The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing
(Two Dollar Radio, 2014)
If the physical storage device for a work of art is destroyed—be it an Atari cartridge, VHS cassette, or 3.5˝ floppy diskette—what happens to the artwork itself? These days, probably not a damn thing. In this age of digital reproduction, there are likely to be more copies available a few clicks away on eBay. The aura is all but gone. Walter Benjamin is spinning vinyl in his grave.
Nicholas Rombes’s debut novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing traffics in the nostalgia for analog technologies while also asking us to consider the conservative provisions insisted upon by that very nostalgia. You might not be surprised to learn that he has previously written one of those 33 1/3 books about the Ramones and a work—excuse me, a text—of film theory with the ignorance-is-strength title 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory.
The central premise of The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is something akin to the Max Brod Question. If your best friend asked you to destroy her papers upon her death, would you do so even knowing full well that they contained important and potentially revolutionary works of art? The fact that we have so many Kafka stories at our disposal is a matter of some tremendous luck and of Brod’s seeming inability to follow even the simplest instructions. But what happens when the final copy of a particular work of art gets destroyed?
Most people would suggest that there’s some moral imperative for conservation, that we’re ethically obligated to keep backups. The cineaste of Rombes’s title, Laing, is not one of those people. Working as a librarian—that is, as one of the self-appointed caretakers of our cultural heritage—he took it upon himself to burn what appears to be the only existent copies of some important films in his care. Our humble narrator is a journalist who manages to track down Laing at a cheap motel in remote Wisconsin, where the two of them sit down for a series of interviews over several days. The journalist has his own issues, of course, many of them resulting from the tragic loss of his daughter Emily. There’s also some local chatter about missing children.
After a few sessions, Laing begins to open up and, as the title might indicate, there’s a bit of a confessional tone to some of his rants.
“I, a lover of cinema, destroyed the films—in nothing more than a shitty little garbage can, which is funny considering the can had no idea that its insides were being burned and scalded by the likes of Lynch and Antonioni and Deren and Jodorowsky—destroyed them back behind the library of that land-grant university surrounded by the Amish and cow pastures. I’d watched them, all right, and seen something in them that should never be seen, and I’m not talking about real-life killing on camera or a dangerous, evil idea convincingly expressed by an otherwise sympathetic character or anything like that.”
The primary purpose of the backstory and plot are to hold together the extended monologues in which Laing describes the destroyed movies in technical detail. Those long passages, which make up most of the novel, are where Rombes’s own voices ring the loudest. The question persists: are the films truly gone? Is not existence in memory still existence? Perhaps that’s why Laing has agreed to talk. And talk. And talk. To preserve something after all.
“Black Star,” Laing says, “was simply too close to the truth. It had to be destroyed. The film was shot and is set in the ’80s but it used 16 mm Eastman Kodak stock from the ’40s. While the magenta and yellow dyes that form the image fade in other stocks, the Kodak stock from that era is persistent, so the film has a weird vibrancy to it, so strong and intentional, if that’s the right word, that it’s almost like it’s the film that’s watching you, rather than the other way around.”
Like Owen King in Double Feature and Steve Erickson in Zeroville, Rombes displays a staggering knowledge of cinematic technique and history and is able to use it in the service of entirely realized characters who also come across as a bit unhinged. It’s also fair to say that he writes like a man who would refuse to leave a burning multiplex until the credits are over or the screen goes up in flames, one or the other.
You don’t have to be James O. Incandenza to understand that a work of art and the means of storing and distributing that art are not the same. Yet here at the intersection of analog and digital cultures, the relationship between those two things is changing before our eyes, and Rombes has smartly set his novel smack dab at that particular crossroads.
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is no simple, Vaseline-on-the-lens love letter to the age of videocassettes or even to pre-Star Wars indie cinema. It’s much too smart for that. What the novel pines for isn’t a return to the age of BE KIND REWIND signs. No, I see it as a novel—and a very welcome one at that—about the right to be forgotten and about the immense joys that impermanence can provide.