Red Reader #5 : Black Kites by Jael Montellano
In this essay, I wanted to define what “dreampunk” was. I wanted to define dreampunk thinking that if I didn’t define it, I would lose my chance to be part of something big and someone else would take my place. I wanted to contain the brilliant zipping thing that flew about my shoulders as if it were some firefly I could bottle in a glass jar, and tell you point-blank, the following:
DREAMPUNK (n.) A term coined by writer Matthew Battles to describe a literary style in which our social-media obsessed reality is explored though technology. This style features elements of magical realism, existentialism, cyberpunk, and is often satirical in tone.
I wanted to leak fandom on a page and tell you what dreampunk was and where it came from, how it takes on the world and makes no apologies about the disgruntling conclusions to which it brings you. I wanted to leave your appetite whetted for Matthew Battles’ The Sovereignties of Invention.
Instead, I’ve written six inadequate drafts, I’m weeks past my deadline, and my friend, Kirk Bradshaw, has passed away. Kirk, with the rounded boyish cheeks, the mischievous smile, the “it’s important to stay moist” jokes. Kirk who least of all deserved cancer and in passing has taken away pieces of the sun with him.
I have the worst long-term memory. When I first read the titular story of Matthew Battles’ collection, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” I wanted the device for my own selfish writerly reasons, because I have such a difficult time remembering things. A recording device that could collect your conscious and subconscious thought as you went about your day by the simply insertion of an earbud-like apparatus? YES! TOTALLY! No more missed observations! No more carrying my leather journal in my purse, bouncing against my leg until it leaves a bruise! No more trying to write on the train and being suddenly seized by a spell of motion-sickness!
And then the narrator took the device for a jog, returned to his home and played back the recording. Endless streams of information overwhelmed him, from the sounds of his own human body, of blood, of breath, to the sights he took in during that run, the squirrel along the path, on and on until the narrator was consumed with the analysis of it, until he became a shell and was transported to the sanitarium with the device that had only ever recorded just the one event.
Even after that I still wanted the device. Don’t get me wrong, I see the parallels Battles makes between social media and anxiety quite clearly, when it takes you an hour to go through your Twitter feed alone, never mind the lists of blogs you read, or your Facebook account, or Tumblr, etc, the feeling of panic that preys on you if you don’t check your virtual life every ten minutes, because you could be missing something.
My friend Patrick says that sometimes a great trauma can cause the mind to forget memories and thoughts that are unrelated to the trauma. I wonder which great trauma has done this; if it was the departure of my extended family in Mexico when I moved to the U.S. as a child, or the sexual abuse I underwent as a teenager, or the simple stupid fact that I fell down a flight of stairs when I was seven and hit my head on the concrete, the scar of which I still bear on my forehead.
I don’t care which it is. Kirk died and all I really want the device for is to record my subconscious memories of him, memories I’ve forgotten, for them to play over and over in my head so his face has animation again.
If dreampunk is embodied in anything, it’s the bizarre feeling of your stomach leaping into your throat, of your spine being played like a xylophone, of the prickling of your neck hairs when no one is behind you because you’ve checked. Because how else should you feel when you find a computer on an alien planet predicting your death (“For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”), when an obsidian cube acts like a black hole (“The Gnomon”), when a pill takes you back five minutes in time (“Time Capsules”) and a unicorn is an endless source of electronic power (“The Unicorn”)?
That feeling, that bizarre shiver, has one master.
Poe. Creepy I-married-my-cousin-and-died-mysteriously Poe, who was so deeply mired in depression and anxiety for so much of the time, how could it not translate so eerily into his work? He had so little success in his lifetime, was forced to watch as his wife/cousin Virginia fell prey to consumption in that one room house in New York, and all the while so poor, the bed didn’t have sheets and to keep Virginia warm in the winters, he placed his coat over her legs. That Poe.
Part of me wants to call dreampunk dream-“gothic” purely because it is so inspired by Poe. It isn’t as apt as dreampunk, but it still describes one of the major characteristics , that element found in horror and gothic writing known as paranoia.
In “Provisional Descriptions of Superficial Features,” two agents analyze the surface of planet OGLE-350c in a remote future when humankind has extended space exploration to planets outside of our own solar system. There Vulpes and Severn, the two agents, encounter an LCD screen lighting a cave with the bright glow of the by-that-time-defunct Wikipedia site. They have some manner of fun as they investigate this, until they type in the name of their mission and the Wikipedia description informs them that their mission failed for unknown reasons and both the agents perished.
While the science-fiction vibe is so strong in “Provisional” it almost renders the story as a forgotten chapter to Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the heightened tension in it hearkens back to Poe, himself a deep influence on Ray Bradbury. When Sevin has Vulpes move aside from the computer so he can edit the Wikipedia entry, he signs his death warrant unknowingly, typing in “Sevin K. and Vulpes D. made their planetary EVA successfully and returned to their ship,” but the madness progresses. The Wikipedia entry still predicts their deaths and Sevin goes from “fierce clarity” to “somebody is out to get us” to “I have to make them stop!” This tension builds from the very beginning of the story, much like Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which informs you of the narrator’s desire for revenge and begins to set up the ploy to convince Fortunato into the cellars. Sevin is presented immediately as the too-serious agent, the perfectionist who always does everything according to plan as they begin to survey the black “ice-cream” like land of OGLE-350c. Maybe this helps Sevin feel in control. Maybe the plan gives him purpose. Whatever it may be, it throws Sevin off balance at the turn of the tide, in the face of Wikipedia, and he ignores Vulpes’ warnings about the failing radiation shield, just as Fortunato ignores the nitre and the damp within the catacombs in pursuit of that damned Amontillado wine.
There’s a saying that says whenever you feel that chill up your spine, it is a ghost walking over your future grave. I don’t know who said this or where I first heard it, but isn’t any ghost, so you know. It’s Poe.
Kirk technically wasn’t a close friend, or hadn’t been for five years since I graduated high school. In high school, he had been the assistant theater director, played all the musical scores, sang with confident ease, and was a forty-year old gay man, all of which made him fabulous. He had been something of a mentor, not in my writing or career path or anything of that sort, but on living. He was always laughing, always pitching practical jokes on others, and even had something of a practical-joke-rivalry going with one of my English teachers at that time, a certain Mr. Menger. Menger was something of a pompous jerk, a man whose opinion on literature was the only one that mattered and if yours differed, it was considered wrong. He was a man with no personal boundaries who would get too close to his students and didn’t hesitate in offending them, and had terrible, stupid, corny puns. He was that man who had clearly been unpopular in high school and was trying to relive it again, this time the power concentrated in his stubby rheumatic hands.
I loathed Menger because he’d called my prose essays cheap fiction. Kirk loathed him because he was an insult to comedy and had had enough of his ridiculous puns.
So Kirk had a plan. While Mr. Menger was distracted at one of the school’s sporting events, Kirk would grease black mascara over the rim of his binoculars and lend them to Menger until he used them. Then, presto! Kirk would snap a picture of Menger’s newly-sported raccoon eyes and share the image with as many faculty and students as he could, ensuring that the photo of the humiliated know-it-all ended up in the Yearbook.
To my knowledge, Kirk never put his binocular-plan into action. He could not figure out a way to make small –talk with Mr. Menger let alone tempt the man to use the binoculars, so the plan never gained wing. I was sorry because I desperately wanted to take my revenge, however indirectly, on the professor who had acted out a scene from Pushkin’s “The Bridegroom” by placing his hands around my neck.
I’m reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s a gentle breeze of fresh sea air after being smothered by the desert. It transports me to cities made of water-pipes, of signs, cities divided by sand and sea, prisons, towers, snow-globes, fountains, sirens, suicides. I love every breath of the way Marco Polo describes these cities to the great Khan, the airy verisimilitude with which Calvino writes, which is something like a dream, shaded and unshaded.
This is the fashion in which The Sovereignties of Invention has been written. It is a painting of watercolors where water creates its little rivers and takes the colors like grains of sand one way or another. What is revealed is a thin canvas made of hot-pressed paper, it seems, where parts are great empty breaths of white, gaps left clear for the imagination, and the rest is a shimmering landscape of detail, angelic, glass-like, and momentary. Any second of waking and the consciousness can come through and obliterate it.
Calvino has seeped so deeply within the fibers of dreampunk, it is as if there are windows in Sovereignties that look down and over the very world of Italo Calvino. In “Passages,” there are windows such as this one:
Behind the graying shore, shadows massed: propane tank, tree of heaven, and the night’s enveloping leaves, parted here and there by the flickering prick of streetlights in town…Above [the trees’] leaf-crowns stood away to reveal gobbets of starlight amidst obscure constellations.
Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets…The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower…
These are the two texts, first Battles’ “Passages,” then Calvino’s “Cities & Memory 4,” but they could be describing one thing, could be describing Zora’s tree-lined streets leading up to the nine-jet fountain, and there, might you not find a man gazing into the water seeing Zora clothed “in a costume not its own” (“Passages”)? Dreampunk blurs these lines, makes river-land from invisible city inseparable, and with both writers employing such simple silver prose, what really is the difference between the dreams of these two men?
Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to dissolve the lines between reality and dream. Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to bring you with startling clarity a vision of the glass domes of every possible reality we’ve had, and how similarly we’ve ruined them, minimized them into palm-sized globes of water and snow when we’ve shaken them. Perhaps the point of dreampunk is to unsettle you, turn your theories on their heads and make you question, like Calvino makes you question, whether Polo’s invisible cities are real, whether or not they’re really to teach the Khan or entertain him, or whether instead of parables the cities are there to maintain Polo’s image of a great explorer, and after all, the cities are dreams, vapid vanities of a continually dying age.
Philip K. Dick is one of Battles’ main inspirations. Dick’s famous 1968 story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the precursor of the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, mixing science-fiction elements with postmodern views of power and social hierarchy. This focused on how advanced technology could turn dystopian rather than the archetypal hero’s journey complex imagined within a far-off galactic future like Frank Herbert’s Dune. Cyberpunk stories are far more here and now, looming on the horizon like threats; they are therefore far more frightening and dark than regular sci-fi tends to be because they are thinly veiled warnings, urgent heedings.
Distinct flashes of cyberpunk are present in Sovereignties’ “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully,” a story in which the narrator discovers a typewriter in the hidden archives of Harvard’s Widener Library. The typewriter, while ordinary looking save for the glass-shaped dome and ball bearings, has the unique feature to be able to translate languages so long as the cartridge is changed, and so the narrator proceeds to translate passages of poetry and letters until the long cycles of translation effuse a language all their own, a language completely unintelligible that bears no resemblance to the original texts but which the narrator deems the “pure language.”
Não will return or seu, of like uma árvore, of which plantem or increase hair atrywuerfe, and em seu branco gives estaÁão, em winch of sua fruit and suas you are gives page, and or that face exame nonregulamento, to prosper all, the text reads.
Before the last week of Kirk’s life, I received a message from a friend who said his situation was dire. She suggested we visit or send cards to his nursing facility because his cancer had become terminal and had spread to his brain. I purchased a card with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and a miniature Moleskin and began writing short observations of life around Chicago for him. I was going to put those in the Moleskin and send it with the card, but Kirk died four days later.
I work retail. Observation #3 said, I think of you walking through my store pulling all the skanky merchandise and laughing. Cut-outs below the breasts, skirts hovering by the thighs; you wonder if I would dare try on any of them, and I would. But only for you to laugh at my bashful face before I retreated to the fitting room.
But the typewriter couldn’t translate what this observation really meant, what any of them meant. The pure language couldn’t say “I’m sorry” unless I pressed those keys into its face, unless I wrote them. And I didn’t.
The single most influential writer to the synthesis of dreampunk is a magical realist. It’s Jorge Luis Borges, of course, the Argentine who is known for his infatuation with puzzles, labyrinths, and parable-like tales. There’s a story of Borges’ called “The Garden of Forked Paths,” written in the 1940s, that concerns Sovereignties and dreampunk closely. In this story a Chinese man (Tsun) living in the UK is spying on the English on behalf of the German Empire during WWII, and his arrest by his nemesis, Richard Madden, is imminent. The Germans seek the location of one of England’s artillery parks so they can bomb it and wipe out Britain’s reinforces. It is Tsun’s job to find out the location. In an attempt to lose Madden, Tsun inadvertently hides in the home of a Dr. Albert and they discuss Chinese literature and Tsun’s great ancestor, a writer who created a labyrinth within his own novel. They discuss the enigmatic line “I leave to several futures (not to all) my gardens of forking paths” and the writer’s theory of forking realities, where all at once multiple strands of reality exist distinctly and separate events could occur within each one. In essence, they discuss string theory. Just then Tsun murders Dr. Albert, realizing Madden is just outside and that to complete his mission, he must get his name into the English papers –the location of the artillery park is a town by the name of Albert. Tsun is arrested and hanged, but the Germans get the message and the artillery park is bombed.
The idea of a story which can be read in layers and whose central idea is located within a puzzle has long been the inspiration for meta-fiction, hypertext, software and other technologies. Most importantly though, it’s impacted dreampunk.
In “Time Capsules,” a grad-student-turned-addict sits down with an old man for a game of street chess. You know the kind; in any major world city it always sets up at a park. There is a very wide courtyard. Pigeons twitter at the crowd’s feet and some bystanders stare transfixed as the timers get pushed click by click. Others glance and walk on, smirk maybe at a world they’ve never understood.
In the story, the student has tried to play the “Chess Master” before. He’s always lost. But this time, he has a card up his sleeve—this time a new-found bottle of pills which allow him to undo his mistakes. He means to cheat the master, succeed and win and for the very first time regain control over his life. And then it is revealed, of course, that the master has the very same pills, that this is the way he has achieved his so-called mastery, and both sit opposite one another in a scene that could almost be pulled directly from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Life hangs in the balance. The student realizes that it was the Chess Master who had given him the pills in the first place along the edges of streetlights when he recognizes the Master’s coat.
“You,” I say. “You’re the one who came to me. You gave me the pills.”
“Did I?” [the Chess Master] replied, settling the coat about his shoulders. “Maybe I did. I remember a time, ages ago seems like, when I wanted to bolt from this place—this time, if you take my meaning. I thought of trying to sell the pills. Some version of me must’ve done it then, back in that other time.
“But why?” I ask.
“I can’t say for sure,” he replies. “Probably I figured you’d be the one to take my place. But I’ve lost track of that. Fork in the road came up, and I took it—took another pill, fought my way out of another game. But it only led to other games, and others, and others. And now I’ve lost track of the paths…taking the pills, drifting in the streams of time—I became the ‘Chess Master.’ Biding my time, so to speak, taking a pill whenever I made a bad move. I learned my way around the maze of the game, eventually.”
I sit astonished. “And now you’re lost in it,” I stammer. “And so am I. In thistime—and all the ones left to us, I guess. We’re marooned, cut off.”
Sound familiar? The Chess Master talks of string theory when he discusses how each pill led him to another game, and another pill to another, and how he drifted through “the streams of time” and each pill was another reality, another forking path.
I think about string theory and I think it isn’t true. If it is that means that in some forked path, maybe Kirk did pitch that joke on Mr. Menger. Maybe in another, I did send him the care package I promised him when I first found out about his cancer three years ago. In another, maybe I didn’t send him the care package, but I did the card and mini-Moleskin. In that forked path maybe he got it in time, and read it, and smiled. In another path, maybe he didn’t die at all, and is still singing, telling stories about his household ghost and mentoring other kids in that town three hours south.
But all that is too hopeful. All that attempts to sponge out the fact that I didn’t send him the care package like I promised and that I didn’t visit him when he’d been moved to the nursing facility, and that I remained in the distance all the while he was being spirited away. And that isn’t justice.
Justice is living with the black hole of his vanishing, the distance I put there while I waited for my own life to begin.
In “The World & the Tree,” Sovereignties’ final collected story, a man straps himself to a black kite to see if he can fly with the birds, see what they see, the overview of the world. Little does he know that the Tree, his home, wasn’t all to the world, was only part of the whole, and in leaving he’s abandoning Paradise. The straps break. The kite drops. He lands somewhere among the “range of deadfall and ruptured blocks and prisms.”
I don’t know why The Sovereignties of Invention pulled this from me. I wanted to tell you about dreampunk and I tried and I think I’ve failed, but I had to tell you about Kirk. Perhaps it’s because dreampunk is both an exploration of the self as well as an exploration of society. Perhaps it’s because in a technology-driven world everything becomes a mirror of ourselves and frightened by what we see, we run away into our dreams, vanish there for a while and pretend. Eventually we see the specters there too, and only then do we realize we’ve been running, and it is time to go back and fix the broken mirror or face living with the pieces. I found the glue, put the pieces back together, and fixed myself.
Deaths are like falls. You live high in the branches of the great Norse Tree, Yggdrasil, at the level of the gods. Happiness abounds. Then a death occurs, and swiftly like birds with broken wings, you fall steeply in among the tumbled towers and lose your breath, have it pummeled from inside you.
The thing is, the ground among the frozen towers is where we make our home. It’s where we live and love and die and plan and pray for our return to the higher branches. It’s reality. It’s also where we can build new kites.
I want people to fly kites at my funeral. I want them to fly kites and tell stories and celebrate life and happiness and not things ending. We told stories at Kirk’s funeral and that was something beautiful, a bright glowing sapphire of beautiful, and though there weren’t kites, there were still smiles, and that was enough. It would have made Kirk happy, and he deserved it, the whirling galaxy.
In high school, I worked as a techie for the shows the Drama Club would put on. I built wall-flats and painted scenery, made tree stumps out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. Once for the play “Death by Chocolate,” I made a sarcophagus replica of King Tut out of a long trunk, styrofoam, and acrylic paint. Kirk loved it so much he took it home with him after the show’s run ended, put it up in his bedroom beside his dresser and vanity. After several years, I thought he might have reneged it to the garage to watch over his prized Jaguar.
For his online obituary, Kirk’s cousins collected some of his favorite photographs to create a slideshow. I went through them looking for a photo of Kirk as I remembered him, with cheeks still rosy, a smattering of beard on his chin, anything but the pale man more recent pictures of him showed. Instead I found a photograph of the mummy sarcophagus, still in his bedroom seven years later, only feet from his bed.
I wonder how many nights he glanced at it before falling asleep and thought of me, of where I was and what had become of me. I’m sure it was many more nights than I spent thinking of him, and I wish I could undo that. Unlike Simon Moyens, I don’t have pills. But I have string and I have paper, and I can make a pretty damn good black kite for him.
Jael Montellano is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, essays, and poetry currently residing in Chicago, IL. She holds a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, dabbles in filmmaking, photography, painting, and other creative arts when she feels like it. She was raised on a diet of fairy tales, Tim Burton, French and English novels of the 1800s, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, and Neil Gaiman. She has written for Stumped Magazine and her work has appeared on The Rumpus . Net. Also, she's an anglophile and drinks a lot of Earl Grey tea in the mornings