Sarcophagi of Prisoners Covered in Cocaine

By Blake Butler

There’s an ecstatic kind of media collision at work in the body of language produced by Swedish-born Johannes Göransson. Over the course of six books of his own, as well as translations of major Swedish authors like Aase Berg and Henry Parland, he has assembled an incredibly volatile and feverish vision, somewhere between Artaud and Lars Von Trier, though one more interested in the awkwardness and orchestration of the profane than simply milking it. His latest work, Haute Surveillance, may also be his most provocative. Here Johannes has assembled a feverish and explicit set of images and ideas revolving around power, fetish, porn, media, violence, translation, punishment, performance, and aesthetics. Taking its title from a Jean Genet play of the same name, it’s kind of like a novelization of a movie about the production of a play based on Abu Ghraib, though with way more starlets and cocaine and semen.

One of Haute Surveillance’s many sources of power is how it forces other artworks into its bodies and reconstitutes their mythologies into an even deeper unknown. The novel is set in part, for instance, in what seems to be the hotel from The Shining, which has been remodeled into some sort of prison where the prisoners are forced to perform acts of theater and unusual sex. The only direct reference to the The Shining itself, however, both reveals the aesthetic contrivances of the production of the film, while embellishing the method used to provoke the veils of horror. “All of The Shining was shot with sets,” Göransson writes. “The snow was salt. It was 110 degrees inside the soundstage. The air was saturated with gasoline fumes. The cameramen and camerawomen wore gasmasks as they ran through the rooms chasing the little boy. There were antennae in the walls. The production crew built up an entire hotel inside. Nothing was fake.” These accusations manipulate the reader’s previous understanding of a terrifying setting and bend it in such a way that destabilizes the whole foundation of our memories and expectations of aesthetic experience.

This effect is threaded throughout Haute Surveillance. The reader is somehow being toyed with, being watched. Göransson presents his ideas and images often by explaining their symbolism before their appearance—the voiceover before the actual speech. The book is composed of countless chopped up scenes and fragments woven together in such a way that the book itself seems to have been beaten apart and reworked in some prisoner’s dementia. Timelines are for shit, as are the boundaries of the settings, the present fumbling right alongside both the future and the past. Like when explaining how his youngest daughter got pregnant and gave birth to six babies at the same time from licking a dirty towel, he explains, “This daughter goes by the fancy name The World. But we don’t use that name.” What name they do use, what has become of the babies in prison, where the lines of the prison and the world outside it blur: none of it is as important as the act itself. There is no comfort in these prisons, no lull in the parade of poses and weird makeup and cocaine; the actors of the book go on and on through, as a sentence for a punishment everyone was already guilty of before the book began.

Somehow, in the sprawl of all the novel’s violence and aesthetic ransackings and drug use and war crimes, the sense that Haute Surveillance is more real than it would like to let on seems to accumulate. In the face of so many other books looking for definition or emblematic representation, Göransson’s prison party is more like what walking around the mall feels like than a description of walking around a mall. At last it’s a great beat down of ideas and deformations beautifully startling and fucked and funny and tender and sad and putrid and glitter covered all at once.

An Excerpt from Haute Surveilance

I hate wolves.

I hate femurs.

I hate my body because it’s such an infested heap of knickknack.

I hate to see what you have done to my body with the mirror.

I hate mirrors.

I break them and then I get pissed because I feel like Hollywood.

I hate Hollywood for its heap of dead horses.

I hate the way my voice sounds over the PA system in the Shining Mansion on the Hill.

I love my voice when I’m a carcass on the mirror.

*

There are many possible reasons why I ended up in the Shining Mansion on the Hill. Perhaps I was carried by a group of anti-abortion protesters led by Ronald Reagan. Or a man wearing a plastic Reagan mask, which made him sweat. Clouded up his eyes. Perhaps it rubbed off on me. The sweat. The mask. Perhaps the protesters were wearing mutilated costumes. Perhaps they were wearing suits. I was probably an unconscious body, bled and impregnated, stagnant and distant. I was probably dreaming about doing the plug-ugly. I was probably full of shit. Fecal matter. Child decay. Milk teeth.

*

Another explanation: a car accident. The cell phone hit my head. First: absolute silence. Then: Noise. The trees clattered in the wind. An ambulance carried me to America, to the perforation chamber.

*

The Perforation Chamber: The nurse had black nail polish. She sat by my bed and stroked my arms as we watched a documentary about the 1960s. The widow in black looked magical. I told my nurse about my childhood. I told her about how when I laid in between my sleeping parents and kept watch of the door I drew up in my mind fantastic machines to fool our would-be killers—a kind of fake sarcophagus, we would be lowered down beneath our bed, replaced by copies of our sleeping bodies. Lifelike copies that would bleed when slashed, emit grunts when kicked. But I worried. If they discovered us beneath our fake bodies we would have no place to run to. I didn’t tell my nurse that part. It would have upset her. She might have thought I was talking about her metaphorically.

I was talking about the Imagination.

She told me I ought to make movies about my life. And I promised I would.

I would.

It is to that nurse with black nail polish I make this offering of stunt bodies.

*

The ex-president claims I was brought to the Shining Mansion on the Hill for drowning the Starlet. He claims it was a jealous rage. That it involved sex and dreams. That we wove our narrative together, that the Starlet and I used black-and-white photography and a voiceover that explained everything.

It’s that voiceover I keep hearing. It explains to us the details of our austere and infested bodies. Including the New Jerusalem we enter into like rats. Including the night body that has several wounds. Including the black body that dances in the midst of mob violence.

The voiceover tells me I am alive like the mob.

The voiceover tells me I live in this Shining Mansion because I made a video of a mute girl in the Third World. It is my masterpiece, according to the voice. It is a crime, according to the voice.

According to the voice, even the purest bodies are jerky and the deportations are extreme.

Sometimes when I enter New Jerusalem I enter on a bier or a stretcher or the man with the metals has a swelling. A bloating. There are children in the river. There is a dog that is barking at my genitals. Sometimes when I enter New Jerusalem a woman is holding my penis nonchalantly. It’s not a woman. I’m covered with shrapnel.

I’m writing the history of the nation.

*

The sound the body makes is akin to the sound toys make when they burn.

(This is a fantasy I sometimes imagine the way one might imagine one’s execution if one made a living injecting poison into beautiful killers and rapists.)

My daughter burns her toys, and it smells like the terrorist attack against the towers.

In those towers I keep a picture of a body, a fatso body with staring eyes.

If we’re in a strip joint that’s the stripper we hope won’t come over to our table.

She’s the stripper who ruins everything. I’m getting into character.

For the Sensation.

*

We still live in a war economy. I make movies with a war economy. You read case histories with a war economy. I make war movies about perforations and proliferation. You are soundproof you are war-proof you are surveillance footage. I am blunted out. My language is so counterfeit I must have cancer. I must have a glass staff with a little beak at the tip.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a nihilist. I’m a moralist of the zero mouth.

I’m writing this memoir in praise of virgins.

I’m placing a flower in a mute girl’s belly.

A flower taken from the corrupted body of a bludgeoned child. I don’t know what the flower is called, but it looked like a curled-up fetus. I write this novel as one would write a word on a fetus.

*

This novel is dedicated to the people who shoot bodies.

Previously by Blake Butler - Tupac, Neck Braces, and Suicide: An Interview with Harmony Korine

@blakebutler

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