"As Americans, amnesia is in our cultural DNA. Emerson himself, the luminous sage of unfettered positivity, wrote, “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no past at my back.”
It could be our national motto. Nothing really seems to stick to us or stand in the way of what Justice Anthony Kennedy called our right to “define our own conception of existence.” And according to this twisted logic, we should forget the ongoing war (and our experiences in Iraq) if it serves our unbounded appetite for self-creation.
We’re too busy trying to transcend the hard lessons of history, either using it as a convenient and simplified political prop or forgetting it altogether, to actually learn from it. As Vox founder and journalist Ezra Klein recently demonstrated, even those who define themselves as sensible moderate voices in a howling wilderness of ideology can’t be bothered to remember the facts of our shared biography.
But for those of us who were there, who actually served and continue to serve, these memories still bleed. We’re forced to learn the hard lessons on everyone else’s behalf. I consider it both a responsibility and gift."
None of this matters, because Jill Soloway lives in a world where the words “radical trans” can be followed, without a hint of irony, by the word “content.” Her production company Topple, which featured prominently in a recent, glowing New York Times profile, models its core tenets after Amazon’s corporate leadership principles. (Number 2 is “Be Chill.”) In Soloway’s voice, one finds the worst of grandiose Seventies-era conceits about the transformative power of the avant-garde guiltlessly hitched to a yogic West Coast startup mindset that speaks in terms of “holding space” and “heart-connection.” It’s like if Peter Thiel were gay.
But self-importance alone could never guarantee writing this atrocious. Narcissism can be wildly compelling in the hands of a professional. That this is the prose of a celebrated television auteur may be explained only if one recalls that TV writing, unlike the art of memoir, is a group effort. The narrator of She Wants It is a Gen Xer in millennial drag: precious, out of touch, and exceedingly prone to bathos. Without a second thought, she rattles off lines like “I woke up with a Zen koan in my head” and “I decided I would have to have an interesting life if I ever wanted to be like Jack Kerouac.” The following is an actual sentence: “As we all took over the bowling alley, the sheer variety of the ways to be queer and alive in Los Angeles in 2014 exploded my mind.”
"This isn’t to suggest that the invasion of Iraq might have “worked” had the State Department been fully funded. In a sense, the invasion itself was a militarized response to a problem requiring statesmanship. And this, in turn, leads to another pernicious aspect of the Pentagon’s cannibalism of government resources: the military is often deployed as a response to problems that it created in the first place. This ouroboros loop indeed was what lay behind the listlessness of The Suck that I and my Iraq comrades experienced. For example, during my second deployment—when I was mostly detailed to the lightly inhabited plain of the northern Diyala Province, near the Iranian border—our task was to patrol the mostly unused roads. Why? Because insurgents were placing I.E.D.s on them. And why was that? Well, because we were patrolling them. And so on."
“...however, what psychologists refer to as a flashbulb memory gives us a deeper insight into what Mathieu Poulin attempts with Explosions.”
Scott Beauchamp allows himself a sip of coffee and brief moment to reflect on what he’s written so far of his review of Mathieu Poulin’s devastatingly humorous novel Explosions. His analysis of the novel, Poulin’s debut work of fiction, is lucid but unremarkable. As he ruminatively stirs his fair trade organic Javan coffee and considers an unexpected angle of approach into the text, the sound of “Un jour avec Yusef” by Domenique Dumont is overtaken by the expanding dull hum of what Scott knows is a helicopter. The hum intensifies until it completely overtakes the chill electronica music tinnily escaping his laptop’s weak internal speakers. “Is it right over the house?” he asks the empty room. As if in response, black-clad figures, four in all, descend from ropes outside of his kitchen window, sprinting towards his back door. They’re well trained and moving fast. As the first one rushes through his typically unlocked rear entrance, Scott has only enough time and presence of mind to grab his coffee mug and throw it at the intruder’s throat. It’s a lucky hit, and the figure crumbles to the floor, hands wrapped tightly around his neck as he rolls in pain. The second figure, a bit brawnier than the first, throws a powerful right hook which Scott deflects with his forearm. He leans in towards the second figure and delivers a perfectly executed headbutt at what he estimates is the bridge of the person’s nose, but before he’s able to witness the results of his attack, two electrodes spring from a stun gun, penetrating Scott’s side, electrocuting and disabling him. He loses consciousness from the pain.
When Scott wakes, he’s surprised to find that he’s quite comfortable. He looks around. He’s in a dimly-lit warehouse, restrained with zip ties, and strapped to a couch. A figure approaches out of the darkness, his face almost too recognizable to believe...it can’t be...but it is...Herr Doktor Freud, lit cigar glowing in the half-light, is wearing his usual super villain costume - a gray flannel suit.
“What am I doing here?” Scott questions as he struggles hopelessly with his restraints.
“What do you think you’re doing here?”
“My being here can only mean one thing, and we both know it. My review. You want me to incorporate a psychoanalytical reading of Explosions while I’m tempted to pursue a more formalist aesthetic approach...But you have to understand, I just don’t think that focusing on human personality will reveal much about the strengths and weaknesses of this particular text…”
“And why do you seem so eager to convince me of the efficacy of the standards you insist on employing?...”
“I’m not!” Scott shouted testily. “You kidnapped ME! You brought ME here! My God...this isn’t an interrogation...you’re trying to analyze me!”
Apologies all around for the theatrics, but for a book such as Methieu Poulin’s Explosions, translated from French by Aleshia Jensen, it would almost be disingenuous to not begin with the same sort of frenetic energy which animates the novel. The same energy which gives the novel its pulse. But, as much as my own dramatization conveys a sympathetic vivacity to the novel, it doesn’t quite perfectly hit the mark. What it misses is the formal achievement of Explosions: as a mash-up of action movie, fan fiction, biographical study, and sketches towards a critical exegesis of Michael Bay’s film oeuvre, it works itself into a genre-bending frenzy. It’s a unique species of text that bends the conventional definition of the novel towards something richer, stranger, and incomparably more relevant.
The “plot” of Explosions is a biography of Michael Bay. His adoption, time studying film at Wesleyan, early commercial work, and the financial success of his ubiquitous summer blockbuster films. The second plot, underlying the straightforward biographical movements of the book like a palimpsest, is academic theory, particularly Twentieth Century anti-colonial thought and linguistic theory. The tone of Poulin’s prose channels the cool, detached humor of a Jean-Philippe Toussaint or Michel Houellebecq. Taken altogether, the result is a sophisticated literary mashup whose aesthetic vitality simultaneously hinges on current preoccupations with both paranoid violence and the sense that reality can be totalized into theory.
Mashups are more aesthetically complicated than the almost glib jouissance of their (often) pop culture contexts belie. Like metaphor, the best mashups reveal new aspects of each individual ingredient thrown into the mix while also fashioning a new, unique, individual unity. William Burroughs, writing about collaborations between friends, called this new unity The Third Mind. The mashup text has a unity. The same type of unity, in fact, that object-oriented ontologists such as Graham Harman write about. But it’s a unity which can only be glimpsed in aspect, never completely exhausted in totality. A mashup is not a literalist text. It doesn’t describe its subject but dramatizes its subjects from the inside out. What Graham Harman writes about metaphor applies equally to the mashup: “...metaphor does not try to give us thoughts or perceptions about an object, since these would merely give us an external view of the thing in question. What metaphor gives us, instead, is something like the thing in its own right: the infamous thing-in-itself.”
The overlap here between formal aesthetics and metaphysics in the Aristotelian sense is useful to understanding how Explosions works, but it doesn’t quite capture the novel’s pulse. This is a very, very, funny book. The tone is set from the very beginning of the novel, a droll depiction of a meeting between Meat Loaf and Michael Bay to discuss creating a video for the song I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). Bay asks Meat Loaf what, exactly, “that” is which he won’t do. Meat Loaf responds with a story about his short-lived relationship with Nell Campbell, which starts out promisingly until Meat Loaf notices her pulling away emotionally:
“I asked her about it gently, letting her know that I realized something was different but that I wouldn’t judge her, no matter what was on her mind. She finally told me, ‘I no longer believe in the idea of systems. I think we should embrace the philosophical trend of anti-systems that’s been around for the past half-century. Follow me on this path, Meat Loaf.’ It was as if a stranger were standing in front of me. I would never abandon systems thinking. Embracing the opposite would be more than a sacrifice; it would make absolutely no sense. So we went our separate ways. Even for love, I’d never do that.”
The mashup simultaneously caricatures both the strengths and weaknesses of action movies and theory. Weighing down banal summer blockbusters like Bad Boys with the heavy architecture of cultural theory, not theory as a lens through which to see the movie but experiencing the movie as theory itself, accentuates the banality of the action genre. To carry such sophisticated notions within such a vacuous vessel somehow makes these films seem even more vapid. It accentuates their vapidity. At the same time, cliched cultural theory sloganeering itself becomes something of a joke. To the Attic Greeks irony is split between the people who get the joke, who are in on it (eiron), and people who aren’t (alazon). In some sense, Explosions makes action movies, a stand in for unreflective pop culture, the eiron and makes the grand pronouncements of theory the alazon. To adapt a phrase from a contemporary songwriter, theories move but they never move fast enough. In Poulin’s hands, theory becomes a kind of grand and sophisticated delusion. Stories we tell ourselves in pathetic attempts to grasp the noumenal. Poulin, for instance, has Bay’s one-time girlfriend Daphne say upon waking from a restful sleep:
“‘You’re rubbing off on me’, she said. ‘I dreamt I was studying in Paris in the thirties and even though I was white, I was helping Damas, Senghor, and Césaire find a printer for the first issue of L'Étudiant noir.’
‘Nothing beats waking up to the feeling that you’ve done your part in deconstructing a logic that legitimizes the devaluing of indigenous peoples based on a so-called inferiority inherent to their culture. Good morning my love.’”
But film and theory don’t only work against each other in Explosions. They also compliment one another, drawing out each other’s strengths in way that only upper tier fan fiction (and make no mistake, this is definitely fan fiction of action film and theory, both) can. Action without meaning is vapid. The explosion without context can’t be “exciting” because we don’t quite understand what’s on the line. And theory without the literal explosion is empty, parasitic, cant. But Poulin makes them feed each other in incredibly exciting ways. The films give the theory heart. The theory gives the films coherence.
It’s worth ending on an extended quote from the book itself, a passage in which each of the fundamental elements of the work (irony, mashup, fan fiction, humor, paranoid conspiracy theory), join together to outpace the subject of the work itself. To be able to suspend all of these contradictory impulses simultaneously, to be able to write a book which defies the didactic while still being consequential, is at least as impressive as any scene from The Rock:
“For Michael, the explosion was about searching for his identity. It was the key to unlocking the enigma of his origins. He had always felt the necessity to blow thing up was inherently selfish; never had he considered his obsession’s relation to the universe. And while he chosen film as his main means of expression, he had always considered himself more of a philosopher than an artist. Maybe the mystery of meaning was in fact related to creation, rather than to reflection or analysis. What better way to understand the mechanisms obscuring the problem than to put oneself in the shoes of its architect? Perhaps the time had come to fully embrace his role as creator, to break free from the constraints of realism and plausibility, to resolve his concerns. This now struck him as a natural shift. After, as Dr. [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson had emphasized, the explosion is the first form of creation; it is above all invention rather than destruction. It is the light that denies the darkness. Michael was overcome with increasing elation. ‘Actually,’ he thought, ‘Tyson is wrong about one thing. If God exists, God is not an explosion. God is the force behind the explosion. Does that mean...When I create..Am I god?...”
"The New York sessions for Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks,” have always been ground zero for Dylan’s reputation as a cipher and a curmudgeon in the recording studio, intent on speeding through the proceedings and capturing lightning in a bottle, quality control be damned. As the story has been told—mostly by musicians who no doubt felt that they didn’t get a fair shake during the biggest moment of their careers—Dylan started sessions for “Blood on the Tracks” on September 16, 1974, on Rosh Hashanah, with a band of New York session “cats” who couldn’t hear what Dylan was doing on songs that he hadn’t bothered to teach them. He waved them off, one by one, as the day wore on, essentially firing them before they had a chance to prove themselves. The problem is, it simply isn’t true."
"It’s important again to emphasize that Michael isn’t a human character, but a stand-in for evil. And so everyone who tries to understand Michael dies, from the British podcasters who cynically want to sell his story as clickbait without respecting his true and heinous nature to Dr. Sartain, the “new Loomis.” The case of Sartain is an important one because, having spent years analyzing Michael and formulating theories about his motivations, he falls in love with his own abstractions. One of the best moments of the film, and the scene where the mute power of evil is most powerfully on display, is when Sartain longs for Michael to speak to him, demands it, in fact. “Say something!” he screams at evil. Without missing a beat, evil smashes his head in."
My latest for The American Conservative, here.