Infrastructures of feeling
Fugitive fugues in the undying present
Time is the cousin of punishment — Syd Staiti, The Undying Present
Syd Staiti’s novel The Undying Present opens with a somewhat startling brief scene wherein the narrator smashes their watch on their desk, ripping off its hands, before entering out into the world and its “present and continuous catastrophe” (11). What — outside of crisis — thrusts us into the pure present other than an escape from — or rebellion against — (modern, capitalist) time? The unloosing from rigid clock-time, the disciplinary regime of industrial modernity and wage labor, where the “working day” is divided into labor hours and “time off.” It’s important, too, that it’s a wristwatch and not a clock or phone, for what is the wristwatch if not the talisman of embodied clock-time, which we literally strap to ourselves like prosthetic hearts, ticking against the wrist’s pulse points as if to tune our meridians to regimented time?
But: “the watch continues to tick” (11). Time moves forward, regardless, but now — in the time of the novel — it’s the beat of the undying present, a metronomic rhythm undergirding the prosody of moving through — and in — our experience of passing time. Prosaic time: the unfolding of experience and its representation in prose, where narration is not the delineation of plot arcs or the remembrance of things past but the languaging of its actual passing, in embodied encounter with experience and perception.
I don’t want to make too much of this moment in the text, for I don’t take time to be the novel’s primary concern, nor do I feel that Staiti’s novel is much concerned with overt symbolism. But in a book that otherwise dispenses with conventional narrative time or chronology, this initial gesture does pull both narrator and reader “off the clock” and into the uncanny present of the novel, where passing — or marking — time resists representation, beyond its effect on the living body: “We are worn away by the minute clicking of wheels. That has no image” (63).
Regardless of the time of day in any particular scene, it seems like it’s always dusk or dawn — the blue hour — which in this book also feels — if I can presume to take the Bay Area to be the closest geographic approximation of the novel’s “setting” — wet, cold in the bones, not foggy in a literal sense as much as a brain-fogged chill for which only the fires set by protestors that occasionally appear might provide momentary spark and heat. (Indeed, I would perhaps describe the novel as “atmospheric” if that word didn’t seem to suggest a kind of ambient disassociation from the concrete realities of city life our narrator continually confronts.)
The Undying Present has no conventional plot per se; things happen, to be sure, but there seems not to be rhyme nor reason in any usual sense. There’s something like rhyme in a broader sense, to be sure, if imagistically or thematically rather than linguistically: things repeat, correspond, double back upon themselves, are filmed, screened, watched, and discussed, ever at the edge of interpretation’s ability to pin them down into conventional narrative coherence. The narrator walks through the city or is seated in a theater, which, given the imagistic mediation of much of the novel, at times amounts to almost the same thing. There are cameras that watch you watching, rioters fighting the cops and smashing store windows, underground passages, and furtive meetings of those in elective affinity. Within the city is a second city, as well as a “City of Margins,” a “set of ideas put forth by its ruling elite” (61), through which Staiti's narrator traverses like a detective in search of a missing person(hood):
Those who refuse it are banished or thrown into the realm of lunacy. We write stories but the city and its residents do not read. We burrow beneath the surfaces of glass and sheen. Every inch of space belongs to someone and no space belongs to everyone. (61)
The stakes of writing this city are for Staiti intertwined with a historical sense of crisis, as the present is shot through with memory and its loss, and “every inch of space” becomes a battlefield between workers and owners, cops and rioters. How to narrate such disjunctures of time and space?
We are living in the ongoing advancement of the rupture. All time is concurrently present in and around us. Tendencies from the old world prick our skins like shards of broken glass. We get nicked, cut, scarred by the things we hold on to and the things we try to forget. ... Figures arise before our eyes as projections in memory or in the flesh or from a future yet uncharted as we reconstitute ourselves at boiling point in this scalding crucible of time and place. (43)
What are the stakes, then, of resisting the expectation to plot — or fictionalize — such crucibles, especially in a narrative work which fugues through such reckonings with the political catastrophes of our time? What does it ask of a reader to (re)present events, or even mere intimations of events, mediated through language and the screen, as if in a scratchy celluloid (antiromantic) noir taking place in the neverending twilight of empire? Unlike conventional narration, where readers are lulled into the temporal unfolding of events in a seemingly logical procession of reliable, if not fully predictable, relation, the narrator of this novel becomes enfolded in a series of experiences, perceptions, and fugues, described with what I want to call an impassioned ambivalence, as if they are a participant-observer simultaneously tasked with the word/world-building of the novel in which they exist: “I stand to the side but stay. I watch. Maybe one day I will fight.” (61–62).
Perhaps what conventional plot asks of us is to remove ourselves from the “undying present,” to step outside the IRL present and enter into “story,” an aporia in time which Staiti’s book resists, keeping us not simply “in the moment,” but in the actual present — not Stein’s continuous present, but something more unsettling, off-kilter, like stumbling on a set of high heels one must discard (like feminine identity?) in order to traverse the city free of the inhibitions of normative behavior or costuming.
Loosed thus from plot, Staiti’s narrator wanders — not as the masculine bourgeois flaneur taking pleasure in urban modernity’s aporias or via a situationist dérive of irreverent astonishment, but found-lost in a kind of elegiac space with others, attempting to forge plans for some indeterminate future action within a fluid and contested social landscape. Wandering produces wondrous prosody within the threshold consciousness of hypnagogia, where the facts of urban existence, events, buildings, weather, movement, and other people resist easy slotting into language, categories, or conventional narrative:
I open the doors of the building and walk around peering in each room. The rooms hold remnants of the past, forgotten objects slathered in dust and rodent feces. I climb the stairs dragging knobby fingers over a dusty banister. A young woman is crumpled in the corner at the end of the hallway. Her body is a mouth, a dark open hole telling a story. (15)
I enter a small dark room and stand in the center of it. At my feet lies a plaque embedded in a large stone. I push the knob in the center of the plaque and two doors open. One is a crawlspace to the future. The other is blocked by a large unmovable brick that represents the past. (119–20)
Thus Staiti’s narrator is not so much a classic (cis male, Euro-American) flaneur, idly drifting through the arcades with the freedom of the consumer (of experiences, if not goods), as much as a fugitive self thinking-writing itself through nonbinary embodiment as it chafes up against urban formations (both physical and ideological) that restrict and police as much as liberate:
The mechanisms of the city predetermine my pacing though I cannot see or hear them. The mechanisms lie under the sidewalk. They sit behind windows. They perch in the crevices of buildings. They hover in the sky capturing movement. (71)
“Mechanisms” here could stand for ideological systems as much as the structures of the surveillance-capitalist city, as Staiti’s prose in many ways aims to undo the “predeterminations” that condition our lives within such structures, attempting to locate avenues and methods of subterfuge and opacity, however fleeting. Walking and writing and reading thus become a kind of cognitive countermapping, even as “the map is curled and fraying at the edges of the frame” (71).
In many ways, the book reads like poet’s prose — not in the sense simply of a “lyric voice” but in its uses of accretion, seriality, and a kind of spatialized rhythming (in motifs and images rather than sound). But it also reads in conversation with European or Latin American traditions of the novel and cinema, as opposed to the selfie-consciousness of American autofiction or some strands of third-generation New Narrative. Indeed, subjectivity here is less about interiority and introspection, or reports of semi-ironic perambulations through postmodern urbanity, but rather focused on its unfolding in direct (and indirect, mediated) contact with the city — its architecture, its passageways, its concretized fetishes and enticements. The novel interrogates what it feels like to live through a catastrophe — our catastrophe — however shrouded in mystery, in the interregnum where the old world is not yet dead, but the new world has yet to be born. Not via recourse to zombie symbolism or other such dystopian tropes, nor the hand-wringing anxieties of US lib lit, but rather the everyday shuffling intellect of engaged, curious citizenship all-but-trapped and yet availing itself of language and narration — not to “make sense,” but to make life.
“Every theory in the present is speculation” (21). This might sum up the inventive poetics of Staiti’s novel, in that the writing of the undying present must by necessity become a kind of speculative fiction when confronted with the task of worlding a world that resists clear, realist description. The roving gaze of our narrator thus reveals a kind of free (but never totally free) associative aesthetic relation to movement in urban space, looking but also listening to (and thus languaging) the irruptive prosody of city life, attuned to the present of experience even if ever-mediated through consciousness, image, and language. It is thus one of the achievements of Staiti’s novel that we are invited to become fellow travellers in a fundamentally new way of seeing-thinking-writing, a precarious nonbinary subjectivity in a constant unfolding of self-discovery and fearful wonderment.