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All Systems Goo: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

A cursory look around the Internet turns up little Sonic Youth–inspired fan fiction, so let’s invent some. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon as battling vampires, say, re-enacting millennia’s worth of frustrated, undying love in the post-apocalyptic ruins of 2110 New York City; Lee Ranaldo, Russian spy, taking unwitting government employees as lovers for sport; Steve Shelly leading the Knicks back to glory. After all, if David Browne’s recent Sonic Youth bio, Goodbye 20th Century, revealed anything, it was the fact that the four bandmates, in their blank, reflective cool, are perfect for all sorts of wishful projections. Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, a new, ungainly anthology edited by Peter Wild, takes further liberties still: Way out past fan fiction, Wild’s anthology invites 20-odd writers to dress up and play rock band.

Wild has been down this road before, it turns out, with 2007’s Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by the Fall. One likes to imagine that collection as a kind of reprint of various Mark E. Smith lyrics—”The boy is like a uh-uh!” But alas, the two anthologies share the same design: Writers cop song titles from a band with a lot of back catalog, and the rest is, well—not even Lee Ranaldo knows. “Are they responding to the music itself?” the SY guitarist asks in Noise‘s foreword. “The work ethic? Some epiphany they had at a gig out in a cornfield somewhere, as we played on in the furious distorted bliss of rapturous feedback?”

Wild has recruited an excess of talented writers to supply answers to these questions, among them Tom McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Shelley Jackson, and Eileen Myles. To them goes the task of writing around such impossibly overdetermined song titles as “Kool Thing; Or Why I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst.” Like cigarettes and French kissing, Sonic Youth have served since their inception as an instant litmus test of teenage cool, and this too becomes a burden for Noise‘s writers. The residual anxiety about measuring up to such famous cultural outlaws is often palpable. Why else begin a story with “Sue Carlyle was shopping for a penis”?

In fact, it’s possible to construct a kind of high-school-cafeteria typology of the various contributions to Wild’s book. First, enter those writers who mistake the famously countercultural Sonic Youth (a clean-cut, well-mannered foursome if there ever was one) for Mötley Crüe, and who therefore up their own shock quotient accordingly. Include here Scott Mebus’s dildo-checking “Bull in the Heather,” a story about an ailing lesbian love affair and a big, black prosthesis; Rachel Trezise’s “On the Strip,” which takes the Mulholland Drive route and features a trick-turning, smack-shooting runaway; and Steven Sherrill’s “Flower,” a tale that conjures up a churchgoing prude who manages to be offended by a teenager with a tongue-stud and a propensity to sing Kim Gordon’s mildly profane lyrics out loud.

Then there are those contributors who seem unhealthily enthralled by their chosen titles—the idea being, I guess, that they’ve signed up for a Sonic Youth cover band. In this variation, success looks something like a faithful rendition: “Sunday comes alone again,” begins Hiag Akmakjian’s “Sunday,” a story that lifts the original song’s downer vibe, dead-end plot, and first four words.

Sonic Youth, of course, are a band that knows something about inspiration. To get into Sonic Youth was to get into, at one point or another, Dodie Bellamy or d.a. levy, Gerhard Richter or Glenn Branca—all the various artists name-checked in song titles and liner notes, cover art and cryptic lyrics. The band’s myriad, notorious influences—Richard Kern, Dan Graham, Raymond Pettibon, and so on—often become collaborators: music-video directors, roadies, baby-sitters. Authors like Shelley Jackson, who take the band’s assimilative model as their own, fare better in Noise. Jackson’s “My Friend Goo” creates a fanciful, doomed outpost of civilization, the murky titular mass looming on the other side of the wall: “It spindled up, then collapsed back on itself till the tip touched, forming arches that thinned to threads and snapped. It slung a cord up at a gull and yanked it back, burped up feathers like foam.” In a brief introduction to her story, Jackson writes: “Sonic Youth does to songs what I want to do to stories: pulls back the plot, ups the gurgle and squawk.” Sonic Youth’s goo becomes in Jackson’s story emblematic of the ineffable in the art we love.

Wild’s concept, as helplessly constricted as it leaves most of the writers in Noise, can yield startling results. Laird Hunt’s “Kissability,” in its distillation of inchoate teenage longing, is in its own way as lovely a passage as anything in pop music. A young girl in a small town bristles with boredom and excitement, “balancing on the roof of the long-empty doghouse under the stars, then back on the couch in the living room . . . then down in my room, in the basement, where the posters stared at me and the walls creaked and some motherfucker cricket went to work.”

A short story is no substitute for publicly lighting a guitar on fire, and those stories in Noise—the majority, unfortunately—that shoot for such an alien effect tend to fail, often miserably. Literature has its own capacity to mutate and feedback: “Even now, if you’ve noticed,” writes Jackson, “I sometimes sound more like a storm than a person.” Fiction can do anything, really, except play the chords to “Teenage Riot.” And for that, thankfully, we still have Sonic Youth.

zbaron@villagevoice.com

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Sisters of the Head

Bridget Jones’s Diary first gave the term singleton wide circulation, as a sad but hopeful concept seeking completion in marriage. Before that, it had a biological meaning; or it was a design pattern for Java software developers, or a solitary card dealt of its suit. Now into this variance comes the singleton as Shelley Jackson’s unattainable Other: The novel Half Life concocts a world in which twofers—conjoined or “Siamese” twins—are a politicized minority. Protags Nora and Blanche join their many fictional precedents, including, very recently, the twins of Lori Lansens’s The Girls (born under a tornado) and DBC Pierre’s Ludmila’s Broken English (separated at 33 and set loose in Europe). Mark Twain’s Those Extraordinary Twins, reconstituted as Pudd’nhead Wilson and included with that book as an appendix, is the granddaddy of a genre that easily turns mawkish or absurd, and Jackson quotes Twain on the manuscript: “I could not offer the book for publication, for I was afraid it would unseat the reader’s reason.” He pulls the twins apart.

Monstrosity in the realm of possibility is both our great fear and fantasy, and Jackson doesn’t flinch. Problematic from narration onward, twofer fiction concedes from the get-go the unsuitability of language to comprehend beings neither single nor plural. (So too law and religion: Half Life‘s cast includes French twins Evangeline and Bernadette, who are seeking separation before taking the veil because they “do not wish to make of Christ un bigame.“) Such asides are cute, but Jackson oversteps the fumbling—”everytwo,” “themself”—and manages a remarkably poised and total work. This isn’t to say farce doesn’t go rewarded: Freudian slips are left unexcised, or purposely, hilariously laid. As Nora slinks to London from twofer headquarters (pun not intended) in San Francisco to seek the services of a shadowy “Dr. Decapitate”—heads keep popping up on the banks of the Thames—she thinks, “I had given nothing away; there was no reason I should give anything away, if I kept my head.” Planning murder, admittedly, is trickier when the target shares your body, controls your right hand, and may or may not be conscious (the slowly awakening, nose-whistling Blanche has been “asleep” for 15 years). But the criminal mind develops early, in this case in a ghost-town childhood where dom twin Nora simulates decapitation on barrel cacti: “Do you think I can take your head off with one stroke,” she asks Blanche, “or do you think I will have to saw? I will have to cauterize the wound, or I might lose too much blood. Vultures will come. Do you think it will hurt?” Later she adds, “I meant hurt me, not you.”

With every multiplication of the types and pains of man comes more psychology to be conquered, and Half Life‘s setup pretty much demands a glut of talk, mostly parodic, about identity, choice, deviancy (is it snuff porn or, simply, a way to live?), transitional objects, etc., giving it a hyperbolic, time-stamped feel. Jackson works the lingo, but the book’s best and fiercest when at its most elemental. Nature/language conundrum Nora flails between extremes—twofer-pride terrorists the Togetherists and elimination proponents Unity, who liken the word and to a venereal disease—but her anxieties are refreshingly unsophisticated, perhaps because literal. On couples and her “intimacy issues”: “Nobody likes to watch the blending of things that should be separate. . . . Why would two people who are free to walk away stand side by side and even hold hands?” But on loneliness: “Sometimes I looked at singletons and asked myself, Were they so much happier than me? No, they did not sail their singleton boats on solo voyages and sing songs about being happy alone; they huddled together and went on short trips to familiar places and often asked one another, Do you want to come too?”

Like Jackson’s other fictions, the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl and story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, Half Life doesn’t—can’t—distinguish between the body’s revulsion, its lust, and inescapably and fatefully, the grief at its loss. Men get hard-ons “running to help someone in an overturned car or even driving by some horrible sight”; Nora gets wet as she walks to meet Dr. Decapitate. Campily improper and good fun until it’s serious, Jackson’s new-age western returns for a last act to the empty bluffs of Too Bad, Nevada (San Francisco proves overlenient; London’s like slasher Shakespeare with demented twins coming out of the woodwork). In a scene that feels old as dust, as if glimpsed from some lost reel of the motion pictures, the heroine staggers blindly through the desert, having carved two holes into a dollhouse’s hinged halves to wear on her heads. When she says, for the first time, “I was alone in the room,” it’s a heart-stopping sentence that somehow achieves the opposite of the problem of oneness that is existential literature’s bread, and is every bit as terrifying.

Give us comedy, gentle and ridiculous—but at this point, late in the game, retreating to that land where heads knock like castanets in swerving taxicabs, Jackson suggests, would be as impossible as re-entering the womb.

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Zombies, Cheerleaders, and Ghost-Dogs in Link’s New Spellbook

Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen was a cult (and Voice) favorite in 2001, and her new collection, Magic for Beginners, takes from the same mytho-pop breeding ground (the Brothers Grimm, WB channel teen empowerment, catechism-style unclassifiables). This time author and artist Shelley Jackson (The Melancholy of Anatomy) provides both jacket art and internal drawings, including one of a baggy, sad catskin for the story called “Catskin,” an unclassic tale of revenge for all and regeneration for some.

In a world of zombies, aliens, and ghost-dogs, domestic dissolution is seemingly still the problem of the times, pushing a few of the stories Anne Tyler–ward. Link does it sweetly, with wishful thinking on the brink of disaster, in “Lull,” where a cheerleader fated to live life backwards remembers (during a spin-the-bottle interlude in a closet with the Devil): “That was what was so nice about being married. Things got better and better until you hardly even knew each other any more. And then you said goodnight and went out on a date, and after that you were just friends.”

But this is just a story-within-the-stories, as told by a telephone girl named Starlight, from whom sex with a twist can be had (“it’s Stephen King and sci-fi and the Arabian Nights and Penthouse Letters all at once”). Though sometimes we’re left on one side of the liminal space, mostly the otherworldly nostalgia creeps closer to revolution. “It gets better,” the storyteller’s mantra, replicates in these pages, giving Link the right to keep going and going.

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Life In A Glass House

I spent my childhood walking through anything shaped like a door. I had read about worlds down rabbit holes and through the looking glass, and I was looking for a way in—which would also, of course, be a way out.

A book is shaped like a door, but it’s too small to walk through, though I sometimes imagined that if I laid my cheek against the book and peered along the lines of type into the gutter or the margins, I might see something that lay outside the purview of the paragraph. I did the same with mirrors, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I had never seen before. So when I first saw a Sim walk into view from somewhere off the side of my computer screen, I thought I’d found, if not a door, at least a window into Wonderland.

The Sims are virtual people. They walk, and talk, and pee, and play computer games, and they do all this with or without your interference, though you can make it easier for them, or harder. You create a family for them, move them into a house, give them a life. A mundane one: They’re constantly putting their dirty dishes on the floor, and you have to make them pick them up, or the rotting food will draw flies. If there’s time after dinner, they might watch TV. There is no story, just the daily business of getting by, and no real way to win, though presumably you want to give them good jobs, more friends, and the “biggest pimpest house” (to quote one online player).

The Sims is the bestselling computer game of all time, and The Sims 2, out this fall from Electronic Arts, sold a million copies in its first 10 days of release. It is at least as addictive as the original. It is also, ultimately, boring; something is missing. Or maybe not enough is. What do you need to make an imaginary world? Not much. Every little girl knows that when you get a new doll, the first thing you do is take off her clothes. In a pinch, she can also do without head and hands. Imagination is the essential element. Props are secondary. Same with books, which give us in some ways more, in some ways less to work with: words on a page. But from them we can build a world.

So one thing an imaginary world needs, I think, is to fail. Those toiling away on CGI dinosaurs and VR helmets might consider this: When the illusion is perfect, it will no longer amaze. Lifelike is impressive because it’s like life, meaning slightly, deliciously different. Lacan says that in early childhood we see ourselves in a mirror and find that self way more impressive than the mess of tingles, aches, smells, and partial glimpses by which we previously knew ourselves. We admire that resplendent individual, and we form ourselves in her image. We are our own wannabes. One of the first things Sims players do—especially in Sims 2, where you can model a face in considerable detail—is make someone who looks like them. (But slightly, deliciously different.)

The Sims like mirrors too. They can practice their charisma in front of them, making speeches and gesturing. A little test tube floats in the air nearby, filling up with blue. When the tube is full, ding! They’re one degree more charming! Sims also like to read. They select a book, sit down on a nearby couch. While they turn the pages, the tube appears. When it’s full, ding! If they selected a cookbook, they are now less likely to burn down the house with a stovetop fire.

Sims can also read for pleasure. What are these books about? Nobody knows. Even if you could make out the words, you wouldn’t understand them; Sims have their own language. Sure, you pick up some of their phrases; you even find yourself wanting to use them in situations where attitude means more than information, which are more common than you’d think. But the Sims actually are talking about something. You know what it is from the pictures that flash over their heads: masked robbers, the atom, bags of money, sailboats.

Simlish, a synthesis of vaguely familiar sounds, bears some resemblance to the composite language of Dante’s demons as described by Umberto Eco.

Demons were consigned to a hodge-podge of tongues after Babel, same as humans. But whereas humans were cast into confusion by their sudden inability to communicate, demons—like angels—could communicate without words. Apparently the Sims can too, because only mind readers could speak a language in which words have no stable relationship to meanings. Sims say the same things over and over—or rather, they make the same noises—but different pictures flash above their heads.

Will Wright, the Sims’ creator, originally wanted to use Navajo for the Sims’ language, inspired by the Navajo code talkers in WW II. Navajo—spoken by so few people that it is harder to crack than a secret code—is the paradigmatic language spoken in order not to communicate. If there was something decidedly strange about using the language of a conquered people to wage war on behalf of their conquerors, there is something even stranger about using it for the kaffeeklatsch of a sort of virtual reservation, suburban-America-style.

The Navajo code talkers had to create words for weapons from the vocabulary of a peaceful hunter-gatherer culture—bomb was egg, tank was turtle. To plot war in Simlish, you’d have a related problem: Deploy sailboat, launch bags of money, please debouch from the bathroom so I can pee. Now, if the Sims produced a philosopher (though this is not one of the jobs advertised in their local paper), what would we see in his thought bubbles? I think I know: other thought balloons. The capacity to think about thinking is the beginning of philosophy, surely. Then, if our Plato had a taste for infinite regress, he might imagine thought balloons containing thought balloons, containing smaller thought balloons, ad infinitum. He’d also imagine the Sims world not as we see it, but from within. We all construct the world we live in: This is our first imaginary world, but also all we know of the real. Our philosopher wouldn’t stop there. He’d start imagining other worlds. Including ours. The Sims know we’re watching. It’s an electrifying moment when a neglected Sim turns to face you, looks up, and waves, a fire-engine-red icon floating above her head to let you know what you have forgotten. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” she cries. (She expresses this, however, with a scarlet hamburger, bed, or toilet.)

Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming by the Book, demonstrates that a fictional wall seems more solid when a fictional shadow or beam of light slides across it. The magic-lantern scenes that glide over the panels of Proust’s room confirm its permanence. Comparing the fleeting to the durable, we take our eyes off the magician, forgetting that both light show and wall are illusions, projections of the magic lantern of language. In a related way, enclosing a book within a book, or a play within a play, makes the enclosing world seem more real. Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard have warned us of the infectious nature of the copy: The reproduction undermines the original. But perhaps there is no original and this is not a problem. Perhaps it is the likening operation that creates the sense of an original; perhaps it’s the imaginary world that brings the real world to life. Cave artists painted deer so that real deer would come. Mechanical canaries can teach real canaries to sing. Books can show us how to live. I had it backward: The way out is the way in.

Picture a 13-year-old girl sitting at her computer, watching her miniature read a book. The girl sits quietly. The Sim sits quietly. Pages turn with a rustle. The plates on the floor buzz with flies. The need to pee is getting urgent on both sides of the screen. What is happening? Nothing and everything. When my Sim reads a book, sunk in an illusory inwardness, a bit of code flipping the pages of another bit of code, I imagine for her an imaginary life, and imagining this, my world brightens, and I think I can feel what it is like to be real.

But wait. It’s 2004, and the book is no longer the main portal to another world. As I said, the Sims also play computer games. In Sims 2, one of these games is The Sims. With some trepidation, I told my Sim to play it. The game did not freeze. No little test tube appeared, either. But say it had. What new attainment would it represent? Would my Sim learn that she is made of code, that real breasts have nipples, and that real books have words in them? Would she start writing her own (books, code)? Would she figure out a way to win the game?

Ding!


Shelley Jackson is the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy. A different version of this essay appears in Gamers, just out from Soft Skull.

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Adult Swim

The Seas, Samantha Hunt’s urgently real and magically unreal reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” sinks an anchor into the soul of its lost young protagonist. It is a breathy, wonderful holler of a novel, deeply lodged in the ocean’s merciless blue.

The hard-bitten inhabitants who live in Hunt’s contemporary coastal hamlet aren’t sure what to make of a 19-year-old girl (we never learn her name) who believes she is a mermaid. A loner whose father walked into the ocean 11 years earlier, she possesses a kind of “super vision” that makes inanimate objects come to life. She communicates with mold and wrestles a rock, which she takes for King Neptune, into the sea (“I push so hard that the vertebrae in his back cut me”). The lost father is the girl’s Moby Dick, a big, white love that eludes her every grasp. She’s certain of his return when she sees wet footprints in her attic, and deciphers a “mayday” message etched into a bruise on her back. Is she delusional, or just extremely imaginative? The question lurks throughout the story, which culminates in a series of harrowing water scenes, including one in which she tests her mermaid’s power by trying to “breathe water into” her lungs while in the bathtub.

Central to the girl’s story is Jude, a 33-year-old veteran of the first Gulf war. In her mind, this hard-drinking, womanizing sailor is her prince, her mortal. In keeping with the mermaid’s tale, if he doesn’t return her love, he will have to die. Her romantic infatuation often unspools into lovely images: “I’d like to hold my finger below his nostrils for a long time until it is damp from his exhalations. Then I’d put the finger in my mouth and drink Jude’s breath.”

Hunt’s prose is kaleidoscopic, infused with typographical games—messages written backward, dictionary entries, single-sentence pages. The book’s vivid language is reminiscent of Shelley Jackson’s Melancholy of Anatomy, but its existential heart belongs to Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes, in which the protagonist, trapped by sand, must endlessly sweep—for here Samantha Hunt’s heroine, straitjacketed by the sea, must swim forever in its tides, wading and waiting.

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Books

Self-publishing will near its apotheosis in author Shelley Jackson’s latest story, “Skin.” This extremely limited, you might say leather-bound, edition will exist solely as a series of one-word tattoos to be inked upon the very selves of a number of volunteers who are just now lining up for the cause of literature. A short story with body odor, a short story that thinks, a short story that will get hungry and, sadly, die. Ms. Jackson, who already has an ampersand and the story’s title, “Skin,” tattooed on her, er, skin, has tried to prepare for her work’s mortality. In the call for participants she states, “As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.” To make literature an indelible part of your life, visit ineradicablestain.com/skin.htm.