“I was stimulated deep in my brain and thought: yes: Wal-Mart: the cradle of Rome. And the Lottery Corporation of Canada is beholden to me. See, we have all worked very hard to put value down on paper, and I am not about to dishonor our efforts by never stealing from another man.
“I said yes to the world and I have never been told no since.”
I’m not always drawn to the kind of experimental writing where most of the interest is to be found between the lines. Maybe my attention span is too short, or maybe it’s not short enough. The thing is, it’s always sort of a surprise when I find something in this mode that I genuinely love, such as Donald Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising,” or certain poems by John Ashbery or James Tate or Max Jacob, or, most recently, Kristina Born’s One Hour of Television.
One Hour of Television calls itself a novel but it reads more like television. Not a TV program, but television as we usually take it in: disconnected moments of a half-understood storyline that we keep returning to as we flip through the channels, waiting for something else to come on, across intervals haunted by voices randomly telling us things or selling us things.
Such a high noise-to-signal ratio might have frustrated me had the writing not been funny enough to keep me reading. And as I did the work took shape in another way, one grounded not in channel-surfing passivity but in a feeling of crisis. What I picked up on was the fact that its central recurring situation implied a narrative perspective debilitated by a life-threatening head trauma, possibly sustained in the course of an attempted robbery. “They said I would be accompanied by visual hallucinations but everything I have seen is real,” we are told at one point, and later what appears to be the same first-person voice remarks, acknowledging the vertiginous limits of that which he can vouch for, “This is how it is and who knows what it was before.” As there’s no way to draw a hard line between what does and doesn’t belong to this perspective, it seeps through all the various layers of the work, transforming its nonsense elements into the record of a desperate failure to make sense of one’s world.
The emergency being evoked would seem at the same time to be a social one. Even the imagery used to establish it instantly mutates into the geopolitical: “Jean-Phillipe’s red spot was the shape of Cuba and mine was the shape of the United States. We were about to make a historic trade agreement.” Born writes a lot about what a nation is (“A nation’s relationship with its bird has no known biological role”) and what a person is (“A person and his compounds, upon entering the food chain, are progressively metabolized to a less toxic form of person”), and even more about Erin Brockovich (“Who knows if Erin Brockovich could have happened in real life. Not just tits out to here–I mean people deceiving people on such a huge scale that it causes the deceived ones to die.”) Perhaps her most characteristic motif is to assume a voice of authority (whether scientific, medical, historical, journalistic, narrative, civic, or some mix of these) and descend sharply into dementia. Something has gone wrong with these messages, though it’s usually unclear how the problem arose. Only occasionally can a note of open satire be made out, as in the following passage:
Superman is inert for most practical purposes. Only springing to life, as it were, under pressure of grave danger. Like, if you were making toast, he wouldn’t be Superman for that. He would be Clark Kent making you toast, and maybe his glasses would fog up with the steam or something, but that’s all. Or say a country in Africa has been without clean water for pretty much forever: he’d just be Clark Kent for that. That’s already beyond the pale.
I’ll close by quoting another of the brief sections the work is made up of, one that is more typically oblique and, to my ear, just utterly beautiful:
The house, house repairs, cars and repairs, whether or not to eat out, the pets, do we even have pets or did that one die, at least four nights a week away playing cards, whether or not to play cards on days when cards are not typically played, the holidays, the payments for the house and the cars and the pets and the holidays and the children, the beautiful glistening babysitter, the children, whether or not to have more children, do we even have children or did that one die.