I recently finished reading Rachel Pollack’s novel Unquenchable Fire, on the recommendation of the ever-brilliant and insightful @lyravelocity. I thought it was excellent, so here’s a post about it—something in the vicinity of a review, commentary, or simply a recommendation.
Let’s set some context! Rachel Pollack, now 76, is on the short list of out trans women to get some notoriety in both comics and science fiction, and the new age feminist movement, in a time before the culture war over whether we should exist really hit its modern, feverish intensity. The back of my copy of Unquenchable Fire describes her as a “science fiction author, comic book writer, and expert on divinatory tarot” and declares “she has been a great influence on the women’s spirtuality movement and on women’s SF”.
For comics fans, she is known for taking over from the renowned Grant Morrison on the series Doom Patrol starting in 1993, in which she introduced the character Coagula, a trans lesbian who is introduced in a delightful skit fighting a character called The Codpiece. It’s remembered well enough that I’ve seen it floating around Tumblr.
But her science fiction writing, although praised at the time, seems to have been mostly forgotten—I had no idea she’d written sci-fi until Alex mentioned it. Her work sits in a kind of intersection of magical realism and sci-fi and new age/tarot, but it’s also incredibly sharp and incisive towards the underlying banal reality. She has an incredible ability to write in a mythological register and create weird little anecdotes to flesh out a setting. But let’s not get too far ahead.
Pollack’s writings on transness are worth reading. She naturally sees transness in spiritual terms that might be familiar to an anarchist: an intense and joyous expression of irrepressible desire that transcends questions of simple happiness and suffering:
But as long as we speak of healing we stay within the world of sickness. In the United States we consider happiness the basic human condition, and a ny suffering as some sort of aberration. I would argue that transsexuality arises from a passion so powerful that it transcends issues of happiness. The word passion originally meant suffering, not pleasure. The suffering of transsexuality, however, is like that of religious ecstasy, or even orgasm – overwhelming, intense, and ultimately joyous when we surrender to it and let it carry us into the power of the experience.
Think where transsexual desire leads us. We give up our positions in society (I am not talking here about the slide downwards in status for male-to-females, but much more basically of our very places in the world, a loss that applies to transsexual men as well as to women, even if the men eventually go up in status). We risk losing our family and friends. We face ridicule and sometimes extreme violence, even death. We take powerful and dangerous drugs to alter the very shape of our bodies. And finally, we undergo – we seek out, even demand – surgery on our genitals. No logical decision, or confusion, or social conditioning, or even mental illness, can account for such an overwhelming need.
As we’ll see in a few thousand words, this question of suffering and religious ecstasy is pretty central to the narrative of Unquenchabile Fire, so put a pin in that one!
It also may be worth noting for this background that along with her evident familiarity with the American new age movement, Pollack is Jewish and seems to have quite an interest in Jewish mysticism, writing a book called The Kabbalah Tree in 2004; the epigraph of the book invokes Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav to say
And on the way I told a tale of such power that all who heard it had thoughts of repentance.
I can’t really speak to the role of Judaism in the background to this book’s ideas, but I know some of my readers might!
This book! The one we’re here to talk about!
Unquenchable Fire was published in 1988, her fourth novel, and became her best known. It depicts a future America where a kind of spiritual revolution has taken place, which has profoundly changed the ideology and rituals of everyday life, and introduced all kinds of absolute genuine inexplicable magical events to the world, just about completely eliminating both Christianity and science as the universal narratives structuring life, replaced by a whole new mythology and set of rituals that venerate the revolution’s Founders and the stories they recited. Now, ‘Tellers’—kind of like superpowered televangelists—command a huge amount of devotion and celebrity with their ability to transport listeners into the subjective experience of their stories.
Yet in many respects, this revolution has left a lot of the structure of society untouched. Now, 87 years later, the ritual structures are still observed but the fantastical deeds of the revolution have faded into history, regarded variously with terror and nostalgia. Society is once again managed by a kind of spiritual bureaucracy, with the ‘Spritual Development Agency’ acting as a kind of religious police to document prophetic dreams and spiritual manifestations, purge possessions etc. Capitalism still prevails—you still have to work a job and make rent, even if some of the jobs are like “maintaining the shrines”. Abortion is now widely accepted and sacred, gay people pass with little comment, but many components of gender and reproductive futurism like the nuclear family remain.
At the outset of the novel, our protaognist, Jennifer Mazdan, is at something of a dead end. Recently divorced, she now lives alone in a ‘hive’—a kind of extended religious commune that seems to have taken the role of a suburb in this future—and Pollack gets a lot of great scenes from the petty oneupmanship and drama of Jennie’s particular neighbourhood. As a child, she fell in love with the grand stories of the Founders, and as an adult, she routinely encounters all kinds of supernatural experiences, which at first she met with enthusiasm… but these terrified her husband enough that he had their marriage annulled. Now she’s finding herself increasingly disillusioned with the hollowness of the dominant religious practices…
…and meanwhile, some kind of divine ‘Agency’ (in Jennie’s terms), is manipulating her life both covertly and overtly in order to try to revitalise the Revolution, by compelling Jennie to give birth to a child who will become essentially a new Founder, whether she wants to or not. The Agency’s interventions are sometimes overt (conjuring bushes outside an abortion clinic) and sometimes covert (Jennie becomes increasingly paranoid that her relationships, and those of the people around her, have been unknowingly shaped by the Agency to have particular effects on her), but there’s no question that they are real.
America, eighty seven years after the Revolution
The book procedes in an interesting, slightly meandering way that resembles oral storytelling a bit: a lot of the time we’re following Jennie’s POV, but we are constantly wandering into anecdotes about the places she goes and their post-revolutionary spiritual history. For example…
To the hill’s west, like a green and silver cat forever stretching in the sun, flowed the Hudson River, ‘our ancient mother’ as Maryanna Split Sky once called it, bounded by cliffs and forests and homes and railroad tracks. On that day the water churned with fish who’d gathered to hear the master whose fame had spread to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the sea. Many years ago the Army of the Saints, released by the victory in Poughkeepsie from its headquarters in New York, had sailed up the river in barges covered with white and yellow flowers (a journey enacted weekly in Spring and Summer and sold to the public as the Boat Ride to Poughkeepsie). The Malignant Ones who had fled the technophile bombs had hidden in the river. Now they floated in the water, ready to devour the boat. To protect the Founders the Living World sent a group of children into the river, their mouths filled with stones to throw at the enemy. A Ferocious One in the form of a beautiful woman rose up before them. To each child she appeared as the child’s mother, purified of weakness or jealousy or rage, shining with love. The children dropped their stones and swam to the woman, whose kiss sucked the souls from their bodies. Her own greed defeated her. She swelled up so large that the Army saw the bloated body and discovered the trap. Sadly, they could not help the children. Though they punctured the Malignant One the children’s souls fled into the water before the Founders could restore them.
In Jennifer Mazdan’s time you could still hear children crying every night after eleven o’clock, a wailing that made it impossible to build housing along the riverside. Sailboats, barges, and tourist boats would sometimes get bits of souls tangled up in their rudders, causing the boats to spin in circles until the children came loose again.
The book is incredibly rich in these kinds of suggestive, expressive details: the mythic events of the Revolution and the subsequent relaxation into the everyday rhythms, which makes the post-revolutionary world feel incredibly vivid and alive. As well as the events of the Revolution, we hear about the ways that people are suddenly overcome by spiritualism, and how this has worked its way into most facets of life. For example, at one point Jennie seeks advice from a ‘Hooker’, a kind of apology ritual where someone hangs themselves from hooks in order to channel divine messages to answer a crowd’s questions:
When the FBI arrested Mary Landis, vice-president of the Poughkeepsie Bird of Light Company, no one expected her to avoid a long prison term. Embezzlement, extortion, bribery of public officials, industrial espionage, even illegal advertising seemed to guarantee a forced penance that would keep her on her knees lighting candles the shape of the Founders for years to come. The Poughkeepsie Journal even ran a report that Landis had kept a harem of teenage boys in a trailer off Camelot Road, south of the city. No one took this last charge seriously, though it brought some TV people up from New York; the State stuck to what it considered a sure case.
The very magnitude of Landis’s crimes gave her her defence. Describing her actions as ‘obscene beyond the point of greed’ the defence argued for Malignant possession. A jealous colleague, a competitor, or an ex-lover must have called down a Being to infect her soul. Besides creating a plausible line of argument the approach allowed the Defence to usurp the Prosecution’s privilege of luridly describing all of Mary Landis’s crimes. The jurors began to lean forward like pets waiting for dinner. So did the Judge.
When the verdict came in ‘Not guilty’ Mary Landis appeared on a local breakfast radio show to announce she would give an offering, her ‘fee’ as she put it, to the Benign One who had guided the jurors to the truth. Most people expected a donation, or a decorous pilgrimage (the Poughkeepsie Journal suggested a trip to the thieves’ sanctuary in Nevada). Some thought she might do a ‘shame Enactment’ dressed as the Being who supposedly had possessed her (various non-accredited Speakers and card and coin Workers offered to track down the demon). Instead, Mary Landis had decided, as she later told Newsweek, ‘to hang myself before the people my possessed soul victimised.’
So supernatural events are now somewhat commonplace; when Jennie is walking down the street in New York only to be struck by a manifestation of a flaming ferris wheel with the founder Li Ku Unquenchable Fire attached to it, this is treated as unusual but not unprecedented, documented as an ‘Occurrence’ by the SDA cops who shop up in the aftermath. When Jennie receives a prophetic dream early in the story, her first instinct is to go to an office to register it in the system which contains every documented variant of spiritual dream. But when her dream is not found in the system, she’s derisively treated as a liar and sent away.
Intertwined with this narrative, we hear a number of the stories, or ‘Pictures’, first delivered by the Founders and then recited on various ceremonial occasions by Tellers, who live in their own kind of collegiate/lodge society. The role of ‘stories’ in the metaphysics of the revolutionary religion seems to be very important; without stories, the world becomes brittle and fragile:
I’ve gone deaf Lightstorm thought, I’ve gone deaf. But he knew the emptiness was not in his drums or neurons. It lay in the street, in the cars and the people. They looked frail, almost transparent. Even the huge buildings so beloved of tourists, you could put a hand, a finger, right through them. His sight slid up the garish front of Trump Tower. Something had emptied out the Sun. No heat remained in it, though it shone bright enough to hurt his eyes. He squinted. It wasn’t the heat that had left.
The stories are gone, thought Allan Lightstorm. Something had emptied all the stories, cleaned out the people, the city, even the sky and the Earth. He could stamp his foot and it would go right through the crust.
These pictures are recited on special occasions such as weddings, as well as large public ceremonies like the ‘Day of Truth’ which opens the novel, and the greatest Tellers are the celebrities of this culture. There is a great deal of social pressure to appreciate these stories and venerate the tellers, with the Founders sitting at the head of the cult. The spiritual guiding force that affects everyones’ lives is termed the Living World.
Meanwhile, the study of history has given way to a kind of theologically oriented ‘True History’:
Jennifer Mazdan dropped out of college in her junior year, after failing an exam in her major, True History. The exam paper had asked her to delineate ‘the redemptive significance’ of Jaleen Heart of the World’s exorcism of the Pentagon. Alternatively, Jennie could have identified ‘structural similarities and functional differences’ between the creation of New Chicago after the northern war, and the Revolution’s official starting point, the Parade of the Animals in Anaheim, California, when children in animal masks (mostly ducks and mice) ran through the streets burning the offices of the secular government.
Since Jennie couldn’t see any connections at all between the two events she decided to answer the first question. For most of the two hours she stared at her paper or pretended to make notes in case the proctor was watching her. Finally she wrote down a clumsy retelling of the exorcism, describing how cracks appeared in the walls, and muddy coloured birds flew out of the computers which then issued proclamations of their loyalty to the Revolution. When Jennie got her paper back Dr Hadauer (‘hate-hour’ his students called him) had written, ‘Very naive, shows no serious thought on subject. True History is a little bit more than The Lives Of The Founders. I question your aptitude for this study. F!’
and the memory of the time before the Revolution, and its ideology, is scattershot:
The duster dropped from her hand. What was it like being a sec? What was it like in the Old World? How could people ignore the forces that make everything happen? ‘God makes the world go round.’ That wasn’t just a song. It was true. It was just common sense. She quoted, out loud, Adrienne Birth-of-Beauty’s 7th Proposition. ‘Gravity is a story told by the Sun.’ How did they think their lawns grew? By accident? How did they think the atoms in a molecule held together? By written contract?
The funny thing was, they did believe in some kind of God or other. Or at least some of them did. Only, she couldn’t figure out what they thought their gods did. How did God pass the time with no work to do? Early retirement. What did they do in their ‘church’ thingies? They ‘prayed.’ Jennie didn’t know what they meant by that. What would they have done if God had answered them? A message smack in the eyes from the Living World. She laughed. Send them running right out of their churches and under the beds. But suppose God was waiting there too? Maybe lying asleep, like an old dog that everyone’s forgotten about. And suddenly growls awake.
And what did they do without stories? God was made out of stories. Everyone knew that. Their children told stories. There were no Tellers and no Recitals but the children told stories to each other. That’s why children began the Revolution. And sometimes a few adults would sneak around playgrounds and schoolyards, telling stories to little groups of kids until a teacher chased them away or the police arrested them.
What did people do in the Old World? When abortion was forbidden and priests in black dresses burned women who tried to open clinics.
and indeed, deliberately obscured:
The last part was actually a deliberate lie. In fact, Poughkeepsie, once the home of an old-style corporation called something like International Bureaucratic Mechanisms, resisted the revolution longer than any other part of New York State. Technophiles from as far away as Cincinnati and Santa Barbara came to Poughkeepsie to bolster the resistance to the ‘black tide of mud’, as one of their spokesmen put it. From Poughkeepsie they issued proclamations and spies, until at last they announced they had arranged with ‘loyalists’ (as they called the rejectionists in the old secular government) to smuggle several missiles with fusion warheads into their stronghold. Doomsday, they promised, would follow unless the Army of the Saints and all their followers renounced what the technophiles called ‘pseudomystical insanity.’
Now, the banners actually related this incident, perhaps out of embarrassment at the city’s tainted history. But they transferred the place to Newburgh on the other side of the river. And they then related how Allan Lightstorm, travelling in a one man boat, glided up the river to the woods just south of that city. From there, the banners declared, Lightstorm changed himself into a golden Great Dane and penetrated the rejectionist fortress. Around his neck, disguised as a dog licence, hung a metal plate inscribed with the Names of the Founders.
In full sight of a group of technophiles Lightstorm (so the speakers said) changed back into his human form. Holding the metal plate to his forehead he told the Secret Picture, a story of such power that no Teller has ever dared to repeat it. The techs fell to the ground and covered their heads with dirt. ‘Forgive us, Master,’ they said. ‘We didn’t know.’ Lightstorm raised them up and gave them each a broom. Chanting Light-storm’s name, they swept the evil out of the missiles, and Newburgh (Poughkeepsie) belonged to the Revolution. Now, for many historians, the disarming marked the turning point of the war. But Allan Lightstorm, born fifty three years later, had nothing to do with it. Everyone knew that Mohandas Quark had done the disarming, just as everyone knew that he’d become a Fox Terrier, much less conspicuous than a Great Dane. What’s more, Lightstorm knew that everyone knew. Nevertheless, by attaching the incident to Lightstorm, the townspeople demonstrated what they called ‘proper respect’ for their eminent guest. Lightstorm himself expected nothing less. Some years later, Valerie Mazdan would denounce what she called ‘flattering an empty present with an exaggerated past.’ On that day of Jennifer Mazdan’s dream, however, people took it as normal that the major Tellers of their time should inherit the marvels of their predecessors.
As you can see from some of the examples in the first quote, the scientific worldview hasn’t completely been abandoned, but its metaphysical significance has completely changed. ‘Secs’, or secularists, have become a religious minority, looked at somewhere between pity and hostility. (Later in the novel, when Jennie gives birth without doing all the proper Enactments, the midwives treat her with contempt as if she is a ‘sec’, which she frantically disavows).
These Enactments are small rituals associated with almost every major act in a person’s life. When Jennie visits a gynecologist, she gets a patronising explanation to try and persuade her to do one:
‘Yes.’ She was about to leave when the doctor said, ‘There’s an Enactment, you know. You’re supposed to perform it on the discovery of—’
‘It’s very simple. We can do it right now if you like. Usually the father does it with you, but since you, since you’re a virgin—’
‘Ms. Mazdan, the law requires we do the Enactment within a week of positive lab. results.’
‘I don’t want any Enactments.’
He sighed, tapping his foot again. ‘Enactments join us to the Living World. The Founders gave them to us as actions we can perform to help recognise the Spirit in our lives.’
‘I know what Enactments are. You don’t have to explain them to me.’
‘It doesn’t signify a wanted pregnancy, if that’s the problem. I mean, you won’t be a hypocrite. In fact, even if you get an abortion right afterwards, the Enactment will still apply. More so, actually.’
‘The Chained Mother will help your abortion. But you have to join with her first.’
‘I know. And then join with her in the abortion clinic. That way the abortion signifies the breaking of her chains rather than the denial of life.’
He sat back, unprepared for this sudden eloquence. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you know all that, you’ll also know you should do it.’
Jennie does not disavow all rituals. A practice called ‘offering’, typically of blood (drawn by a special offering pin) but also it seems many other things (including semen!), is considered to be a necessary ceremony for all kinds of acts such as growing a good lawn. But it’s also considered something that should not be done in front of other people:
In the street Gloria’s older boy, Al, Jr. was bending over a baseball bat with the Gotowski boy from down the block. A car waited for them to get out of the way. With a Boy Scout knife Al Jr. pricked his finger then dropped a little blood on the thick end of the bat. While the car honked at them the two boys covered their eyes and said a short prayer.
Jennie frowned. You didn’t do that, make blood offerings in public like that. They could at least have waited for the car to pass. They were just flaunting themselves. God, what the hell difference did it make?
On many social fronts, battles have been won. Abortion rights are unquestioned, tracing a lineage to one of the events of the revolution:
‘It’s on Teller Street. It’s called the Centre of the Unquenchable Fire. You know, after Li Ku.’
Jennie made a face. ‘That’s right,’ she said. Why couldn’t she remember it? For a moment they were both silent, thinking of the Great Abortion, in the last days of the Old World. A thousand women had gathered on an island to pray for the Army of the Saints. When they arrived, they burned all their clothes, refusing to wear anything made in Old World factories. The secular government decided to take revenge on these women, using their nakedness as an excuse for sending in an army of police. When the women became pregnant from the mass rape they prayed for guidance. One of them fell over with a vision that a great flame had burned up a tree, releasing a wave of perfume from a rock hidden in the trunk. Because of this vision they went all together to see Li Ku Unquenchable Fire (in beauty and truth lives her name forever). The Founder told them a picture—it was not recorded which one—and then she touched the women’s bellies and released the foetuses from their imprisonment.
After the women had returned to their island Li Ku stayed in the place she called the Home of the Non-born. When she returned she reported that the foetuses lived in their own stories, considering their existence far superior to the world they called ‘the land of decay’.
Remnants of the old gender system persist in a certain ritualised form, practised by secret societies. At two points in the book, we hear about ‘Insulting the Lady’, a forbidden Enactment:
In Boston, Massachusetts, a men’s secret society, the Teeth of the Tiger, performed ‘Insulting the Lady’, one of the five forbidden Enactments. Dressed in masks and rags they chased women off the streets, battering them with huge rubber phalluses. The action went on for nearly two hours, with the knowledge (and according to some, participation) of the local police. At the end, two teenage girls, sisters, were dragged from their houses and raped. Feminists marched through Boston and other cities along the east coast. Ms. magazine described the event as a ‘degeneration into the evil shadow of the Old World.’ The mayor of Boston declared Teeth of the Tiger an illegal organisation, and promised a full investigation.
In many other respects, the social system remains the same. The United States is still a two-party state, with a president; the two parties are the Sacred Democrats and Revolutionary Republicans:
The cover story was called ‘What next for the budget?’ and showed the President sitting in her oval office while representatives from the Sacred Democrats and the Republican Revolutionaries laid some kind of offerings on either side of her desk.
People live in various arrangements; outright communal living is not the norm, but there is a much greater degree of ceremonial integration in ‘Hive’ neighbourhoods. Housing is stratified, and the Hives are considered lower-middle class housing:
Various groups could count on an automatic place as well, including the various hive housing developments outside the city. In Glowwood Hive, where Jennifer Mazdan had lived for over three years, people slept late and awoke with the smile that came from knowing that for at least one day the lower middle class families in their cheap identical houses shared a privilege denied to the doctors and lawyers in their expensive homes on Wilbur Boulevard and the south side of the city.
Within every hive is a ‘Sacred Grove’, the residence of one person selected to be a ‘Touchstone’ for a year. The Touchstone is afforded a great deal of authority, officially representing the gestalt voice of the whole Hive; the climax of the novel sees Jennie sent to the Touchstone in an attempt to exile her by her peers. The first time Jennie visits the Touchstone, she and Mike experience a kind of divine manifestation:
Nothing in Jennie’s life could have prepared her for that onslaught. Even before the mask faced her she could feel them swarming together. The very act of the stone standing up and turning his head took with it a huge weight, as if a fisherman had attached his net to his face and now swung it up packed with squirming fish. The hive-souls moved in and out of each other, they banged together and slid apart in all the ways of their relationships. Jennie was choking. All those people—all of them staring at her.
She didn’t actually see them. She didn’t see anything but the doll face imprisoning Adlebury. And yet they were there, sliding in and out of each other, hundreds of voices babbling, arguing, laughing, complaining. Jennie gagged. She stumbled, falling against a half-finished desk. ‘Hey,’ Adlebury said, ‘you okay?’
‘What?’ Jennie said. As she looked up the touchstone once again became a bored elderly carpenter with his face covered in a painted helmet. She let her breath out and found herself shaking.
But for the vast majority of people, this kind of event never happens; it is merely a ritual observed like those in the real world, whose significance is imparted by its practioners. Life in a Hive seems to resemble a familiar American suburb: families with wives attending their lawns, insufferably tedious neighbourhood meetings, petty sniping and oneupmanship (often about who shows the proper religious devotion, but no less venal). The character Gloria Rich is especially well observed, snidely judging the others’ piousness…
‘I just asked,’ Gloria said. ‘There are some people who think they can flaunt the spirit and the grass will grow anyway.’ Her eyes darted at Jennie who pretended not to notice.
‘Listen,’ Joan said. ‘I’ve got so many little statues around my house Jimmy came in crying one day because he said there was no place he could play without violating a territory. And Earl’s mother actually tripped over a Dancer guardian I’d put at the bottom of the back steps. I was terrified she’d broken her leg and would end up staying for weeks.’
Gloria said, ‘I don’t think you should call them statues.’
‘Come on, Gloria,’ Karen said, ‘what do you want her to call them?’
‘Their proper names. Guardians. Or Living Beings. That is what they are.’
Later we meet Mike, Jennie’s ex-husband. In the Flashback scenes, he is a meticulous believer in the Living World, observing its rituals and ceremonies (e.g. buying Jennie a special offering pin, and reciting his knowledge about a legal ruling on when to give offerings)—but finds himself terrified by the overwhelming, intrusive spiritual manifestiations that Jennie keeps attracting, to the point that he annuls the marriage.
Curiously, contra the case of abortion, there seems to be little capacity for divorce in the revolutionary world; the only option is to have one’s marriage annuled entirely by appealing to a committee of Speakers, in which case it is scrubbed from history and even acknowledging ones’ ex is illegal. In the Days of Awe/Time of Fanatics, this involved (naturally) a self-destructive ritual:
How did people get annulments in the old days? Did a judge do it, like now? That seemed wrong, somehow. Too bureaucratic. Maybe they went to a speaker. Go down to an oracle centre and listen to the word of heaven destroy your marriage. What was she talking about? In the Time of Fanatics they didn’t have neat little Oracle Centres with plastic booths and machines blowing mist, and receptionists in cute uniforms like airline hostesses. And you didn’t just go and make an appointment, you had to submit yourself for judgement. Humble yourself before the divine voice. And the speakers didn’t just analyse a bunch of cards and coins. When they spoke they really said something. In the Days of Awe speakers burst out of the skin of society, howling and spinning down the streets until the healers and the older speakers got hold of them and taught them how to channel the sacred fire.
You just didn’t have things like that any more. She smiled, thinking of Gloria, or maybe Al, running through the hive dressed in the other’s clothes, waving his/her arms at frightened kids on bicycles. Why didn’t you have things like that any more? Was it just because people didn’t want them? People like Mike? If Michael Gold had had to plead for an annulment by lying face down on a cement floor with mud all over his naked body he and Jennie would probably still be married.
The Living World
Alongside the everyday world, the post-revolutionary religion acknowledges something called the Living World, a sort of divine force and realm of spirits. These spirits are broadly devided into Benevolent/Devoted Ones on the one hand, and Malignant/Ferocious Ones on the other; in both cases, on meeting one, it is appropriate to recite a ‘standard formula of recognition’:
He knew he should speak the ‘standard formula of recognition’ on encountering a Bright Being. ‘Ferocious One. I beg you to release me. I know that nothing I have done deserves your evil intervention.
Late in the book, this dualistic system is described (in an excerpt from The Lives of the Founders) as an indulgence of human moralism by one of the Founders, Alessandro Clean Rain. Two different versions of the story are presented. In one, the ‘moralists’ are a minority, and by purging the ‘sludge’ that was ‘preventing their hearts from puming revelation through their bodies’, Clean Rain ended up creating the raw material for the spirits. In the other, ‘the people refused to live in a world not shaped by the dance of good and evil’, so Clean Rain recruited spirits to the cause.
When first hired, the Devoted Ones, and the Ferocious Ones took up their tasks with great dedication. They harangued people constantly, attacking or saving them until their targets lost all track of what was happening. The Beings waited on street corners and bus stops, they appeared as faces in mirrors and soda bubbles. Each year they chose some unfortunate man or woman for their championship. One man, who later swore he had done nothing to antagonise either side, found his business ruined, his wife and children dead, his body a playground of disease and all his friends replaced by Malignant Ones who told him he was only getting what he deserved. Then the Benign Ones came to drive away the false friends, heal his body, arrange a loan for him to start a new business, set him up with a wife who promised him seven sons and three daughters, and finally appear to him in a whirlwind to assure him the whole exercise was of great value and would instruct future generations.
Later, the Founders imposed some restrictions; these forces are balanced, illustrated by a story about how each Teller is first torn apart by Malignant Ones, then reconstructed by Devoted Ones.
The Beings retreat to their camps, convinced they have performed a vital service. The Ferocious Ones, however, never notice that the chopped up pieces do not suffer but bring a blessing to wherever the enemy buries them. Nor do the Devoted Ones recognise the pain they cause by wrenching the scattered child loose from its union with its Mother. Still, the Benign Ones’ action does produce a benefit. The sudden withdrawal from the Earth gives the Tellers their most notable characteristic: their overwhelming desire to help their listeners.
So, the Bright Beings are a kind of alien force—the Agency recognised by Jennie as shaping her life. Their agenda is… tangential at best to questions of good, evil and suffering, but they are happy to manipulate events in the ‘Tomb World’ to pursue their desired ends.
As we saw in the anecdote related above, a great deal of the legal system of this society is focused on the question of possession. This can in fact be detected with instruments, and there is a ritual to purge a malignant one; towards the end of the novel, Jennie’s neighbours summon an SDA cop on a accusation of possession, each of them blaming her for various supposed curses she’s supposed to have inflicted. In everyday life, rather contrary to this story, the Devoted Ones seem to be considered allied with the Founders, and the Malignant Ones their enemies.
Other elements of the mythology seem rather flexible; the stories do not attempt to be consistent with each other, nor aim to be interpreted too literally. We’ll return to the project of the Bright Beings and the Founders soon, but first, I think I’m overdue on listing who they are:
Our cast of Founders
Much of the current social structure traces back to the dramas between the Founders. The Revolution combines the register of a biblical story with stories about the American revolution; the Founders in these stories are full of larger-than-life deeds, but when we occasionally glimpse their interiority, they seem a little more grounded.
Let’s start with Rebecca Rainbow, seemingly a rather conservative figure, exceptional among the Founders:
At the edge of Rainbow Square she stopped, looking in on the concrete park. She thought of Rebecca Rainbow camping out there while she threatened to split the Revolution if she wasn’t allowed to reopen the factories. Rebecca Rainbow would never have given in. But Rainbow was a Founder. In beauty and truth lives her name forever.
Elsewhere we hear of Rainbow’s other economic interventions:
On the Day of Truth, when the city paraded its best Tellers, the majority of Poughkeepsie’s citizens attempted to squeeze together on the sides of Recital Mount, an artificial hill built after the Revolution by the Holy Recovery Agency, Rebecca Rainbow’s emergency response to the unemployment that grew with the collapse of the Old World economy.
From the top of the hill she looked down at the factory. Officially started by Rebecca Rainbow, the Founder who’d restored the economy after the Revolution, the Poughkeepsie Bird of Light Corporation displayed in all its centres a lifesize statue of the great Teller. Staring down at it Jennie could see, at the bottom, one of Rainbow’s quotations, something about financial life based on spiritual truth.
…which earned a certain amount of contempt from the Founder most central to the book’s themes, Li Ku Unquenchable Fire, who most famously spent several days bound to a ferris wheel while on fire, after which she related The Place Inside, the story that structures the novel.
Somehow the story contained—something—you couldn’t really say what, except that it had nothing to do with the official meaning. But who could understand Li Ku? No one liked her. Even in the Revolution they called her the Insane Founder. They almost killed her that time she dragged in those tattooed followers of hers to spit at Rebecca Rainbow’s feet.
There is much to relate about Li Ku, so we’ll hold off on that for now.
By contrast to Rainbow, Miguel Miracle of the Green Earth seems to have attempted a decisive break with the old economic systems, calling for more of a make total destroy:
After the liberation of Vera Cruz, Miracle Of The Green Earth (in beauty and truth lives his name forever) saw that the people needed to break with the past. He sent each one a dream in which a yellow dog whispered, ‘Break down the storehouses, burn the food, the world begins today.’ When the people woke up they piled all their food in the streets and burned it. Then they ran to destroy groceries, silos, even the crops waiting in the fields. When they had finished they stood swaying in the morning rain, listening to the wind blowing through their empty stomachs.
At that moment a tribe of Malignant Ones, on the run from the Battle of Dallas, infected the people with a terrible hunger. The people shouted against the Founders. ‘We were better off as slaves,’ they cried. ‘At least then we had food. How can we sing without bread?’
Miguel MotGE then summoned cake from a fissure in the ground, but would only do this once; when other cities attempted to starve to persuade him to perform the same, they just died…
Meanwhile, other communities, jealous of Vera Cruz, burned all their food supplies as well. They then sat down and waited for Miracle Of The Green Earth to rescue them. So many people died as a result of this and other attempts to repeat some saving event that the government issued Proclamation 29, banning the practice of ‘forcing the Founders.’
The eventual upshot of these events was a confection called ‘Founder’s Cake’.
Other founder names mentioned at various points include…
- Ingrid Burning Snake
- Told the story Dustfather and Mothersnake at a ‘mass wedding of the Earth and Sky’ in New York, which has become a tradition to recite at weddings. Considered a patron of lost lovers and marriages; Jennie attempts to acquire an artefact of her when her marriage goes to shit. Once ‘peeled the years off of’ residents in an old peoples’ home.
- Mohandas Quark
- Little info about his deeds, but his name is attached to condoms (‘quarkskins’), causing discomfort in Jennie’s husband…
That had left them with the only form of birth control that didn’t require a sacred Enactment—Mohandas Quark condoms. Jennie knew that Mike hated the things. He hated the sensation and he hated the idea. She didn’t tell him that she secretly liked the thought that Quark was penetrating her along with her boyfriend. Mike became more and more irritable, finally shouting one night that he didn’t like ‘sharing my cock with another man.’
‘It’s not some other man,’ she said. ‘It’s a Founder.’
- Maryanna Split Sky
- a mute Founder who removed her tongue as a child and fed it to a bird, and later became a ‘Teller to the deaf’:
She spoke with her hands in the universal language. As she told them her pictures birds flew from her fingers. They perched on the shoulders of the deaf and sang to them soundless melodies of the Living World.”
- Jan Willem Singing Rock
- performed a ceremony named ‘eating the ancestor’, in which a model human is made out of everyday foods and eaten.
Soon the staff would bring out the body, various foods formed into a sculpture of a human being, each finger a different spiced meat, the mouth and eyes dripping with sauces. Jennie made a noise. The original ancestor was made of minced meat, vegetables, and bread sticks. The people who took part sang afterwards for three days and nights in a stream of languages. These people here, with their silverware designed by Tiffany’s, and their souvenir bibs with Singing Rock’s picture on them, they looked excited enough, but with the kind of excitement that came from doing something their tourist book had labelled ‘an absolute must during your stay in the Eternal Apple.’
- Danielle Book Of The People
- Little information, but seems to have been friends with Li Ku, and may have coined the term ‘Picture’.
- Alexander Joybirth
- Little information; at one point ‘ate twelve pepperoni pizzas and announced he’d consumed the zodiac’.
- Jonathan Mask of Wisdom
- A boulder once travelled down a mountain to hear him speak. Later seen surrounded by blind children at the edge of a canyon.
- Mirando Glowwood
- Patron of Glowwood Hive where Jennie lives; performed a ‘Miracle of the Chocolates’ which involved drawing chocolates from a ‘green and gold box’.
- Alessandro Clean Rain
- Created the Bright Beings by ‘focusing the limitless power of the Voice’.
- Jaleen Heart of the World
- Patron of healers; exorcised the Pentagon. Her ‘birth story’ is chanted by midwives during childbirth.
The big theme: on suffering and ecstasy
So we’ve establishe this revolution has profoundly changed the US in many ways, and left it surprisingly unchanged in others. But what was the purpose of this revolution—the great Truth so often alluded to?
The book never spells this out explicitly (and it would be weaker, I imagine, if it tried). However, it is at some pains to point out what the Revolution was not about. One especially interesting story comes near the middle of the book, called The Concealment.
It begins with a woman receiving visions of the coming Revolution:
It happened once that a certain woman received a vision of the Revolution. She learned that the Founders existed, that one day they would join together and create the world. Now, this woman had suffered greatly in her life. Her father had died in a plane crash. Her mother had become an alcoholic and a thief. Her lover had left her for someone else. Two of her best friends had committed suicide, while another had contracted a terrible disease that destroys the body. And every day in the woman’s city people were beaten and murdered.
The woman decided the world could not wait for the Revolution. She began to pray, and to chant, and through her desperate devotion she stumbled her way over the boundaries into the deep territories. With clear sight she saw the faces of Maryanna Split Sky, Jonathan Mask of Wisdom, and Li Ku Unquenchable Fire (in beauty and truth live their names forever). And she knew—if she could bring these three to the same place, even to the same city, the Revolution would begin, despite their efforts to postpone it.
The woman divines that she can bring forward the date of the Revolution by a special ritual which would call on the power of the Living World to force the Founders together. This has some stipulations: she can’t open the door, touch food or sleep for five days. During that time, she naturally gets sent things that might lead her to open the door: a woman calling for help, her mother promising to give up drink, a former lover, a diseased friend, but refuses each one on the reasoning that there are many more people who need the help of the Revolution.
Finally she sees a brilliant light and a starving dog. Convinced she’s already succeeded, she goes out to save the dog: something Christianity would consider the most virtuous act, helping a weaker creature. For this error she falls asleep, and dreams of Li Ku. This leads to one of the most fascinating passages in the book:
In the woman’s dream she saw Li Ku Unquenchable Fire. The Founder wore a red dress and silver shoes. ‘When we come,’ she said, ‘we will not come to end suffering.’
‘Then why will you come?’ the woman asked.
Li Ku said, ‘When we come we will come for something else.’
When the woman woke up she could no longer remember the three faces.
The woman’s mother stopped drinking. The woman’s lover returned to her. The woman’s friend recovered from his disease and all her other friends became well and prosperous. But she herself had weakened her body by her efforts to end suffering. Though she lived a happy life she died two years before the Revolution. On the day of her death she once more saw the Founders, all gathered together in a vision. She wrote in her diary, ‘Now I understand. I am the saddest woman who has ever lived.’
We will not come to end suffering! That is so interesting: directly repudiating the most common justifying narrative of stories from all kinds of religions.
True to Li Ku’s word, the Founders do not end suffering at all. Later, Jennie wanders feverishly around New York after a failed attempt to convince Mike that he should get back with her, bearing witness to various kinds of suffering: a child’s funeral, a paralysed old woman wishing to die while her family try to get her to take medicine, a woman who has been robbed of all her clothes and possessions. Jennie interprets that as an effort by the Agency to show her real suffering, that her own struggles are meagre:
The Agency. The Agency wanted her to learn about real suffering. As if her pain didn’t mean anything. As if she was being uppity to complain about losing her husband. But it wasn’t just Mike. It was her whole life. They’d taken her over. And what about those people? Did they lose their son just so Jennie Mazdan could be put in her place? Couldn’t the Agency see how wrong that was?
Not long after, Jennie finds herself face to face with a Bright Being—not one that gets associated with a ‘team’ of Malignant or Benevolent. She asks why she’s being shown these things, and gets a reply she doesn’t like…
He caught the wrists. ‘No one is punishing you,’ he said.
‘Yes they are—I didn’t want to see those people.’
‘There are some things you can only know by knowing.’
‘But what if I don’t want to? And what about them? What about that woman? She just wanted to die. And instead it was that little boy. They don’t deserve that.’
‘Suffering is not a punishment.’
‘Then why is it there? We don’t deserve it.’
‘Suffering exists for its own sake.’
And then this is followed by one of the most fascinating declarations in the whole book:
Still holding her wrists he said, ‘Listen to me, Jennifer.’ Jennie fell silent. ‘There are only two things in the world. Suffering and ecstasy. Do you understand?’
Jennie does not understand or agree with this. Her first counterexample is ‘love’, which the Being dismisses:
‘Love is a form of suffering.’
‘Suffering. Not ecstasy?’
‘Love belongs to the tomb world. Without death love is meaningless. But ecstasy has no purpose. It obliterates love.’
A little further on, the Being clarifies that these are not ‘two poles’:
‘You don’t let yourself understand. Listen to me, Jennifer. There are no answers, no solutions. Love—and pleasure and hope and fear and desire—they all belong to suffering. But ecstasy exists apart from suffering. They exist apart and at the same time. They exist together in the same place.’
‘They don’t connect?’
‘They connect totally. The life of one becomes the road to the other.’
‘Then they do answer each other. Ecstasy justifies suffering.’
‘No. The opposite. By its own reality, ecstasy makes people see that suffering is real. And without purpose. Ecstasy is a light that illuminates pain.’
Later, while she’s giving birth to the future prophet Valerie Mazdan, the same Being returns to Jennie’s side.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sitting down in the chair the Grandmother had placed beside the bed. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to go on a little more.’ He picked up a compress and wiped the sweat from her face. The touch of his fingers, even through the gauze, sent a warm shudder through her body. ‘Too much suffering,’ she said.
‘Suffering’s not something you can measure. There’s no quota or upper limit. It’s just there.’
‘No lectures,’ Jennie said, and gasped in pain. ‘No goddamn lectures.’
With this theme in mind, we can also return to chapter 4, where Jennie has a conversation with her awful hivemates:
Karen sighed. ‘Maybe that’s why the miracles stopped.’
Gloria said, ‘Maybe they stopped because of the transgressions of the worshippers.’
‘No,’ Jennie said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with that. Transgression.’
Joan asked, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just—I don’t know.’
Why had she said that? About transgressions not mattering. What did she mean by that? It had something to do with the dream. In the dream the fish came and saved them and it didn’t matter whether they’d sinned or not. The fish didn’t care. And the end, when she—when the milk and all the creatures came out of her—it wouldn’t have mattered what sins she’d done—if she’d killed people, or burned all the guardians on the Main Mall, or maybe become a saint, stopping bombs in mid-air by the power of her holiness. The creatures didn’t care. They just wanted the milk.
It’s like ‘The Place Inside’, she thought. At the end, the woman doesn’t deserve what happens to her. That’s the reason everyone gets so upset, it’s not just because it’s horrible, it’s because they think—she strained to catch hold of the idea before it slid away from her—it’s because she’s like them, an ordinary person, and then this thing happens to her. Something she doesn’t deserve.
But none of us deserve it. None of us deserve anything that happens to us. Good things too.
This was crazy. Soon she’d set up a box by the Founders’ Urinal and start preaching sermons.
One thing you may notice here is that while most of the narration reflects Jennie’s thoughts, the specific thoughts on the story are marked in italics—something very rare in this book. This kind of suggests to me that this is a fairly subtle way of marking an intrusion from the Living World…
In any case, what to make of this incredibly stark statement? I don’t think the Bright Being’s statement can be simply read as the thesis of the book, although this refusal to see innocent and guilty or a divine plan is absolutely part of the worldview it is presenting. As Alex said to me when I was discussing it, the book is not presenting a parade of suffering, and much of it has to do with kindness and care, the relationships Jennie builds with others like Karen, one of the few friends to stick by her for… most of the book. (Yet even Karen in the end sides with the established social norms, staging an intervention that quickly turns into an exile mob…)
It seems like what really moves Pollack is the things which give the passion, intensity and texture to life. Religion is not a route to some kind of peaceful paradise severed of pain or trauma, but to ‘ecstasy’, which imbues the hollow, raw events with stories and meaning. And this is something that must be experienced, it cannot simply be stated.
(This certainly accords with experience. Many stories I love deeply would perhaps seem banal if ‘reduced’ to a simple message—an official Inner Meaning to sum it up. It is often difficult to express concepts to other humans directly; they must be approached indirectly using tools like fiction.)
So part of the problem of the society seen in the book is that it has taken a series of religious movements based on personal revelation and fervour, but rather than carry forward that spirit, it has recuperated that dramatic break into a familiar framework of rules that might be transgressed, rituals that become repetitive and empty, bureaucracies and systems.
So this is an interesting answer to the problem of suffering that bothers me… like, I am an atheist, and I have had no need to think suffering should be justified somehow, but it still fucks with me how inevitable and universal and horrible it is; I find myself asking ‘why should it even be possible for a universe contain entities capable of subjectively experiencing “trauma”?’ and in more chuuni moments, almost wishing there was some kind of god I coud kill for it. This… doesn’t answer that question, but provides a certain approach for dealing with the lack of the answer without perhaps being overwhelmed.
I face a problem here, in that I find it very difficult to describe in words what answer this book has provided; yet I do feel like, as a story (one of those irreducible stories it discusses within itself!) that wrestles with the question, the entire story is itself some sort of answer. How do we face up to the a world of universal banal misery? Like this, by becoming mad, by getting weird?
Yet even if the Bright Beings are ‘right’ to try to revitalise the spirit of rebellion by bringing about the birth of Valerie Mazdan, who is metaphorically compared to a fish who fills the world with colour, their means of doing so are… cruel to the point of abusive.
Jennifer Mazdan spends much of the book in a state of grief, disillusionment and terror. Very little she attempts goes right. When she is given a prophetic dream on the Day of Truth, the same time that Allan Lightstorm recites (on Bright Being orders) The Place Inside to general upset and incomprehension, she does not react with excitement and joy to encounter such an event—the way she did before her husband left.
Jennie could see the dream coming even before she actually fell asleep. Like some huge creature it lumbered up the hill towards her, blotting out the factory, the trees, the river. ‘Get away,’ Jennie said. She ran to her car. ‘Leave me alone. I’m going to the Recital.’
Later, even before the pregnancy, she starts to rankle at the imposition of a dream, and the suspicion that Mike left because of the divine Agency…
What had Gloria said? That people think they do things for their own purpose, but really some agency is using them for some deeper purpose. Not everybody and not all the time. Just people in particular situations at particular moments, when they can do something useful without even knowing it. Like Joan leaving her Name beads on the plane.
Gloria was a pompous idiot, but that didn’t change the principle. And it wasn’t an unknown, or even such a radical idea. Jennie had studied it in college, in Correct Doctrine, when they’d had to read The Dialectic of Ignorance and Certitude.
Something had grabbed hold of Jennie. And that same something had got rid of Mike. However much he himself believed his conscious reasons for annulling their marriage, however real they seemed to be, they were manufactured, no, manipulated, no, she couldn’t find the right word. The point was, Mike had been in the way. That’s all there was to it. With Mike around she couldn’t have the dream. Why, she didn’t know, but she was sure of it.
This idea recurs, again and again, throughout the novel. When Jennie discovers that she is pregnant, she receives a call in which her mother describes a vision in which a large group of people ate her body in the form of cakes. Afterwards, she is… depressed.
She sat down in a dinette chair. Why didn’t her mother just keep it to herself? From the bedroom a game show blared on the television. Jennie had been watching a soap opera when the phone had rung. She thought, What do they want from me? and couldn’t think of who ‘they’ might be. She said out loud, ‘I just want a normal life.’
Eventually, Jennie reveals her pregnancy to her friend Karen in the hopes of finding out the name of the abortion clinic. Rather than attribute it to divine conception, she goes with the story that she was raped on the Day of Truth:
Jennie looked down. If only she could have found the name and avoided all this. ‘In a way,’ she said, and felt like an idiot.
‘In a way. Jennie, you said you’re not even dating.’
‘Oh shit, you weren’t, you weren’t attacked?’
‘No, no, it…’ She stopped. ‘Yeah, I guess that’s what it was. A kind of attack.’
Karen begs her to do an Enactment to ‘clear the rape out of her’. This comparison between the divine power seizing control of her body and rape is well… notable!
A very key moment comes when Jennie actually makes it to the abortion clinic: as she tries to make her way in, trees spontaneously manifest in front of her, as if they’ve always been present.
She got up and walked all the way to the edge of the lawn where a low picket fence marked the border with the house next door. When she looked at the clinic she could make out the painting above the door: Li Ku on her ferris wheel. Jennie stared at the painting as if she expected it to glow or move. She only saw faded wood, here and there chipped by bad weather over many years. She took a deep breath and stepped forward. The saggy old willow that blocked her looked as if it had stood there for years. At the base lay a battered doll in a polka dot dress.
Jennie got down on the ground to lay both hands on the grass. ‘Please,’ she told the Earth. ‘Let me go by. Please. They shouldn’t have picked me. I’m no good for this sort of thing.’
A news crew arrives quickly on the scene, further humiliating Jennie and invading her privacy.
‘Miss,’ said a voice behind her! ‘Could you tell us what’s happening here?’ Jennie looked over her shoulder to see a woman in a pink blouse and yellow skirt bending over her with a microphone attached to a bag at her waist. A few feet away stood another woman, in jeans and a sweat shirt, with a small video camera mounted on her shoulder. By the kerb a man lounged against a truck marked ‘WPKP Action Now News.’
Jennie didn’t hear the Action News woman’s final questions. As she drove away, a car with a couple of men, one of them with two cameras around his neck, nearly slammed into her as it spun sideways to block the road. She kept going, driving over someone’s lawn while the car and the television van ended up blocking each other. They have no right, Jennie thought. She hoped Karen wouldn’t see her on television. Or Gloria. Or Maria. No right.
She attempts an abortion by herself, but the needle she intends to use becomes superheated, then her hand when she tries to wear a glove. The Living World will not let her have bodily autonomy here; it will force her to bear its child. So the story takes on a kind of ‘spiritual horror’, to borrow a phrase from Alex.
Even after she gives up on aborting the child, Jennie goes through her whole divine pregnancy in an attitude of shame and frustration, hiding it from as many people as possible. She comes to grudgingly accept the baby herself, if not the supernatural power determining it; though when at certain points, the baby sings a song with a powerful magical calming effect, Jennie generally resents and resists it. By the time she makes her break from the Hive itself, she’s resolved something in herself…
She glanced down at her belly. I know you’re needed, she thought. I know that. I’m not stupid. It’s just—I’ve got to make my own choices. Can you understand that?
(This phrase recurs throughout the book. )
At every turn, she pointedly refuses to perform Enactments, and even resolves to deliver the baby herself—surely this divine baby will take care of itself. Instead, the divine agency sends a team of three midwives doing the usual maiden/mother/crone thing.
This is a very interesting story for a trans woman to be telling, because, well, we can’t get pregnant lol; even as far as our struggle for bodily autonomy parallels the struggle for abortion rights. Yet it is nevertheless a very familiar story of making a defiant against what is seen as ‘natural’ to do with our bodies.
The birth seen is suitably vivid; during it, Alan Lightstorm and the mysterious Bright Being arrive, and Jennie is given a cookie which leads her to temporarily experience the life of Li Ku on her ferris wheel. It is depicted as very painful. And yet when the child is finally born…
Jennie paid no attention to any of them. For in the sound of that laughter, she knew her daughter would never be hers. The child might live with her, accept her love, her milk, and later on her advice and teaching. But the child would never belong to her. The cookie vendor said, ‘Does any child belong to its mother?’ but Jennie wasn’t listening. She was thinking of her daughter, how one day the girl would kiss Jennie’s forehead, or smile, or something, and say, ‘It’s time for me to leave. I have my work to do.’
It made no difference. As soon as she held her daughter again, Jennie knew that. However long they had together, she would love her child and take care of her. For as long as possible she would protect her daughter against the knowledge of who she was and why she had come into the world. ‘I love you,’ she said, and kissed the face and the shoulders, and the soft belly before she hugged the child to her breasts. ‘You’re my daughter and I love you.’
A final brief epilogue relates that they get seventeen years together, before Valerie Mazdan is visited by the same Bright Being, leading her to join the Tellers. From there, excerpts of stories she told show her to be an iconoclast who upset this society much as the Founders did, a successor to Li Ku…
Jennie’s husband Mike is an interesting figure, in part because of what she projects onto him. Their confrontation, after Jennie tracks him down to New York, is especially noteworthy: Jenny attempts to persuade him that he left her because of the ‘agency’ intervening. But Mike sees it as, well, much like Jennie, taking power over his own life.
Mike said, ‘If you ask me, we’ve both got just what we want. I’ve got my own life back and you’ve got your true events.’
‘I just want you. I want you.’
‘Yeah, I’ll bet.’ He got up and stood away from the table. ‘I’m going, Jennie.’
‘This isn’t you,’ she said. ‘It’s the Agency. The Agency’s making you do this.’
‘Yeah? Then I guess that’s another one I owe it. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage without the agency backing me up.’
‘You wouldn’t need courage. You wouldn’t want this. You don’t want this. The Agency just makes you think you want it.’
‘Forget it, Jennie. If there’s one thing I do know, it’s what I want.’
As much as he may be her foil, Mike is not some kind of secularist by comparison to Jennie; instead, he’s meticulously observant of religious practices and rules, a very by the book kind of guy. He even does his best not to acknowledge that they once knew each other when Jennie tracks him down after the annulment. But when he’s faced with ‘genuine’ spiritual interruptions—a ‘precursor’ appearing on a beach from a distant past, spiritual experiences in everyday Hive rituals—he is terrified to the point that he cannot stand to be anywhere near Jennie, with her incomprehensible fondness for what he terms the ‘Time of Fanatics’.
Which leads to lots of interesting overlapping dimensions. In terms of its view of spirituality, the narrative sympathises much more with Jennie; yet it is pretty unambiguous that she is misguided in her efforts to reconnect to Mike and blame his abandonment on the intervent of this ‘agency’.
‘Bullshit. I don’t hate you. I just don’t want you pushing me around.’
‘I’m not pushing you around. It’s the Agency.’
So both of them make a kind of break or refusal to completely comply with the Living World; yet it is Jennie’s break which is considered desired and productive. We can wonder—was it actually part of the grand plan to use Mike to shuffle Jennie out to Poughkeesie, and then get rid of him? Or is this a story she cooked up, with the Bright Beings just grabbing someone convenient with the right attitude? Later, we see many people blame Jennie’s supposed possession for their failed relationships, rather than take responsibility themselves…
The other major figure in Jennie’s life is her mother, Beverley, from whom she is quite estranged. Bev is an avant-garde composer and artist; as a child she placed, and continued to place, a great deal of pressure on Jennie to also be an artist, which (in keeping with her general feeling on autonomy!) Jennie resisted.
And as for her mother…Jennie knew very well what Beverley thought of Jennie’s hopes of scholarship. Mommy had expected (still expected, against all the evidence and Jennie’s insistence) that Jennifer would follow in her Mommy’s footsteps and become a musician. Or at least an artist or a writer. Never mind that Jennifer had gone to college. Never mind that she dropped out only to betray all sanity by getting a suburban husband, a suburban house, and a suburban job, and then, when she lost the first, keeping the other two. In Beverley’s eyes, it was all just ‘sleepwalking.’
For Jennie, the feeling that she has disappointed her mother is a source of ongoing pain; before her dream, she imagines that Allan Lightstorm’s Picture-telling will inspire her to “throw so much love at Beverley she’d have to love Jennie in return”.
We only get glimpses of Bev’s artworks, which feel like a parody of pretentious artists who Pollack might have known…
‘Wonderful. I’m working on a new piece. It explores the sound possibilities in traditional women’s work. It’s called “Improvisation for Alto Saxophone, Clothes-pegs, and Amplified Washing Machine.” How are you?’
So how does Bev fit into the themes of like, relation to religiosity? She’s definitely very much doing her own thing in comparison to Mike; yet it could be argued the same hollowness exists there in the rituals of the art world; her plays at novelty don’t have the same ‘ecstatic’ fervour that Jennie ultimately craves. The contrast between Bev and Mike most opens up when they argue over ideas for the wedding:
Beverley wanted a ‘contemporary recreation’ of ‘Dustfather and Mothersnake’, the Prime Picture Ingrid Burning Snake had told at the mass wedding held after the liberation of New York. She wanted to hold the event in her own house, planning to rope off the street and fill it with giant terra cotta dolls signifying the characters in the picture. She wanted Mike and Jennie to go up on the roof and throw down more dolls to smash them on the pavement, a ‘direct incarnation’ as she called it, of Dustfather’s dismemberment. She wanted tapes played on loudspeakers all through the house and even in the street. Some of the tapes would recite the tale, but out of synch, with each other, producing an outward chaos, while subconsciously the Picture would ‘drench’ the participants. Other tapes (she never got around to specifying how many tape decks she would need) would blast each other with instruments, cars, trucks, thunder, recorded earthquakes, and wrecking machines (to represent Mothersnake’s revenge on the city after her husband’s death). The noises would slowly build ‘to a density of sorrow’ until the moment of Dustfather’s song in the nursery. Then everything would stop until a single electronic voice emerged from the destruction.
Mike, on the other hand, wanted a traditional wedding, held in a hall, with Burning-snake’s picture recited by a local Teller (he suggested importing his family’s neighbourhood Teller from Poughkeepsie). He wanted himself and the bride painted in simple, literal images of the key moments. He wanted groups of children in giant gold-painted cardboard boxes equipped with horns and ratchets for the children to chase away the Hooded Man whenever his name was mentioned.
Jennie, though she doesn’t get a say, wants something much more raw and unhygienic:
Six weeks before the wedding Mike entered the East Side Hospital of the Inner Spirit, where a healer in a black hood circumcised him. The hospital invited Jennie to take part by laying gloved hands on her anaesthetised fiancé. She refused, allowing Mike and the hospital administrators to think it was squeamishness. In fact, a strange longing had taken hold of her. She had found herself wishing for a genuine Enactment, the kind they used to hold in the Time of Fanatics, when the bride would actually circumcise her husband and throw the foreskin from the roof. She tried to banish the idea—it was unsafe and barbaric, not to mention ruining the wedding night—but it kept coming back, entering her thoughts at odd moments. She found herself wondering if a gust of wind—‘Mothersnake’s shout’ they used to call it—would lift the foreskin into the sky.
Yet in a sense Bev may be right that Jennie is ‘sleepwalking’, given that the climax of the book sees her coming into her own as an orator.
Jennie stays with Beverley during the New York segment, interrupting an artsy sex rite when she arrives. While she’s there, Beverley is overcome with a strange state of mind, raving about dead people without any regard for Jennie. Shortly thereafter Jennie receives a vision showing that babies and stories both come from the land of the dead.
‘That’s the trouble with dead people,’ Beverley said. ‘They always think you owe them something.’ She giggled. ‘You remember that time they stole Annie’s dress. Ripped it right off her back that day she went to visit the refugee camp.’
Annie is not mentioned anywhere else in the book, incidentally.
Afterwards, Jennie goes to the roof and receives a vision of a kind of paradise state, where her mother gives up her instruments to be there for her.
And then a woman stood up, and it was Beverley, and at her feet Jennie saw a pile of smashed instruments. ‘I love you, Jennie,’ her mother said. ‘I’ve always loved you. I love you more than anything in the world.’ Then they all came and stood together, hugging and laughing and crying, while behind them the waiters came, bringing all Jennie’s favourite dishes.
In the aftermath, she meets Beverley again, while lying in the bath—and it’s probably at this point that Beverley realises Jennie is preggers. Ahem. Pregnant.
Beverley looked away a moment, pressing her lips. ‘Jen,’ she said, ‘if you ever need anything, any help, will you come to me?’
Jennie nodded, then said ‘Yes.’
‘Do you promise?’
Jennie could see a pink glow of light around her mother’s face. Beverley said, ‘I love you, Jennifer.’
Do you? Jennie thought. Do you really? Or is this just some kind of reward?
Jennie said, ‘I love you, Mommy.’
Beverley walked back to kneel beside the tub. ‘I love you too, Jen,’ she said. Jennie wrapped her wet arms around the blue silk. For a long time she hugged her mother. When Beverley left the room Jennie lay back, weeping into the water.
This chapter, just three pages long, is the last appearance of Beverley until the epilogue. And it seems to be the first moment of genuine connection between Jennie and Beverley in the novel, signifying perhaps Jennie’s acceptance of her role.
What to make of that? Unclear…
The stories within
The Place Inside
So now we get to the story that is gradually related over the course of the novel: the story told by the mad Founder, Li Ku, which Jennie’s neighbours found so troubling. (We also get other stories, including some of those told by Valerie, but let’s deal with the big one first). As the novel procedes, the segments are cut ever more frequently with the main narrative.
If you’ll forgive what may seem like a trivialising comparison, the story reminds me a bit of Abaddon’s writing in a mythological register on Kill Six Billion Demons. It begins with a boy known as ‘He Who Runs Away’, who begins life as something of a social outcast on an island in the ‘Sea of Sorrows’ that stands between the lands of the living and dead. It opens with all sorts of great images:
He Who Runs Away came out of his mother with his eyes open, all of them, even the ones behind the head, which most people leave safely closed until after death.
He calls himself ‘Son Of A God’, to general derision. On his fifteenth birthday, an earthquake comes and Son Of A God proclaims that this is his father’s judgement; then the earthquake stops and he’s driven out by stoning. In the desert, he is viited…
Shivering with fever, half crying, half moaning with nausea, chills, and a rage as massive as the Moon, He Who Runs Away lay down in the shadow of the stone. He closed his eyes and shouted for death.
But when he looked up, instead of Our Winged Mother Of Night, he saw before him a Visitor, an agent of the Living World. The being wore a mask half as high as the boy. Splinters of bone and strips of skin hung from the mask’s sides. The forehead was pasted with photographs of burning bodies. Flies filled the mouth.
With this mask, which he names ‘the head of his father’, he sets out to take revenge. Unfortunately, he slaughters the wrong village. However, this impresses a group of people with some gender going on: they’re cafab but they wear lion skins and iron dicks. They enact a campaign of slaughter, during which time HWRA discovers a new purpose, to ‘create the world’. After enacting his revenge, he receives a lesson from the vultures: how to create a suitably authoritarian civilisation with all its accoutrements.
When it was finished, and the lion-men were celebrating, He Who Runs Away sat down to listen to the black birds with white necks who fluttered down to peck at the bodies. In the beat of their wings the killer heard a voice, a teacher who told him about laws and government, administration and bureaucracy. And when it ended its instructions the voice told him how to find the hidden bridge that would take him and his followers across the Sea of Sorrows to the bulk of the world.
The Death Squad rolled across the continents. In each land He Who Runs Away left behind him—along with mountains of dismembered bodies—repaved roads, and district courts, and laws and licences, and progressive and regressive taxes. When he had killed the kings and presidents he turned their palaces into distribution centres for free food, clean clothing, and explanations of the new code of equality and opportunity. Besides supplies and weapons he began to carry paint. When he conquered a city he would wait until night and then send the young women to paint the streets and trees and buildings, so that when the sun rose the people saw a new world brighter than the sky. In a country pockmarked with caves he found a large black rock. He took it with him and called it the Seat of Heaven. Wherever he went he would sit on the rock, draped in black, to hear petitions. When the time came for judgement he would throw off the black cloth and stand up dressed in gold and purple.
Before long, he resolves to slaughter the lion-men, who struggle to understand his new program. He leads them into a cave and kills them all and in a nice grisly detail, hands out their metal dicks to his generals.
Eventually, his army—all these things have sardonic titles like the Army of Great Liberation—conquers the entire homeland. Here, a council comes up with a plan to thwart his designs, albeit at significant cost. They order their population to surrender, and intimate to HWRA that there is a special mountain where he can see God’s face. So he goes up there:
When he had killed enough people to realise that no one would resist him he hid himself in the largest house in the largest village. Slowly the message penetrated his barriers of disgust. Here at the end of the world, where human courage had drained into the rock, there existed a mountain. And above this mountain, the other side of the clouds, rose the face of the enemy. He Who Runs Away left his army at the knees of the World’s Father. Breathing ice into his chest he climbed until he came to the ledge where the rows of goats’ heads stared up at the mist.
The black blades beat away the clouds. He Who Runs Away shouted over the engines and the wind. He looked up. Nothing. No eyes of fire, no forehead streaked with lightning, no mouth open to swallow the night. Just blank sky. It was all a joke, and his fists opened and closed as he thought of what he would do to these people who thought they could play a trick on the master of life. He looked again. He saw the stars and recognised them as suns so isolated they could no longer speak to each other. He saw swirls of greyish light and knew they were groups of suns so distant from here that they’d become less than a swarm of flies around a corpse. And even all these clouds could not obliterate more than a corner of the emptiness. With a hammer torn from the rock wall of the mountain He Who Runs Away smashed the machines.
HWHA does not respond especially well to this nihilistic message, and decides to leave with his army. There’s a curious little aside about the ‘sacred messengers’:
The Council heard a flutter of wind, they smelled the perfumed bodies of sacred messengers flying over their city. One of their nieces went up to the roof with a coil of rope, for the women had learned that the messengers lost their wings at puberty, a tragedy which they mourned in poetry for the rest of their lives. The girl brought down a male and threatened to awake his sexuality if he didn’t tell her the leader’s orders.
This touch of extremely fucked detail adds a lot of flavour to a story, I think…
The council’s plan has a second stage. They send a girl called Too Pretty For Her Own Good to depart with HWRA, whose beauty causes various acts of destruction in the environment around her. Naturally they get married and she goes off with him.
Runs Away had promised he would never dress her in mud, but covered her instead with a veil and a long dress embroidered with pictures of the occupied territories. Every time the material tried to settle against her body her beauty pushed it away, like a child puffing on a feather. Too Pretty didn’t care. She helped her husband up and down the hills and she listened to his stories and stared at his face and arms. For she had never seen skin that shone, and this man’s body glistened with rage.
But life outside her mountain home is not welcoming. HWRA, now known as the Sacred President, creates a ‘Celestial Republic’ ruled by the ‘Democratic City of God’. He becomes an arbiter ruling on matters of, say, scarcity, labour discipline and personal relations. Too Pretty, meanwhile, is too far out of her element. Unable to face the public eye and HWRA starts to ignore her. He turns out to be busy trying to, well, do something about that nihilistic vision:
Machines crowded the platform. Shaped like lions’ heads, their mouths spewed what looked like black smoke into the sky. Too Pretty’s husband ordered her to leave. Instead, she threatened to strip naked, knowing that even machines broke apart at the sight of her body. ‘Tell me what you’re doing.’
‘I’m expanding the sky,’ he said. Every night his lions pumped out blackness and dust, opening the sky wider and wider until the mountain, the Father of the World, would become lost, isolated by oceans of emptiness. His emptiness. The Lady begged her husband to stop. He ordered his assistants to bind her hands and feet so she couldn’t undress, and then they carried her home and sealed the doors of her house.
So she lays a curse on him, until he begs her for release, and she demands a mountain as the price. HWRA turns the machinery of his empire to terraforming:
That same day he ordered a new tax across his territories—a tax of trees and rocks, of water, pebbles, and snow. And children. For he knew that no adults would believe such a thing possible, and whatever they would build would collapse around them.
Every day the mountain grew, and every night Too Pretty For Her Own Good came to inspect it. She examined angles and textures, she laughed at the mistakes of a builder who’d never seen a hill until after he’d filled his hands with bodies. Then one night she found the locks back on the doors. A servant told her the Sacred President had heard of threats against her life and was worried for her safety. She knew that he wanted the mountain for himself. But what could she do? She’d stopped her curse too soon, she’d given up her work for his. And now it was too late.
The President too had given up everything but the mountain. He no longer sat on the Seat of Heaven. He no longer visited the outer territories or marched in parades. He gave up reciting his ‘Song of the Modern World’ by which all the inventions maintained their existence. Outside his Democratic City of God the highways had begun to crack, the cars and buses caught fire, the taps and toilets filled with flies. The television stations broadcast nothing but memories.
Sensing this weakness, an army attacks the Democratic City of God. HWRA goes out to fight, putting the Head of his Father back on, and coming back into his old element… until he loses his mask, and somehow the lion women are back, and they kill him. His devotees try to reconstruct his body, but Too Pretty has another idea. She finds the Head of his Father on the battlefield, and adopts it as her own, ordering the old President’s body destroyed:
She shouted, ‘Take that useless body. Take its pieces and throw it to the rats. This is my body now. In this body I will rule you and love you.’ The spectators nearly trampled the official mourners in their rush to pull apart the rigged up corpse. When they tore at the pasted skin they discovered nothing underneath but a hollow wooden frame. ‘Do you see?’ the new President called to them. ‘They tried to take my heart. They tried to shred it and cook it and eat it to give themselves the courage to betray me. But the birds rescued it. They lifted my heart from the hands of my enemies. And they brought it here.’ As she pounded on her chest the secretaries and generals and police chiefs ran from the cheers and shrieks of the mob.
Stepping into the position of authority, the new She Who Runs Away ends up ruling for only 78 days before a lion shows up and starts killing people. She becomes convinced the lion is, well, her husband. Disguised, she follows the lion out into the desert and they fuck some. So she has a lion baby. By this point she’s no longer considered beautiful…
The foetus fed on the last remnants of her beauty. Wherever she went people turned away from her. They threw stones, they stoned her the way they’d stoned the President when he was a boy and called himself Son Of A God. Wherever she tried to rest they drove her away, frightened her tongue would poison the water, her toes would infect the soil. Posters warned people of ‘the hideous woman’ whose sweat could spoil the food in the supermarkets, whose stare could make men beat their wives, make women stab their husbands. She hid during the day and at night disguised her ugliness the way she once had disguised her beauty.
She planned her revenge. When the baby came, when their child came, when it grew and could wear the Head of His Father, then all those who had humiliated her would receive their punishment. She longed for their confusion as well as their agony, their wonder at why they were suffering, and she pictured the exquisite moment in which she would step from the shadows to confront her dying enemies. ‘Look at my face and remember.’
She gives birth to twin lion kids, who tear their way out of her body. Her blood spreads and poisons the land where she died, populated only by these lion people. Outside the desert, it is a sourceo f terrible discomfort…
The people built walls around the emptiness. They told each other that some day a redeemer would come, one who with power and courage would go behind the wall to lay hands on the ground and draw the curse from it. The rivers would flow again, and the man-lions would shed their claws and teeth. But no redeemer ever came. In time they gave the desert a name, and except when the enemy attacked some village or farm they did their best never to think about it. The name they called it was ‘The Place Inside’.
Jennie’s dream and The Queen of the Prom
It’s only at the very end of the book that we finally get to hear the full story of The Place Inside; however, if we then look back, we can go back and read Jennie’s dream, at least the end part…
But when she finally got herself turned over she was lying in a desert of baked mud. Everything about her had got larger, thicker, clumsier, her feet like tree stumps, her thighs like standing stones, her breasts like the concrete lumps gangsters tie to their partners when they throw them in the river. A long time she lay there, tired and sad, while the Sun got hotter and hotter. The Sun didn’t want to hurt her, she knew. It just couldn’t help itself. Her skin dried and dried until suddenly she cracked open, ten, twenty places up and down her body. Great rivers of milk flowed out of her breasts to soften the brown earth.
Joy lifted her head. She saw all the animals, and the Persian baseball team, and the legless lady and the people from the river, all of them with their faces deep in the milk, making great slurping noises. From her groin the fish swam forth, all their colours releasing rainbows of light into the thirsty sky.
Jennie laughed and lay down again. There wasn’t much left of her now. She tried to close her eyes but the half-eroded lids only cut the sky in half. She opened them again. She saw a flock of artbirds from the Poughkeepsie factory. They were circling down, coming to lift away that small unbreakable thing, hard and bright, that lay forever hidden in the base of the heart. The dream Jennie smiled and went to sleep.
So we can perhaps see a little how it acts like an answer or continuation of The Place Inside.
Later, during the exile confrontation, Jennie finds herself moved to tell a story of her own. This one’s called The Queen of the Prom. It tells of ‘the mother of all people’, who is constantly attacked by her children: harassed with noise and losing pieces of her skin to delicious delicious cannibalism. One day she abruptly becomes a river, threatening to flood everywhere. This is only ended by an act of self-sacrifice, in which a girl leaps into the flood, painted with ‘spirals inscribed with pleas of forgiveness’. When, prompted by pollution, the waters rise again, the authority figures—mayor, city manager and Chief of Police—decide that clearly another sacrifice is in order.
The high school had just chosen its Queen of the Prom. They would go to the Queen’s house, tell her she had won a special award and lead her out of town. Then they would give her a chocolate filled with drugs to make her sleep. They would tie her up, dress her in a white gown, and throw her in the water. The Chief of Police, who had just trained a pack of ferocious dogs, suggested they should kill her first. Leave her overnight, he said, let the dogs loose at her, and then in the morning they would give her to the river.
However, the Queen of the Prom outwits them, avoiding their poisons while the rest of the population beg her to kill herself, which will definitely save them.
Now her own family had joined the crowd. ‘Why should everyone die,’ they told her, ‘just so you can live? Do you think that’s right?’ Disgusted, she left the house. When they saw how she’d aged they wanted to run, but she insisted she would only go to the river if they all followed her.
Her efforts at negotiation render her an old woman; then on the second attempt she immerse herself for a full day, but comes out young again. The story ends on a slightly ambiguous note…
Morning came. The people who’d celebrated woke up sick and no one wanted to look at anyone else. All day they argued, and at night they lay awake, afraid to sleep. By the river, however, the smooth silver of the water began to ripple. The girl stepped out, as young as when the mayor had first come knocking on her door. She led the people upstream to a place where the air was sweet and the water as pure as the sun. There they created a new city. In the centre of it they built a stone house, with a wooden bench. When the girl became an old woman she would sit there, and the people would sit beside her and tell her their stories.
The wedding story: Dustfather and Mothersnake
We are introduced to this story’s surrounding traditions before it is related in full:
This tale, recited at all weddings, is never printed in its entirety. At the same time, it remains the best known of all the prime Pictures. For who, as a child, has not hidden in the huge painted boxes that mark a wedding ceremony, ready to scream and wave noisemakers whenever the Teller mentions the name of the Hooded Man? And who, as an adult, has not joined in the stomping and whistling to drive away the Malignant Ones when the bride raises the black bladed knife to mime the circumcision of her terrified husband?
It involves two sort of ‘parent of everyone’ figures (a recurring element of many of these stories), and unusually, it has a villain—the Hooded Man, who recruits a group of women to carry out a grandiose murder.
These were the women who belonged to the Hooded Man.
He had come to each of them at three times in her life, on her fifth birthday, on her tenth birthday, and on her fifteenth birthday. To each one he appeared differently each time, as a father playing animals on the floor, or a man selling ice cream from the back of a truck, or an old man waiting for a bus, or a boy friend driving her in a gold and green car over the top of a steep hill. Each time he told her the same thing, that she would meet a man whose song could crack the sun and strip the dead skin off her body.
These women suceed at imprisoning Dustfather, and demand he sing. This does not go well for them, so they tear him to pieces and bury them wherever they can. One of them holds onto his dick. (Mm. Theme.) But the dick swims away to the sea.
Infuriated to have lost her husband, Mothersnake starts slaughtering children in hospitals and inspiring people through dreams to create fascist death cults. But eventually the pieces turn up; gradually all the pieces are found except Dustfather’s dick, which has washed up on an island where a group of fisherwomen use it for, well, “you know”…
When they found Dustfather’s organ some of them had spent so many years away from men they could no longer remember what this strange thing was that changed shape and leaped into the air. Some of them, however, could still recognise it, and they told the others. The women passed it around. Soon they were all pregnant. Eighteen months later those who remembered how such things used to work worried that too much time had passed. But the others didn’t care. They happily patted each other’s bellies and curled into giant balls to roll down the hill together into the waves. Finally they gave birth to a tribe of girls with dark green skin and golden eyes that could make a rock weep just by looking at it.
The Hooded Man convinces them to bury the dick lest it be used to create ‘an army of men with iron hands and stone feet’. Back in Mothersnake’s city, the people are at a loss, and eventually decide that what Mothersnake needs is, well, loads of foreskins.
The next morning all the young men gathered in the meadow ringed with brown stones. These were the same stones the Hooded Man had once vomited from his belly while Mothersnake danced around him with her skirts held up. The men lifted their penises, they stretched the foreskins. The women crawled along the grass with volcanic knives held in their teeth. In a great flash of darkness the knives slashed down, the men shouted with joy.
The story ends with a kind of memento mori: without enough foreskins, the snake will eat us.
r must restore himself. For without him to calm her, Mothersnake will devour us. And so, all weddings, this wedding, all weddings must end with the black knife, the fall of the blade, the foreskin carried to the roof of the hall at midnight and thrown into the wind. The wind carries it to our ancestors, they will join it to the others surrendered over the years. In love all men become their father, in love they enter the warmth of their mother.
And on the wedding night, when the wife has helped her husband to the bed covered in flowers, he will sing to her, he will sing the wordless melody Dustfather sang to Mothersnake in the nursery. With the song he becomes our father. Wounded, her father enters her.
Again, and again, and again, the broken circle joins together.
Apparently the kids love this story! Which they’re told! No word on where gay people fit into this one.
The Three Sisters
We see very little of the life of Jennie’s daughter Valerie Mazdan, but we do get to know her through her stories. One is a ‘training Picture’, The Three Sisters to which she makes some ‘unauthorised revisions, shortly before her explusion from the New York College of Tellers’: somewhat recognisable as a variant of the story of Ishtar/Inanna’s descent to the underworld by way of Greek mythology, it tells of three sisters who divide up the earth, sky, and underworld between them, then fall apart due to various kinds of delusion and jealousy.
The three sisters—Lily, Asti, and ‘a third’ who is conspicuously unnamed—agree on how to divide up the world; the third sister is first to pick, and estranged from the other two. She volunteers, out of a fear of her own cowardice towards ‘scheduling enough disease and war’, to run the underworld. But when she gets there, she finds herself largely irrelevant.
Lily played. She stretched herself thin enough to roll in the dust between the galaxies, she squeezed herself so tight she jerked gravity out of its compulsions. Now and then, when she would admit to boredom at the same games over and over, she would visit Earth and try to persuade Asti to take a holiday. More and more, however, Asti refused to leave her desk, even for an evening. ‘I’m their mother now,’ she told Lily. ‘They depend on me.’
And the third sister—Lady of a Thousand Names, as one of her assistants called her—she took to walking endlessly along the cold corridors of her house. Now and then she stopped and stared into the faces embedded in the walls, or pressed her fingers to the mouths or eyes. Never did she get back the slightest recognition.
She wasn’t alone. She could always find her assistants lounging in the staff rooms. They sat around card tables and made up lists, or they traded stories about ‘appointments in Las Vegas’ and other tricks they played on their ‘clients.’ But the third sister could never stand their tone of voice, or the way they leaned back with their hands behind their heads, or the gaudy costumes most of them affected (strings of skulls, belts made out of teeth and fingernails, leather dresses dripping blood). Most of all she couldn’t stand the way they all fell silent the moment she entered the room, the way they stared at her. She knew very well that they could run the place without her.
So she convinces herself that Asti actually loved her.
Finally Our Blessed Mother of Night (as another assistant called her) decided that only her beloved sister Asti could blot away her loneliness. By this time she had convinced herself that Asti had loved her and not Lily. She convinced herself that Asti missed her, that Asti longed for her and would rush to give up the noisy Earth for the cool beauties of the Underworld. If only she could go herself, the lady thought. But she was always the responsible one. She didn’t want Asti to think she’d become flighty.
So she sends two of her underlings to bring Asti down, which they accomplish by challenging her to protect a short list of individuals from death. The last one is a ‘young girl who worked in a sweatshop in Taipei’; Asti tries to wipe her memories and swap places to trick death:
Then she began the disguises. She wiped away the girl’s personality, then substituted layer upon layer of fake identities: an actress in Italy, a shoemaker in Beirut, a striped cat living in the back of a grocery in Utrecht. For the final layer, the outer coat, Asti dressed the girl in her own face and dress and set her down at the great desk. With absolute conviction in her personal history as Asti, Mother of Life, the child set about ordering the latest growth rates for orange trees in Portugal, for rainstorms in Ohio.
Asti herself returned to that morning in Taipei. In the shape of a young girl she sewed ‘made in Taiwan’ labels on the insides of black and yellow jeans.
Predictably, this fails. Asti is taken to the underworld, but manages to reach her reckless sister with a prayer. (Notably, prayers exist in this story.) Lily arrives on Earth and finds that it’s gone totally to shit:
Lily stepped outside and cast her eyes across Asti’s world. All the things that had worked so neatly under Asti’s tight schedule now had flown to pieces. In one place no woman or animal could conceive despite constant intercourse, in another, streams of babies fought each other to get out of their mothers’ wombs. In yet another, Lily saw a woman in labour for twenty-three days bring out a miniature doll, a wind-up toy with a metal face painted in a huge grin.
So she dresses up and does the whole descent-into-the-underworld striptease business. Unfortunately, for her trouble, she gets put on a rusty hook next to Asti. They hatch a plan: by calling their followers to the underworld, and inciting mass death, flooding the land of the dead with lively dead people faster than they can be processed.
The Lady walked downstairs, stepping over the corpses of cats. The mix of colours made her wince. When she marched through her once silent halls, mobs cheered and the dead threw flowers at her. She realised she had become so used to loneliness she could not tolerate the touch of fingers or eyes. At last she reached the room where her sisters hung on hooks.
The denoument is, well, an agreement to do the whole Persephone story with a nice little undercurrent of bitterness:
Asti looked from her to Lily. In this one room no sound had come of the invasion. Lily laughed, a raw gurgly noise because of the hook in her throat. The third sister cocked her head at Lily. ‘You did this, didn’t you?’ she said. ‘Asti’s not smart enough.’ Lily smiled at her. ‘She can go, but you’re staying. When they’re all gone, when there’s nothing left, you and I will still be here.’
‘Still hating each other,’ Lily said.
Asti said, ‘Let her go. Please. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s not like you and me. She doesn’t understand.’
The third sister searched Asti’s face. There was no trickery there, no calculations. Only love. ‘If I let her go,’ she told Asti, ‘will you stay in place of her? Will you stop your children and stay here alone, with me?’
It’s quite an interesting little mythological remix. But Valerie’s real fire comes when she interrupts another story.
The Meaning of a Story
The next glimpse we have comes after the ‘New York Riots’. By this point Valerie seems to have taken the name of Courageous Wisdom. She bursts in with suitable drama:
After she’d told the end of the Picture the Teller announced the formula, ‘And this is the Picture’s meaning.’ At that moment a wind blew open the high doors at the back of the hall. Everyone turned and there stood Valerie Mazdan in her famous coat of transparent pockets. She called out, ‘I will show you the meaning of a story.’
The rest of the story describes how everyone in attendance arrange a reunion, in which they discover they’re all dying in various ways, with one of them dying right there at the gathering. The remainder attempt a pilgrimage to a holy pool in Amsterdam, beset by all kinds of misfortune. The crew of the ship attempt to rob them; when they surrender, they are adrift for a long time and more of them die. A terrorist organisation poisons more of them in Amsterdam. The deaths become increasingly unlikely: a balloon hit by a laser, a ‘transporting’ body swap accident, a battle between students, police and bikers. Only one survives, and returns to her starting point.
And there at the back stood Courageous Wisdom, and there at the front sat the Living Master, and there she saw all the others, all in their places, each one believing that she or he alone had survived the rolling death. They looked at themselves and they saw the same clothes and smelt the same air, and just as they realized that no time had passed, that they’d never left their seats, that all the years had evaporated like a dream in sunlight, Valerie Mazdan’s voice thundered from the back of the Hall.
‘And that is the meaning of a story.’
So whatever the Living World wanted to impart, it has the general register of seeing everyone around you die as if cursed.
Getting our interpreting gloves on
Now, it’s probably worth taking each of these stories as an expression of character. Although the narrative tends to maintain that stories are discovered rather than created, emanations from the Land of the Dead (just like children!), they absolutely are attributed to specific individuals. Li Ku tells a nihilistic, iconoclastic story about self-destruction; Jennie tells a story about callous authority figures attempting to sacrifice a girl; Valerie’s stories will not let us look away from death and bitterness.
But of course they’re also all expressions of the character of, well, one Rachel Pollack. As is the whole book containing them. So here’s my attempt at “this is the picture’s meaning”. It will be ‘wrong’, in that it isn’t necessariliy the meaning you’ll pull from this book, but I hope it’s obvious by now that an official meaning is a terrible thing.
So this story works on us in a kind of meta sense, I guess. I finish the story and, for all that I have written summarising the major themes of the book, I am left with feeling of disturbance. I think a good story, one that is going to stay with you and enter the suite of metaphors that you use to understand your particular kind of suffering, must resist neat encapsulation, and lean into difficulty and ambiguity. Maybe leave you feeling a little sick, but also like, awed; taken through the emotional wringer. (This is one of the things I admire about Charity’s stories.)
So. The Founders, and the Bright Beings, did not come to relieve suffering; but I think they definitely did come to disrupt the vitiated ‘end of history’ that seemed to exist in 80s capitalism. The story they created was one of dramatic social change, people making breaks with social systems to consciously refuse ‘rationality’ and insist on their own ways of making meaning.
But if the society depicted in this book venerates the Revolution, it completely fails to understand it: all of it has slotted neatly into the symbol manufacturing machines of late capitalism, the spectacle and all of that. The counterrevolution—whether begun by that capitalist fiend (shakes fist) Rebecca Rainbow, or in the years since—has completely recapitulated and erased that sense of a decisive break, and turned it into a set of empty gestures; hence the contempt shown by Jennie, Valerie and eventually the first ‘neo-Fanatic’, Allan towards the legal demand that they perform Enactments.
But there’s more to it than that. Because the book’s sympathies with the ‘Neo-Fanatics’ is… certainly not absolute; it comes across like a huge historical force, a war or (indeed!) revolution, sweeping up people in its flow however they might feel about it with all the force of sexual violence. A permanent attitude of religious fervour and proximity to death is not actually sustainable, as we saw in the story of Miguel Miracle of the Green Earth and his cakes. All the willful madness of the Founders becomes slightly farcical when placed against well, everyday existence; maintaining relationships, working to sustain existence, dealing with all the tiny struggles of living.
So this book deals with the interplay between these ‘two things that exist’: the simple, ongoing suffering and the moments of ‘ecstasy’ which structure it and give it meaning. Is there a third pole there, ‘love’, as Jennie says, or does that belong to the ‘Tomb World’? I think we are left sympathising with Jennie: maybe this ‘love’ she names is indeed a kind of suffering, but who even gives a shit which box you put it in? It does as much if not more than the religious ecstasy to impart significance; it is an especially compelling story. Jennie’s character development comes through resolving two of her major relationships: finally for good losing Mike, and making a small connection with her mother.
I don’t really share Pollack’s background in Tarot and new agey stuff—it was a kind of background radiation growing up in Glastonbury, and the stories that have given me the most meaning have dealt much more directly with the scientific worldview I internalised and the incoherent world of modernity. But this story is just as relevant if your ideological system of choice is like, communism or something; perhaps even more so for these younger ideologies. It is all too easy for a narrative which on the surfaces pushes towards painful transformation to become rote, another set of rules. Is that ‘the message’ of the book? No, that’s far too simple.
Over and over, people ask “do you understand?” I don’t think I do necessarily, but I know this little semiotic knot is going to have a nice little place in my orbit of concepts for a fair long while yet, and you can’t really ask for more from a book…