Monthly Archives: April 2013

Sinkhole Zeitgeist

The story was so alarming the newspapers couldn’t contain themselves. Headlines stretched out beyond their normal limits. “Man presumed dead after six-metre sinkhole opens up under his bedroom and swallows him without a trace,” the National Post blurted on March 1. The caption had a subheading in smaller type: “Florida man falls to death while sleeping in his bed.” This was followed by a needless précis, also in bold, but reduced: “A man screamed for help from his bed before he disappeared, as a large sinkhole opened under his bedroom in a small suburban home.” Readers trying to picture the scene must have been troubled by some discrepancies: if the man fell to his death “while sleeping,” how could he have “screamed before he disappeared”? Then there was the issue of the “large sinkhole” inside a “small home,” an enigma people took to bed with them that night.

Next day, video posted online showed the gaping maw into which the man and his furniture had disappeared. The chasm kept growing and repeated searches proved fruitless. Meanwhile other holes opened up elsewhere, and on March 28 a surveillance camera in China captured the very moment the ground gave way and swallowed an unsuspecting man in the street.

The ghastly stories seemed to reprise the disturbing premise of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. In the novel a door inexplicably appears in the Navidson house, opening onto an expanding spatial domain the characters explore DSCN6768_3at their peril. In one of the book’s most striking scenes, Will Navidson films the anomalous space in a continuous shot by first training the camera down the hallway and then, using the two windows that flank the hall, exiting the house and climbing back in, effectively passing through the mysterious space that is however nowhere to be seen from the outside. Navidson’s uncanny “Five and a Half Minute Hallway” becomes the subject of numerous books, commentaries, essays and interviews, all folded into a hybrid narrative itself framed by another narrative that annotates and expands on the source-text like a postmodern Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Last month a story in Salon titled “The Sinkhole Newshole” referenced Danielewski’s book in passing, which prompted a spike in sales and a spate of interviews with the author.

It turned out to be a good month for Danielewski. Over at The Invisible Library, it was another question.

Ed Park and Levi Stahl are the custodians of The Invisible Library, a website devoted to cataloguing books and articles that exist only in fiction. Updating the library is a literally endless task, and the archivists have struggled to keep pace with new publications and the constant flood of entries suggested by the site’s fans and visitors. Things changed, however, when Park and Stahl hired a graduate student to process new entries, and by January this year the Invisible Library had nearly doubled its holdings. Then, in March, when Danielewski reappeared in the news, the enterprising graduate student picked up a copy of House of Leaves and began Empty_book_2dutifully cataloguing the novel’s notoriously vast compendium of fictional books and articles on the Navidson phenomenon. What the student did not realize, however, was that one of those books contained a reference to The Invisible Library itself. Her oversight instantly provoked recursive catalogue entries in infinite regress, like mirrors reflected in mirrors, as the data spawned endless copies of catalogues within catalogues. This at least is the best explanation Park and Stahl can give for the troubles that started around March 20th.

The first sign something was amiss was when Park and Stahl’s web host briefly shut down the Library due to an apparent risk of overload. Technicians who checked the website’s traffic and usage found nothing unusual in the system, but as soon as service was restored the imminent crash warnings resumed. Ignoring the shutdown protocol, the technicians then ran tests that revealed the strange cascading pattern of a “ghost overload” on their servers. The Invisible Library was forced to migrate to another web host where its custodians have managed to continue their laudable mission without inordinate trouble.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Oregon desert, an IT company managing a 2-hectare complex of computer servers has calculations showing its capacity now extends well beyond its known limits into an as-yet unexplored spatial domain. They are reportedly talking with CERN about the possibility of developing “ghost data” farms.


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Dialectical images

Yesterday the great Pablo Neruda was exhumed from his grave, dramatic news that jostled for media coverage on the same day that Margaret Thatcher died. And so two strangely disparate events coincided on April 8th. A socialist poet is pulled from the ground; a right-wing ideologue is sent to the morgue. Between the two there flashes something of Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image.” As Benjamin says,

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” (The Arcades Project, 463.)

Neruda died only two weeks after the military coup that killed the newly-elected president Salvador Allende and toppled his government on September 11, 1973. Examination of Neruda’s corpse is meant to shed light on the circumstances of his death. Neruda was a communist, a close friend of Allende, and was immensely popular both at home and abroad, all of which caused him to be seen as a dangerous rival to the dictator’s military regime. The suspicion is that Pinochet ordered the poet’s assassination.

Thatcher was an unabashed supporter of the ruthless Chilean dictator, just as she was of any ruler who treated socialism as a crime punishable by death. The odd convergence of Thatcher’s demise and Neruda’s exhumation is an echo of the vicious Manichaean conflicts of the Cold War; it also speaks to that war’s enduring legacy in a globalized and deregulated world divided ever more widely between Thatcher’s rich and Neruda’s poor.

That much is historical record. But what of Benjamin’s “dialectical image”? The concept, it’s worth noting, owes as much to Surrealist art as it does to historical materialism. And surrealism is still a potent force for politics.

On the 8th of the month the calendar makes a brush with the infinite, or maybe the eternal return. As we speak, Thatcher and Neruda lie in a temporal limbo between death and burial, their bodies slotted into a morgue’s black drawer, periodically emerging into the fluorescent glare. In these circumstances strange links and transpositions can happen. Like the character in The Jacket played by Adrien Brody, but apparently sporting a retroactive mustache from his recent Bride of Frankenstein_2star turn as Salvador Dalì, Neruda may find himself time-traveling in the morgue, waking in our nightmare present, then leaving with an urgent mission for the past. Thatcher ends up reanimated in the hands of Pinochet’s thugs, but ancient and witless, like a shrunken bride of Frankenstein, her hair a fright as usual, shrieking loud enough to wake us up.

“Only dialectical images are genuinely historical,” Benjamin says. For his part, in “Dance Card,” a political text if ever there was, Bolaño asks the question: “Why didn’t Neruda like science fiction?”


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Release date

The Purgatory Press & After the End now has a release date: July 26, 2013. Stay posted; Amazon and other retailers may have it in stock well before July.


From the publisher’s blurb:

An outsider artist coats a flat surface with a skin of paint once a day for sixty years, hoping to build a layered edifice that could reach the moon; a photographer travels the world to take smiling self-portraits in front of ghastly scenes of death and destruction; an obscure typist exerts an uncanny influence on generations of famous authors. Like these characters, none of the titles in The Purgatory Press are fit for this world. The press itself is an aborted enterprise, having gone into bankruptcy, leaving behind this wonderful backlist.

Some reviews are already in:

“John Culbert’s double book The Purgatory Press & After the End pulls off a double feat: its ingenuity is matched by an undiminished sense of wonder and a talent for the delicate shaping of enigmas. It is at once deeply knowing and wide open to the unknown. Culbert’s prose moves with unfailing grace from the layered jokes of his “imaginary lives” to the surprises that keep coming “after the end,” which test the powers of fiction to tickle, puzzle, haunt or devastate the reader. This is a book to be relished.” ~ Chris Andrews, translator and poet

“A tour de force & true treat! Come and visit this locus mirabilis where fiction meets thinking, a rarer pleasure than you may surmise. Imagine Borges as a satirist with the Great Library of the Internet at his disposal. Or imagine a Proustian salon that doubles as an all-American saloon where you can meet everybody you ever wanted to. They’re all here — with walk-on parts for Frank Zappa & Jacques Derrida, E.T.A. Hoffmann & Isua Nunaap, fictional authors & real characters! But be careful, reader: don’t do as you imagine the author does, i.e. tuck tongue firmly into cheek — he isn’t, and on this roller coaster ride you’d risk to bite it off, maybe in laughter, maybe in deep thought, as you crash into the next curve.” ~ Pierre Joris, author of A Nomad Poetics

“Sometimes John Culbert’s work sounds like Bolaño, other times it sounds like Lydia Davis, or a demented art historian. He embodies so many voices and styles and finds the virtues in conventions even as he is critical of them. A writer shouldn’t be able to do this many things this well.” ~ Adam Novy, author of The Avian Gospels

Link to publisher’s website

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