What New Chaos
Nicholas Rombes

It wasn't always like this, Ephraim says, years later, on VHS. This must have been around '74 or '75. The cassette bears marks of violence.

It wasn't always like what? an off-camera voice asks.

There's a very long pause. Ephraim's gaze drifts into the surrounding forest. He looks like a person who's been napalmed. His neck is shiny with old scars. His black hair is patchy.

This, he says, fumbling to light yet another cigarette, nodding to something out there, as if the forest itself were an entity. He's at a weather-worn picnic table. His shirt is Nirvana-era denim, as if grunge had slipped back in time and caught him up for the three-minute-and-thirty-four-second duration of this tape.

The old professor, dead now to the world. The very world that he had brought into being. A man of theory, began the letter announcing his dismissal from the university, must be at all times vigilant, lest his ideas yield actions hostile to theory itself.

And so began, in 1972, the shutting down and disassembling of the 1960s. Or so it seemed.

He's not particularly eloquent. It's only after the fourth or fifth viewing that you realize where the hidden action is. In between the trees. Ephraim's words are just cover. The sort of bitter, dustbin-of-history philosophizing you'd expect from a man who had predicted punk was the harbinger of a truly revolutionary accelerationist movement, only to see it swallowed like everything else into the networked, invisible machinery of our age.

We're watching the tape in Marlene's basement apartment, with its warped, damp walls, around the time of Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior). In fact, the tape itself had been dubbed over a copied version of Mad Max, which of course confirms our most exotic theories about haunted media in the age of the remainder.

Wasn't always like what? the off-camera voice asks again, at which point Ephraim twists out his cigarette on the patchy and slanted picnic table and proceeds to take out from his denim shirt pocket a sheaf of folded yellow papers—obviously his well-worn and now irrelevant research notes—and begins to read. But the wind has picked up and in a gust they fly out of his hands, screen left. He moves faster than you'd expect, leaving the frame, presumably, to chase down the pages. The camera doesn't follow him but remains fixed on the empty picnic table and the tall pine trees swaying in the sun in the background. And in that background, between the trees, there's a slight blank spot—a gap—that reminds you of its presence, but just barely. Ephraim returns to the frame, page recovered.

It wasn't always like this. The nostalgic lament of an ex-academic, or a prophesy disguised as something backwards-looking? Ephraim had always told us to read between the lines and against the grain. Wasn't that what Marlene and I were doing now, with this tape? Wasn't that what we had been doing for years, with each other? And where had it gotten us?

Once, as a professor, he had thrown a baseball against a closed classroom window to illustrate the spiderwebbing effect of narrative in Mrs. Dalloway, but instead of cracking the glass the ball sailed through it cleanly, leaving a hole roughly the size of the ball itself. He lit a cigarette in frustration and then, in anger, flicked it into the class. This was the visible and symbolic beginning of his end.

He believed in the tunnels. He really did. That they—like the glass he could not transform with a thrown ball—spiderwebbed beneath these United States. He assigned us paranoid novels that spoke to this truth. He asked us to underline passages, look into each other's eyes and read them to each other, causing some of us to fall in love, at least for a semester. That's how I met Marlene, my underlining partner, with the red-streaked hair and fake tattoos. We read our lines to each other, and then agreed that we would pretend to not love each other.

And the VHS tape, what new chaos does it portend? Already, we can feel our brains curdling, a feedback loop growing between us and the TV set. We pause the tape right at the moment when whatever it is that isn't there emerges from the gap in the forest behind Ephraim, all frame-dragged and distended, like an avalanche of melting pixels.

The force of our generation, that's what it is, says Marlene, pointing the remote at the television like a weapon.

The front part of my brain doesn't know what she means, but in the back part of it I do. The tape—and I've spent the better part of ten years trying to rid myself of this thought—the tape can't seem to shake itself free of the widening gap between the trees.

The gap that appears when Ephraim leaves the frame to chase down his papers.

Already widening, filling the frame, the blankness pushes against the boundaries of the TV set, cracking it open, expanding slowly against the basement walls, erasing everything and, as Marlene takes my hand to run, I understand what it is that needs to be destroyed.

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series. He works in Detroit, Michigan.

Read more of his work in the archive.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Rob Sheridan.

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