about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Tales
A Review of The Tales
by Jessica Bozek

Spencer Dew

How the idea of apocalypse lost its teeth is a contemporary tale worth telling. Like so much else, all that blood and thunder has been distilled to a marketing ploy, a campaign to sell products offered by the entertainment and survivalist industries, movies and weapons and religion included.

Last December, before a date that maybe meant something to some ancient Mayans, I was asked to be part of a local “news” segment, on what the local “news personalities”—who quipped back and forth between takes about weight and ex-spouses—called “the end of the world,” meaning mainly the local business of “prepping” and the popular local narrative of salvation through Christ. The two were nicely wedded in production: cut to images of firearms caches, a chest stacked with silvery meals-ready-to-eat; cut to a minister making an altar call across the airwaves, or however it is that images travel, screen to screen. For my part, I said something about the end of the status quo, the old apocalyptic myths as revolutionary, always social, human, about living in new ways. My segment got cut short, and I wasn’t invited back.

Blanchot says the disaster is “always already past” and “When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come.” The fantasies—from World War Z to Left Behind, from why the Peoples Temple ended up in California to why a cabbie in Louisiana recently told me to stock up on assault rifles and ammunition—are always about it coming, in the future, and us being around to, as it were, enjoy the thing. Bang, bang, and rip open a foil sleeve of goulash, etc. Jessica Bozek is interested in both the disaster and that separate reality, survival. Plus she is well aware that the larger audience for a disaster is just that, audience; a disaster comes, and those who memorialize or make placating sense of the event, those who set up souvenir stands and weave flowers into chain link, aren’t “survivors” at all, but bystanders at best, and certainly voyeurs, sometimes tourists.

We see the entertainment value of apocalypse—and that desire to stumble out and through it—combined with myths of redemption that ignore motivations and realities, numbing us to what a dead child in the hands of a fireman is, at the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing. As a visitor, you “experience” the blast, and crawl, disoriented, through a ruined office space, traveling a ritual trajectory out to where an Edenic tree, bent but not broken by the blast, represents the promise of eternity, which is also where items are for sale like commemorative key rings and a plush toy version of the sort of dog that sniffs for bodies buried in the rubble. Bozek, like Blanchot, knows all too well that disasters get ignored in spectacular ways. Beams light up the sky and erase reality. The abyss becomes a bumper sticker; the incoherence of shock becomes the simplicity of satisfaction.

Bozek is critically interested in both. She knows, with Blanchot, that the disaster cannot be known. We can only approach its edges. Here are corpses in the wreckage, sprawled such that they resemble—in already a kind of therapeutic denial—broken puppets: “the marionette wires, cracked wooden faces, bloody hair.” Bozek imagines the baffled perspectives of the birds, but knows that such a tone of fable already numbs us to the event. Her disaster, at the center of this book, is explicitly military, a human event, intended, planned, strategic as surgery. But it plays out like a fairytale. A soldier shows up and tells stories, in response to which the populace falls dead asleep. “He told the citizens stories of quiet insects of soft foods of hair-limbs of lazy of red trees of porch chairs....” etc. “And from the collective weight of so many eyelids collapsing, the pilings started to sink.” The soldier is like a shaman, standing in “the center of each town and his stories spiraled outward. The few who tried to flee were held by his soothing voice.” He “whispered stories of wind of honey of old trees of porch chairs of loose sleeves of long hair of wind of warm rain,” and “The ground grew heavy” with all the sleeping.

But how do we know the disaster except through myths, from songs handed down? Bozek is concerned, too, with the control of such telling. She gives us a Lone Survivor, who must deal, ultimately, with the bureaucracy of the recovery industry in its myriad forms. First, the disaster must be made official, in triplicate. The Lone Survivor, still dazed, notes the absurdity of it all: “On the property damage claim, I may say, instead, that I had a dog of such uncertain origin that I’ll accept any brown thing between 30 and 50 pounds.” Next, there must be “closure,” that sinister contemporary buzzword. The Lone Survivor is enlisted in the process of memorialization, wary of an Oklahoma City-type tourist attraction/event: “I quickly reject statues, obelisks, all forms monumental in their ideology. Worse still, I imagine children visiting a memorial museum to experience sensory simulations of atrocity or to reenact victimhood bodily.” The alternative, as Bozek describes in the notes at the end of this book, is informed in part by the Hamburg anti-fascism monument, a lead column onto which visitors are invited to inscribe their names, committing themselves to resist such a way of thinking. A memorial that refuses to allow passivity, or at least attempts such a refusal; a place marking actions, not “an event.” This is key to Bozek’s ethical project here, that the sort of disaster she’s interested in is caused. Human deeds—and thinking, worldviews and performances of them—lead to these collections of what gets left behind:

family photographs, pet birds, diaries, plates of half-eaten food, threadbare pajamas, little boxes of extra buttons, travel guides, chopsticks, game systems, power tools, picture books, flowering plants, bank cards, trophies, underthings, new toothbrushes for future guests....

There is a hope here—and an exploration, dexterous and persistent—that literature in its varied forms might help prevent rather than patch up. Might not art, rather than coming after the war, do real work to help us avoid such actions?

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