Damnation by Janice Lee. Penny-Ante Editions. $14.95, 168pp
Janice Lee’s latest novel, Damnation, may initially present itself as a work of “critical theory” in disguise. A rumination upon cinema—specifically, the collaborations of director Bela Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai—the book is more broadly concerned with the experience, in all its torpor and extravagance, of watching films. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say that Lee has performed here a sort of clinical study, demonstrating with a delicate obsessiveness the procedures of a self-medication whose prescription is obsessive film-watching. In actuality, however, this is a book that turns several faces to the reader. There are the faces of the characters that occupy this novel’s diegesis, their features never delineated, but faces that are nevertheless always open in their looking, their anxiety, their defeat, their unaging weariness. And there are those related faces drawn for us in the book’s appendix, which also serves as a record of the author’s visions (not purely imaginary) of these same characters. Construed as either ekphrasis or exorcism, Damnation impresses most as portrait of spiritual crisis, albeit one that is not colored by any theology, any moral imperative, or any transcendence.
The world into which Lee ushers us with Damnation will be familiar to viewers acquainted with Tarr’s films. It is a world of nearly endless rain, bare trees sunk in mud, stinging wind, overcoats and boots, decaying brick buildings, atavistic villages and relationships that have failed at every level: familial, romantic, social, environmental. It is a world populated by individuals who are both entirely flesh and blood and yet hauntingly anonymous, referred to only by appellations such as “the mail sorter” or “the doctor.” Are these persons mere images akin to those in a film? Or are they true consciousnesses, literary organisms who achieve an actual verisimilitude because they resemble what we see of ourselves in the movie we are constantly playing in our own heads? Even when these characters speak and reveal their innermost fears (which is often) one has the sense that they exist primarily as stylizations, like the figures flattened into the destinies of a Tarot deck. Distant from us as archetypes, they are nonetheless capable of eliciting our sympathy. As such, they possess an almost timeless quality, and act without reference to the dominant tropes of contemporary experimental fiction. .
Damnation‘s plot commences with the arrival of a mysterious parcel containing a holy book that inspires both terror and adoration. “You will see that I am a better God,” proclaims some entity in the book’s preface, yet the story that follows never clarifies whether this better God is one of vengeance or one of salvation—or if, indeed, there is anything to distinguish the one from the other. In actuality, affliction presides over this world, and this affliction can be felt most powerfully in the experience of time the novel offers to the reader. As in the long, long takes typical of Tarr’s cinema, time in Damnation seems to have malfunctioned. This is no simple matter, however, nor does it produce stasis. Time is not merely stopped,. Time’s cycles have stalled in their repeating: spring is always coming (like Kafka’s imperial message) but that season never arrives, even as a pair of lovers in the novel hope to escape winter and believe that they glimpse some sign of its end in their trysts.. But two sisters, looking for some shelter and respite from the weather, mark the search for revivification with this exchange: “— How long are we to wait? — A little while longer.”
As one reads further into the book, one’s suspicions keep pace with one’s dread. It is very possible that, in Damnation, the end of the world has come and gone, and, though having altered time irrevocably, somewhat left the survivors fundamentally unchanged. Everyone in this book is passing time, detained, both anticipating and trying to elude resolution. And although the bartender has his inklings, what the machinist and the daughter and the salesman all fail to comprehend is that whatever was to have been resolved by judgment has already been resolved by default. “Everyone thinks the end of the world will begin with some kind of cataclysmic event. But all there will be is the beating of a horse.”
What end is this? A rotting imminence that doubles as an immanence; things are what they are, lacking any metaphysic whatsoever, though this could itself be a new metaphysic, an inverted transubstantiation. In the words of Damnation‘s narrator: “The sense of vacancy and tedium are not accessories, but symptoms. That the book [Damnation's anti-Bible, and / or Damnation, this novel itself], which is just a book, goes on being a book.” Readers, however, should not come to Lee’s work with the expectation that it will satisfy the same post-apocalyptic prurience that, say, zombie dystopias do,. Her concerns are not apocalyptic but eschatological, and, although Damnation consents to the circumstances of a particular world’s ending, it does not lead the reader through the wreckage with any promise of a grand revelation.
Instead, Lee describes: cattle leaving their pen and setting off down the road; a snail crossing the same road; a schoolteacher raising a bucket, full not of water but gore, from a well; a girl lighting a lamp that is blown out by the wind again and again, plunging the girl and her father into a darkness that could resemble “how it was before the world was created.” (And it was, for to truly watch a film and immerse oneself in it, one must extinguish all the lights, temporarily destroy one world so another might appear.) These descriptions, while not exhaustive, certainly linger, and, in doing so, blur the distinction between exposition and dramatization. The cumulative effect is not an elimination of narrative suspense; rather, a prolongation of the rituals of narrative suspense results, and continues until those rituals become something else. Thus one of the book’s lovers pauses in his longing just long enough to speak of a waking dream in which he locates some peace and wholeness. The little shock that Lee delivers is that the union which captivates this lover is asexual in its sublimity. “— I like the rain. Watching the raindrops pour down the window. It calms me. I don’t think of anything. The rain doesn’t let me think of anything. I just watch it. And can forget everything, everyone.” It is death, not love, which cannot be consummated in Damnation, and if only it could, living might regain some meaning.
Until such consummation can be restored, there is ample time for questions. Is there any existence outside of time? What might a time after time resemble? What substance, much less significance, does time have outside of human experience? Could one experience time as a leaf or a galaxy does? If so, what if one could? Is time of our own devising? Is time, like narrative, a technology the secret of whose control we’ve lost or are in whose forfeiting we are perpetually toiling? How exceptional are we, and upon what fictions does our sense of having made ourselves elect rest? (Or is it that we have been made elect?) Above all, what is mercy, and who has the power to bestow it: God? a god? a narrator? the narrated? Janice Lee’s great achievement in Damnation is to create a wide field in which such speculation may behold its own regarding projected, if not quite fallen, short.
Joe Milazzo is the author of the chapbook The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas) (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2012). His writings have appeared in electronic book review, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Black Clock, and elsewhere. Along with Janice Lee and Eric Lindley, he edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing]. He is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo.
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