Lauren Beukes’ Tangled Timeline of Transgression

“The problem with snapshots,” Kirby Mazrachi thinks, “is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it” (p. 319). Kirby is one of the girls in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, 2013), the disturbingly beguiling novel of the summer. Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

Harper’s havoc reaches roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s a tangled mess of totems, trauma, and one who got away. As Harper puts it, “There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random” (p. 324). Beukes had her own method, mess, and snapshots to deal with while writing. She has a murderous map, full of “crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…” She told WIRED UK, “It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is set in my current home of Chicago, which gave me both a history lesson and a feeling of familiarity. The differences among the decades in the story are as interesting as the use of usual local terms like “Red Line,” “Wacker Drive,” “Merchandise Mart,” and “Naked Raygun,” the latter thanks to the one that got away, the spunky, punky Kirby Mazrachi. It’s one part murder mystery, one part detective story, one part science fiction, and another part love story, but it’s all subtle, supple, and masterfully handled.

1993 is the latest year Harper’s House will go. That’s also the year that Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angeles Times coined the term “transgressive fiction,” a term that aptly describes Beukes’ novel. Silverblatt used the term to describe fiction that includes “unpleasant” content such as sex, drugs, and violence, and coined it in response to the censor-baiting controversy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991), Patrick Bateman’s nearly choked conduit into the world.

Transgressive FictionIn Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) Robin Mookerjee discusses Ellis, as well as many other literary forebears of Beukes and The Shining Girls. From mock epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the perversions of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov to the cut-ups and borrowing of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, on up to contemporary deviants like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Ellis, of course.

Mookerjee discusses these writers’ novels through the Menippean mode of satire, in which the transgression is total rather than individual, a literary style that “opposes everything and proposes nothing,” as Mookerjee puts it. For instance, in American Psycho, whether Bateman is brushing his teeth or slicing up some hired young thing, his tone never changes. The effect is indirect, general not specific, and pervades the book’s ontology as a whole.

It’s also notable that Transgressive Fiction seriously considers many works of fiction that have often only been vilified in the past, and Mookerjee does it with both conviction and an even hand.

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Here’s the trailer for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls [runtime: 1:01]:

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The Stars Look Very Different Today

I was just becoming aware of music in the late 1970s. My grade school soundtrack consisted of a Disco Duck compilation and every KISS record I could get my hands on. They were my first favorite band, the first records I bought with my own money, and my first concert experience. As I now know, there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in the music world, but at eight-years old, KISS’s comic-book, glam rock was just all right with me. I’ve been an avid music fan ever since.

In Rob Reid’s Year Zero (Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012), aliens have discovered cheesy Earth-music like I liked, but they found it via the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter. The year in question is 1977, and since then, alien listeners have copied and shared so much Earth-music as to bankrupt the entire Universe. Now they’ve traveled light years to Earth to try and make good. You see, of all the ways that alien technology and culture are advanced beyond our own, the making of music is not one of them. Aliens suck at music, while we rock like no other.

Year ZeroLighthearted and fun in the way that John Scalzi’s Red Shirts (Tor, 2012) is, Year Zero is an intergalactic send-up that lands close to home, and where the Red Shirts premise runs thin by its end, Year Zero feels franchise-ready. While Scalzi only tackles Star Trek (or science-fiction television shows, if we’re being liberal), Reid is able to skewer many more foes in 350 pages. Music snobs and gadget geeks get theirs, but the main targets are copyright enforcers and the whole damn music industry.

In the late 1990s, Reid founded Listen.com, which launched the Rhapsody music service in 2001, so he knows a bit about licensing fees and convoluted copyright laws. His knowledge of the subject matter shines throughout Year Zero. I don’t want to give it all away, so I’ll just say that if you’re interested in any of the above, you should read this book.

All the Young DudesAround Year Zero, Mark Dery was coming of age in the era of glam. In All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters (2013), bOING-bOING‘s first ebook, Dery outs the closet heterosexuals of that decade. Just a few months before I attended that first KISS show, Dery witnessed Mott the Hoople live. It was July 9th or 10th, and an 18-year-old Dery joined Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson on stage for the chorus of “All the Young Dudes.” Like so many P2P-networked music fans, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie shared “All the Young Dudes.” Who owns the song (in every way that  the word “owns” can be thought of) is a topic of deep debate, and Dery posits his own argument herein, as well as exploring the nuances of both versions.

Either way, the song is about alienation, not that of actual aliens or necessarily that of sexual castaways, but of suburban youth. Bowie proclaims in the BBC documentary, Hang On to Yourself (1996):

You’re given the impression that nothing, culturally, belongs to you, that you are sort of in this wasteland, and I think there’s a passion, for most people that have an iota of curiosity about them, to escape and get out and try and find out who one is and find some kind of roots […] All I knew [was that] it was… this otherness, this other world, and alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace; I wanted anything but the place that I came from (quoted in Dery, 2013).

Having come up in the outer colonies of Southern Californian suburbia, Dery was one of those Young Dudes, and this piece exemplifies the kind of writing he excels at. He’s always had a keen eye for the culturally curious, but lately his writing has taken on a more personal tone that lends it a humanity and a humility it once lacked. All the Young Dudes is a small victory for both Dery and bOING-bOING.

After seeing KISS in 1979, I won tickets to see them again in a look-alike contest. I was dressed as Paul Stanley. I had the wig, the make-up, the boots, the fake chest hair: the whole glam to-do. My dad, who’d dutifully gone with me to see them months before, offered me a choice between going again or the money his ticket would cost. To his visible relief, I took the money. When you’re eight-years-old in the suburbs of the late 1970s, ten bucks is another record, another long trip out of that world.

B-Side Wins Again: Punk Aesthetics

From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,

Homeboy MagazineMy girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).

The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.

Glad to See the Back of You

Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Glad to See the Back of YouBack patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).

Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:

[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).

None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.

The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”

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Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.

References:

Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.

Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.

Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.

Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as  a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.