Feature

Trouble, a Post-Mortem

Jan Tumlir

Jan Tumlir read the following at Project X Forum 5: Revisiting Program for Paradise, in Los Angeles, on July 30, 2015.

For this event, I was invited to read an excerpt from a novel that was never finished, only just started on the newsprint pages of the catalog for Program for Paradise, the event we are here commemorating, some 20 years after the fact. In retrospect, this designation “excerpt” strikes me as erroneous—excerpted from what, exactly? Something that would never reach beyond the excerpt; the excerpt is really all there is. What was written, put down on paper, was just a teaser, in film language a trailer for an unmade film.

Front cover of Program for Paradise, Project X, Los Angeles, 1995.

Front cover of Program for Paradise, Project X, Los Angeles, 1995.

When I began writing this “novel,” the thought had already occurred to me: what if I were to “lose the plot,” so to speak, on purpose? This is a liberating proposal to one who understands that plotting is not his forte, and only undertakes it as a chore. So, perhaps it is wiser to choose the path of least resistance, to veer off the main road with all of its signals and signposts, its ironclad protocols, and freely improvise. No map required (no overview of the setting), no travel itinerary (no narrative arc), no driver or passengers (no character development), no on-the-road exchanges (no credible dialogue), and no observations (no suggestive detail). If there has to be a trajectory, then it will simply be a straight line connecting two points. Nothing in this writing foreshadows a dramatic event or reflects on it in the aftermath—it is much too short for that. Ideally, it would “deliver the moment”, to cite another industry term, without exposition or analysis; it would do so straightaway, or as soon as possible, and leave it at that. So, I could say that this “novel” consists of just the good parts, the best parts, except that there are no other parts, and that in this sense it is not really a novel, not even a novella, or a short story.

Whatever the quality of the result—and I hereby acknowledge that it is not necessarily high—this still amounts to a program, and one that remains, for all intents and purposes, viable. What, then, did this program deliver? Let’s call it a preliminary, rudimentary glimpse of a story, something one might have experienced in the course of everyday life undergoing the warp of the imagination. In brief: two figures board a bus in a city, first a young girl, and then right behind her, an older man. Observed from a distance, out of the corner of an eye, the idea arises that there might be some motivation behind this random dispersal of facts: the second figure is perhaps actively pursuing the first. The writer, who also figures in this scenario, and might well be onboard the bus as well, dreams up the rest. The events recounted take a mythic, or if you prefer, clichéd, turn. The bus proceeds toward a forest, where, in the same order, the young girl and older man step off, only now it becomes evident that the first is in charge. She lures him deep into the dark thicket where he is gradually suffocated by undergrowth, while she, still visible from his eclipsing vantage, merges ecstatically with the trees.

It is a passage undergirded by prose that is admittedly purple and ideologically suspect. I was no doubt answering to a rapt intake of novels by Breton and Bataille, where women appear as narrative catalysts, a means of leading men astray. The men in such stories are the official actants because they write down the words, while the women only appear to act; they are animated by writing, remaining all the while silent, void of language. But let’s not be too hasty to judge, for in the authorial act, we needn’t assume that women are conduits to the irrational because they are closer to nature than men; gender roles may be assigned more arbitrarily when they emerge from under the point of a pen, or fingers tapping a keyboard. Here it might be more productive to consider men and women as figural stand-ins for the binary equation that underwrites all our communications, literary and otherwise. They are signifiers and signifieds in the ancient order of the Imaginary; positive and negative charges in the order that follows, that of the Real; and ones and zeros in our present-day order of the Symbolic. But whether what follows from their interaction is divinely inspired or a code-scripted default, we will not get to the bottom of it.

Rereading this old piece of writing, a hint of something even more archaic was stirred in my thoughts. I could not remember the source, so I typed into a search engine the phrase: “turning into a tree to avoid getting raped,” and up it came: the myth of Apollo and Daphne. Reminders of our prelapsarian selves—frolicking about in the primeval forests of Eden, Avalon, Shangri-La, what have you—haunt the Internet as ghosts in the machine. In the reproductions of paintings and sculptures that appear onscreen alongside the texts, the motif of the woman-tree opens a way into the essential stasis of the medium, but then remains poised there on the threshold. In order to show that she is becoming wood, that is, a woodcarver would, in effect, have to draw her back out of it. In storytelling and literature, one could say that she serves a similarly medium-specific purpose as the point of origin for the signifying chain that transmutes one thing into another by way of their interchangeable names—but she also serves as its end. The writer pursues her deep into the forest of signs to keep writing, but also to stop writing. Here, the brevity of the actual outcome signals the impossible nature of this equation, and at the same time its enduring allure. The writer stops writing in the middle of a story that is really all middle, without beginning or end, entrance or exit, and disappears there. If this is a program for paradise—and I want to say that it is—then it is one that suggests not only that paradise can be programmed, but that it is also pre-programmed, programmatic. The promise of off-road adventure is the bait to the trap we were secretly hoping to find there all along.

Jan Tumlir is an art writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is a founding and contributing
editor of X-TRA.

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