Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To Live is to Leave Traces

This book is a mess. The Publishers Weekly review quoted on the back cover declares it “Gleefully gory” but it is more than just gore that overflows in Body Surfing. In addition to blood and copious amounts of other bodily fluids, dirt, grime, and grit simply abound. It is a filthy, filthy book. The novel opens with Ileana in a grimy bar, wearing a “sweat-stained tank top” (9). The smell of Jasper’s room, with its piles and piles of dirty clothes, is easy to imagine (30-31) and the slug in his sneaker, oozing around his toes, is just fantastic (33, 57). In more extreme situations, the filth level escalates. After her night of revenge, Ileana is “caked with blood and gore. Ash and blood painted her face like a minstrel” (127).

The overwhelming tactility of this mess lends a certain sense of realness and tangibility to scenes that are otherwise hard to swallow. No matter how atrocious, terrifying, or disturbing the events that take place, and how much we might want to distance ourselves from them, those gritty little details are vivid reminders of how real and concrete these happenings can actually be. When Ileana notices the flour on the uniform of the soldier that approaches her, it is not just a visual detail of the scene, but a clue to what has already transpired, a trace of the events that have gone on before. Ileana recalls that her grandmother had been baking bread that morning, and it becomes painfully clear where the flour came from.

This leaving behind of traces—flour in this case, but more often in Body Surfing a trail of blood and bodies—is echoed in how the Mogran possess their hosts. Despite the fact that the Mogran are strong enough to be in complete control, they can also choose to release or augment “certain urges already present in their host’s psyche”—“Mogran loved to do that” (46). Even while possessed, the host’s personality may still be present, a residue of their former self.

When the Mogran are explained in a bit more detail, they are defined as mortals who have somehow shed their skins and become beings “of pure spirit” (141). I had envisioned this process of possession as a purely spiritual interaction, and therefore as being far cleaner. One might expect there to be no traces left at all—a spirit enters a new body, and that’s that. Instead, the amount of dirt and grime is almost overwhelming. Traces are left everywhere, blood and sweat stains every possible surface. There is no getting away from the sheer uncleanness of life.

As I was thinking about this idea of leaving traces, I saw online (thanks, Flavorpill!) that the Wellcome Collection in London has an exhibition entitled “Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life.” A few excerpts from the exhibition website: “'Dirt' will reveal the fascinating world of filth that remains one of the very last taboos. Our major new exhibition takes a closer look at something that surrounds us but that we are often reluctant to confront…the exhibition uncovers a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past, and points to the uncertain future of filth, which poses a significant risk to our health but is also vital to our existence."

The topics mentioned here—the conflation of disgust and delight, dirty secrets, our uncertain future—are all themes in the book (field trip to London, please?).

Perhaps this idea of dirt and residue appealed to me so much this week because of the time of year. It is that magical time when piles begin to appear in libraries and computer clusters across campus. Stacks of books, puddles of papers, collections of empty food containers, half-eaten sandwiches, entire desks covered in empty Red Bull bottles. The amount of stuff and residue we manage to generate just writing papers is pretty incredible.


Ayse G said...

You should see my room post-thesis...

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