Saturday, April 05, 2014

GET THEM: Matt Maxwell's Tug on the Ribbon and Other Stories

"My Spirit Animal Is a Cassette Tape"

My introduction to art and death came through the cassette tape. Christmas of 1984: my first four tapes, and a Radio Shack player/recorder; music; art. Within a year: an everpresent Walkman in my jean jacket's pocket; tapes eaten; death. The fragile ribbon of magnetic tape delivered the music I needed to live a life worth living, and took it away at frequent, irregular intervals. The garbled crunch-then-squeal in my headphones was an everpresent possibility—the presence of loss looming over every time I hit PLAY.

I hit PLAY a lot. I was in the suburbs then. It was unwalkable, but I didn't know that, so I walked everywhere. The public transit system sucked, but I didn't know that either, so I spent a lot of time on the bus, guitars in my ears and a need for literally everything other than what I had in my heart. Eventually I got hip to the power of fleeing, and I began to spend even more time on the bus, out on the prairie between cities, staring out the window, playing tapes, playing tapes, playing tapes.

I've told this story before, or parts of it, anyway. But the experience of the tape, fragile and linear and impossibly valuable, made me who I am, and I'm still always looking for a way to port some art into where I am, what I'm doing.


I don't remember exactly when Matt Maxwell invaded my consciousness. Likely some confluence of Twitter interests blew him out of the desert and onto my screens like a low-key prophet bringing the sandstorm. Quick poking about established him as, at the very least, a Deeply Kindred Spirit to this Reviewieran Axis—Contradiction, Tinzeroes, Erroneous, et al.—nowhere more clearly laid out than in his "influence map" for his in-progress book Blue Highway, which could no joke serve as a fairly comprehensive introduction to Reviewieran aesthetics:

  • The movies The Road Warrior and Mad Max and Blade Runner and Escape from New York and—and this is deeply odd, because Tinzeroes and I thought literally nobody but us ever liked this one—Streets of Fire
  • The weird pencil-and-paper board game slash role-playing game Car Wars
  • William Gibson's great novel Neuromancer
(Not Tom Waits, tho: Reviewiera is and was and ever shall be a place for Captain Beefheart and Roky Erickson, and no, not ever bad actors and shtickmeisters like Tom Waits.)

The deal was sealed when he tweeted a link to the matchless HEAVY TUNES of Shooting Guns. I had to buy something to say "Thanks!". (Note: by all that is good, I tell you three times that capitalism is gross.) He's got a bunch, but there was no way I wasn't starting with the one with a cassette tape cover.

Tug on the Ribbon's four stories cover considerable ground, as did I, reading them on BART trains over the last week or so. Each draws from and advances on the ecosystem of influences blooming in the influence map we saw earlier. Perhaps more Bruce Sterling than William Gibson, Maxwell likes big-idea backgrounds: several stories are set in a world that feels complex and alien and recognizably the product of our own one unwon world, evolved in some specific way. Maxwell also echoes Sterling's insistence on incorporating non-Anglo/American sets and settings for his stories, as in "Luna Sangre"'s genetically engineered and fully networked gang/religious war nightmare in Tenochitlan and "Tug on the Ribbon"'s desert outside the city:

Wind shearing through the fingers of the creosote and the Manzanita and the stubby paws of the prickly pears. It was laden with trash. Bits of paper or shiny foil that glinted like fake treasure in the half-light. Pieces of plastic so small that they weren't worth cleaning to melt down.

"Coming Soon"'s desert reminded me most of the atom-bomb test site in the strangely effective and emotional Cold War SF movie The Amazing Colossal Man, with a little bit of hot-rod culture dashed in like the sudden memory-blast that Steve McQueen was in early Technicolor monster movie The Blob. This story is a romp, with a revelation I liked so much I won't say more, except to link it to an early William Gibson oddity/fave, "The Gernsback Continuum". (Reviewiera: Never Not Bringing Up Stories from Mirrorshades.)

"Crunch Time"'s world is one where everything is collapsing, the world is fucked, and insane idiots with the exact wrong priorities are in charge. It is unclear what this piece of journalism is doing in a collection of short stories. This mean-spirited slice of doom might have been my favorite in the moment, pulling audible giggles from me and making me want to watch Dawn of the Dead and Office Space simultaneously.

Of them all, "Tug on the Ribbon" is so far staying with me the most—as you'd expect of a dream-hazy story with some drugs, a broken, lying authority feeding on the poor, cassette tapes, and a Greyhound trip.


Death is coming for us all. We're surrounded by poison because we've proved incapable of governing rationality with moral wisdom; we're governed by imbeciles because we've proved uninterested in introducing rationality into structures of power. What passes for "culture" is a systematic fraud, lies designed to alienate us from each other and even ourselves, providing endless spurious satisfactions and pernicious canalizations and redirections of all worthwhile and productive impulses. It's not clear we have 200 years left. This is admittedly a bummer. And yet I claim there's room for hope.

One reason for hope is that there are still those among us who are trying—who look at all the readymade options and say "Fuck it, I'd rather roll my own.". It's hard goddamned work, though, and it deserves your support. Buy this book. Let it help you think better thoughts. Go forth and be and do better.

—Fat, kicking against the pricks

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