Janice Lee's prose is energy transfer of the elementary particles of the matter of language. There is a girl, there is an octopus, there is language, understood at the infinitesimal level: There is not enough interior space in the body

Janice Lee, Daughter, Jaded Ibis Press, 2011.

“Janice Lee is a genius.”– Eileen Myles

“Daughter is quantum. There is a girl, there is an octopus, there is language - in minimal bursts of physical intensities, their magnitude measured in intimate discretes. Janice Lee's prose is energy transfer of the elementary particles of the matter of language. There is a girl, there is an octopus, there is language, understood at the infinitesimal level. No other book ever written has entered my body and being so physically pure. There is not distance between the state of narrative and the matter of being. I turn the page of her body.” – Lidia Yuknavitch

“Daughter, the new volume by Janice Lee, seems to rise as intuitive quantum ascent. It is praxis of the marred, of the seemingly uneven. Janice Lee understands that writing cannot exist as narrative outcome. In Daughter there is reckoning with the cosmos as phantom, as something that does and does not exist. Energies appear by means of paradox and evaporation.” - Will Alexander

"In Daughter, Janice Lee floods the body of a book with the body of a body, all its hybrid, constantly damaging and mending cells. From field to field among the pages we are subject to a brain-damaged, collide-o-scopic file of some internet-age Acker'd Frankenstein having lived to see god die; and yet still must go on walking in the deity's corpse, inside of which the billion bodies in such image have built our huts of shit and shit inside them. "The sea is a mysterious force, but there is no sea in the desert," she writes, prodding at the hole left in the fabric on the earth between the homes: another phantom in a field of phantoms who themselves have again died. The result is a meticulous and terrifying resurrection, a glitchy screamtext passed in dire silence to the reader the way blood passes from mother into child." – Blake Butler

"The word "monster" derives from Latin monstrum, an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order. (Wikipedia) As Janice Lee proves, the same is true for daughters. Lee's surgical cadences and sharp fragments work here as writing will work-to force attention to detail. Which is the unnatural order of things." – Vanessa Place

"Janice Lee’s second novel is first and foremost an object of no small beauty. Full-color square photos in rich arrays of greens and greys are interspersed with the text, which also unfolds in greys on greyscale pages. Alignment is deliberate and unconventional. The text itself varies in typeface and size, too, creating an otherworldly and absorbing readerly environment.
Daughter is a proudly non-narrative text. Its statements do and undo themselves, reminding one of Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, in a kind of thoughtful unreality. This is an x, this is a y; but this is not an x, not a y. “This might be something, then again, it might be something else,” Lee warns us early on (14). Her concepts are weighty, and at times they threaten, like many small anchors, to pull the book under. More often, however, she coaxes them into becoming intriguing, messy, fertile.
Guy Davenport wrote of a “ghost octopus/ with legs of smoke, the dozen-crotched-/ and-eyed Medusa Cyanea” (“The Medusa”). Lee’s novel, too, presents a corpse of an octopus discovered in the desert, its face terrifying, illuminating. Later Lee claims that “this is not a Medusa myth,” but if the myth is not present, the Medusa still persists (124). A fractured myth, after all, cannot truly be a myth, and Daughter is accomplished bricolage. Mythology is a pure narrative, a development, a presence. Medusa alone, though, remains as a figure for seeing, even—frightfully and fruitfully—recognizing.
Daughter is a process, a becoming of structure and of language: not development, but dissection. The narrator aligns herself with the octopus, or sees herself through it in a Lacanian experience; she cuts it open, cutting herself open through identification. What is inside and what is outside has not yet been determined. We arrive in the moment prior to creation and stabilization. Lee’s obsession with boundaries is also her obsession with naming. “If she calls it an octopus,” she writes, “I call it an octopus” (22). And: “In order to discover your own contents you have to investigate the inside of someone else” (27).
Salman Rushdie once asked whether there could be newness in the world. In Lee’s context, newness is not a question posed to theology, but the idea of origins persists. Here the text does not proclaim newness in itself but makes space for it in the shape(s) of a monster. Lee works in an unstable language, repeating words and phrases, letting syntax disrupt itself. “An allegory,” we read, “is a paraphrase of a conscious event, whereas a symbol is the best possible expression for an unconscious content whose nature can only be guessed because it is still unknown” (40). We are reading a Freudian allegory: daughter for conscious, octopus for unconscious. We are reading a symbolic investigation: “autopsy” means seeing with one’s own eyes as well as treating a dead body. Lee notes both definitions.
The monster is also a possibility space, what exists before boundaries encircle the meaning of daughter and mother, octopus and god, man and woman, description of image and “[image]” supposedly suppressed on the page. Lee presents a landscape prior to settling, asking questions as daughter and then as mother, writing a man and then a woman. “Every possibility is welcome,” she states (66). I am a monster, I am not a monster. “If I were a monster.”
The novel is a collage of source texts: itself a kind of monster. To ask whether it has a mother (only a few letters, after all, from “mother” to “monster”) is to ask who its author is, the author(-function) who is also the book’s subject. If this is a novel about the development of consciousness, it is also a novel about the instability of language, its tendency towards multiplicity. What kind of consciousness produced this text? engenders the question, What kind of consciousness is produced by this text?
Roughly the middle third of the novel performs such linguistic-conscious development, a text in a monstrous language. An unstable syntax breaks down further, taking words with it: “The fin. He inder becomes the who world. The ing thation, a nestural dural he writess the world” (58). Repetition is never repetition but always iteration, because it occurs in shifting (amorphous) contexts. Words split open—here halved and bisected, like octopi, and elsewhere through doubling—to reveal shades of meaning, of potentialities. Lee’s landscape has no i.e., only e.g.; no equations but parallels.
“If every cause has a cause and behavior repeats itself… what is developed in these different generations? What contradictions incarnate might lie in the sun, the moon, the stars, all of which lie inside you too,” Lee writes (94). There is newness, but never for long. Iteration demands a language of beginnings and endings, but for Lee these are short, temporary. They go nowhere, or nowhere they haven’t been before. They are unmythical.
The novel ends in a flood of “perhaps," a “becoming but never being” (133). Its structure, a spread sea creature, is still soft. Daughter is not interested in closing the structure. Instead it dares to leave open a space for monsters." - Anne Royston

"Toward the end of Janice Lee’s experimental, post/modernish, psychoanalytically-inflected, atmospheric, philosophical, multi-genre, avant-garde novel, Daughter, there is a reference page with sources cited in the narrative, which includes some prominent writers and figures including Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Given the incredible use wordplay, I also expected there might be some Gertrude Stein factored in there as an influence despite the name not appearing on the reference page. There’s a point at which you start reading this work and you have to let go of the desire to find narrative cohesion; instead, what you receive are impressions and from those impressions, you begin to hazard some interpretations. At its core, I read Daughter as a meditation on identity, one induced by the philosophical underpinnings of dissection. What does it mean to take apart another body and how does that body reflect anything about who I am, where I come from, the nature of my relationships and my life? The sublimity of the dissection is made apparent early on when we can’t quite see what it is that is inside a glass jar; I actually thought it might be some marbles, but the narratorial “I” becomes fixated on certain binaries, one of which is the relationship between “I” and an octopus. We see repeated images throughout this lusciously produced work (there are stunning photographs that appear throughout) of an octopus from many angles inside a jar. There are prose poetic blocks concerning the relationship between this “I” and the octopus: “Are we talking about the octopus or me? Once in awhile, a dead octopus washes ashore, tossed onto the beach by waves. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are no waves here, where are we again? Am I becoming a blur or are you? Keep me on the edge over the edge under the edge at the edge—“ (79) and then later: “I am not myself these days. My interest wanes with the withdrawal of texture. There is not enough interior space in the body, and yet the distance allows a different kind of spectatorship. Is this the end of my exploring? Will I arrive where I started? Am I knowing this place for the first time? There is a fear of personal extinction and synchronicity. I am touching the octopus’s heart, or is it touching mine?” (93) and then again: “It was insistent, the corpse, in the daughter’s careful execution of the process, as if the octopus was asserting its physical presence all the more she cut into it” (103). Why does the dissection of the octopus create such a crisis in the titular daughter? At various points, this figure is trying to reconcile whether there is really any difference between subject and object; are things mirrors or actually different? These questions are always made all the more fascinating because Lee will drop in scientific statements and terms like “convergent evolution,” which relates how two evolutionarily dissimilar entities might still evolve in such a way to possess similar organs. Octopi and humans apparently have very similar complexities in their visual organs. In identifying with the Other, does not become unmade and undone, what Lee calls “personal extinction”? Other binaries include in the novel: doctor/daughter, mother/daughter, Juan/ Jorge (some sort of meta-spiritual brother-set that appear in the novel as playscript). These terms also of course invade the other major terms, creating a patchwork that is dream-like and metaphysical in quality. The constant references to the sea immediately bring to my mind the work of Virginia Woolf, Kazim Ali (in Quinn’s Passage), and Jennifer Chang (from the beginning of History of Anonymity). It’s difficult to hazard answers to the philosophical questions offered in Lee’s work, but the deluge of beautiful images, (which also include various angles of a woman wearing a white mask), dense poetic prose, ethereal in its syntax makes for a sumptuous reading experience, sure to grow richer in conversations with others. As a quick note, I’d like to briefly state that the production quality on the print bound volumes are just amazing (reminiscent of the work out of Chin Music Press) and while there is much to laud in the growing demand for digital services, there is something quite singular in being able to peruse this novel and turn the occasional page to come upon an exquisite vista of seascapes.“ – Stephen Hong Sohn

"Jaded Ibis Press has again brought us a new way of thinking about the world. In the case of Daughter, thinking about the world is the same thing as – the world. And it’s just as mysterious, full of blank spaces, meanings given and taken away, and swirled together anyway until the meaning of meaning grows multiple arms. A woman finds a dead octopus, which may be a god, perhaps the unconscious mind, in the desert, and is compelled to investigate.
In this book, “splayed” is a color; “competence” is interchangeable with “space.” Legend and dream are one, and also, they are the reality of this book’s events.
Two god-entwined serpentine brothers talk with each other when the dreams of seekers make them exist, at night, which, as we all know, is the time for parties. They create, and uncreate, just as the narrator does. She claims the right to change her mind, and that she does, the fabric of each moment almost arbitrarily shifting, impossible to pin down for long. “I want a glass case, too. To display my world in. Lend me some money.” Says one of the bros to the other one.
Divisions are sifted through, the glass between them shattered into mosaics washed away by the tide. Monster/god/self/mirror/surviving/murder. The very forgetting of the mother, and the mother’s forgetting of the daughter, in itself feel monstrous, as do many things in this book, because they trigger some of the deepest existential feelings.
Calling this non-narrative a novel gives a new definition to linear progression, to the story of life, which is also the story of death. This book, conceptual while remaining poignant, breaks new ground for writers to plant a new kind of writing in the future, more honest without the artifice of convention. The subject matter is consciousness itself, so encountering this book is encountering pure being perhaps more than any fiction I’ve yet read.
I drift from one self into another, clasping tenticular detail, mouth held into night, a liquid hand drifting. The carcass trembles and floats, qualis spectator pereo. A fusing, a brownish tint, and the shadow is fishing for octopus. Blanched and without intention, the body is quiet, our bodies are quiet, becoming the desert and encircled by the hugging hands, points with fervor, swallowing the breaths of the sea.”
Holga photos by Rochelle Ritchie Spencer work well, and are printed at high quality which does them justice. They dream on the page, and continually shock with the contents of a glass jar. Nature gains a new life, and otherwise, what has been captured out of nature without means of escape, including humanity, is held in a kind of strange stillness pulsating against the edges of its caged anonymity.
Jaded Ibis’s creativity with the fine art limited editions continues to astound me. Oooooooo. This one is:
“An autopsy kit containing handcrafted surgical tools and various medical artifacts, including casts of octopi body parts in apothecary bottles. The kit is an aged wooden box with a secret compartment containing the novel printed on transparent “skin” and laid upon a bed of sand. Contains flash drive with soundtrack, Monster,” by Resident Anti-Hero.” Is it just me, or is this kind of – orgasmic – to imagine?
Janice’s previous book exploring the nature of consciousness (and Frankenstein), Kerotakis, came out in 2010 from the excellent, and WILD Dog Horn Publishing.
I highly recommend Janice Lee’s books to anyone who wants to ride the wave of literature peaking with her dissection of the nature of reality, using your mind as the delighted tool.
If you liked this posting please share it on any, or all, of these social media sites." - Tantra Bensko

"What is the genesis of your second novel, Daughter?
- The novel started out as a kernel of an idea. I know I wanted to do something about the lack of an archetype for the “daughter” figure. We seem to have many archetypes in mythology and psychology for fathers, mothers, sons, but not really for daughters. I don’t count Freud’s because it seems like sort of a cop-out, carbon-copy of the son’s dilemma, in reverse. I also knew I wanted to investigate the identity crisis a god might have, and in some way, I wrote this novel partially backwards. I knew where it would end, and I sort of knew where it would begin, a daughter wandering in the desert finding the body of a giant octopus, which becomes the body of a dead god.
How right would it be to read Daughter as a sequel to your first book Kerotakis?
- In terms of Daughter being a sequel to Kerotakis, sure, I think all of my writing is connected. I’m always coming back to the same themes, though I’m reading different things while I’m writing. The “daughter,” in some ways is sort of like G.I.L.L. the cyborg, in Kerotakis, but also different. They both have mother issues. But I think the daughter has a strange sort of relationship with herself and with god, that G.I.L.L. doesn’t have. I’m working on a new novel, tentatively titled Singularity, looking at the technological singularity that everyone’s been talking about, but in relation to the coming rapture that many others are talking about. It’s also a novel about god, and daughters, and consciousness, and language, so maybe it is also a sequel to both Kerotakis and Daughter.
What I found especially charming about your first book were all of the hand-drawn illustrations. Can we expect the same in Daughter?
- No. I thought I was going to do drawings, but I met some obstacles along the way. But perhaps more exciting, the book is going to feature some amazingly beautiful photographs by Rochelle Ritchie Spencer.
The other exciting aspect of Daughter is the original soundtrack to the novel made by Resident Anti-Hero. How did this come about?
- Jaded Ibis approaches books in kind of an all-encompassing manner, so that all their books live textually, visually and musically. Debra Di Blasi, the editor, and I were brainstorming possible music artists for Daughter’s soundtrack and I mentally ran through the list of my musically talented friends. I thought that Resident Anti-Hero’s style might be an interesting juxtaposition to the style of the book. Debra loved their music and got the whole deal set up right away. And of course this was the result. I’m super thrilled by it.
Throughout Daughter, the text itself asks questions about the memory of parental figures and gets an existential sense of a particular mother. In parts it almost felt as if the text was mourning the illusion of familial integrity. How right would it be to read this literally as being about your own mother? How did the sudden death of your mother influence the final draft of Daughter?
- You’re right, in all those senses, that the text explores the disconnectedness but all-too-closeness between mother and daughter, and the dissolution that is a physical and psychological one. The strange thing is the final draft of Daughter was finished months before my mother’s death. My mother and I have had a difficult relationship in the past, that often didn’t function at all, though there was a period of time during my teenage years when she was suddenly and very sick, and I was ready for the end. My hormones probably had a lot to do with that. But, in the months before my mother’s death our relationship was the best it had ever been.
Was your mother a religious woman? I ask because in both Kerotakis and Daughter, you seem to have a preternatural understanding of theology. I know from our talks in the past that you’re not overtly religious, but were you brought up Christian? Do you consider yourself an atheist?
- I tell this story often about how once when I was very little, my mother walked into my room and dropped the Holy Bible onto my desk. She told me to read and make up my own mind. So to answer the question, my mother was not a religious woman, no, but she did grow up in South Korea, where as you know, religion is a part of the culture. She had a tremendous distrust of the church though, and never practiced. My father considers himself an uneducated agnostic. As for myself, I did indeed read the Bible cover to cover, and admired the book greatly, but didn’t “believe” per se in the tales. I’ve read so much neuroscience and neurotheology, that yes, I have to consider myself a pretty hardline atheist, in terms of really believing in the physical neurology behind religion and god beliefs. Though, I still maintain an awe and enthusiasm for religious language (i.e. in chants and prayers), rituals, and Christian mythology.
- There is a wild, fantastic dimension to your prose that reminds me of Grace Krilanovich, but unlike her, there’s clearly this hard fascination with theory that shines through. In the past we’ve talked about your interest in Camus, Donna Haraway, Julian Jaynes. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with theory?
- I think there is often this distinction between the creative and the critical, a false one I think, as I think some of the best writing has at its core really theoretical ideas. I’m thinking of what one can glean about perception and memory and consciousness and especially phenomenology from writers like Proust, Beckett, Kafka, Dostoevsky. As a writer, I feel a more apt label is thinker, that really writing fiction for me is not all that different than writing critically, and everything I read - literary theory, mythology, philosophy, psychology, etc, - informs the way I read and the way I view and perceive the world.
You came out of California Institute of the Arts’ MFA program, and you now teach there. In the past you’ve curated and organized many readings and conceptual writing events in Los Angeles. How has your perception of the L.A. writing scene changed over the years?
- The L.A. literary scene, is indeed, in a way a bit schizophrenic. Though there are some distinct pockets that are more easily recognizable than others, there are also a lot of overlaps or niches much harder to pin down or label. I don’t really know any writers that just belong to a single “niche,” but rather wander around. There are really tons of things going on here, and I find out about new things everyday. Les Figues Press is doing a lot of cool things, and this last year they launched a series or projects at LACE. There’s a lot of cross traffic with CalArts faculty and alums, but not a distinct “CalArts Mafia” like many might say. Matt Timmons and Harold Abramowitz run the literary cabaret series Late Night Snack. There’s Machine Project, of course. Laura Vena and I are starting this new interdisciplinary series called Novum. And so many more collaborations, projects, events, series, constantly going on. I see familiar faces sometimes, but also many new ones.
While reading Chad Harbach’s essay on how America now has two distinct literary cultures, ‘MFA vs. NYC’, I couldn’t help but think about Los Angeles’ contradictory, sometimes schizophrenic, relationship with “creative writing” programs and the role of the institution. As you see it, who are the winners and losers in the current debate?
- Just this past December I met Anthony Seidman, an L.A. poet I had never heard of met before. Will Alexander introduced me to him, who is another great L.A. poet but also one who is so wonderfully unaffiliated. Which is all a long-winded way of saying there’s a wonderfully diverse community here, a community that’s growing all the time, a community that’s got wide-reaching tentacles in all parts of town, collaborating with artists and musicians, sometimes connected to an institution like CalArts, sometimes not. Winners, losers - that might be an irrelevant division, but I do believe it’s important for writers to get out there and interact with the community at large. Vanessa Place will say that’s simply part of the job: showing up. And there are a lot of people who don’t show up but still expect to get paid. And I do believe that people need to continually branch out, not get too comfortable or surround themselves with just the same voices. That’s one of the goals of Novum, is to try and bring people from different disciplines together, people from different parts of town together, etc. people who might not otherwise meet but definitely have common interests in art and writing and science and history and philosophy and culture and music and the convergences between all these.“ – Interview by Maxi Kim


from Daughter

more from Daughter

Janice Lee, KEROTAKIS, Dog Horn Press, 2010.

„Of the three works currently available by Janice Lee, I read Kerotakis last. It is perhaps equally as challenging and experimental in its form and content as Daughter. Here, Lee takes an interesting generic approach that seems to evoke a drama, as there is a kind of dramatis personae included at the beginning, letting us know that there will be four characters: a cyborg (G.I.L.L.), a brain, the person whose body houses that brain (Dr. Eynan), an artist/painter figure (Zosimosa). Of the four, Zosimosa seems to be the least prominent, though her presence might be detailed in the various sketches and drawings that track throughout the collection. Zosimosa is also the figure who helps us understand the importance of the kerotakis, which is apparently a heated palette that allowed painters to keep their paints in liquid form. The kerotakis was later also used in alchemical processes, thus providing Lee a way to consider the ways in which objects transform in their function as our relationships to them transform. But, the primary relationship explored in Kerotakis exists among the cyborg, G.I.L.L., a brain that is traveling through time, and Dr. Eynan. These three do form a kind of alternative holy trinity, as the cyborg figure is continually making observations and posing philosophical questions that make this work quite existential in its tonality: “Thou Shall Notice Everything. This is my function, quoted from the Holy Texts, passed down by Deity Eynan.” There is a strange moment at the conclusion of Kerotakis, where it seems as though the brain, traveling through time, makes contact with the cyborg. This communion allows Dr. Eynan’s brain to stop traveling through time, but also leaves the cyborg a “used, empty vessel.” I was not quite clear about what occurred in the final pages of Kerotakis, a new chapter in the cyborg’s existence or not? But, if I’ve learned anything from reading Janice Lee’s work, it is that the work is as much more about producing questions and uncertainty than posing categorical interpretations and readings. My one gripe about this book is that there is no pagination. Hehe.“ – Stephen Hong Sohn

"The cover of Janice Lee’s KĒROTAKIS appears to be a drawing of a cell’s contents on graph paper, magnified to show individual components such as ribosomes and a range of organelles including vacuoles, the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, and the endoplasmic reticulum. A closer look reveals, however, a number of out-of-place elements. In the top left corner of the front cover—is that a brain? And a donkey’s face that continues across the spine and onto the back cover to reveal the entirety of the ass? And in the bottom left corner of the front cover—the feet of a tiny body in the fetal position? What is this homunculus doing in the nucleus of a cell?
KĒROTAKIS is a curious blend of text and illustrations. The writing might be characterized as prose fiction, as a play script, or as poetry. There is an overarching narrative that gives the book the semblance of a novel. The text begins with a Cast of Characters, though, that lists four characters with brief descriptions in the manner of play scripts, and many of the pages are formatted as monologues or dialogues between the characters. In particular, we follow the coming-to-consciousness story of G.I.L.L., a cyborg creation of Dr. Eynan, along with the time-travel explorations of Dr. Eynan’s brain. The following page offers a sense of the voices in the book:

The third-person perspective narrative voice explains what is happening, but we also have the first-person voices of the characters in conversation.
On other pages, Lee places text in deliberate and careful ways, suggesting the importance of lines and spacing as in some poetry.

It’s worth noting that Lee is a designer, and some of the blurbs for the book explain that Lee brings her design perspective to bear on the creation of this narrative.
Playscripts, poetry, and visual design. Already, this book is an amalgamation of many things. The subjects of the narrative and of the characters’ musings, too, span a diverse and sometimes contradictory range of ideas: alchemy, science, futurism, art, philosophy, cyborgs, technology, religion, and mythology.
In this book, identity—in the sense of one’s self as well as in the sense of the boundaries of a sense—is messy. Dr. Eynan creates a process to detach his brain from the rest of his body and to send it into other times to collect data about humanity. The brain takes on a life of its own. Nothing is straightforwardly what it is or seems to be.
Realms of knowledge and knowing clash and intersect. The cybernetic Frankenstein-monster G.I.L.L. sees her reflection in the mythological Golem. The kerotakis, an alchemical apparatus invented by Maria the Jewess to capture vapors of heated substances in hermetically-sealed containers, mirrors a painter’s palette in the art of transmutation and creation. Zosimosa, described in the cast of characters list as “a Painter, an Author, a Mother out of time,” contrasts with Dr. Eynan, a male scientist whose perception of reality is both profound and absurdly blind (he forgets that he has sent his brain out into the world).

Footnote numbers throughout the text alternate between 0s and 1s. The simplicity of digital code lurks at the edges of the text.

Janice Lee’s KĒROTAKIS is ultimately a puzzling narrative structured by both words and images. A central impulse in the book is to bring together many disparate elements to see where they spark in conflict and where they resonate. The crucifixion of G.I.L.L., a religious narrative, overlays and contests the man-made creation of G.I.L.L., a narrative tied to science, technology, and a rejection of the metaphysical realm." - Paul Lai

Janice Lee, Red Trees, selfreleased 2011.

From the Preface:
This book comes to this final stage after a long process. Originally completed in 2007, various circumstances and events since have questioned the finality of this book.
I worked on these narrative fragments circling around my family and a family business for a particular period of time. And then, for a period of time, I assumed that I was done with the project. It was a sentimental text, clean and easy to understand, without any pretense of being more than what it simply was, a brief family portait. After describing some of the terrible events at my parents’ gas station, something more terrible happened. My dad had a terrible accident, resulting in heavy damage to his skull and brain. He was in a coma for a couple days, and though the doctors doubted he would every wake up, he did.
I felt that this changed the pretense of my stupid little book. For some reason, I felt that Red Trees was completely inadequate. I was sad and angry and upset, but also very confused. I tried to get advice from many of my writer friends, I couldn’t figure out what to do with this project. Should I rewrite it? Should I add something on? Should I just leave it as was? I really didn’t know. With various opinions, and ideas of my own, something still kept me away for a very long time.
Then, my mother’s recent and very unexpected passing, cast this project into another different light. I was both more inclined to finish the project, but also repelled away by some strange emotional energy. I had been putting this project off for so long, but a large part me didn’t want to get rid of it. Still, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
I have decided to leave it as it (mostly, with minimal edits), to dwell on more recent events in a different form, and to distribute this very personal work as a limited chapbook, for friends, family, and interested parties. As a portrait is indeed a view only representative of a certain point in time, I think this text can still operate as what its original title indicated, a family portrait."

I can imagine my father who inherited that limp, perturbed soul, who sits on a chair, who looks ahead, who whimpers then bucks up again, and tries to stand up straight. My father’s ribs stick out like extra appendages, like branches of red trees reaching for more but not being able to reach. I say to myself, this is my father and he should not be a red tree yet. How can I pinpoint the action that destroys a man? There is no sword of lightning that simply strikes a man down; it is slower than that. It is a gradual decay of the roots and of the bark, the bark peeling off in large chunks and moonlight threads that waver in front of his face but he cannot touch anything. This here is a betrayal of stars and moon and dust. Only when folding away leafy clothes and we are belling out for help, only then is there silence.
Other days we can not get the noise to stop.
„In Lee’s self-published chapbook, Red Trees, she explores some more autobiographical themes and includes a detailed note preceding the text explaining some of the challenges she faced in its publication trajectory. It’s particularly interesting to see how the course of “real life” events might alter the vision and the production of a creative project. In Red Trees, Lee employs a prose poetic form to explore some of the more common themes of Asian American literature, including interracial tension, class mobility, citizenship and assimilation. Of course, she also complicates these themes by presenting them in metaphorical and densely lyrical ways. The titular “red trees” are a riffing device that Lee uses recursively throughout the chapbook, an image that seems to denote the failure of certain fantasies to materialize. Red trees are what emerge from behind the ruins of the American dream; red trees are what the bodies of immigrants become as they struggle to make ends meet. Because Red Trees is a limited edition chapbook, I am hoping that Lee strongly considers a revision and extension of this work. Highly teachable, hypnotic in the best possible way, it’s the kind of work that reminds of the best in le thi diem thuy, Julie Otsuka, and Kazim Ali.“ – Stephen Hong Sohn

"Janice Lee is a writer, artist, editor, and curator. She is interested in the relationships between metaphors of consciousness and theoretical neuroscience, and experimental narrative. Her work can be found in Big Toe Review, Zafusy, antennae, sidebrow, Action, Yes, Joyland, Luvina, Everyday Genius, and Black Warrior Review. She is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), a multidisciplinary exploration of cyborgs, brains, and the stakes of consciousness, and Daughter (Jaded Ibis). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts and currently lives in Los Angeles where she is a co-curator for the feminist reading series Mommy, Mommy!, co-editor of the online journal [out of nothing], and co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe. She can be found online at janicel.com.
What projects are you currently working on?
- I’m currently working on a novel about our uncanny relationship with God and the consciousness of God. It’s about God and religion and the history of religion and the Bible, but it’s also about cyborgs and the technological singularity and the brain and religious experiences of the brain and the God experience. And then among other things, it’s also about confessions and spiders and daughters and the Antichrist.
I’m also trying to finish a sort of memoir-ish piece about my family. My mother passed away last month and I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable, but also more inclined, to go back to it. I’m sort of waiting.
And then I’m working on a collaborative text with Laura Vena, a book about time travel and something called the chronovisor. And a science fiction novel with my brother Eugene.
When and why did you begin writing?
- I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. And why? Because I feel I have to.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
- I don’t think this happened at any particular moment. It’s sort of a strange label, really. I write, so I guess that makes me a writer. I draw and make art too, so I guess I’m also an artist. Though really I feel like there’s too many labels we have to carry around: writer, artist, editor, curator, poet, novelist, teacher, professor, etc. Like little Cub Scout badges we can show off. Not sure why there can’t be a simpler term to encompass all of this, for someone who just contributes to the literary community at large, and does all of these things collaboratively and simultaneously, not in separation. Or really, no term at all. I feel like being a writer is really more a way of being in the world, than an occupation.
What inspired you to write your first book?
- Technically speaking, my first book was KEROTAKIS, and it was my thesis at CalArts. Many things got me pointed in that direction. I had been reading a lot of neuroscience and consciousness studies and alchemy, and especially Julian Jaynes (whose book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind affected me greatly then).
The first book I really wrote, though, was this chaotic graphic text I wrote in undergrad at UCSD. Anna Joy Springer, a phenomenal teacher, influenced and helped and guided me a lot in my early years of writing. Though I’ve grown and changed a lot since then, I still give her a lot of credit. I worked on this angry and sort of crass book, about everything from God to war to race politics, Gramsci was a character, and there were all these crazy doodles and drawings. It’s easy to see the Kathy Acker influence in it.
Who or what has influenced your writing?
 I’ve been influenced greatly by what I read. And I read a lot. Though unlike most writers I know, I don’t read a lot of fiction or poetry. I read a lot of scientific texts, like Antonio Damasio or V.S. Ramachandran or Paul Churchland. I read as many books as I can about the brain, about neuroscience, about psychology, and human memory. Knowledge is sort of an obsession for me. I follow many science journals, especially those concerning cognitive science or consciousness. I read anthropology, theology, alchemy, philosophy. Lately I’ve been studying the Bible and different translations and its history. All of this really feeds into my writing, and the writing reflects that, I think. Everything I’ve ever read has influenced me in some way. If I have to list some specifics off the top of my head: Julian Jaynes, Gramsci, Chomsky, Camus, Kierkegaard, George Lakoff, Nietzsche (the first time I read him I was in fourth grade), Kafka, e.e. cummings, Badiou, and an infinite number of others.
And I’ve been lucky to have had some really amazing teachers and mentors and friends. Anna Joy Springer: I might not be writing now if not for her. Jon Wagner: Phenomenal instructor and person. Laura Vena: Besides collaborating, we also workshop work regularly, give each other deadlines. Our relationship absolutely feeds into my writing productivity. Joe Milazzo: One of the best readers of my work. And he’s the one who inspired me to really become interested in the novel as a form again.
How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
- When I was 8, my mother dropped The Holy Bible onto my desk in front of me and told me to read it and make up my own mind.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
- I really despise having to categorize my writing by what genre it is, though I often have to. I care much more about what the work is about and its concepts, than if it is really a poem or short story or hybrid work (I despise this term more) or something else. When I wrote KEROTAKIS, poets would tell me that it was a long poem. And fiction writers would tell me it was a novel. Sometimes I’m purposeful, like the project I’m working on now, I’m adamant in calling it a novel. But really the category is more a matter of convenience. Generally, I don’t think genre categorizations really accomplish much, and seem sort of outdated at this point.
Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
- Message, no, but there is something I’m writing towards. And the objective is really more or less something impossible to obtain, but for me, absolutely necessary to work towards. I think failure is inevitable in my line of work, though I don’t think failure is necessary a negative. Though there are different kinds of failures, and for me, one kind of failure might be okay, while another, not really.
What really interests me is what happens when someone reads a text, and not just any text, but one that really affects them, changes them somehow. I’m interested in these changes, both conceptually speaking, but also physically, how these changes get manifested neurologically. I’m interested in introspection and the construction of a phenomenological self-model during reading, and in narrativization versus narrative.
I’m very interested in what Badiou terms the “event,” as a “rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself ­– through which the subject finds his or her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.” Or even what Derrida termed the “blind spot,” or de Man’s point of literary disruption. I think these are talking about the same thing, that literature can potentially offer an alternate reality which actually creates a space for chances to be made in the conceptual system that structures this one.
In my opinion, the goal of experimental narrative should be, not to continue a futile anti-narrative aesthetic that ignores the inherent and necessary quality of narrativization for human understanding, but to push a narrative aesthetic that allows and inspires readers “to view their ideological embeddedness with fresh eyes.” (This quote I borrow from Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. writing about science fiction.)
What is needed then, is a reinvestigation of the writing event through the metaphor most suited to it: narrative. Writing is thus neither inherently narrative or anti-narrative, but the cognitive processes that dictate it, the understanding of it (there since truth is understanding, the “truth” of the matter), are. This isn’t anything new. Writers and thinkers have always known that truth is based on understanding. But I think recent discoveries in neuroscience are showing more and more that philosophical questions we’ve been tackling can be manifested physically too. Science is showing more and more that we are indeed physically wired to narrativize the world, and so it is becoming increasingly crucial to reconsider narrative in terms of mediating between the philosophical questions of truth and subjectivity in writing, and the biological/neurological mechanisms of science. I really do believe all the great disciplines have been asking the same big questions all along, and that the big questions do have answers. I also believe that writers, working uniquely and intimately with language and conceptual systems and narrative, have real power to do something about all this, to push people to really think about things.
What book are you reading now?
- Too many to count. I’m constantly cycling through books and might be reading anywhere between 6 and 20 books at a time. Though I will mention a book I read recently that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat, I reread it a couple times, something I almost never do. I won’t say much about it, just that it was phenomenal.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
- I’m not sure how new “new” should be to. But I will say that I think one of the most important writers writing right now is Vanessa Place. I’m convinced that Notes On Conceptualisms (co-authored with Rob Fitterman) and La Medusa should be canonical texts. And her recent project Statement of Facts is even more interesting and supremely (though really productively) problematic.
Others writers who I think are amazing and some maybe not out there yet but when they are will blow your mind: Joe Milazzo, Ian McCarty, Maxi Kim, Laura Vena, Jared Woodland, Nancy Romero, Saehee Cho, Harold Abramowitz.“ – Interview by David Hoenigman

Janice Lee, Damnation, Penny-ante Editions, 2013.

Excerpts from Damnation [The Collagist]

No technique of cinema is as royal and as risky as the Long Take—audacious in its promise of unified time and space, terrifying in what that might imply. Inspired by the films of Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, famous for his long take, and the novels and screenplays of Tarr’s great collaborator László Krasznahorkai, Janice Lee’s Damnation is both an ekphrasis and confession, an obsessive response, a poetic meditation and mirror on time; time that ruthlessly pulls forward with our endurance; time unleashed from chronology and prediction; time which resides in a  dank, drunk, sordid hiss of relentless static. As declared in Tarr’s film Damnation, “All stories are about disintegration.”

“That a film or a series of films is inspirative of a literary work of the most poetic and sophisticated kind is a rare phenomenon. Janice Lee’s book is the meeting point of two sensitivities of the finest. One is for the most desperate conditions of life in its objectivity, the other is for the most sublime, even divine spiritual reflection of this life. Lee’s Damnation is a beautiful variation on these themes that are at the depth of every film of Béla Tarr.” - ANDRÁS BÁLINT KOVÁCS

Damnation is a crucial node in contemporary ekphrasis, an inspired contribution to the art of slow seeing, and a document of cinematic obsession. Here Janice Lee conjures an alien, allegorical world that hovers just next to ours, a world which both repels and invites our visitation. She seeds her scenes with countless knockout sentences, whose lush music complicates her project’s austerity.” - MAGGIE NELSON

“Like its image of a furtive Holy Book that drives its bearers mad, Janice Lee’s Damnation hovers with remarkable grace between the sublime states of faith and terror. The graceful immediacy with which she navigates frame after frame of struggling humans caught up in the veils of darkness, thunder and silence, and moral duty bears resemblance to Saramago’s The Cave or McCarthy’s Child of God, though perhaps even more haunted, stripped to bone. “Anything that God takes part in is the most horrific thing you’ve ever imagined,” she writes, and then holds the reader in that vast anticipation, with mesmerizing results.”- BLAKE BUTLER

1. One of the things images of heaven and hell have in common is that both are static. As David Byrne sings, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” But hell is like that too. In Dante, the lustful ones will always be caught up in wind, Judas will always be in the pit of hell. Only on earth and purgatory is movement possible.
But what if earth is seen as static too? This is one of the principal motifs in Janice Lee’s book Damnation. As Jon Wagner says in his introduction to the book, the landscape in Lee’s Damnation is frozen, unmoored from chronology and redemption and progress. As he puts it, a place “without redemptive return.” It is, I’d argue, materialist not in the Marxists sense, but in the Robbe-Grillet sense. A world thick with things that exist beyond our desire to conceptualize them and fit them into narratives. As Lee writes early in the book, “Outside, the thickness of air, like a heavy silence or constant din of angels’ whispers.” There is a long tradition that portrays the world as a static sphere: Beckett especially, but also Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Francis Bacon, Guyotat, the harsher novels by Duras. A place of mud, rain, and repetition.
2. The title is taken from the 1988 film by Bela Tarr, though the book as a whole is inspired by all of Tarr’s work, as well as Tarr’s frequent collaborator, the novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I haven’t seen any of Tarr’s films — I’ve been meaning to for years — but I have read quite a bit of Krasznahorkai, a writer with a style so precise and his own that any imitation of it verges of parody, much like Faulkner or Woolf or Proust. One of the great things about Lee’s book is the way she keeps away from this danger. The spirit of the novelist is there, but not the letter. The enclosed, rotting spaces he is famous for is present, but Lee’s Damnation has a sensibility of its own, being heavily fragmented, with the emphasis on landscape and dialogue often spoken in a sort of no-place. If anything, Lee’s worldview is even more claustrophobic than Krasznahorkai’s, who has the sweep of narrative to carry us along.
I kept thinking of Guy Maddin’s early films while reading Damnation, and the way those films continually place you in small realms, with small slivers of narrative (even the huge battle scenes are clearly on some stage). As we read near the end of the book, “All stories eventually are stories about disintegration…yet, the hero continues on his path to ruin, because he knows nothing else outside of that purview.”
images 3. Lee doesn’t reference Tarr and Krasznahorkai in the book. That is, we don’t get any scenes where, as in a Pirandello play or Godard film, there is a moment of the lights turning on in the theater, with someone — the author, the characters themselves, voices from the sky — starting to discuss Tarr as a filmmaker or Krasznahorkai as a novelist. I don’t mean this as a criticism: if anything, there’s something brave about a book that is so obsessed by its source material that it lingers with it without the need to take out the critic’s mask (a mask that all too often becomes an actual face). This moves makes sense, given how anti-teleological the book is: these days, “critique” has become our favorite form of telos. Lee doesn’t let us off so easily.
 4. Damnation. In Lee’s book, it’s a kind of gravity, a weight pulling us into the mud, into a constant state of corruption. We’re all damned to this state of things. The lover, the machinist, the eerie girl and her cat, the doctor: all of the figures in this book live in the shadow of the guillotine (to quote Victor Hugo). The book itself opens with the arrival of a mysterious book, “a strange looking copy of The Holy Bible.” It causes confusion, fear, sadness. If the Bible is often seen as a book of comfort and Messianic visions, this book would seem to be the anti-Bible.
And yet, is it really? The Hebrew Testament is filled with the weight of things, with a God who proudly proclaims His own mysteriousness, a mysteriousness that exists beyond our concepts and stories. In a Nietzschean reading of Job, God is not a figure of senseless contradiction, but a figure of power and strangeness, a figure who seems mesmerized by His own enigmatic being. In Lee’s book, He is more of an It, an absence among the weeds and cows and rain, but even this absence has a spark of awe in it. As a character says near the opening, “What is holy in this world of everlasting flood and devastation? The Word is…And the word is all around us.”
            This also reminds me of a scene in The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh’s spiritual brother Enkidu has a vision of death that involves a house of dust and meals of clay. One on level, Damnation is a very new type of book, one of fragmentation and cinematic obsession, and yet it is also very old, going back centuries…
 5. But I don’t want to leave the impression that this is a book of misery and woe. Deleuze argued that Bacon, all appearances to the contrary, was not a miserablist. The athleticism and vigor of his work convey a strong sense of affirmative passion. So to with Lee’s book: the attention to language, the roughhewn musicality of the syntax, more than keeps this book from being a work of despair.
6. An epitaph to Nietzsche’s surprising compassion (who famously embraced a horse that was being beaten in the streets of Turin one month before never speaking again): “Everyone thinks the end of the world will be with some kind of cataclysmic event. But all there will be is the beating of a horse.”
7. I can’t think of a better book to start this new, cold year off than Lee’s Damnation. - James Pate

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. - Blake Butler

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“To a small village, at the end of winter, comes a mysterious package addressed to no one.” Thus begins Damnation, Janice’s Lee’s new novella. When some villagers open the bundle and find a strange-looking Bible, the mail sorter is overcome by a sudden sense of misery. Soon children start hallucinating, and reciting random biblical passages in both their sleeping and waking lives. In response, and fearing that these words may cause real harm, the villagers try to drown them out by plugging their ears with wax, or staying home in the dark with the television on full blast. So the village becomes a noisy place, where accidents happen, and the spring that had once seemed so close, now seems far.
Damnation is inspired by the films of Béla Tarr and his collaborator László Krasznahorkai, especially Sátántángo. Like Renee Gladman, also a Tarr enthusiast, Lee is fascinated by the long shot and how literature might mimic this device. As this link has been discussed elsewhere, here, I take the book as an autonomous literary event.
Like all of Lee’s books, Damnation is written in fable-like poetic prose divided into short, named sections: “The Cows,” “Confession,” “The Lovers,” “The Dogs,” “Post Office,” “The Machinist,” “Indoors,” “Outdoors,” “The Bar,” and “The Fight.” These designate cast and locations, and some of the main events. There is little narrative, or even a sequence; more often we find only an unordered cluster of seemingly banal scenes. Above all, as with the work of Gladman, Beckett, and Ben Marcus, this is a book about language—about a world where words are no longer a means of communication but function instead like an external force whose toxic effects we must ward off by using prophylactic devices or withdrawing from social interaction altogether.
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The language troubles identified here do not stem from the oversaturation and degradation of words but from the failing of a sense of determination, the loss of a sense of connection between different events, and between events and words. This is a “writing after disaster,” aka Blanchot, where the shifting of some apparently tiny disturbance has caused everything else to change: the package arrived. Now all is suspended, people, animals, seasons, time. Above all, the relations between things are unraveling, so events no longer proceed in casual chains and intentions no longer bear weight. Things simply happen, without reference, either to others or to themselves, and instead of meaning we now have only what matters: a world of objects and events, not signs and symbols. Perhaps this is less ekphrasis or conceptual writing than a new and novel-form of concrete? This is exactly the project that Balzac and Flaubert articulated at the dawn of modernism; they called it the writing of stone. —Christine Wertheim

Janice Lee’s latest novel, Damnation, may initially present itself as a work of “critical theory” in disguise. A rumination upon cinema—specifically, the collaborations of director Bela Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai—the book is more broadly concerned with the experience, in all its torpor and extravagance, of watching films. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say that Lee has performed here a sort of clinical study, demonstrating with a delicate obsessiveness the procedures of a self-medication whose prescription is obsessive film-watching. In actuality, however, this is a book that turns several faces to the reader. There are the faces of the characters that occupy this novel’s diegesis, their features never delineated, but faces that are nevertheless always open in their looking, their anxiety, their defeat, their unaging weariness. And there are those related faces drawn for us in the book’s appendix, which also serves as a record of the author’s visions (not purely imaginary) of these same characters. Construed as either ekphrasis or exorcism, Damnation impresses most as portrait of spiritual crisis, albeit one that is not colored by any theology, any moral imperative, or any transcendence.
The world into which Lee ushers us with Damnation will be familiar to viewers acquainted with Tarr’s films. It is a world of nearly endless rain, bare trees sunk in mud, stinging wind, overcoats and boots, decaying brick buildings, atavistic villages and relationships that have failed at every level: familial, romantic, social, environmental. It is a world populated by individuals who are both entirely flesh and blood and yet hauntingly anonymous, referred to only by appellations such as “the mail sorter” or “the doctor.” Are these persons mere images akin to those in a film? Or are they true consciousnesses, literary organisms who achieve an actual verisimilitude because they resemble what we see of ourselves in the movie we are constantly playing in our own heads? Even when these characters speak and reveal their innermost fears (which is often) one has the sense that they exist primarily as stylizations, like the figures flattened into the destinies of a Tarot deck. Distant from us as archetypes, they are nonetheless capable of eliciting our sympathy. As such, they possess an almost timeless quality, and act without reference to the dominant tropes of contemporary experimental fiction. .
Damnation‘s plot commences with the arrival of a mysterious parcel containing a holy book that inspires both terror and adoration. “You will see that I am a better God,” proclaims some entity in the book’s preface, yet the story that follows never clarifies whether this better God is one of vengeance or one of salvation—or if, indeed, there is anything to distinguish the one from the other. In actuality, affliction presides over this world, and this affliction can be felt most powerfully in the experience of time the novel offers to the reader. As in the long, long takes typical of Tarr’s cinema, time in Damnation seems to have malfunctioned. This is no simple matter, however, nor does it produce stasis. Time is not merely stopped,. Time’s cycles have stalled in their repeating: spring is always coming (like Kafka’s imperial message) but that season never arrives, even as a pair of lovers in the novel hope to escape winter and believe that they glimpse some sign of its end in their trysts.. But two sisters, looking for some shelter and respite from the weather, mark the search for revivification with this exchange: “— How long are we to wait? — A little while longer.”
As one reads further into the book, one’s suspicions keep pace with one’s dread. It is very possible that, in Damnation, the end of the world has come and gone, and, though having altered time irrevocably, somewhat left the survivors fundamentally unchanged. Everyone in this book is passing time, detained, both anticipating and trying to elude resolution. And although the bartender has his inklings, what the machinist and the daughter and the salesman all fail to comprehend is that whatever was to have been resolved by judgment has already been resolved by default. “Everyone thinks the end of the world will begin with some kind of cataclysmic event. But all there will be is the beating of a horse.”
What end is this? A rotting imminence that doubles as an immanence; things are what they are, lacking any metaphysic whatsoever, though this could itself be a new metaphysic, an inverted transubstantiation. In the words of Damnation‘s narrator: “The sense of vacancy and tedium are not accessories, but symptoms. That the book [Damnation's anti-Bible, and / or Damnation, this novel itself], which is just a book, goes on being a book.” Readers, however, should not come to Lee’s work with the expectation that it will satisfy the same post-apocalyptic prurience that, say, zombie dystopias do,. Her concerns are not apocalyptic but eschatological, and, although Damnation consents to the circumstances of a particular world’s ending, it does not lead the reader through the wreckage with any promise of a grand revelation.
Instead, Lee describes: cattle leaving their pen and setting off down the road; a snail crossing the same road; a schoolteacher raising a bucket, full not of water but gore, from a well; a girl lighting a lamp that is blown out by the wind again and again, plunging the girl and her father into a darkness that could resemble “how it was before the world was created.” (And it was, for to truly watch a film and immerse oneself in it, one must extinguish all the lights, temporarily destroy one world so another might appear.) These descriptions, while not exhaustive, certainly linger, and, in doing so, blur the distinction between exposition and dramatization. The cumulative effect is not an elimination of narrative suspense; rather, a prolongation of the rituals of narrative suspense results, and continues until those rituals become something else. Thus one of the book’s lovers pauses in his longing just long enough to speak of a waking dream in which he locates some peace and wholeness. The little shock that Lee delivers is that the union which captivates this lover is asexual in its sublimity. “— I like the rain. Watching the raindrops pour down the window. It calms me. I don’t think of anything. The rain doesn’t let me think of anything. I just watch it. And can forget everything, everyone.” It is death, not love, which cannot be consummated in Damnation, and if only it could, living might regain some meaning.
Until such consummation can be restored, there is ample time for questions. Is there any existence outside of time? What might a time after time resemble? What substance, much less significance, does time have outside of human experience? Could one experience time as a leaf or a galaxy does? If so, what if one could? Is time of our own devising? Is time, like narrative, a technology the secret of whose control we’ve lost or are in whose forfeiting we are perpetually toiling? How exceptional are we, and upon what fictions does our sense of having made ourselves elect rest? (Or is it that we have been made elect?) Above all, what is mercy, and who has the power to bestow it: God? a god? a narrator? the narrated? Janice Lee’s great achievement in Damnation is to create a wide field in which such speculation may behold its own regarding projected, if not quite fallen, short. - Joe Milazzo

Janice Lee is one of the more interesting writers I know. Period. And here is our conversation on her new book Damnation (Penny Ante Editions)contemporary literature, and the expectations of “identity” from the readers, editors, and publishers.
Damnation is what exactly?
Damnation is an ekphrasis, confession, and obsessive response inspired by the films of Béla Tarr, and the novels and screenplays of Tarr’s collaborator Lászlo Krasznahorkai. It’s a strange project, one from which I may never recover, and one that has locked me into a strange stasis of being. Among its themes: disintegration, time, eternity, the apocalypse, conspiracy, darkness, the filmic long take. The story of a strange book that arrives in a strange town and the fears of its inhabitants.
Wait, that doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with Asian-American issues? Can that be? How can that be?
You’re absolutely right. Should it?
I’m overdoing my tone on purpose, and you recently told me that you are asked this question. At &NOW Boulder, keynote Percival Everett indicated that he once met a NY editor who rejected one of his mss because it had nothing to do with black people. To what extent do you feel the identity issue is at the core of expectations about your work, and how do you, if you do, attempt to “counter” these expectations (limitations?) in a text?
There are strange expectations that come with being a writer with certain labels: “female,” “experimental,” “Asian-American,” “Korean-American,” etc. I’ve often been solicited for work by editors of journals that focus on Asian-American writers, and when I send them my writing, they claim that “it’s not what they were looking for.” Which is sort of BS right, considering that I’m sending them exactly the type of work that I have always been doing, but they’re wanting a certain kind of work based on who they think I am, ie. Asian-American, ie. a writer writing about Asian-American-ness, ie. a writer writing about Asian-American-ness according to a certain set of rules and guidelines. Or, it’s that that I’m not these things. Of course I am. But there are certain standards and certain narratives that are expected out of certain identity categories. Having certain labels associated with one’s identity sets certain expectations. “Experimental” and “woman” are two other labels that get added to “writer,” and those set  expectations too. So it’s also been interesting with Damnation, that the work isn’t “feminist” or “experimental” in the same way that my past works were perceived to be, and when people’s expectations aren’t met, they might just dismiss rather than engage.
Sorry, could you repeat that? I wasn’t really listening. Wait, I read this over e-mail. Never mind. Are these really “strange” expectations, or perhaps just manifestations of authorial essentialism that decades of poststructuralism has done little to alter in any fundamental way. Isn’t the “death of the author” a bunch of nonsense in a Duchampian sense that actually recuperates authorship?
Of course. It’s like once I told a friend that my favorite animals were hippos and all I got for several birthdays in a row were hippo-themed things. I have a hippo piggy bank, hippo figurines, hippo stuffed animals, hippo toys, a hippo flashlight…
AND, if my above question has any significance, wouldn’t there be no real benefit to making texts that seem innovative as opposed to more conventional realist models, in that neither would “speak” without our assumptions of the writer?
Well, right, our assumptions of the writer are inseparable from the reading of the text, meaning we “read” writers as much as we “read” books. But also, I don’t think writers lean towards innovation versus conventional realism because there are “benefits” per se. There certainly aren’t concrete benefits like money and health insurance, but because writers feel that certain stories need to be told in certain ways.
AND, then, isn’t anything you write really a book about Asian American issues because how can the book separate from what people think they know of the author?
Well right, aren’t all books written by people? (Well, not ALL. You’re right, there are the machines. But you get my drift.) So then in that mode any book I write is simultaneously about all aspects of my identity, which aren’t easily categorizable (at least I attempt to hold on to this belief), and every interaction, relationship, conversation I’ve ever had with any other human being is also part of me somehow, so in a way, parts of all those people, whatever “identity” they identify with, are also part of me? Maybe? Am I going too far? But anyways, it also has to do with which parts of a person’s identity are easily visible to the public. And in a way, though I write fiction, all of it is somehow about me in some way, filtered through my lens, etc.
How much does the visibility of your authorial persona play into the reception of your texts? If I take your point above, it’s that these are inseparable on some level, and that you recognize that the linkages between the two are to some extent curated. Here, and particular in your other career as a web designer, I wonder how much you think about the curation of persona in relation to your writing?
Probably this is a better question aimed at my readers, as I can’t know exactly how much knowing about me has to do with how they read my texts. Probably with some people, a lot, and probably with others, very little. I do think a little bit about curation of my persona online though. Partially, my work as a web designer lets me know how interconnected the internet really is, how much about us there really is, etc. But anyways, maybe I can do a slight role reversal and ask YOU (as a reader) if my authorial personal plays into your reception of my texts?
Only insomuch as I read your author function as an innovative, west coast writer whose work, for me, seems to some degree aesthetically conversant with other southern California things I know about, while also interfacing nicely with the larger indie scene. I also know that those words “innovative” and “indie” can be fraught, and limiting, and not at all accurate. Beyond this, though, and this is admittedly extremely abstract in what it means for my reading your work, no. I don’t read your works as Asian American, although I certainly enjoyed (and have taught) Daughter.
Put another way, is the expectation of certain editor/readers/etc. that your work conform to Asian American tropes a function of the information available about you online? Do you ever consider the assumptions that might be made about you before tweeting, etc?  I ask because I sometimes experience a version of this in terms of my Jewishness. I don’t edit, necessarily, but I experience my digital persona in broader terms, against my own sense of complex ethnic and cultural identity.
Well, one thing is that this has actually been happening more lately, as my name becomes more visible,  as editors or other writers “hear about me,” or at least hear about my name, or hear about my identity, or you can easily google me and find my photo pretty readily, as editors start to want to feel more “inclusive” and “diverse,” etc. But there’s a pressure to be dealing with certain identity themes and issues more head on, more directly, and obviously. But in terms of what’s out there, I have a pretty good idea. A version of the same bio I’ve been using is usually out there in some form, one of a few photos of me that get used readily, etc. I never label myself as an Asian-American writer. But it’s not even just race that becomes a constricting label. It’s also aesthetic, style, gender, etc. I’ve been told that Damnation is more “conventional” than my previous work. I’ve also been told that it reads at times as “masculine.” I mean, what do these words even mean? Is it productive to look at style or aesthetic and consequently presume identity?
We are all working against the expectations set by our previous work, I suppose—which is why I try to do very different things with my projects. DRAIN is sci-fi(ish), while [SIC] is conceptual, while my HuffPost essays are sometimes darned heartwarming, and yet I feel enfranchised, almost furiously obligated, to work differently. I change my process to change my style. The word “masculine” is meaningless when describing a text, except as that term intersects, or doesn’t, with a reader’s pre-conceived understanding of its connotations. I read this understanding in your work, but let me ask how explicitly you would chafe, if at all, from “conventional” success. Do you want to write something that might be at home at Random House?
In his new book on Béla Tarr, Jacques Ranciere writes the following: “A style as we know after Flaubert, is not the embellishment of a discourse, but a manner of seeing things: an “absolute” manner, says the novelist, a manner of absolutizing the act of seeing and the transcription of perception, against the narrative tradition that rushes on to the effect that follows from a cause. For the writer, however, “to see” is an ambiguous word. It is necessary “to make the scene visible,” says the novelist. But what he writes is not what he sees, and it is this very gap brings literature into being.” This resonates with me in the idea that style, or aesthetic, isn’t about discourse. In many ways it can be, I don’t mean to discount the history of the literary avant-garde, but style also has much more to do with the way a person simply sees things, how they see the world. What one sees is inextricably bound up with how on sees. And during the process of writing Damnation, I saw things very differently. My relationship with the world, with writing, with cinema, with myself all changed. I’m still reconciling this now. So in response to your question if I would ever want to write something that might be at home with Random House. Why not? I try not to write for a certain audience. The way I write has much more to do with my own relationship with language and narrative than with telling someone a good story. But I don’t dismiss this possibility. Will I likely write something that Random House would pick up? Probably not. But if I did, would I make a political decision not to go with a publisher like that? Of course not, that seems idiotic to me.
Related to this: Is there anything essential to be a small-press/indie/innovative writer, or are those also just words (the flip side of “conventional” and “masculine”)?
Something I’ve been thinking about is, what the point of these terms anyways, especially terms like “innovative” and “experimental” vs. “conventional” and “traditional” and “realistic.” There’s a history and context here, of course, but also these terms are less and less productive. To me, it seems that a term like “experimental” or “innovative” seems to want to be an empowering term, to legitimize types of writing and ways of writing, to lend them authority, especially politically. But at the same, these terms are marginalizing in themselves, that in seeking to categorize something to lend it some sort of power and authority in a certain context, it also allows itself to be categorized in that manner, allows itself to be marginalized as an other category and becomes complacent in this way. This is the push and pull of labels, right? And it’s a political stance. Because of what “experimental” and “indie” have come to stand for in a certain literary context, a term like “conventional” becomes an insult. Terms become polarized. Like “liberal” and “conservative.” But the more terms are polarized in a semantic and symbolic sense, the less they start to make sense in real life.
Of course, and the empowerment of the outré terms often leads to elaborately comical attempts by those inhabiting those spaces to argue for 1) a certain aesthetics purity or 2) a reach well beyond the real (but obscured by dogma) limitations of distribution. I cringe, and laugh, when I read about the next small indie book radically reinventing literature, or whatever, and yet such discourse is only going Lady MacBeth because there is a kernel of legitimate resistance that might be located within that space. And yet, the best way to un-subvert the subversive is to shout it from the rooftops. There, everything becomes either earnest, or a parody of earnestness.  Given all if this, Janice, what’s next? What follows Damnation?
What’s next. I don’t know. I’m in a waiting period. Recovering. But Ranciere on Tarr once more: “The time after is neither that of reason recovered, nor that of the expected disaster. It is the time after all stories, the time when one takes direct interest in the sensible stuff in which these stories cleaved their shortcuts between projected and accomplished ends. It is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting. It is the time in which we take an interest in the wait itself.” - Interview by Davis Schneiderman

Observations on the long take
Janice Lee interviewed by Maxi Kim.

The last time 3:AM Magazine spoke with Janice Lee, she had just published her second novel Daughter. Shortly before her first interview appeared in early 2011, Janice’s mother died suddenly. Her follow up work to Kerotakis was intent on exploring the lack of an archetype for the daughter figure. “We seem to have many archetypes in mythology and psychology for fathers, mothers, sons, but not really for daughters.” She went on to say that she didn’t count Freud’s, because it was a “carbon-copy of the son’s dilemma, in reverse.” Since then, her breadths as both a thinker and writer have only grown with each project.
Janice Lee’s newest title Damnation is a renunciation of her prior literary ventures and a book-length meditation on the long takes of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr. Slated to come out as the eighth title of Penny-Ante Editions’ Success and Failures series, Stewart Home’s novel Mandy, Charlie, & Mary-Jane was the sixth in the series. Our conversation took place over brunch in a local diner near Janice’s home in Los Angeles.
Waitress: Are you guys ready for me or do you need a few minutes?
Janice Lee: I’m going to have the All American.
Waitress: How do you want the eggs?
JL: Over medium. And can I have the French toast instead of the pancakes?
Waitress: Sure. Sausage or bacon?
JL: Sausage. And add a side of home fries?
Waitress: Of course. And did you want any fruit with the French toast or just the plate?
JL: Just the slice.
Waitress: And for you?
Maxi Kim: I’ll have the same.
JL: [laughter]
Waitress: Two All Americans over medium eggs with sausage and French toast. And home fries as well? Great, thank you guys.
JL: All of that needs to be in the interview.
3:AM: [laughter] Let’s talk about your work . . .
JL: Well, lately I’ve been watching Béla Tarr films on repeat: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Damnation (1988), Sátántango (1994), and I just watched The Turin Horse (2011). It’s partially been a strange compulsion, watching these films over and over again (which I talk a bit more about in this post {http://jadedibisproductions.com/on-writing-and-obsession/}). But also I’ve been thinking about Béla Tarr’s long takes versus other long takes. Damnation, Sátántango and Werckmeister Harmonies are all based on either books, or screenplays by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, I’ve been reading his writing too and the work is really phenomenal; he uses these long sentences that sort of cycle through. You start off in one place, and somehow, through the succession of his dense language and phrases, seem to pass through eternity and end up in another place altogether. There’s a similar feeling to a long take, but they’re not the same. The sentences will sometimes describe very simple things, like people in a waiting room and how they’re feeling. But the sentence manages to encompass the whole history of these people and their future and their fates and the feeling of waiting and of eternity; and then, you the reader now feel like you’re confessing your own being to some vague ghost of God while you’re reading the sentence. It’s hard to explain. But I’ve been interested in why Krasznahorkai’s sentences are so powerful for me, and why Béla Tarr’s long takes are so effective, at least for me . . .
3:AM: Are they anything like Tarkovsky’s?
JL: Yeah, people compare him to Tarkovsky all the time. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called him a ”despiritualized Tarkovsky,” and Tarr’s response was “The main difference is Tarkovsky’s religious and we are not. But he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us—than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film. I think his style is also different because several times I have had a feeling he is much softer, much nicer.” And too, though I can’t remember where, I remember him saying too: “Rain in his films purifies people. In mine, it just makes mud.” There are similarities, yes, in that they both utilize the long take to “sculpt time,” but there are different worldviews at place.
I felt like I was in a confessional booth, actually giving confession when I was watching Béla Tarr’s films; I’ve never given confession before, but that’s how I imagine it’d feel like – the simultaneous intimacy with distancing and guilt, and all of these emotions all at once. Though Tarr isn’t “religious” in the same sense, the distant and vague ghost of religion is almost more powerful for me than the overbearing presence of it. I’ve been attempting to write long takes of my own, and the writing is completely different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m not intentionally relying on concepts and ideas, I’m writing these long scenes and really focusing in on small motions and objects. It might be more allegorical, I don’t know . . .

3:AM: How difficult was it to write about Béla Tarr given how defensive he is about how people read his movies? As you were writing the Béla Tarr book did you ask yourself if he would approve of it?
JL: When I was writing Damnation it had almost nothing to do with Béla Tarr as a person. I was writing it during the fall and I was already a fan of his films, I’d seen Béla Tarr’s Sátántango and Werckmeister Harmonies. At the time, I was going through a period of depression and simultaneous writer’s block, and as I watched his films I began contemplating what was happening in his world and in mine. And I was writing these little vignettes, these fictional vignettes that were taking place in the world of his films. There’s a narrative, but everything is inspired by and written while I was watching the films. The films ultimately set the pace for my writing, the films transformed my writing.
3:AM: Did you ever think about Béla Tarr, the person?
JL: I began thinking about Béla Tarr, the person, only after I was done. I don’t know what he would think about these vignettes, I’m also collaborating with Jared Woodland on this critical project that started out as a review of Sátántango, the book by Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. Then, we decided it was a book length project, and started moving into a more in-depth investigation of Krasznahorkai’s writing alongside the film Sátántango. For that project we’ve read interviews of both Béla Tarr and László Krasnahorkai. And some of the time we found ourselves disagreeing with what they had to say about their own work. But also a lot of time thinking, “Yes, absolutely.” And often you have to excuse Béla Tarr. I think that he doesn’t want to explain his work to the public – I think that’s fine and I totally understand that. The work stands on its own. I don’t think there’s anything that he could say that would change the way that people feel about his work.
3:AM: The one interview that I listened to recently of his was the one where he talked about what cinema is for today. He’s actively against Hollywood movies, he asserts that cinema should reveal reality, time, etc. He kept on using the world reality, to explore reality. Do you agree with Béla Tarr on this point?
JL: I think cinema has many different functions. As you know, I love action movies; I recently saw the newest Fast & Furious. I think the function of a movie like Fast & Furious 6 is very different from the function of a Béla Tarr movie. I don’t know if there is just one function of cinema.
3:AM: The function of Fast & Furious is just to entertain, right?
JL: To entertain and to enact certain types of experiences. (There’s this term, chaos cinema, which I was introduced to via a video essay by film scholar Matthias Stork) And I think Béla Tarr enacts other kinds of experiences. It’s interesting that he uses the word “reality” so much, because one of the things that my collaborator Jared and I are talking about is that his films are a sort of mock reality. Yes, they’re a series of long takes, the film time and the actual time are often identical (things happen in “real” time), but events in his movies are not “realistic,” persay, which I think stems from his early documentary-fiction style. Viewers are always aware of the fact that scenes are partially staged, so there is a strange overbearing attention to detail that makes things present and real, like the locations or textures on a wall, but also a strange, philosophical tone in the dialogue or actors’ movements that indicates the fictionality of the world, and this is a strange balance to live in.
3:AM: Yes, there is a theatrical quality. Béla Tarr isn’t making pure documentaries.
Waiter: [interrupts] Can I get some more iced tea for you?
JL: Sure.
3:AM: I’d like some more coffee please.
Waiter: Absolutely.
3:AM: Are Béla Tarr’s long takes associated with capturing the sacred?
JL: Yeah, in a way. I think capturing the sacred while simultaneously capturing the ugly reality as being flat; and that flatness can still hold things that are sacred – if that makes sense. I feel like in other films, long takes often are about bringing out the beauty in subjects, they romanticize the subject maybe. In Béla Tarr, we might say that the subjects of a lot of these long takes are not worthy of long takes. Sometimes it’s watching someone fall asleep. Or watching it rain. There’s this scene in Sátántango where this doctor, he’s really big and he has trouble getting around; and there’s this 15 minute long take of him stumbling through the forest, he’s grunting, and sometimes you can’t see him, he’s between trees, it’s very dark. It’s actually quite painful and uncomfortable to watch. You the viewer aren’t sure why it’s going on for so long; it’s past the threshold of enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure. It’s just about being in the moment with him. It’s a very strange repetitive intimacy. . . I think of Beckett’s, “I can’t go on, I must go on.” Or Peggy Lee’s, “Is that all there is?”
3:AM: It sounds excruciating.
JL: It does, but it’s not. There’s Béla Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse (2011), the name of the film comes from the famous incident when Nietzsche witnesses a man beating a horse in the street. The film starts with a man and a horse, and his daughter. There are all these long takes of them doing very mundane things. For instance, her helping him put on his clothes, a really long take of taking off his pajamas and putting on his socks, and then scenes of them eating potatoes (the film completely changed my conception of eating potatoes by the way). This goes on for six days. As a viewer I start to realize that I have to see these long takes of them going through their daily rituals, because then as small things start to change in their routines those changes begin to have huge repercussions. For example, one day they’re eating and it’s the same scene we’ve already seen four times, but this particular time these gypsies come out of nowhere to try to drink from their well. And they’re interrupted, as a viewer it’s so jarring . . .
3:AM: I’m reminded of Žižek speaking about how, for him, his favorite part in the movie Psycho is when Norman Bates is cleaning up that shower after killing the woman. And it’s just a ten minute scene of him doing manual labor, and for Žižek, as you said, the long take gives you a sense of intimacy. But there’s also something fascinating about watching someone just do manual labor.
JL: I think the long take, in those kinds of instances, sort of allows you to withhold your judgment. If we look at the way Pasolini talks about the long take, when you have a cut it means there’s a sense of momentary closure. So, the long take is perpetually in the present and it’s when you have a cut that that take is now in the past. In a long take you can’t make a judgment, you can’t actually project what you have inside of you on to what’s going on, until you see the end. You might be thinking about it, but really everything that you’re thinking about is based on the pure observation of the present moment or what is inside of yourself. You’re not allowed to relate the two – until that long take ends.
3:AM: How long have you been thinking about this?
JL: It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but especially lately because I’ve suddenly had my writing undergo this transition.
3:AM: There is something very honest about the long take, right? But it’s also interesting when it feels clichéd?
JL: Sure, it’s a filmic technique like any other. Anyone is free to use or misuse it.
3:AM: I was speaking about this with an Indian director I had just met at my friend’s movie club, he was telling me about how his favorite director was Eric Rohmer. But even his movies, as authentic as they are, they feel a bit clichéd. Because you know by the end of any Rohmer movie that the protagonist is going to do the right thing; after a series of obstacles, the protagonist won’t cheat on his wife, or he’s not going to take advantage of the minor . . . .
JL: Not all long takes are created equal. For me, successful long takes are series of different moments, they’re not necessarily a continuation of linear time, even if it’s happening linearly. In Hollywood films the long take is usually just a part of a longer sequence of events, it’s just one of many, and usually they function to help further plot or action. Orson Welles, for example, uses impressive long takes, but they don’t function the same way that Wong Kar Wai’s long takes do, or Béla Tarr’s. Have you seen Sátántango by the way?
3:AM: No.
JL: That’s a seven hour film. People fall asleep during that movie; consequently, you watch people fall asleep and wake up. The beginning shot of Sátántango is amazing; it’s a ten minute long shot of cows. The camera sort of moves with the cows, and at one point a cow stops to mount another cow. You can hear them mooing, and it’s raining . . .
Waiter: [brings coffee and iced tea to table]
3:AM: Thank you.
JL: I was reading a review that was breaking down this particular shot describing how in some ways you’re watching the cows and it seems like the filmmakers didn’t know what the cows were going to do; the cows were just “improv-ing.” Nobody is directing the cows. But at the same time, they probably took the shot a million times to get the right sequence of cow movements. So, it is sort of a documentary scene, because the cows are just moving without direction, but also the camera is panning steadily, and we’re very conscious of the camera’s presence. There’s that strange combination of fiction and nonfiction here.
3:AM: Are you working with [CalArts faculty member] Jon Wagner on this?
JL: I’ve been talking with Jon Wagner a little bit about long takes. We’ve been talking about Pasolini a lot. He feels like Tarkovsky used to be his favorite, and now he feels like Béla Tarr is better . . .
Waitress: Two All Americans with home fries?
3:AM: Thank you.
JL: Thank you.
Waitress: Enjoy.
3:AM: It looks really good.
JL: I feel like I was a real Tarkovsky fan too until I came across Béla Tarr. And now, for me, nothing else can compare in terms of the effect it has on me. We talked about how at the end of Béla Tarr’s long takes you feel like you have clarity. It’s a feeling of clarity without any understanding, if that makes sense. Clarity and understanding are two different things. You can have a feeling of clarity without understanding anything about the world of these characters. So, when you have a layering of all these long takes, it’s both calming and anxiety inducing.
3:AM: Is he capturing boredom at all? Godard does that often.
JL: Not to me. I think a viewer could potentially find the long takes boring, yes. But I think that has to do with pacing and patience. If you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy long takes, or doesn’t enjoy these types of films . . .
3:AM: I really dislike Warhol’s movies . . .
JL: I completely agree. Béla Tarr’s Sátántango is a seven hour movie, and I thought it’d be really excruciating to watch – but it wasn’t. I watched it with a group of people and it actually felt much shorter than seven hours. And we all agreed that it was so worthwhile, but we all had trouble articulating exactly what it was, why – the why? I feel okay about not being able to perfectly articulate it, but I definitely feel very different having gone through the experience. My boyfriend has a funny anecdote actually. He was taking this film class with Jean-Pierre Gorin at UCSD and I guess everyone failed the midterm essay. He was really upset. And as a sort of punishment, he made them watch Sátántango over the course of three classes, which I think is so great. Have you watched any Béla Tarr?
3:AM: Not many, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest.
JL: I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially compared to Tarkovsky.
3:AM: Has anyone articulated what you’re feeling with Béla Tarr?

JL: The essay that’s always resonated with me, and the one I’m constantly returning to is Pasolini’s short essay on the long take. There used to be almost nothing out there, just mostly film reviews or reactions, but not much in-depth investigation. Very recently though there’s two books: András Bálint Kovács has this wonderful book called The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes which offers a super comprehensive analysis of Tarr’s career. And also, recently translated into English, Jacques Ranciére’s Béla Tarr, The Time After, which I’ve got on my desk but haven’t finished yet.
3:AM: I was surprised to learn how much preproduction work went into his movies. When Béla Tarr made Macbeth (1982), according to one source, for every one hour of camera work there was three hours of preproduction in the form of rehearsals. Every time an actor screwed up during a long take, Béla Tarr insisted in starting all over again from the beginning.
JL: Yes, it’s like a strange choreography.
3:AM: A very professional choreography. I think a lot of directors make the choice to cut, not out of necessity, but because the alternative, the long take, demands knowing how to choreograph and getting all the participants to be on simultaneously.
JL: Yes, there are a lot of different types of long takes. There’s the famous Orson Welles long take in Touch of Evil (1958) that’s more about the impressive spectacle of the long take. And then there’s the other type of long take in the film Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) where the long takes of that film are sometimes excruciating to watch, it’s an endurance type of experience, but absolutely beautiful in that kind of way. During the last shot of that film you’re inside of an old theater, the camera is pretty far away from the action, and there’s this old lady who is hobbling very slowly and she’s cleaning the theater seats. And if you read the interview with the filmmaker [Ming-liang Tsai], he has said that that shot was sort of like an homage to the theater, because the actual theater closed down after they shot the film. That’s why he wanted to hold the shot for as long as possible, which is a completely different cinematic than Orson Welles’ long takes. With Béla Tarr things are happening in “real time” but it’s almost like people are moving even slower than that.
3:AM: In the long take?
JL: For example, in Sátántango there’s this character, the doctor, who I mentioned before. It’s clear that he’s not in the best of health. He’s always breathing really hard, the camera is often right next to him and its uncomfortable for the viewer to be in his personal space. The doctor character documents everything and he keeps everything in these notebooks. Everything that he does, like pouring himself a drink, takes so long. I feel like if I was watching a real person do these things it wouldn’t take nearly as long. It’s so excruciating, you just want to pour the drink for him because he’s doing it too slowly and he’s spilling. What’s going on here is a different kind of staged-ness where even what they’re doing inside the long shot isn’t realistic but also hyperrealistic.
3:AM: After you’ve experienced Béla Tarr for how many months, is it more difficult to see Hollywood movies?
JL: Actually it’s easier. They’re both nice reliefs from the other. I don’t think I could watch a Sátántango forever, but I equally couldn’t watch a Fast & Furious forever probably. For me, I need both. I think they’re in conversation with one another – whether they’re doing it intentionally or not.

Janice Lee's web page


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