Natural Complexions by D Harlan Wilson
Equus Press, October 2018
80 pages / Amazon
In his essay, “‘Lost from View’ and Truly Disappeared,” Jean Baudrillard discusses the French television show Perdu de vue, and suggests that its host, Jacques Pradel, is actually a TV illusionist. Under cover, Pradel makes all his viewers disappear. How does he do this? Baudrillard’s answer is to suggest that Pradel reveals to us that we, as viewers, are all potential missing persons, or, conversely, potential suspects of those missing persons. As Baudrillard goes on to propose, “[Pradel] reveals to us…that the real ‘missing persons’ are the millions of TV viewers looking on dumbfounded at [Pradel’s] sleight of hand and identifying for all they are worth with the object of the search, hoping against hope that they will be discovered and wrenched from their non-existence.” It is a theory of potentiality, that we all have the potential to be in the news, that we all have the potential to be lost and, then, miraculously found. This is also, as is Baudrillard’s central thesis in most of his works, the disappearance of the “real,” a usurpation of the real by its simulation. The copy has swallowed the genuine x and rendered it obsolete and insignificant.
In D. Harlan Wilson’s succint book, Natural Complexions, we confront Baudrillard’s theory head-on. Most of these “docufictions,” as Wilson terms it, wrested from real headlines or the detritus of social media, are stories that are too extreme, too indelectable for general consumption. They are stories about the discovery of the potential missing persons and suspects, those who are lost and need to be wrested from the shadows. The reader is unsure how to cast their net. Have we been duped into believing this headline or are we not living enough to know that this is now the new reality, admixed with a tinge of fiction?
J.G. Ballard (with whose work Wilson is very familiar), of course, did a similar thing in The Atrocity Exhibition and, later, Crash, taking his characters into territories that merged machines (mainly automobiles), sex, and destruction with celebritydom and voyeurism. The Atrocity Exhibition, especially, is written as headlines that relate short vignettes, which do not adhere to any conventional narrative. The vignettes can be read in any manner and in any quantity without disturbing the oeuvre as a whole. Wilson’s work is not dissimilar in that we see a comparable non-linear pattern of docufictions, and a conflation of stardom or potential stardom with that individual’s physical breakdown or (literal) incineration.
In “Selfie Blues,” a notable and vivid docufiction in the section titled “Indolent Suicides,” we meet an anonymous character who is later branded and hashtagged as #flamingbitch and #fieryslut by her followers for recklessly taking a selfie against a burning house. (Where is her moral compass, they seem to imply, when she could’ve rescued the burning home?). These followers chastise her and shoot at her with rifles, and even throw a fusillade of Molotov cocktails through her window, burning the couch within which is ultimately incinerated. She is an extreme example of Jacques Pradel’s missing person, who, in her ultimate search to become discovered or become someone, truly disappears and is conflagrated from view.
In yet another docufiction, titled “Death Sentences,” we meet Maxwell La Fleur who has been notoriously catapulted into stardom and sentenced to death by butchering three top-grossing film stars during a dinner party. Prior to his execution, he is concerned about not being as physically fit as he would like because, due to his anxiety, he consumed lasagna and garlic bread as his final meal, both of which contain heavy carbs. However, La Fleur’s anxiety is not about his actual execution, but rather his “virtual” or “filmic” execution, in which not having the appropriate physical proportions is akin to a virtual death sentence. This digital (mis)representation is worse than a real, physical death, because it will live in infamy, on screen, and can never decompose, as Wilson so incisively seems to illustrate.
“Good Rehabilitation Facilities Make Good Neighbors” documents the celebrity meltdown of Sebastian Angle, who checks himself into a luxury facility in New Mexico after he is accused of giving a cashier “a dirty look,” being caught in the act. He checks in to that facility to “[orient] his physiognomy,” so that his face reflects what he truly thinks. The revelation here is that we are all potentially misunderstood, especially celebrities (aren’t they just one of us?) and that if we can only show an exact correspondence between our facial muscles and thoughts, everything will be all right. After all, we are not apes, but the ape emerges in us when we least suspect it. Though not all the docufictions revolve around celebritydom, the majority of these stories evoke a miasma of being discovered, no matter how unsavory and despicable the circumstance. This is evident in the story “F451,” when a television personality orders hitmen to burn his courtee when she rebuffs his marriage proposal.
In all of Wilson’s stories, as in real life, there is potential violence lurking within and without, a force that may suddenly erupt and incinerate anything and everything in its wake. Like Ballard’s stories in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, we are always anticipating that potential collision, that potential ignition, which will snatch the characters from the obscurity or away from the stardom that they may or may not desire. In the end, what is fascinating to people, as Baudrillard suggests, is the disappearance of the real, at the same time as they have lost sight of themselves. Wilson’s docufictions reference that concept quite persuasively, while also indicating that the real may have re-emerged in a different form that may not yet be recognizable as we know it.
Pedram Navab is a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist who resides in Los Angeles. Educated at Stanford and Brown, he also holds a JD and a master’s degree in English/Modern Culture & Media. His second novel, This Will Destroy You, is forthcoming in Spring 2019 by Spuyten Duyvil.