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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