Who are you? You are a detective.
What does it mean to speak of writing that is haunted by cinema? Of writing that is, say, Lynchian, or widescreen in its vision? Of writing that somehow captures or is inspired by the fleeting urgency of the screen image, in all its varieties? This month, as writer-in-residence, I’ll be circling around this question. Joining me will be Tobias Carroll, Andrew Gallix, Cari Luna, Lincoln Michel, Masha Tupitsyn, Karolina Waclawiak, and Joanna Walsh.
In his slim, sly, sad book The Pleasure of the Text (1973) Roland Barthes wrote: “Everyone can testify that the pleasure of the text is not certain: nothing says this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit, circumstance.” The novel that moved you as a young woman and came alive in your mind in flickering deep screen images no longer works, you fear. You hesitate to pick the book up again, all these years later, for fear it will have a dead sound and remind you of who you were back then, and of what you have become.
Barthes also, in the same sad book, wrote that “it is not violence which affects pleasure, nor is it destruction which interests it; what pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss.” He uses two words here—cut and dissolve—which carry an excess of meaning that spills over into the cinematic, and of these two dissolve is the most suggestive of what it is that literature can do that is cinematic. The weirdly magical state where two spots in time overlap each other impossibly. And yet not impossibly because this is how our brains sometimes work, holding in suspension various combinations of past, present, and future, mingling together what was and what is and what could be. The way that, in certain books, you fall into the spaces between the words, the gaps, the blank zones that tease your mind into creating half-formed, fragmentary images existing in overlapping times that include the present-tense of your reading and the sort of marginal wandering that takes you into the past and the future of the not-yet.
There are fictions that are about cinema, and there are fictions that are cinematic, that dissolve the membrane that holds us tenuously above the feeling of loss, the loss of time, the loss of others, the loss of ourselves. As if the words themselves are not really about what they seem to be about, instead conjuring the between-spaces some dark force that smudges your thoughts. The table spills itself over. You excuse yourself in embarrassment and weep privately in the bathroom. The night keeps losing and then gaining an hour: it is 2:00 a.m., then 3:00 a.m., then 2:00 a.m.
A bronzed cowbird has flown into the bar. It flits and darts and then perches on a rafter. Its red eyes remind you of something more ancient than lava. This is when you first sense the camera, somewhere in the bar, filming you, the bird, the strangers, everything. You are in a film, it seems. Or something that feels like a film. Someone had told you this, right? Warned you. But still. It’s actually happening. The bird was the signal. That was part of it.
The barstool was green when you sat on it, but now it’s red. It’s been recently slashed, the foam pushing out like the insides of something living. The cowbird blinks. Someone orders another round. You try to remember the title of the novel that moved you when you were fifteen. You should know this. If it really moved you, shaped you, shouldn’t the title come to you with ease? What’s become of you? What’s wrong with you?
Who are you? You are a detective. Thirty-one years old. Your name is Anna, and you are in a bar in a country where the spoken language is Dutch. You have been sent here by train, to this bar called Stella’s. There is a man you are to locate. He is supposed to be here. He is suspected of supplying children to another man, who then sells them to a third, who then distributes them throughout northern Europe. You have seen a photograph, blurry. He is stocky, black hair tied back in a short ponytail, a scar on his left temple, a tattoo of a bruise beneath his left eye.
You suddenly, Anna, remember the carpeting on your bedroom floor, the way it smelled when you laid down on your stomach in the sun. You remember the distant sound of the television, and of the closing of car doors in the driveway. The arrival of your cousins for the weekend.
The man you are here to find is said to said to keep the children he favors for himself. When he is through with them they are useless.
You are a detective, and this is the beginning of your story.