On our own recognizance
Miranda Mellis’s survivable devastation
Mellis’s newest work in print, The Spokes, takes us on a fantastical journey into the unpredictable afterworld in search of a deceased parent, Silver, whose absence has left a pervasive sense of self-questing perplexity and a fierce thirst for history in her surviving daughter, Lucia. While Lucia’s journey of attempted recuperation provides the primary “plot” device of the story, like in all seriously delicious writing, there is on the one hand what “happens” and, on the other hand, all those indefinable, indismissable sensations that these “happenings” further evoke or induce. I refer here to those sallying waves of prescient feeling whose linguistic footprints and circumference are far more extensive, amorphous, and difficult to map. And which produce in turn all those uncapped psychosomatic landscapes that leave us hanging precariously in the balance while also providing us with necessary ballast against the precipitous drop-offs of everyday life. As Vladimir Nabokov has described it in his “Lecture on Metamorphosis”:
We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.
“To vibrate in answer” strikes me as a fine way to sum up the energetic aura of residual desires, questions, and nervous responses (meaning occurring in one’s very nerves!) that continue to hover in the reader’s body long after her encounter with The Spokes has come to a close.
In Mellis’s work, such bits and their variously patterned fittings (as Nabokov would call them) kite to the surface of the page not as events, but rather as fountains of inventive attention given to language itself as a form of experience and action. Responding to a section in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin which describes “a tablecloth as white as a layer of newly fallen snow, upon which the place-settings rise symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls,” the painter Paul Cezanne attempts to convey the strong forces of desire that Balzac’s words produced in him. “All through youth,” Cezanne writes, “I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of new snow … Now I know that one must will only to paint the place-settings rising symmetrically and the blond rolls. If I paint ‘crowned’ I've had it, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place-settings and rolls as they are in nature, then you can be sure the crowns, the snow, and all the excitement will be there too.”
And miraculously, as Cezanne endeavors it, so it is; the excitement is there, and it is elsewhere also. Just as when I am reading Mellis’s writing, I’m repeatedly struck by how acutely aware of and assiduous she is in her efforts to tackle a parallel set of aesthetic dilemmas that present themselves within her own chosen medium. I find myself swept up and wired into a state of lively surprise in response to the unique ways in which her dreamiest scenes are constantly anchored by an entourage of concrete bureaucratic banalities, while the mazes of concrete bureaucratic banalities that her characters encounter are electrically charged by the ceaseless intrusion of magical absurdities. I find that I often can’t locate the pulse of such episodes with my finger alone, because the whole horizon is pulsing. “I mean,” says Lucia at one point in The Spokes, “I couldn’t locate the mind, but I could echolocate it.” Similarly, although Lucia can’t ameliorate the circumstances in which she finds herself, she can coradiate in concert with them. And, as a reader, one quickly gets the sense that echolocation and coradiation may indeed be among the best and most prophetic procedures available to us; the text suggesting, if only indirectly, that we might learn infinitely more this way, that we might be buoyed upward by this limitation rather than thwarted by it.
The fantastical light of the highly materialist afterlife
It must be added however that, while remarkable, the gift of echolocation doesn’t necessarily always serve as a viable alternative or equivalent to the act of speech. And unfortunately, the lack of adequate language with which to articulate their state of affairs can sometimes make it nearly impossible for Mellis’s characters to understand the conditions that they are facing, let alone to transform them. As Lucia so aptly puts it, “those things that we can talk about are subjects subject to change: They change under discussion.” Lucia’s observation draws an important distinction between the richly evocative progressions of dialogue versus the more rote practices of mere dictation: the dialectic versus the autocratic. And yet, ultimately, following Silver’s disappearance from the lives of Lucia and her siblings, it is neither the presence of static reportage nor of discursive banter that leaves the family feeling so discombobulated and full of doubt. Rather, it is the reverberating silence, an occurrence that presents them with neither commands nor oral channels for negotiation.
Lucia in particular finds herself most singularly upset not because of having been haunted by Silver since her passing, but instead because of having been left entirely alone by her — without so much as a single Ouija board call out, a midnight door knock, or a non-climate-driven change in living room temperature. Mellis’s story emerges from this site of Lucia’s profound loneliness and the related dilemmas of self-definition and identity that this provokes. The narrative asks us to consider again and again: what are the kinds of recognition that we want from others and to what ends? What are the kinds of recognition that we tend to extend in kind? In this text, these questions thankfully never seem to get reduced to strictly philosophical and/or metaphysical inquiries, all the more since the afterworld that we enter, as we walk alongside Lucia on the sidewalk, contains subway stops, jello glops, and copious quantities of customs officials.
From within Mellis’s otherworldly environment of misplaced ferry schedules and peculiar bouts of jet lag, trying to draw a clear distinction between one’s self and one’s habitat is no easy task. Much like our own contemporary world, Mellis’s otherwise unfamiliar and invented landscapes are populated by odd combinations of: alienated functionaries who (wo)man the phones and read the mail; pervasive regulatory orders accompanied by impenetrable, but highly enforced, timetables; occasional heart-warming displays of unity on the front of lukewarm customer service; and a permanent hum of acoustic bustling caused by the “amnesiac hustle” of empty requirements for productivity. In a fashion that is unnervingly akin to our daily lived realities, there is the problem of far too much mandatory self-reporting and far too little individual self-determination, to leave aside altogether any and all prospects for collective realization of the same.
Mellis’s characters find themselves constantly caught up in the grips of those countless “quotidian wars in miniature” that surround each person, mimicking as they do the larger psychoses of militarized globalism, rapacious capitalist exploitation, the pillage of the natural world, and the imperialist necropolitics of the nation state. In The Spokes, even the afterworld can’t relieve us of the painful frictions of these conflicts; if anything, it exaggerates them. The compulsion toward meaningless efficiency and ceaseless output is not diminished by death; it is amplified by it, especially given the fact that in the aftermath of fatality even the pretext of a nominal monthly wage proffered in pitiful exchange for one’s efforts has long since been subtracted from the equation. As a result, we finally get to see these mechanics fully uncloaked, in the total visibility of their absurdity and despair. “How much simpler life would be now that I was dead,” Silver recalls wistfully predicting, “No more feeling or feeding, hunger or rage. And no more patriarchy — no more of that five-thousand-year-old boulevard of crime.” Only, unfortunately, the boulevard doesn’t terminate at the point of morbidity. Even the fatal forces of gravity and sudden surface collision offer up no secret elixirs or solvents for Silver; she finds herself still waiting for a future message that might somehow relieve her of her burdens.
It could be argued that part of the art and the gift of fiction lies in the very fact that it allows us to experience certain volatile economic and social dynamics/burdens from a temporarily less than deadly position, if only for the reason that everyone in question is already dead. Mellis herself is well aware that off the page this is not always the case. Indeed, the myriad ways in which bureaucratic inanity and the obligations of conformity fester in constant close proximity to the realities of acute harm and human damage (if not outright massacre) are everywhere evident, even when the lines of causality cannot be easily or neatly drawn. Part of the additional opportunity of fiction then, and of Mellis’s fiction in particular, is that whereas in the actual lived realms of global geopolitics, the capitalist state tends to see people’s anger and frustration and, with the accompaniment of incredible displays of entrepreneurial prowess and the powers of political cooptation, subsequently hires still other people to teach “anger management”; in Mellis’s stories, there is room for unmitigated anguish and rage to alternately bubble up outright and be touched. Such emotions appear in blissfully unremedied rawness; they are fondled even, open to exploration.
Upon being asked to name a few of her favorite artistic or intellectual allies and inspirations, Mellis refers to her love and appreciation for Alexander Kluge’s dystopic sci-fi novel, Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome: a piece which, like Mellis’s own work, constantly couples the wildly visionary with the most undecorated domestic mundanities. In many of Kluge’s passages, the fantastical and paranoid future uncannily resembles, even directly samples from, the panicked and persecutionary present. As Mellis notes: “In Alexander Kluge’s novel, if locations do not conform to maps, in order to keep maps current and accurate, locations, places are destroyed. In this way, the territory is made to conform to the map. Do not our punitive policies, such as No Child Left Behind, our textbooks, anthologies and systems of canonization, forms of cultural cartography, have something of this tendency?” From this standpoint, both Kluge and Mellis can be recognized as mobilizing their prose in the name of a powerful counter-tendency, a means to rally collective concern and resistance against this obscene devotion to abstract forms. Both authors variously rail against those orientations of obedience which we have been socially instructed must be followed at all costs; they reject the celebrated elevation of data records and statistical logs which, once produced, are then deemed more essential to the system than the very life worlds out of which they emerge. How do we get beyond that, Mellis asks. How do we respond to real environments and real lives, in real time?
Post-traumatic automatism of the living and the dead
As readers, we were unusually lucky in 2012 to be able to pursue such provocative investigations not only through The Spokes, but also via Mellis’s most recent short story collection, None of This Is Real. The titular story of None of This Is Real likewise features a young adult narrator, named only O, who endeavors to find both a means of articulation and also compensation for the struggles and solitude that so mark his life. The tale further accumulates its remarkable density of inquiry from the dozens of other humans and animals who populate its pages and who are constantly confronted with significant troubles in their basic efforts merely to get their bodies taken seriously by others, let alone their thoughts. Indeed, in almost all of Mellis’s stories the idiosyncratic and vibrant characters who fill them are full of ideas, petitions, research projects, grievances, and proposals; it is not the prospect of generating alternatives that is the main problem, so much as it is the process of figuring out where or how or to whom to deliver said objections upon their completion, provided one intends to hold onto any aspirations of future success. The prototypical epistolary outcry — “To Whom it May Concern!” — feels all too poignantly and devastatingly futile in this context. To the concerned onlooker, it can sometimes be strikingly clear that the networks and infrastructures of support that O, Lucia, Silver and others are seeking throughout these texts don’t yet actually fully exist there; they must first be built before they can be accessed. Moreover, it is evident that this construction task is destined to be a daunting one, cluttered by substantial and numerous obstacles, if also kept afloat by tender hopes.
Unable to persuade those in authority to either address their basic needs or to mend the lack of connection they feel in relation to their surroundings, Mellis’s figures find instead that the only viable option lies in learning to address, listen to, and fend for one another. This requires some painstaking work on their parts to startle each other from the diverse range of solipsistic compulsions and obsessive drone-like behaviors from which they suffer. God knows that on certain occasions it can be so hard simply to even open one’s mouth and moan, let alone to mutter and/or to hear the mutters of others. The further act of striving to make sense of and to take in earnest the content of what is muttered, thus involves yet another order of commitment altogether. Sometimes no order whatsoever — be it higher or lower, formal or obtuse, committed or lackadaisical — prevails; indeed, it is as if no enunciation that currently exists can even begin to clarify, let alone to salvage. In the case of “None of This Is Real,” such moments of relentless sucker-punching sometimes require that the narrator O, having been utterly emptied of any language of his own, simply take another’s word for it, giving himself over to and trusting the diagnoses of others in those instants when the circumstances leave him incapable of generating his own. Though as O does so, he also stores inside himself a deeply seated well of doubt. “What is told to me about the future of my body,” O asks, “can I believe it?” Is it wise to?
Be it wise or unwise, the fact remains that Mellis’s characters are frequently dependent upon others for confirmation of both the most crucial and the most superfluous details of their own lives and origins. This actuality is experienced, by each person in turn, as a concurrent source of paralyzing trauma and acute relief. “We don’t possess our selves you know,” Silver says to her daughter Lucia with adamant feeling. And as readers, we sense that at least one part of the emotionality that Silver displays in this exchange comes from her gratitude concerning the roles that natural and chance operations have played in relieving her of some of the weight of cumbersome ownership. The prospect of maintaining a “pure” proprietary relationship to personhood proves to be as false or impossible as that of encountering a “pure” laissez-faire capitalist economics or a “pure” map of seamless plate tectonics. However, the mere identification of any relationship’s basis in erroneous precepts or outright phony assumptions doesn’t, unfortunately, in and of itself negate the reality of its felt consequences. In the face of this upsetting and laborsome distance between accrued knowledge and lived experience, it’s no wonder that some people should seek out and succumb to the availability of far more repressive, but also comfortingly more definitive, arrangements. “If nothing else,” the compensatory platitude runs, “one always belonged to the state.” However, as O and his mother (who makes her living as a medical test subject) each independently discover, “for some the state weighed less than a feather, while others it crushed.”
On our own recognizance
Last summer, while seated within a peculiarly angled nook of a modular wooden barn assembled from a 1920s Sears & Roebuck home construction kit, I found myself reading in quick sequence not only Mellis’s work, but also Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). In the course of doing so, I was particularly struck by Thoreau’s diaristic description of the events that followed his one night of confinement at the local jail upon conviction as a war tax resister. In his concise report of those post-release moments, he writes:
When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand [to visit the shoe cobbler], and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, — for the horse was soon tackled, — was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen [emphasis added].
I have to admit that when I finished reading that specific paragraph, I could do little more than lean back, my face frozen in half-smile and half-sneer, and whistle a nostalgic “if goddamn only.” In today’s modern urban landscapes of surveillance cameras, ID scanners, electronic data tracking, facial recognition devices, and GPS monitoring, Thoreau’s quickly achieved removal from any and all vestiges of state oversight feels nearly akin to impossible. And such facilely accomplished escapes of this kind are not easily performed in the invented worlds of Mellis’s contemporary fiction either. Rather, the people whom we encounter in these stories tend to be a bit more uniformly “crushed” as it were and don’t necessarily have access to the options of an elsewhere-bound or horse-drawn carriage ride at the ready in order to remedy their disparagement.
In the face of these arguably fiercer and more ubiquitous displays of state force and oversight, however, the quality of said inhabitants’ resistance also tends to be fiercer, more clever, more mobile, hardier. It exhibits a deeply situated, if not always equally enactable, belligerence to the very logic of power. In the words of Emma Goldman, ““The mere fact that these forces are legalized by state statute laws, sanctified by divine rights and enforced by political power in no way justifies their continued existence.” Or, alternately, but with notable parallels, as expressed in The Spokes: “She [the passing stranger] looked up at me [Lucia], surprised, and asked, ‘How can I continue this way without knowing?’ I said, ‘Why do you think you need to continue this way?’” And so there it is, the essential question of Mellis’s texts and the enormous gift that they offer to us as readers in our encounters with them: the opportunity to foundationally ask not only “why?” but “what if not?”
Subsequently, we are left with a sense of anticipation that should our struggles and our research succeed, our victories over complicity and over mindless obedience will be substantial ones. We may find ourselves in the presence of a good bit more than a tasty berry cobbler to be thankful for; rather, we may have significantly cobbled an enormous beast that has been bearing down — with inexorable, if also under-acknowledged, pressure — upon each of our lots and a hell of a lot of our backs for quite some time now. We may even be so lucky as to achieve, if not freedom, then at least a shower of reprieve from our current grievances and a small, but fighting, chance at real collaborative discovery.
In The Spokes, we repeatedly see the character Lucia’s frenetic motions as she clamors to achieve a measure of belief in a cosmo-vision of clear causes and effects but is not to be granted it. Lucia wants what she is facing to be reducible to those things that she has induced and thus can also eliminate. “Was my invisibility the result of some thing I had failed to do?” Lucia asks, adding, “I had yet to learn the laws of recognition here.” Unable either to be seen or heard by her mother Silver when she first arrives as an adult into this purgatorial afterworld, Lucia comments, “It was not the first time in my life that I was invisible in a public place, if one can say of the afterworld that it is public.” Here Lucia has, without a doubt, stumbled onto one substantial and mighty insight. For there are indeed so very many ways for people to be made invisible or, conversely, to make others feel that way; perhaps even as many ways as there are for people to be recognized or to make others buzz in the wake of their own recognition.
Those delicate ankles wherein capacity and debilitation collide
If recognition as a process of communication can convey approval or sanction, permission or denial, validity or erasure, then our physical bodies are perhaps just as double-edged in their potential. In “None of This Is Real,” the narrator pauses at length to ponder the fact that the fatal flaw of Achilles should be located in precisely the same anatomical quarters as Hermes’s tiny foot wings. Debilitation and unexpected aptitude are found to emerge from one and the same site of flesh. To my mind, The Spokes closes, if only by soft inference, on those fantastical winglets, on the efforts to try and find them. It comes to a finish not on severance (on tendon-ripping), but on the prospect of flight. As Mellis describes it, the organs or environments from which such levitations could conceivably occur are “easily localized, but not easily remediated.” Our collective imaginations and blueprinting skills have been substantially dampened and dulled by too much rebuking and the failure to leave or step outside the frames of logic that have been handed us. “What are the ancient dead like then, the pre-capitalist, the pre-clock-time, the pre-imperial dead?” Lucia muses. And while it should be readily admitted that any “true” contact with these earlier histories is impossible, as well as fraught with all manner of problematic ideological nostalgias, it is perhaps for that very reason that it must all the more be tried. Not so as to falsely fantasize returning there, but so as to at least refuse to continue from exactly where we are now.
In Jonathan Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the central characters finds the occasion to explain, “One morning I awoke and understood the hole in the middle of me. I realized that I could compromise my life, but not life after me. I couldn’t explain it. The need came before the explanations. It was not out of weakness that I made it happen, but it was not out of strength either. It was out of need.” As I see it, the characters that Mellis creates also operate from that nebulous space between weakness and strength, between certainty and the paralysis of doubt. And, of course, the reality is that we compromise our own life and the lives to come after us nearly all the time. Indeed, in the current habitus of life on this continent and elsewhere, it is infinitely harder to document those actions when we don’t compromise future life, than those actions when we do. For this reason and more, Mellis’s figures can never get rid of those holes.
Accordingly, it could be argued that in Mellis’s fiction there is often surprisingly little evidence to show that optimism is warranted; however, at the same time, there is also surprisingly little evidence to show that it is illusory. By optimism, I do not refer to merely pedantic wishful thinking; I mean something more like unfettered attention to the earth’s materials. In Mellis’s words: “Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.” Sometimes the impossible is simply that obstacle of another survivable devastation that we find ourselves once again smack in the face of. The grace then of Mellis’s art is how, in the wake of this, it surprises us with the discovery that not only can we still move, but we may want to have a dance party. We may want to destroy our files. We may want to get really close to something and to press outlandishly hard against it, to discover what shifts and resistances persist within that dangerous gift of proximity. The internationalist avant-garde artist group, the Situationists, once made posters that said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s heads and one day they will come out.” One day, the posters seemed to imply, these ideas will be shouted. In Mellis’s own stories, we as a society have not yet managed to reach the point of shouting — such a collaborative mass display of belligerence to actual conditions still hovers at an arm’s distance; it still requires further cultivation for incarnation. But certain individual figures within these tales are uncovering promising incipient forms for their words, acts, and ideas, and some of them are even finding company. There is a sense that they are gathering their forces … and ours.
In the same lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis with which this essay begins, Vladimir Nabokov writes: “Unless we see them [the characters] in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.” We are lucky that in Mellis’s work the enchanter never once takes leave of us. Or as O observes during one of his many eccentric encounters with a very singular self-taught divinator: “Wherever she touched [me], she left a trail of froth.” Mellis’s work happily leaves one like that also: frothed-up, vibrating, keen to discover.