"The sheer number of corpses which pile up": Drew Kalbach on Laura Mullen's Murmur

by on Oct.09, 2012

[Laura Mullen is coming to read at Notre Dame tomorrow (Oct 10). My workshop read her book Murmur his past week and discussed it on the class blog. There were lots of interesting takes, so I thought I would post a few of them to suggest readings of this fascinating book.]

In Murmur, voices compete. Like the title suggests, the speakers speak beneath their breath, in breathy whispers which are hard to hear. They are Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic and washed up on the beach trying to speak through old film footage, through her diary, through dreams. The voices begin to speak toward something coherent and abruptly stop: the end, the wound.

Mark Seltzer calls American culture a “wound culture.” He says wound cultures are “a culture of the atrocity exhibition, where people wear their damage like badges of identity, or fashion accessories.” More than this, Americans are obsessed with the torn body, evidenced by the need to stare at cars crashed on the interstate, by crowds which gather around any public crime scene, by the nightly news constantly reporting on bodies which are mutilated and destroyed. We love it, our television and media are full of it, these wounds are a part of everything we do. These wound spaces are the spaces in which the private body has been torn open to become public. The car crash victim’s face plastered on the nightly news when before death that victim would remain an anonymous person (and not defined yet, “victim”). “The public/private divide is always what is at issue, what trembles, in the sex offense and in responses to it.” The same can be said for very gruesome murders and mass murders. He goes on to say that “serial violence, it will be seen, does not exist without this radical entanglement between forms of eroticized violence and mass technologies of registration, identification, and reduplication, forms of copy-catting and simulation.” In forms of cataloging and defining massive amounts of information.

The serial killer is intrinsically bonded with the public/private divide and with ideas of identity, identification, mass media and simulation. In Murmur, the voices meld and mix. There is no single speaker or single corpse or single hero or single villain. They pile on each other and shift from paragraph to paragraph, often appearing where another paragraph abruptly ends. From “Demonstrating Bodies”: “In the third person with no memory of the bite marks. Oh? How would you tell it? The question of who speaks first, and then . . . . ‘Well, that’s how I remember it.’ Okay, let’s hear your version then, honey, smiling indulgently at everyone else.” This idea of versions, of multiple versions of the same story comes up in Murmur and seems also to be a part of the more general idea of genre. In a genre, the same shape is evoked to create a new version of the thing. In this instance, murder mystery novels are evoked, versioned, and ultimately broken into pieces.

In a culture which stresses identity as perhaps the most important thing for a person to ‘develop’, the idea of a serial killer is particularly disturbing. Seltzer says, “the serial killer . . . [is] an individual who, in the most radical form, experiences identity, his own and others, as a matter of numbers, kinds, types, and as a matter of simulation and likeness (“just like me”).” This view of identity seems very similar to the idea of versioning: these people are “versions of me” or versions of the “type” of person I have embraced. I know there is a type of person I must cohere to (the serial killer) and so I embrace the type completely, allow my identity to become another version of this pre-fabricated genre. People becomes categories. Seltzer pushes this a little further: “the serial killer as the species of person proper to a mass mediated public culture: the mass in person.” The serial killer is the every day man, the next door neighbor, able to blend into the background because he is simply another version of a crowd of people. He is the mass spectacle of the wound culture, the faceless killer whom people obsess over. “There is something uncanny about how these killers are so much alike, living composites, how easily they blend in.” Seltzer talks about how Ted Bundy is often said to look different in every photograph of him, which suggests a sort of chameleon effect. He is faceless. Murmur is faceless as well. The speakers never cohere into a proper identity, but remain at a versioned distance.

To come at Murmur from a different direction, we can look at the sheer number of corpses which pile up. Mullen: “You’d be amazed at how much a severed head weighs, for instance.” We would, and we want to know exactly how much that is, and what the head looks like on the steel scale, and what the body looks like without the head, etc. Seltzer: “the very idea of ‘the public’ has become inseparable from spectacles of bodily and mass violence.” He calls this “atrocity exhibitions.” These atrocity exhibitions are all over Mullen’s book and all over the murder mystery genre in general. The corpse is the focus of these stories, though they pretend that “solving” the mystery is the important part, the truly best sections are when the victim is killed and the body is found. All the action happens there, the clues are evidenced, the story unfurled in a sense. The body is splayed open for the viewer/reader to witness, the atrocity is exhibited. Mullen: “Who wouldn’t want to lie down for a moment in the trace of a former life out of which they’d lift themselves, reciting, ‘Dying / Is an art, like everything else . . .’?” Death as art, death as spectacle. Plath made a spectacle of death again and again in her art. Who wouldn’t want to die if they could live again, or live on through some other mediated form, who wouldn’t want to engage the ultimate form of art? What’s more, who wouldn’t want to watch?

In Steven Shaviro’s book Doom Patrols (available for free on his website, http://www.dhalgren.com/Doom/index.html, I recommend it for anyone interested in postmodern theory, it’s a really easy and jargon-free intro to a bunch of thinkers/ideas associated with postmodernism) he says, channeling Bataille, “No greater desire exists than a wounded person’s need for another wound.” To come into contact with another person is a wounding experience in a very basic sense he believes. We wound each other and are wounded in turn, our skin is invaded by the skin and voice of others. “That’s why every communication involves laceration. You got through to me only when you left a mark on my skin: a bruise, a puncture, a gash, an amputation, a burn.” This is what we love in our wound culture. We love the body broken and torn open, but more than that we love to be wounded by these visions, by these things which are so disgusting we can’t look away. “I thought I was self-sufficient, but desire made me porous. Every symbolic articulation, every inscription of meaning, leaves a scar on my flesh.” The serial killer takes this quite literally. He rends flesh to leave his mark on the world, but always remains blended and versioned into the greater mass culture. “Communication is unthinkable, literally unspeakable; only our wounds wordlessly touch one another.” In a culture in which we wear our wounds as jewelry, Shaviro is right: it is through our holes that we attempt to communicate.

Finally, to bring this back to Murmur, there are many gaps and holes in this text. The literal gaps where the text has been spaced out, where the paragraphs end abruptly, and the other gaps: the wounds in the corpses, the missing bits and pieces to whatever narratives begin to form. There is always a killer somewhere haunting this text though he is never quite caught, she always returns to murder again. I think that is what interested me most about this text, how the voices and situations and bodies all begin to blend after awhile. At first I was totally repulsed by the looping, incoherent feel of the text, but after awhile I relaxed and stopped worrying about making sense of it and began to enjoy it.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Aaron Apps

    Doom Patrol looks _so_ good. Thank you! I didn’t know about this. His blog posts are so awesome. I also need to give the Whitehead book another go. It was too much of a slog (although it also seemed _super_ interesting)

    Also, <3 Laura Mullen so much. I need to read Murmur too!

    So many good things!