Neon Genesis Irangelion: XYZT by Kristen Alvanson review

Kristen Alvanson. XYZT (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019).

I already knew that Iran was separated off from the world. Most Americans don’t go there – I’m not sure who does go there. And of course, I hadn’t really believed that it would work.

But as soon as the bracelet tightens, I know what will happen. It all comes back to me as if it’s a distant memory – not my own, but more like a scene that’s been waiting for me to step into it. (p. 301)

The second publication to come from Urbanomic’s K-Pulp imprint, Kristen Alvanson’s XYZT is a novelistic account of a series of bilateral cultural exchanges between the USA and Iran. Compositionally, it’s similar to something like (appropriately) Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a series of vignettes detailing the displacement of figures (volunteer test subjects) from one locale to the other. The text has an autobiographical element to it: Alvanson, an American, has spent several years in Iran, and no doubt has accumulated a number of anecdotes both first and second hand concerning social and geographical dislocations along this particular line. Subjects of the experimental XYZT programme are given just three hours in which to make contact with their “hosts”, waiting for them on the other side – and the results vary from the mundane to the utterly fantastical. There are straightforward plots, which go according to plan, and others which, due to “interference”, splinter off at strange tangents, and no two experiences are similar. In this sense, the bundle offered up by XYZT functions as a microcosm of an embodied reality for everyday Iranian-American encounters, like an animation developed from many unique cels. Yet it is a reality, or rather several overlapping structures of the real, that is narrated through an oneiric, alien haze; the specific dynamics of each chapter producing a combined methodology for interrogating the variegated conceptions of worldly composition – the literary equivalent of a nest of vipers or a rat king.

I’ll try not to reveal the specifics of each of XYZT’s entanglements (needless to say, it’s a vertiginous and innovative archipelago, disabling overworn faculties of prediction), but I will instead disclose a few of its more overt influences and points of reference. Firstly, Stewart Gardiner is right to identify David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ as a touchstone, as anyone who has seen the film will no doubt pick up on from the book’s very first encounter; but more prominently in both texts’ usage of transportation devices, and their resultant questionings of the nature of their perceived destinations. (XYZT = exist = eXistenZ?) The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft also pervades an especially memorable chapter (specifically, his “Dreams in the Witch House”). Thirdly, we may consider Ambroise Paré’s sixteenth century anti-taxological work of cryptozoology, Des monstres et des prodiges (On Monsters and Marvels, or Monsters and Prodigies), as a recurrent template for inhuman and nonhuman modes of filiation. (See also Alvanson’s diagrammatic “Arbor Deformia”, in Collapse IV, from several years earlier.) Finally, a fleeting reference to the Miguel Abreu Gallery may suggest further visual cues as to the design of XYZT’s transcultural and transmaterial schemas. Each of these influences become analytics in the book for comprehending the vague and shadowy mechanics of the XYZT programme. Whether its architects – two MIT students – are fully aware of these mechanics themselves is questionable, and the thought that other beings and eras were or are more cognizant of non-Euclidian spatial dynamics, temporal and spatial dislocation, or the hyperstitional effects of lucid dreaming, presents a trove of tantalising and unresolvable possibilities.

XYZT also provides a cogent object-oriented ontology, or inorganic demonology, with its inclusion of the device known as “the black box”, a hard drive acquired by the protagonist containing untold mysteries and secret potentials. Initially identified by its “presence […], emanating waves of anticipative anxiety” (p. 91), the black box becomes for Estella a compact set of portals that, once opened, enable all new modes of plot composition and worldly navigation. “Composition, line, structure, time. Even though she could barely articulate to herself what she was trying to achieve, the entire fabric of the box now seemed to be coming loose, as if a knot had been undone somewhere.” (p. 123) XYZT’s black box is reminiscent of similar technologies found in avant-garde horror cinema (notably Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), as well as the Cross of Akht detailed in Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. And all provide their host plots with the transversal capacities for Hidden Writing, the flowing undercurrents of subplots which threaten to unground the structural integrity of the cathedral-like dominant narrative. As we are told directly: “Plot doesn’t matter.” And as the tetratological taxonomy of the Arbor Deformia “must include all monsters and all deformities” (p. 181), every one of XYZT’s contingencies on offer – Jinns, deavs, pirates, witches, Vice Cities – offer specific cultural myths that must jostle for their inclusion in the book’s patchwork project. Of course, it is impossible to fully document every reality glimpsed through the prism of the book – and everything not included belongs to an “outside”: a remainder locale between the folds of the real. In a possible metanarratological turn, some of the book’s characters acknowledge this, and the tensions this outside plays on their origami-construct world: “however much control there is, the outside calls to us too, and it causes disturbances, fevers…”. (p. 309)

There are plenty of uncovered areas for fruitful analysis (the ongoing relevance of escalators?), but as already stated, I will avoid exposing all of XYZT’s treasures. The book reads as an intimate and loving series of memories, flickers of episodic encounters, and possible worlds. It may be self-deprecatingly described as an “airport novel”, but its greatest strengths lie exactly in its awareness, legibility, and lack of pretension. Importantly, Alvanson’s book suggests to us a parallel universe where such literary qualities are not incompatible with thoughtful and challenging non- or extra-literary diversions, and this is not to be underappreciated.

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DJ Screw [Origins of Theory-Fiction #5]

In the 1990s and 2000s, the mythic depths of Southside Houston, Texas became the fertile grounds for an astonishing and totalising sonic fiction. Its originator, DJ Screw, gave his name to a genre-technique, and with it the soundtrack to an entire culture. “I started messing with the pitch adjusters on the turntables and slowed it all the way down. I thought the music sounded better like that.”[1] All the best music is hyperspecific (to borrow Terre Thaemlitz’s term), and the bass-heavy, syrup-slow screw style has become inextricable from the cultural legacy of Houston. Screw was prolific, releasing around a thousand or more “screw tapes” during his lifetime (before passing away in 2000 from a codeine overdose). The bulk of any given tape is made up of slowed-down Southern and West Coast hip-hop productions, featuring either the original vocalists (including future venerated artists like Houston’s UGK and Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia) or freestyles from the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.). The languid, druggy feel marked out both Screw and Houston as distinct from the East/West Coast dialectic which characterised mainstream hip-hop during the 90s. (Today, however, it is hard to deny Atlanta as the most influential musical centre for the genre as a whole.) The scene which developed around Screw and his innovation (tales of queues stretching around the block from his house waiting for his latest tape) has had a steady impact on the music of today, both in the mainstream and underground, and has also spawned a whole host of imitators and successors to the “chopped ’n screwed” aesthetic.

Screw’s world is pure Southern Gothic, the demonic vocal manipulations and skeletal imagery exhibiting itself as alienating and alienated. Not only was Texas rap a long way from mainstream representation, the state itself is humid, diffuse, and spacious, as opposed to, say, the densely-packed boroughs of New York. This world also encloses and reinforces itself through the promotion of local names and references, made timeless and spectral via their recording to tape.[2] The lyrical themes to many S.U.C. freestyles border on parody (sippin’ lean, wood grain steering wheels), but the relative breeziness of this content belies an implicit fixation with death and finitude. Given the well-entrenched racial history of the area (the Confederacy, the Klan, lynchings) this is not surprising, but since his death the ghost of Screw himself stalks through the haze of his mixes, a haze thickened inexorably by the purple drank which accompanies any understanding of the scene (and which itself eventually claimed Screw’s life). Each of these factors combine in screw music as a pathological, interiorised state: alienation, paranoia, depression, and ultimately hedonism. But also the more positive experiences of empathy and solidarity, a recognition and desubjectification with other occupants of the purple haze, and the possibility of ascension into material and spiritual success (both individually and for the whole Dirty South).

While Screw’s tapes and CDs present his fiction at its most complete, its posthumous percolations have enabled it to survive and adapt to present day contexts and accelerate its influence. As I and others have said before, there would likely be no vaporwave without DJ Screw, but we can also credit his impacting musicians as diverse as Lil Ugly Mane, Beyoncé, A$AP Rocky, and Rabit. In the cases of all but the latter, the risk of reducing screw to a musical gimmick is always something that has to be negotiated, but Rabit’s recent screw tapes such as CRY ALONE DIE ALONE arguably expose an understanding of the pathways for further extension of the original idea behind screw as both a passive noun (screw tape, screw track), and an active process of distorting and expressing the interior/exterior psychic terrain that has led to its production, and within which one is immiserated (or screwed). From a recent feature for Resident Advisor, in which Rabit describes his early experiences after moving to Houston:

“You would go into the gas station and see Mariah Carey chopped-and-screwed CDs, stuff like that,” he said. “It was the only music that I would hear coming out of cars. It sounds like alien music, especially when it’s something like Mariah Carey. DJ Screw played a lot of Southern and West Coast rap music, but he was [sic] chopped a lot of, like, Sting, or whatever was popular at the time. Soul or rock. He was selling hundreds of tapes a day.”

“That a single person could have such an impact on the way music is heard or transmitted is pretty rare,” he added. “That’s a huge influence and it’s crazy to think about. People aren’t doing that anymore. Like, “I’m gonna play what everyone wants to hear but I’m gonna play it half-speed’ – normal people don’t think of something like that out of the blue.”[3][4]

Notes

[1] DJ Screw. “Givin’ It to Ya Slow”, interviewed by Bilal Allah for RapPages (November 1995), available online at https://ifihavent.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/givin-it-to-ya-slow-dj-screw-interview-from-rappages-1995/.

[2] ““You could get a tape for like $10,” remembers Bun B. “Then, for $15, you could give him a list [of songs] you wanted and he’d shout you out on the tape. For a little more, you could actually come to Screw’s house and shout out people yourself.”” In Joseph Patel. “Chopped & Screwed: A History”, MTVNews.com (2006), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20061125191537/http://www.mtv.com/bands/h/hip_hop_week/chopped_screwed/index.jhtml.

[3] In Andrew Ryce. “Label of the month: Halcyon Veil”, Resident Advisor (29th January 2019), available online at https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3391.

[4] This post was hugely informed by Roni Sarig’s book Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, & How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007); specifically, the chapter “Houston Reprise – The Turn of the Screw” (pp. 313-36).

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.