:: Article

Philosophical Toys

By Richard Marshall.

9781628970869

Susana Medina, Philosophical Toys, Dalkey Press, 2015.

The death drive has to do with the figure of woman… and the uncanny commingling of silence, woman and the desirableness of death is quite explicit” – Nicholas Royle on Freud.

““[T]he uncanny… is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us…” – Freud.

Nina’s things are ciphers at the centre of her life. What things? Small toys, kitch gadgets, playful objects, free toys from kinder eggs, polymer things, Hong Kong rubbish, g-strings, black boots, high heels – pale coloured, bright coloured, manufactured, handmade, fluffy, chewy, benevolent, simplified, soft, cuddly things, things like docile crocodiles, benign sharks, touchy-feely monsters that are ‘devoid of genetalia… without sex…’ They are stuff, nerves and movement that lack inner organs. These ciphers link Medina’s imaginative realm to those of Bunuel, Artaud, Bataille, Genet, Tatsumi Hijikata, Bellmer, Ballard, Stephen Barber, Angela Carter, the Vienna Action Group, a whole insane network of saturated transmutational deviants.

Out of this pathological realm comes the aberrant philosophical article, ‘ The Sex Appeal Of The Inorganic,’ leading us back through fear to something long known to us, as Freud has it. Nina’s story is an extended meditation on the magical nature of objects, ‘a disturbed playland tailor-made to her needs.’ Very early on a character is talking to Nina about the Mona Lisa’s aura. Her friend Mary-Jane asks: ‘Can you hear, can you hear Mona Lisa’s demonic laughter sniggering about the ultimate undecideability of things.’ And she links the weirdness of libidinous flowers (none more weird than the Mona Lisa) to Bunuel and the surrealist tradition that had placed ‘… the visible at the service of the invisible… the sex appeal of the inorganic.’ And as Nina considers the implications of her thoughts she has this brilliant line: ‘It became increasingly impossible to ignore that we were turning fear into sarcasm’ and it remains a novel told with fear at its edge, but in its heart there’s a warmth and generosity that gives full access to a deeply felt, inner life concocted on its gleaming deranged surface.

The novel remains taut, luminous, hallucinatory throughout. It unfolds like one of those strange erotic flowers, roams across times and spaces in its strange lunar voice that enchants, entices and edges into the dark with a flinch of terror attached to every lipstick smile. Barcelona, Segio Leone’s Spanish Spaghetti Westerns, shoes from Almeria, and inevitably, Bunuel’s ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ cascade through it like orgiastic golden rain.

‘A little girl was murdered in the film and when a little girl is murdered, rape is invariably the name of the game… The chambermaid stayed to solve the murder, she slept with the murderer… she was going to avenge the brutal act. She was called Celestine, was played by Jeanne Moureau.’

It’s a film whereby the whole of the world is redeemed in order to be condemned again. It goes further than Huysmans ‘Against Nature’, which Celestine reads to the old man in the film. He insists on calling her Marie and on playing shoe-fetish games, detonating deranged tricks with recollection, memory and detachment whilst all the while there’s a sense that Celestine requires the derangement of the senses in order to redeem the child who, on some level, is her past. Nina resurrects her mother in another image – in the Spanish westerns she was whore, widow or corpse. The novel meditates on fetish, it unravels the violence, the sadism, the masochism, the various paths to redemption which brings her to this:

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‘… a female Christ tortured in her sexuality… there was a female Jesus in Torcello, a baby one, sat on Mary’s lap.’ Which reminds us that Helen of Troy is the prototypical female Jesus. Brought up as a wrestling girl in Sparta, observed fighting other girls in the dust by a fifty year old Theseus, he sodomises her and takes her to Aethra, his mother, in rocky Aphida. He then leaves, returning to his epic heroic travels. Castor and Polux go rescue their sister and take Theseus’s mum back with them as a slave. She becomes Helen’s maid. Helen faces thirty eight suitors, chooses Menalaus as her husband and gives birth to Hermione. Then the Asian prince Paris comes to court and Helen desires him. She flashes her breasts, he drops his wine but Menalaus, engorged on male talk, doesn’t notice. Menalaus leaves to go to his grandfather’s funeral. Helen’s daughter Hermione assembles the archons of desire. Aethra, the mother of the man who raped her, acts as pimp in the visible sphere. Helen goes off with Paris.

Sade’s women are necessarily punished, necessarily desire it, and the side-door to Bunuel’s imagination is the uncovered fact of the victimized bodies of women that, fetishised and thus magically invoked, require the twin spheres of the actual and the chimerical, the one and then the double, the flesh and the phantom, the representation and then the thing itself. Medina draws us to all this, having us gather that Bunuel and Dali shot their donkeys for the scene of the dead donkeys strapped to the grand piano in ‘Un Chien Andalou.’ The actual donkey corpses didn’t survive their martyrdom for art save as cinematic phantoms. We’re told that ‘ … at the time they had tried to stuff the donkeys but it had all gone terribly wrong and the whole thing had been incinerated, that image only existed as a image, not as an embodied fact, as an embodied fact it was lost forever.’ This is the key to the fetish, and its power. Its power is the power of a woman, to ‘… magically invoke a man through the ridiculous feminine frills that he was wearing…’ What the whole book does is take us to monumentalized signs of mortality, of necessity. It memorialises a carnival that turns everything upside down again, without returning us to the way it was before, but instead turns everything one layer over again so that we find a different layer of reality. The novel’s a deeper upside down, a different realm, one of phantoms, doubles and the dead. There’s a classical culture embedded in this, a Mediterranean slip-stream that’s mainlined the artery of the cultures, spreading West and East. The fetishised images and objects are Helen of Troy and Dionysus feeding the corseted sex-madness in an oblique, transversal logic.

In the Athenian divine economy necessity is a woman. Wet nurses, helmswomen, weavers, priestesses, hybrid compound creatures, the androgynous torsos and smoke of ‘Viridiana’, wedding dresses, wedding shoes all collecting a strange kind of nemesis, the kind of thing Lady Gaga does. Nemesis is a woman, and her power is to bring about the necessary consequences of shame and vengeance. Zeus, the great rapist God, chased her across the world, a great divine fetishist who required the necessity of her shame. Off Rhamnus in Attica he raped Nemesis by disguising himself as a threatened swan, she disguised as a goose. The raped woman is afflicted by the consequences of herself – her power being, as we noted, ‘the consequences of offending.’ From her womb the egg of the violation was carried by Hermes and placed in Leda’s. From this seduction of necessity and anti-hubris the perfect female figure appeared, Helen, and she becomes the perfect prototype of fetish and erotica, a provoked convergence of beauty and necessity. Her body becomes an infinite offense and provokes the great epic war of hubris at Troy. Nemesis tears herself apart, as she must, for that is her nature. Zeus has of course moved on.

Medina’s protagonist Nina contemplates ghostwriting as ‘… the prospect of paid misdemeanour…’ and the thought brings about ‘… libinal dreams, infected by a spending fever that I couldn’t shake off, feeling good, feeling guilty… already undergoing my future spectrality.’ For Medina’s heroine this spectrality converts to philosophy, and so her list of female twentieth century philosophers – ‘… de Beauvoir, Weil, Luxemburg, Zambrano, Kristeva, Cixous…’ ends with the purity of the cinematic sex diva, ‘…Mae West…’ and it’s not a joke. The phantom other and sex are the old classic forces, Mae West being the Mona Lisa, Helen of Troy, female Jesus trope placed in cinematic idiom.

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The female Christ – Helen flees with her lover Paris as far as Egypt. The priests there agreed to let Paris go on to Troy but without Helen. In her place he would take a phantom copy of her. Herodotus says Homer knew this, but Homer stays quiet because it offended his epic sensibilities. So it was the phantom Helen who, after the ten year war, the return to Sparta, the death of Menelaus, fled to Rhodes where Polyxo’s serving maids dragged her from her bath and hanged her from a plane tree. Helen is the prefiguring Christ – the god woman hanged on the tree – who becomes the female Jesus in Torcello, a child in the lap of a pimping mother, who’ll hang along with all the rest of the wimmin. This phantom is the divine fetish object, nothing but the list of accumulation that speaks to her one thing – her desirability and in Medina’s canny novel she is ghostwriter, philosopher, a headless, small plastic elephant that Nina looks at ‘… as if it was a mirror, conscious of the fact that seeing is tangled up with our own stories, an encounter, a collusion, of our own stories with the moods that ricochet off things.’

Reading this takes us to the libidinal chaos of the founding stories, a female Christ, doubles, and in the novel Nina’s mother ‘… a star…[who] needed a lackey… she would sing, she would tell endless stories, but then they had a gagging effect on you these stories… now and again she would spark off a scandal, she had to get all the attention, even if it was negative attention.’ The mother is the scandal who shakes the world out of a torpor through presenting her beauty as both a necessity and consequence: ‘… my mother in the street, with no clothes on, hysterical naked, with a folded gown hanging on her arm, wearing just a pair of yellow stilettos, definitely drunk, she used to say wine was good for your blood, she was so pale.’

The intoxication of wine was brought to humans by Dionysus . Dionysus arrives as the unknown guest in the house of the gardener Icarius and his daughter Erigone. He gives them wine and seduces the drunk daughter. Dionysus tells the old man to pass on the revelation of wine grapes. He teaches him how to plant, grow and harvest the crop. Once Icarius had found a goat eating the crop and in anger killed it, skinned it and danced round the mangled corpse. Shepherds find the intoxication too mysterious, too painful, too transformational. They kill him. Dying, Icarius realizes now that he is the goat and this is the origin of tragedy. Aristotle has it that tragedy is born of those dressed as dancing goats, not dancing round a goat but to dress as a goat you have to first kill the goat, skin it and make a wine skin. Medina passes on this knowledge and adds the beautiful touch – wear intoxicating yellow stilletos. Like Nina, Erigone searches for her father, finds him, buries him, then hangs herself. Her dog Maera helped her find the stony ground where her father had been killed. He stays, watches over the two bodies and starves to death.

Attica is suddenly convulsed with virgin girl suicides. Apollo demanded a ceremony of dolls and masks hung on trees to remedy this. A fetish garden emerges in rememberance of Erigone. The heat wave only subsides when the murderers of Icarius are killed. Erigone ascends to heaven as the first hanged woman, prefiguring Helen, the perfect rendition of this, the one who takes the form of the female Jesus. The hanging tree covers the whole earth, branches to the stars. As Roberto Calasso instructs, Erigone is Isis. Both hold locks of hair of the dead they sought. Both have their dogs. A lock of hair and bunch of grapes use the same word – ‘Nonnus’.

The drunk aura of desire twins itself in the perfect device of erotic doubling – her pairs of shoes – the gadget that runs through the novel as the central fix – yellow stilettos playing the role of the two Helen’s, the phantom other and the embodied twin that runs on and on. So many pairings, doubles. Helen doubles out of Erigone. Helen doubles out of the rape of her mother Nemesis , and that nautical rape doubles another – that of Peleus and Thetis – another fetish act – he fucking her as a cuttlefish. And in Smyrna there are two Nemesis’s – they appeared to Alexander the Great in a dream near Mount Pagus like mirror images, one with her right hand on her belt buckle, one with her left hand placed there. Helen hatches from an egg brought about by a twin mother. Not only Nemesis and Leda, but Nemesis herself was a twin, her own mirror image – all these transfigured in Medina’s world into their perfect fetishised instantiation – a pair of narcotic yellow stiletto shoes.

Nina has to become the double of Lecour by becoming his ghostwriter. She becomes the phantom version of Lecour, adopting by proxy Helen, Nemesis, the necessity of the Athenian fetishistic erotic, the whole hallucinatory plenum.

‘Lecour smoked a pipe. I couldn’t just smoke a pipe to become Lecour. I had to re-read him… I would have had to share the same aspirations and yearnings, dream the same dreams, eat the same food and drink the same drink, have sex or not have sex with the same people, read exactly the same books…’

Helen as female Jesus as the divine perfect beauty is also the intoxicated fetish being in a realm of the phantom fuelled by a logic of doubling nemesis. In death she becomes Achilles’ wife. Achilles is the ultimate derangement, the insane hero who loved death and hostility in a woman. There are all the stories – Penthesilea fights Achilles. He thinks she is some great male Trojan warrior but when he fastens his blade through her, pinioning her to her horse, he is overwhelmed by desire and fucks whilst she dies. Achilles loves Briseis and Polyxena too – they die as well. He dreams of Helen. Leuke is the white island no one dares stay on overnight. In death Achilles and Helen smoulder in dazzling mercury shadows. In Medina’s novel doubling, desire and death are inflected by the internal shadows of the unadulterated sadness of existence. At one point there’s a stark sentence that is bleached dry real: ‘ Death: a skull asking you to look at its face without blinking.’ It’s when we blink that the image gets to be doubled, its phantom appears. And it’s the phantom that gets, as Medina’s narrator puts it, ‘… the ultimate one-way flight to that legendary destination: Heaven.’

These are the phantoms of Leuke and its transmutational orgiastic and orgasmic bliss rendered as a white dream. The white dream is where after sleep the sleeper feels there was a dream but the dream can’t be recalled. The dream is an absence, a feeling that something was there in the emptiness, but it lies just out of reach. The fetishist develops out of the three ages of humanity’s relationship with the Gods: first hospitality and mutual recognition, then rape, then invisibility. When Gods were on earth they were recognized as Gods, and then they weren’t. The unknown guest, the stranger, Medina’s protagonist is both this and also the host, receiving her parents. We’re in the chapter ‘Pearl Snow and the Insistence of the Fetish’ where we have:

‘Role-playing, slaves, doctors and nurses, real boot fetishists, everything blended in my head with perfect confusion as I wondered where my blind spot was and unwanted suspicions danced around me creating lateral thoughts: beyond the playful games, the serious reduction of a person to a fragment, was it a question of fear? Of eroticized fear? Of sublimated hatred? What if a woman invested herself in splendour in a leather-bound revenge? What if a woman only allowed her high-heeled shoes to be touched as an expression of her contempt towards men as it might happen in the case of a paid dominatrix where a double fantasy is fulfilled? What if certain objects were complex mediators where desire, hostility and fear were inextricably linked?’ The wimmin and their fetish objects achieve the compulsive dynamic of obsessional sex things that, without innards, are dense mysteries of psychic violence.

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At the breakdown of conviviality and ceremonial order where we’re visited in sudden gusting violence and obsessional goad – the terrifying image of the naked woman in the yellow stilettos slapping the husband for placing the robe over her nakedness ‘like in the films’, comes a type of invisibility, the invisibility that comes from agreeing to appear as fully human, no disguises, animal heads or abstraction, no flowers or swastikas – a way of moving through the fetish to the far side of it. But what kind of invisibility comes through from Medina’s mediation on this? Nina says, ‘I found hoods frightening but talked to a hooded naked guy who said he just wanted to be invisible’ and this seems to get the whole process in reverse order, or mashed up, where the ceremonial order of fetish is mixed with ideas of invisibility and naked revelation. And here again Medina’s wired, overflowing narrative zooms in to the role of wimmin as heroic betrayer, reversing any negative connotation, betrayal becoming a mesmerizing deviation from the inside, the deviant bravery of replacing hard necessary borders with a fluid, porousness, a dream agony of transgendered, coiled actuality.

In the Athenian cultural economy there are twin, doubling mechanisms of change: the God/boy/men/monster heroes slay monsters; the women betray, and being double, they betray themselves too. Apollo the first monster slayer – then Perseus, Cadmus, Bellerophon, Hercules, Jason, Theseus. And then the wimmin – Hypermestra, Hypsipyle, Medea, Ariadne, Antiope, Helen, Antigone all whose heroic gesture is betrayal in order to reveal, justify and conclude. Helen destroys the race of heroes. Ariadne ruins Crete. Antiope dies fighting her own Amazons. Medea throws over magic for law, Antigone betrays the law for a dead foreigner outside the law. Women reject whatever is given in ourselves, and so they work to the necessary logic of a self-effacement. Women work with the heroes to complete them through their negation. Heroes are monster slayers. But they are themselves monsters. And so these heroes must die by wimmin’s betrayal and that completes every story. When the world is fucked – it always is – then you’d better fuck it. The Bunuel films around which the novel circles discard coherent representations of space and time and in the erasures, vanishings and derangements relive the autosodimising act of heroic negation, where sodomy becomes a particularly occular act of condensation the wimmin seize from their fragmentationary, violated, hallucinatory youth. When the wimmin hang themselves they are all initiated into the the scattered lubricious image of the female Jesus, an intense presentiment of the apocalyptic scorch of wimmin proliferating to infinity.

Out of Egypt a fifty oared boat, a girl at every oar, daughters of Danaus with their father, seeking refuge from the threat of forced marriage to Egyptians in Argos and threatening fifty suicides if refused asylum. Palasgius, king of Argus, works out a deal whereby the girls marry the Egyptians and the fleeing becomes part of an intricate ceremony. The fifty drooling would-be grooms arrive and lie with their women. In their beds forty nine women kill their men, cut off their heads and toss them into the Lerna marshes. The hydra is born from this. Hypermestra, the eldest sister, breaks the pact with her sisters and lets her husband live. Hercules, her descendent, will kill the Hydra in a psychotic mutation and sexual delirium of insane apocalyptic obsession. The Danaides of Aeshylus points to Hypermestra’s crime of betraying her sisters. She is the African Amazon breaking with her tribe. This is so that , as Medina’s Nina puts it, ‘ possible realities hover[] suspended in opposition to brutal certainties…’, and why? Because then, ‘… life continues.’ But what as, we may ask? Perhaps a collaged detritus of necessary sexual obsession.

Metaphysics is the erotic charge of the divining lover. Thought is erotic discharge, the words semen. For Nietzsche art is erotic discharge and only art justifies not killing yourself. A body caught by a lover’s words, caught in words like in a fortress, is the deranging picture of erotic love handed out from the insane imagination of Athenian intoxicated civilisation. Medina’s novel offers a profound and extended relishing of the toxic possibilities of the liquid dream objects of her fetishist through merely the act of telling. The erotic act becomes neither a lascivious obligatory pleasure, nor an act barbarian ascetics condemn. It is an act of grace that comes without obligation or certainty as a result of words. The act of narration then is a key to understanding all this. Eros becomes a perfected duplicity , an uncertain uplifting created by knots of words. The lover is allowed and forgiven all excess – the lover is whoever breathes into another at the moment, and only then, when difficulties are surmounted, done with, unriddled and untied.

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Medina takes us, via Nina’s memories of the past through the fetishised objects of desire, to the place of the dead, where through its cracks emerge phantom creatures of distilled assassination, terminal anatomies of exposed pasts – Nina’s mother, father, all brilliantly white and black, and deep below all this she is for a moment a version of Pheraia, the local name for Hecate, Goddess of the underworld who took the form of a horse, a bull, lioness and dog, who also rode those creatures, who plays nurse to boys, and fucks cows, a literal ghostwriter and metaphysician. She is strength, who unites with Hermes and is daughter of Admetus and Alcestis. Alcestis goes to the underworld prepared to die and not return to release her lover. She is greater than Orpheus who refused to go so far and die. Hercules rescued her from death, returned her to Admetus the king of the dead who loves the shadow that steals away. Here the films of Bunuel are the underworld kingdom of shades, pure machines of erasure. The god of the invisible father is a lover. Medina’s novel is in part a meditation on this invisible father, the father in the kingdom of the dead with whom Nina has to discover ;

‘… new ways of communicating… Whenever he strode around the table compulsively, I waited at one of the corners and tapped his hand. He liked that. He also liked it when I manically pulled my tongue out. He just laughed. I said quack, quack, moo, moo… my father seemed happier when I treated him as an infant…’

The lovely image of the artless play between daughter and father hums with the older, ancient recollection of Pheraia, and lines it with the darker, sadder but unavoidably human realities of the narrative. Here fathers are always going in an opposite direction to time in order to escape the necessary usurption, death, and its a secret that the daughter Nina discovers. Apollo is the shining son who will usurp father Zeus, as Zeus did Kronos, his father Time. Apollo and Zeus always collide at the point of death, and do so forever. So the father retreats to childhood, to the perpetual time before the inevitable turnaround. Nina plays with her father and recognizes that ‘…[t]ime delivers footnotes to stories, amendments that jolt foundations unearthing dirt and wonder.’ The novel works back towards the origin of the phantom, the double, the copy, asks again, in a reprieve near the end of her discussion about the Mona Lisa at the start: ‘ Did it matter if one of the exhibits was a copy? Didn’t copies usually glow with the power of the original? Was there a difference?’

Helen, the female Jesus, is the phantom where absence is sovereign. She enters Troy as a phantom double, her own absence. In Homer her nature is hidden, which enables it to seem to be solid. It eats away from the inside. Homer feared the revelation of copies. Homer knew that Plato was coming, Plato whose world was a myriad of multiple, multiplying copies. So Homer hides the simulacrum of Helen inside her, her phantom and her twins. Plato’s prototypes spelled the end of uniqueness and invited into the realm beyond the world abstract concepts, his Ideal Forms with the power to clone everything mercilessly forever. But Helen relies on a brilliant surface whose reality glows vibrantly in the phantom white dream with Achilles beyond the limits of all other surfaces. With her double inside she becomes more flesh than any idea could – made the irresistible flesh, more actual than any idea, and discovered a level of existence that mocked all others.

A flair for beauty and heroic betrayal becomes the foundation of a fetish world built in the doppleganger universe of the female Jesus. She carries the shadowy chaos behind our eyes that connects all the phantom worlds together, the films of Bunuel and Mona Lisa and her demonic smile, its endless phantom images still capable of its miracles through any number of heroic acts of self betrayal, held in the magical objects of the shoes. Helen’s body and her phantom were too powerful to be permanently bound. In Homer they are held together by a knot until gradually loosened and they fall apart. The woman becomes ‘bigamous and trigamous, a betrayer of men,’ the guilty woman of multiple lovers, sold over and again for her beauty. She becomes the victim of divine malice, waiting in Egypt for her husband to reclaim her. This Helen has little virtue, even less psychology, cares only about her appearance, is forever both exalted and savaged: Euripedes’ ‘Cyclops’ says about her: ‘ So then, when you got your hands on the girl, did you take turns at balling her, seeing that she likes swapping husbands?’ But that’s just weak barbarian culture talking nasty.

Nina knows more, and Medina’s novel is a touching and sensitive rethinking of these things. ‘Do we need authentic things to assure us that all this is not a fiction? That the past did actually exist? Doesn’t the physical presence of things add a realistic touch to the blurred nature of our lives? As if things were more real? Sometimes more definite than us? Real? Didn’t the world consist of a cacophony of multiple realities?’ she asks near the end. Her fetish objects, the film props, the miraculous objects that speak to that cacophony of multiple realities, shadow the great phantoms of the female Jesus, all the hanged women whose shades shine and pulsate forever in her memories of the films, her parents, the hallucinated sexual bodies, the pairs of shoes, everything.

Medina’s novel is moved by the Dionysian moments of hallucinated eros that Bunuel’s cinema provides. Dionysus arrives in Athens with wine and spirits of the dead. The drinking contest in the night takes place in silence. Orestes, murderer of his mother, is there. Opening the wine, the dead are released, wearing masks, often wimmin. Dionysus possesses the queen of wherever he is. All nights of passion are surrounded by secrets. Dionysus is at ease with women. He never takes them and then throws them over. He is forever seducing them. ‘Sovereign is all that is moist.’ Dionysus is liquid, a stream around everything. He doesn’t need to show his virility. When going to war to India his army giggles. His phallus is hallucinogenic not coercive, a fungus, parasite, toxic grass that doesn’t intoxicate to promote growth but to loosen and untie. Weavers are his enemy.

Nina’s shoe fetishist father is ‘not harmful, just really depraved’, says her lover. The story ends more or less with the story of Charlemagne – ‘ [f]etishism, necrophilia, homosexuality and contemplation, condensed into a few lines…’ , a kind of fairy story that rattles around with the strangeness of the female Jesus as a dead princess lover, her phantom inside a ring done as hallucinatory, erotic sentiment. Gorgeous like Ballard’s best stories are, Medina has written a novel of perverse delight but with a narcotic tenderness that heroically betrays its stiletto depravities, decidedly going along different aberrant transits than Ballard. One thing that struck me was how her novel’s delirium is not associated with technologies, especially digital ones, and that its serene provenance is largely before all that.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 26th, 2015.