Noh Music for the Masses
We appeal, not to those who reject today in the name of a return to yesterday, not to those who are hopelessly deafened by today; we appeal to those who see the distant tomorrow—and judge today in the name of tomorrow, in the name of man. Zamyatin, Tomorrow
In the 2002 novel, Snowball’s Chance author John Reed posits a tantalizing prospect. What if, by quirk of fate, Snowball in George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm had somehow managed to elude his captors? And it had returned triumphant to the Farm? And successfully ousted Napoleon’s regime? Tantalizing of course, since before long, Snowball reacquaints the Animals with capitalist principles of production and competition. And while the profits swell, there’s a nasty ending with Beaver’s destroying the Farm’s twin silos.
Speculative fiction molded on satire from a generation prior. The conventional wisdom of course, for those readers who prefer to name names, casts Snowball most likely as Trotsky. Forced to flee the encroaching Stalinist regime, Trotsky was fairly certainly subject to a purge, outside the borders of the USSR. But what if (and Reed’s novel is entirely about speculation) Snowball represented an entirely different class of citizen; the artists who found themselves subject to Stalinist purges.
Among those artists who died in ignominy outside the borders of their homeland, Yevgeny Zamyatin stands out. His novella Tomorrow sounds a warning bell against mistaking the recent October Revolution for any kind of victory. Far from it, Zamyatin’s warnings were of an inherent ideological collapse he foresaw in Communism itself.
More importantly however, Zamyatin sounds a death-knell for the High Age of the Russian novel, and marks the birth of the popular in the Russian imagination. Rather than vest his work in the formal structures of the Great Masters, Zamyatin borrows from the political moment. Tomorrow reads like the kind of pamphleteering Marx did in his own youth. Convincingly then, the spell of the high strictures of Russian literature is finally broken. The Russian people are freed from that thrall and a mythology-factory (the same one that produced notions of a fabled Russia) is finally brought heel.
For John Reed’s tomorrow, there is no less a confronting of a cultural mythology-factory.
This mythology-factory offers what writer Grant Morrison described as ‘conquest by illusion’; the notion catharsis.
Catharsis today feels different. It’s more saccharine. It’s about learning lessons. But in the original Greek context, catharsis was about when bad things happen. It was about you as a reader breaking free, going home, knowing that deep down you’re just plain lucky to not have to suffer like those characters did.
Greek catharsis was about establishing a profound and a severe link between the audience and the fictions they became involved with.
Tomorrow, with the launch of John Reed’s Tales of Woe, MTV Books rekindles that kind of relationship. And sets out to break a similar thrall. These are not easy tales to read, things really go badly wrong.
‘On the whole the project took 2 and a 1/2 years,’ Reed confesses in an interview with PopMatters, ‘but 2 and a 1/2 really long years. At the end of each day I was glad to come home, to see my kids, my wife’.
Like all of his works to date, Reed’s Tales of Woe cautions against unbridled optimism. The same kind of devil-may-care that ends in expeditionism, incursion and adventurism. It’s the kind of optimism that made Viet Nam just feel wrong, even in the hearts of the most ardent supporters of that war.
And with tomorrow’s Tales of Woe, it feels like finally that old spell has been broken. With artwork by 11 collaborators, challenges another convention also; the unquestioned separation of prose and art. 8Pussy, Michele Witchipoo, Kiki Jones all bring their substantial talents to carving out the story of our time.
After the first Gulf War, after the demilitarizing of the GPS system, after Friends and The X-Files, Boston Legal, House and The Corrections, reading Tales of Woe feels like a beginning, like the fertile soil of a generational nightmare has at last been properly tilled and readied for something to grow.
‘I worry about the heavies in Woe’, Reed says a few moments before the curtain goes up. ‘I worry what might happen tomorrow. If 8 people find the book definitive, I’ll be happy. If only 7 do, I’ll fall into bottomless depression’.
Which might well work out happily for Reed. Bottomless depression might be just the thing for the sequel.