Towards a Suspense Short Story of the Void

[Note: this story was written for and read out at the launch event of Objects of Feminism, South London Gallery, Wednesday, 8 November 2017]

plotting-patricia-highsmith

In 1983, Patricia Highsmith wrote a text called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I decided to take up Highsmith’s guidelines from this text and very loosely apply them to the text I wrote for Objects of Feminism entitled ‘Towards a Feminism of the Void’ in order to write a very short story. In my contribution to the collection, I tried to defend a certain idea of ‘strategic nothingness’, and expand upon an idea of a feminism of the void, so I wrote things like: ‘[We need] a revaluation of void-values, in which void-reason (the standpoint of the nothing) trumps … stuff-reason, where a cock is merely a cigar, and where a cold, empty place is instead a place of great comfort (if the rectum is a grave, is the womb a tomb)?’ and I also wrote: ‘[a feminism of the void] could be a renunciation of all the contracts we never signed but nevertheless find ourselves party to – compulsory heterosexuality, the regime of the visible, being treated poorly on the basis of resentment and anger that we have no ability to stop’.

From Highsmith I took the following four pieces of advice: 1. ‘A suspense short story may be based on a gimmick’, 2. ‘Novelists … have a lot of ideas that are brief and minor, that cannot or should not be made into books’, 3. ‘I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me … this boredom is a happy thing.’ 4. ‘Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused at all times to do it’

Towards a Suspense Short Story of the Void, written by me, between about 3pm and 4pm today

She picked up the shadow of her phone and didn’t put it down again. She didn’t read the text he hadn’t sent, and she refused to drink the tea she hadn’t made, but then again, nor had he. Having barely gotten out of bed, which in any case, had been removed the other day, she decided that today she would finally uncover the identity of the man who hadn’t yet ruined her life.

Knowing nothing about his routine, where he lived, what he wore, or why he was so keen to destroy her, she decided to spend the next hour or so pondering these empty questions. Entering a closed bar, she ordered a vodka from a man who wasn’t there and drank it anyway. After another couple of drinks, as tasteless and clear as they were, and a mite early, though it was already past last orders, she resolved to retrace her steps, trying to determine exactly what had led her to believe that the man who would surely fuck everything up was out there, somewhere.

Though there was no sign of him, it was as if he were everywhere: the sky itself, every inscrutable glance, the very air she had no choice but to breathe, and which carried no health warning, though it surely should have. Finding herself back in her room, though she had meant to visit the abandoned men’s club on the outskirts of town, she took off the shoes she had forgotten to wear, and brushed her hair with an invisible comb, looking all the while in the mirror, which had somehow forgotten how to reflect her image. Stroking the cat that had long since gone missing, she put on a record. She was thoroughly sick of John Cage, so she whistled a little tune instead, as she wandered to the bus stop, ignoring the tut of the man who was already waiting there, smoking a cigar. A sudden compulsion to flick the stupid object from out of his mouth overcame her, but she grabbed instead onto a pole that didn’t exist, and bit her tongue, though not really, because that would have hurt.

The bus arrived. ‘We’re not going all the way, the sign on the front is wrong’ the driver said, looking out of the window the other way. Well, that suited her just fine, she thought, as she plonked herself down in a chair that was already full, taking out the banana she had thought she’d save for later. Fortunately, she had remembered to bring a book. It was called The First Sex and it was by a woman called Elizabeth Gould Davis. It had been written a long time ago. She read: ‘…modern man was a repeater –… every discovery he made and every invention he conceived had been discovered and invented before, in a forgotten past civilization of tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.’ This idea, claimed the writer, was shared by a growing number of the ‘cognitive minority’. Outside the bus, little bits of dust were flying around, though she couldn’t tell if they were actually floaters in her eyes, or seeds, or just random useless portions of the universe.

The bus had arrived at the stop she didn’t know she didn’t need. A man was waiting there too. He didn’t tut, but then again, she didn’t whistle. Instead he bared his teeth, less in a smile than in some other grotesque form of recognition. ‘Do I know you?’ she asked, fearing the answer. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he said, moving aside so she could step in a large puddle to splash him on the legs. ‘Would you like to play a game?’ He suggested. Seeing no reason not to, if only because she couldn’t also see the reasons to do so, she accepted his offer with a shake of her head.

His house was dark, the walls covered with nothing but the outlines of removed photographs. Fetching a little velvet bag, he asked her to place her hand inside. ‘It’s called ‘Kim’s game, or at least it’s a variation of it’’, he said, and she thought she had a long-forgotten memory about playing something like this at Brownies. But what the hell were Brownies, and why on earth had she ever been one? No time to think about it, her hand already squirming about in the bag. ‘What can you feel?’ He asked, elbows on knees, face opposite hers like a paper bag with holes drawn by a child.

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘there’s nothing in the bag’. And he laughed, and it sounded like the sky had opened up, and for a moment she saw in his mouth an image of forever, but it was not the kind of forever you would like to get stuck in. In her own mouth, she felt something hard, and round, and uncomfortable. Hurriedly spitting out the marble, it jumped across to the mouth of the man who began to choke. Her hand was still in the velvet bag and as she reached in, she turned it inside out, gently grasping the marble on his tongue before pulling it out. The man stopped choking, but he did not stop laughing. He continued to laugh as she refused to kiss him, as his tongue in and out poked the air and his pants came off. His arms got goosebumps and she didn’t moan as he didn’t hold her, and he wept as she laughed, and she fell off the bed and knocked all his Lacan off the bedside table, and then he got annoyed. ‘Fine, I’m leaving!’ she said, though she had already closed his front door ten minutes earlier.

Back home, she found a note on the mat, where the missing cat was not sat. Feeling too bored to read it, she burnt it instead, and placed the ashes carefully in the fireplace that wasn’t there. In any case, she knew who it was from, and she no longer had any interest in reading it, because she had a funny feeling she already knew what it would say.

THE END

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In Memoriam Mark Fisher, January 13th

Scan_20180112 (3)Mark on a seaside trip, c. mid-2000s

There is a line in Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society that makes me think of you: ‘the violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.’ You were the person who diagnosed this condition better than anyone else, always. You lived the violence of positivity even as you did your best to harness it. You refracted everything, engaged everything and everyone. You dissolved cynicism in energy. You could go to sleep on the floor, like a lemur, and wake up and continue the conversation as if sleep was but a momentary blip between real desire, the desire for perpetual engagement, for never-ending conversation.

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‘Once You Start Listening You Can’t Stop Hearing It’

[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].

Nina Power

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Once you start listening you can’t stop hearing it. The voice – female, or female-sounding at least, pre-recorded ‘real’ voices or mechanised tones, or, often, a weird cut-up mixture of both, dominates the sonic landscape. From the supermarket checkout machines with their chaste motherish inquiries (‘have you swiped your Nectar card?’) to repeated assertions regarding the modes of securitised paranoia (‘in these times of heightened security’), the female voice operates as a central asset in the continued securitisation and control of contemporary space, cutting across what little is left of the public realm and providing the appearance and the illusion of efficiency, calm and reassurance in commercial environments. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female, or female-sounding. We all know this vocal tone, because we have no choice but to know it: it spans a narrow range between reassuring and relatively high-pitched, though ever-efficient, to deeper, more refined and sales-oriented: from clipped bus stop name announcements to Cadbury’s Caramel bunny and Mark’s and Spencer’s ads that sound like you’re wading through sexy gravy.

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Soft Coercion, the City and the Recorded Female Voice

[A version of this text was published in The Acoustic City, edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, JOVIS Publishers, 2014)

emma

Four questions to begin with: What is the pitch of the neoliberal city? How does the pitch of the city construct images of and for the humanity that travels through it? How does gender relate to control of this space – corporate, commercial, privatised space and the few remaining places we might (often erroneously, or perhaps nostalgically) refer to as “public space”? How does the soundscape of the city relate to forms of control – what I will call here “soft coercion” – that often goes unnoticed, or at least blends into the background and becomes simply part of the tapestry of the urban sonic environment, alongside the whirr of traffic, the babble of the crowd, birdsong, sirens? We may think of the sound of the city as somehow being ‘neutral’ on its own terms, or at least cacophonous enough to escape linear description, but by paying careful attention to the patterns of urban sounds we do more than simply listen: the over-familiarity of certain sonic tropes starts to tell us something key about the way in which both gender and control are constructed and reinforced.

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Towards a Feminism of the Void

Void

 

In October 2015, Audrey Wollen posted a picture on Instagram with the message ‘a PSA brought to u by ur local chapter of Female Nothingness’. The picture comprises a black and white composite image with the words BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU/GIRLS OWN THE VOID/BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!! next to crudely crossed out images of a John Cage manuscript, and works by, amongst others, Yves Klein (Le Vide (The Void)), Bas Jan Ader (Broken Fall (Organic). Amsterdamse Bos. Holland 1971) and Robert Barry, (Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the Morning of March 5, 1969, 2 Cubic Feet of Helium Will Be Released into the Atmosphere, 1969).[1]Wollen’s piece, alongside her ‘Sad Girl Theory’ (where she states, and I agree, that ‘the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance’[2]), is brilliant, both for its immediately blunt but recognisable vantage point, its militancy and its humour. ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ – but what, we might ask, pushing past the humour, does it mean to own (the) nothing? A nothing that is possessed and taken away at the same time. Wollen’s synonymy – emptiness, nothing, void – and the defensive possessive ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ posits an ironic essentialism on two levels: the very idea of owning nothing, and the idea that ‘girls’ have a privileged insight into the nothing by virtue of being ‘girls’. It is precisely the sort of joke/non-joke that cannot be fully articulated, because it takes place on the very terrain of representation itself, which is also where sex and language do their obscure work. In this sense the joke morphs into something much more serious, revealing once again, that all jokes are acts of aggression, even in defensive formation.

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Some New Pieces

nazitype

Image of Nazi typewriter, including the ‘SS’ symbol (accompanies the e-flux article)

I haven’t updated in a while. In the meantime, there are quite a few new recent pieces available on and offline (links where available).

You can also find my writing on music every month in The Wire.