Invisible Collagism

From the Literature Clock, a project I love for its particularity, its ridiculousness, and weird genius

In a throwaway anonymous blogging project between fifteen and twenty years ago, I spent some months making poems, or hyperlinked poem-like objects, that were collages of a sort, composed entirely out of lines quoted from other people’s published poems. I cited each line by linking it to the site where I’d found the text of its original poem. The game was to choose lines in such a way that they worked together, in some aesthetic that I can’t quite recapture now but at least still feel that there was in fact a there there, something a little like a Dadaist cut-up, I suppose, though I only encountered those later and was not intentionally trying to emulate them.

(Why was this a blogging project instead of a document? I don’t think anybody was reading that blog. Perhaps the occasional random passerby. It was a public project but not one particularly meant to be encountered, if that makes sense: “publishing” these poetic-extract objects, even just on a blog that nobody was reading, was at the time enough for me to take it seriously as a small art project. I was teaching myself some things, and that required both play and a kind of earnestness. But I worried then, as now, that my disposition is such that I simply would not take seriously work not intended for publication: the brain’s wise lizard knows.)

At first, I used full lines: I would try to make a line from one poem match the next line from a different poem not only in rhythm or some kind of harmony or pleasing disharmony, but also to choose lines in such a way that they could be read one after the other as if they had been born that way, creating through their juxtaposition a new meaning, or at least an intriguing nonsense. But after a while, keeping complete lines untouched became tedious because there were so many instances when things almost worked but not quite. So instead of quoting lines in full, I began to quote fragments. I still refused to write my own words as connecting glue, so I took the connecting words and phrases too from other poems.

(Why this refusal? I think at the time it was—and still is, I suppose—because I write little poetry, and I am uncomfortable with the form. That’s not to say I don’t touch it at all. A couple of years ago, at the very beginning of the pandemic and around this very time of year, a few days before Independence Day with the planes growling overhead, I put together a whole chapbook of poems, with my own words this time, and my own layout and design to boot. This is the first poem in it, “langurous”: I was reminded of it today because all these things happened again, dog and monkeys and planes. It is the nature of these circular days, these years turned in upon themselves.

But I have not written a poem since this chapbook. So perhaps my experiments with poetry may be considered seasonal at best.)

The collage project ended the day I took the word “and” from somebody’s poem and used it to link two phrases together. It was important for the game that I did not just write my own “and”; it was an “and” taken from some poem that I loved very much. I linked this solitary word to its source. This provenance made the “and” special, and the game lawful. It also made the game complete: there was nowhere left to go, and so it was done. Sometimes an ending comes upon you long before you understand you were working toward it.

Readings: Outline, The Silence

So far this year I’ve read more literary fiction than genre. This will probably shortly cease to be true, so the end of January is about the last chance to say that. I am of course even more poorly read in litfic than I am in genre, so this is me cheerfully blundering into quite well-known semi-recent books having never heard of them before.

The Silence by Don DeLillo: this was my first DeLillo, and I think fairly obviously that was a mistake. It’s beautifully written, in a heavily stylized, theatrical way—people declaim at each other in extended paragraphs, nobody talks like a normal person, there is a great deal of (intentional) uncertainty about what exactly is happening, except that it is obviously some sort of shallow apocalypse discernible only when all the phones and screens &c. suddenly go dead, which is indeed what the apocalypse will look like when it finally reaches the living rooms of upper-class New York. The living room in question here includes a most relatable uncle who just wants to watch the cricket and begins grumpily imagining/hallucinating/fantasizing the game in the absence of broadcast. As a story about apocalypse and human disconnection, this is a hat so old that it’s entirely worn through, like a tiktok joke that has already passed through the long and short intestines of twitter and facebook and has now reached the sphincter of being an anonymous whatsapp forward. Perhaps this is what late style is, and if so, my takeaway is that I should instead go back and find the early style.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in stories, with a frame story thicker than most—I love this as a structure, and have in fact written one in it (my still-untitled second novel, at present tentatively scheduled for 2024)—and I was startled, on googling this book, to discover that many critics at the time represented this as a groundbreaking, form-busting innovation for some reason. (The reason appears to be that Cusk was previously known for highly interior, confessional novels, and after a cancellation for being too open about motherhood and its travails, opted to write a novel in which the narrator’s interior is entirely implicit, only hinted at in the echoes of the stories she listens to. Which is a wonderful comeback, but that’s not the same thing.) Cusk herself gave interviews declaring that character was dead now, and so on, which at least is straightforward book promo. But I enjoy a good novel in stories, and this is a very good one, fast-moving and yet delving deep into some lusciously developed characters. And I must remember, when my book comes out, that declaring things dead is good press.


I was used to writing short stories in quick bursts of sustained focus. A single afternoon, perhaps a weekend. But I could not write novels like this, so my method, as evolved, is to work every weekday morning, as much or as little as the day allows, the only goal being to reinforce the habit and stay close to the work, keeping it ticking along whether I wrote ten words or several thousand, to create chains of virtue that, the longer they got, the more reluctant I would be to break them. This is a method often attributed to, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, though he certainly didn’t invent it. Here’s a Lifehacker article about it. Hey, remember when Lifehacker was a thing? When productivity culture was a thing? So glad that ended. Imagine the horror if there were entire podcasts where people talk about nothing else except how to squeeze more productive output out of the limited hours of your life.

the 56-day streak is when I was really in the flow of writing my second novel; the current streak is from the third

I do enjoy productivity porn a lot. I don’t listen to the podcasts, but this is mostly because I have not yet learned to listen to podcasts regularly. I find audio makes me impatient, because the content of most podcasts is exactly the sort of material I am used to skimming and speed-reading. I love all the other bits of productivity culture, the pointless essays, the endless new methods and tricks and tips, the apps. I don’t really try much of it, but I love that it’s there. If my methods fail me some day, I find it comforting that there will be other things to try.

In the months (years if you count them another way) that it takes me to complete a book, of course I end up breaking the chain many times and starting again. The most important part of chainmaking is to understand that the breaks are part of the work. The gaps between the links are not dead air: they are living breath.

Readings: Ring and Song for the Unraveling of the World

Prompted by being reminded of the wonderfully terrifying film, I read its original source, Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring, for the first time, in the translation by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. The book is quite different from the film in many ways, but I watched Ringu in perhaps 1999, at a friend’s house—I still remember how jumpy I was going home later that night—and while memory has faded most of the details of the latter, I remember the film as a more straightforward ghost story, with the climax focusing heavily on Sadako as a figure of fear, coming out of the screen to chase Hiroyuki Sanada around the room.

The book is unsettling in its own way, but more complicatedly so; that now-iconic climactic scene is absent, for instance, and there is a great deal more focus on virality and infection than haunting per se, which only increases with the next novel, Spiral. The fusion of a vengeful psychic with a mutant smallpox virus reflects the genrefeel of the novels, which is in parts as much sfnal/medical thriller as horror, not to mention murder mystery, especially in the early chapter where Asakawa writes down the details of the first four teen victims on cards as a plot recap/part of the investigative process of revisiting information.

(In sff this is decried as rank asyouknowbobbery but it’s been a useful device in crime: I associate it most strongly with Jeffery Deaver because it was used so prominently in the Lincoln Rhyme novels, but I feel like it’s been around for ages. I most recently saw it, I think, in Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth, and that’s from 1965 (same year as Dune!) where one investigator sums up the case for the other in writing partway through the book, helpfully rehashing all the details for the reader along the way.)

Another notable difference between Ring the novel and Ringu the film is in the contents of the cursed videotape itself. As a film-within-a-film, it’s much shorter and more eerie. In the book, it’s quite a long video, going on for almost precisely 20 minutes (we know this because the book version of the Hiroyuki Sanada character breaks it down scene by scene in a neat little table) which would have been a substantial chunk of the film if they’d reproduced it in full—about a fifth of it.

Brian Evenson’s 2019 short story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World is in this post because (a) I read it recently and (b) it’s bookended by two stories that evoked Ring for me (more the film than the book, since I read this one before reading Suzuki—and actually, the Evenson collection features several stories about films and filmmaking, and the monstrousnesses thereof.) The last story in the collection, “Lather of Flies,” is about a cursed film, if of a slightly different type: here, the cult filmmaker is the spider in the web gathering unwary film students to feed on them. I didn’t particularly like this story. Evenson is very hit or miss for me, especially in his more elaborately plotted stories. As with “Lather of Flies,” I often just find them overdone. But when an Evenson story does land for me, it lands very powerfully, and it’s usually the shorter stories with a vivid core image—for example, one of my favourite Evenson stories is the titular story from A Collapse of Horses, for this very specific image:

Imagine this: Walking through the countryside one day, you come across a paddock. Lying there on their sides, in the dust, unnaturally still, are four horses. All four are prone, with no horses standing. They do not breathe and do not, as far as you can see, move. They are, to all appearances, dead. And yet, on the edge of the paddock, not twenty yards distant, a man fills their trough with water.

In Song for the Unraveling of the World, for me the very first story, “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” was by far the strongest and most unsettling, for all that it is also probably the shortest—less than five hundred words, I estimate, which means this quote is about a fifth of it.

No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible. […] She just kept turning in circles, walking backward and knocking into things, trying to grab things with the backs of her hands. She was a whole girl made of two half girls, but wrongly made, of two of the same halves.

The reason this story works, despite its extreme abbreviation, is because it achieves the sense of movement that any short story must have in order to feel complete, and it does this by simply positing—not even depicting, but only imagining—the opposite girl, equally wrongly made, but the other way around.

One layer of appeal in this category of horror, I feel, is less in the other-ing of the horrific figure, but in identifying with them. We each know too well how we are wrongly made, just how much of our lives has been spent stumbling and knocking into things: the claustrophobia of failure and alienation in which we are enwrapped. (An image that’s difficult to not be reminded of here: the teenage Sibilla from Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, spinning and stopping, being wrapped in a choking sarcophagus of her own hair, uncanny, eroticized, and monstrous.)

Sadako is a thorough deconstruction of a familiar power fantasy—as seen in, e.g., Charlie from King’s Firestarter, which similarly features a girl born with extraordinary abilities and persecuted for it, but which ends on an upbeat note of righteous vengeance and holds out the hope of redemption for the world as well for Charlie. Sadako’s vengeance is unrighteous and misdirected: the man who attacked and killed her remains unharmed at the end of the book, apart from a minor embarrassment, and her targets, in increasing numbers via infection, are randomly chosen, with no end in sight to her unraveling hauntpox pandemic.


A few years ago I half-wrote this (some of it escaped as twitter-thread radiation at the time, so if some of this sounds familiar, that’s why) in reaction to, among other things, a Sri Lanka politician—it was Mangala Samaraweera, in fact, whose recent death and subsequent hagiographies are what reminded me of this half-written essay again, before today’s headlines—saying that he was not a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy,” which has long been a Sri Lankan middlebrow commonplace for people who want to distance themselves from the tacky or ugly parts of Buddhism. The objectionable, depending on the objectors, might be the old-fashioned ritual trappings, the pogroms, the philosophical or salvific failures, or the politicized establishment. Common in all of these is the rescue of Buddhism from itself. Each is a search for some pure and uncorrupted heart, a philosophy, a way of life, some higher teaching separate from the muddy and the goday and the bloody. But at least for those whose objection to actually existing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is its cost in lives and to life, this search merely recreates the problem on slightly higher ground. Looking for the pure and uncorrupted heart is how hell was made.

The Gandharan Fasting Siddhartha, from the Lahore Museum. I like him as an icon of failure—this represents one of the unbuddhist paths of experiment. Also, he looks metal af.

Since this is a context where religion is racialized, it is also commonplace to say that you were born a Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist, in this sense, which means that I went to temple on the full moon, learned the Pali prayers by heart, cut bamboo to make Vesak lanterns in May, and as the members of my family died one by one, invited seven monks from the local temples to come sing the prayer for the dead. All that sort of thing. I did these things not out of considered and intentional choice but simply because this was the world I knew, and those were the things one did in it. Eventually, as with most things lacking a heart, my practice of the rituals faded away. I have not made a Vesak lantern in decades. I don’t miss it, but I remember the feeling of that childish religiosity like fresh-cut bamboo on my fingertips—too smooth, too easily broken, and too sharp at the edges.

I don’t call myself Buddhist any more. There was a long time when I still automatically used it as an identifier in forms and affidavits, but even that has passed many years ago. But because Buddhism is racialized in Sri Lanka, it’s also impossible to entirely escape it: regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, practice or don’t, Buddhist privilege is inescapable if you have a Sinhala name or had a Buddhist childhood. For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ, which is a short prayer of praise for the Buddha, now most notable for its use as a shibboleth to distinguish Tamil speakers from Sinhala speakers during the 1983 pogrom. Once you know things like that, I feel, this prayer—and all the other Pali prayers—become unspeakable. They stop meaning what they say; they stop meaning what they might have once meant. Now they mean something else.

That article, itself a hagiography to yet another asshole politician, includes anecdotes spanning the period between the 1977 election and the 1983 pogrom—I was born in 1979, of an age with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so when I say this was the world I knew, I mean that I have never known a Sinhala Buddhism that was free of this violence. And its pedigree goes back decades, arguably centuries: it is safe to say, at minimum, that no-one now alive has ever known a different Sinhala Buddhism. And yet people constantly appeal to the spectre of one, something clean and untainted whose abstract purity in a higher realm justifies the violence in its defense in this one. This appeal is the heart of Buddhist fascism, and as a rhetorical move it is not restricted to the Sinhalese.

However, if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated — if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.

The Dalai Lama, 1997 interview

Is it necessary to explain that this is wrong and deeply foolish? Is it not self-evident? Clearly, it is not self-evident. Myanmar’s 969 movement adapts this fatuous comment with ease into a justification for more generalized violence in Buddhism’s “defense,” and you will find the same language and same reasoning anywhere you care to look in Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. It is the standard rhetorical manoeuvre by which Buddhists declare themselves above normative Buddhist ethics. Buddhist ethics is valuable, they say, because, e.g., it forbids killing, therefore killing is justified to preserve those ethics, which are certainly too valuable for everyday use. Buddhist ethics are like the good china, the fancy heirloom teapot you have in the glass cabinet for visitors to admire, but you are definitely not going to serve tea out of it.

To the Sinhala Buddhist proponent of violence, what they are doing is not hypocrisy, but sacrifice. Their belief is that they are selflessly ruining their own karma in order to save Buddhism for future generations. The violence, you see, is altruistic. The well-known fascist monk Gnanasara, for instance, made a production of this rhetorical move in 2019, by first declaring first that he would abandon his political activism to meditate and focus on religious pursuits, and then “changing his mind” because nirvana can always wait, but fascism is urgent. And “nirvana can always wait” has been standard-issue since before Independence, and the work of Walpola Rahula. In contemporary Sri Lankan Theravada, Buddhism is what is most useless to Buddhism, and exists only to be put aside.

But even that little zinger risks replicating the same manoeuvre I’m trying to argue against: the implication that there is a cleaner Buddhism, somewhere, even if in a purely hypothetical realm.

Why do I say “unbuddhist” instead of “non-religious”? Why අබෞද්ධ instead of නිරාගමික? Mostly, it’s that the latter tastes like cardboard to me. An airless word, a nothing word of studied neutrality: that isn’t what I’m getting at. People also say “atheist” here sometimes, by analogy with the popular Christian version, but that is entirely meaningless in this context, since the (non)existence of gods is not at issue. I like “unbuddhist” because it’s a pejorative to reclaim, perhaps, but also because it signals both opposition and proximity, in the same way that an atheist is someone who exists in a theistic framework and opposes it. Much of my thought, my fiction included, is inflected by buddhisms of various types. Nor is it particularly unusual for people to customize their buddhisms in this way, by dropping the parts they find objectionable and streamlining others—in fact, this was how the 20th century reform movement worked in the first place, stripping out what they considered empty ritual and ramping up the activist politicization.

But if you disavow the monks, political or otherwise, assuming an otherwise is even coherent; if you take away temples, relics, prayers, and rituals; if you take away poyas and the flag; if you ignore all the endlessly pedantic numbered lists of nonsense like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men; if you put aside orthodox understandings of karma and rebirth, samsara/nirvana, and meditation; if you have little interest in the alleged life of Siddhartha Gautama and less still in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or gamified enlightenment bonus points; if you ascribe little significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path, and so on, in that the important parts of those are derivable from ethical first principles and the rest are historical oddities and stray leftover bits; if you are specifically opposed to the linking of buddhism to race and nation and history, to “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, to the idea that a “Buddhism” even exists that could or should be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which I do—then even if you continue to find, for instance, the paticcasamuppada, the trilaksana, and the idea of sunyata valuable and emotionally and intellectually significant, as I also do, you are definitely not a buddhist. You are merely a picky asshole, as I am. What I’m talking about here is not reformatory. This is not a stripping down to essentials, because I also don’t care about a lot of the essentials. This is merely an accommodation: my accommodation to the religious world I grew up in. This is what’s left of that world, after some consideration. It is possible, I think, and desirable, to disavow without appeal to purity.

But let’s talk about a real Buddhist instead.

Earlier today (and this is what prompted me to dust off this half-written essay yet again—truly this is an extremely cold take despite its hot-takeish timing) Gnanasara was appointed chairman of a “One Country One Law” presidential task force, signaling not a mainstreaming, exactly, since he was already thoroughly mainstream, but perhaps an upshift in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s willingness to publicly and directly associate himself with the likes of Gnanasara, something the Rajapaksas used to be a little shyer about. More precisely, it’s a signal that the administration believes that the mainstreaming of Buddhist fascism has been successful enough that a figure who was once somewhat controversial even for their own base might now be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps they are wrong about this, but in a way the appointment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: even if it gets reversed, it means that the next ratchet on the overton window will be that much easier.

I’m mixing the personal and the political here in a messy way. I’ve been trying to write about my own experience of navigating a buddhistic worldview, but it would be hard to explain why all that flensing was necessary without pointing at what was and is in the world. Buddhism is not about the ideas. It’s not even mostly about the ideas. It is a social practice with an organic history. In Sri Lanka, that history has been violent for a long time even before the tremendous violence of the last few generations, from the caste restrictions of the nikayas to the genocidal justifications of the Mahavamsa.

But I bring up Gnanasara here because he’s exactly the kind of monk a great many Sinhala Buddhists would say (or used to say—I would guess that he is more acceptable to them today than he used to be ten or even five years ago) was not a “real” monk. And yet his real-monk-ness was formally endorsed and insisted upon by the highest Buddhist authority in Sri Lanka. If you wanted to call the Dalai Lama and ask him for a second opinion, it is fully consistent with Gnanasara’s perspective. This is the real Buddhism: if you think it isn’t, the error and the apostasy are yours.

Readings: Sweet Days of Discipline, Catherine House, and Mexican Gothic

This is, of course, a “depressed young women in gothic horror houses” triptych. Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Tim Parks, is set in a mountain boarding school of the 1950s, with a narrator obsessed with the new girl, Frédérique.

Frédérique took my hands and said: “You’ve got an old woman’s hands.” Hers were cold. She looked at the backs of my hands: you could count the veins and the bones. She turned them over: they were shrivelled up. I can hardly describe how proud I was to hear what for me was a compliment. That day, on the stairs, I knew she was attracted to me. They really were an old woman’s hands, they were bony. Frédérique’s hands were broad, thick, square, like a boy’s. Both of us wore signet rings on our little fingers. You might imagine that we found physical pleasure in touching each other like this. As she touched my hand and I felt hers, cold, our contact was so anatomical that the thought of flesh or sensuality eluded us. That winter I bought myself a loose pullover and hid my body. My old woman’s hands were all the more obvious.

Sweet Days of Discipline

The book is wintry, severe in both its asceticisms and affections, and full of madness and death. Frédérique is the one who has mastered discipline as a form of unassailable contempt, for her teachers, her peers, and the world at large. Later she will commune with the dead and attempt matricide: a creature of perfect order, ticking less like a clock and more like the other thing that ticks.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is set in a tiny, highly prestigious, very weird experimental university—“a postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League”—that isolates its students from the outside world, severely restricting outside contact and banning access to mass media. It’s set in the 90s (though it’s not quite our 90s, it turns out, but a world being radically altered by the discovery of a substance called plasm, research into which is the source of Catherine House’s prestige and wealth) which also helps with the isolation, given the lack of cellphones and internet. Ines, the narrator, is using that isolation to hide from trauma and possible criminality in the outside world, but she is so profoundly depressed she can barely study enough to keep herself in school, even though her life may depend on it: she drifts in a haze of parties and sex until something happens to her roommate Baby, who Ines casually designated her new best friend on their first day. Unlike with Frédérique, whose narrator became obsessed with her on sight, Ines only becomes obsessed after the irrevocable has already happened. This book has my favourite ending of the three: after everything, it is a real wrench to hear footsteps where they shouldn’t be.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is, like Sweet Days of Discipline, set in the 1950s, and, like Catherine House, its setting is both severely isolated and literally maddening. Noemí is there to rescue her cousin Catalina from her monstrous marriage and loathsome in-laws. The house is haunted, of course, dank and fungal, and Catalina sickened by it, her paranoias both fantastical and accurate. The contagion is the most invasive in this book: where with Frédérique it’s within her, and where in Catherine House it is hidden, mediated by plasm and invocation and secret laboratories, Noemí and Catalina are submerged in it, breathing it in, dressing for dinner with abomination.

Readings: Piranesi, All The Beautiful Sinners, and The All-Consuming World

This selection of readings has a common theme: major characters who have been brainwashed into acting against their own interests, remade into something else, something useful to a manipulative other. It seems apropos, given that this is life as we collectively live it. In these books, though, the brainwashing and the manipulation are intensely interpersonal rather than the apparatuses of mass social indoctrination. In Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World, this is a transformation is engineered and sustained with chemistry and conditioning, which is to say, love in everything but love. Maya may be a pit of bottomless rage and violence but she’s in love with two people at once—the one who pushes her buttons and the one she thinks she doesn’t deserve—and helpless before either of them. This is a book of jagged edges, with an off-kilter style. It’s a heist, but it ends before a heist would. It’s a last stand but it ends at the threshold of climactic violence. And it’s a love triangle that gets resolved as part of someone else’s plot, which seems unsatisfying at first, but it also feels like a fittingly unceremonious end for a master manipulator, to be simply shunted aside by a more effective one playing for bigger stakes.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi lives in a quiet, almost-deserted, perhaps-endless house with a sea in it. A journalist is gaslit to the point of total amnesia by his target, and transformed into a native informant of a world uninhabitable by anyone who wants to keep their self intact. The mystery gets a little too filled in, perhaps, by the neatness of the ending; this is one book where I wanted the mysteries of world and identity to remain unresolved. As we return to the mundane, the dreamlike beauty of the unending house fades, but there is a last-minute return of the otherworldly, too, as if it were a horror film trading in just a slightly different flavour of dread, where we see that there are not two worlds, but only one. Like Piranesi, we too are creatures of forgetting, or worse, never knowing about the world’s other face, the one which sees us as we are.

Both of those are violent remoldings of the self, but in All The Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones it’s even more primal than perverted desire or the dreadful secrets of being, which is to say, this is a book about monstrous parenting. Not only is Amos stolen as a child by a serial killer and brought up to be one, but he is renamed and reraced to better fit into his terrible parent’s vision. The near-complete erasure of who he once was is more total than that of even Piranesi, who at least gets to come back. Piranesi becomes innocent through his remaking, by scraping away most of his self and learning empathy by taking care of the long dead. Amos’s rebellion, ultimately, happens in the same way, in his need to rescue and return his father-kidnapper’s long-dead child victims. He can’t help but see them as alive, even as he hauls their corpses through the narrative, because that would mean it was still not too late. Of course, it is.

Readings: My Sweet Girl & Crossmatch

I read a lot of crime but I’d not particularly paid attention to Sri Lankan crime fiction until recently. I’m not sure what could be said to constitute it, really, in English-language novels—there’s that Ondaatje novel I haven’t read, maybe Shehan Karunatilaka? Meanwhile, googling this unfortunate question has led me to a white British writer who visited Sri Lanka in 2015 and promptly decided to write a colonial murder mystery series set in 1930s Ceylon and is now some eight books deep into this … thing. I shall do them the great and unearned courtesy of not speaking of this further.

Carmel Miranda’s Crossmatch is the most recent Gratiaen Prize winner—Visakesa Chandrasekaram (whose science fiction novel I must write about sometime) read a poem by Ahnaf Jazeem at the online ceremony, which I appreciated. I don’t generally read in that Gratiaen-y space (being somewhat removed from Sri Lankan literary culture) but I was intrigued that this seemed to be a straight-up genre novel. And in fact it’s two mysteries at once: the first, which works reasonably well, where a medical student, through a combination of happenstance and curiosity, uncovers a very middle-class conspiracy of black market organ trafficking; and the second a rather off-the-shelf scaffolding of confused parentage and overly foreshadowed secret baby swapping, which it could have rather done without. The strength of the book is in the fascinating window into med student life in Colombo, and in its willingness to be precise about the damaged human body. I wish it had leaned more into the body horror that it might have aspired to, and less into the soap opera of whose child is which.

As an entertaining counterpoint, the question of whose-child-is-which is also the main engine of Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl , but here, at least, is a story with a clearer grasp of its own nature, which is to say, the book is not shy about its horror, with doppelgangers, creepy children, infinitely creepier adults, the dual terrors of orphanage and adoption, a classic Mohini haunting and a gothic mad attic wife situation to boot. The orphanage setting in particular is beautifully ominous, and I enjoyed the code-switching between San Francisco and Ratmalana Englishes. The adult narrator is delightfully awful, just a huge dick and in no way an ingénue, and for me this compensates for the mystery being not all that mysterious. If I wanted something more from this one, it was for a slower, denser prose that spent more time on its many horrors. But ultimately, what this is is a slasher, and it’s paced like one. Having recently attended the Stephen Graham Jones school of Final Girl appreciation, I enjoyed the one we got here quite a lot, even after having seen it coming.


Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.

A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:

Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …

This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.

It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.

He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.

Lem, Solaris

Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.

Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.

Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?

Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.