:: Article

handbook of transgression

By Diarmuid Hester.

Laura Ellen Joyce, The Luminol Reels, Calamari Press, 2014

I read a lot of fiction that sometimes goes by the unhelpful label of transgressive writing, a term initially coined by Bookworm’s Michael Silverblatt back in 1993 to describe the work of people like Kathy Acker, Mary Gaitskill, Bret Easton Ellis, and of course Dennis Cooper. These writers portrayed in sticky, stinky, and to my mind magnificent detail, scenes of brutal and often sexualized horror; for Silverblatt it was as if the Marquis de Sade had stopped by an American orgy and ended up choreographing the bloody thing.

Transgressive writing, like every other genre, pigeonholes the work it describes and limits its potential audience, but I don’t blame Silverblatt for coming up with it: part of a critic’s work is to file the inconvenient burrs off a piece of writing, make it agree to a greater or lesser extent with other writers, and fit it into a genre that a reader can readily understand. I get that. And it’s not bad as genres go: better than the fatuous “new sincerity” but maybe not as good as “alt-lit,” whose inadvertent evocation of .alt in its description of a bunch of young writers who can’t remember dial-up has always tickled me.

Plus, in the basic sense of constituting an offence against certain laws, spoken and unspoken, there is something transgressive about this writing. A hot kid taking a dump into his adult lover’s hand in Cooper’s Closer; a girl lusting after her father in Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School; Patrick Bateman’s laudatory appraisals of Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News in Ellis’ American Psycho: these works pit themselves against everything the reader thinks is right and true, forcing them to reflect on their unconscious adoption of social codes and demanding the reevaluation of normative assumptions about art and sex and the Oedipal family.

But one of the things about transgression is that the boundaries keep moving about. This was Bataille’s lovely maze-like logic: once whatever it is that is transgressive is codified and drawn into the realm of the understood as transgression, it ceases to be truly transgressive. Transgression is in the crossing-over, not in the being-beyond, and for Bataille, fellow traveler of a number of clandestine societies, it’s often better done in secret. Similarly, as soon as it is defined as such, transgressive writing loses its original punk frisson and becomes bounded by its own codes and exceptions; like punk rock, it becomes accepted and normalized.

So the thinking goes. Yet reading through Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels on the Tube recently, it was immediately apparent to me that although transgressive writing may be dead as a genre (hey, it’s as easily murdered by a critic as it is conceived by one), writing such as hers that errs on the side of transgression still does vital work. Her book throws into razor-sharp relief the intricate lattice of social and sexual codes that ensnares consciousness, which covertly determines the way that we behave, and into which we have been interpellated as subjects.

Put it this way – surrounded by the frowning, conservatively-dressed men and women of London, which chapter of Joyce’s work should I crack open: “Fingerlube” or “Child Killer”? In fact, I settle for a section called “Coat Hanger,” (subtitled “This may be used when a girl gives false urine for her daily sample”) and I immediately imagine the mother of a cute baby across the way eying me with suspicion. Then I flip to a section called “Masturbation” (“Following fasting, you may masturbate for two hours continuously…”) and as I do I think I see a laborer to my left raise a defensive eyebrow. One of my students sits down in the seat beside me and I quickly stash the book in my bag: trigger warning (TW)The Luminol Reels contains passages like:


Take off your skin to the elbow to begin this reel

Rough hacking is effective, but for quicker results use domestic flesh stripper. Once the muscle plate is revealed, burn your number into it. Once you have been branded, take the flesh heap (if there is any remaining) and throw it down the kitchen chute.

It’s like that scene in Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods when the film’s teenage protagonists suddenly realize they’ve been trapped by a giant invisible net. One of the kids jumps his motorcycle across this gaping chasm and just when you think he’s going to make it, PAF! he hits the net. Sparks fly and pulsating orange threads spread out from the point of impact, illuminating an immense web, apparently without beginning or end. So reading The Luminol Reels in public is a bit like that: PAF! the social web that surrounds you and conditions your behavior is suddenly, oppressively apparent. Except here you realize that in some ways you’re the source of that web; you’ve been complicit in its construction.

Not to say that this is the only thing Joyce’s beguiling little handbook of transgression has going for it – far from it. In fact, I’ll admit to being intimidated by the sheer sprawling menace of the work, and the way it willfully eludes any straightforward summary. Perhaps it will suffice to note that most of it seems to imply the notion of ritual – ritual mutilation, ritualistic horror presided over by initiates of a shadowy religious order – and that the eponymous luminol is a chemical sometimes used in crime scene investigation, glowing blue when it reacts with iron in the blood. So the brief, disturbing episodes that make up the work are framed from the outset as a mere trace of the horror that happened before the reader chanced upon the scene.

What exactly a “luminol reel” is changes throughout the work, but it sometimes denotes celluloid film stock upon which the details of a crime have maybe been recorded. Joyce’s sequence of cinematic chapters are presented as a mute, flickering montage that Blake Butler likens to “an alarm light throwing its glow over room after room, or stations in an exhibit of twisted murder scenes.”

In fact, The Luminol Reels closest contemporary is Butler’s 2009 paean to despair, Scorch Atlas, whose disconnected scenes of lathed horror set in some godforsaken elsewhere recall the more buoyant moments of Joyce’s work. There as here there is no love or joy or pity, and only an overriding sense of devastation joins the parts together. All that appears to proliferate is grief and putrescence. Spores, too. Indeed, the “off-green spores that blister into faint rings” in Atlanta-born Butler’s book seem to have been carried on a warm southern wind across the sea to Joyce’s native England, where they’ve become her “cardiac spores,” mysterious substances that when ingested bring on quasi-religious visions of luminol.

The spores that stick to The Luminol Reels could also have been blown in from Joyce’s 2012 debut, The Museum of Atheism, a Lynchian detective novel set in small town America, which is teeming with toadstools. At the top of each of the book’s chapters, Joyce names and describes varieties of fungus called things like Slime Cap, Destroying Angel, Disco Cup, Midnight Bolette; the inclusion of fungi invariably portending some dead matter that the reader unearths beneath. This is more than just a clever ploy that sets an unsettling tone, it also hints at Joyce’s take on writing in general, and encourages us to consider the parallels between the written text and the mushrooms it describes.

This is perhaps Joyce’s improvisation upon the deconstructionist adage that all writing is parasitical: for her, fiction writing may instead be fungal, nourished by the moldering work of dead and decaying authors, springing up threadlike and dangerous in the dark. Although both this and the deconstructionist procedure see reading and writing as a kind of vitalist ecosystem, Joyce’s work seems to linger longer upon the moment of decomposition – the transgressive moment that dawdles at the boundary between death and life. The opening of The Museum of Atheism, for instance, details the progressive disintegration of a rotting corpse, complete the “violet scum [that] bubbled out and formed a hard shimmering caul like blown glass.” With The Luminol Reels, Joyce once again pens a door to the depths that, creaking open, eerily lights a world of abject horror. To read it is to have its seeds take root in you.

Diarmuid Hester is a doctoral researcher based in Brighton.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 5th, 2014.