In the face of all the recent discussion about plagiarism, I’ve been constantly thinking about inspiration, where anything comes from, who began anything. One of my favorite scenes from the greatest documentary ever, American Movie, is when Mark accuses Mike of ripping off a Black Sabbath song. Mike says, “All your ideas come from somewhere else, Mark. You can’t make up an idea by yourself… I used one word. I used the word insane.”
It’s hard not to feel constantly affected by everything that surrounds us. After driving through rush-hour traffic in Atlanta, for instance, how many times have I come home and written a long scene where a guy gets eaten alive by dogs, or beaten to death? To me, it’s all part of being a person. One thing someone makes infects the head of another person who makes something out of the feeling of having been infected, and the mutations continue. In my opinion, literally every sentence you read was influenced by so many latent factors and forces and moods it’s like a walking death mound. The connections are there, known or not, and if you wanted to you could find the DNA of pretty much any film ever in any other film ever. Pick a classic movie and make a list of things it stole from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Welcome to academia.
One way to combat that feeling is to focus so hard on responding to one particular thing that it becomes something totally new, something almost no one would associate with its inspiration unless you specifically point it out. One way of thinking about this is William Burroughs taking a newspaper and cutting it to pieces, reassembling the language to form new accidental messes of hell.
Damnation, a new novel by Janice Lee, is a great new creation in the tradition of directly growing your own organism out of someone else’s blood. Taking its title from the Béla Tarr film of the same name, the book opens with a foreword describing its relation to Tarr’s body of work—specifically his long shots, which is as signature a device to him as an arched eyebrow is to the Rock. Damnation makes no bones about the fact that it sets its world in Tarr’s cosmology, sharing many of his films’ thematic elements: God, love, violence, music, family, ecstasy.
And yet, if you weren’t told of the connection, you’d never know. The novel is comprised of dozens of small moving parts, each quite compact and simple. Essentially, the book follows the effect a cryptic holy book has on a small town. Shortly after it appears, it begins to drive the townspeople mad. The prose has an essential and timeless element, somewhere near the tone of early Cormac McCarthy and the novels of José Saramago, while also quietly subverting itself throughout using deceptively casual formal digressions like lists, clipped dialogue, monologue, fragmented dream imagery, and repeating threads.
In a time when others are bickering over what they stole off of the internet, Damnation is a supremely refreshing concoction, one that continues to expand after its absorption, like a quiet plague you don’t mind catching.
An Excerpt from Damnation
You can stare at the debris flying in the wind forever, a colossal stirring of a pot.
Sometimes the solace comes from sitting there in the dark, laundry hanging to dry on the line surrounding the bed frame, hanging, inside, because the weather is too wet and too windy to be left outside. This is the kind of solace you can find when the noise becomes too much, not just the chatter and the relentless recitation of words, not just the rhythmic thumping from the upstairs bedroom that you’ve rented out for some extra money, but the unceasing and brutal wind. So that when someone comes knocking at the door (today it is the clerk asking for some more brandy), the force of the wind rushing in as you pull the door open is almost too much, enough to knock you over, and the clerk, who is a small and honest man with a humble gait, suddenly seems menacing, huge, and it is all you can do to go and get him his brandy. All the same, you know where the real fear resides, so it’s all you do to keep him from leaving as when he’s ready to be on his way, you’ll have to open the door again, and your heart may not be able to handle two such powerful instructions in such close proximity.
Really, the wind has you terrified. “The town’s gone to ruin,” you think. And you believe that thought so much that you avoid going out at all costs. Probably, you have enough food to last at least a few more days, maybe a week. Probably, it will all be over by then.
This is what you tell yourself to calm your nerves. Even if this is the apocalypse, if you stay indoors and mind your own business, the angels and demons will leave you alone. And of course, this, you don’t believe at all, but you have to hold onto something to keep from falling apart, especially when your husband has been gone for three days and there’s no sign of your children since yesterday afternoon. And you’re more worried about yourself than you are about them, because, you tell yourself, they’re either safe or dead. They are either safe or dead and you are here, vulnerable to judgment; most of all, your own.
- Anything that God takes part in is the most horrific thing you’ve ever imagined.
- I can’t get on board with such a thought.
- So don’t.
- But you said it. It’s out in the open now. It’s in my head.
- That’s not my problem, it’s yours.
- Some friend you are.
- I’m not your friend.
- Fine then.
- After awhile, everyone and everybody is out to get you anyways. It’s not the end you should be afraid of, but the rats.
- And now you’re losing your mind.
- They’re organized now. They know everything about you and your habits and your vulnerabilities. They know you better than you know yourself.
- I thought it was God’s place to know you better than you know yourself.
- It shouldn’t be anyone’s place but your own. But if you’ve failed at it, the rats take it on. They’re getting ready to attack, any minute now. It’ll be an ambush, when you’re at your weakest point. They know when that’s going to be already.
- Well then, how do you stop such a thing?
- You can’t.
- Then it might have well already taken place.
Sounds of a struggle outside. You can barely make out anything out of the ordinary amidst the other noises, but you hear something. There’s loud yelling and as you turn to look out the window, you see what everyone else has noticed too. Everyone in the bar, and everyone outside, they’ve all paused to see what’s happening on the street. The two men are barely yelling. It seems like they’re grunting, and even their movements appear so barbaric, like animals. Neither one can throw a proper punch so you just see the awkward struggle, arms wavering about, kicking, biting, an elbow, a knee. The slightly smaller man (they’re about the same height but one is much less heavy-set in his build) manages to find an advantage, manages to get his arms around the other man’s neck, manages to squeeze. The larger man doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it anymore. And in a few moments, it’s no longer a man on the street but a limp body. Everybody witnesses the event. Everybody sees clearly what just happened. Including a police officer who happened to be taking a cigarette break outside his office on the next block over. The officer puts out his cigarette and goes back into the office expecting to file a report. But he waits there for an hour, and then two, and then it’s time to close up. No one reports the murder.
From the direction in which the first geese usually fly over town, a man with hunched shoulders and a brown suitcase arrives in town. He had already decided that it wasn’t a mistake, that he had already learned something in his first few seconds in this place. He was wondering, though, that was a lie. He was assuming, that these people were slobs; loud, decadent, self-serving maggots. How else to explain the scene, the noise, the strange film over everything, that man crudely leaning against a wall to try and justify his actions.
- Excuse me. Is there a church in town?
- There is.
- Can you point me in that direction? Or take me there?
- Well, why not?
- Just can’t. Leave me alone, OK.
- Look here. Just point me in the direction of the church and I’ll get there myself.
The man, still leaning against the wall, still trying to justify something that had not gone quite right during his brief stint on this earth, still disturbed by a recurring dream that was reminding him of all his horrible limitations, looked up at the salesman and slowly turned his head toward the eastern edge of town. His head paused there for a little bit as he remembered the last time he had sat inside a church (which had been more than just a few decades ago), and turned his head back toward the ground.
Buy Damnation here.