Jason DeBoer's experimental fictions were created by disintegrating and then reintegrating Shakespeare's language into new narratives of warfare and desire. The result is an ultra-vivid hypertext, a warped yet faithful concordance of astounding poetic power
Jason DeBoer, Annihilation Songs: Three Shakespeare Reintegrations, Stalking Horse Press, 2016.
Killing the Dogs of Kathmandu, by Jason DeBoer
The Execution Of The Sun
With Annihilation Songs: Three Shakespeare Reintegrations, writer and award-winning filmmaker Jason DeBoer presents radical anagrammatic takes on The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Hamlet. Using only the words contained within each original drama, DeBoer's experimental fictions were created by disintegrating and then reintegrating Shakespeare's language into new narratives of warfare and desire. The result is an ultra-vivid hypertext, a warped yet faithful concordance of astounding poetic power, with theoretical roots in the earth of Bataille, Nietzsche, and Sade.
"An unprecedented supernova of narrative, DeBoer's work transforms Shakespeare's well-worn lexicon, taking it though a skillfully woven and compelling wormhole. Inverting a vocabulary deeply seared into the collective unconscious, DeBoer's innovative text transports the reader to a glistening event horizon of satisfying new puzzles, mysteries, and timeless preoccupations. A resounding triumph of structure and language, form, and voice." --Quintan Ana Wikswo
These gripping tales are preceded by an introduction by Tosh Berman, and Killing the Dogs of Kathmandu, DeBoer's psychedelic account of the origin of his technique in Nepal, and the history of the reintegrations.
Much has been made of Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language in the decades since his plays were first performed, but Jason DeBoer’s Annihilation Songs: Three Shakespeare Reintegrations takes a different approach. Rather than simply praising The Bard, DeBoer has broken down Shakespeare’s work to its raw elements, its words, and recombined them to form new stories using only the words within each play. Though every word within the reintegrations has its origins in one of Shakespeare’s plays, not every word from each play appears in the new stories.
DeBoer taught in SFUAD’s Creative Writing and Literature department back in 2015; now, it is through CWL chairman James Reich’s independent publishing house, Stalking Horse Press, that Annihilation Songs has been published, a whimsical coincidence that arose out of Reich’s interest in DeBoer’s work rather than any personal connection. The first reintegration, “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision,” was born in 1996 while DeBoer suffered through mefloquine-induced insomnia in Kathmandu, Nepal. This story was a very physical two-year long process, in which DeBoer chopped up his despised copy of The Tempest using a khukuri knife. For his later stories, DeBoer graduated to using an online lexicon to choose his words.
The sentence structure within these three reintegrations bears mentioning. Phrases like “the immortal moon, still skyish as a pale morning apparition”; “Nero, that imperial changeling, ruled with cool assurance of a distant star”; and “she loved to molest a dollar, just as he lived to stroke leather black as pitch” feel like a resurrection of language. DeBoer feels that the link to Shakespeare gave him a “Get Out of Minimalism Free” Card, allowing him to “write in a much more florid style than would normally be recommended in this day and age.” While DeBoer gave careful consideration to individual word arrangement, he says he “wanted to let Shakespeare conform to [his] voice and interests, not vice versa.” Even the degree to which the individual word placement was rearranged varies from piece to piece. In “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision,” DeBoer left more phrases intact, as seen in the story’s title, but he ultimately felt that readers became too focused on the Easter Egg hunt of Shakespearean phrases. For subsequent reintegrations such as “The Execution of the Sun” and “Puzzles of War,” based on Two Gentlemen in Verona and Hamlet, the composition was more seamless, words themselves recombined to create new words; Shakespeare would be proud.
DeBoer is currently writing his fourth reintegration, “A Fallow Heart,” based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which differs thematically from the first three. The stories within Annihilation Songs feature characters who react against these unconquerable forces like death, religion, the sun, love, and patriarchy; they “probe the impossible.” Miranda battles her abusive husband, Caliban seeks to transcend death, Cornelius comes up against the war-machine that surrounds him, and Valentine attempts to kill the sun, which allows Christianity to maintain what DeBoer refers to as arbitrary dominance.” Within “A Fallow Heart,” the two brothers at the story’s center protect themselves from the real world as opposed to fighting it, staying at home all day and pretending they are English knights.
In the years since the first reintegration came to life, DeBoer’s stories have been published in eight different countries and many online journals. “I probably overdid it on reprinting the stories,” DeBoer admits, “but they were so time-consuming to write that I wanted to give them the most exposure possible.” The first reintegration took two years to compose, and now with children, he has found the fourth integration to be even more difficult. These days, he leans more toward writing novels and screenplays, making Annihilation Songs a throwback to his shorter form work.
In addition to composing these reintegrations, DeBoer founded Trembling Sun Films and his work has been featured in magazines such as The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and Exquisite Corpse. His 2015 film Dead River won the New Mexico Film Award at the 2016 Albuquerque Film Festival and is set to play at 1 pm, Dec. 10, at SFUAD’s Screen as part of the Santa Fe Film Festival. DeBoer celebrated Annihilation Songs’ publication on Dec. 7 at Santa Fe Spirits Bar, standing beneath a ceiling dripping with red glittering snowflakes and gold baubles. A crowded room of people gathered on chairs and bar stools to listen as he read “Puzzles of War.” In response to an audience question about what Shakespeare means to him, DeBoer admitted he best enjoyed Shakespeare through the interpretive lens of cinema. He commented on the themes, voices, and tones of the original Shakespearean plays, and how readers would bring their own knowledge to Annihilation Songs. “Shakespeare is so well-known that his work is metatextual for readers,” he says of the layers of meaning. “Perhaps he can no longer be experienced any other way; his work is so pervasive.” - Marisa Doherty
In 2010 I was asked to teach a community college Kerouac class in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. I didn’t have much knowledge of his work, but my punk rock background, I guess, made me the adjunct most qualified to teach his stuff. So I dove in, reading his novels one by one over a few months. While I’m not crazy about the guy, his writing, or the imitators he spawned, I became fascinated with presentation: all of his novels were intended to be read as one long narrative. But they weren’t written in the intended order– kinda like Star Wars, or William Vollmann’s “Seven Dreams” series — nor were they published in sequence. In other words, three distinct chronologies exist in Kerouac’s written work: intent, publication and authorship. Modern readers don’t follow the intended path and are none the wiser.
It was during this class that I became reacquainted with the work of William Burroughs. My initial Bill phase came on the cusp of college, when I was trying to fly a tarp of identity using bands, authors and directors to stake down the corners. Naked Lunch was a cool movie to like, so I chased down the book, as well as several others which I tried without much success to navigate. I had a pat response when asked about the man: “He invented the cut-up method, so I give him credit — but that doesn’t mean I have to read the stuff.”
But during one of my Kerouac prep sessions I had several books open and a football game playing on the television and two fantasy teams on my laptop while I texted a friend about Belichick’s failed fourth-and-two. Burroughs made more sense to me after that.
I’ve never been a theory guy, but the rearrangement of elements in both Burroughs and Kerouac at least resembles neutral monism, which says that everything is essentially made of the same stuff, even if it can be arranged in a certain physical way (like cut-up) or mental way (like the multiple orders of Kerouac).
Enter Jason DeBoer, a polymath director/writer whose new book, Annihilation Songs, takes the common trope of reimagining a crucial volume and turns it on its head by forging three new stories from Hamlet, the Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona, using only text from each source play.
I know, I know — it sounds precious, precocious, especially when taking into consideration some of the buzzwords DeBoer mentions in his author’s note: reintegration, restructure. Exercises in form can be engaging; they can also be tedious and fun-sucking. And I’ve never been crazy for Shakespeare. In college, it took me three tries to pass a course about the Bard and his work — I could get the gist of plays by watching them on VHS, but was never enraptured by the language like his ardent admirers.
But like the aforementioned Kerouac and Burroughs examples, there’s much more to consider than I initially thought. As unlikely as it sounds, there’s all the beauty and brutality, here reimagined for us to once again turn over in hand — even as it’s simultaneously the same stuff. Such is the power of the language therein.
Take the first of the three, “Puzzles of War,” which draws on the text of Hamlet. An army private named Cornelius is enlisted to dig mass graves following the battle of Normandy. On the brink of losing his sanity as “(t)he Norman sun made the dead bloat and split open…. like fat puppets with their strings cut” he kills his commanding officer, and absconds to a chapel wherein he finds a woman desperate to keep the memory of her deceased husband alive using any necessary means. All the while, the private reads a book on Nero and the fall of Rome.
The Nero text-in-a-text comments on Cornelius’s plight and brings to mind Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-in-a-comic which comments on the main action in Alan Moore and Steve Gibbons’ Watchmen. The mood of Freighter is decidedly grim, what with its apocalyptic color scheme and with a cadre of sharks devouring a raft made of human corpses. DeBoer’s reimagination of Hamlet is similarly grim, both in its main and metatextual components — and the latter offers a wink. DeBoer knows how the concept of rearrangement sounds to skeptics. But he goes on.
The power of “Puzzles of War” comes from the same well of language — the same stuff — from which Shakespeare drew. As a modern reader, it’s easy to get tripped up by Shakespeare’s words and rhythms. Throughout DeBoer’s three reimaginations, I was struck by both the beauty and the modernity of his assembled verbiage. My conception of Shakespeare — like many readers, I suspect — has some roots in difficulty because of the age of the plays, and because, as the old chestnut goes, the stuff was meant to be seen, not read (once again, I’m reminded of checking out VHS copies from the college library to try to make head or tail). To say that there are surprises in Shakespeare after all this time and thought seems impossible, but DeBoer’s reordering of the prose draws attention not to the structure of the plays, or the characters therein, their plots, but to the language itself. And this is done in such a way that throughout I was not only dazzled by the way in which DeBoer pieced found fragments together, but the connotation of words, which had changed over time.
Witness this sample from “Here Swims A Most Majestic Vision,” which draws from the text of The Tempest:
“Often, she thought it was no rift between them, but a coil of closeness, and irreparable discord in which the hurt was tended between them as some fertile indulgence.”
Certainly the tortured psyche of Caliban in the source material carries some of the same twisted weight which DeBoer imbues here. But using words chosen five hundred years ago, Shakespeare, via DeBoer, discusses relationship dysfunction with modern nuance. Certainly we can look critically at characterizations in Shakespeare plays and apply our modern ideas to them; DeBoer reimagines different ideas that share a similar resonance — and he does so by using the same language. To me, this tonal similarity is the most fascinating thing about DeBoer’s successful experiment: that the feelings contained in these stories are just as strong and true as those in their sources, no matter the arrangement or lens.
I understand if thisall sounds a little Pierre Menard. I was skeptical at first, too. But these aren’t just rote experiments — they ring out. Annihiliation Songs is transcends the ‘exercise’ tag in its readability and craft while yielding reflection long after its covers are closed. - Michael T. Fournier
A PRODIGY SWOONS
Eschatology and Orgasm
A PRODIGY SWOONS
Eschatology and Orgasm
Jason DeBoer is the founder of Trembling Sun Films. His feature film Dead River has garnered critical acclaim and awards in Europe and the United States. His writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Barcelona Review, Stand, Exquisite Corpse, The Absinthe Review, and other publications.