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Noir in Flux

Mike Topp
I Used to Be Ashamed of My Striped Face
(Elimae Books, 2001)


Barry Gifford
American Falls: The Collected Short Stories
(New York: Seven Stories, 2002)


Pundits perennially decry the loss of Bohemia and the concomitant disappearance of the outrageous art such enclaves are said to produce. In New York City, essayists lament the towering rents that have driven the creative from the East Village and, more recently, Williamsburg. Of course, such epitaphs can be taken in different ways. When we consider the current situation, the obvious question arises: Can there be an avant-garde in a society moving backward?

After all, the concept of aesthetic advance scouts suggests that there are artists one step ahead of the mainstream culture; but if U.S. culture is retrograde, turning to increasing segregation, a paring of rights, jingoism, and an elimination of educational health and other public services, then, the argument should run, the avant-garde would be artists who are even father gone in atavism.

However, looking deeper, we would see that this is oversimplification. Apparent movements at the top do not really chart the complete direction of social activity. Our country, and New York in particular, currently has a number of pertinent cultural streams taking different meanders. As the Rail’s coverage itself shows, there are quite a few quirky, bubbly, progressive artists, writers, and performers active at the moment. Thus there exists, contemporaneously, a forward and backward avant-garde.

The original topic, a concern about the decline of Bohemias, does point to a more answerable and relevant inquiry, which would relate to specific traditions within the avant-garde. Some strands of postmodern aesthetics are still vital, others are vitiated, others somewhere in between. The writers this review is concerned with both show allegiance to what might be viewed as played-out avenues—Topp to Fluxus, Gifford to noir writing—and the measure of their success or lack of same may indicate whether the traditions to which they adhere still contain fecund sparks or have descended totally into ashes.

To my knowledge, the most astute study of Topp yet to appear is “Mike Topp, Yoko Ono, and the Deleuzian Order-Word” by Kirby Olson, published online in Exquisite Corpse 8. In a cogent, refreshingly lively if somewhat precise manner, Olson links Topp to his (metaphorical) mentor Yoko Ono, and through her to Fluxus and that group’s concern with ridiculing other-word (an imperious command from a superior) and turning it against itself. In Ono’s book Grapefruit, she presents absurd commands on the order of “Stare at a brick for 10 minutes” or “Saw a piano in half,” poking fun at the unnaturalness of all imperatives.

Olson’s interpretation is both irrefutable and imprecise, the latter because it doesn’t embed order-words in Fluxus life. What distinguished Fluxus from other groups was not its literary innovations so much as its perverse performers in which insane commands were carried out. In Wiesbaden a piano was sawn in half!

This doesn’t undercut the basic thrust of Olson’s contention, but rather indicates a second edge. Not only were Fluxus commands a veiled rebuke to authoritarian language, but this rebuke was also magnified in the way in which, collectively, they were carried out. Normally orders are given in hierarchical organizations where obedience is the price of continued employment. But orders given at Fluxus events, where none of the performers were compensated and which were given gratis (“[Fluxus] art-amusement must…have no commodity value”), were obeyed freely by artists who rotated between setting others to work at insane tasks or doing such tasks themselves. So, while ridiculing the nature of word-orders, Fluxus was also showing that, outside of a coercive power structure, doing what one was told could become pleasantly zany.

At the moment, only Topp’s written text is under review, but it might be mentioned that Topp, through his pivotal role in the Unbearables writers group, has extended the Fluxus performance tradition. In Short Opera, which was performed in 1998 at Fez, a conductor—this job rotated—pointed at one of four writers, who breathlessly declaimed a brief piece (each poem has to be under 30 seconds) in order to create, overall, a verse sonata. Oh, appropriately, each performer was clad only in boxer shorts.

Since his work is highly abbreviated, Topp did well in that format, using his vignettes for such things as lyric haikus, a gentle joshing of statistics, and parodies of Robert Frost. However, for now let’s stick with the theme Olson identified with such authority: the belittlement of imperatives.

Not that the mild-mannered Topp rides a wrecking ball and carries out the type of demolition work one associates with Fluxus. His method is rather to ferret out common structures in seemingly inoffensive material and gently tweak them. In “Brunswick Stew,” the recipe moves from “Chili peppers and mustard are optional seasoning” to “This reminds me of a story about my sister.” As I see it, this insertion of a family reminiscence in a cookbook entry lays bare the existence of an author behind the seemingly anonymous instructions, suggesting that even this innocuous form contains subterfuge and manipulation. A cookbook turns out to be another hiding place for order-words.

Since it might be thought that I am forcing this interpretation on a poem that Topp meant as a piece of simple tomfoolery, let’s look (in closing) at a more directly subversive piece, “Flag,” which I quote in full.

We were pledging allegiance to the flag and Dad caught me looking out the window. Mom said she didn’t think that was very patriotic of me. I said I was looking at the flag outside on the pole. Dad thought it over and said that from now on we were to all look at the flag inside.

The father drives the ideal American family like a tractor, drawing straight rows along which his subordinates walk, inculcated with the values of unthinking patriotism, male supremacy, and automatized submission. Yet, Topp indicates, such a command system has one weak spot: dependence on words. A son caught lollygagging insists he was saluting the flag outside. In fact, wouldn’t such a pledge be even more patriotic than one given to the house flag, since a public Old Glory links one more to the national community? The father’s response concedes partial victory to the son since Dad accepts his right to search for loopholes.

Lastly, and this is where Topp moves beyond Ono, he has embedded the order-word in a collective context. Where Ono simply set down commands, leaving critics free to take them as individual rejections of authority, Topp demands that we see these words as part of a social organization, thus bringing into his writing some of the salience of Fluxus performances. Indeed, the way this expands the verbal resources of Fluxus critique indicates that this tradition’s power has not yet been drained.

The same could not be said for the nourish material Gifford includes in his short story collection, American Falls. Although Gifford is an eclectic more than anything else, his reputation has been tied to neo-noir writing ever since David Lynch filmed his novel Wild At Heart and Gifford did the screenplay for the director’s Lost Highway. (All of which will seem highly ironic to anyone who remembers Gifford’s sour take on Lynch’s breakthrough film Blue Velvet. In his review in Mystery Scene magazine, Gifford called Blue Velvet, “one cut above a snuff film,” and continued, “the whole thing is sick in a way the world could easily do without.”)

Noir, with its lone-wolf individualism, generally anti-female attitudes, and depiction of redemptive violence sorts well with the current conservative climate (and all mixes ill with progressivism); yet it parts ways with reactionary currents due to its unrelieved pessimism and location of evil in an alliance between the rich and the underworld. So, even as one wonders what relevance the genre still contains, it is no surprise that Gifford’s nourish pieces are not of the first water. This is not as damning as it may sound in that the bulk of the writing here is autobiographical sketches and playful ventures into European artistic milieus rather than crime stories. It is in the first two types of composition, in which noirish touches are grafted onto other genres, where Gifford is unfairly successful.

Take his “New Mysteries of Paris,” which riffs on Andre Breton’s Nadja. Although the Surrealist novel is occasionally gripping and explosive, all too often it seems stilted, pedantic, and raked by a bad lyricism in trying to describe the bizarre moll, Nadja. Gifford, presenting a narrator who is much more straightforward than Breton’s, beautifully captures a woman who is alternately transcendent and baffling in her spontaneous drift into psychosis. He doesn’t reach the infrequent heights of Breton, but also avoids his depths, while giving us a more compassionate portrait of this Hades-bound hellcat. Moreover, each episode not only renders her twisted trajectory but frames an affecting picture of the Parisian milieu.

Take this passage: “I saw a woman standing in front of a butcher’s shop desperately examining the contents of her purse…as if she has misplaced the ticket that would allow her to claim a side of beef she’s pawned or left to be laundered.” The banal scene is lifted by his imaginative reconstruction, while lissome traces of surreal humor (the pawned beef) do not detract from the felt tawdriness of the moment. There is more steel in Gifford’s pen than Breton’s since the American’s can be sympathetic toward Nadja without glamorizing her reality one iota. Gifford’s ability apparently stems from having thoroughly familiarized himself with trash noir femme fatales.

Even more uncanny than his depiction of the Parisian crew is the way in which, in “Tunisian Notebooks,” the author is able to recreate the journal of artist August Macke who journeyed to North Africa with Paul Klee and another painter in 1914. It must take a certain amount of hubris for an American to set out to ventriloquize a Swiss painter’s view of Arab culture, yet Gifford carries off his task magnificently.

These pages are filled with a delicate evocation of the young painter’s glee at finding new worlds to conquer with his charcoal stick. He writes, “Made sixty sketches today. A truly inspired one for me. I share Klee’s respect for the images of childhood…To produce true art one must experience a rebirth, as does nature with each fresh season.” The closing comparison is both good and perfectly in keeping with the German aesthetic organicism of the day. It shouldn’t be taken that Macke’s relations to Klee are always congruent, for the former’s journal contains many juicy observations of his fellow tourists, including witty comments on Klee’s priggishness.

The only off-putting element is Macke’s constant harping on the color schemes he notes in his surroundings; yet this, which at first seems affected, eventually turns out to be indispensable for the reader’s understanding of his character. I could illustrate this point particularly with Macke’s account of their travel inland, but it’s more important to note that it seems Gifford is drawing from noir writing its acute attention to surfaces. Both detectives and painters must attend to the outer trappings of the world.

If Gifford’s collection is representative, we might say that no matter how many books and movies in the style continue to appear, noir has had its day. Nonetheless, it still has something to contribute, since its promising methods and motifs, once dismantled and shifted to other genres, can take on new life. On the other hand, the major themes and procedures of Fluxus, an absurdist detouring of authority along with a conjectural presentation of non-coercive social arrangements, are still very much on the agenda. Topp shows how much is still to be done in this sphere, giving lessons we need to teach and ingrain. To stress the way certain historical moments need to be preserved, we can end by using the phrases one Fluxus member, George Maciunas, wrote to another who was complaining the first had destroyed his letters. “I don’t burn your letters,” Macuinas said. “First I memorize, then burn.”


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail


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