were the characters to just get on with a scene after such a setting, a ludic intensity might emerge; were the characters subject to a cavalcade of such scenes, futilely attempting to carry on with narrative, a grungy psychedelism might emerge; but as a standalone vignette, disjuncting only the dry comment “Rarely, these days, did he have meat to cook.”, the outcome is instead a little silly and adolescent. Having one note is not made better through fortissimo.
The painterliness works better wherever it slips free of the limited band of emotive intent, allowing an idea to shoot through and bloom: “He passed time by naming the flowers. It surprised him how many empty names existed in his mind. He could recite an alphabet’s worth of them: aster, bluebonnet, chrysanthemum... / Some of them he recognized—rose, tulip—but the rest, he blindly reassigned. / He found a sprig of stubby flowers bowered beneath a tree. They huddled together in an unfriendly way, white-petaled, small-eyed, so he called them elderflowers. On the side of the road, fuzzy yellow things sprouted from the earth like uncombed licks of hair. He knew that daisies were yellow, and so daisies they became, and the cat entertained itself by weaving through them, its feathery tail flicking among the flowerheads like it might convince them it belonged. / Coral tree-buds became peonies; umbrella-wide blooms, dahlias; a weeping of top-heavy bells, willowseeds.” There’s a lot here to like, from playing with nominative characteristics to jaunty fantastettes like the cat’s tail. What’s most interesting, though, is that not knowing the names of flowers, rather than capping the details, becomes an invitation to creatively play with the vibrancies to reappreciate each flower as if for the first time, delighting in the fidelity of being enabled via elderly elderflowers and weeping willowseeds.
Like everyone, I find Cormac McCarthy astonishing. However, I found The Road ridiculous, with its clipped dingeries and scowling misanthropies skewing too jejune. McCarthy’s garrulous callousings don’t add anything to the garrulous, the calloused, and any moreness made of it seems to make less of both artist and subject. Rather, I found McCarthy’s most effective work was the contemplative, inchoate Suttree. Scavenging around Knoxville’s rivermud fringes, we feel at home in McCarthy’s grime, at last seeing beauty and humanity as he discovers.