2.12.2012

A Mobius Play: On Douglas Lain's "Wave of Mutilation"


I love pith. Douglas Lain's smartypants, hilarious little tome clocks in at 84 pages.  That's my kind of book. Grab me, twist me about, tickle my fancy, move on! And it can be yours for only $7.95!

Let's consider the title. It is, of course, a reference to the great Pixies song. But so what?  Well, for starters, it is an incredibly visceral, poignant phrase: not only is there mutilation but there's a whole wave of it! How absolutely terrifying! And yet, as Black Francis sings it, it's all so gosh darn cool. Bring it on!

And this is what Lain's book performs: the horror of reality unmoored; the joy of reality unmoored; and the unmooring caused by the joy of reality becoming unmoored.  It's a mobius play.



Indeed, this title is complex. "Wave" is at once a term for collective surging (do the wave!); the periphery of the ocean's tumult; and a technical term for an expression of energy (distinct from the particle). All three terms apply to Lain's book as some nuclear testing seems to have fucked shit up triggering a collective schizo madess, leaving us tossing in the waves of a reality ocean sans anchor.

And the title dates the book, lending it an historical perspective that is critical to the book's argument: the era of we so-called Gen Xers, we slackers, children of the Greatest Generation — a turning point at which our tether to the collective began to fray and give way to a certain postmodern confusion-ennui (as distinct from, say, French post-war ennui — this is Linklater, not Eliot or even Camus).   



And, as a reference (and not just a pretty phrase), the title seeks to reaffirm a tether to the real. That is, the referential function of language grounds us by providing a literal for the transient indifference of signifiers. Rather than words inaugurating an endless deferral of meaning, a relentless play, reference gives words a telos, a purpose, an origin and a destination.

But, as we've already noted, this title can be read multiple ways simultaneously, initiating the play that defers meaning ad infinitum. So the very title, Wave of Mutilation, at once performs the will to the real and the undoing of the real. The title does and undoes itself! It is a wave of mutilation!

Such is what Lain's book simultaneously explores and performs: the will to a collective real, to a ground, and its undoing, a mobius construction-destruction with the lingering possibility of a way out — or not — as the books asks: how can writing forge our collective narratives and orient us? Or does the very act of writing put our identities into play along with those slippery signifiers?

The tone of the book is non-chalant, dead pan, understated. And yet, right from the get go, things begin to careen, as if the world were off its axis — still spinning, sure, but a bit askew.  The very first lines of the first chapter — entitled, "Solipsism by a Motel Swimming Pool," showing us that the book will relentlessly juxtapose banality and drama — these first lines read: "I'm carrying Samantha's old portable Realistic brand cassette player...."

Everything in the book, like Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, is loaded, each figure performing this tension between the real and undoing of the real. And as the book carries on, things get stranger and stranger and yet the tone stays even, cool, without being indifferent (the slacker's posture par excellence).

As the world becomes unmoored, Lain gives us some truly exquisite images — strange and beautiful and hilarious and thoroughly idiosyncratic.  And through it all, he gives us this pithy performance, this exploration, of our collective — and personal — untethering, moving between the Bomb, history, breeding, architecture, love, and Portland nuttiness. 

He even gives a fantastic read of one of my favorite books, narrated by the brilliant schizo muppet, Grover, "The Monster at the End of this Book." And yet, in Lain's book, the title becomes a question: "There is a Monster at the End of this Book?" 
 And that succinctly, and with great pith, performs Lain's fantastic little book.

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