The way I remember it, Conjunctions 52: Betwixt the Between
created itself. There was no theme planned for the fifty-second issue when, out of the blue, stories began arriving that were all just completely around the bend. I think Stephen Wright
's violently disconcerting "Brain Jelly," which relates the erotic-thanatotic misadventures of the lovers Ratio and Apostrophe within a maliciously tweaked reality, might have been the first to come in. Then Jon Enfield's upsetting and hilarious "BioticaKF," the story of a melancholy menial worker in a giant vat-meat factory, showed up in the slush pile. It's not only terrifically affecting and absorbing, but it offers glorious horrors along the lines of the following:
For the first time since the herd's birth, the prairie's wall and aisles slowed their flexing and throbbing. Eventually they shivered into a dark pink stillness...
Herd 9 was only a couple days behind 14, and the room was exercising it vigorously, sending the wall cattle flexing and frolicking mathematically through grasslands stored on the servers. Each aisle had its own complicated rhythms, each flapped like a greasy sheet in a strong wind.
Warren walked carefully, keeping to the narrow green path marked on the aluminum floor. In a mature prairie, a collie who stepped outside the lines could get smacked by especially vigorous or bulky meat....[Warren] believed the whispers about collies buffeted even inside the safety zones, about collies asphyxiated by overgrown aisles. Some collies muttered that the aisles weren't quite so insentient as Biotica claimed, that the muscle had its own sullen consciousness — primitive, vengeful, and vastly patient.
And I think the third contribution that suddenly materialized and really left us with no other choice than to go ahead with an issue of, basically, the craziest possible shit was Stephen Marche's "The Personasts: My Journeys Through Soft Evenings and Famous Secrets," which is an astonishing account of the phenomenon of "Personism," as related by a practitioner. Personism is a social ritual, some claim a religious movement, in which groups gather to enjoy soft evenings centered around the enacting of numerous not-so-stock roles.
I remember almost nothing from the rest of the soft evening because I soon entered myself for a spin as Nick Charles. The others followed quickly afterward, as The Old Gunfighter, Seagull, and Mr. Clean. Madeleine, our host, entered last, as Joan. We spun a lot of turns that night: Violent B, The Mercy Man, Rufus Wainwright, Sammy Sexy as Shit, Oliver Twist, Mary Magdalene, Scaramouche. Two highways I had never encountered before came — Tramontate and Gumper. The former reminded me vaguely of Luciano Pavarotti, the latter of a beautiful teenage girl's teddy bear. My other memories of the evening are nothing more, really, than a series of cool, glittering, ephemeral impressions. This was the softness I had craved in my return to Personism, the softness of the highways and afterward the security of the quiet rooms. Lost in the suburbs, I was home again.
Marche's story is a triptych. The first third, an overview of Personism, is deliberately informative and journalistic, even if that approach is fogged and bemused by the caressing, pleasuring, comforting kindness of the voice:
Any explanation for the mass appeal of Personism has to be found in the experience of the soft evening. The soft evening is soft because it is careless, forgetful, the easiest liberation. In the softest evenings, the exquisite loss of the highways stretches into a feeling of distance, a crack that is also a chasm between oneself and everything that matters. After a very soft evening I sometimes feel like I can see into the spirits of strangers in their cars or on their lawns or at their windows. But soft evenings are also profoundly silly. They are childish pranks, larks.
The second third shows the narrator participating in a different aspect of Personism: the famous secret of silence and release; while the final section takes him to a Personast conference where a brutal dark side of Personism, rumored mass blindings, begins to flicker insistently in and out of the text. And then we're gone. There's a rapid final image, exhilarating and terrifying, and the experience of the story, so submerging, enveloping, and luxuriant, blinks out.
"The Personasts" is one of several exemplary pieces that match the bizarreness of their content with a narrative style that is, while not in the least alienating, intensely strange and transformative. Both Marche and Enfield do a lot with vocabulary: soft evenings, highways, famous secrets; the collies, the herd, the prairie. Similarly, in the work of Julia Elliott, who is a frequent Conjunctions contributor and one of my all-time favorites, the specific words chosen call attention to themselves in a brilliant and disturbing way.
Marche and Enfield create a bewildering, graceful, gently spinning, slightly bloodcurdling set of sensations for the readers, but the atmosphere of Elliott's stories is always grossly visceral, itchily tactile, cloyingly immediate and overwhelming. And where they tend to rename the world, creating small mysterious pockets in the familiar, she repeatedly recalls it to itself, with stupendous litanies of description that push it pervily up against your face.
That's definitely true of "Feral," her story in this issue, about a young schoolteacher whose peaking sexual frustration coincides with the terrorizing of her town by a pack of wild dogs.
You could recognize a bait dog by its shabby condition, its downtrodden vibe, and crippled state: etched with scars, half blind, riddled with abscesses, and often lacking limbs, they slunk and whined around the glorious, snapping fighters — sinewy beasts with bear claws and yellow shark teeth. Some of the more splendid alphas had long incisors like baboons. Others had needle claws that retracted into their toe pads, like those of cats....
The dogs came romping and snarling, tussling and woofing, mongrels big as panthers and little as squirrels, mutts with mounds of crusted frizz, bald curs with skin like burnt cheese, hounds with lion's manes, canines with dreadlocks matted over their eyes. Short dogs waddled on stumpy legs. Tall dogs loped like spooked gazelles. And the big, rangy fighters led the pack, nipping their inferiors and pissing up a storm.
Elliott's trademark is this grotesque, revolting, hysterical, outrageous physicality, particularly the lardy, pustulating, scabbed, irritated existence of the adolescent. It's like the actual air becomes barbed, full of the golden, poisonous pollen of her invention, the better to exacerbate the delicious suffering, the passionate squirming of her characters and readers alike.
Betwixt the Between is full of these discrete, intense, fiercely present environments. There's Rob Walsh, for example, who has nothing in common with Elliott except the ability to plunge readers into a terribly complete and close reality, a reality that is either the evil twin of the world we call nonfictional, or maybe a tiny foetal twin, lodged like a tumor inside its living brother's skull. Walsh's electrifying "Dr. Eric" is the kind of thing that makes you worry about having really bad dreams, not even the ordinary kind of nightmare. The rapturous ordeal of a woman in surgical thrall to a tormented doctor, the voice is so impeccably sui generis that the most that can comprehensibly be said about it is that the not-quite-rightness of something in it hums in the key of real danger. You could choose any passage; so the first:
Dr. Eric marked a figure of high complexity and purpose onto Cathy's stomach and asked if she knew of the plan?
Dr. Eric did not want a son, and he reemphasized this point to Cathy, but, all the same, the doctor had come to feel strongly that Cathy should have a son and he was prepared to make certain personal sacrifices toward her accomplishing this.
His small instrument was made of steel, Dr. Eric said. He allowed it to drift closer to her face so that there could be no mistaking this. Cathy noticed then, beyond the blurry, ever-closer object that had cleaved her perspective in two, the figure of the nurse, idly swilling instruments in a sinkful of red water; Cathy noticed also a pile of clothes, which had the habit of leaving her body and reappearing in folded stacks.
Presently Dr. Eric measured a fist's worth of Cathy's hair and examined the strands that jutted between his fingers.
Cathy was in an unresolved state. Directly overhead, a strip light passed a lingering, unfair notion of her skin, and Cathy rearranged herself to present a better case to the doctor. His hand approached her shoulder.
Since she was able to have a son, the doctor said, and others, such as this nurse, were not, Dr. Eric said while removing from the scabbard at his hip another small instrument and pointing it at the nurse, then Cathy shouldn't let her son go to waste.
The doctor continued, for appearance's sake, to lengthen and make several new incisions on Cathy, but he had already saved her life some time ago.
It has the threatening clarity of reality and the lurching skew of hallucination. Like other pieces in this collection, it unearths the groping horror of being unable to determine whether one is asleep or conscious: the waking dream.
Scott Geiger's work has none of the cool knife-edge aggression of Walsh's, but he does frequently use a much blurrier, more merciful kind of dissonance to create worlds that seem to have their backs pressed up against ours, like shadows slightly out of lockstep with the bodies to which they belong. Like Marche, he tenderly distorts a journalistic voice in his contribution, "A Design History of Icebergs and Their Applications," which relates the movements and key figures of an art form that emerges after the globe enters perpetual summer and that is dedicated to the evocation, in varying degrees of naturalism and stylization, of winter: from frosted windows and hills for sledding to the otherworldly architecture of the iceberg. Christo and Olafur Eliasson are present in spirit only.
Like all Geiger's work that I've seen, "A Design History" is incredibly poignant and written with a calm, hushed precision. The technicality of tone that he intermittently adopts betrays its own purpose, making more, not less, evident the rather heartbreaking sense of loss that haunts the ekphrasis.
The reservations list to visit Saga #4 and descend [its] stairs is already twelve months long. Photographs are prohibited, so posts about trips to Saga #4 are full of anguished descriptions. Words poorly encapsulate the experience.
Accounts report that these stairs lead to a winding ramp whose contour is marked underfoot by strips of fluorescent magenta. People hurrying up the steps sometimes shout to visitors: Descend at your own risk. Watch out, watch out. There is a great deal of shouting in many languages, and laughter until the corridor blooms into a cavern whose walls climb into a peaked vault. Through the ceiling and walls of the iceberg, actual sunlight filters down into the cavern, while along the floors and walls faint blue diodes are embedded. Unprogrammed galleries and subgalleries stretch away from this main chamber, leading along different paths to a point deeper within the iceberg. Visitors report that, at its lowermost point, the iceberg features a sloped wall against which you can lean and look up through all the translucent chambers toward a faint afterlife of sky. Black against that light is the mobile constellation of small shapes made by the other visitors above. With an ear against the wall, one supposedly hears all the sounds made by this minimal and blatantly artificial iceberg. It is in fact very cold there at the bottom, they say. And lighting in this final room is done to produce dim reflections along the walls. There is a sense, also supposedly, that you have arrived at a place apart from past experiences. They say that what you have known about the world thus far is no help here.
Critics writing on Saga #4 observe that it is very much an iceberg about icebergs: We are able to travel to it, then pass through it, and inside it contains its own pavilion for viewing it. Happening on all sides, meanwhile, is the ocean's volume, with darkness, coldness, indifference enough to compete with outer space. It spells a unique trauma for visitors.
These are five stories out of twenty-five; there are also contributions from such leaders in the canon of innovation as Ben Marcus and Shelley Jackson; original impossible realists like Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Carroll, James Morrow, China Miéville, and Jeff VanderMeer; hot young things Karen Russell and Jedediah Berry; the magnificent Robert Kelly; and so on and so on and so forth.
I hope there won't be too much agonizing (just a little, for kicks) over where this issue fits in the cryptozoological taxonomy of speculative fiction / horror, science fiction, and fantasy / New Weird / New Wave Fabulism / the interstitial arts / and the bastard children thereof. Faced with an onslaught of completely off-the-chain, psychotropic work, Conjunctions clearly had no option but to accede to the demand and provide the requisite showcase. No regrets, of course; just bad dreams.