Viscous Light

I read After The Sun by Jonas Eika.

The book is divided in to 5 titled sections that can be taken as short stories. The second and fifth sections are both entitled “Bad Mexican Dog” are two parts of the same narrative. Other than that there are no common characters or locations. The time of these stories would seem to be the recent past since computers still use DVD drives and on-line digital culture appears to be that of 5-10 years ago. Although all these stories have named locations in our world, descriptions are rather sketchy, both of the physical domain and also the social detail. “Me, Rory and Aurora” seems to occur in a version of London that’s hard to recognise unless it is really a glimpse of the city from a cultural tourist who stopped over amongst squatters but didn’t stay for long.

A common theme in all the stories would seem to be transformation and the emergence of latent powers. Some of them also share he structural feature of interleaving parallel narratives, presented in a different style, alongside the main work. Strangers can play a role in opening a route to change, but they do not have any special insight in to what is going on, as we can see when they are the narrator.

“Alvin” starts with its narrator arriving in Copenhagen “halfway out of myself after an extremely fictional flight”. The “fictional” nature was a kaleidoscope of dreams and memories from a failed marriage.

Additionally, I relived a flight home from a work trip a few years later, during which I was unable to work, to say a word to anyone, because I was completely paralysed by what I had seen from my window during take-off: Past the gates, overlooking the runway, there was an observation deck where kids of all ages stood with their parents watching the planes taking off. At one corner, a woman stood with her back to the railing – long, dark hair in the frozen sun – looking at a man running toward her, across the deck, and as we flew past he fell to the ground as if shot by a gun. I couldn’t hear the gunshot, if one had even been fired, and the plane continued into the clouds with me sitting stiff in my seat for the rest of the flight, doubting what I had seen.

All these stories have such other collisions with other stories at their periphery. The psychic structure becomes clear from the “fictional flights”:

What was uncomfortable, feverish, about the stupor in which I experienced these flights, was how it slid across the surface of sleep as if over a low-pressure area, into a zone into which I was vaguely aware of the original flight, the one I was on now, which for that reason was hidden somewhere underneath or behind: the cabin hidden behind, the food cart, my fellow passengers and the clouds outside the window hidden behind these past, recalled and also in that sense extremely fictional flights.

Our narrator opens his eyes to a “single-faced flight attendant”. Multiple faces are required in their world of international tech consultancy, visiting financial institutions and their systems administrators and hired “despite the fact that I lacked any actual experience in the field.”

On arriving at the bank in Copenhagen we see a rather obviously symbolic sinkhole has opened up:

The building had collapsed and tall piles of marble, steel, pale wood and office furniture lay dispersed among other unidentifiable materials. Beneath the scraps I could make out the edge of a pit, places where the earth slanted steeply into itself in the way that lips sometimes slant into the mouths of old people.

Unable to contact the people who has to meet, he falls in with the stranger who introduced himself as “Alvin”. Going back to his apartment he sees packaging and debris “all from brands unfamiliar to me, as if they had been collected in a parallel universe, where every product was slightly different from the corresponding one in our world… the wall was glowing with colours I had never seen before.”

“Rachel, Nevada” takes us out to the American desert, and the elderly couple Fay and Antonio. Formerly living in Boston but following the deaths of their children from cancer they travel west.

It was Fay’s idea: If we’re going to go on without them we need to figure out where to go, she said, pulling Antonio out of bed. He was depressed and afraid of falling asleep at the wheel, so she ended up driving most of the way, through Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, until the road became itself a kind of sleep across the long stretches of the Nevada desert. Something about Rachel, not so much its isolation as its peculiar and elastic time – which you could sense on the endless bush steppes and at the local UFO club where everyone, eager for new sightings, would mostly just wait and see – something about its protracted present had told them that they had to pull over here, that they had to spend their final years here.

Amongst all the Area 51 cliches and even a reprise of “The truth was out there”, Antonio does indeed find the mysterious crystalline edifice of the Sender, an object of clearly non-terrestrial nature.

It had integrated all the forms of life that flocked to it, so completely that you could see it just by looking at the swarm of plants and animals… But it didn’t matter to him where the Sender had come from or why – all theories seemed irrelevant. Deep in his lungs he could still feel the scream that had just been in his throat, and that the Sender screamed without pause. And he felt the foreign life, simultaneously inside him and swelling in full daylight on the lake bed. It was as if the feeling he had had since their daughters’ death, of being completely isolated from everyone, had found its voice and finally become a thing in itself, a breathless, metallic longing. He had to become the Sender.

Attempting to communicate, Antonio finally devises a plan to create himself a mouthpiece, fashioned from melting and casting a sample of the Sender’s own material. The practical side of this project is a scene of brutal body-horror. Meanwhile, Fay is not averse to theorising and has offered her views at the UFO club that “aliens signified the return of the Judeo-Christian God in Western popular culture.” But they do seem to have a material reality, which Antonio summons up and witnesses when “a viscous light emerges from the oval band.”

The final pages step aside and give us an apparent tribute to the figure of local folk singer Karen Ruthio, whose concert Fay had been off attending. Including snippets of typical US rock music journalism.

In a series published in the paper in March, April and May of ’97, he dubbed Karen Ruthio ‘Neil Young’s long-lost sister’ and ‘country’s answer to Laurie Anderson: The mother of art-country.’ None of the labels stuck.

What a pity she’s fictional because she sounds like the most interesting American musician since about 1970.

“Me, Rory and Aurora” is set in London, narrated by the homeless stranger Casey who meets and then moves in with the titular couple. They had more or less conventional careers until a failed pregnancy and then depression and drugs brought them down to a rather dingy flat in which Aurora is now pregnant again, but also the breadwinner as she sells pills to addicts in the Stratford area.

Collecting the supply from the supplier is another quick transition during a break in the light:

She preferred to work alone, probably knowing that we would never really do anything without her… Sitting across from her on the train going backwards, watching things disappear… Aurora said, Hold your breath! and I blocked my throat as the darkness was pulled over us. The friction of the train on the rails sounded stifled and secret. In the light from the other side of the tunnel, she let her breath leak slowly out between her teeth, her hand slipping the pills into her coat pocket, and I coughed mine out with a gasp. A pair of coattails flapped out of the train compartment after the man who had been sitting next to her. Vowels, that’s what we called those pills, because they softened you up and made you receptive, starting with a round feeling and a light in your mouth, your throat, your belly and so on, until your whole body was a glowing processor just waiting for data, which was probably why City Church was the perfect market: affiliated with the rehab centre, it was full of addicts who had turned to God or were trying to. The vowels, like the service, lasted for about an hour and were usually a prelude to acid, a way to prepare for the actual trip, so Aurora could get a bag of 100 for £50 and sell them on for £1 apiece. She would prop herself against the wall by the entrance, then push off with her shoulder and greet people as they arrived. She pulled them to her, calling them by name, and leaned into them with her voice. A kind of smoothing, a levelling of features into a dull plate of a face, marked the majority of these people, and from where I was standing it looked like Aurora was pulling them out of their sameness one by one and really seeing them.

Once again, faces as the presentation of the self in its authenticity. Perhaps there is a symbolism in these names: “Fay” as a sprite figure, and “Aurora” as the electrical storm on the horizon.

The 2 parts of “Bad Mexican Dog” relate the lives of beach boys working at Cancun. It seems they at least humans to the foreign tourists; however amongst themselves they can also take on the forms of shrimp and revert back to a marine life at night time. Mixed with this is the story (presented in a different font and with a different narrator) of a group of tourists who fall prey to a blackmailing scam, and in the aftermath of it begins to unravel their relationships.

Light patterns play a structuring role again: the beach is arranged according to an odd procedure:

…Jia sets up the tool we use to restore order after rain: a pole five yards tall with a clear, pyramid-shaped crystal on top that refracts the sunlight in a grid of orange rays. From the crystal’s square bottom they’re projected all across the beach. At the zenith, the grid is perfect: we run up and down our rows, placing a chair at each point. Halfway through, I feel nausea on an empty stomach and acid in my legs, but if the setup takes more than ten minutes, it starts to strike the eye. Just a bit of quivering is fine, the owner says, a weak vibration along the rows, that’s how you introduce time into the grid.

There’s no explicit cross-reference in these stories, but perhaps that crystal originates from the Sender near Rachel, Nevada? Antonio had noticed: “…at its base the metal had oozed into a trench containing just enough liquid for a cluster of fairy shrimp to hatch from their hibernation cysts.”

As the tourist narrator looks again at the video sent by their blackmailer:

At the end, after trying to inhabit the role, kicking the boy and humiliating him, I looked desperately into the lens and said I wanted to stop. In the five seconds that followed, I could feel Lasse’s passive presence behind the camera, his sweat and heavy breathing, a strange ghostly satisfaction that made him hesitate a little too long before turning it off. Something made me rewind and watch those five seconds over and over again, until finally, I identified what it was: a short glitch that sliced the image into a blurry grid. As if the particles that composed the image moved for a moment in a way that couldn’t be read by the computer circuit. It gave me the strange sense that the particles were living their own life and really remembered us, the waves of light that we reflected in exactly that moment, me and the boy and the things around us: the sky, the sea, the streetlamps and the palm trees, the plastic chair and the tiled floor that he was lying on with a dull and distant expression, like a plastic film covering the disgust in his eyes, and my foot in his mouth.

And in the end:

We threw a parasol into the basin and sang. A slimy fog rose from it and condensed in a long, hollow shaft and a fabric full of flickering images: fire spreading through the club, through towels and parasols, a flaming grid seen from above.

The picture at the top is “Les Plongeurs Circulaires” (1942) by Fernand Leger – not mentioned in the book, but I thought it was fitting.

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