:: Article

One Break, A Thousand Blows!

By Richard Marshall.


Maxi Kim, One Break, A Thousand Blows!, Book Works Semina series (No.2), 2008

When is a novel a novel, a joke a joke, art art etc? The artist Richard Prince’s jokes are anti-jokes but to be so, they remain jokes but come back with an additional aplomb. ‘ I went to a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.’ A forgery of a joke. A forgey of a self. Can all sheep really be rebellious carnivors? Mr Trippy is not himself entirely. This is not a sentence. This sentence is not true. A card with the same message on both sides: ‘ The message on the other side is false.’ There are, it seems, no truth makers here. Yet the boring propositional paradoxes of the anti-relativist claim that all is relative become mysterious and beguiling when transposed into something other than mere formal play. Enchantment and the paradoxes of desire can be thrilling and sweet.

This thus is the sweetest of novels. There is nothing more traumatic than the artificiality of sweetness, few things as satisfying to the state of the interior whittled down to the few left-over bits of bone bobbing on a river swollen with lilies. This is a novel that is flooding with lists, each list an act of weird delicacy, each list the vast catalogue of bibliofile denial of the possibility of lists with a purpose. Lists with attitude are jokes wrapped in enigmas doubled up as sherbert faux diaboliques. A reality that turns in on itself in a dream-like, beautiful way, delicate as a clichéd literary conceit, an endless procession of loveliness, of dreams of order and coherence suggesting paradoxically a radical freedom from pre-planned manacled curriculum-led theory and a systematic fetishisation of school grades.

Though there is a fear and terror, a loathing of reality and humanism… ‘unfavourable opinions about Cornel West and a few side salads…reality was a total obscenity. He found no meaning in it…’(p67) books and girls and boys and professors and mountains and ruminations on cities … ‘What does London want…What does Tokyo want…?’ snow and snow monkeys make clear that for every dud tomato on the side-plate there are enough bonus lettuce Crimeans to make the taste calmative stay rouged up to the nostrils. Even when you’re tripping with Mr Trippy you are, after all, somewhere. Enlightenment is not, after all, just knowing the idiocy of feet hair.

Kim’s idea of obscenity is what tends towards meaninglessness without emotion and an undead authority. This is contrasted with his enchanted genealogies which sprout emotive meanings in abundance and call for refinement and clarity and submergence. Kim’s lists are the refining of the palette, a clearing of the throat for a more gorgeous intoxication. The strange flow of the novel – and despite initial appearances this book still pulls its reader through a genuinely satisfying narrative thread – has the grace of youthful endearing passion. It is a novel that cares about its characters, all of them plagiarized, dreamt, stolen, duplicated, made artificial. Like Richard Prince’s anti-joke paintings, they are capable of the same resonance of something that might once have been considered the origin – a real joke – but they are paradoxically enriched by having been drained of authenticity, of having gone missing.

Prince in his painting manages this ‘draining’ through removing the joke from its place of origin – either the mouth (spoken joke) or the magazine cartoon – and repositioning them in a different format, painting them, blowing them up to an enormous size, repeating them and so on. Kim’s lists have the same effect of appropriating ideas and deepening them through the act of listing itself. The lists can therefore have resonance and narrative purpose (and anything else he likes them to have – scene setting, character explanation, mood enhancement, atmospherics etc etc). Take, for instance, the one on page 68. The revulsion with the idea of reality incorporates the dream of incorporating, modifying and hybridizing those who already accommodate the distance between reality and something that isn’t reality, the dreamers, artists, enchanters of his character’s mind – so he asks what he needs; ‘A more intellectual Andy Warhol? A more abject Cindy Sherman? A more dynamic Agnes Martin…’ and so on and so on. Ideal types become idealised, the dream becomes folded into something made more perfect, more wonderous. Better salad.

The clever purpose of each of Kim’s list contradicts some of the usual purposes of lists, one of which is, as Catherine Lupton writes in an essay on Chris Marker, ‘…to sneak off the royal road of linear narrative and bypass the need to tell a proper story into the byways and detours of digression, whimsy, free association, mosaic construction or just one damn thing after another.’ Well, maybe we’re just too good at staying on the road whilst daydreaming. It’ll take more than some damn lists to distract us these days. Or maybe it’s just that some lists aren’t designed to work like typical lists. No doubt there is something of a ‘pure feint’, of Cocteau’s ‘Seeing as these things are beyond us, let’s pretend to organize them…’, of Stein’s ‘name dropping.’ No doubt.

And some lists are a burden and remain unreadable. Kim’s avoid that prat-fall. His enumeration is anything but logical. Yet to restore, elaborate and classify, even, is paradoxically a project recognizable from Renaissance humanism – the restoration of ‘good letters’, wherein the role of Asian villains is taken by the Goths, Italy to the rescue, which leads ‘da Cimabue in puoi’ to the perfection of Michaelangelo, as the dodge artist Gombrich puts it somewhere. Again, the droll apercu – Kim’s anti-humanism is a better humanism as well as a damnation on all its houses.

Perversity has its roots in Alexander, the successor of Apelles of Cos, painting Xerxes bridling the ocean with a bridge, the piercing of Mount Athos, Plataera streaming with too much blood and the wealth of the Medes vanquished painted by the Tuscan Pullus. Where dull lists attempt to control, suggesting a riveted, pinned, gridded-out cognition, something all planned and imprisoning, in Kim they seem to be merely the chance concatanation of things, suggesting that there’s nothing fixed here, nothing like a syllabus at all. The precision is just a vague impression of precision.

What is left to be told? Can we subsume the novel and its stories under some intelligent concept? Decline and corruption is clearly one option. Everything is this, or the opposite. A miraculous rescue. This is clearly an old trope, a mannerism of the conservative imagination, the dead end that can breed, nevertheless, a radical continuity. So perhaps Kim’s Mannerism can have a reality of its own. Egypt and Mondrian. Style as a hypothesis. Can we not assume perhaps that Kim is not throwing away the baby with the bathwater but rather merely offering a different way of approaching the same thing – a better way but going the same direction? Have we become so used to assuming the auto-destructive urges of the great Gustav Metzger, whereby ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected’ that every solution that appears to be such a re-enactment is goose-marched into that reading and that reading alone?

Kim’s book pays attention to subscribers to this view but his solution doesn’t have the feel for any such intimidation. It lacks the stealth, the heavy artillery, the militarism of such an approach. It cannot mount the assault necessary to deliver the force that we find in the confrontations of an artist like Richard Prince or a writer like Stewart Home despite everything.

This is not a traumatic read, which the dead-pan, anti-art art of Prince and anti-novel novels of Home are. There is desire in the novel, and a mannerism that is pure ‘writing’, style, fore-grounded and redolent with the anxiety of a real novel, real narrative, close to an appropriated ‘stream of consciousness’ designed to signal a real connection with a psychological realism that, wonderfully, the narration only vaguely understands. It’s a book that doesn’t know as much as its characters, its thinkers, its lists, its editor. No bad thing that. The book is, rather like the Henry James novella What Maisy Knew, one that knows less than its author and its readers.

At the book’s launch reading, Kim insisted that the lists were more than ‘dead lists’ in that he had done the research and knew what each name was about. Hilariously, when he broke off from reading to ask whether he should explain why Heidegger was mentioned in one of his lists Mr Trippy himself interjected with a grin and said that he should certainly not because they’d end up having a row. Mr Trippy explained that he hated Heidegger. The point of mentioning this is that Kim’s reading was incredibly dramatic because he read seemingly against the wishes of the book. The book wanted to be a story, the author knew it was the equivalent of a Prince joke and the tension, nay, downright conflict, between the two created a hilarious, joyful and unresolved, probably unresolvable, drama.

The perversity of the book rests in this conflict. It can’t be avoided by any sprightly reader. The conflict in fact works in both directions, to add to the multiplicity of its perversity. The book also, simultaneously, presents itself as a text. The beautifully produced object with its lists, white spaces, blanked out lines and so on comes on as if an artful glory of semiotextual post-post structuralist nnnnnn to reveal, once more, how regna cadunt luxu and the possibilities of treating the Tournament of S, Croce as a mere reportage. It looks like a text, thinks like a text but it reads like a novel.

When Home confronts this potential paradox he kicks in with a good few jokes to keep his face straight and the bomb detonated. Kim doesn’t really do jokes and so doesn’t do Homean anti-jokes either. Thus his book resists the act of destruction, remaining too energized to be able to pull off anything like the draining blankness of the Warhol, Prince, Home, Metzger funnies. This is not a criticism. Home commissioned and helped edit this and what we have is a great read in the sarcophagus anti-humanist style but done as what Renaissance artist Guilio Romano called narrative all’antica, whose rule is to maximize movement within minimal space.

The interlacing action of the narrative Kim presents, a tangle of human limbs and interlocking bodies, pile up to create a seething action to the reader recalling the struggling group of Leonardo’s Anghiari cartoon rather than any classical prototype. Yet Kim is not failing to either to produce a classical Jamesian motif nor to embrace an anti-classical Homean opposite; rather he has developed an alternative to the classical through application of the laws of economy and the minimal. Perhaps thus the real origin of this might be the Beckett of the anti-chess chess players and ‘…The street for vehicles, the sidewalk for pedestrians. Like a bit of the Old Testement.’ The absurdity of absurdity is a cheese salad with too much egg. It is a book of youthful voices, boys and girls, all zesty youthful ardour where, again expelling Beckett, ‘we may reason to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.’

Richard Marshall (centre) is former editor of 3:AM and his essay on Stewart Home appeared in its fifth anniversary anthology The Edgier Waters (2006). He lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 11th, 2008.