A mysterious package containing a strange Bible is delivered to a village and brings with it an immense sense of wretched misery and despair. A pair of exhausted lovers continuously—agonizingly—falls out of love. A young girl is abused by careless, angry elders and the butcher develops a hideous rash. A prose exploration of suffering and time, Janice Lee’s latest collection Damnation moves with poetic elegance and intensity, utilizing narrative elements to examine how dailiness can house biblical Judgment. In her text, the apocalypse is hardly a break with history or the catastrophic launching of a new order. It is instead the profuse stagnation of what we are already trapped in: Damnation is persistence.
Lee’s Damnation is not a “fun” or “entertaining” read, but it is magnetic and immersive. Whether or not you are coming off the edge of a personal tragedy or various exasperating tribulations, Damnation will certainly speak to you if you have ever spoken the language of pain. A terrifyingly beautiful work that writes to and from Bela Tarr’s 1988 film of the same name, Lee’s text describes a devastated village overrun by an apocalypse that either refuses to arrive or has already consumed it. The rural denizens simply continue to make do, with only the rare individual even imagining an escape. People drink, make dispassionate love, and argue elliptically with one another. A corpse is discovered in a well. Sad cows walk across perpetually muddy fields.
The book makes explicit Lee’s indebtedness to Tarr’s work. Aside from sharing the same title, it opens with a 5-page critical preface written by film scholar and Cal Arts faculty member Jon Wagner, who expounds on the links between Lee’s text and Tarr’s film. Following Lee’s text, the book includes an afterword by Lee’s frequent collaborator, Jared Woodland, and an appendix that features hand-drawn film stills of two of Tarr’s films—Damnation and Sátántangó.
Though these additions, mostly critical in nature, may deepen the reader’s appreciation of the richly citational aspects of Lee’s project, I preferred to engage her text naively—without reading these critical accoutrements or viewing Tarr’s films. On its own, Lee’s book creates a rich world that doesn’t quite pleasure in its squalid sorrows, but it certainly dwells deeply in them. For example, one aspect of this strange Bible’s arrival to the town is that the villagers respond as though they are besieged by noise:
In a place where people both fear and revere the Word, it is also believed that certain words can manifest themselves in this place and cause real pain and illness upon its bearers. […]
So, the village becomes a noisy place, and even those without fear resort to wearing ear plugs too […] (19)
The imagined noise becomes actual as the villagers isolate themselves, playing their radios and televisions loudly in order to drown out other unwanted sounds. The noise infiltrates them, infecting them with (or perhaps reflecting) a deep spiritual poverty—a clattering relentlessness that diminishes their daily lives. Lee returns our attention to this noise at various moments, the most harrowing of which examines a young girl’s emotional state before she decides to abuse and possibly murder a cat.
We can hear the cat meowing in fear but we can not see it. Our eyes adjust to the darkness slowly. Inside, it seems like we’re sheltered from the noise of the incessant rain, but then the other noises manifest more sharply. You must remain in the present. And the noises travel through different contemplative forks, in a space with no words, only gestures and meowing, and mouths that open and close without speaking. (67)
Though I read the text as its own object, in hindsight I can see cinematic elements in Lee’s work. Rather than focusing on the overlapping thematic concerns of Lee’s or Tarr’s Damnation, I feel Lee’s work incorporates a subtle stylistic gesture that, while having strong echoes with cinema, is only operant in language. Though Lee makes strong use of visual imagery, the “cinematic” elements of the text operate on the level of subjective positioning. She moves adroitly from immersive narration—in which we fully occupy a character’s point of view—to more spectatorial vantage points. The excerpt above, for example, describes how “we” can hear a cat meowing and how “our” eyes adjust to the darkness. Lee then moves to an abstracted consideration of how sound follows thought before entering the young girl’s point of view.
She can remember the multitude of times she was brought down by her mother, sisters, teacher. She can remember how it felt like to stand there quietly, solemnly, eyes pointed towards the floor, and the adults pecking away at her body, she using the entirety of her will to keep from flinching, to keep from crying. Their cavernous faces would engulf her and she would still refuse to close her eyes, refuse to live in darkness. And then the grief she saved for herself would vanish. (68)
These precise, subtle shifts draw our attention to our act of perception while also immersing us in the psychological experiences of the characters she renders. Film invites our immersion, just as texts invite us to forget that we are reading. Lee’s references to “us” remind us of the doubled nature of these art forms—of how we inhabit others while continuing to inhabit ourselves. Language’s ability to precisely present another’s thoughts, however, is unique. Where cinema can create an atmosphere for a feeling, Lee is able to offer distinct content—a thought and its history.
Lee is impressively patient while exploring these psychological states, despite the relative brevity of each section. She focuses dedicated attention to small moments for each character caught in individual sorrows: even her cows plod carefully. The shortest piece is just one question long, while the longest pieces hardly break 3 pages. Tarr’s film, on the other hand, is known for his extensive use of the long take. Where other directors have used the long take in order to express virtuosity, such as in the impressive opening shot of Touch of Evil, or to create intimate tension, as in many of Ozu’s films, Tarr’s drifting long takes make the viewer conscious of an intense relentless with which perception unfolds. His takes feel as though they may never cease, creating subtle expectation, tension, and exhaustion in the viewer.
As an homage and response to Tarr’s film, Lee’s text is particularly notable for the way that she renders this experience of persistence through a series of short prose bursts. One of the ways that she is able to create a sense of persistence or duration is through her masterful use of voice. By presenting dialogue without attributions and in bullet points, Lee helps us see how these voices emerge out of a vacuum and fail to really engage each other. They become part of the noise plaguing the town.
• Anything that God takes part in is the most horrific thing you’ve ever imagined.
• I can’t get on board with such a thought.
• So don’t.
• But you said it. It’s out in the open now. It’s in my head.
• That’s not my problem, it’s yours.
• Some friend you are.
• I’m not your friend. (85)
The fact that a Bible brings this spiritual plague down upon the villagers fascinates me. I don’t see this as an anti-religious gesture, but as an analog for our contemporary, ironic condition. The villagers’ faith in the word exacerbates their suffering by offering them a structure—a narration—for understanding their malaise. Judgment is coming. However, they also simultaneously don’t believe in the systems that structure their emptiness. They cease going to church. God seems horrible to them. Their former faith haunts them. They constantly feel that they’re all wrong. They sense there could be a savior, perhaps, but one who is here to crush them.
The emotional desperation that Damnation wallows in suggests there’s little hope. What is commonly considered a great human trait—that of perseverance—in practice emerges as our curse. However, as spiritually destitute as the book’s characters are, there’s a desperate beauty in their perseverance. Their endurance isn’t willful. It simply exists. They have no way to elect it for themselves. Much of Damnation’s magnetism comes from the way that their persistence sensitizes the characters to the squalor of their condition. It’s a terrifically hard text to put down.
If there isn’t much hope in the text, there is, however, intense beauty. Suffering is so delicious and awful. Lee’s book raises some wonderfully provocative questions about our condition: if we are damned, perhaps it is because we know what we have lost but we have the capacity to continue without it? If that’s the case, what use to us is salvation if we must trudge through damnation first?
If you’ve been hurt, if you feel the world is squalid, if you’ve suffered, if you wonder if there’s an end to blackness, if you’ve tasted from the bitter brew, if you want to absolve yourself by bathing in ashes, then go read Janice Lee’s Damnation.