REVIEW OF AVANT-POP: FICTION FOR A DAYDREAM NATION, edited by Larry McCaffery, Black Ice Books, 1993
A related review's at Reconfigurations.
Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation has become something of an underground, countercultural icon since its publication nearly 20 years ago. It’s become so because of its intense focus on identity politics and disobedience.
The term “avant-pop” refers to artists’ appropriation of pop culture icons, trademarks and logos. These writers suck them from the media membrane and digest them into necessarily re-contextualized characterizations that inevitably “disrupt the aesthetics” of the culture at large.
A carpe diem spirit works throughout Avant-Pop, jostling the groggy Western reader awake to live a more conscious life.
The very first piece in the anthology, “Blessed,” by Stephen Wright, a pornographic dramatization of the four Gospels in a campy over-the-top suburban freak show, seems selected by McCaffery to invite comparisons of his “gallery” to shows featuring work by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” perhaps the most famous and controversial work of art at the time, alluded to contemporary culture’s degradation of Christian iconography [according to Serrano]. And Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a bullwhip implanted in his anus made him the most popular whipping boy of the excessively homosocial Christian right.
The main thrust of all this seems to me various forms of naughty discontent, which then gel into a horrifying can of delightfully writhing, open-ended worms. McCaffery writes in his fictive introduction, “Tsunami,” that Avant-Pop is no exhibit of “bland workshop bore-ons,” but intense morsels of artistic interference intended “to rescue the badly nourished creative imaginations” of a daydreaming American public.
William T. Vollmann’s “San Diego, California, U.S.A. (1988)” best embodies this aesthetic. What makes Vollmann’s piece so striking is its placement of nature, not sexuality, which is to say gender-based personality, at the center of the narrative. Nature, not a human individual’s libido, defines character. The fact one is an Earthling trumps race, class and/or gender. Looked at from the standpoint of genetics, the fact seems as irrefutable as it does amoral: We are primarily Earthlings.
When the narrator says “I saw a girl naked outside a house and said: You’re too glowing to find meaning in but I can find meaning around you. –I heard my own voice,” a fluid mind becomes self-conscious—I’m naked!—by hearing itself over Nature…by becoming sentient.
Vollmann’s technique and style, like Nature’s, is so subtle and graceful it’s nearly invisible. At the end of “San Diego…,” when the narrator realizes he “became something more evil and more good….[and]…Now that it is over, I can say that I was happy,” the reader also realizes that everything seems imbued with a mind, haunted both by consciousness and unconsciousness, navigating the seam/membrane of the text by using what’s speakable and perceivable, that is audible and visible, as landmarks and touch-stones for whatever’s disappearing.
In “Politics,” Kathy Acker forces the reader to participate and perform and play with the text by largely absenting punctuation, only using periods to terminate sentences that quantify and equate life and death with money. For the most part, Acker’s disappeared punctuation might represent the stubbornness of inadequate identity: “…you get fed it from birth and can’t get away except by severe disruption…”
Richard Meltzer, one of the earliest practitioners of flash fiction, has three short-shorts here that display a meticulously styled, plain-spoken vernacular voice. And Meltzer’s textually justified cruelty and aggressiveness are as hilarious as they are heartfelt—
…weep in goddamn awe at the notion of YOU as essential principle, as the essential principle, every bit as basic as Thales’s water, Anaximenes’ air, Pythagoras’s number…
—and honest as well:
As gents who when we write (dine)(play) get at least something on our collars, faces, souls, we rise to the chore of showing ‘em how it is done…
Life dulls conscience, ignoring it until those rare times it’s actually needed for its own sake, a condition the writers present here as acutely felt. Each fiction conveys something of the way life feels under the skin of the speaking voice, the way It feels seaming Itself together with words, trying to imagine how It sounds inside the bodies of others.
As one of their beloved forefathers, the Marquis de Sade, writes at the very start of his voluptuous and impeccable Justine:
Will it not be felt that Virtue, however beautiful, becomes the worst of all attitudes when it is found too feeble to contend with Vice, and that, in an entirely corrupted age, the safest course is to follow along after the others?
He goes on to suggest wherever there’s evil some good is born, which is to say, as he does for the rest of the novel, wherever there’s some good evil is born.
And this seems the seam where the bomb is planted, so I’ll slip away…