Street Talk

Robert Peluso

Robert Peluso is a long-time freelance reviewer and co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books.  When he is not acquiring, editing, and publishing books for the press, he is reading and writing.  He recently completed a novel, The Ride Out, and is at work on a non-fiction work, Savor: Living Poetically in an Age of Mechanical Destruction, an inquiry into how we can reclaim our humanity from the grip of an instant-on culture.

"Dracula at the Door" Braddock Avenue Books co-founder Robert Peluso considers the case for creative responsibility


      Dracula just rang my doorbell.  He wasn’t alone.  Two tiny princesses, a vampire, and a pint-sized football player were in tow.  It’s November 3rd and it’s Halloween.  (That’s not a typo.)  And when they grow up, these children will be doing their Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving.  
      Let me back up a little.  
      Around here, we had some bad weather as a result of Hurricane Sandy, and city officials decided we should have Halloween on a different day.  We blithely agreed.  Unlike New York and New Jersey, however, where both people and place were ravaged by the storm, we had no significant damage.  A few weak branches were blown to the ground and the usual low-lying parking lot flooded again, true.  But these things happen after even a heavy downpour.  
      As kids, I’m sure each of us endured disappointment when a hard rain or early snow forced a coat over our costume or cut our wild night-adventures short.  But did we ever imagine not having Halloween on, well, Halloween?  I remember one year in particular when I spent weeks gathering up materials for my costume, assembling the thing with all kinds of care, like a pre-pubescent Gepetto in his bedroom workshop.  I woke on the big day to drenching rain.  It was merciless.  
      I don’t recall how long my defeat took, but I do remember the deep disappointment of having my lovingly crafted work hidden beneath layers of rain gear—and later the simple misery of my soaked bag spilling its guts onto a wet lawn.  I arrived home drenched and shivery from the empty effort, but I learned something essential from it.  Life was bigger than my expectations; better get used to it.
      Today we seem to work on the opposite paradigm.  Today, we tap and pinch and flick and drag our way through time and space.  The sensuous allure of these gestures is undeniable.  But they contain within their seductiveness a bullying attitude toward existence that has slipped beyond the touch screen and may foreshadow our undoing.  
      The ubiquity of the human impulse to manipulate conditions isn’t new of course.  What is different now is the extent and ease of actualizing the urge.  We’ve come to accept, and even embrace, as natural and real all levels of manipulation, from our advertising and films to the images we see and to those we take of ourselves.  As someone recently said on my newsfeed about an obviously doctored photo: “I don’t care if it’s real or not.  It’s awesome.”   
      It is unnerving, in this context, not only that Halloween was postponed with little more reason than because it could be but also that a number of major retailers moved Black Friday to the Thursday reserved for Thanksgiving, as if these days were nothing more than manipulable layers of a graphic designer’s Photoshop file to be cut and pasted wherever we choose on the calendar.  This kind of action, and our willingness to acquiesce to it, raises the stakes considerably.  It is not the same as, say, the Puritans putting the story of New England at the end of a biblical world history.  Now, we are tinkering with the very construction of the construct.  The idea of coherent narrative vanishes, leaving only manipulation in its place.  
      When we consent to either postpone a holiday or superimpose it on another, we are signaling our willingness to make our lives extensions of that touch-screen world.  Is it any wonder that Halloween and Christmas, the king and queen of consumer expenditure, have turned our neighborhood streets and our porches and sidewalks into grotesque spectacles and us into mannequins in that display-window world?  These dioramas of despair are conceptually miles away from the liberating psychogeography of the Situationists; they are instead extensions of the long, glimmering aisle of the mall with its ever-rotating merchandise.  It’s as if we’ve colluded to turn the story line of Steven Millhauser’s novella, Enchanted Night, inside out.  Now, it isn’t a single store dummy, “her fiberglass skin” touched by moonlight, who longs to walk outside the illusionary window display where she finds herself; it’s an entire population clamoring to step inside.
      Or maybe this.  Have Halloween and Thanksgiving, the days, taken on the same conceptual status as notations on Foursquare—here now, there tomorrow?  Or are they like Facebook pictures—brand images easily deleted, replaced, or moved to another album or location?  In some even darker future, calendars may no longer appear on flip pages at all but be delivered to our in boxes as 365 identically shaped squares with numbers and days and months attached to be assembled according to the latest trends.  
      In the meantime, perhaps we should signal our willingness to participate in the demise of our humanity by having Independence Day moved to the Friday after Thanksgiving, now that it’s open, and let the world see that we’ve turned everything, including ourselves, into a product on display—the supreme expression of our “citizenshop.”  A young woman interviewed recently in The New York Times perhaps says it best.  She puts her favorite consumer items on Pinterest and Beso where, when someone clicks through to retailers, she is paid: “It’s sort of rewarding,” she says, “to be able to make a few cents from sharing your personal life.”
      The implications of these circumstances for writers are immense.  If there is one undeniable truth about human existence, it has to be that our very being is constituted in and by storytelling.  From love notes to textbooks to novels, narrative performs the important work of reflecting and embodying how we understand ourselves.  As Roland Barthes put it, narrative “is simply there, like life itself.”  Novels, both because of their longstanding relation to mimesis and their inherent self-consciousness about this relation, provide what might be the most critical test of our storytelling ambitions.
      Lately, it is hard to miss the rise of fantastical, fragmented, and temporally free-floating narratives in literary fiction.  Friends who teach even tell me they’ve seen a marked increase in interest in fantasy fiction among serious students, and that a shocking number of them can assemble character lists, details of setting, and even scenes, but are unable to write a narrative using them.  Two recent books by well-regarded, award-winning writers that point up this trend are Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad, each described as a novel in stories.
      Brockmeier’s book is in many ways very affecting.  It begins in a hospital room when a woman injured in a car accident tries to give a journal of love messages her husband had written to a patient sharing her room because she can no longer bear reading them now that her husband is dead.  When the wife dies, the woman sharing her room takes the journal.  The act is impulsive rather than motivated, similar to clicking “like” on the post of a “friend” before even fully reading it.  Each of the sections that follow focuses on a hurt soul who by chance comes across the journal, similar to coming across some “shared” link.  Within each section, the characters appear as active agents; however, their reason for being in the same narrative remain coincidental—that only two of them share overlapping stories whereas the others never encounter one another at all only reinforces the alienated “posts” that are their lives.  
      Egan’s book approaches time in a similar way.  Coincidence and accident rule the narrative and so temporality is handled in a freewheeling way, with gaps and leaps and pirouettes—like those scattered comments and incessant interruptions on Facebook.  It’s akin to jogging left and right and left and right down someone’s timeline trying to weave it into a coherent commentary.  Taken as a whole, the book reads something like an elaborate newsfeed with its structural principals of adjacency and tangentiality.
      Brockmeier’s and Egan’s books make interesting reading next to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, where a baseball figures in the fragments of lives that are interconnected with both a larger history and one another or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, where the six characters are almost too intimately part of each other’s lives and perspectives.  In each of these older works, the narrative lines may be obscure, but they are there.
      Does this mean that Brockmeier’s and Egan’s books are bad or flawed?  Absolutely not.  From one angle, they represent us as we find ourselves now, like those students stymied by the idea of story, disenfranchised mash-up artists and riffsters awash in proliferation.  On the other hand, The Illumination can surely be viewed as commentary on our needless alienation.  And it is possible to argue that A Visit from the Goon Squad is also examining, rather than simply re-inscribing, the dilemma of our unmoored existence in the universe.  Most important, though, both books are clear evidence of the important decisions that writers face today.  
      The point, in other words, is not to argue for or against mimetic fiction and the ideas of causality and chronology that underwrite it.  Instead, if you believe that our literary fictions reflect, reinforce, and produce our ability to understand ourselves, then the point is about consciously exercising creative responsibility when we choose narrative strategies or genres or forms.  Said a little differently, creative responsibility requires thinking about these things as more than literary fashion statements.  It is about acknowledging the essential human consequences of our decision to write in a certain way.
      It is worth considering, as we gravitate more and more to online lives and digitally buffered experiences—as we take the protocols and assumptions of that life into both our narrative structures and our material existence—if we aren't packing more dirt on the coffin.  Wasn’t it Baudrillard who said that on 911 Americans confronted “an excess of reality”?  He meant of course a world of hyper-reality, of images and representations supplanting any material existence.  But it was also a moment when we had, for an instant, the opportunity to acknowledge that our screen-saver world was broken.  No surprise that as a nation we were literally speechless.  What, after all, was there to say?  We were like babies tangled in our own swaddling and suspecting for the first time that underneath it all we were naked.  It was practically inevitable that our humility was soon replaced with movieland swagger.
      I certainly don’t want to demean the horrors of 911.  But this postponement of Halloween and the disappearance of Thanksgiving beg the question: have we perhaps entered a new phase of compensation for the pain of that recognition?  When we operate without hesitation to manhandle the calendar, and the stabilizing holidays that mark it, we signal a hubris that can only lead to no good.  It is another way to certify the validity of what Baudrillard called “the hallucination of truth” that will surely rob us of ourselves.  Like us, Stephen Dedalus sensed that “it is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born.”  But he was lucky.  At least he had a real world to be born into.