Sleepover Party Massacre
The eschaton is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.
For it’s well known that its spiral horn is relatively worthless. The pulverized horn is an aphrodisiac. But the dried essence of a single unicorn brain could shape the convictions of six to twenty million people. Not unlike the fluoridation of the drinking water, which achieved a reduction of tooth decay in the Karl-Marx-Stadt district, an elevated ideological level could be achieved by monocerosization of the drinking water.
—Irmtraud Morgner, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura, tr. Jeanette Clausen
Welcome, creatures! I am currently reading a novel, the one I just quoted, with an actual rogation dragon in it. This would be just mind-blowingly cool if I understood anything about this novel. Unfortunately it is a collage whose individual scraps and larger patterns are equally unintelligible to me. I am still reading it, but, you know, feel free to suggest any other novels you know of with a rogation dragon in them, as my hunger is not sated.
The Problem of Targets
There are a lot of novels which deal in some way with the problem of evil. And there are a lot of novels which explore the metaphysical or existential meanings of oppression: Ellison’s Invisible Man, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, to name a couple I’ve really loved. These novels ask not, Why do terrible things happen, but, What does it mean that the terrible things done and suffered in the world are distributed in uneven and at least partly predictable patterns? What does it mean that there are targets?
I think that’s the basic thing Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage is gnawing on. It’s an attempt to set the conditions for a secular theodicy of misogyny. That’s reductive, fine—it’s also a vivid portrayal of the Southwest, of life on the US-Mexican border, of the 1990s from the perspective of well-to-do white American girls. It’s also a frustratingly “bitty,” episodic commonplace book which often pastes a quote or scene onto the page without much further exploration. I liked it, mostly, and it reminded me of a zine, which suggests that it accomplished its purpose.
The titular teenagers (heh, heh) bear the self-conscious pseudonyms Celine and Julie. It at first seems like this will be a novel about their best-friendship, but in fact they don’t intersect for very long. Nor do they really mirror each other. I have to say it seemed like this book could be called Single Teenage and lose little except the extra hint of lasciviousness in the title. Anyway Celine and Julie seek adventure and knowledge, and sometimes love, in a world where women are constantly being subjected to murderous violence just off-page. Celine and Julie suffer only the usual incursions on their bodily integrity but women they see on the news, and women they read about, and women they know, get murdered by men.
These murders take place within specific economic conditions—this is a novel with footnotes about NAFTA and about major banks’ ties to the cartels. The murders intertwine with art, culture, and “high theory.” If you are a David Lynch fan I suspect you will want to pick up this slender book.
The murders don’t respect white American prejudices or preferences. One thing I especially appreciated was that one of the girls leaves the southern border for Canada—arriving in Vancouver just in time for the discovery of the “Pig Farm Murders,” Robert Pickton’s serial murders of sex workers and other marginalized women. A lot of people have noticed the tendency for progressive Americans to condemn their own country by comparing it to other people’s countries, almost always countries poorer and browner than our own. I’ve heard white progressives describe Bush v. Gore, for example, as America “becoming Mexico.” I recently watched PBS’s revisited version of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which includes news footage of black girls chanting, “Is this America? Or is this South Africa?” What does it mean that they were protesting police officers’ unpunished murder of a black man—a scene repeated in this country for centuries? Anyways, Canada (and like, Sweden and other places Americans imagine as full of white people and large ungulates) plays the opposite role in the white progressive imaginary. But not here.
I don’t know that Double Teenage intends to offer a particular response to what I’m calling the problem of targets. It was striking to me (and disappointing) that neither girl encounters any kind of community response or collective action. I don’t always want characters to think about solving their problems, that isn’t the point, but the 1990s and early 2000s really did foster movements addressing the themes of this book—Riot Grrrl is only the one I know best. Seeing the hopes, flaws, bleak comedy, self-defeat, and/or sublimity of those attempts would have expanded the book’s world and made it feel less adolescently self-absorbed. (And more adolescently self-aggrandizing!) I like when my novels have politics, meaning action and not just analysis; I like it best when the politics don’t answer or fix the existential problem.
If there’s a thread running through the book and offering some kind of idea about what targeted evil means, it’s a thread Charles Johnson might appreciate: the idea of self and other, as the title might suggest. “From what [Celine] could tell many people felt radical talking about a blurring of self and other, whereas she felt like nothing but an ill-defined part of an amorphous whole.” Women are human, only moreso, because we’re treated as & eventually come to see ourselves as an unstable mix of subject and object, maker and material, artist and fantasy, person and girl, girl and dead girl. We may have certain insights which come from never being able to forget our bodies; there’s a thrill in being a body which is not trivial but fraught. Nor can we ever forget that others’ subjectivities are very real to them—so real that for them to see us as real also is a struggle and an accomplishment, for which they’d like to be rewarded. There are insights in women’s selflessness but it’s also a kind of death.
Celine and Julie are witnesses and voyeurs. They’re playwright and actress:
Onstage actors flicker between object and being. During the rehearsal period they are touched, measured and assessed, blocked and directed.
Actors scrutinize text and timing as they do their best to realize their director’s vision.
When the play is on they move their costumed bodies through light and shadow. The best actors give in and become reflective surfaces below which their own humanity moves.
Theater is their truest school. Its central lesson is that every performance exists within another, greater one.
The physical book, from BookThug, is a mixed bag: beautiful cover, absolutely terrible copyediting. Lots of homophone mistakes and similar flotsam. The book cover shows slightly abstracted stripes of a gorgeous Southwestern sunset, perfect for this novel which layers strips of theory and strips of nature description, strips of dialogue and of economics reports, papier-mache bandages slowly forming a mask over an unseen face.
The Au Pairs, “It’s Obvious”
“A band is any song you ever played with anybody even if only once.”
—Tobi Vail, Jigsaw