Tabula Rasa – or an Instantaneous ‘Forgettance’ of a Dying Relation.

The morbid part, the one that I thought was OK, but clearly wasn’t, was that my name was surprisingly soon forgotten. We both thought we’d made an impact on the community. We were not famous or special in any way, but still, the idea of us getting forgotten about three years after our death is harsh. Someone once said that you die twice. The first being your death, obviously. The second being the moment your name is said for the last time.

I remember that morning so well. We were in a motel talking. I remember the rubbish breakfast she bought from a 7-Eleven. There were two medium sized bagels with ham, two small bottles of O.J. and two medium cups of coffee.

“Did you get a chance to look at the headlines?” I asked.

“I brushed them over with my eyes.”

“Anything?”

“Avocado is bad for you. You’ll die from eating them now apparently.”

“How so?”

“Something about trans fats – Makes you obese.”

The way she spoke of the mass hysteria about the lifestyle our contemporaries live made me smile. She was two sided. It was a mockery of it but also a sincere lack of interest. This lack was one of the things I truly enjoyed in her. She had not once made a quizzical look or an attempt of showing me her interests. She sometimes did the crossword puzzles from my old porn magazines. She did not care if I had dirty magazines. I think she in fact found them interesting, but I was mistaken. I wonder if she read the interviews in it. The ones printed next to the naked ladies. Age? 18. Favourite sex position? Double penetration. What are you looking for in a man? A huge cock, humour, good with kids.

“Would you like some bourbon?”

“I want to be sober.”

“Well I won’t”.

I don’t really remember who said what anymore.

“Do you want to do this with music in the background?”

“Sure, why not.”

I put on a vinyl onto the player. It was a Chopin. I believe it was his Prèlude 24. A huge cliché, I’m aware, but I felt that clichés was fitting none the less. The crackling sound of the needle running in the vinyl’s tracks, like a warm fire slowly dying, and the cinder that’s left is collapsing in on itself. The piano tunes hurries away, for the tune is rapid and to the point. A fitting way to begin the end. I heard she opened the brown paper bag she had in her coat pocket. She took out a smaller envelope from this. On the front it was fittingly labelled “exit”.

“Are you ready?” She said with a stoic, bored and indifferent voice. Almost like she was thinking about not saying it at all because that would mean I had to reply thus making her precious time longer.

“I guess this is as good a time as any. Have you finished the crossword?”

“I have. The picture caption was; “Gee I have never had that many cocks in me before.””

We both removed the covers from the bed and refurbished it with a new white one, tucking it in thoroughly so that any aspiring crease was gone, only to be replaced by nothingness. A tabula rasa, only instead of a slate there was a white cotton sheet with an enormous thread count.

The needle rose from the black circular music disc, and signalled that I had to change to “Side B” by being completely still. I could of course put the needle back onto the same side, but that would mean that we’d to listen to the same prelude again, which we weren’t very keen on. I don’t really remember the songs on the other side, but I do remember changing sides.  Funny how you so clearly remember details of something insignificant, like the formation of the molten candlewax around a candle, or the smell of a certain shampoo and how you forget more important things like what you saw at a museum or what happened during your daily drive to work in the city. We might not remember our names or the names of people passed before, but something about remembrance is so creepy. Sometimes you remember things by a trigger. Like the smell of old people’s houses or familiar colour associations.

“We have forgotten the water”

“Shit. Do you think it’s ok to drink from the tap?”

“I don’t know, is it?”

We both began to laugh when we thought it through. Of course it did not matter. I think I was the one to fetch the water. We reused the paper cups the coffee had previously been in. I rinsed it out and smelled for any residual coffee. Some had latched on to the paper itself, in the folded crease where the cup is glued onto itself. It was nothing to do about that, besides, who gave a shit? She put two small pills in my palm and folded my fingers over, turning my hand into a fist, and then she moved my hand so the fist was in front of my heart. I watched as she did the same to herself. We both held hands and lied down on the bed.

“Should we do this naked?”

“No I prefer to do this fully clothed.”

“It’s unnatural though.” I think I said this. But I’m still not sure.

“So be it.”

With a last glimpse of her face, her honey coloured hair and her pale lips we took the pills to our mouths and took a mouthful of water down with them. There was no going back now. A new experience waited.

“Did you water the greens?”

“I fed the cat, you had the watering, right?”

“Oh well.”

“Oh well.”

I just remember this, nothing before, nothing after. Only this “slice of life” as someone used to say. Perhaps this was all there ever was. Who ever said it was more? I’m not even sure if I know these people. I certainly haven’t seen them before. All I know is that I see, and I see it always. It goes on a continuous loop; it goes backwards and in every different way possible, all at the same time. An everlasting presentation of this.

The morbid part, the one that I thought was OK, but clearly wasn’t, was that my name was surprisingly soon forgotten. We both thought we’d made an impact on the community. We were not famous or special in any way, but still, the idea of us getting forgotten about three years after our death is harsh. Someone once said that you die twice. The first being your death, obviously. The second being the moment your name is said for the last time.

~Peanut

“The Accursed”, by Joyce Carol Oates

 

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates        

the-accursed

In one of the review-excerpts of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel The Accursed (2013) featured in the first pages of my edition, Stephen King wrote: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel”. This intrigued me greatly, as I am very much interested in both the Gothic and the postmodern – so, offered a novel with both these elements, I set out to read it with a tentative question posed in my mind; What makes this novel postmodern and Gothic?

Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed include many of the tropes one finds in Gothic literature: specters and ghosts, murderers and ‘cannibal sandwiches’, overworked scholars and professors, mysterious and inexplicable events and landscapes, and a frame narrative to pack it all in. The frame narrative is important, as, while it is not a wholly original turn of the Gothic, it gives the reader a sense of reading a document ‘lost and found’, and of h**self being a part of a professorial research team devoted to investigate an age old enigma yet to be solved, something that is, I dare say, inherently Gothic. (We find this in other Gothic and horror writers as well, best showcased in Lovecraft, for example.)

The enigma to be solved in The Accursed occurs at a wedding between ‘part-retired Presbyterian minister’ Dr. Winslow Slade’s granddaughter Annabel Slade and Lieutenant Dabney Bayard in Princeton, New Jersey – June 4th, 1905. A few weeks before the wedding, Princeton has been visited by ‘a lawyer from Carnahan, Virginia, with an association with the Presbyterian Church’, a man rather malicious named Axson Mayte. There is, however, something odd about Axson, something that everyone who meets him prior to the wedding picks up on, but are not entirely able to accurately pinpoint. Through the investigating narrative of scholar M.W. van Dyck II we get to read different academics and historians perspective of Mayte, but the most consensual understanding is that Mayte is the first public manifestation of the Curse. Broadly explained, Mayte shows up at the church door during the wedding and, variously perceived by the invited guests as re-told by van Dyck II, inexplicably draws Slade to him before they disappear like ghosts, “as if into thin air”.

During my master’s course The Gothic Imagination, I wrote an essay about how the existence of two different, yet parallel spaces in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967)  – the real, physical space of Rosemary’s reality, and the abstract, metaphysical space of her dreams – combine in order to create a new kind of space; a transcendental reality, if you will. Impossible consequences manifest themselves in her real life – impossible because they are consequences only of something she claims to have dreamed, and not of something from her physical reality. (As I look back and browse the earlier blogposts on this site, I become aware that, for some reason, this is something that greatly amuses and interests me.) Joyce Carol Oates achieves some of the same effects in this novel, too. Through hard work, the scholar who narrates the tale (again, his name is M.W. van Dyck II) has been able to get a hold of Annabel Slade’s own journal where she has written about the time spent with Axson Mayte, after disappearing from her own wedding. Without spoiling too much, I would like to simply point out that the technique used in Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby here discussed, is also used by Oates in this segment of the novel. Mayte takes her to a place that does not necessarily exist in ‘real life’ – somewhere called ‘the Bog Kingdom’. What happens in this Kingdom is incomprehensible for both Slade and van Dyck II as they’re happening – but once we return to the ‘real world’ we see that the consequences from these events nevertheless manifest themselves in the ‘real world’ – so they must have happened, whether in this world, or the next.

(There is, additionally, another, even more striking example of this, one that shows Oates’s borrowing of this technique in a much clearer light. But telling you that would be a spoiler of significant magnitude, so much so that I will refrain from writing it here.) (You’ll have to read the book and see if you can spot it. (It’s towards the end of the book.))

Another turn of the Gothic in The Accursed is the fact that the supernatural (the ghost), or in this specific case, the Curse, is never always the same person – or ‘thing’. As in all good and solid Gothic fiction, the supernatural evil is capable of taking on different shapes – the Curse is essentially a shapeshifter. That is to say Axson Mayte is not the ‘only’ manifestation of the Curse. But is he the ‘pure’ Curse – the Master –  or just a deviant of it – a servant? Or maybe there does not exist such a hierarchy of evil, and Mayte is just one of several ways in which the Curse can be allowed to stay in Princeton. Whatever the answers to this, the result is more or less the same; We can never be sure who (or where) the primary source of the Curse is. We, the readers, become paranoid. Even the characters we think we know well may be part of it. We never know where – or to whom – the Curse might strike next.

What is fresh and something I haven’t encountered before, in Oates’s Gothic novel, is the inclusion of a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history. The readers get to follow Upton Sinclair’s revolutionary ambition about equality founded on Nietzschean philosophy, his life situation during the writing of his The Jungle, and his appreciation of fellow American socialist Jack London. On one side, I think this socialist, revolutionary aspect of the novel, while particularly interesting and engaging to me in and of itself, is ill fitted in the overall Gothic, ghost/’vampire’ atmosphere of The Accursed. I do appreciate, however, the parallel it draws up at the end of the tale, and the resulting effect of it is a trope very much belonging to the Gothic; Using Sinclair’s hard-working discipline, his vigorous vegetarianism and his admiration of London, and by raising the expectations, hopes and dreams of Sinclair (as well as the reader), of the just cause (for then only to shatter them again toward the end), Oates is able to intriguingly question the validity and power of personal ambitions, dreams and passions. So, by looking at it (‘it’, i.e, the inclusion of ‘a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history’) like this, it is more understandably relevant in The Accursed, as the resulting effect does fit rather well in a Gothic setting.

Although the novel is rather long (my edition is 667 pages), with some passages in it that made me personally question the relevancy of this particular topic to the whole of the novel, I would certainly recommend experiencing it. The passages in questions might not strikingly or obviously fit the rest of the Gothic atmosphere of the novel, but after having finished them all and been able to put them together in the bigger picture, I realize what Oates is doing is rather innovative, creative and, ultimately, transgressive (which, keep in mind, is what the Gothic ultimately is all about.)

Stephen King was right when writing of The Accursed that it: “may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel.”

~ milk