What New Chaos
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Once, as a professor, he had thrown a baseball against a closed
classroom window to illustrate the spiderwebbing effect of narrative in
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.
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
The gap that appears when Ephraim leaves the frame to chase down his
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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