:: Article

Reservoirs of Silence

By David Winters.


Miranda Mellis, The Spokes, Solid Objects, 2012.

The Spokes starts with its narrator’s arrival in the ‘afterworld,’ the land of the dead, although it is not the one her preconceptions of heaven and hell have prepared her for. Instead the hereafter is a holding pattern, a moratorium, where the newly deceased drift around in an aimless ‘amnesiac hustle,’ absorbing music and movies, ingesting not lotus flowers but ‘cold green gelatin.’ Here Lucia Spoke meets Silver Spoke, her dead mother; a tightrope walker, possible suicide, and ‘the last performer in the Spokes family line.’

‘She looked just as I had last seen her, the day of her fall from the high wire… my mother in her Spokes Cirque Rêve costume, as colourful as a summer bird.’

Time passes, or perhaps not, as the afterworld is ‘a realm whose primary substance is not time.’ Soon Lucia’s mother receives a message: ‘Tell your living to remember.’ The pair then possess Lucia’s still-living father, Leo, during an epileptic episode. He drives (or they drive him) to a cemetery, where he fails to find either of their graves, but achieves a broader communion with the ‘thousands of bones underneath him.’ Later, Lucia suggests to Silver that they should attempt something similar, conversing not just with their fellow ‘recent arrivals’ but also with the ‘ancient dead,’ a vast and unknown population.


So goes the story of The Spokes, although simply to call it a ‘story’ would be insufficient. Any text that tells a story also suggests a situation, but The Spokes shows a story submerged in its situation, such that a silence washes over it. We see the ship sink, and then, where it was, we witness the waters that bore it. Miranda Mellis’s writing is driven not by narrative logic but by magical acts of disclosure, of world-revealing. The syntax of stories is syntagmatic, whereas worlds are holistic; The Spokes is both, a story untold in its telling so as to unveil an emergent whole. And for this reason it needs to be read all at once. As with any of Mellis’s works, to stop would be to break the spell, severing story from world. To resume after an interruption would be to read another text, just as we can’t return to our dreams in the daylight.

From its outset The Spokes is strewn with mythological symbols. Cerberus and Persephone are alluded to in the first few pages, as if to assert that the world of the work is not that of real life. Only somehow it is. In the truth of its experiential tenor this false world makes itself known as our own. Furthermore, such uncertainty can’t be safely explained by citing critical concepts—familiar theories of the ‘fantastic,’ for instance. Mellis’s fictions infringe Tzvetan Todorov’s rule that fantastic tales ‘must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons… and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of events.’ In this respect The Spokes recalls the stories in Mellis’s tellingly titled collection None of This is Real. There the fantastic is not an eruption in the everyday, a figure which reconfigures the ground of the commonplace. Rather, it is the other way around. Each story is a tissue of unreal events—from mutations to telepathy—into which intrude instances of the ordinary: health insurance; queuing for coffee. Mellis’s texts are fantastic tales in reverse, where reality ruptures the field of fiction. Here the real is what estranges and unsettles us; as Lacan remarked, the real is the impossible.


Whenever the real appears in a work of art, questions are raised regarding the work’s social or political weight. Mellis herself seems to see her stories as responses to ‘real’ problems. The press release for None of This is Real refers to ‘the loss of family, heritage, ecosystems, agency, and power,’ and the protagonist of the title story speaks of his ‘political despair.’ In Mellis’s case, perhaps the question of art’s political content could be cast as a question of allegory—that is, the kind of question we might ask of writers like Kafka. Indeed, The Spokes often evokes the Kafkaesque, with its bureaucratic tone, and its ghosts who await opaque messages regarding ‘where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do once they got there.’ Moreover, in Mellis’s work as in Kafka’s, social facts are made manifest as ambiguities: as what one character calls ‘occult typologies,’ obscure causes which seem to steer the narrative, yet which never arrive at an explicit meaning. Ultimately, and again as in Kafka, such ambiguities resist allegorical reading, since to specify their sense would be to reduce them back to facts; to strand them in factuality, whereas the truth of such facts is finally found in their fictionalisation. If the real world has, as Nietzsche proclaimed, become a ‘fable,’ maybe real unfreedom will only be understood when figured as mysticism, as fate.


Thus The Spokes transforms its constitutive terms, approaching a transcendent indeterminacy. Within the narrative, the question ‘what is it like?’ is always at issue, and is always eluded, exceeded. To ask what something is like is to cause a story to come into being, but this opening question is also what closes the scope of all stories, what puts a stop to them. The Spokes breaks through this logical circle: when Lucia asks Silver, ‘what was it like between life and death?’ her mother replies that ‘it wasn’t really like anything,’ in the same way that language qua ‘likeness’ can’t capture her complex motives for falling from the high wire. In short, some stories cannot be told; and The Spokes is a story about such stories. In this sense the text attempts to re-enter what it refers to as ‘reservoirs of silence.’ As suggested below, it does so by means of two inextricable themes: memory and family secrets:

‘The statement what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence had proven useful to us… A family naturally gives up on the insoluble, the unanswerable, the hopeless cases—they are like fossils or mythology. Such subjects are practically Palaeolithic in their indecipherability… For the Spokes, the subject of our silence formed an unacknowledged nucleus around which we orbited with backs turned, looking out at the universe, but never inward. If history brings us all together, secrets dwell on the underside of it, beyond the remedy, reach, and solvency of speech.’

Here the Spokes form a wheel whose hub is the secret of Silver’s unspoken, unproven suicide. Such secrets exist on history’s underside, alongside the ‘thousands of bones’ beneath the cemetery, and with the ‘ancient dead’ whom Silver says are ‘invisible to us, out of time, unrepresentable.’ But if the afterworld stands outside of time, for Lucia it opens onto a deeper ‘duration.’ This duration is, as she puts it, ‘pre-clock-time,’ an ancestral time in which all far-flung families are reconciled in memory. But it is also the deep time of the story; the silent world which rises within and around it. Frank Kermode once compared fictional time to the aevum, the time of angels. The ‘time-order of novels,’ he argued, partook of both movement and stillness, spanning the temporal and the eternal, ‘like a stick in a river.’ The same could be said of The Spokes, a story which somehow sloughs off time, so as to approach the pure time of fiction. A whirlpool with a whole world at its still, silent centre.


David Winters is a literary critic and a co-editor at 3:AM. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books and others. Links to his work are at Why Not Burn Books?

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 24th, 2012.