The apocalypse was quiet. It had a way about it, a certain charm. It could be called graceful. It was taking a long time.
People prepared for an apocalypse that they could take up arms against, bunker down with. People hoarded filtered water, canned corn, dry milk, batteries. They published books on how to get things done in the new post-world, a world that they always imagined as being much like our own, only missing one or two key things. They might imagine, for example, that survivors would reemerge onto a planet stripped of all vegetable and plant life. First, the animals would grow vicious and then starve. It would be important to hoard as many of these animals as possible, pack them in salt and hide them away to keep. You’d want to have a supply of emergency seed to grow in a secure location, maybe using sterilized soil that you had already hoarded. Then you’d want to gather a crew. One muscle man with a heart of gold, a scientist type, an engineer, a child, and somebody that you thought maybe you could love, if you survived long enough to love them.
The judge called it “one of the most unspeakably vicious and brutal crimes in the history of the state,” which sounds a bit harsh to me. The young lad who killed that nun with the hacksaw in west Clare was surely worse, although they did say he was insane. That was the problem you see—Da wasn’t insane, not the gibbering, cuckoo’s nest sort of insane at any rate. The kind you could make hay with. The doctors, in fairness to them, did every schizo test under the sun, but nothing stuck. He wasn’t biting. Sitting there in the chair with a puss on him like it was his granny after getting aerated for no good reason. The shrinks (I love that word, “shrink”—when I was small I used imagine a load of scientists in a lab shrinking brains till you couldn’t fit any more bad thoughts in them) weren’t exactly falling over themselves to believe it either. True enough, his father—only allegedly, mind—and grandfather were convicted murders, but sure what was that save bad breeding? You’d get that anywhere, Malin to Mizen. Now a genetic predisposition towards homicide, let alone a family curse, that was something intelligent people found difficult to swallow.
The cybertaxi pulled up at the astroport entrance. Lifting the hatch, Buca extracted her long legs from the cab. Right leg first, then left. Then she straightened up with studied lassitude, hewing to her motto: Always be sensual.
Selshaliman imitated her on the other side, and she envied his naturally dignified movements. With their shiny, grayish chitin exoskeletons, Grodos had the rigid look of men wearing medieval armor. And majesty, plenty of it.
But Grodos also had their advantages. She watched Selshaliman pay for the taxi with his credit appendage. His rapid, quasi-mechanical gestures were still extremely unsettling to Buca. He was like a gigantic spider or praying mantis. But the image became more bearable when she recalled that she would soon have the human equivalent of a credit appendage: a subcutaneous implant reflecting the generous bank account that this exotic had just established in her name. They went inside. Buca took in the last terrestrial sights she would see for a long while. The microworld of the astroport.
Image by Dasha Shishkin, Geppetto makes another one, 2009, Acrylic, ink and conté on canvas.
My father committed his when he was twenty-eight, just three months after I was born. And a grisly one it was too. The victim was some shook-looking fossil of a pensioner shuffling out of eleven o’clock mass in Carrigallen, which is where we called home until after the trial. It’s a tiny backward kip of a place, lashed to the side of a cliff just north of Glinsk, on the tip of the Erris peninsula, that the wind slices through no matter what kind of a day it is on the other side of the sign:
Failte Chuig an… / Abandon all hope ye who enter…
There’d be no need to go out of your way to bypass it even, because no road—main, bog, botharin or otherwise—will take you within an ass’s roar of the boundary, unless you really have a mind to get there. The “Grieving Corner,” my mother used to call it, and she’d be deadly serious, knowing full well the reasons why. She was by no means the only one either. You would want to be at least three towns over before you’d chance taking the piss out of the town and its murderous rumors, whispers that hung like mustard gas over every square inch of the place. Even then there’d be few enough takers. As it stands, there isn’t a guidebook in print that’ll make reference to it, I’ll put money on that right now, even from where I am.
But there was a time when it wasn’t the worst, I suppose.
Image by David Shrigley, Unfinished Letter , Steel. 500mm x 400mm x 2mm.
Fourth of July, 1895
The ferry was coming special because it was the Fourth of July. Some of the kids from school were there but I stayed apart from them and threw handfuls of sawdust into the water and watched it drift and spiral and sink. Ben and Joseph McCandliss showed up and no one wanted to play with them, either. They were orphans now since their father had been sent to the penitentiary in Seattle. I remembered when my father left me and Mother when I was little. He came back but he still wasn’t around very often. Mother sometimes called him the boarder. Ben and I were both eleven years old and would be in the same class if Ben went to school. Joseph was fourteen and had already, more than once, spent the night in jail. Miss Travois had taken them in but I’d heard they didn’t sleep there, they just did whatever they liked. Wharf boys, we’d all been warned against them.
The Bully of Order, An excerpt from the novel by Brian Hart - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Image by Frank Walter, Yacht in Peril , Oil on photographic paper. Courtesy Ingleby Gallery.
My mother called to me but I stopped my ears with my fingers so I couldn’t hear her. I took one step forward, waited, and then kept going. The blood was pumping in my ears against my fingertips like I was under water. The mill floor had been swept and I could see the broom marks and where they piled and scooped up the dust. It was cool and silent inside and crammed with machinery. I’d heard the mill sounds for as long as I could remember. It was strange, it being so quiet. I thought: I’m a little machine and when I go silent I’ll be silent and I’ll be dead.
- Guernica: Your novel has many elements of noir fiction—we follow a melancholy sleuth of sorts who comes up against the law, doesn’t always remember how he got home, and may be seduced by a beguiling woman. This plays out against the backdrop of the first months of US occupation in Iraq, in the second half of 2003. Why did you choose this genre of storytelling to depict this moment in Iraq?
- Elliott Colla: The novel is really interested in a moment of ambiguity. Setting it in the fall of 2003 is not an accident; this is a moment that is important for us to return to, and this is what the book is asking us to do. To go back to the moment where the clarity of war, and the sharp divisions between us and them, good and evil, lovers of freedom and Baath Party, break down. And they break down precisely because the US has gotten itself into a situation of military occupation where in order to rule and to occupy it has to deal with the people it has just spent all this effort to demonize.
- This is why it’s so suitable for the book to be in the noir genre—it has to do with the actual murkiness of a situation. Noir is where the clarity of moral divisions break down, the black and whites turn into grays. So as I was thinking about this particular moment of compromise on the part of the US, where it was learning how to make alliances with all sorts of Shiite groups in order to occupy, and creating all sorts of new divisions that didn’t exist before. Just as certain Cold War binaries were collapsing, new binaries of Sunni versus Shia or Arab versus Kurd were being created by the new occupation force. It’s the corruption of that moment that I am really interested in.
In some of the reaches of literary fiction, I feel like there is still a kind of prudishness around female appetite. That it’s somehow a problem, or it’s only interesting if it’s a problem—if it’s the source of suffering, betrayal, someone getting a bottle cracked over her head, someone self-mutilating. It must have harm attached to it to be considered serious. It’s not necessarily true in other media. In television right now, there are some amazing female characters who are very robust. It’s not necessarily true in music, it’s not true in a lot of places. But in literary culture, there’s this idea that female appetite is only the stuff of serious literature if it’s connected to damage. And I object. I object as a writer. I object as a human being. It’s just simply not true. It’s a kind of censorship masquerading as taste.
I think there’s over-telling sometimes, in fiction. For instance, I’m a big fan of horror movies, but I could always lose the last third of them. There’s the brilliant exciting scary thing that’s going on, and then they have to show you the monster, and the monster turns out to be a giant spider from space and then you push it over and it’s dead. It becomes mortal and it has human needs and it always sort of feels like a shame.
The man wore a three-piece suit and a white, collared shirt. We were close enough to see that his shoes were not new, but still clean, well kept, buffed to a Sunday shine. People did not dress this way in Wilmington. It was mostly farmers in blue jeans or women in stretch pants with the cuffs stuffed into their shoes. The only people who wore suits were the town’s two lawyers on Water Street and Mr. Reeves, who owned the funeral home behind the diner. Even so, the man did not look like any other man we knew. He did not have the large, bony nose of my father or his sandy blond hair or short stature. He did not have my father’s casual, sloppy way of sitting, and he did not have my father’s extra beer flesh around his middle or his sleepy blue eyes.
Instead, the man was tall and slender, with a head of thick, wiry hair that might have been brown or black, his eyes no color I could name.
Um, excuse me, Ronnie said. She used her adult voice with her nose up, hands folded in her lap.
Moving only his head, the man looked down to regard us, his face the gray of a stone worn smooth by water.
Girls, he said. As though he were about to address us. Girls… Or with merely a sense of recognition, as though we were a pack of gazelles and he a man viewing us through a lens, pointing a long, thin finger out: I see… girls. Just there. And he said, Girls, not Girl, which is how I know that I was not alone that day, probably never alone in that room, despite my wont to blot out Mary and Ronnie and even the man himself from any of these memories.
Image by Rudy Cremonini, Swimming pool party, 2013. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs.