In the opening sequence of W. D. Richter’s faux-blockbuster The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984), our absurdly polymath hero—world-famous brain surgeon, particle physicist, lead guitarist and vocalist of The Hong Kong Cavaliers—drives a Ford pickup, souped-up with a MacGuffin-y gizmo called an “oscillation overthruster” through a mountain in… well, that location is never really divulged. (Texas is home to mountains, but they hardly slope and peak like those attributed to the state by the film’s scenarists.) And, in fact, Banzai does not drive through the mountain so much as drive into the interstices of so-called solid matter, here represented at its most obdurate and immovable and indisputable. The “formless void” of a dimension that Banzai penetrates may reverberate with Tron-scapes, but it turns out to be as much a desert as the salt flats over which his jet car has just sped. Upon returning to our shared space, Banzai discovers that a life-form has crossed back over from this 8th dimension with him. It is part trilobite, part tortoise, reminiscent of something washed up from the petrified shores of the Burgess Shale,. The creature is spherical, red, bristles with a vaguely threatening hissing noise as Banzai snaps it free of where it has barnacled itself near the jet car’s drive shaft, and carries an electrical charge.
The stories collected in Gabriel Blackwell’s Critique Of Pure Reason (Noemi Press, 2013) are a lot like that weird mollusk-y specimen: compact, organic-yet-animatedly-inorganic, implausibly authentic, loosely alien, unguessably intelligent (or not), possibly parasitic, and more infra-dimensional than inter-, a concrete allusion and a shell of a phantom menace. Taken as a whole—a pack? a swarm? a colony?—these stories also constitute one of the more boldly conceived and sustained applications of metafictional aesthetics to appear in quite some time. Critique Of Pure Reason is filled with highly readable experiments in story that do not do what short stories are typically expected to do. Instead, these stories intersect with a madly diverse host of narratives situated outside of their private concerns and, in the process, end up infiltrating, virus-like, the syntagma of their own discourses and those discourses’ assays in the reification of particular theoretical constructs, whether those be psychological, socio-political, or mathematical. Thus anything epiphanic in Critique Of Pure Reason happens on the “other side” of its pages, where each reader is invited to act as a character in a larger fiction: the fiction that fiction is ever merely fiction. To quote Buckaroo Banzai himself: “In my experience, nothing is ever what it seems to be, but everything is exactly what it is.”
How does Blackwell effect this transfer of energies? In one sense, every actor, every occurrence and every outcome in Critique Of Pure Reason is “mock.” Here we have meticulously crafted imitations of Raymond Chandler and William S. Burroughs, both noir in their own ways, as well as impersonations of more impersonal “styles” such as an academic dissertation in photography / visual culture, an internal report from the Department of Justice (complete with redactions), word problems (albeit ones that would never be found on any standardized test), and “the Gothic.” Also characteristic of the collection are its variations on narratives familiar from popular culture, its exploitation of exploitation movies and dramatic reenactments—of Alferd Packer’s 1974 arrival in Saguache, CO; of Donald Crowhurst’s attempt to hoax his way victory in a race around the world by yacht—gone askew. More pointedly, however, several stories take aim at certain canonical inventions as though they were problems in and of themselves.
“Story (with Dog)” re-imagines Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” as a series of logical propositions1. Scattered among what has already been solved in Chekhov’s tale, however, are more interesting alternative outcomes, several, if not all of them, otherwise precluded by the actual narrative. Recall that the “mastery” of Chekhov’s “original” depends upon an ironic narrativization of romantic love. Yet Blackwell’s “if – then” expressions, even as they cleave to that central conceit, somehow admit that human emotion does exist, and that it can be be released in a raw state. If catharsis is folly in Chekhov, here it visits Anna Sergeyevna’s “flunkey” husband with attributes and a life (full, i.e., one that ends in death) previously unavailable to him precisely because, being little more than a prop, Chekhov could not be bothered to notice him long enough to humiliate him. In the absence of myth, “Story (with Dog)” suggests, humanity emerges, but its “real” state is one of extreme and irresistible vulnerability to its own inhumanity.
IF the Pomeranian, in its turn, passes away from old age, leaving the flunkey finally and inconsolably alone AND the flunkey finds himself, as always, the butt of many jokes BUT is unable to respond in kind because of his great obsequiousness now coupled with his grief at the loss of the Pomeranian AND finds the only way to salvage his dignity is by buying the most beautiful new overcoat at a price he cannot now afford AND that overcoat is taken, as a prank, by the flunkey’s fellow flunkies and accidentally abandoned in a tavern THEN let the flunkey pass away, too, trudging across the square in shirtsleeves, in the harsh cold of an S___ winter. (74)
After all, what was it that set the wry tragedy of “The Lady with the Dog” in motion but Dmitri Gurov’s pseudo-distracted loneliness, that moment when he indulges a fleeting desire to model his life around a set of narrative clichés associated with everyone but belonging to nobody. As Chekhov himself informs us:
The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were for the most part made up by persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he remembered these tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair, a romance with an unknown woman, whose name he did not know, suddenly took possession of him. (324)
Like Dmitri Gurov, we all-too easily fail to notice how myth works through us. Myths, like the communicable diseases for which they often supply an etiology, are passed from person to person. Moreover, myths are passed invisibly, at virtually every opportunity for human contact, a fact which renders us susceptible to the notion that this involuntary, even reflexive, transmission is endowed with a supernatural independence and entity. But if myths work to ensure the social order by demarcating the economies of common belief and individual skepticism that in turn regulate nearly all other exchanges of ideas, then is there any conceptual existence outside of myth? “Story (with Dog)” proposes that, no, there may not be, in part because we are incapable of separating consciousness from being, just as we seem, like Dmitri Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, to be conflating constantly love and marriage, passion and misery, what it means to be free and what it means to have been condemned. The economy with which Blackwell lays out these observations on human nature has a dizzying effect. At first read, “Story (with Dog)” comes across less as a distillation than a reduction, and one that reduces us to terms in a variable. Still, we cannot neglect to acknowledge the surfeit of experience, however harshly sentimental, into which Sergeyevna’s husband emerges.
How much depends on a little dog? The entire story, as it turns out. In Chekhov’s original, the dog is a simultaneously literal and figurative accoutrement. Diegetically, the little dog barks, but, more loudly and clearly, it “says something” about Anna’s essential character and helps to explain her choices and lot. From another perspective, the dog is also a joke on the characters in the story, a symbol that is out of joint with the symbolic order to which Dmitri and Anna wish to elevate their conjoined-but-apart selves. This Pomeranian is modern in that respect, not traditionally literary. For Chekhov, then, this dog is an indulgence: ordinary waste, treated preciously. To be anachronistic (all readings have to overcome their own anachronism) with informal meanings, Dmitri is a dog in his own right, although his wife warns him that, really, he’s not. Of course, we might also describe an unsatisfactory, inferior or shoddy narrative as something of a dog. And so the implied presence of this “shaggy dog”—neither Chekhov’s nor Blackwell’s per se Pomeranian, but an entire class of comic storytelling—refigures and draws our attention to the crucial role played by the para-literary in these tales. Specifically, to the power of retelling.
Over and over again in Critique Of Pure Reason, to enjoy a good story is also to return to surrendering ourselves (if only a little bit) to a causality that results in fate. That is, in classic Twilight Zone fashion, fate thrives on recurrence. Fate retells itself, reasserting its dictates through stories that don’t necessarily look like exact duplicates but which are genetically encoded like clones. And retelling can also be reengineered so as to expose the essential constructedness of all “master narratives”—or, if you prefer, absolute teleologies2. As such, retelling is most properly the domain of mythology. Retelling is circulation, and it is primarily via retelling that a myth embeds itself in the texture of social reality, gains authority, and becomes an acceptable fiction regardless of any objective standard of plausibility. Blackwell’s retelling in “Story (with Dog),” however, doppelgängers myth with an opposite figuration. Here he drains the mythology out of Chekhov’s, and he does not supplant the Victorian lore we expect with anything possessed of newness, or anything possessed of much aura at all. Instead of trying to elevate his retelling to the status of a meta-language (“Here is a way to comprehend all stories, regardless of their content.”), Blackwell dresses his bared sets with convincingly period and genre-appropriate artifacts that nevertheless seem both “other” and anything but uncanny.
Blackwell’s authorial eye sits like a critical satellite over a textual landscape equally junked-up and glittering, one that may seem fantastical but, upon reflection, presents itself as hyperreal. For example, in “The I and the It,” the Cold War anxieties of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes the ground for existential drama. Miles Bennell may have been driven insane by the actual horrors he has witnessed, friends and neighbors replaced by exact yet lifeless simulcra, or he may simply be mad, a man who has veered into delusion because his reason for being—the sickness of others—has been taken from him, either by his own incompetence or by a sort of anti-plague. No matter how fevered Bennell’s imagination, however, he cannot be his own patient. More importantly, Blackwell presents us with Bennell’s case as narrated by a somewhat mysterious “we.” This “we” is most easily understood to be a diagnostic team of psychoanalysts. Certainly they are interrogatory, superior, wielding the tools of dissection as well as bludgeons of specialized discourses. Yet further reading highlights striations of complication within this “we” and its desire for a conforming explanation. Perhaps all pluralities increasingly resist being conveniently construed. This plurality resists with some sinister intent. Is this “we” the invaders themselves, the collective voice of those vegetative aliens Bennell has been fighting from the start? Or are the phantoms of Bennell’s madness speaking here, insisting on their own identity and integrity?
Bennell, there will be time for sleep later. Forget dreams for now; tell us instead about waking. Tell us about the unexpected return of consciousness… Tell us about the moment that the creeping things make themselves known, about that moment when the veil’s fog has dissipated and you can finally name them. You will rest later, Bennell. First, before you go, give us purpose. For your sake, Bennell, yours and ours, give us meaning. (47)
Blackwell’s larger point, it seems, is that, at a structural level, all narrative is a kind of paranoia. In participating in story, we all follow a haunted path leading us into the involutions and entanglements of a mind that, albeit near to our own, reaches far beyond customary or daily thought in its obsessive mapping of greater significances. If “The I and the It” is genuinely paranoid, if it drifts away from gentle currents of incident and into the eddies of story, does it really make any difference precisely who is narrating its action? This question becomes especially apropos if the “reasons” for Bennell’s madness revolve around a desperate need to preserve his sense of self from complete dissolution. For in each instance, Bennell is the focal entity, whether as inmate, enemy, or disaffected creator. However, Bennell have forgotten a simple, threadbare, but still binding truth: history is written by the victors.
Authorship, and its corrupting power as well as its peculiar pains, also factor into “The Mystery of the Flesh”, which transforms The Fly—Kurt Neumann, not David Cronenberg—into an epistolary romance between Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Franklin Dixon, the primary authors of (respectively) the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series. In Blackwell’s version, Dixon’s carelessness with his matter transference device leads to his molecules becoming scrambled with that of a manuscript, and Harriet, as in the original tale, performs euthanasia on her beloved by feeding what remains of him through a press. But in “The Mystery of the Flesh,” the press is a printing press. Has she simply duplicated Dixon’s manuscript, thus attenuating him out of his plight? The story’s conclusion is not clear on this point. What is apparent is the dark jest at the heart of the story, which involves a narrative that we might consider para-literary, much as we consider books meant only to “entertain” to be para-literary, but which, in fact, constitute the standard of literariness. That is, literature is written by Authors, and Authors are Romantic figures who infuse their work with something of their essence and their spirit. Except, that is, when those authors are merely hacks cranking out kiddie potboiler after kiddie potboiler for a Syndicate. Meanwhile, the true Author is a reader, surveying everything from a tower that rises high above the agonies of the its own imagination—a tower that is also a prison.
What is Blackwell up to with these texts that echo mash-up-like? Does he only want to entrap us in our own resignation to being entrapped, to show us the enthrallment we’re already watching? Similar collisions of the high and the low are characteristic of metafiction, especially that metafiction that is an expression of High Post-Modernism3. But surely Blackwell, who is much more meticulous in his playfulness, knows that the post-modern moment has passed? Post-modernism is now just another commodity in the nostalgia market; it has depreciated into an image that cycles through countless Tumblr feeds for its quaintness value. Post-modernism is now nothing more or less than decor, a reference to a collective memory of the falsity of collective experience nooked and crannied into our so-called intellectual life like the Stratocasters and “Run Forrest Run” bumper stickers and velvet paintings and dazzlingly crappy Americana hodge-podged on the walls of a TGIFridays.
So why care about the post-modern triumphs of metafiction, and why revive it? These questions, as well as the question of what Critique of Pure Reason does differently with the tropes of metafiction, cannot be separated from the question of why we take our entertainment so seriously, and why we declare—and not without some Gollum-like voracity; witness the live-Tweet apocalypse that was the minutes following Game of Thrones‘ infamous “Red Wedding” episode—ownership of what can never be our exclusive property. In its day, metafiction was viewed as an elitist enterprise, one that required a certain class of reader, and, in all fairness, it was and it did. Metafiction was elitist in the way that the generation that came of age in the late 60s and early 70s remains elite: by means of a supremely confident, consistent and inflexible exercise of their narcissism. The metafictions produced by DeLillo, Pynchon, Gass (who coined the term) et al. aimed to separate the dross and shibboleths of a previous generation’s definitions of orderly life from new ideas of lasting value via stories that were Baroque with a hipped-up self-awareness. Metafiction’s vogue was as much an expression of that Boomer pursuit of higher consciousness as it was of reflective of the opening up of the American novel to Continental influences. Metafiction was also therapeutic, in its own way, its mechanics serving as an exorcism of that Conspiracy that through multiple assassinations and Vietnam and Watergate had posited itself as the Maxwell’s Demon of recent history. Readers of metafiction could indulge in a double appreciation. First, readers could entertain and be entertained by an articulation of their own doubts about the reliability of any reality whose apparency was confirmed via mediation. Secondly, by outlasting the convolutions of metafiction and assuming a position from which they could substitute one’s own convolutions within the story, readers could, in effect, narrate to themselves, “Now I see what I am not to believe, and how.” Not without reason was some of the best metafiction written during its period of ascendance overtly political4.
Granted, it would be too much to claim that the overwhelming cynicism of the current cultural moment is the fault of metafiction and the myths primarily consequent from its ethos: that to look within one’s own inner workings is actually to confront the world in its totalizing otherness. However, it is not too much, I think, to cite the role metafiction has played in making sarcasm and “irony” (as in, the irony-in-quotation-marks-yea-we-know-it-doesn’t-mean-what-we-think-it-means-but-we’re-going-to-keep-using-it-that-way-anyway-thanks-bye that defined youth culture in the 90s) among the most popular sports in America. Cosplay, the birther movement, The Onion, Arrested Development, whatever Miley Cyrus did or was thinking she was doing at the 2013 VMAs, VanessaPlace Inc.: all owe something of their attitude to metafiction and how metafiction privileges the reader who looks through the text as a lens, thus training a kind of epistemological X-ray vision over the Author caught up in his (almost always his) ineffectual and anyway played-out fantasies. Metafiction is serious business, and it does sell a kind of half-hearted conviction. If you can’t transcend the mess that a bunch of other, more powerful people’s narratives have made of the world, at least you can poke holes in it and wish that, eventually, enough air will escape and the whole she-bang deflate.
But what if the air pressure remains constant, or continues to rise on other side (the exterior) of the balloon’s thinness? We do all still live in a world in which constructed narratives effect, and sometimes takes, individual lives. I need remind no one of the master narratives that continue to define our current “War on Terror.” Couple this with the desire or even the evolutionary imperative (that’s where the research and scholarship seem to be headed) we all have to tell our own stories, and how new media have arisen to satisfy that lust for celebrity, and it becomes clear that we live in a very different world than the one in which metafiction developed. And yet metafiction remains largely unchanged in design and function. Metafiction has become the parking lot of 21st Century letters, something desperately in need of rethinking given its proliferations and impact, and yet, more often than not, reproduced as though that reproduction were natural, neutral, comfortable.
“A Model Made Out of Card,” the story with which Critique of Pure Reason concludes, reminds us of another guise mock may wear. As in mock-up, proof of concept, demonstration, working sample, something scalable and yet to be fully or finally realized. Contingent, but not fractured; hopeful. And, indeed, the story itself revolves around a mock-up, a maquette of the the Palace of Justice as described in Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, constructed by Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) and eventually acquired by another “freak” victimized by the business of show, acromegalic character actor Rondo Hatton, aka “The Creeper,” aka “The Brute Man.” The intricate interleaving of historical reference and invention in this story is nearly breath-taking, and the scope of its connections both grand and minute. For Rondo Hatton’s great ambition (the story eventually reveals) is to leverage his journalistic training in order to become a screenwriter and director, and all so he may tell a story that “[had] remained untold only through accident, perhaps even fear. The story of Joseph Merrick was his story, the story Hatton was meant to tell, even if it wasn’t exactly his story.” (176)
Blackwell’s version of Hatton’s own attempt at Merrick’s narrative follows a classic arc of Hollywood tragedy-as-opportunity, opportunity-as-tragedy. Hatton is a successful sideshow attraction because and not in spite of his deformity, and his position in the old studio system grants him access if not admission to those powerful enough to write their own scripts, in life and on the screen. But, as much as Hatton’s illness makes him whole, he cannot wriggle free from under the heavy thumb of its typecasting. In fact, Hatton’s honesty regarding his own condition is what guarantees his project will never achieve completion.
Hatton’s first draft of John Merrick was Hollywood heresy: a movie about a physically deformed man with a hideous illness who gets progressively worse and then dies, all without setting foot outside of the hospital; the script was not merely eschewing the formula but making a mockery of it. (177)
Stories and reality, the studio tells Hatton, are mutually exclusive propositions. The only reality is the story in all of its spectacle. Sit back and watch and see how it is done5. And yet we find, as readers, that we are rooting for Hatton. Narrative coincidence has been on his side all this time, and the evidence—puns and double entendres and references nested within references like matryoshka dolls inside Chinese boxes inside fractals—have lined up in his favor, and the gateway to some sort of transcendence, we’re convinced, is beginning to creak open. Of course Hatton is our protagonist, just as Merrick was Hatton’s. But how much of that identification—if it is that—is by rote, a by-product of our having heard this story before, from the arbitrary, undeserved fate that set it in motion to the posthumous ironies that, with a gentle smirk, reassure us that destiny might not be that cruel after all? “A Model Made Out of Card” purports to illuminate the most intimate yearnings of two men more commonly conceived to be monsters. And aren’t those longings all the more moving for being mistaken and flimsy? (Unless we’ve crossed over into an age during which poignancy is a source of horror and revulsion… a likelihood that Critique Of Pure Reason often, as here, compels us to concede.) Instead, the story catches us in the act of satisfying our own hunger for redemption as it consumes other people, pounds them into proxies and cooks them up as analogies. The unforgiving flashbulb glare in which this self is disclosed is not produced by any camera. Rather, it originates in the gazes of story-sick Merrick and Hatton themselves. Never mind “seeing the world through their eyes.” Just to look into those eyes is to be blinded. And yet, as those old, over-familiar stories relate for us, there is some wisdom in disabled sight.
Narrative (a technology, after all) often promises to help the us that we are IRL by serving as a stage on which we can model encounters with subjects beyond what our aspirations circumscribe. But does narrative really deliver on this promise? Or is the real problem that we are so addicted to certain postures of reading, and certain brands of narrative, that we abuse narrative, extract what we think we need from it and discard the rest of what it has to offer? (To observe that we are all united in an inherent selfishness is not sufficient. Other people may be fictions, by and large, and often what’s identical is imposed by us, reflection turned projection, and what accounts for another person’s coherence, like their internal organs, motors away without surface—until, that is, its skin is betrayed.) Critique of Pure Reason dares to pose these questions with speculation upon speculation, and, in the process, to oblige self-reflection to reflect on its own efficacies. In a 2012 interview with Weston Cutter at HTMLGIANT, Blackwell reveals that “Shadow Man [his first novel], which has to do with inheritance and imitation, needed to be a node rather than a terminal, a book that pointed outside of itself in constructive ways.” That same impulse can be felt, and powerfully, in Critique of Pure Reason. Like the other persons we encounter in this book’s pages, and whether we belong there in those pages or not, we exist in a realm suspended between fiction and reality. Yet neither is home for us. It doesn’t really matter, either, if the domains of fiction and reality overlap or dissolve into each other or create a million new Big Bangs every time their proximities cross their streams. Their between-ness and ours is never annulled, only sustained by its weirdly boundless singularity. Far from debunking metafiction by aping it, Critique of Pure Reason seeks to turn the engine of its perspicacities on that sense of exception it cultivated, then allowed to grow out-of-control. The volume’s final words come from, or are attributed to, Pauline Kael’s review of a pre-Blue Velvet Dino De Laurentis’ 1976 instant-punchline remake of King Kong—as mythic a movie as has ever been made. “It’s a joke that can make you cry.” (180) The same can be said for what metafiction, at one time, could have been6. Happily, rather than lament, this Critique of Pure Reason goes about its work, and its possibilities are still possible.
1 Similarly, in “Solve for x, where x is an integer such that x > 0,” Blackwell treats the thematic-theological formulae of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as literal formulae. O’Connor’s stories, of course, proceed from a moral calculus, and the terms and operations of her Catholic typologies are as binding, and as mystically rooted, as mathematics. [Back]
2 See: Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers; Barth’s Chimera; Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. [Back]
3 See: Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Barthelme’s Snow White. [Back]
4 As in the case of Coover’s The Public Burning, Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge (one of the earliest and still most imaginative American novels to treat a phenomenon we now know as international terrorism), Charyn’s The Tar Baby, and even Shea’s and Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. [Back]
5 Spectatorship as ontology is something of a running joke in Critique of Pure Reason, e.g. “The Behavior of Pidgeons,” in which set theory, contra Badiou, cannot solve for a uniquely differentiated Being. Something else must. [Back]
6 Hint: not the Happy Meal toys that were never manufactured to coincide with the release of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! [Back]
1) Blackwell, Gabriel. Critique Of Pure Reason. Las Cruces, NM: Noemi Press, 2012.
2) Chekhov, Anton P., Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. The Essential Tales of Chekhov. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1998.
3) Cutter, Weston. “Weston Cutter Interviews Gabriel Blackwell.” HTMLGIANT. 29 Oct. 2012. http://htmlgiant.com/author-spotlight/weston-cutter-interviews-gabriel-blackwell/.
Film still from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984) courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment.
Film still from director Iosif Kheifits’ The Lady with the Dog [Dama s sobachkoj] (1960) courtesy of Facets Video.
Film still from Adaptation (2002) courtesy of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Rondo Hatton headshot (n.d.) courtesy of The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.
Page image from The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin (1971) courtesy of CTW Books / Random House / Golden Books.