Johannes Göransson Dies for Our Sins
I have drained this day of everything it had to offer–a parade, a fireworks show, a barbecue and a beautiful, sun-flooded day at the beach. Only one thing could be the cherry on top of such summer sweetness and that, my friends, is a review of Johannes Göransson’s newest release, Entrance into a Colonial Pageant in which We All Begin to Intricate. According to a certain social networking site, today is Johannes’s (as well as the peace-poet Philip Metres’s) birthday. I’m skeptical, but the same said social networking site also indicated there will be a review of this very book up at PANK tomorrow. So keep an eye out for that; compare and contrast.
I’ve been writing a series of poems on media and celebrity culture and I found a quote from the New Testament that I’m going to use as the book’s epigraph, but I also included it here, as the epigraph for this review, because I feel it very much fits for Johannes’s work, especially considering the points I’m trying to argue about it in this write-up.
I hope your holiday was without any appendage-losing accidents. Happy fake birthday, America. Happy maybe fake birthday, Johannes. Read on:
Johannes Göransson dies for our sins
“Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come;but woe to the man by whom the offence cometh!”
Reviewing a Johannes Göransson book makes about as much sense as trying to do a close reading of a car accident. It’s sudden, it’s scary, you don’t know what it means or why it happens. It just happens. And then it’s part of the world, like it or not. And what point is there to critically analyzing that, in the literary sense? Göransson’s work is not concerned with creating the monolithic masterpiece that has become mythically emblematic of mainstream artistic value (I.e.- “The Great American Novel,” etc). It’s more interested in creating a tone (a “space” as he’s called it) than trying to force text into standardized meaning. So, in this way, Göransson’s work kind of preemptively exempts itself from criticism…the way a force of nature does. What point is there in rendering it? It just is.
With that in mind, I’ve had to put myself in check a few times: what is making me want to write a review of Göransson’s latest book, Entrance to a Colonial Pageant in Which We All Begin to Intricate, so badly? When I read it, I could barely hold back my own “invasive and relentless interpretation” (as Laura Mullen calls it on one of the book’s back cover blurbs). If the book were, indeed, a car accident, that would never even occur to me. I would simply be stunned, accept that it happened and hope that everyone was okay. This is not unlike the reaction one has to reading a Göransson text, really. But it’s that afterthought, that impulse to analyze, that I still felt uncomfortable with.
I can think of tons of reasons why people shouldn’t read this book. It’s incessantly dark, sexually disturbed, sloppy, eccentric, excessive and non sequitur. It’s overtly political, but without the favor of associating with an ideology. In a nutshell, it’s perpetually awful. Nothing good ever happens. The characters are wretched, the language is gross…even the stage direction—the sort of omniscient instructions—are arbitrary and ultimately pointless.
While I’m certain there are readers out there who would detest any book of this (un)nature, I personally found myself madly craving every new page, more and more the further I read. It’s narcotically good to me; a tiny relief in this sterilized, prepackaged world. A screaming, accurate reflection of the culture.
So, if you’re looking for awfulness, welcome to the jackpot. The monologues that make up Colonial Pageant trundle out an avalanche of nastiness, the characters butt-ugly from their dialogue down to their very names. You’ve got Father Target, The Ghost of the Repulsive Man, and Nurse Nacreous Afterall for starters. Charlotte Bronte and “Joyelle” have cameos. The stage hands even become characters. One castrates himself for love. Words have lost their dependability, lose their familiar meanings as they go. “Now I have a billion dollar hygiene to fake at the shooting,” recites Father Criminal (while holding the stagehand’s severed penis). “I need to Hollywood some Africans,” recites The Revolution. Often the stage direction is ridiculously specific, as it is for The Martyr, who is to be “played by a skinny man—and when I say skinny I mean as in photographs of mass graves.” At other times, the stage direction is disturbingly ambiguous, as with the character of The President, who is “played by as many people as you can fit into a board room, all of them with their hairs still ruffled from the bullet wound.”
There’s no relief in this pageant. There’s no relief out of it even. The audience, at one point, is “made to play a brief version of the Fall of the House of Usher in white face.” This is after “Stagehands reenact the assassination of Ronald Reagan in the dark.” And later “Father Literature begins to convulse, but his body is not visible on the stage.” These private actings, scenes that go completely unseen, reinforce one of the most prominent themes of the pageant as a whole: what happens when life is consumed by art; when the safety line dividing the two is shaken until it vanishes? Like a suburb that models its landscape plans after part of a Disney theme park, Colonial Pageant imitates life that imitates art exponentially, the line between theatrics and authenticity totally lost, a copy of so many previous copies that no trace of the original is left.
There is no escape from the pageantry. It consumes everything, the way the structure in Fall of the House of Usher is consumed. I was reminded of the Zimbardo experiments (or Stanford Prison Experiments) here more than once throughout the pageant. Like when the character of The Man Protesting Wildly confesses “Now I am very afraid of the Natives. When they storm the palace, will they understand my situation? Will they see me as an inmate or a guard?” We’re never told which The Man actually is, possibly because he doesn’t know himself. Like in the Zimbardo experiments, though, it doesn’t as much matter what one actually is. What matters is what one is perceived to be.
This helps make sense of why Entrance is so obsessed with gender, too. From the characters of Father Father and Mother Mother—as if uber-enactments of archetypal gender—to Miss World, who is referred to exclusively with masculine pronouns, no explanation, Göransson does a great justice to the concept of gender, representing it in all its faulty foundations and glorious ambiguities. Traces of Anne-Fausto Sterling echo throughout the pageant, which especially seems concerned with girlhood. And rightfully so, in this world. “This is a poem for girls,” at one point The Parasites weirdly blurt out. “I want to die like girls,” The Passenger says a few pages later. Göransson’s work has always been feminist in the most counter-intuitive ways (i.e.- “Do the twist, you anorexic fuck!”) but, of all his books, this is the one by far most obsessed with feminization (and gender in general). And why not? After all, he’s challenged the accepted divisions of genre as much as any new artist today. What could be more parallel in mythology to the arbitrary discriminations of genre other than gender? And, in light of Judith Butler’s assessments that gender is a type of performance, it makes perfect sense that Colonial Pageant would smear it across every page.
One last obsession here that can’t go unrecognized is children—as well as their need to be protected. This may be because (like genre, gender or race) “child” is another identifier that has no actual pre-reqs. “I am an adult,” Nurse Marble utters already on page 3, “therefore I understand the threat of passengers. The threat to Our Children, who don’t understand…” Miss World, again, epitomizes this fixation because, not only is his gender assignment complicated, but he’s also 5 years old. In this pageant, the children all become goats. Little scapegoats. Little scapegoats in a heavy petting zoo. “We must save the children from the diseases they may have been exposed to, particularly in school,” opens one of Father Future’s monologues. An insane thread of logic follows, and then concludes, “We must save the orphans from Africa.” Here, in this pageant, the children have all become props, useful only performing the theater of virtue. I was reminded in these passages of ex-NFL payer Patrick TiIllman and how, after being killed by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, his life was erased, then remythologized for propaganda. As a real human being, he was useful as little more than a mascot for the greater American government and military. But the idea of “Patrick Tillman,” the abstraction, was so powerful that the military couldn’t help but abuse it towards the justification of reasonless war. While Tillman certainly wasn’t a child (at least in the legal sense, no American soldiers are children), the desecration of his life for political gain gives a 21st Century parallel to what all children have become in Entrance. In the words of Nurse I Would Die For, “There is no true child in this hospital of innocence.” Nonetheless, the need to save them is repeated over and over, until it sounds like some kind of sick political slogan. “We must think about the children. The public school system” (Father Voice-Over).
Most of the time, these invocations of children seem tacky as bright make-up; just buzz words and rhetoric. But as the pageant builds momentum, the children references feel increasingly more ominous and haunting. “I have always meant to save the children from this Cairo. This softcore.” This is Father Voice-Over again, but with a strangely different tone. The Passenger, too, after his “I want to die like girls” comment, goes on with this:
“Kill me please while the car brights flood my body. Wear your fox fur and trim your pubic hair. Trim my pubic hair. Everything is so expensive, even lipstick. I’m trying to convince the child to not represent a crawling kind of death.”
The lipstick and trimmed pubic hair suggest the “crawling death” might be the acceptance of prescribed gender roles or uniform standards of beauty. The car brights at once evoke the lighting of theatre or film, as well as the deer-in headlights cliché, which further then echoes the long, ugly poetic tradition of romantically comparing women to deer (sexual prey) which the poetmen must then pursue and hunt (sexual predators). Mix these complex, subtle references together and you get “this softcore,” the pornographic culture we live in.
So the “disease” this pageant obsessively references might be internalized cultural myth. And the fact that the book both opens and ends with “my daughter, Sinead” (which is, indeed, the name of Göransson’s daughter) dancing and changing costumes may indicate why the whole pageant is obsessed with gender (girls), kids, and the concept of falsely protecting them both: anyone with the vision to write something as fucked up as this pageant already must be coming from a world they view with significant horror. To bring a child into that world—a daughter, a little girl—is to commit a virtuous atrocity of faith, hope and surrender. “If I finish the book,” says The Ghost of the Repulsive Man (Miss World), “I am the killer.” And so, too, has Göransson birthed something precious into a radically hostile environment.
But it is this very book—this pageant, his death—that redeems all our sins to be forgiven. Göransson pays the ultimate penance and shoulders the heaviest burden: to reflect a culture accurately, no matter how disfigured. His art drinks deep of the disease it most fears so that we can learn more from his symptoms. He’s the Poet Laureate of the Coal Mine, our savior canary, dying and producing perpetually death-obsessed art that we might all be spared. So for all its ugliness—all its child predators and body dysmorphia, its castrations, its Ronald Reagans, its hate crimes and artists and anorexia, everything—Entrance is the dubious gift of the diagnosis we’ve been too afraid to confront on our own. It’s embarrassing, it’s frightening, but it’s also potentially the long-neglected first step in addressing a major disease.