:: Article

The Empty Hourglass: Mike Kleine’s Cosmology in Kanley Stubrick

By E.G. Cunningham.

Kanley Stubrick

Mike Kleine, Kanley Stubrick (We Heard You Like Books, 2016)

Kanley Stubrick, a novella-in-verse by Mike Kleine, opens with a seemingly-benign precipitating chain of events: a young couple watch a documentary on World War II airplanes; the television interrupts with a commercial for a Kawasaki Ki-100; woman loses shoes; woman disappears; the allusive protagonist, known only as capital-H He, seeks her whereabouts, circumnavigates the globe in gender-bending couture—and encounters his own struggles in the process. As the narrator attempts to locate his lover, the storyline branches into the conflicting and mysterious epiphenomena of a disintegrating world. The protagonist’s oscillations from ancient to modern frames of meaning functions as the essential rhetorical question of Kanley Stubrick—that is, how and to what degree are disparate ecologies related?

Novelists often speak of “world-building” as a means of achieving verisimilitude. In Kanley Stubrick, world is simultaneously built (“In the third event this year / South America happens”) and dismantled (“But nothing ever belongs to anyone / anymore”). In L’Avventura (1960), the first film in Antonioni’s trilogy, a young woman disappears from a Mediterranean cruise ship. In the original version of the fighting game Tekken (1994), undefeated champion Kazuya throws his father’s body from a cliff. In 1778, botanist Ruiz Lopez arrives in Lima; his documentation of South American pharmacology and ethnobotany would be extensive. In Kanley Stubrick, references reinforce one another in nets of association; the sky is glass, and glitter, variously; the year is indeterminate and time both fatal and eternal; corporate brands have been familiarized into common nouns; the horrible and the numinous coexist.

Kleine’s novella-in-verse achieves ephemeral constancy through the use of the fragment as a signal for filmic cuts. Part of the anchoring effect of Kanley is due to its treatment of both the continuous and the discontinuous: “This new and mysterious dream. / where / everything feels like it is burning” confronts the startlingly-contemporary observation “it’s like real lyfe”. Scenario, rather than plot, guides the movement of Stubrick: the protagonist eats steak and chopped liver and “Brimley onions”; He “witnesses the birth of a planet, in / high definition. / He cannot finish the Port”. Stubrick’s simultaneity is paradoxical: in the world of postmodern eternalism, materiality is both more and less real.

Kleine’s decision to cast ecological and humanitarian crises against absurdist, late-capitalist backdrops allows for an experience of Kanley Stubrick that is more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, it is the pastiche itself that speaks loudest in Kanley Stubrick. The book’s world is one in which eternal recurrence results in uncanny, sometimes tender, doublings and triplings: the protagonist notes a billboard advertisement of young men jumping from a cliff, invoking the association of the Tekken game to come; in another passage, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” plays, echoing the protagonist’s reading of Paradise Lost. And yet, these hints at fate are frequently undercut by the Everyman role of Kleine’s protagonist, who affectively responds to shifts in environment with discomfiting equanimity. Such apathy is noted early, as by the protagonist’s lover: “‘why are you watching aeroplanes’, she / says, in the form of a question with no / question mark”. He responds: “‘It seemed interesting at the time, I don’t / know—I was bored…but it might—I think it / may get better, I don’t know’”. It may get better—the unnamed protagonist drives a Prius, seeks the missing, and shows a poignant fascination with history and machinery—and it may not: the protagonist suffers an immobilising panic attack, becomes an inmate on Prison Island, and rents a helicopter because “it seemed like something to do.” The surreal has become quotidian—the protagonist, desperate for a sense of belonging, joins a cult for three years. Action folds in like episodic memory, often unrecoverable and irretrievable.

kazuya throws father from cliff tekken

The protagonist’s peripatetic habits reinforce the questions of desire and meaning that are central to Kanley Stubrick. In the first section, “A few hours pass and He leaves to go / to Lahore. / He’s gone for like maybe a week. / He stops and visits Casablanca on the way back—just because. / Also, a volcano somewhere near / Casablanca, in Tangier most likely. / (the / sea / evaporates)”. In Kleine’s world, geography competes with the digital for its distraction-abating / distraction-reinforcing possibilities; yet despite the ease and availability of place, place is and has been disappearing.

Comments on gender and sexuality thread subtly through the book—almost imperceptibly, and almost always intertwined with elements of colonialism, sacrifice, and consumerism. For instance, the narrator often sports high fashion womenswear, and the brands lead us to further relationships between production and distribution (Britain and India, Russia and France) and questions of historical trauma (a haircut in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, the queer center of Tokyo, is performed by a man from—possibly?—Hiroshima).

Mike Kleine embeds deep layers of postcolonial commentary and ecocriticism and anthropocenic concerns into the “superficiality” of late capitalism. Everything in this book links to something other than itself, and these zones of reference enrich the particular, expanding and collapsing into a (dis)unified field. The chronology of the work seems to exist within an eternalist or block theory of time, especially given the references to eternal recurrence. There seems to be a block theory of space, as well—the unnamed protagonist exists in alternate geographies almost with the ease of switching digital channels. There is an element of erasure in Kanley Stubrick—of history, geography, selfhood, and language—that informs each circling back with bittersweet surprise. The erasure is instructive without ever lapsing into didacticism: Stubrick offers potential rewrites rather than tells of what could have (or should have) been.

Is the narrator in fact a post-end-of-the-world savior? There is much in the book to suggest so. The number three carries special significance in Kanley Stubrick: three holy mountains, three years spent in the cult, the “third event,” L’Avventura as the first of a trilogy. If indeed He represents a postmodern messiah, the question of Kanley Stubrick becomes what, exactly, needs saving. This is the second, more difficult, problem posed by Kleine: that of recapturing the mysterious, personal, and original insights in a global space of increasing complexity and relativity.

Mike Kleine has extended the absurdist and metamodern culture-scape of his previous book, Mastodon Farm, into the realm of Kanley Stubrick, but where the former often reads as collapse or satire, Kanley Stubrick offers faint traces of the transcendent. Stubrick’s He creates a rift in the Bildungsroman tradition, and thus the novella achieves a scrambling of chronotope and historicity. Such historically-rooted collapse allows for statements, such as, “He feels like it’s the 90s all over / again. / And then, in the sky, the / words apparent and candid”, to resonate within a network of causal relationships. Through repetition, Kleine transforms signifiers into symbols, and in so doing, creates a startling and mystical space that often—empty though that space may first appear—feels uncannily familiar. Like its argot-esque title, Kanley Stubrick is at once disorienting, smart, coded and encoding, and worth many readings.


E.G. Cunningham

E.G. Cunningham is the author of Apologetics (Finishing Line Press 2016) and Ex Domestica (C&R Press 2017). Her poetry and prose have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Nation, Poetry London, RHINO, Hobart, The Poetry Review and other journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia in Athens.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016.