Andrew Durbin Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours

tsomaio_covBeing There

I recently had a dream about Rachel Levitsky. OK, I think dreams might not be the place to start since Rachel’s work is so grounded in reality, but there I found myself, in a dream that was more like the end of some hugely successful TV show. It began in medias res, episode 14, season 5, the final, celebrated season of a highly novelistic drama about which I knew nothing but was central to the plot of. Rachel and I are hurling through the blue sky over Tuscany in a jet toward some village below, where our enemy has set up an anti-aircraft gun that only fires at things that move above a certain speed. We are moving well above that certain speed, so we’re taking heavy fire. Outside my window, the clear sky is filled with black smoke. Rachel is piloting the jet directly into the line of fire. I shout to Rachel above the roar of the plane as it’s being shredded in the air, “What are you doing!? We’re going to crash!” She turns to me and says, “The only way we can slow down and land below in order to stop our enemy is if the gun shoots us down, tricking its computer system into thinking we’ve been removed as a target.” At that moment, the wings are blown off, the anti-aircraft fire stops, and we sail into the narrow Tuscan streets, outside the mansion where our enemy has camped with a squad of goon. We both exit the plane, into the wreckage of the streets, ready to face the enemy. Then I woke up.

I’ve been watching fail videos lately. The nadir of YouTube’s long arc, the fail video is the gruesome (gruesome even when humorous) evidence of a failed stunt or athletic feat, the moment the driver wrecks his car into a wall after racing across open road, the girl is snagged on the rope she refuses to let go of after she leaps off the cliff, the bro falls into the alley between two four story building after he tries to jump from one to the other. It’s a brutal genre, but it involves an international everyone: kids, teens, adults, the elderly. I came to these videos by accident and can’t place what drew me to them. I suppose I was awed by their subject’s willingness to exploit the awfulness of their accident for its (often sad) humor. Many of them could not have possibly escaped the fall, the crash, the jump without severe injuries. And yet there the video is, uploaded for public consumption–so often by the failed stuntperson. Futurepoem author Dana Ward writes: “things do not cathex, they auto-respond; we know this: it’s the principle of the tragic.” I’ve watched enough fail videos that my YouTube account automatically moves them to my homepage. I no longer have a choice: I click, I watch, I shake my head.

The accident of the fail video is not the same as that of Rachel’s novel, at the center of which is an accident of multiple colliding trajectories, between the public and the personal, the democratic and the totalitarian, the corporate and the collective. These accidents are, however, siblings in that they both describe the sudden, virtually unexpected but life-altering consequence of dramatic action (the consequence that, of course, had to happen), whether it’s political or athletic. In her Story, Levitsky collapses the two–the political is athletic and vice versa in that one results in the other through protest, through arriving, as bodies both physical and political, at the scene of the even (or crime)–in order to expose the degree to which they are related and even necessary to one another. For it–the stunt, the protest–to work, you must be there. Poetry itself cannot take a political action, it can only describe political thinking, the potential of political thinking in a language that exists outside of normative politics, like that of the beltway, and this, in a way, feels like the accident. That a poem can make a thought seem efficacious, that it can motivate its reader beyond reading and into thinking. For Rachel, this thinking seems to be the mixed message of what the future–protested, yearned for, or enacted–might be once it finally arrives. What will I be doing when it comes? Will it be what I hoped for?

There remains the melancholy of not being there. I am so often not there.

Although it’s been two years (a lifetime in east coast cultural time), like so many others I can’t get over Occupy Wall Street. I took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge this past October, around the two-year anniversary of the march that led to the arrest of some seven hundred protesters after they were trapped in the middle of the bridge. I wish I could say I was there when it happened, but I wasn’t; I was with Lonely Christopher (one of Rachel’s closest friends–they often go to the opera together) on the set of his movie MOM, watching the protest and subsequent cop beatings on the  production’s computer. We talked about walking down to the bridge, but we agreed that by the time we would have arrived it would have been too late, everyone would have been arrested and the protest would have stopped.

On one level, OK, Rachel’s book is about the 2006 WTO protests. On another, it’s about everything else, the things that that slippery We so often experiences. One of the most interesting questions the novel raises for that slippery me is how an accident might be made communal, hers and ours. The eponymous accident—the sudden, surprising, explosive intensity of the emancipatory politics of group action—is an event without lead-time or plot that consolidates us with its ricocheting possibilities for both the present and the future. The accident sources and generates a frenzied love because it is precisely from this feeling, which is so easily parodied or mocked, that the communal gathers the strength to protest the WTO or lay out group tents in Zuccoti Park. Near the end of her novel, Levitsky writes,

For us, love, especially love, held a unique position despite the dearth of our experience as the one uninhibited extreme we might legitimately hope would enable us to exceed our limitation. Holding onto this idea, that Love was nuanced and potentially meaningful, made us look angry and marginal, for if we were not so, we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.

Oof, I think it is hard to write convincingly about love. I think it is even harder to write convincingly about love as a kind of radical politics, but it is exactly this risk of love, of failure, of getting together (and the many other risks the novel takes) that makes Rachel’s novel so good. Risk: maybe Lonely and I should have gone to the protest. It’s certainly become a kind of elemental guilt that I feel for not being there.

I like to stop talking by talking about art. The new Chris Burden show (terrible!) at the New Museum, Extreme Measures, is a kind of counterpoint to Mike Kelley’s comprehensive, much better retrospective at PS1. Burden’s art is about the accident deferred or controlled: his pieces, like Porsche with Meteorite, organize the objects of chaos (imagine that meteor slamming into that Porsche with Chris behind the wheel, one crisp LA night) and delineate their roles into potential energy, the spectacle of suspended animation. Kelley, on the other hand, can’t help but explode the designated use-function of objects into the continuous accident of their production, their coming into use, their coming into disuse. Thing clump and hang (like warts, tumors, skin, genitals), monolithic in their rejection of organization, of even the sentimentality that leads us to keep our junk in the first place. They hole up in little cities at the ends of the universe. They never exist except in plans.

I don’t think there’s any poignancy or sentimentality to either of their work, rather there is simply the delicate hand, assembling and disassembling based on nothing but the logics of design–whether that design is “good” or “bad,” “intentional” or “accidental.” OK, that’s really not true. Let me start again, in dreams: rather, there are many hands we cannot see, the many hands that have touched the things that fill our lives, and will continue to fill our lives. These hands, these beautiful hands, they are interested in color and texture, love and friendship, hatred and spleen, life and afterlife, regardless of what and who they are touching. They are interested in touching one another and, in Rachel’s novel, they are touching each other.



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