21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Jordan Krall’s Speculative Fiction

Sébastien Doubinsky

 

Speculative fiction is a paradox. Synonymous with science fiction and “genre literature,” it is also one of the most ancient modes of storytelling in literary history. One could easily identify Plato’s Atlantis, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and the whole Arthurian cycle within the sub-genre of speculative fiction, as well as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). There is a distinct speculative thread throughout literary narrative that can be traced from the origins of writing until the present day. The reason for this is that definitions of the speculative are extremely vague, as one glimpse on the web shows us: “A broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements”. I will, however, try to frame the field of speculative fiction I will be dealing with in this article by restricting my focus to what is usually called dystopian literature. Dystopia is critically defined as the opposite of utopia: that is to say, a fiction set in a negative vision of society (such as the aforementioned Orwell’s 1984) instead of presenting an ideal possibility (such as More’s Utopia). However, the usual scholarly usage of the term “dystopia” becomes problematic when considered in relation to the works I will present and analyse here, since most of them do not deal with the future, but rather present their readers with a deconstructed version of “today,” or even “yesterday.”

 

Science fiction dystopia presenting a negative view on society and present day issues

[Image by Revan Jinn under a CC BY-NC license]

 

This type of dystopian literature, which deals with alternative speculative pasts or presents rather than extrapolated futures, is not new. We could cite Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1966), Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1926), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), or Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) as good examples of this branch of speculative fiction. What these works have in common are their historical settings and, in a broad sense, their political critique of their respective contemporary socio-political moments. The Master and Margarita takes place during the 1917 Russian revolution, Slaughterhouse 5 during the Second World War, and White Noise in Reagan’s 80s. And although not set in any particular place or time, Kafka’s The Castle is considered an attack on bureaucracy and power. These works are thus all engagés – politically engaged – and echo the worries and injustices of their time, reflecting unique historical situations.

At first glance, Jordan Krall’s False Magic Kingdom Cycle (2012) and Your Cities, Your Tombs (2013) do belong to this tradition. Krall is known for his non-genre texts – spanning horror, crime, Weird fiction, bizarre and apocalyptic narratives – and these two volumes are set around the historical event of 9/11, with a collection of characters and narrators that are directly or indirectly involved with the destruction of the Twin Towers. As with William S. Burroughs’ novel The Ticket That Exploded (1962) or J. G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970), the plot in Krall’s fictions is almost impossible to describe. It revolves around a general fascination with high buildings and destruction, a secret society of three “doctors” conspiring to destroy the world using drugs, weird medical experiments and Japanese snuff movies for children, and characters becoming more and more alienated in their work and family life. The narration is fragmented in non sequitur elements and the narrators’ identities seem to be interchangeable. However, far from being yet another attempt at reworking Burroughs, the False Magic Kingdom Cycle and Your Cities, Your Tombs both offer their own particular narrative statements and, taken together, can be read as enacting a decisive shift in the paradigm of speculative fiction. In acknowledging his literary influences (Burroughs, Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg and John Crowley are all mentioned in Krall’s novels, and Krall cites Thomas Ligotti in some interviews), Krall places himself in a long tradition of literary speculative fiction. However, in so doing he also consciously sets the reader in a paradoxical trap. On the one hand, readers familiar with the writers he references will expect a particular kind of landscape and narrative texture; whilst, on the other hand, Krall can then manipulate this familiarity to redefine a new fictional universe, pushing the generic form of speculative fiction to its limits.

 

 

Art installation The Tribute in Light sees vertical light columns mark the site of the World Trade Centers destroyed on September 11, 2001 

[Image by Eric under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

One of the most unsettling elements in Krall’s work is his choice of 9/11 as a setting for his speculative fiction. As I have already mentioned, speculative fiction usually deals with either an alternate contemporary time or a possible extrapolated future, and rather more seldomly with an alternative historical past. In choosing the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the recent historical past in which to set his speculative narratives, therefore, Krall is doing something rather unusual. Unlike the speculative futures of Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890) or H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), or even the alternative geographical present discovered in More’s Utopian island, the events of 9/11 did of course take place and the destruction of the Twin Towers is a globally documented event. What has to be immediately noted, though, is that 9/11 is only directly mentioned once, in the title of one of the short stories composing The False Magic Kingdom Cycle: “Sodomy In Nine Eleven Land”. However, there are descriptions that do not leave any doubt that the attacks on the WTO’s Twin Towers are being depicted in the narrative:

Billy stands up, looks around, and sees he is standing in the shadow of a huge tower. While staring up at it, he walks down the alley and out onto the sidewalk. He notices there isn’t just one huge tower above him but two. They are shiny and majestic, like two giant shimmering idols reaching out for the sky, reaching up high as if to show its superiority over the surrounding buildings. […] Again he looks up at the towers.

His awe quickly turns to terror. (Krall 2014: 184-5)

The traumatic event of 9/11 is the center of gravity in both novels, the vortex that overdetermines all meaning. But what exactly is Krall’s meaning here? This is the question at the center of Krall’s fiction. The False Magic Kingdom Cycle is presented as a prequel to Your Cities, Your Tombs. A collection of short texts and cryptic illustrations, it introduces most of the characters present in Krall’s subsequent book, Your Cities, Your Tombs, and depicts narrative events that take place shortly before the events described in the latter text. It is, however, as difficult to understand and resistant to narrative interpretation as its successor. We might speculate, then, that Krall’s decision to depict the event of 9/11 in an alternate speculative past hasn’t actually destroyed meaning per se, but that in this remediation, 9/11 signifies the culmination of lost meaning.

This detail is essential in the paradigmatic shift of speculative fiction as undertaken by Krall. If classical political speculative fiction, such as Zamyatin’s We (1924), Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, concerned itself with futuristic projections of dystopian society, Krall turns his narrative gaze towards the past. Interestingly, this is not the mythical past we find, for example, in Plato’s depiction of Atlantis in dialogues such as Timaeus and Critias, but, rather, a real event in recent history. We are not confronted with an alternate reality of our future, but with the contemporary moment, through the “zero instant” of early 21st-century history. In this speculative reworking of the recent contemporary past, Krall distinguishes himself from the speculative projects of writers such as Burroughs or Ballard, whose genre narratives are considered historically continuous and coherent with the present in which they are written. The colliding worlds of Burroughs’ Western Lands (1987) or Ballard’s alienated universe of The Atrocity Exhibition or even Crash (1973) are not spontaneously generated in the manner of the nightmarish environment of Krall’s fiction. They are texts that portray processes and evolutions, whereas Krall’s catastrophe might be considered closer to the occult notion of the égrégore, that is, a spiritual being created by a mass of believers. The many references in these two texts to the Apocalypse – in particular to the enemy nations of Gog and Magog cited in the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel – and the Gnostic presence of a possibly “evil God,” encourage Krall’s readers tend towards a more occult and Weird reading of history.  In these works, 9/11 is reformulated into the culmination of both conscious and unconscious imaginary desires, instead of functioning in each text as a purely historical phenomenon.

 

As Jacques Derrida notes in 'On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone in Philosophy', the term apocalypse signifies an unveiling – a revelation.

[Image by Dim Leventis under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

Of particular note is Krall’s representation of architecture in The False Magic Kingdom Cycle and Your Cities, Your Tombs as an oppressive presence in each novel.  By using architecture to focus his narration, as well as references to, and depictions of various media (including videos, sound, and xeroxed and altered images), Krall’s speculative works lend themselves to a Debordian reading. The Situationist Guy Debord famously developed a theory of “psychogeography” in works such as La Société du Spectacle [The Society of the Spectacle] published in 1967. For Debord, the urban landscape affects our ways of inhabiting space, and as a consequence, limits our freedom of movement, which is freedom itself. For Debord, architecture functions, in a Foucauldian fashion, as a “dispositif” (or device) of control (Foucault 2002). In the same way, social space has been filled with images (what Jean Baudrillard will call later “Eidolôns” – idols or simulacra [1994]) that replace the objects (whether real objects or concepts) they had originally been designed to represent. Thus, the image comes to be considered by consumer-subjects as the “real,” and through this confusion the capitalist order maintains itself by posing the illusion of democracy. Debord’s analysis of the spectacle thus opens up a productive reading of Krall’s fiction, when we consider the role that architecture plays:

The streets, of course, are unsafe. Once someone is in the city, they are at the mercy of a cluster of tall monoliths that symbolize nothing but man’s loosening grip on reality. They symbolize the insane death throes of desperate species. (Krall 2014: 210)

Dr. Visna gets up, puts in a video tape into the VCR. He presses PLAY. The doctors type while watching the footage. Grey plumes with ash with skin cells and copier paper, coffee cups, paperclips, staplers and Scotch tape, liquid paper fireworks, fluttering manilla folders as deathbirds. A blue sky transforming into a face that is beaten with righteous agony. Explosions ripping apart temples and trains.

“We’ve come to smash mirrors”, Dr. Corbelli says as he types and watches the television. (Krall 2013: 181)

As we have come to learn from Debord’s analysis of mid-twentieth-century capitalism, the spectacle and its architecture are the basis of our alienation in Krall’s works. However, contrary to the role of architecture in Burroughs’ texts, here there is no possible escape. If Burroughs saw language as a “virus” created by the Venusians to control us in texts like Nova Express (1964), then it was still possible to resist this linguistic virus by destroying language and coherent syntax through using the cut-up technique. But although Krall uses more or less the same cut-up technique in various chapters, there is no escape in sight. We remain caught in language, as one of the characters, a nameless writer who foresees 9/11 in his novel, realizes: “The television is on. Indeed, something has happened. I cannot believe my eyes. It’s just like in my book. It’s terrifyingly magnificent. It’s all I imagined and more” (Krall 2013: 198). Language, here, is overtaken by reality. The character’s reference to “… and more” resonates like both a victory and a defeat of fiction’s ability to represent social experience, as well as an admittance of complicity. 9/11 is the consequence of everybody’s apocalyptic desire in the world of these texts. Krall’s writer is indeed a direct/indirect accomplice of the catastrophe. He admits it. He accepts it. As readers, therefore, we are all part of Krall’s Debordian Spectacle, and the apocalypse is our own wish. One of the three homicidal doctors’ names (or pseudonyms, we will never know) is Dr. Sotos, which, of course, is a direct reference to the controversial writer Peter Sotos – offering Krall’s reader a mise-en-abyme within the mise-en-abyme. Fiction cannot save us. It can only reveal and make us participate.

 

"I cannot believe my eyes" truth under pressure and Baudrillardian issues of the real

[Image by Akhilesh Ravishankar under a CC BY-ND license]

 

In this, Krall joins Thomas Ligotti’s pessimism, who claims that “evil” and suffering are inherent to the human condition, and that fiction should mirror this:

Evil can be quite entertaining when presented in artistic forms and, paradoxically, distracts us from itself so that we hardly need to think of it at all. Nevertheless, while most people require this distraction most of the time, ultimately they insist that there is not so much evil – so much fear, suffering and strangeness in the world – that being alive is all right, at least on the whole. There are always some people, though, who cannot tolerate evil, even in the smallest amount. This means that they cannot tolerate life, if only in principle, and cannot voice their approval of it. (Ligotti 2016: n. pag.)

Krall’s speculative fiction might productively be read, therefore, as conveying an alienated world that presents an intricate part of Debord’s Spectacle, whilst simultaneously denouncing it from the inside. In The False Magic Kingdom Cycle and Your Cities, Your Tombs, 9/11 represents a true apocalypse in the etymological meaning of the word, which is a “revelation”: combining all elements of time, but paradoxically excluding the future. It is a reversed eschatology, caught in an infinite loop. All meaning collapses with the Twin Towers but the catastrophe is also provoked, in the first place, by a collapse of meaning itself. The speculative trope of temporality collapses as “then” and “now” are both disunited and perpetually recombined, replacing the trope of the extrapolated future as traditionally conceived in dystopian literature. Krall’s speculation is not about what could happen, but, rather, concerns itself with what has really happened, and this opens up a new edge in contemporary speculative fiction. Meaning, like God or a recurrent father figure looming over every character in the novel, cannot be found. We only have fragments of possibilities of meaning, which we, as readers, are desperately trying to piece together. Fiction becomes a metaphor of itself, a monstrous ouroboros that keeps eating its own tail, and us with it. As one of Krall’s characters keeps saying: “Everything is dangerous all the time.”

 

CITATION: Sébastien Doubinsky, “Jordan Krall's Speculative Fiction,” Alluvium, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2017): n. pag. Web. 15 March 2017, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v6.1.04

 

Dr Sébastien Doubinsky is associate professor in the French section of the university of Aarhus, Denmark. His research fields cover translation, comparative studies and work reading theory. He co-authored Reading Literature Today with Tabish Khair, published by SAGE in 2011. He is also a bilingual novelist and poet.

 

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation [1981], trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Debord, Guy, Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine [Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography]. In: Les Lèvres Nues, 6. Bruxelles: 1955.

Debord, Guy, La Société du Spectacle [The Society of the Spectacle] [1967]. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge [1969], trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Routledge Classics, 2002.

Krall, Jordan. The False Magic Kingdom Cycle [2012]. East Brunswick, NJ: Dynatox Ministries: 2014.

Krall, Jordan. Your Cities, Your Tombs. N. Location: Copeland Valley Press, 2013.

Ligotti, Thomas. “Interview with Lucio Fusari for PRISMO (English translation),” 9 June 2016: http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=10839 (Last accessed 6 March 2017).

 

Please feel free to comment on this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *