A feature of this post-Postmodern era no one seems to have a name for is that emotions and analysis of how they are evoked can simultaneously exist within the same prose substance, and do not have to be polarized anymore. A dazzling new explorer of this synthesis, Rachel Glaser, is exceptionally convincing in portraying both what her characters want, and how the way they prosecute their desire will keep them from achieving it. Her stories “The Magic Umbrella” and “The Jon Lennin Xperience” investigate this paradox in fascinating ways. In both of them—which appear in her collection Pee on Water, from Publishing Genius—the characters unwittingly enact re-iterating narratives. “The Magic Umbrella” traps its characters in the same repeating paradigm, while the young man in “The Jon Lennin Xperience” is helplessly fixed in the plot of a PS3-style video game. Glaser uses language this way, too; she veers between a phony-proper nineteenth-century prose—the voice of obsolete convention—and a cheeky, bloggy, highly ironic snark, which makes both dialects sound like rituals.
“The Magic Umbrella” is a collection of vignettes that follow the lives of five girls as they consider how to escape the roles they play in life. Each character emanates from the next one’s imagination, so they must be understood with a kind of two-tiered simultaneity: as characters in the usual fictional sense, and as fantasies of each other. Whenever a new character appears, we are told she dreamed the previous one. The characters are Jen, a second-grader who escapes to Mars but makes it back to Earth in time for school; Agatha, a young girl on a camping trip with her family, whose daydreams show her to be trapped; Jo, one of the sisters from Little Women, who is every reader’s favorite because she has no use for boys, and who inexplicably marries at the end, depressing all her readers with how she nullifies their dreams of independence; Little Women’s author, Louisa May Alcott, who lives in isolation until she takes a lover named The Sheriff, who she accidentally kills with his own gun and then returns to dismal solitude; and Alcott’s single-edition autobiography, which, because it is a book, possesses vast amounts of knowledge but has no actual experience of the world outside itself.
Glaser lets an autobiography speak; she includes its famous author—Louisa May Alcott—and one of Alcott’s best-loved characters—Jo—without without discussing what Jo is known for. All this locates “The Magic Umbrella” in both the reader’s memory, and within another work—in all works, really—and tells us that the story is being written by other stories. Every story is written to some extent by others but by calling our attention to it this way Glaser asks if one can write outside the written, and torques this thought into anxiety when her characters’ dreams of freedom are thwarted in sadistically familiar ways, as when Alcott kills the Sherriff, a death which has a cruelly punitive 19th century logic, like something out of Thomas Hardy. The characters’ lives are full of these disappointments—which, in Glaser’s hands, are always funny but never mock—as when Jen returns from Mars in time for school, which seems a happy ending in the moment, but school is just a realm of books like Alcott’s autobiography, and this makes Jen—and Agatha, who dreams her—into prisoners who’ve been taught to dream of prison.
“The Magic Umbrella” leaps between these characters with surprising interruptions that are probably what the reader remembers most. Each transition is a joke on writing’s metaphysical authority over itself, as with the first one, between Jen and Agatha: “All about the author.” Or this one, between Alcott and her autobiography: “Readers, I am that book.” These deadpan declarations are embedded in plain sight like all the other sentences, and they embody both the artificiality of historical officialese—that is, of history and knowledge—and the limping gait of Glaser’s intimate close narration. “Though known in Port Judith for her watercolor seascapes, Agnes found these unremarkable. Soppy clouds dripped into the ocean. A bird’s eyes smudged and looked like glasses. Her paper got waterlogged and wavy and her brushes frequently lost their hair.” The story circulates through these registers as through different hermeneutics, high and low: “Louisa May might have been a lesbian or an intellectual. Her book Moods was a precursor to lava lamps…” This is why the work appropriates both contemporary Tumblrese and nineteenth-century registers; the stories roam from voice to voice, looking for something that is more than just a bunch of tics. With this movement from one paradigm to another, Glaser asks if there’s an outside for the narrative to go to, a place beyond its own clichés of representation, or if it’s fatally embedded in these empty ritualistic repetitions.
Glaser’s writing may be skeptical of itself, but her story is still a story about yearning, and part of what it yearns for is a clearer, more effective way to yearn. In other words, the characters and story fight the same battle. Jen and Agatha daydream of escape; Jen to Mars and Agatha to a world where folks will pay attention to her, a fantasy which goes awry when her imagined maybe-boyfriend, a flaming stick man who flew out from a campfire, dumps her and pursues another woman. Even in her fantasies, she’s rejected. Disillusioned by this experience of life, she rues, “The ocean always seemed capable of teaching a lesson, but it was really just busy water…it just washed itself and sounded independent.” Nature—that is, the world outside the mind—offers no release or actual beauty, it is really just a mirror, a surface on which meaning is inscribed by desire, a desire that is pre-cooked into Agatha by the townsfolk, who like her paintings even though she doesn’t. And of course, it is Jo who dreams this shell-shocked dream, whose “…long, thick hair is her one beauty, but it is usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way.” Alcott is as disgusted with her writing as the others are with their pursuits. She spends half a year letter-pressing her autobiography, but after reading it, “…she forgets about it,” which, under the circumstances, is a qualified happy ending. The autobiography itself can only, “…desire to attend a symphony,” with no hope of actually doing so. “As a life,” it says, knowing full well it is doomed, “mine is vicarious…A book must study nature from other books and accept that it has been shelved in an artificial environment, and, likely, it will stay there.”
This simultaneous fear of life and hunger for it is the subject of the second story in Glaser’s book, “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” a title which not only lays claim to cultural information—John Lennon’s life, which it treats as something which can be re-lived, or at least re-packaged in a totally depressing way—but also shows the claim will be a broken one, by misspelling Lennon’s name and the word “experience.” As with “The Magic Umbrella,” where Jo, Louisa May Alcott, and the Alcott autobiography begin as templates for identity and end as traps, in “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” a sexually timid, boyish man named Jason becomes addicted to a video game that lets him be John Lennon—and have sex with Yoko Ono a lot, the part he likes the most—which ends when he is forced by the game to kill John Lennon himself.
Like so many Glaser characters, Jason is terrified of contact with the world. Glaser is exceptionally sensitive to this fear and what seems at first like ridicule is actually tender: “Guys in jumpsuits did cool routines in the subway and Jason was paralyzed over whether to give them money.” Though he has access to the video game for weeks, Jason avoids it until he sees it’s easy to assimilate to his solitude. As a game, The Jon Lennin Xperience resembles Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption: the plot is comfortably slack and there are lots of things to do but no real sense of threat. It’s this very solipsistic lack of challenge in the video game’s mimesis that offers what Jason wants and fears: sex without anxiety. Unlike the dancers in the subway, the game won’t threaten his virility; it preys on his desire with a kind of hunky-dory acquiescence. (To paraphrase Simone Weil, virtues are mutually exclusive but vice accommodates everything.) Beatles music hearkens back to childhood comforts; it makes Jason feel secure from the anxieties of adulthood; it is “family car music.” He feels elated when Ringo looks for a drumstick or Paul asks Jon for help with a riff, or when, in a homoerotic moment, Jon sees Paul in the shower, smiling. The various identities in “The Magic Umbrella” keep their sexualities repressed. “I do not crave a body,” says the autobiography, and also: “It is seldom a book is exposed to the outdoors.” But Jason is both straightforward in a naïve way and painfully unsophisticated: “…he’d never been able to give a girl an orgasm. He had even read articles on how. It was a major character flaw of his, he felt. It made him nervous about the rest of his life.” And yet, his desire is clear each time he goes outside: “He spent his free time in Central Park, feeling good about trees, feeling left out by trees, watching people play frisbee.” Glaser writes something similar about Alcott: “One summer, Louisa had a crush on the shadow of a tree.” The world, as a mirror of desire, is the erotic writ large, and sexuality is our relationship to it.
Once Jason plays the game, the story proceeds in the manner of a fantasy, getting better and more arousing, and it’s effective for a while before it abruptly fizzles out. Any encounter where getting someone off is just a matter of “…button combinations…” is bound to end too quickly. “He did the one for rewinding a record, the one for waving goodbye.” The video game appears to offer Jason a condensed and safe experience of life, but it’s really just a counterfeit, an “Xperience.” He is made to play the part of Lennon’s killer, just as Alcott killed her lover with his own gun. Threats in Glaser come from social texts imposed upon the minds of individuals; to her, we are all Manchurian Candidates arrayed against ourselves. The million lazy options of the video game disappear and what remains for Jason is to follow a single yellow line that leads to John Lennon, who Jason was before this moment, or so the game allowed him to believe, though in Glaser, no one ever is a thing, as things are selfsame; one is a verb, a desiring that verbs its own desire among the specters of identity, which cast it out whenever it feels at home. When Jason refuses to kill John Lennon, the game dispatches a terrifying messenger to him. In a world where verisimilitude has been essential to the game’s credibility, “Time hadn’t been spent on her face. Her eyes were dots. Her mouth a slot.” Yoko Ono has been supplanted by a monster.
Rachel Glaser is so critical of narrative and language that one may credibly mistake her for a nihilist, but her work is truly punk, for she destroys to re-invent while being enjoyable enough to feel illicit. She shows sympathy to be an ideological construct even as she evokes it. Her characters feel need in painful ways but suffer interference from themselves, which makes them seem mimetic. After all, who isn’t their own worst enemy? As readers, we see all the energies in Glaser’s work quite clearly, while still experiencing them as mysteries.