"Masks and outfits are exchanged": Some Thoughts on Guy Maddin's Keyhole, James Pate, Minor Lit and Narrative

by on Aug.08, 2012

I think James’s post from yesterday was really wonderful at exploring the idea of “minor literature,” but also art more generally.

I loved this description of a certain kind of artwork:

The novel of manners and certain realist novels are built like a multi-storied house: the family occupies one floor, economics another, the courts yet another. They might be of the same house, but there are still divisions between them. In minor literature, the family triangle is de-Oedipalized: the house is of a single floor, and the family moves among the judges who move among the cops who move among the rabbis and priests who move among the teachers and professors. Masks and outfits are exchanged, roles reenacted, snatches of dialogue tossed about. Genet’s The Balcony comes to mind. In fact, all of Genet’s plays come to mind.

This for me describes a kind of “genre” that I’ve always been interested in: the allegory that becomes too much for an allegorical reading; an allegory where seemingly the stuff of art wrecks the allegory; an allegory where the “floor” between vehicle and tenor collapses. Obviously Kafka is the key example of this (evidence: all the unconvincing books that tries to read his books as allegorical – Freudian or Marxist or religious etc).

Many of my favorite instances of this kind of story are the “minor” works by major artists. Take for example “The Hour of the Wolf” by Ingmar Bergman. (Here’s some corpse-sex, Max Von Sydow in make-up, and general melodrama from that movie:)

Someone who has dwelt in this zone for a couple of decades is Canada’s brilliant film-maker Guy Maddin. In his amazing recent film “Keyhole,” Maddin seems to have come on the same kind of analogy as James: A house where everything collapses together, everything happens at once, the dead and the living interact with each other in different time zone, obscene father and Father of The Law fight it out (but the obscene father is the dead one) etc. One of the most brilliant figures of the movie is a drowned girl whom the “protagonist” drags around his house in order to communicate with his dead (?) family, even as she’s in the process of drowning. In that “drowning” she seems to be what James describes as the virtual operating on the physical.

I’ve long adored Guy Maddin’s slapstick surrealism, Cocteau-esque decadence, hilarious plot intrigue and utterly stunning imagery. (He’s obviously someone who is highly familiar with not just Surrealist poetry but also the decadent poetry of the 19th century.) Perhaps most importantly is the very strange and moving narratives that remind me of Hitchcock doing Ibsen as a b-movie melodrama (“The Wild Birds” maybe).

In the interview I linked to a while back, John Colburn called Maddin’s work “ultra-Freudian.” Maddin’s “ultra-Freudian” quality is that the Characters don’t seem motivated by Freudian models of interiority; it’s all on the surface, in the plot. We don’t use Freudian ideas to interpret his film; to do so would be redundant! It’s one more layer that is shed in a constant generating of matter in his film.

In his book From Atelier Tovar, Maddin writes about his own melodramatic aesthetic:

… I got to explain my melodrame caduc, or deciduous melodrama, theory: the overly methodical suitor so lacks spontaneity, is so rooted to one spot, that by the tie inspiration comes to him, his gesture is so inappropriately over-charged that he loudly and bark-splittingly breaks apart and all dignity falls like leaves, stripping him to public nakedness, whatever…

This is an insightful quote about how these narratives seem to work: get over-charged and collapse, causing a shedding of leaves and stuff. Rather than say working our way into the characters, into the plot, the movies accumulate and shed their matter in a melodramatic collapse. The floors collapse. Make-up becomes key.

For a long time it’s been a cliche in poetry to consider “narrative” a conservative force; a force that makes too much sense of the “language” (as if there could be a pure language that didn’t do stuff like narratives, images, comparison). But I find myself increasingly drawn to narrative as an inflationary practice: narratives that generate too much. In his I’m perhaps influenced by the excessive reading of Bolano and Cesar Aira, or from translating Aase Berg’s sci-fi epic Dark Matter, or from re-reading Joyce Mansour’s Julius Cesar (in Swedish and English), or watching a lot of Heart of Darkness type of movies (Apocalypse Now, all of Herzog etc).

You can see a similar aesthetic in the Leif Holmstrand book I talked about a while ago: all the plot summaries of horror movies accumulate and collapse.

I went through and edited my book Haute Surveillance this summer, which I wrote a few years ago and which is being published this fall. What I found was that I wanted more and more plot; that I eliminated a lot of the more traditionally “poetic” sections and emphasized the ludicrous stories. (It’s about a guy in a hospital/school/rehab who shares a room with the genocidal expresident and his occult wife and kids, and tries to teach veterans how to put on legal performances, all while people are in an uproar over a black man who’s being hunted across the country even though nobody knows what crime he originally committed… well, that’s how it starts out… It’s also a love poem.)

Of course just as I can’t isolate a “language itself” from what words do, I can’t really
isolate a “narrative” independent of all that other stuff of language. I don’t want to create another purity (“narrative itself”). No, it’s all part of the stuff of Art. And I increasingly think of art as the “stuff” of art – the stuff that derails the allegories, that makes the medium itself filthy. There is not “itself,” just accumulations and sheddings.

In the context of immigration and minor literature, today I was thinking about when I started writing around 8th grade, soon after moving to the US. I remember I wrote this novel, which was essentially about how I imagined my life if I would have been allowed to continue living in Sweden… a kind of imaginary original life… the real life, of which I was now living in a counterfeit version.

But what I remember the most is that we were learning all these sentence structures in English class: how to use complex sentences, how to use dependent clauses and stuff like that; which really fascinated me. Unbeknownst to me I was writing my novel basically according to the sentence structures we were learning in class (ie some sections use the structure “having done x, he di y” or “upon finding x, he did y”, depending to a large extent on the structure we were learning as I was writing that chapter). One of my friends proofread the book and pointed this out. He said: “Your sentence structures are very repetitive.” I was mortified at the time. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well: the humiliation of my real life.

But now that repetitiveness seems perfect for an immigrant trying to both write himself out of America and into the English language.

(And my writing has stayed very repetitive on the level of syntax. I have notebooks full of sentences that I love and deploy in my books. But almost always they are from fiction writers – from Genet, Nabokov. Ie the most florid or “poetic” prose writers.)

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Paragraph beginning with this:

    >For a long time it’s been a cliche in poetry to consider “narrative” a conservative force

    Absolutely. The anti-narrative cliche’s by now a conservatizing, nigh stifling force in “a-g” Literature (cap). Someone needs to write an Aira-like novel on the tragic-comic fallout of the “You Can’t Say It That Way Anymore” past thirty-five American years. Populated with barely veiled historical characters.

    On James P., also couldn’t agree more. Almost everything he writes here is super intelligent and provocative.

  2. Matt

    I enjoyed this post, Johannes. A few random thoughts about Maddin and “Keyhole.” First, did you know someone from Iowa, Shane Book, worked on the film? His name is in the credits, though I forget his exact title.

    Also, according the site below, John Ashbery, who worked with Maddin on Brand Upon the Brain!, was originally going to co-write Keyhole with Maddin. He is not, however, credited in the final release (as far as I know), so maybe this fell through? Also, according to the site below, Keyhole was “inspired by Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa.”


    Two awesome things about Keyhole: the electric chair powered by juice-generating exercise bikes and the Minotaur (symbol of interiority–monster at the heart of the cave-maze) reduced to a protruding glory hole penis–one that needs dusting. The penis is the key in the “keyhole,” methinks.

  3. Johannes

    Interesting. What role did Ashbery play in Brand on the Brain?


  4. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Listen and compare The Dark Knight Rises to Shrin Neshat’s Rapture (1999). Even the Batmobile, throbbing like porn . . .


    (Neshat vid)

    G C-H

  5. James Pate

    Maddin is great. I still have vivid memories of watching a “live” performance of Brand on the Brain at The Musicbox Theater in Chicago — twisted-up celery was used for the sound effect of a character eating brain.

    And yes, as you point out, the Freudianism in Maddin is not human, it’s not an undercurrent — it’s the main current itself, like some dark shimmering force that carries the actors along.

    I love the scene in Archangel where a mother is trying to wean her child so she paints a monster on her breasts, to the trauma of the child. (I might be misremembering that a bit, I haven’t seen it in a while, but I think that’s how it goes…) Lynch is similar in that way: the way Frank spits out the word Mommy when he’s with Dorothy, for example.

    And because Maddin and Lynch have the family triangle as a surface effect, they de-Oedipize it, they connect it, collapse it, so that Father and Mother no longer just exist in the family room…

    And about narrative: I completely agree. More and more I think theme is the element that closes off writing, not narrative. And by theme I mean writing that is “about” something. In this way, I often find the more didactic side of Language writing and Conceptual writing to actually be much more closed off than the most plot-oriented crime novel. A narrative can be oddly open if it’s not overly thematic. For that reason, Kiss Me Deadly is, to me, the greatest film about the cold war, and it’s because it’s not about the war, rather the cold war vibrates in it emanates from it.


  6. Lucas de Lima

    Love this post. I think James’ description of the minor lit house also describes 2666… which makes 20th century history itself all narrative accumulation and shedding. But with an oasis of relentless and even tedious horror in the center of it, namely the Juarez murders, which are documented over and over in a pretty clinical fashion. Of course it’s an exhausting read, many people give up, and Bolaño himsefl exhausts his capacities in the second book with a somewhat unconvincing depiction of an American journalist.

  7. James Pate


    2666 is a great example. The past few years I’ve been teaching a world lit. class and I’ve been struck by how much 2666 reminds me of One Thousand and One Nights and Tales of Genji and The Monkey and the Decameron. So many of the older ways of storytelling were about branches and excess, stories within stories, but for some reason the form of the novel led to a reduction, to only a single branch being explored (of course there has always been exceptions). But yes, 2666 reminds me of that kind of storytelling, accumulation and shedding…

    And just to defend the second book a bit: I agree it’s weaker than some of the other sections, but I think it still has some great parts, like the wonderfully surreal and associative sermon (or speech, or whatever it is) that the former revolutionary gives at the church. To me, it reads like prose poetry..