In which Alex Kalamaroff & Stephen Shane discuss and review this book
Alex K.: A quick synopsis: an unnamed journalist spends a few days interviewing eccentric ex-academic librarian Roberto Acestes Laing who, before he absconded to Wisconsin, incinerated a collection of extremely rare films, many of which were incredibly obscure (and fictitious) works directed by well-known experimental folk, such as David Lynch and Maya Deren. Much of the novel, about 75% of it, consists of descriptions the films Laing destroyed. These descriptions read almost as fragmented short stories or twisted vignettes. The novel ends with an epilogue in which Laing delivers a monologue about a dream he had, a film dream of the future, and the future–it goes without saying–is a pretty desolate, “charred,” and “bombed out” place.
That sound about right?
Stephen: Yup. That about sums it up. And not only are Laing’s “versions” or “dreams” of the future bombed out, but pretty much every film he describes seems to revolve around the theme of destruction. Something irreparable occurs. Something is lost. Much like the films themselves are lost after Laing burned them in a trashcan, as well as the narrator’s daughter who died of cancer. And this theme isn’t exactly subtle either–one of the films is even titled Destroyer.
Alex K.: Ruination permeates Rombes’s novel. Before we get into the details, into discussing the narrator’s “perished” daughter and the novel’s setting “Post Towers” and the anachronistic details, let’s talk cinema. Each of the three chapters begins with a list of the destroyed films that Laing will be discussing. There’s Black Star and The Blood Order and The Murderous King Addresses the Horizon. Were any of these movies you’d liked to watch, to witness, alongside Laing?
Stephen: Absolutely. First off, it’s just cool to read about an imagined early Lynch or Jodorowsky or Antonioni film. Secondly, Rombes’s flips our expectations by making the films completely uncharacteristic of the work we know of those inimitable auteurs. Black Star is described as “‘Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most coherent film, as if he had decided to make a movie whose style went against his every instinct as a director.” There’s even a point during Laing’s retelling of the Lynch film where we question if Lynch even filmed it at all. And finally, there’s so much description from Laing, so much interpretation interwoven into his recitations of the films, that at times it feels like Laing is nearly reinventing them. You have to force yourself to remember that to actually watch these films would be a completely different experience than to hear Laing describe them. Meanwhile, the retellings put us right there with the narrator, trying to imagine what these lost images could have looked like. And of course, none of our imaginings are even close to the same.
But to answer your question, Gutman was totally fascinating. Laing describes the film as mostly still images of a sandstorm accompanied by a conspiracy-murder voiceover. I saw it like some kind of noir-nightmare directed by an LSD-ridden Ken Burns. How about you? Any favs?
Alex K.: Destroyer. 1969. “The fuck of denim,” Rombes writes. “Motorcycles on American highways, the highways of serial killers, so they say.” That’s my kind of movie. Laing says the “first twenty minutes are like a mash-up of outtakes from Easy Rider.” At the end he describes a lust for destruction, an urge to obliterate that’s aesthetic in its ambitions. Destruction as art. I dug it.
One thing I struggled with though was that I felt all the descriptions of the destroyed films were a page or two too long, especially the Antonioni treatment, The Insurgent. (If it’s any consolation, I feel the same about most of Antonioni’s actual movies.) This run-on sense, however, did add to the atmosphere. Reading this book sort of felt like wandering an expansive wasteland of culture, wreckage, dreck, and ash.
Laing was an interesting dude and I think throughout my favorite sentences and paragraphs were those that described him in all his oddness, the “dark skin, reddish hair, large hands, and the pale or cream-colored blazer [that] reminded me of the tropics somehow.” That cream-colored blazer–and you know I do like a nice blazer–recalled Klaus Kinski’s outfit in Fitzcarraldo, except instead of building an opera house in the Amazon, Laing wants to immolate his archives, a project that the narrator was totally, unwaveringly enraptured with. We, as readers, come to share this fascination. We wander the wasteland too. How’d you take to this fellow Laing? Would you absolve him?
Also, complete fashion sidenote: Laing, along with the cream-colored blazer, wears a bright red scarf, “a scarf that brought to mind the sort of clarity that only happens through the iron-willed exertion of power.” #1. I have to get me one of these scarfs. #2. Cream-colored blazer with red scarf? That sounds like a bad medley to me.
Even if you’re a crackpot cineophile self-exiled in Wisconsin, you should still dress with reasonable elegance.
Stephen: Whatever, GQ. I thought the cream blazer was legit. I mean, I wasn’t about to go out and buy one for myself, but it’s kind of flamboyantly villanish, a la Javier Bardem in Skyfall, though I suppose I’m losing cineophile-cred by citing a Bond movie.
Alex K.: Someone has to worry about the fashion choices of fictional characters.
Stephen: Point being, I can absolve Laing for his wardrobe, but not for burning the films. They were never his to burn. And now we’re skirting some philosophical territory that I was surprised the book didn’t quite engage head on. Yes, the question of why Laing would obliterate art is explicit, but there wasn’t really a section where the narrator took Laing to task for it. It was as if the novel wanted the reader to acknowledge Laing’s act of destruction as artistic, and ignore the fact that it was also a self-righteous and borderline evil elimination of the commons those films could’ve been.
But I agree with you on the pacing of the film descriptions. They seemed to wander and sprawl and become more abstract as the novel progressed. I think part of it’s because Rombes is working to convey experimental films, which at times, let’s face it, can be exhausting to watch, let alone read about. And when the films here falter, I’m suspicious that it’s because Rombes (and/or Laing) are hoping intentionally oblique and overly-metaphorical subject matter might be mistaken for truly rich art. Then again, I can’t help but admire Rombes’s ambition in setting out to describe fictitious films so terrifyingly moving they’re practically unwatchable.
What would’ve really been funny is if Laing said he’d destroyed the films not “for the terrible, beautiful truths they revealed, and to spare others from ever having to look,” but because they were just shitty movies. (“Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I’m telling you, they were crap, crap, crap.”)
Alex K.: It’s not only that a lot of questions about Laing and the destruction of the films are never answered; they’re not asked. The narrator, he’s a good narrator but a bad journalist–this crafting of his character as basically just a listener, and in that regard a stand-in for the reader, allows Rombes to create that atmosphere I was talking about, an atmosphere that is somber, serious, and absolute, but also not surprising.
What I thought, as I finished the book, was given that it’s set “Post Towers,” that is after 9/11–maybe sometime in the mid 2000s–it still feels like a historical novel in that there’s no discussion of the internet. Let me elaborate because I think this gets to the question of, and longing for, destruction at the novel’s core.
Immediately we’re confronted with the hard reality of these films; they’re analog; they exist in a tangible form and thus can be destroyed, “disperversed” to use a term from the novel. We see “several neat stacks of uncased VHS tapes” soon as the narrator enters Laing’s motel room. These films Laing cares about so much are also unfathomably rare and can only be accessed after one has spent numerous days spelunking through the archives of a moderately august university in Pennsylvania. And their destruction is a loss. Their destruction is actual. It carries dramatic weight.
I’m not sure if this would be possible today, in 2014. Think about it: with the internet, with YouTube and Amazon and this-that-and-whatever-other website, you can easily and readily access content that even fifteen years ago you could only find in an archival vault or in the cellar of someone who didn’t even know they were hoarding an incredibly obscure yet interesting cultural artifact. This is a new reality Patrick Dunagan explores in his essay for Entropy about David Grubbs’s book Records Ruin the Landscape. The internet makes everything immortal and immediately accessible.
In 2014, you could watch the films Laing destroyed on YouTube–just as you can watch David Lynch’s early short works, just as you can download Agnès Varda’s oeuvre from Amazon. In this sense, I found the destruction in Rombes’s novel to be almost nostalgic. Laing still wants to live in a world where tangible culture matters–and what a better way to show a desire for this world than by burning it to high hell?
Stephen: It’s true, the internet doesn’t come into play at all. And, in a way, just the idea of a film reel feels nostalgic. But I think I was cool with accepting the novel’s nostalgia on its own terms because: A) The writing was that good–it made me want to feel the loss of those films; and B) While YouTube and Amazon and whatever-the-hell-ever might make film seemingly immortal for now, there are plenty of other forms of art today that still have to be handled with care, art whose existence is fragile and fleeting and experienced in only so many ways by only so many people. What’s at stake is more than frames of light-exposed celluloid that could’ve easily been digitized. So I guess I’m in Laing’s boat (a disconcerting thought) with all that tangible culture, which really isn’t as reactionary a crowd as one might think.
Alex K.: Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction? I think it’s an interesting divide, between different categories of art, of when we value the tangible object versus when we don’t. No one says, for instance, that you haven’t really read Moby-Dick unless you read a first edition of it, because that would be ridiculous (even though I do think anxieties about e-reading are related to this).
But then the only reason a filthy richie rich will pay $26.4 million for Christopher Wool’s painting Apocalypse Now is because it’s a unique object–irreplaceable, one of kind, etc. etc. You have to view it, the original, in person to truly “experience” it, we often say about the visual arts. And that doesn’t even get into music or live performances, which is what Dunagan explores in his essay. For me, I recognize the loss of the films Laing destroyed, but I don’t miss them. I’ll watch them on YouTube instead.
After you enjoy Meshes of the Afternoon, I’d like to talk about the narrator’s daughter, whom you mentioned earlier. I found this side-story to be the novel’s weakest part, but I wanted to get your thoughts first on how Rombes balances out the narrator’s thinking regarding his own life with Laing’s garrulousness.
Stephen: That’s a good question, but the thing is, I think in many ways the novel didn’t try to strike a balance between them. Laing is present and alive on the page, gesticulating and drinking bourbon from his Star Wars glass, demanding that you listen closely to the one time you’re going to hear about these lost films. He makes you lean in. The narrator, on the other hand, is mostly absent from the book, which I was totally fine with. The only time it spelled trouble was when the novel seemed to insist on imposing a half-baked psychology onto the narrator through the death of his daughter, which was really the only thing we learned about him. It felt like the daughter was tacked on, reaching for a level of sentimentality that the rest of the book unapologetically ignored. But maybe you disagree? Though before I forget, I want to also make sure we take some time to get down to a sentence level with this book, because line for line, I deeply admired Rombes’s writing. In the turn of a phrase, he can transition from restrained to acrobatic, from subtle to straight up pyrotechnics.
Alex K.: Rombes’s has got some stellar prose for sure. Let’s talk about page 70. Now you know I love long sentences the way Janice Lee loves long takes in Bela Tarr flicks, which means immediately I was enthralled with Rombes’s 460-word sentence, which starts at the bottom of page 69, consumes page 70, and ends at the top of 71.
The narrator’s daughter, first introduced to us on page 12 as “my perished daughter Emily”–a rather falsely dramatic adjective I thought: who thinks of their departed loved ones as “perished”?–is brought to life here, and only here, in this superb sentence.
In general, I found there to be a sort of hollow gravitas surrounding the narrator’s deceased daughter, whose death Rombes asks us to take seriously but who is never really realized in any substantial way. I mean, basically the only thing we learn about the narrator’s daughter is that she’s dead. She is, however, brought to life briefly on page 70–”with her in-turned left foot and slight lisp and yellow plastic butterfly barrettes that held back her unwashed hair”–and her loss is merged with the destroyed films and with Laing and with the “abyss of unknowing” that ultimately will swallow us all. This sentence is also one of the few moments where the narrator expresses his anger at Laing–“if there’s anyone to blame (not for Emily’s death of course, not that) it’s Laing”–and where we keenly sense the loss of these films, “whose fleeting traces of beauty can now only be conjured in words.”
The sentence is worth reading in its entirety: Rombes’s 460-word sentence.
You got any favorite lines?
Stephen: Too many to recount here. But even within that same 460-word sentence, when Rombes somehow finds a way to juxtapose the love of the narrator for his daughter with the truth expressed in the destroyed films:
a sort of undestroyable love, so fierce and primal and frontier-like that nothing prepares you for it because when it’s depicted on the screen or in books it’s either too sentimental or too cynical, and if I had come to hate Laing it was for that one simple fact: that he had destroyed films that actually captured this mystery, not just the mystery of the love between a father and daughter but the mystery of what that might become if left free to flower.
Clearly, the emotion in this novel is restrained, especially with regards to the daughter, purposefully buried in the narrator’s subconscious. But it’s lines like this that take you off-guard where not only is the writing strong, but where Rombes gives you just a hint of pathos, and it hits home hard.
But I’m wondering what would happen if we played along with Rombes and his imagined films. If The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing were to be adapted for the screen tomorrow, who would you want to direct and who would play Laing?
Alex K.: The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing: A MOVIE
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Actor for Laing: Marlon Brando’s ghost
Tagline: Witness this cinema incineration.
Trailer opening: “In a world where an abyss of unknowing will ultimately swallow us all, one man seeks to uphold the culture he loves by destroying it.”
Stephen: See, at first I was thinking Kevin Spacey for Laing, and an idiosyncratic director like Refn, or maybe Michel Gondry, but Laing makes a point to say all those lost films were completely uncharacteristic of their directors. So how about bringing back Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart for the strangest career finale of all time?
Alex K.: The Absolution of R.A. Laing, with Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart? I’m thinking that’d be a pretty good holiday movie.
Stephen: But would we ever even get to see it? Such a movie would be unwatchable if it expressed the “undiluted truth” the novel is striving for: “If they,” Laing says about the films, “did–tell the truth about life–who would want to watch them? They’d have to be destroyed, because who can look at the truth and survive?”
Either way, just to be prepared. Why don’t you start making the popcorn. I’ll get the trashcan and the lighter fluid.
Alex Kalamaroff is a writer in Boston. He oversees the Book Reviews for Entropy: @alexkalamaroff / firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen Shane is a writer in Boston too but he thinks twitter is lame.