James Reich The Song My Enemies Sing
Anti-Oedipus Press • 2018
Paperback: 236 pages • 5 x 8 • $14.95 • ISBN 978-0-99-915351-2
How different was Mars to Marx? Settling the words in his mind, as though one were a mispronunciation of the other, some typeset of the Devil, Marcos saw the corpses of the Martians, dessicated forms reminiscent of autumn dunes of brown money, the quality of interstellar flesh being worked out in death—twists of coconut husk, weak braids of corn silk—spectral people who had only existed in the pressed pulp of paper. All that life that gave way to a holocaust of emptiness and silence. (Song, 83)
One never really contests an organization of existence without contesting all of that organization’s forms of language. (Guy Debord)
James Reich’s wonderful new novel, The Song My Enemies Sing took me back to the thrilling experience of reading science fiction for the first time as a young teenager, stories in dusty paperbacks by all kinds of authors from the mid-twentieth century. These science fiction stories all had the menacing revelatory allure of Ray Bradbury’s carnival alleys. They were a place where you could take risks and learn things you might not learn anywhere else.
Reich achieves these effects in The Song. In his choice of mode, settings and subject, he connects with the events of a Situationist “brief moment in time,” when it was possible to see the contradictions in things, and reopens these events for the reader’s pleasure and, dare I say it, education. The Song is not space opera; like the stories I read, it recalls Paul Eluard’s “there is surely another world, but it is in this one” in a rather more expansive manner than Eluard suggests.
In the opening of The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson states that he will argue for “the priority for the political interpretation of literary texts…. Not as some supplementary method, not as an optional auxiliary to other interpretive methods… but as the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation”. In so arguing, is he not also saying that writing might also be informed by this necessity? That a writer, especially when writing about the past, might (or should) find a way of working in the awareness that:
the restoration of the meaning of the greatest cultural monuments cannot be separated from a passionate and partisan assessment of everything that is oppressive in them and that knows complicity with privilege and class domination, stained with guilt not merely of culture in particular, but of History itself as one long nightmare.(Jameson, 299)
The magic of Reich’s exceptional invention turns the twentieth century inside out to reveal the political unconscious of what is looking to be the last century in which human existence had some kind of future, a century in which the seeds for the failure of the future were being sown. In Reich’s case, the act of writing itself is an act of disinterment.
Reich has also done this Jamesonian thing in his previous two novels. In Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness (2016), he speaks the unspeakable of late nineteenth century colonialism with insight, rigour and sympathy. In Soft Invasions (2017), he treats the late thirties and forties of Hollywood and the Pacific War with the same fearless commitment, using the tropes of the time to expose and analyse their own underpinnings. Psychoanalysis, the Hollywood milieu of stars, producers, directors and writers, propaganda, war and its machineries, grief, desire, dismemberment and cruelty are the subject matter and the tools of that gorgeous sad dreamlike novel.
The Song My Enemies Sing follows Soft Invasions nicely. The main character, Ray Spector, tormented writer (epileptic /record store employee / revolutionary / Holocaust survivor) is a winner in a lottery which allows him to travel in cryogenic suspension to Mars and take up a small plot of land. His plot is separated from others by a grid of blue laser light, cast by swarm-sats, which “arced and folded over the planet like black angels, the hallowed electronica of the Agency” (31). The mesh of this grid becomes finer as new colonists arrive and are granted their plots. Other characters, such as the priest, Philipé Olmos, share this dismal existence, sustained by artificial atmosphere and surveilled by the panoptical Agency.
There were no countries, only the deliquescent shimmer of the Grid, drawing each their equal space from almost thirty-six billion acres. The colonists were free to cohabit, retain their children in the same plot, but the swarm-sats rendered the Grid’s equation of territory divided by people with disinterested precision, like surgery on the reddish hemispheres of a brain. (33)
The Song is a historico-psychic account of the twentieth century and its margins, a Bretonian invitation to enter overlaid dreamscapes of events and figures: the Profumo Affair, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Holocaust, Nixon, Werner Von Braun, Maralinga, the Suez crisis, psychiatry, grotesque brain surgery, pharmacological manipulation and military industrial space exploration. The tropes of sociopathies of imperialism are countered by sympathetic action and figures. The sad space chimp Ham is a focal point for the myths which underpin the colonialism and oppression of the modern centuries. (The novel is also dedicated to him, as “Number 65”.) Figures of imaginative and physical resistance, the Black Panther movement, William Blake, Sun Ra, Ray Bradbury and Joe Higgs are also there. The antagonists tend to be the mad scientists, instrumental rationalists such as the white linen suit-wearing, Mengele-like figure of Werner Althaus, and at times, the Doctor Benway figure of Richard Parish, and the silent all-seeing Agency
On Earth, Spector supports a young Black Panther, Eli Jones, by saving comic book coupons to buy him a Fuzz Gun (“Guns, pick up the guns, pick up the guns…”) and inspiring him by playing for him the 7-inch recording of Joe Higgs’ “I’m the Song My Enemies Sing”. Later, for Eli on Mars:
the weird music on that record, the emphasis on the third beat, dropping easily in the space where sound had not been in America, would haunt him still, studying a dust storm folding over the brown mountains. It was the voice and its incantations, the vibrato of the sweet deltas, of infinite melancholy, as with a prayer that could not be understood, but which yet carried the weight of the sun.(100-101)
Bradbury’s Martian stories are very much a presence in this novel. Reich remakes them to effect an urgent new perspective to the moral and imaginative problems Bradbury illuminates. Hallucination and telepathy occur in The Martian Chronicles, but in these the Martians seem to have more agency. In Songs the “Grays”, figures of conspiracy theory and science fiction, could be the indigenous inhabitants of Mars (and colonised territories on Earth), but are presented as the imagined abject products of the colonial mind.
In contrast to the destruction of a Martian civilisation by the incursion of Earthlings in some of Bradbury’s tales, or indeed to the subsumption of Earthlings by Martian identity in “Dark They Were, and Golden-eyed”, Reich’s Grays are the tragic product of the colonial unconscious (as are the “grey ones” of New Mexican conspiracy narratives), inhabiting a bleak lonely underworld, breathing alien air. They desperately forage for lithium (a metal with nasty side-effects as a mood-stabilising drug and in the production of batteries). In “The Salt Addicts of Dis”, a Martian hides at night on the ridge of a volcano.
The creature’s name was Elye. Its large eyes, oily ovals under soft hairless brows, were irritated by the false oxygen. Its body, like an unformed figure of putty, ached from the ascent, jutting hip blades, its abdomen distended with hunger, the fleshless limbs like powdered rubber, the heavy bald head, it labored under neuralgia and awkwardness. It stalked about, naked and tortured with shame and awareness. For Elye had discovered that it only existed because it was being dreamed. Still, it scavenged morbidly for lithium in the dirt of the Martian flats, seeking the underground mineral cathedrals, anything to ward off the terrible melancholy in which it was enveloped. It understood itself. It was, in someone else’s language, an unconscious consensus, a projection, a sham, a dream theatre, a broadcast. That the Martian was a dream implied that there were dreamers. It was one thing to be dreamed from the distance of Earth, but now in their proximity—the Martian shuddered as though a ghost passed through it. (149-150)
The teenaged human settlers on Mars seem to aim to emulate the bodily formlessness of the Grays.“On Mars, the kids popped Androgene pills to nullify their teenage sex; all across the planet, genitalia were recoiling, inverting or cleaving shut into bald featureless spaces of pale skin.” But the young Panther, Elijah Jones will not do this. On Mars, he resists the abjection suffered by the Martian shadow, Elye, just as he does on Earth.
The gridded plots of Mars are a logical consequence of the drive towards individualistic realisation, but such a drive is shown to be ruinous and alienating. Shortly before he is murdered, the colonist of the future, Philipé Olmos:
could still remember the Web, on Earth, how the distances between people had collapsed, leaving merely the permeable performance of hysteria, an undifferentiated smear of ego, a parody of empathy…. The Grid, the Agency’s gift to the colonists of Mars, was preferable to the neurosis of the screen, even as it inexorably tightened, shrinking their furrowed gardens, forcing them to relocate their A-T homes inward…. Yet, for a few centuries more, man would have his land, each his knowable and equitable place in the world. The Web had compressed and destroyed the Earth in a few decades. These Martian cohabitants, he thought, were fools. Olmos lay on his couch and watched the fallen satellite, heard the Beach Boys singing “In My Room”. (41)
A lottery, such as that enabling travel to Mars is a perfect example of capitalism’s appropriation of desire, where few are rewarded at the cost of many, but few appear to have any authentic agency.
It penetrated unacknowledged veils of nihilism and uncertainty. Within the globalized plexus of doubt, in the balance of fight or flight, the only real flight remaining was absolute. The lottery presented a Darwinian sense of chance and entitlement. There might be only one more lottery, or there might be a thousand more during the next generation, yet, in either case, Mars travel, exploration and what development might occur would be financed by the currency of oblivion.(58)
How does Reich resolve this narrative about the exploitation, cruelty and bad faith of the twentieth century? He does it with empathy. Elijah Jones nurses a living / dead blackbird in Blakean tenderness.
He held it sweetly, stoned with grief, the distant sun glinting in the dying eyes. Poor, lonely bird, he thought, and lifted it carefully inside his leather jacket. Why had it succumbed now? He imagined it in life, slipping his psyche inside that of the bird as it had been, hanging over the planet, not omniscient, but its perceptions rather more like a spotlight turning over the landscape. Time was in the light. (200)
The revolutionary, Marcos (a nom de guerre of Spector?), finds a small white bug in the dust of Mars, possibly the only sign of indigenous life on the planet, and carries it with him on his campaign. The appalling images of slaughtered apes co-opted into the service of humans, and Spector’s response to these, frames the novel’s concern with the necessity of empathy. In the final chapter, “Rainbow Serpent”, Spector imagines the chimpanzee Ham in his lonely terrifying flight.
Ray Spector would weep when he thought of HAM working the psychomotor of his capsule, the cold blue of the electricity running beneath his cramped feet, and back to Earth, the unspeakable alienation and loneliness the chimpanzee must have felt during his solitudes at the National Zoo—The disorientation, the confusion— Now as night fell, and the writer walked his plot of Mars under the Grid, the missing time he had spent embalmed in the cryo-gels during the transfer haunted him, and his empathy with the disembodied primate overwhelmed him.(225)
Ham is a melancholy but crucial figure of hope for collective redemption. In the end, we might imagine ourselves to be sitting with him in deckchairs on Mars, drinking Red Stripe, listening to mixtapes, recovering our lost time together.
The Song My Enemies Sing is a sexy, seductive vertiginous read. Characters move in and out of time. Many of the chapters stand alone as stories in themselves. Events, historical figures, myths and literature shift and weave across and through the novel in a disorienting hallucinatory manner. They demand to be reassembled through reading, in ways that work the reader hard. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, the dominant effect is that of deep affect. It is very exciting and moving to read the result of Reich’s extraordinary imaginative work.