Kingdom of Alt, Jack Ross (Titus Books, Auckland, 2010) 240 pp., $45.00
If Jack Ross has not read J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, someone should get it for him. Kingdom of Alt has some of the serial agonistic airs of that work, but it is more dispersed: Kingdom of Alt is a collection of tales and takes involved with relations between real-life events and imaginary fictions that score the traumas of those real lives. The narrators include variously: a twenty-or-so female university student, a thirtyish divorcee taking evening poetry classes and making freakish death films from video fragments, a middle-aged man, Jack Ross himself as the speaking author, and other, both fragmentary and unified, human-ish points of view.
The book opens with ‘Trauma’, a compelling short story that lampoons the difficult-subject liberal university course, the traumatised people who take it, and the suiciding student who seems to be the inevitable result of that equation. The story is largely presented as a series of journal entries including marginal edits from the narrator. These edits tend towards smoothing out her self-presentation, so that the student will come across as nicer than her first-thought compositional impulses might indicate. Thus ‘correcting’ the university journal or essay is associated with self-editing as making nice. By extension, smoothing out and correcting writing – making ‘good’, finished art – is presented as a making-nice of the painful equations of human culture. Kingdom of Alt does not want to make nice in that way. The fictive framing of this story, as with others in this collection, is multiple: real-life journalism, psychological theory, an embedded story, and the draft composition journal bracket each other, while the tale moves toward its ‘resolution’ of sorrow and sympathetic incomprehension.
Next is ‘Haiku Diary’, whose haunting unreliable narrator is a thirtyish woman who may or may not go mad. The story begins with a mildly ominous air, shifts through a series of diary entries, and ends with the now-rendered-distant tale of the narrator slashing her wrists and, finally, facing healing. Thus we have another framed piece, with three time periods fit inside each other, with a half-understanding moment of self-forgiving at the end.
The fourth piece, ‘The Purloined Letter’, is a strong lampooning of literary criticism as a kind of suspicious interrogation: there is a direct link with Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same title, as the piece indicates, and a whiff of some of the writing that Roland Barthes did in works such as S/Z. At its base this story is interesting in questioning putative significances, such as how what got where. But the tone is, in some respects, even more interesting: W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, with occasional sojourns to Kathy Acker. Plangent and violated. So that when this tale gets a little tedious in its obsession with coincidences, a bit tendentious in its heartfelt thrashings against our fates, as with this paragraph –
From birth onwards, each of us is at the mercy of invisible forces, engaged in a shadowy struggle whose larger purposes remain obscure to us. So much is undeniable. All we can hope for is that our actions somehow, in some way, will do battle for the light rather than darkness.
– I wonder about the extent to which Kingdom of Alt is trying to turn us on to the kindness inherent in ‘broken’ art (‘Ah love, let us be true to one another’) by presenting the consequences of strictured telos (war and suspiciously-assessed learning). At least some of the time. Given that ‘The Purloined Letter’ is written as if by Jack Ross, with references to living persons who are his friends and fellow writers, we are encouraged to take the sentimental moral quoted above at least half-seriously as one of the thrusts of this story and, perhaps or therefore, of the book itself. I might generally resist such a judgment of the frame of this offered piece of wisdom, since I certainly believe an author is neither necessarily sincere nor authentic. But in this case I think Ross is pushing toward sincere human concern and authentic fictive artifice at one and the same time. Contemporary multi-dimensional literary sentimentality, in other words, of the highest order.
‘The Isle of the Cross’ offers a man alone in a dystopic future, a destroyed Auckland. This character meets little Dai-yu and projects on her hunger an escape from his loneliness amidst the ruins. I could wish that story hadn’t ended with the ocean closing over New Zealand, as that seems a termination that undoes the purgatorial suffering, the stoic ongoingness, of the narrator. But this is simply a more advanced version of Ross’s preference for narrative closure.
The last two stories in the first half of the book tap again on four established tropes of the book: meta-narrative (‘So what would you like to happen next?’ addressed to the reader in ‘Finding his Stash’); marginalia as empowerment and as a form of reader response; satire on educational ‘correctness’ (as in ‘Before the Disaster’, about creative writing ‘assessment’); and, finally, about ‘finallyness’ itself, as each devises a resolution. The housewife of ‘Finding his Stash’ implicates the reader in that resolution – the reader-as-pornographer longs for the closure that the story actually does give, though that closure swerves from the bounds of the pornographic. Who is yearning here? Who glossing? Who knows or doesn’t know?
The last piece seems a bit thin compared to the others, since the spears about assessment and education and correctness seem already thrown. But the title of this story, ‘Before the Disaster’, indicates a unification of the whole book, as though the seventh story is the last in the zone of narrative safety before the book gets invaded both formally and mimetically by a war that fractures the possibility of empowered, albeit corrupted, edification.
The second half of the book is a novella: ‘Coursebook Found in a Warzone: a Whodunit’. This serial work is an outline for an idealised course in Higher Innocence in a wrecked world, and Auckland again infuses that haunted world, as in the reference to Jeanne Tripier, whom Ross might know via Paul Amlehn, a subterranean experimental denizen of Auckland, whose artistic productions also apparently see culture as a fallen thing and concept, and (always therefore necessarily) a being-remade set of events. But again, why isn’t Ballard on this syllabus? And, given the ‘Schedule of Seized Publications’, why not Lautréamont? Claude Cahun? These are not complaints as much as observations about the kinds of work on offer in this Higher Innocence coursebook. It is exhilarating, though not surprising, to see mention of John Cowper Powys.
But the entries get hotter and hotter, redder and redder, full of sexual death, until the syllabus is clearly dipping into the cauldron of Justine, of the Marquis de Sade, in order to test the ability of the already-erected frame of the novella to sustain a consideration of, rather than an explosion into, the content of sexual death and torture. The Barthesian issue of mimesis and semiosis in Justine – how we manage that test of language’s ability to transact semiotically when mimetic violation wants to explode it – is put flagrantly on the table in this work. Reader beware.
And yet this novella lets these multiple testing texts speak, and speak for, themselves. Ross has framed this coursebook in the context of a death zone, a war zone, wherein snipers shoot the teachers and students as they venture to and from classes. One gets the feeling of a tremendous tradition of banal horror, the human survivor in an expectable round of deaths and takeovers. The question becomes: what is worse, sex or violence? And the answer here is that violence is worse, always worse.
The narrative guide here is more explicitly Virgilian than earlier narrators in Kingdom of Alt. We are with him, or someone is, virtually throughout. Characters named Claire and Russell are involved in an ‘actual course’ in the banned novel; the narrator increasingly separates from Claire and Russell, and from sympathy with Helena, a tutor who is fucking Russell, so the narrator thinks – but is it simple probability? Is the narrator an overwhelmed Sebaldian-esque one, now thrust completely into a world of torment instead of writing sweet prose in its reflective liminal places?
Jack Ross moves towards cut-ups, towards Kathy Acker and Harold Robbins put together in dreams and cannibals and sex with cocaine attached, until the narration’s ability to sustain a course, a city, and a set of arguments is disseminated into fractures. But the novella never becomes the Diary of a Madman. The narrator is not someone who has Passed Over, though the novella is entirely involved with those who pass over: watching those who are looking at or have already fallen through the Abyss. Is it a Kingdom when you are holding yourself in position so as to be able to look at it? Is it a Kingdom when you carefully stack things in their recurrent orders and consider them? Where is the Kingdom, when it includes online material to boot? Is the Kingdom in seeing, or in falling through? These are some of the swirling questions that, still and all, get a bit of Ross’s favoured resolution treatment on the last page of the novella, in which a princess wants to teach people ‘how to talk to angels’, in which a lexical string points to another Ross book, Monkey Miss Her Now, and where lessons, along with human receptivity, have the last word. Once again, Jack Ross has given us an uncomfortably interesting, richly literary, and intensely sympathetic world in pieces.
LISA SAMUELS is an American teaching literature and creative writing at The University of Auckland. She publishes on poetry and critical practice and is also the author of ten poetry collections – most recently Tomorrowland (Shearsman, 2009), Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway, 2010), and Gender City (Shearsman, forthcoming 2011) – and a creative non-fiction book, Anti M (Chax, forthcoming 2011).
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