A Few Notes on The Necropastoral by Joyelle McSweeney
The Necropastoral is a chapbook by Joyelle McSweeney. It proceeds in five parts. First, “Necropastoral, or, Normal Love,” an essay that sets out McSweeney’s idea of the Necropastoral by examining Jack Smith’s film Normal Love. Second, a series of poems, all titled “King Prion,” which may be read as individual poems, as a cumulative poem, or as parts of a longer poem which isn’t present in its entirety. Third, “Arcadia, or, Anachronism: A Necropastoral Effigy,” an essay or possibly a story in the form of a list which is also in the form of an effigy. Fourth, “Infernal Tributaries of the Necropastoral,” which is an acknowledgements section that we might also read as a deletion of the boundaries of the chapbook. Fifth, ten blank white pages. There are also pages between sections illustrated by black-and-white collage.
The task of the first paragraph of these notes was to describe the contents of the chapbook, but already the reviewer has had some trouble, because questions of genre and form and the place of each section have been blurred in a manner that requires the reader to rethink each how each element works and what each element is.
For starters: The chapbook form. What is a chapbook? As far as I can tell, it’s a book that’s not fully a book. It’s a book that’s shorter than a full-length book, usually (but not always) by a single author. It’s usually produced in a limited edition in the low hundreds or fewer. It usually (but not always) intentionally avoids marks of publishing permanence such as ISBN numbers or Library of Congress listings. Its obscure existence makes it a useful not-quite category for writer and publisher. The publisher–often a smaller publisher–can publish the work of a writer who can find a larger or more prestigious or monied publisher at book-length, and who would therefore never publish with the chapbook publisher unless the chapbook publisher can offer something the writer wants which doesn’t cause the writer a problem with the more powerful publisher. Because the chapbook is a limited edition book, and because it’s not quite a book in a commonly accepted idea of a “book” book, it does not threaten the publisher. And because it is a limited edition, the publisher might be able to make it a beautiful (or not-beautiful) artifact in a manner that appeals to writer and reader. The writer can have an object to offer a close circle of devoted readers between books (or before a first book), but the object doesn’t have to be complete. It can be an excerpt from a work-in-progress, or it can be a standalone piece of writing, such as a long poem or a novella. Sometimes it is a collection of poems, and sometimes it is a story or an essay or a diptych or triptych of stories or essays. Sometimes it is a collection of flash fiction. Sometimes it is a form that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. But almost always there is an internal logic which makes the chapbook a whole thing. Most of the chapbooks on my shelf resemble in their form at least two or three other chapbooks on my shelf. Over time, the chapbook seems to have become standardized in terms of its contents. The thing that is “special” about the chapbook as an object is usually its presentation. The chapbook is often a fancy little book, often made on a letterpress or made to look is if it were made on a letterpress, often with interesting throwbackish flourishes such as hand-stitching or special papers or special binding or a non-standard shape. I count all of these things as virtues, and I have seldom interrogated any of them.
The cause for the interrogation of the chapbook is McSweeney’s choices for The Necropastoral chapbook. It is not neatly symmetrical as a form. An essay of film criticism is followed by poems which are followed by a list/effigy which is followed by an acknowledgments section that is titled in a manner that asks the reader to think of it as more than an acknowledgments section which is followed by blank pages which, following all the destabilizing work we’ve seen, invite the reader to contemplate whether the blank pages have a formal significance (are they part of the text of the chapbook?) or whether it was simply necessary to offer the blank pages so that the chapbook could be properly bound after the page count of the manuscript was exhausted. However, the reader comes to believe that the asymmetries of the form are intentional, as they are of a piece with the off-kiltering work that the content insists upon delivering, and that the mixings and destabilizings of genre are integral to McSweeney’s larger project as evident in the text.
The opening essay, “Necropastoral, or Normal Love,” opens with an epigraph from the 1966 version of Cher, who says: “[The Velvet Underground] won’t replace anything, except maybe suicide.” Then McSweeney offers her own provocation: “The Pastoral, like the occult, has always been a fraud, a counterfeit, an invention, an anachronism.”
Let’s place McSweeney’s opening volley against the conception of the Pastoral offered by our great cultural arbiter Wikipedia:
Pastoral is a mode of literature in which the author employs various techniques to place the complex life into a simple one. Paul Alpers distinguishes pastoral as a mode rather than a genre, and he bases this distinction on the recurring attitude of power; that is to say that pastoral literature holds a humble perspective toward nature. Thus, pastoral as a mode occurs in many types of literature (poetry, drama, etc.) as well as genres (most notably the pastoral elegy).
Gifford defines pastoral in three ways. The first way emphasizes the historical literary perspective of the pastoral in which authors recognize and discuss life in the country and in particular the life of a shepherd. This is summed up by Leo Marx with the phrase “No shepherd, no pastoral”. The second type of the pastoral is literature that “describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban”. The third type of pastoral depicts the country life with derogative classifications.
It is not difficult, if you have read some pastoral literature, to read the Wikipedia introduction to the Pastoral and see that McSweeney’s definition is already embedded in it. However, perhaps it is not obvious until it is pointed out. McSweeney continues:
However, as with the occult, and as with Art itself, the fraudulence of the pastoral is in direct proportion with its uncanny powers. A double of the urban, but dressed in artful, nearly ceremental rags and pelts, the Pastoral is outside the temporal and geographical sureties of the court, the urbs, the imperium itself, but also, implicitly, adjacent to all of these, entailing an ambiguous degree of access, of cross-contamination. (The Pastoral, after all, is the space into which the courtiers must flee in the time of plague, carrying the plague of narrative with them.)
By now (and this is only halfway through McSweeney’s first paragraph), this reader was already thinking about many extra-textual attachments. I was thinking, for example, about the tendency of literatures of repressed societies to find their freedom in anachronism. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, does its work to proclaim upon the Russia contemporary to Tolstoy and his readers by dramatizing the melodrama of a Russia already-gone. I was thinking of the eastern and central European absurdists of the second half of the twentieth century, who couldn’t write about Communism directly, so they went at it sideways. I was thinking of the subversive uses of the parable, the fable, the fairy story, and then I was thinking about the strange apocalyptic visions of the Hebrew and early Christian scriptural prophets — Daniel, Ezekiel, John at Patmos.
McSweeney is not the first to make these identifications of the Pastoral. She is drawing on a long critical tradition, although her directness and darkness of tone are more bracing than any of the critics I’ve read. (Occult is not the only hyper-loaded word in her essay, and the essay is also colored by its placement behind a page of collage featuring images of skulls, a blindfolded man, and a child with a gun in his mouth.) Her project, though, is not just a critical project. It’s also an artistic project operating out of an idea of literary art that is unafraid to open the border where art and criticism meet, and allow them to intermingle. (Perhaps this is one way to describe the form of the chapbook.)
(One unlikely comrade of McSweeney’s in this interrogation of the pastoral is Philip Roth, whose best novel, American Pastoral, is an investigation of a decent man, an analogue of Updike’s Rabbit named Swede Levov (rhymes with Swede-the-love) whose teenage daughter joins a group that is an analogue of the Weather Underground, and she becomes known as the Rimrock bomber. The idea of the pastoral and its pretensions to innocence is at the center of Roth’s conception of the novel, which deconstructs the idea of the all-American family by undoing a most unRothean character, a truly good man who wants to do the right thing. And Roth pushes his investigation of the pastoral even further in The Plot Against America, an alternate history of World War II in which Jewish boys from New Jersey are shipped to rural Kentucky in order to become more American. Some other books which share some allegiances with McSweeney’s interrogation of the pastoral: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, Charles Baxter’s Believers, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, T.C. Boyle’s After the Plague, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. That’s just a cursory scan of my bookshelf up to the B’s. I want to read these books again while thinking of this essay, and see if what I think is there is there, and even if it’s not, I want to steal the old idea of what I thought it was before I re-read it. This, by the way, is one way to know if a critical or critical-ish essay is pulling its weight. Does it send you in forty-nine directions before you finish reading it? Does it make you want to chase rabbit trails? Does it cause you to drift from whatever you think its thesis might be, because you’re already thinking about all the micro stuff that’s embedded in it?)
Here is paragraph two, in its entirety:
A Velvet Underground.
Here McSweeney finds a new way to express all of paragraph one, while simultaneously invoking the band, the language from which the band drew its name, and the epigraph from 1966 Cher, which, remember, was resistant to the Velvet Underground (“won’t replace anything, except maybe suicide.”)
Paragraph Three offers a kind of definition of the idea of the Necropastoral:
Rather than maintaining its didactic or allegorical distance, the membrane separating the Pastoral from the Urban, the past from the future, the living from the dead, may and must be supersaturated, convulsed, and crossed. The crossing of this membrace is Anachronism itself.
From here, McSweeney shifts from the general description of the idea of the Necropastoral to an examination of a specific case–Jack Smith’s film Normal Love. Here is a scene from the film:
Smith shot the film in the summer of 1965, but:
edited or re-edited for the rest of [his] life, never solidifying into a final form or even a final title; as late as 1982, Smith refers to this film in a grant application as “EXOTIC LANDLORDISM OF THE WORLD,” “EXOTIC LANDLORDISM,” and “NORMAL FANTASY,” reports that he has been working on the film for 20 years, and notes “No commercial studio” could do the work he has done editing the film “because they would have no way of knowing when or if it would ever end.” The pronoun “it” is importantly ambiguous here, collapsing both the film and the labor it entails into one endless material. Normal Love itself incorporates the inassimilability of anachronism, a material which will never reach its final state, impossible to enter into the historical record by the conventional means of title and date and completion.
It is tempting here to just quote the entire essay for you rather than writing about it. I had a similar trouble in writing about Johannes Goransson’s Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. The problem is that the work is not reducible to summary or synopsis. In Goransson’s case, the work was designed to be open. In some sense, the novel was something that the reader performed alongside the novelist with each telling. In the case of McSweeney’s The Necropastoral, a similar trouble attaches to definitions. Often in this or that undergraduate course in this or that, the first task is to nail down the definitions, or define the terms. But here the terms are likewise open, as are the models of thinking about things, as are the forms. First you think you’re reading an essay about an abstraction (“the necropastoral”), but then you realize you’re reading an essay about a film, but then you realize that you are reading an ars poetica — McSweeney, who seems averse to the manifesto, is offering something in the ballpark of the manifesto, and also a meditation upon art, death, literary history, and, by extension, contemporary literary culture. The necropastoral means everything that attaches to it. The reader’s understanding grows from an initial idea that we’re going to get a singular idea about what’s really happening in the pastoral, to the idea that there are some varieties of art that wildly undermine the pastoral while exploiting its conventions and thereby show what’s at its core (among other things: Death), to the idea that the author isn’t really offering a single idea so much as she is opening up the idea of the pastoral by interrogating it, and that the ends of the interrogation aren’t only critical — they don’t just make the act of reading more active, playful, dire, and sharp-edged–but also artistic. She is opening up a generative space for future work, her own, and, by the act of generosity entailed in publishing the essay, the reader’s.
As if in demonstration, the essay is followed by a series of poems all titled “King Prion.” Good Americans that we be, let us again consult the Wikipedians, they who champion the singular definition:
A prion (i /ˈpriː.ɒn/) is an infectious agent composed of protein in a misfoldedform. This is in contrast to all other known infectious agents, which must containnucleic acids (either DNA, RNA, or both). The word prion, coined in 1982 by Stanley B. Prusiner, is a portmanteau derived from the words protein and infection. Prions are responsible for the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in a variety of mammals, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as “mad cow disease”) in cattle and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. All known prion diseases affect the structure of the brain or other neural tissue and all are currently untreatable and universally fatal.
So before we read past the title, we’ve been signaled — King Prion.
The first poem is a dramatic monologue. Is the speaker King Prion? The receiver of King Prion? The King Prion observer? Like all the poems that follow, the speaker announces him or herself with the interjection:
We wonder if this Hoooooooo might also double as its homonym “Who,” or whether is might be a phonetic rendering of “Who” in the wilder state we come to associate with the speaker. Certainly if we read the Hoooooooo as a Who or as a combination Hoooooooo/Who, a logic presents itself in the second line of each poem. For example, in the first: “–Hoooooooo / Lay in an array of pixels / Fat simulated proteins” (If this is the reading, then we might also consider the title part of the sentence: King Prion, who lay in an array of pixels . . .)
In thinking about the relationship between King Prion and the speaker of the poem, I was thinking about the relationship between prions and the bodies they infect: In a very real sense, they are takeover artists, right? They get into the host and then they are pulling the strings. As I read over these poems, one thought was that maybe that’s what happening not only at the level of the prion v. the speaker, but also, possibly, that the reader was being invited into a similarly corrosive relationship as the reader enters into the takeover voice, which is exuberant, violent, and seductive, and which operates in the poems by way of a dark associative logic which moves sideways rather than linearly. (“Anachronism,” right? Time works differently here.) These poems don’t work like, say, James Wright poems (often pastorals!), in which there is a top-level or literal surface, which serves as its own clean and singular “realist” narrative, and then second, third, or fourth levels which serve as the metaphorical vessels. McSweeney destabilizes the poems such that the reader can’t say for sure which is the surface and which is the metaphor or symbol or meta-traffic, and, consequently, no level is more “real” than another. When the reader enters into the poems this way, it can be disorienting and rather frightening, in the way dreams can be frightening, but also frightening in the way literary art is often not frightening, because there will never be a solid critical foothold in these poems. When that is gone, it is difficult for the reader to maintain the critical distance that makes, say, horror novels, a method of entertainment. (Look at what he’s doing! That’s so scary!) The only way to enter into these poems is to drop the idea of levels, which means you’re now immersed in the prion-like work they are performing, and you’re complicit, but you’re also controlled to some extent by the thing the poem has immersed you in.
Here’s a strange thought I had while reading the poems. John Gardner used to write about the idea of the “uninterrupted dream,” by which he meant that the fiction should make itself seem so real that the reader forgets that the reader is reading and instead falls into the story to such an extent that the reader feels as though the reader is experiencing the story because the reader is so swept up in the story. I have had that feeling, or thought I have had that feeling, when reading the kinds of works Gardner seemed to be describing, which are mostly works of realism, but also works of fantasy that aspire to produce the same kind of feeling that realism can produce (such as Gardner himself attempted to do in Grendel.) However, reading the “King Prion” poems, I thought about how terrifying it would be if a work of literature really were an uninterrupted dream to the extent that you couldn’t interrupt the dream, you couldn’t extricate yourself by closing the book or waking up. And that’s sort of the claustrophobic helpless terror you might feel if you totally gave yourself over to a literary prion. (And this is one way in which McSweeney’s “King Prion” poems are very different from Goransson’s Entrance: In Entrance, there is a sense in which the reader is the invader or the perforator of the narrative. The reader, in a sense, is the invader who is generating each new reading. Whereas, in “King Prion,” the reader, in a similar sense, is the invaded, upon whom and in whom the reading is being enacted. That’s a fearsome thing, and its generated not only by the idea of the prion, but also by the strange insistence of the monologuer who speaks the poem or possibly causes the reader to speak the poem.)
(Here’s a parenthetical comment that appeals to me: It is possible that I am entirely misreading the poems, but if I am, it is a productive misreading I want to willfully continue for awhile. Perhaps one measure of the power of this kind of literary work is its ability to spawn the most interesting misreadings. Perhaps this is also one measure of the danger of work that doesn’t foreground a safe surface or give the reader a foothold: The capacity for misuse and ill use and awful use is wild and abundant. For historical context and analogue, see “The Revelation of St. John.”)
I’m going to stop here, but reserve the right to revisit this chapbook, especially the remaining parts I haven’t given much space here. I want to say: I think that “The Necropastoral” is a very interesting chapbook, and that it contains the germ of many future books, not only by McSweeney, but also by other writers. I am especially interested in seeing what writers who are temperamentally and aesthetically very different from McSweeney might generate out of their engagement with the material, particularly writers still in some way allegiant to the naturalist or psychological realist traditions, as I am. One ridiculousness of the idea of experimental writing that a book like this explodes is the idea that there is some kind of dividing line that can be drawn between competing camps. Here we have a book that invites a blurring of everything toward productive (or destructive — another variety of productivity) ends, and artists of all varieties would do well to pay attention to what McSweeney is saying and doing. I will be paying close attention.