I am not sure why I am writing to you now. To be honest, I have barely thought of you since I got here. But suddenly, after all this time, I feel there is something to say, and if I don’t quickly write it down, my head will burst. It doesn’t matter if you read it. It doesn’t matter if I sent it — assuming that could be done. Perhaps it comes down to this. I am writing to you because you know nothing. Because you are far away from me and know nothing.Paul Auster, “In The Country of Last Things”
I was trying to find a book recently. It didn’t have a title — or an author, for that matter. It was that sort of abstract book that you feel must exist exactly how you imagine and desire it but, on the off chance that it doesn’t, you might just be better off writing it yourself. Either way, you know you’ll eventually have to scratch the itch.
There are a lot of books like it out there. I have a tendency to go in for inter- / post-war French writers, for instance, who were able to capture their own madness — both collective and individual — without (or maybe despite) being subsumed by it. They called it “autofiction” — or at least someone did, in 1977, long after they’d gotten started. It is a genre most readily associated, in my mind, with Georges Bataille but also Marguerite Duras and Hervé Guibert, and it later became a particularly popular mode of expression with feminists from the ’70s onwards.
The importance of autofiction to feminist expression has led to stereotypes, of course, but the personal nature of such stories is secondary to the material journeys they often document — Heart of Darkness-style schizogeographic journeys that take place across suburbia or a whole continent or never leave the bounds of a bed; where internal encounters with one’s own mind take primacy over any kind of external travel (although you might get both if you’re lucky.)
Having exported it across the Atlantic during that moment of post-war cross-pollination, the North Americans got really good at it too. Whether based on transgressive personal experience or not, the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Kathy Acker and countless others would likewise write books that fit the bill, even if they buried their personal feelings under layer upon layer of fiction.
As such, these journeys were so often found in genre fiction — with genre being a vehicle for something all together more inexpressible. Urbanomic’s K-Pulp imprint feels like it was practically made for this, and the books published under that name (by Simon Sellars and Kristen Alvanson so far, with more to come next year) have so far captured the tensions of this way of working with far more intricacy and far more successfully than, say, the heavy-handed theory-fictions of the Semiotext(e) set.
I’ve started to become quite self-conscious of spending too much time with this sort of book, however — perhaps because I’m in the midst of finishing of my own book which is hugely indebted (directly and indirectly) to these approaches. And so, after dwelling for too long in 1930s France or on the American Frontier, I’m left wondering what is out there now that captures that same delirious energy today.
The other weekend I read Chris Kraus’s Kathy Acker biography and found a sense of this kind of mythical adventure in there. She wonderfully paints a picture of a woman who was everything to all people but, notably, not to all at once. On the strength of that book I picked up her more critically-acclaimed I Love Dick and sat reading it with a pint of beer outside a bar in Dalston before going to see Mount Eerie play at eartH.
I only managed to stomach hate-reading 20-or-so pages of it. I found that once-endearing ouroboros of American literature — where the great outdoors gnaws at a self that gnaws back — had taken on a new form, having now caught its own tail through bourgeois over-extension and, as a result, become so tightly constricted through academic over-affectation that its serpentine coil had started to resemble the pursed lips of both a smug twat and a taunt arsehole.
Anything inserted from outside, like the dick of the book’s title no less, feels like a clumsy and painful penetration. The experience is not as good as that may sound. Despite its intentions, it feels too self-conscious of itself for its own good. The risk it seeks to pose through its openness to itself feels like nothing more than a naive compensation for an otherwise repressed existence. For all the ways in which bourgeois white women talk about these literal and literary forms of sodomy, it feels like no one is really enjoying it. It becomes a telling class-based performativity through which announcing how in touch you are with your own baseness only shows how far you really are from it.
If pondering symbolic anal sex in the favourite books of a contemporaneous New York Lit Major sect is not how you expected a post about Mount Eerie to start, imagine my violent disappointment having shown up an hour early to his show with only that book to hand. Nevertheless, it was something of a palette cleanser. I stuffed it in my bag and headed inside the venue.
As I sat waiting for a friend to arrive I thought for a while about a text by Reza Negarestani on the strategy of making yourself “a good meal” which viciously skewers this bourgeois sense of counter-propriety.
Reza writes: “Nietzschean affirmation was never supposed to be about openness in an enlightening liberating way or open-ness at all; its blade thirsts for butchering and hunting all traces of economical groundbased openness (as economical openness has nothing to do with closure but parsimony and the grotesque domestications), devouring the entire survival economies based on the political ground of ‘being open’.”
Reza’s text explores the humanist pretensions of seeking outsides. Drugs and sexual ecstasy offer up a quick glimpse through encounters with the world or with others but the impetus should always be placed on how capable one is of affording the limit-experiences these encounters — or encounters of any other kind — can foster upon the subject. This is to say that it is not a question of being “open to” such encounters but rather being “opened by” them. Reza continues:
Affirmation does not make you open to the world but closes you progressively through the grotesque domestications of economical openness, makes you more solid and economically open, more moralized and more ideal for the boundary whose uncontrollable machinery is based on transforming openness to affordance, and loyalty to survival economy. It is not about how much you are open but how much you afford. It buries you under the ground of survival economy and its affordances. Being open is the ultimate trick of affordance and the domesticated interfaces of the boundary with the outside; it presents itself as an openness, particularly on the inevitably secured(ing) plane of being open (being open to, being open-minded, etc.) and not being opened. […]
Openness is not the anthropomorphic desire to be open but a being opened, lacerated and laid open.
Chances are if you’ve really let the outside in you won’t have found yourself bragging about it in your try-hard memoir of an otherwise aborted fictocriticism.
Here, the “auto-” of “auto-theory” — a phrase coined by Paul Preciado and popularized more recently by Maggie Nelson — finds its feet, appropriately independent. It is through the very act of writing that this opening is given voice. It is not summoned through it but simply takes on another form, one that can — notably — be shared unshareably.
When Phil Elverum begins his set as Mount Eerie in that strange Dalston amphitheatre, he does so with an extensive and meandering new song that ruminates on his past, present and future and I soon find his new songs to be the “book” I have been looking for.
I’ve been listening to Elverum’s music since 2005, since that ethereal moment in the recent history of American “indie” music when the alternative sounds of the nation seemed to be exploring their own hauntological moment. Underneath the maximalist pop vibrancy that would culminate in 2008 with Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks was this drowned other world of watery melancholy. Grouper and Liars and Animal Collective dominated my listening habits whilst Elverum’s No Flashlight presented itself as the disconnected diary of a wanderer above that indie sea of fog.
Bon Iver would take this moment mainstream and eventually find himself colliding with Kanye West as we entered into an unruly 2010s but what I have always found peculiar is the way in which Bon Iver’s debut was boosted by an instance of Walden-esque self-mythologising — all the songs were written and recorded in some heartbroken hut high up in the mountains. This added a romance to the album that many found irresistible but does the album contain this isolation within itself? Would you feel it without being told its story beforehand? I’m not sure you would.
It’s choral arrangements and overdubs, though beautiful, bury their isolation under exorcised ghosts. Studio gloss falsely creates a crowd.
By contrast, descending the mountains of northern Norway, Phil would find himself in Copenhagen where he would play just about every song written on that retreat over the course of a monstrous two-part, two-hour set.
The mythology of this moment, whilst narratively similar to Bon Iver’s mega-pop moment, has a different sensibility. It is barren isolation brought before a crowd in its first instance. Bon Iver is over-affected openness to Mount Eerie’s sustained laceration. There is little mediation between experience and presentation. They collapse onto each other, giving Elverum the vibe of an indie Zarathustra. He does not bring commandments but strips of flesh shredded from his ego with a butcher’s precision, laid out with a shyness and self-deprecation.
Finding themselves recorded in various different forms over the years since, during a time when my obsession with Phil’s works were at their peak, spending all my money on pricey mail orders from Anacortes, Washington, to my tiny bedroom in Hull (which, much to my delight, was the exact same size as No Flashlight‘s world-record-breaking fold-out sleeve-poster, allowing me to live in and walk over it for a whole summer), the Mount Eerie “project” then moved forwards glacially with an emotive dub sensibility. Versions followed versions as the old continued its becoming-new.
Fifteen years later, Elverum’s new reflectivity passing through references to his past works on this night of new songs felt unprecedented. 15 years is a long, long time, and it seems like just as much time has passed since Mount Eerie found countless new audiences with 2017’s A Crow Looked At Me. Emerging from the rupture of that moment, it is interesting to hear that Elverum has continued to carry those old songs with him, retooling and readapting records of old moments for new presents, forever commenting on the tension that exists between the mundane soft-bureaucracy of playing shows and the blissful mundanity of a poet’s existence — which is to say his work is absolutely poetic if devoid of the grandeur such a label suggests.
One verse in this labyrinthine new song makes an almost tired and deploring nod to the habit of “classic” bands reuniting for cash and yet, in a single irreverent line about the music industry, Elverum sums up the beauty of his own enduring cosmic irrelevance that ungrounds whatever holistic picture the press might wish to paint of him, colliding indie music politics with a fractured all too human ontology.
He ruminates on what it would mean for him to release a song in 2019 under his former moniker The Microphones but the imposition seems to be less about the cash-driven resurrection of an old project and more about the eternal return of one of many old selves. The audience laughs as he sings: “I’m glad I’m a contradictory grump who can’t be reunited.”
But there are nonetheless echoes of those past selves everywhere. The ouroboros of Mount Eerie becomes more apparent as Elverum moves onwards, as he foresaw he would in a Reddit AMA: “I may not write in this way forever because I don’t assume people will remain interested as my life drifts away from trauma and back into banality.” But, in many ways, the apparent banality of a life post-trauma presents its own challenges that Elverum is evidently wrestling with.
At one point he tellingly bellows the chant from the opening track of his 2005 LP Singers — “Let’s get out of the romance” — a past self helping a present one reach a future instantiation. Listening to this album for the first time in years today, it feels oddly prescient in both subject matter and approach. Elverum explains on the album’s Bandcamp page:
The songs were recorded over 5 years in Olympia and Anacortes, Wash. during the in-between times at recording sessions and shows. Whenever there were people with voices gathered I said “Hey I have this extra song! Letʼs all record it right now without practicing too much!” Eventually there were enough of these recordings for a whole record. Usually itʼs just one microphone in the middle of the room, singers becoming acquainted with the songs as they are sung, loud.
This welcoming of well-intentioned chaos into the process is perhaps the central exercise in all of Elverum’s work but today, rather than the voices of others (or lack thereof, as has been the case more recently), last night it felt like Elverum was newly in conversation with his own past whilst nonetheless taking a great stride forwards. The inside was seen afresh as a folding of the outside.
I don’t know if or when any of the songs sung that night will see the light of day but, impossibly, astoundingly, Elverum’s Knausgaardian slide from trauma to banality might produce his best album yet.