Kanley Stubrick by Mike Kleine


I read The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish, Mike Kleine’s new play a few weeks ago, so it was interesting to read his new novella shortly after, and compare the two.

Now, having read three of his four works (and the fourth – chronologically the second – is coming up soon), it’s getting more and more obvious to me that Kleine is a world-building author.

Like I said in earlier posts, Kleine’s works are set in the here and now, but beyond that, his world is unique – it’s immediately recognizable, and it’s getting richer and richer in his characteristic symbols, stylistic elements, and references.

Of course, Kleine’s universe is not the universe of a fantasy series, where the characters of one book make appearances in another book, or where the unexplained details of one book’s story become clear in the next book – not the least because his characters don’t tend to hold on to their personality or character-ness even within a single book, and because his books don’t tend to have real stories.

What I mean is that certain events and tropes keep appearing again and again. For instance, both in Pilot Fish and in Kanley Stubrick, there’s a sentence that goes something like this: “Godzilla happens”. Neither of the two books explains what this means, but this is a sufficiently weird sentence for me to immediately notice that it’s there in both books. And because my guess is that Godzilla happens relatively rarely, the fact that it happens in at least two of Kleine’s books makes it highly likely that they are set in the same world. In a world where Godzilla tends to happen – as a matter of fact event, without explanations.

Another frequent trope is traveling/searching, which is both real traveling (or let’s say, place-switching, a manic kind) and searching for (life) meaning. Kleine always deals with questions like this – the questions of identity, the difficulties or impossibility of knowledge and expression, and the quest for and the impossibility of meaning.

And in Kanley Stubrick there’s another main topic, quite a surprising one: love – which can be the symbol for connecting, for being understood by someone.

And this time I can even say something about the story: there’s a couple here, perhaps in April, perhaps in June, living all accustomed to each other and their unhappiness. One day the woman loses her shoes, and even after enlisting the help of friends, the shoes are not found. The man is bored – therefore he goes on a trip, it doesn’t matter where. By the time he gets home, the woman is gone – only an enigmatic message remains after her, a message that directs the man to an unknown city and promises that he’ll find the woman there.

He goes on a quest to find the woman, but he’s not that enthusiastic – it feels like he only follows the message because he has nothing better to do. He almost gives up right in the first city, but then he keeps following the woman’s trail up and down in California (again, the setting is probably not an accident – with my European mind, I can hardly imagine a place more surreal than California). Then at one point, when he’s only a couple of miles away from his destination (or the next stop of his quest) he gives up for good. Later on, he travels elsewhere, joins a cult (just for the sake of experiencing a feeling of community), leaves the cult, is captured, is released from capture, and so on. None of these events mean much – either to him, or in themselves. I don’t mean this as criticism, though.

This is deliberate here, and I don’t know how it happens – as there’s no “real” characterization, there are no motivations, there’s nothing specific here that could awaken emotions in me, but still, it happens: after a while I start to feel deeply for this man and this woman – for the man who searches in vain, and for the woman who wants to be found.

It’s interesting by the way that the personal pronouns referring to the man are always written with initial caps. Partly because of this, partly because of his wandering in the desert of the world, and partly because of something else I can’t pinpoint, I feel there’s something god-like, Christ-like in this man. Ironically, sure, but still heart-breakingly – he seems like a man whom the woman considers a savior, but the man himself is just as much in need of finding a savior as the woman, he also wants to be saved by her, and of course neither of them can save the other. Which is sad.

It’s not all just sadness here, though. As in Kleine’s other works, there’s a whole lot of smart, funny, and ironic details and small episodes in the book that could be analyzed separately for hours. And again, it’s clear that Kleine has a talent for mini-episodes and he can make them very telling.

Just an example: the man is once watching the movie called Nosferatu, and he is simultaneously reading Roger Ebert’s review of the film. This is a great, revealing detail – without professional help, these characters are unable to determine what they should feel or think – not just about something specific – but about anything at all.

The characters are unable to find their way in life without referential points or anchors in movies, music, or TV – but it often turns out that they even have trouble understanding their own points of references – like in this case with the Nosferatu movie, or in a similar case, when the couple watch the movie called Kanley Stubrick, and the man asks the woman about her opinion of American culture.

“i don’t get it,”
she says.

“What do you mean –
what is there to get?”

And this feels less of a criticism of American culture to me than a commentary on the inability to understand.

Connected to this is something else that’s characteristic of Kleine’s writing – the hyper-realistic and hyper-precise depiction of the most banal details of everyday life. For instance, as they are watching TV, the characters notice that a caption is written in Constantia font, or that the sound they hear is the sound of a very specific type of motorbike – but they don’t notice that the person next to them is unhappy, and they even fail to take note of their own unhappiness – they can only express it vaguely, with saying things like “I think I’m bored, but I’m not sure.”

Or like here:

“He feels alone again, like it’s the
first time all over again. He doesn’t
quite know how to feel.”

(Which is all the more interesting because it means that the man has no idea how to feel in the given situation, and also means that he doesn’t know how to feel in general.)

As apparent from the passages I quoted, Kleine this time wrote in a kind of poetry-form (I don’t know what makes poetry poetry, so let’s just stick to the definition for now that a poem is that thing that doesn’t go all the way to the edges of the page), and this form fits this story well, and it also fits Kleine’s minimalistic-enigmatic style that leaves a lot to the imagination but is extremely sensitive to detail.

And this is the first time I don’t have doubts about the possible expiration date of Kleine’s work. I have no idea whether this book will be read 20 years from now, but I’m pretty sure it will be readable even then, because it’s sufficiently universal to remain understandable and enjoyable.

The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.

Mastodon Farm by Mike Kleine

The blurb of this novella was not too revealing for me, but I was lucky to know in advance that it was about existentialist-sad themes. As you might guess from the contents of this blog, I happen to like such stories. And if there’s one thing I like even better than a sad-existentialist story, it’s a sad-existentialist story written in the second person singular, so I was pleased to find that Mastodon Farm was written in this narrative mode. So you might say I was favorably disposed towards this novella from the very beginning, both because of its themes and its interesting narrative mode. And when I started to read it, it turned out that Mastodon Farm was indeed a good book.

The protagonist of the story is a rather well-known person (but we don’t know who he is, since in this novella he is „you”, or rather, „you” are him) who lives in a gorgeous New York City apartment and spends his time uselessly in a variety of ways: he attends parties and book launches; he drives around in his car; he talks to movie stars on the phone; he goes to the video store to rent Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and then goes home frustrated because the film is not available; he conducts pointless, circular, infinitely dumb conversations with (a man called) James Franco (is he the James Franco?) about whom you cannot decide whether he is the protagonist’s roommate, employee, lover, friend, or none of the above, or all of the above; and so on.

As for a „proper” story, there is none. The sentences are short, deceptively simple and sometimes mind-blowingly, sickly funny. The chapters themselves are short, usually only one or two pages long. Most of the chapters feel like separate short stories in themselves: they are „whole” on their own, and even though they do not tell a story and contain „nothing”, their emptiness feels like a form of wholeness, and the „nothing” they contain often manages to break my heart.

What’s more, you don’t even know for sure whether the reality presented in the novella is indeed real: you cannot decide whether the „nothing” really happens, or everything within the book is fiction (or a film). There are several elements here which make this book very cinematic. For instance, there’s always some background music going on, and the music definitely feels like a movie soundtrack to me – the individual tracks are always named, and even though I don’t know many of the songs mentioned in the novella (and didn’t check out all of them, though I did check out some), simply the song titles themselves suggest that the songs have something important to do with the contents of the episode they provide the background for. And the episodes themselves often feel like a movie: for example, there’s a chapter about a party, and while we witness what’s going on in the room, the scene is sometimes interrupted by „cuts” to events going on outside.

Moreover, many of the characters are „real” movie stars (e.g. the protagonist is on friendly terms with Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman; he knows Ashton Kutcher; he does drugs together with Kirsten Dunst; etc.). This in itself shouldn’t necessarily make the book strongly cinematic/fictional, but this is what happens here: the real movie stars mentioned in Mastodon Farm serve to make the reality of the novella’s world even more questionable/movie-like. Why? Because a „real” movie star is also a fictional character, an image called Uma Thurman or Kirsten Dunst – of course this image is not only an empty shell, there’s „content” in it, there’s a real person behind the public persona – only „we”, ordinary humans will never know this real person. However, Mike Kleine only borrows the names of these actors, (a fictional version of) their public persona, without the content (which is not available for us anyway), and this way he creates the effect that the world of Mastodon Farm is a fictional, unreal world (or rather: a fictional world raised to the second power) – something which consists only of names, of surfaces, of images without content.

This very powerful fictional quality makes the uncanny modernity, contemporariness and „real-ness” of the novella even more frightening. I mean: this book comes out in 2012 and the story is set sometime around the present day – I cannot pinpoint the exact year, but the year can be guessed with relative accuracy from, for example, the songs mentioned in the story. The characters often listen to or talk about music which might be aired on the radio right now, perhaps in this exact moment (mainly, I guess, in the U.S., but e.g. Lana Del Rey‘s „Born to Die” is aired on Hungarian radio stations, too). So it often seems that the novella indeed manages to capture the moment, this exact minute – and the implications of this up-to-date quality are infinitely scary to contemplate: if the novella is set in the present day, if I know the same actors the protagonist knows, if I listen to the same songs the characters listen to, then it means that the „nothing-world”, the imitation/fake world of this book is in fact my world, and the concrete reality I live in is the same as the highly unreal „reality” of the characters.

This scary feeling is even more intensified by the narrative mode: because the second person singular is not used here just because writing in the second person is cool or postmodern or fashionable. Mike Kleine manages to write more than a hundred pages in the second person with a consistency I very rarely witness, and since the fictional reality of the book highly resembles my real reality, Mastodon Farm becomes scarily, uncomfortably personal after a while and I start to feel that the „you” of the book is indeed „me”, and „I” conduct those meaningless conversations, „I” come up with different identities for myself depending on the person I’m talking to, and „I” contemplate my own life when I read about the emptiness of the life of the protagonist referred to as „you”.

And this is a deeply disturbing and unsettling experience – anyway, I like to read exactly to gain experiences such as this.

By the way, Mastodon Farm reminds me of the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis, with all their nihilism, meaninglessness and their nameless, interchangeable characters. And it also reminds me of Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, because that novel also features famous names devoid of their content and that novel is also written in these strange, monotonous-looking, often repetitive, minimalist sentences – the remarkable thing here is that I actually liked reading this novella (I read it twice within a couple of weeks, liking it even more for the second time), while I hated reading Richard Yates.

In connection with this Ellis-like quality and the contemporariness of Mastodon Farm, something else came to my mind. The first Ellis novels are set sometime at the end of the 1980s, and I guess they must have felt very contemporary when they were published because they featured elements of the then-present day reality. However, the cult of sunbathing, the music of the 1980s and the other contemporaneous details are not so contemporary anymore, therefore, no matter how scary I consider e.g. Less Than Zero (by the way, I consider it very scary), I don’t feel so strongly that that world could easily be mine as well. But here – I feel this.

Finally, something about the language usage and minimalism of Mastodon Farm. I love the way the author manages to simultaneously convey a whole array of thoughts and feelings with his simple, repetitive sentences. Here are two examples. The first one comes from the chapter where someone runs into the protagonist’s car and the woman driving the other vehicle dies. The police and the ambulance arrive, an EMT examines the protagonist and then the protagonist talks about the accident with some police officers. The following conversation ensues.

You talk to the cops.
“Am I in trouble?” you ask.
“You’re not in trouble,” a young cop says.
You freak out a little.
You can smell pomade in your sweat.
“Everything is under control,” someone says—another police officer.
You freak out some more.

What I like in this conversation is the discrepancy between the police officers’ words and the reactions of the protagonist. Because why on earth should you panic when you are told that everything’s fine? However, the protagonist does panic: his reactions are the opposite of any normal reaction, they are „unreal” – which suits the cinematic/fictional world of the novella just fine. What’s more, the conversation is funny as hell – and I think it’s a considerable achievement to depict the unreal quality of the protagonist’s world, show his disturbed state of mind and be funny as well at the same time – and all this in seven short lines.

The other quote is from the chapter where the protagonist is sitting by a lake with one of his acquaintances and they have the following conversation.

The water looks really nice like this,” Allen says.
“Yeah,” you say, looking like you are looking at the water, or, at least, how you imagine you would look looking like you are looking at the water.
You look at the water and don’t say anything.
Then you peek, just for a second, to look at Allen.
Allen isn’t even looking at the water.
He’s crying about something.

I don’t want to over-explain this excerpt, because I simply think it’s beautiful – beautiful in a kind of screwed up, melancholy, slightly ironic, very smart, 21st century way.

And in the end, this is what the whole book is like. And even though you probably won’t remember too many concrete details after finishing reading (because there aren’t too many concrete details to remember), and you won’t be able to tell the story (because there’s no story), the screwed-up, nihilistic, too-clever, yearning, disillusioned, sad, unreal, frightened-and-frightening feeling that pervades this book is bound to be memorable.