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Three Ritualist Bookscapes: The Recent Work of M Kitchell, John Trefry, & Mike Corrao (Inside the Castle)

To bid farewell to a difficult 2020 and welcome a more hopeful 2021, David Vichnar of Equus Press has penned a series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to three of their most recent & interesting titles. In the second instalment, the focus is on Kansas-based Inside the Castle

Or could the incredible have happened,

and they were already in the castle or at its gates?

Franz Kafka, The Castle

There is something paradoxical about the Inside the Castle mission statement, which insists that “behind the façade, more of the same,” while at the same time suggesting that “books are not places apart from this world” but rather “impossible places within it […] not visible or registered without the incantation of the text.” The paradox here lies in the conflict between the posited primacy of surface and illusiveness/elusiveness of depth, and the implied belief in that surface’s ability to point somewhere beyond itself, to “transport” the reader and give them “access” to “impossible places.”

However, as suggested by this triple review of Inside the Castle’s three recent additions to its formidable catalogue, as all paradoxes go, this one too is soluble merely on the basis of a change of perspective. The focus here will be on M Kitchell’s In the Desert of Mute Squares(2018), John Trefry’s Apparitions of the Living (2019), and Mike Corrao’s Smut-Maker (2020), all three books remaining very much “on the surface-level,” and yet opening up “impossible places within this world”. 

Their textual surfaces are always legion: their paperspace is inhabited by texts layered with multiple typefaces, sizes & block alignments, which themselves fight for their place in the sun with images, collages & photos both concrete & abstract (Kitchell), the oppressive meaninglessness of the blank (Trefry), & multicoloured backgrounds impinging upon their legibility (Corrao). These are texts foregrounding their façade, on their textual materiality, while at the same time inviting their transformation & manipulation in the “real” situation of their reading, of the “incantation of the text.” 

This review will also argue that there is, finally, an inherent paradox in reading these three formidable & massive book-objects as e-texts (kindly offered for free download from the publisher’s website). Although a proud owner of printed copies also, I have found that all is not lost in the translation from printed to electronic text, but actually something also to be gained.

The title of M Kitchell’s In the Desert of Mute Squares comes equipped with a few aliases in the subtitle: or Errors; or, Dreams I Never Had; or, Late Capitalism. Just how “errors” connect to “dreams” one “never had,” & how these in turn connect to “late capitalism,” is one of the many intriguing links Kitchell’s book invites its reader to ponder. One supposes the link has to do with issues of ownership: “dreaming” as a production line of stories with no price-tags attached, “errors” as that which, in any creative endeavour, one can only ever call “one’s own.” Oneiric is also the experience of reading, or rather, “dealing with” this book, as reported by Ben Azarte: “Upon finishing it, I had a feeling similar to waking up from a short nap, like I just woke up from a dream and I was still tired. I also found myself anxious for reasons I couldn’t understand. I don’t believe I’ve ever had this kind of experience induced in me by a book before.”

What the “mute squares” might refer to is more ambiguous: on a thematic level, as suggested by a student of Kitchell’s, Simona Milotová, they can refer to pyramids – & from there via a double metonymy, to coffins and/or open-space office buildings (late capitalism); on a material level, as proposed by Mike Corrao, they can refer to the pages of the book in front of us: “The book forms itself as the body does after birth. Pages are alive.” Mute squares in their unpaginated desert. 

As pointed out in Germán Sierra’s “Writing Noise: The Maze and the Drone,” Kitchell’s “mute squares” are also spaces of negation: “in the linguistic, graphic and photographic sense”, Kitchell’s book is “a collection of diagrammatic ‘negatives’ set to liberate and re-frame the Mallarméan ‘event’.” In support of this thesis, Sierra quotes one of the text’s most memorable passages:

No colors. No shapes. No forms. No plants. No rocks. No sex. No ennui. No desperation. No absence. No architecture. No grass. No bodies of water. No blankness. No talk of memory. No cardinal directions. No men or women. No sweat. No bodies. No weather. No numbers. No narrative attempt. No maps. No attempt at the emptiness. No emotional manipulation. No emotional manipulation. Only the event. No displaced desire. No pyramids. No tombs. No cubes. No pigs or snakes. No god. No fur. No prayer. No darkness. No light.

Only the event.

Only the event.

Only the event.

Only the event. 


Or, one could go for the following, creed-like quote:

Language is a trap. To deny the existence of whatever. A melancholy enticement. Like balloons. Language is a fucking disaster. I’m unsure of how to birth the participle. Underneath. No reason to ever go outside any more. The days choke in the darkness & supplicate to endless rest. There’s no question of what will happen in the future because there is no future. Life is fatal attraction. (110)

Instead of falling into the “trap of language” & committing a “narrative attempt” and “emotional manipulation,” In the Desert of Mute Squares presents a text-image collage of unique, unrepeatable events that go beyond the lexically symbolic, pointing towards the deictic & iconic: “Language is stuck in a mode of repetition and I’m looking for something that goes beyond that” (237). Breaking away from the iterative signification of linguistic signs through the medium of language is of course an undertaking doomed to failure, but one that can at least approximate its goal via the “obtuse” (quoth Barthes) meaning of the image. If each of Kitchell’s visuals is in itself unique, then so is  the “message” of its textual counterpart or accompaniment.

Together with its repetitive staging of the unrepeatable textual event comes a thematic obsession with death & emptiness: “My nightmare would be to live forever” (292), & its hedonistic ethics of filling up the void of living with erotic ecstasy & transcendence. Or, what amounts to the same, Kitchell’s text-image eventualities create, according to Corrao’s review, a “plane of immanence, the place where all existence has become interconnected, but refused to reduce itself into something transcendent.” Kitchell’s text-object is, last but not least, an “event” in that it is experiential rather than meaningful: it is, to quote the well-worn adage, not “about” something, but rather that “something” itself.

One of the few hints that the paratext of John Trefry’s Apparitions of the Living provides about itself is that it is “indentured” to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City(1977), which according to its own paratexts casts the reader “in the role of archaeologist digging through the various strata of a city in rubble, each level yielding clues to a mysterious bloody death, but recounted and remembered in many different ways.” 

Trefry’s “indenture” to ARG stretches across many levels: from the intended physical similarity of the two books as objects (both in their covers and in Trefry’s “digital successor” to ARG’s Palatino type), to the murder mystery “plot” (a girl’s in ARG, a boy’s in Trefry), to the conceptual interest in “hauntology” (phantomaticity in ARG, reversal of the apparitional logic in Trefry), and to the overall treatment of text alternatively as a “built object” & as a technical drawing of its own construction (i.e. text as architecture), and as a series of coordinates that delineate a place (i.e. text as map).

But the places delineated by Trefry’s textual mapping and objects built by his architecture are not of the habitual Euclidean coordinates of an ARG world: they are complex assemblages within multidimensional zones, hence difficult to categorise, let alone enter. Quoth Corrao’s review:

This novel’s not easy to describe / narratives are spectral / there is a man and a boy and a Connie / a body is broken down and reassembled / voices converse […] / there is a motel / there is bricabrac / there is sand / there is cataplasm / but it’s hard to say what they are doing / what they have done / what they will do /

In Trefry’s Apparitions, again quoth Sierra, “the narrative space becomes a zone/space inhabited by human and non-human elements constantly performing themselves into transitory drone assemblages […], the book developing into an astonishing encyclopaedia of mirages (perceptual traps).” Ambiguity, disjunction & chaos are favoured over order, identity & significance, in this novel of descriptions that treats language as the construction material out of which the meticulous assemblage of its environments is formed.

As in Kitchell, Trefry’s text eschews the “narrative attempt” and “emotional manipulation.” Again, as much as humanly possible in this tale of a murdered boy and the affair between his mother & his murderer, the emotionally narrational is abandoned in favour of the eventual ritualistic: “A story was not needed. A story was not compulsory, just the becoming of ritual. Ritual was enough” (115).  Katherine Beaman has provided as neat a summary of the “ostensible plot” of Apparitions as any:

Survivors of trauma are known to live out the three roles described in the Karpman Drama Triangle, victim, persecutor, and bystander […], embodying each role all at once sometimes, constantly alternating in their minds and identity. […] The characters are little more than archetypes of these roles, shifting identities to take on another role within this triad. The bystander becomes the persecutor. The persecutor becomes the victim. The victim becomes the bystander. And so on.

In the textually obsessive world of Trefry’s book, “characters” become little less than “letters on the page”, the “desert” of its setting is conveyed through the absence of page numbers (Berman: “it is easy to forget where you are, as if that matters”) & lack of paragraph breaks across its five sections. These in turn are identified by the names of geographic locations “corresponding to places on a spiral John Trefry had drawn over a map of the United States”, and only distinguished through their pagespace, whose formatting alternates between tightly condensed blocks oppressed by the void of wide margins, and widely spread-out lines, thirteen per page. Here is a book very much aware of its objecthood, a text aware of its textness.

Add to this the clinical, anatomical, geological & spatially exact prose that often reads “like an extraterrestrial that taught itself English by reading the dictionary” (Beaman), & you get a sense of why reading Trefry is such an arduous & annoying, but riveting & rewarding experience. To take but a small sampling of quotes from across the book:

“A partially buried body lies head downhill between two dunes. Any trace of its tumble has been varnished by rolling sand and fine sanding winds.” (15)

“The fleeing man hyphenates the fluctuating crowd moving through and tapering again.” (86)

“Nothing is not left behind.” (88)

“Above your head is a pure texture forever spiraling into finer textures of the choices, an endless network of caves tunneled around the corpses of all the living and alive.” (358)

“I don’t say this. This silence.” (374)

Trefry’s “alien, tortured, hypnotic, haunting prose” (quoth a student of Trefry, Jaromír Lelek) that treats of bodies as objects & of objects as bodies is seen here as engaged in two complementary processes. It conceives of the real as structured by/as language (“traces of its tumble,” “hyphenates the crowd,” “textures of the choices”), and it conceptualises negation: can nothing “be” left behind? Or is it rather “not” left behind (there “being” nothing)? Is nothing an absence of positivity (as “silence” is the absence of speech), or a positive force of negation by itself? 

Since time immemorial, human imagination (with so-called “literature” following its cue) has egotistically rendered the geologic as human & pathetically conceived of the inanimate as animate. Trefry’s book, for a refreshing change in “our” posthuman times, maps the geologic formations within the human body, & reminds us that in between the “corpses of all the living and alive”, a vast & undiscovered realm of objects—things neither dead or living, neither absurd nor meaningful, but simply “there”—still remains for fiction to take stock of.

The paratext of Mike Corrao’s Smut-Maker engages in a genre-wild-goose-hunt from its very title-page, calling itself “a 72-act play”. Its “Instructions” section prefacing it reads:

Mouth is let ajar as an endless stream of voices rise through our throat and flood the room. Jaw locked in place. Tongue curling around chin. Eyes stretching open. We are immobile on the unlit stage.

In the end, these voices will lose their mobility. They will crowd and coagulate. Deteriorating as half-formed things. The skull dissolves. (5)

That is as conventionally “theatrical” as Corrao’s Smut-Maker ever gets though, since what comprises its 72 sections are self-contained groupings of textual fragments, word clusters, quotes, phrases & one-liners, of different sizes & volumes, often appearing as text-splotches, unattributed to any speaker & marked only by their distorted shapes & multicolour dreamy coatings. Some of these “take place” to implied response from an absent audience & invisible stage directions: words like “(applause)”, “(laughter)”, & “(fade)” syncopate the rhythm of the textual flow.

Its two aliases—“Erotics of Jazz and Vomit” & “No More Boys”—function as two possible conceptual summaries of Corrao’s book-object, the one material, the other thematic. What exactly do “erotics” have in common with “jazz & vomit”? Most straightforwardly, in all three, the neat construct of subjectivity is forced into a confrontation with the various kinds of “messiness” of the other: whether through the regurgitation of its own “abject” (vomit), or by constant dissembling of composed structure (jazz), or indeed by an ecstatic moment of being beyond oneself & immersed in/invaded by an other (erotics). 

Re “No More Boys: almost in spite of its own ontology, Smut-Maker gradually establishes a set of characters (i.e. recursive groupings of letters resembling proper names), most notably “narrator-fool Mike Corrao” & three boys: “Blondboy,” “Tommyboy,” & “Beatboy,” and among these, the thinnest of plotlines starts weaving itself across the pages. As “Mike Corrao writes his first harlequin novel” (Act 2, p. 21), three failed homoerotic harlequinades begin to unfold, blown-up to some pretty messianic heights by promises of salvation & threats of damnation. 

Other structuring devices include the sun—which the play follows like Woolf’s The Waves in its ever-changing form & colour—and sets of recursive references to some of Corrao’s personal pantheon: Wittgenstein (13 refs), Sun Ra (9), Bolaño (also 9), Bergson (3), Deleuze (2) & Seurat (2), among many others. The last two deserve special attention. As detailled by Holden’s Blog & Joe Rupprecht, while Deleuze & Guattari’s theory of the rhizome seems to inform The Smut-Maker’s practice of intertextual mashup, then Seurat’s pointillism names the principle of its material existence: this book is textual “images made in the likeness of Seurat” (48), or in its pdf version, “pixels in the tradition of Seurat” (129).

Needless to say, a text thusly carried out & calling for its readerly performance becomes, after a certain exposure time, “a viral, noxious fetish object” that “challenges what constitutes a medium’s categorization & hence its reception” (Holden’s Blog), making one wonder how on earth a book like this could have been produced in the first place (credit John Trefry), & how on any planet one is supposed to read these 72 multicolour Rorschach texts. 

In the searchable e-text version, one has a powerful tool at one’s disposal to at least start working towards some satisfying “sense/smut-making” (for indeed, “smut is where everyone is satisfied” [Act 16, p. 48]). And taking cue from previous word-search suggestions (courtesy of a student of Corrao, Danila Gudkov), one can take as keywords “Harlequin” & “Mike Corrao” & produce the following hypertextual “stories”:

Harlequin (10 results)

“Mike Corrao writes his first harlequin novel…

the first harlequin novel is smut…

the first harlequin novel arranged into dust-covered towers…

smut-maker attempts a second harlequin novel and vomits instead…

smut-maker critiques the connection between this term and his second harlequin novel… 

smut-maker is only concerned with sex and harlequin novels…

smut-maker begrudgingly begins his third harlequin novel…

the desk where he has written his first three harlequin novels…

smut-maker abstains from a fourth harlequin novel…

in contrast to each of the three harlequin novels.”

Mike Corrao (10 results)

“Mike Corrao writes his first harlequin novel… 

Mike Corrao does not write erotically…

someone brings up narrator-fool Mike Corrao but clearly forgets why…

Narrator-fool Mike Corrao attempts to separate what is erotic from what is smut…

Mike Corrao sees Roberto Bolaño on the bus…

narrator-fool Mike Corrao coughs into a garbage can…

Mike Corrao watches rockets fire off in the middle of the night…

Bolaño sits down with Mike Corrao under the pretence of the coffee…

Mike Corrao refuses to eat until Bolaño says that they can meet again…

Mike Corrao rearranges his limbs in a new experimental orientation.”

Less stories than conceptual constellations, these hypertextual readings of Corrao’s e-text offer new meanings & enable new understandings of Smut-Maker, rendering this bizarre text-object infinitely re-readable. 

4. As will hopefully have become evident by now, there are aspects in which these three recent additions to the formidable catalogue of Inside the Castle complement & counterpart each other, almost too neatly as dialectical concatenations of thesis/antithesis/synthesis: 

1. Kitchell’s book is an object of abstract imagery & concrete text, whereas Trefry’s imageless text-object is construed on the basis of textual landscapes only. In a neatly synthetic way, Corrao’s piece treats of text as image, conceiving of paperspace and typesetting as primarily iconic signs.

2. All three are texts (type-)set in/around the desert; none of the books has page numbers. Kitchell’s inhabits its titular desert by means of lush textual & imagistic oases; Trefry’s focuses its hard camera-I stare on its desert’s vacant starkness; the effect of Corrao’s technicolour pages is oftentimes to blur the line between blank & text, rendering his writing almost illegible.

3. All three insist on a fresh spin on the reader/text relation: Kitchell’s posits reading as a sexual relationship with a textual other, denuding, conquering & dominating it (“the book literally begs you to fuck it,” quoth Mike Corrao); Trefry’s posits reading as communing with ghostly present absences (of spaces/ places, as well as faces/voices); and reading for Corrao becomes equivalent to vomiting, jazz improv, & the erotic—all processes in which subjectivity dissolves.

4. Finally, all three call on the reader to “occupy” them, tasking them with their partial authorship, forcing them “to derive their own meanings when the spoon which feeds them is retracted,” quoth Katherine Beaman re Trefry. 

This is made materially possible in the searchable e-text versions: in Kitchell, one becomes able to trace invisible messages, whether those embedded in images or blotted-out with black ink; in Trefry’s text, the blankness of the void around his textual blocks blinks more blindingly from a screen than from paper; & in Corrao, as per my brief demonstration, a simple keyword search can yield whole new access routes & exit paths to/from a text otherwise steadfastly refusing any reduction to mere narrative.

My next instalment will be devoted to Sublunary Editions.

© David Vichnar, 2020

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
December 2020
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