Monday, February 18, 2013

Just Apes: Beta Testing The Apocalypse

Tom Kaczynski's stories in the anthology Mome always felt like part of a larger cycle of stories. That's certainly borne out in his collection of stories from Mome and elsewhere, Beta Testing The Apocalypse (Fantagraphics). Kaczynski's stories combine elements of cultural & economic critique with the paranoia and rawness of a JG Ballard story. His stories address aspects of modern civilization and the ways in which they break down. These stories are collected with an unusual formal gimmick that grounds each story in terms of space (distance from Minneapolis) and time in the form of a graph. He also unites his stories by creating an index, which is interesting because of the way it documents how Kaczynski's themes and motifs tend to repeat themselves. For example, there are eleven sub-entries under "architecture", a hint at just how much the structures in which we live prove are crucial to Kaczynski's ideas. The same goes for "city", "civilization", "company", "corporation", and "genetics". He also indexes all of the sound effects he uses, which is interesting because they tend to be fairly invisible when reading a story and because they are raw sound, directly tied into experience. Each story uses a single color wash that highlights an aspect of the story; for example, in "The New", the dark orange represents the primal clay of the city of Uruk.

The first story,  "100,000 Miles" employs a sickly green background in its fantasy about the end of the world in the form of a worldwide traffic jam ending society as we know it. He takes that idea further in with "10,000 Years", about a man in therapy who becomes twisted by the idea of creating a utopia on Mars, a dream held as a reaction to extreme alienation. Alienation is a key point in the brilliant "976 Sq Feet", about a couple who are driven insane by a high-rise condo built in their neighborhood. (The line the man utters when he calls 911 for his now-insane girlfriend [babbling about "double paned windows"] is priceless: "Uh, I need an ambulance...or an architect.") Kaczynski implies that the construction was less built than conjured or summoned, as though it were some sort of hideous otherworldly intelligence brought in by the nameless, faceless forces of global capitalism.

"Phase Transition"  involves a man devolving into a sort of reptile-brain state as a way of throwing off the yoke of technology. Kaczynski implies here that primitivism is its own form of false utopia, as the man becomes a megalomaniac at the end. Kaczynski tops himself  with "Million Year Boom", about a brand expert who winds up working for a bizarre "green" company, trying to come up with a corporate logo as it prepares to go public. This is ,an insane stew of paranoia, devolution, corporate messiahs, and global capitalism fused with a tribal, scatological mindset. The final panel, where the protagonist's blood spewing across a door gives him the inspiration for the logo, is a stunning moment.  Kaczynski draws with a certain looseness in his line and modifying it either with simple color or effects like zip-a-tone. These strips are dark, unsettling and thought-provoking critiques layered with multiple meanings. Again and again, his stories are about what it means to be human and how easily we give up our humanity thanks to our relationship with technology and the spaces we inhabit.

Kaczynski really has his finger on the collective neuroses of the new millennium.  A recurring theme in this book is how Kaczynski taps into how various of our senses have been warped through modern living. In "Noise: A History", Kaczynski boils down the history of the world in terms of random events and how many decibels they measured out to, from the big bang to the falling of rustling leaves. He links past to present through the use of that measure of sound, providing an interesting shorthand for understanding the world in its greatest, worst and most indifferent moments. "Hotel Silencio" is about a man who creates a hotel that employs sound-baffling technology, creating a sensation that quickly abates after its inhabitants go crazy from the lack of sound. "100 Decibels" is about how the perception of sound can be quite subjective in its own way.

 "Cozy Apocalpyse" is one of the more directly comedic stories in this collection. Here, that titular doomsday event is not only mostly in the minds of the couple who have just bought a house in the suburbs, it serves almost as a kind of much-needed aphrodisiac for a couple growing bored with each other. When it proves to be a "localized phenomenon", there's an immediate urge to reproduce it.  "Music For Neanderthals" takes things into deeper satirical territory, as a musician and actor in an extreme method-acting project about neanderthals gets his nose broken intentionally by the purview of the lunatic director. That's a prelude to the actual cave built by the director, with the acoustics and sounds developed by the actor/musician resonating to the point where they took on their own kind of power. That said, the punchline of the story still grounds this entire primal experience in the venality of Hollywood. Finally, "The New" is in some respects a recapitulation of the entire book.The protagonist is an architect, brought in to build a new city for the original city, Uruk. The essence of this elegant, elliptical story is that modernity is a falsehood. Archeologically speaking, modernity comes and goes crashing down after catastrophes, with all of civilization built and greased by blood and powered by the compressed bones of the dead. It's a comparison that Kaczynski draws again and again in this book, that the line between civilization and savagery is an exceedingly thin one, and that humans are constantly being subjected to forces and pressures that could collapse civilization along with our sanity. Far from a screed, however, Kaczynski sees both the inevitability and the humor in this in strip after strip.

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