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Showing & Telling: Penetrating Fantasy in Brandon Hobson’s Desolation of Avenues Untold

By Dominic Jaeckle.

Desolation of Avenues Untold

Brandon Hobson, Desolation of Avenues Untold (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015)

“(I can write in the novelistic without ever writing novels.)”
–Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning’

“Everyone’s suspicious in my book.”
–Brandon Hobson, Desolation of Avenues Untold

Brandon Hobson’s novel Desolation of Avenues Untold is interested in the purposes of culture and reproduction: a novel of duplicity in both senses of the word. We are immediately introduced to our protagonist Born Chaplin, who is often assumed to be a descendent of his namesake, star of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin. This connection provides the root for the novel’s action: a rare reel of film Charlie had shot in his own private dwellings, a sex-tape for his own private purposes, has gone missing and is now the focus of rumour. Hobson gives a list of its possible locations, but the world thinks it’s in Desolate City – a dusty town on the peripheries of West Texas – and that Born knows something of its whereabouts. The story itself is unpretentious: a race to the finish, a hunt for this lost film. However, Hobson’s treatment of the film, and both his various considerations of its possible pornographic content, and the disputed existence of the tape itself opens up a plethora of symbolic associations within the novel, allowing Hobson room to manoeuvre around the possible applications of art, the function of cultural history and the trappings of personality as read through the impossible allure of the authentic. We’re all copyists at heart, for Hobson, but in our appropriations we are looking for a silhouetted self within our own canons of objects. Through that struggle, Hobson stages an exploration of the potential link between fact and fiction and the bleed of each sphere across the dividing line that separates them. Again, the work is duplicitous in both senses of the word.

Hobson’s Desolation brackets itself with a sense of its own contradictions. In the fictive correspondences that act as endnote to the action, Hobson identifies the work as “a mixture of fiction and historical fact.” Any view of the novel as an amalgam of fact and falsity is disrupted, however, by the Author’s Note that precedes the work: the staple proclamation that reminds us of its primary status as fiction. Its balance slips towards unreality: “the names of people, places, or organizations” used are “products of the author’s imagination” – any representation should not “denote any real places or organizations or actual persons living, dead, or otherwise.” This is not a radical lens with which to perceive this fiction, nor argue a more general function thereof, but for Hobson it illustrates a theme central to the novel’s course: that work cannot bear the strain of our interpretations, that interpretation itself needs be conveyed as a form of fantasy, that a conception of cultural exceptionality is fantasy.

Mister Lonely

Denis Lavant as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator in Mister Lonely (dir. Harmony Korine, 2007)

These theses are exercised through the centrism of Chaplin’s errant sex-tape-as-fetish-object within the work’s action and its interests. The entrenchment of smut within the private life, and as a thing disjunctive with public perception, is foregrounded through the narrative’s stresses on this private object – a film Charlie may or may not have made during the more propitious years of his celebrity, a film that may or may not show Chaplin in a compromised position. The “sex-tape” that provides Hobson’s punctum is thus elevated within his symbolism; its association herein is with a canonical history of culture that pursues an envisioning of cultural consumption over and above production as focus. The tape requires application – its use value is only ever relative to personality – which in turn provides the frame for an eventual digestion. Pornography appears to have little purpose here but to provide an outline of personality for Hobson. The tape becomes the hook on which he hangs the threads of character throughout the novel. We learn about the work’s inhabitants through the surplus value of the tape – be it political, academic or carnal, Chaplin’s performance is reflexive. Hobson’s account of the history and contents of Chaplin’s film acts as an addendum to personality, and develops throughout as a means to outline private fantasy. It informs a view of the ways in which people perform identity in public places and yet only fully exist in private rooms. Rather than showing or telling, Hobson seems more obliquely interested in the trappings of self-reflection.

In pursuit of such a notion, towards the end of the novel’s first section, one of Hobson’s characters attempts at a maxim that shifts in its indication away from the privacy of a private conversation to intimate something of the maximal concerns of his writing: “We’re interested in reflexive spirits and the exploration of the self.” The notion of “reflexivity” – that the denoted pronoun would always refer back to the subject of its clause – is the best terminology we have with which to intimate the symbolic propensity of the sex-tape in terms of its broader relation to the novelistic in Desolation and its status as some kind of apotheosis within his network of metaphors.

But this is as much about the novel’s geography as it is about its characters. Situated in West Texas, perhaps Texas itself is also a part of Hobson’s aesthetic conundrum. The lone-star is a lonely epithet – self-reflexive – an image that aims to distract us from any question of relation. Scarcely alluding to any neighbouring territory, Hobson’s work aims for an envisaging of itself as an elevated symbol: a distant and seceded Texas. There is a strong case to be made for the book as a treatise on secession as an aesthetic principle; we’ve no constellation, only a single star. TX, as symbol, will always try and refer only to itself, and only as afterthought will it allow the mind to wander outwards, either west or east, to a parenthetical ‘America’ as it may be gleaned.

Not far into the text we learn that the ‘Desolate City’ that stages the action is a replica NYC, including parts of the city that, although “wholly reimagined”, are still “reflections of New York.” Here it’s armadillos rather than rats that run the gutters. The reproduction of NYC is an echo of Hobson’s interest in the symbolic potential of the Hollywood actor – another method with which to exercise his interests in performance, authenticity and celebrity. Hollywood’s ghosts populate the town – we hear that someone has caught thirty seconds of footage on their phone of Myrna Loy; Lou Chany, Clara Bow and Douglas Fairbanks haunt a downtown hotel. Their sightings are either scarce, or have gone unnoticed. “New York is being built right here in West Texas,” Hobson writes, they’re building New York on “the flattest fucking land on earth.” It’s geography within Desolation, however, that allows for Hobson’s more discursive perambulations on personality. The tape is “probably somewhere in Texas,” and TX provides a moment of reflexivity. In talking about TX, Hobson infers we’re always talking about ourselves, about our failures to see thoroughly beyond ourselves, our inability to thoroughly excavate or explore a self away from geographical or social exigencies. Our drive is towards historical inevitability and, ultimately, we end with mimicry; that’s what culture is for in Desolate City. We try and coerce and collate our moments of self-reflection together into a coherent whole but, as one of Hobson’s characters suggests, recollection is always fractal. Again, the tape becomes a pertinent metaphor here as the distinction between the single frame and the moving picture becomes a method to pattern out the distinction between live-as-lived and biographical memory. Trying to remember the 1970’s, all that can be recalled are fragments. “Weird, dream like fragments.” Scenes that only ambiguously relay “certain places” and particular actions. “Eating crab-cakes with my ex-wife in Galveston. Fishing with my brother on Lake Tenkiller. Cutting a line, snorting coke. Watching a woman in Deep Ellum shoot drugs between her toes.” Hobson’s secession can be surmised through the punctuation that separates and regulates these images: the full stop that prevents them bleeding into one another, the action that accentuates and frames each individual impression. This seems to be the significance of geography to the book – we’re given an inventory of the work’s fictional avenues and areas apropos of a preface – and the importance of Texas in its provision of a frame. We’ve a lone star and an issue with relation, a problem with constellation.

Brandon Hobson

Loy, Chany, Bow and Fairbanks are not the novel’s only ghosts; a Michael Stipe look-a-like has seen the sex-tape that preoccupies the narrative. A rough gem from cinema’s golden age, we’re encouraged to imagine the details and venerated silences of this homespun-antique-pornography throughout; is Chaplin in front “or behind the camera”? Is he sitting in “a sunlit room in perfect black and white,” or standing ahead of “a woman’s face”? The tape – “an unfinished masterpiece,” as it is quietly referred to – supports Hobson’s recurrent interest in privacy, publicity and application. It instigates a broader inquiry into technology, and how our imaginings of the tape constitute some view of fiction’s place relative to the slippage of those terms. Commenting on the tape’s plausible existence, an “unknown journalist located somewhere in the south-west” suggests that the secrecy surrounding the tape confirms its existence – the announcement of its existence would only dim its fantasy. “We’re living in the technology age – a time of surveillance, camera’s everywhere, cell phone recordings, conspiracies, no privacy.” It’s only a matter of time, suggests this anonymous journalist, before the tape is brought to the attention of the public – before its fetishised fantasy slips into empirical fact – before it loses the allure of story. There on in we then have little but a question of the tape’s possible manifestations relative to the wants of Hobson’s characters. We have a simple picture of bodies, either undressing or undressed, but Hobson antagonises that image; we need to look for more than a meagre pleasure or any depiction thereof. We need Chaplin making animal noises; Chaplin at home in casual dress; Chaplin smoking demurely; Chaplin making small talk with a woman. The stage allows Hobson to intimate something about connectivity – the structuration of symbols and our various relationships with them that can never be cogently articulated, our want for something more than the mechanical simplicity of motor movements. The undulation of limbs ahead of clothes spreading the floor is an image he binds with nostalgia; fantasy hits at nothing but the various notes of private or ungracious memories, providing another node within that cloudy network of thinking that bunches up behind a name or an identity. The sex-tape in isolation is causeless, but Charlie’s association lengthens the reach for referents outside of its direct action and aids in its constitution as cultural object. But the tape’s disputed existence is key here. Hobson’s intimation is perhaps that what you don’t see is the root point of fantasy; that fantasy, however perverse, speaks volumes as to the personal pretexts that precede the reception of any given perception, or any given work of art. In talking about pornography, Hobson seems to be talking over the efforts of application. How can we possibly employ a single star, and use it as a codification for something else? Hobson is suggesting, perhaps, that fiction can never be parabolic. There’s an irony, then, that for all this rhetorical delusion and religiosity, both our protagonist and object of attention would run by the name “Chaplin.” The more important Chaplin here is Charlie, however – no clergy member. Here he is our single star; maybe Chaplin and TX are interchangeable epithets.

Modern Times

Modern Times (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

The text is littered with replicas, and rather than allowing the replica to restore any faith in an objective real they become Hobson’s tools for distraction and deflection, a means with which to thoroughly explore the distinctions between life, art and philosophical thought:

You remember the Michael Stipe look-a-like? […] The same Michael Stipe look-a-like from the bar in Deep Ellum who kept talking about Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony and all the Socratic dialectic bullshit and about how speculation never fully ripens in Plato, or whatever, which really just circled back around to the original question he kept bringing up that Kierkegaard asks, does the mythical belong to Plato or Socrates? …and blah and blah, none of which he ever got around to answering by the way, as it turned out he was just trying to impress Meg and get into her pants […]. […] The Michael Stipe look-a-like who saw the ghosts of Dorothy Gish and John Barrymore in some sort of strange Kama Sutra pose on the hardwood floor of the old Nugget Hotel downtown here in D.C., that lying piece of shit.

This Michael Stipe claimed to have seen the Chaplin film – “He talked in Circles” – “He fragmented narrative” – “He was doing something more than just trying to get into Meg’s pants.” He had had everyone believing in Chaplin’s ghost. The “ghost” as a repeating trope throughout the book proves emblematic of Hobson’s cynical criticality. Whilst his allusions to the ‘Deep Ellum’ district are themselves ghosts of his previous work (his novel of that same name was published last year), the conception of the ‘ghost’ appears as an effort on Hobson’s behalf to better frame a defective relationship with a history of ideas. The novel is covered in echoes; there is a transvestite called Echo, there are the two Chaplins – Charlie and our protagonist – there is the litany of deceased Hollywood actors, a body of impersonators, a singer trying to associate himself with his more wayward youth. An echo, of course, decays; it incrementally shifts and lessens in value the longer its lifespan. The original point of influence can still be heard, however, and is recognisable throughout all of its diminishing returns. The faded copy is Hobson’s tract on auraticism, or the difficulties we now have in defining such a thing. We find it increasingly difficult to appreciate the authentic and isolated object within the narrative. Hobson infers that, instead, we are more excited by the erratic contexts ushered in rather than the thing itself: the portrayal of the social function of an object over and above its private or personal significance. The sex-tape in this instance then reads like a book. It behaves as an incendiary remark on the difficulties of celebrity – of authorial accountability – and our persistent effort to exonerate an individual and hold them up as equivocal with something epochal, something defining. They’ll always pertain to something prior – something past – and that marks the root of fantasy for Hobson. It illustrates the flat land upon which we build our replicas and transform fact. Singularity is a fantasy.

This critical veneer is parodied in Hobson’s emphasis on the sex-tape. The film is variously referred to as a hoax, a fraud, a lie, and a necessity, but it is ultimately about fantastic singularity. This is a book about the fact that every idea is a fantasy, and how every fantasy affects reality; a book about how personality and celebrity are novelistic enough as tropes to do away with any need for novels. The fact that this novel was written, and subsequently read, feels like Hobson’s punch-line on the subject. He makes a play with our perversities whilst eliding a picture of his own.

 

Dominic Jaeckle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015.