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Currently Reading: Impossible Princess, by Kevin Killian

Do you ever catch on a sentence while reading, one that no matter how many times you reread it, you just can’t derive any meaning from it, it sort-of remains more or less completely… algebraic, but instead of reading ahead to something that does resonate, you keep reading the sentence, over and over, hoping to make some kind of sense of it, because, like — you don’t want to “miss” anything… and then your mind also wanders or blanks in this weird way while reading, so you realize that not only have you reread that sentence like 50 times, you also stopped actually consciously reading it a while ago?

That happened to me this morning with this sentence, from Kevin Killian’s Impossible Princess:

“When love flattens out proportion, the body of the affected one becomes a sensitive membrane, a clock without hands.”

…er… huh? I don’t necessarily need things to make literal sense, and also… I am definitely scared and embarrassed to admit I’m not always as adroit a reader as I’d like to be considered.

So — how do others experience this sentence? What does it mean? Is its meaning important?

To clarify: the image of the body as “a sensitive membrane” is for me like whoahfuckingyeah, it’s mostly just the rest of the stuff surrounding this image that befuddles me.

Killian’s prose is really fascinating. I find myself continually comparing him to Dennis Cooper, which is probably not really fair, because they are in many ways very different writers (For Cooper fans, Killian’s stories, at least in this collection, are perhaps most like Dennis’s story “Anal Retentive Line Editor” in Ugly Man, which is to say, obscene and hilarious), because Dennis and Killian were both a part of San Francisco’s “new narrative” circle with Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy and others, and because the book cover’s text seems pretty intent on reminding me of this fact, and also includes a big-ass blurb from Dennis in a bold lookatme font. But Killian’s diction is quite different from Dennis’s, it’s much… busier. For instance, he at times uses simile really liberally, and some of these similes I would call… not just absurd but actually kind-of silly (for instance: “My lids felt heavy, as though while I was crying some evil genie had implanted them with iron fillings,” or “I pulled his uniform from his shoulders…felt a scar there, thick and veiny like Harry Potter’s lightning bolt.”) I at first found this jarring, then gradually realized Killian’s intent is to jar, call attention to the artificiality of the text, and also… to play with pulp and pop aesthetics, often sharply juxtaposing the very formal with the casual and colloquial, as in: “And then hearing him speak, his voice a hollowing echo in the humid chamber, and I’m, like, he’s German or something.” (italics are Killian’s).  Reading Killian’s writing, it is often difficult to tell what’s said in earnest and what’s a joke. Or perhaps more accurately, whether he is dead serious about joking.

There is a story in this collection about a lowly office worker who illicitly uses the copy machine after work… to create the world’s most popular Faye Dunaway fanzine. We are made to feel the great weight of this protag’s dangerous mission, sweat beads on our own brows as the copy machine breaks down and the protag must wedge himself inside a tight hole in an effort to fix a jam. This drama alone, I am not fucking kidding, would be enough to recommend this story, if not the collection as a whole, but then shit gets even better after the story transitions into a pornographic fuck session, when the the office building’s Latino maintenance man finds our protag unable to extract himself from the bowels of the copier and, mistaking him for the company’s big boss (the protag’s head is not visible inside the machine), decides to enact his lustful revenge, alternately relishing the protag’s asshole and cursing him violently: “I’m ready as a rooster, Mr. Tippett,” sang the janitor. “You are gonna get the bonky-bonk of your motherfuckin’ life, executive pig.”

The story’s painfully funny and also really hot. I got an erection reading on the train yesterday during my evening commute and had to reposition myself, and there was a family with kids sitting across from me, and I remember feeling alternately turned on by the book and mortified by their presence, as though they themselves could read the text on my page and were appalled by my reaction.

Several reviews refer to the story’s scenario as rape, which, despite the fact the protag enjoys the hell out of the encounter, is perhaps not totally unfair, since we’re given the impression the janitor is unaware whether the protag has consented, and would be fucking the man he thinks is his employer regardless. Which means I should probably be critically analyzing my own reaction.

But to be honest, while reading, I’m mostly like — Work it, Osbaldo (that’s the janitor’s name)! Fuck the man!

And also: Yes, please.

5 thoughts on “Currently Reading: Impossible Princess, by Kevin Killian

  1. To answer your question, yes, I do! And I’ve found that there is a direct relationship between the number of these sentences in a given work and the probability of the author having received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

    Take this one from The Body Artist: When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see.

    Great review of Killian!

  2. I definitely find myself obsessing over sentences, sometimes to gain clarity but also to explore their metric play, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and/or use of metaphor, or whatever. And I love it when a seemingly inscrutable passage by a “difficult” writer like Gertrude Stein or late Joyce; poets like Marianne Moore or Wallace Stevens; philosophers like Kristeva; Deleuze, Wittgenstein, and Kant; or invocatory poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hart Crane unfolds through perspicacious probing and parsing.

    As for the sentence you cite above: “When love flattens out proportion, the body of the affected one becomes a sensitive membrane, a clock without hands”, here’s how I read it: I think that first phrase posits that love is a kind of agent that evens out the relative importance, or quantities and size (not necessarily materially or physically but more in terms of presence or state of being) of the lovers; also, love evens out the space between lovers, brings them closer; and because of this the one loved becomes “a sensitive membrane,” that is, vulnerable, responsive, malleable; and then lastly, becomes “a clock without hands,” that is, unreadable, inscrutable, outside of time.

  3. That’s a really lovely sentence that you cite, Tim– I pretty much read it in the same way that John does above.

    I don’t know Killian’s prose, actually, but his poetry is really intense… I think his language is really special, really surprising.

    I have to say that I’ll always be grateful to Kevin — I’ve never met him, but he graciously blurbed my first book…

  4. A former student told me that Tim Jones-Yelvington was discussing my work online and my credibility had just shot up in his eyes, immeasurably, like Old Faithful geyser erupting, so thank you Tim for that. And thanks also for your attentive teasing-out of some of the problems in my writing.

    Thanks to John Madera for illuminating my sentence so beautifully. You guys are great. I should add that the story it’s from, “Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour,” is—besides it being, you know, a memoir type of story about my life—my version of a long ago avant-garde film, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, written by Marguerite Duras, and so the heightened, lush and sometimes absurd language of my story is my bow to the fantastic dialogue and v.o in Hiroshima Mon Amour. She is so unbelievably, I don’t know, “over the top” isn’t the word, maybe “confident” is fairer. Many of the best lines in my story are direct quotes from Duras. “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.”

    In the story, I’m having an affair with Dietmar Lutz, a Dusseldorf painter visiting San Francisco and making a film about its mysterious aspects a la Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, and the story is laid in the days right after 9/11, when US xenophobia is at its height. I suspect him, I adore him. The whole situation made me think of the Resnais film, but that may not be immediately obvious from reading it. So yeah, I’m not always as highflown. In addition, the “sensitive membrane” was for me an allusion to the prostate gland, and also to the limp watches Salvador Dali used to hang over cacti in his great 30s paintings—and that’s where the “clock without hands” came from tooˇ—though John Madera is right also.

    Thanks Michael Leong, I continue to admire your writing, and do you know, I was ready to review Tim Yu’s book on Race and the Avant-Garde, and after reading your review, I sat back, defeated almost, for every one of my points you had written already and said it much better. Now that was a great review.

    And thanks Tim, I hope we meet someday, come out to San Francisco some time, I’ll show you the very Xerox machine that was the model for the one in my story “Ricky’s Romance.”

    1. Hello Kevin, Thanks so much for coming to find us!

      …I am not familiar w/ the Duras, but there is a way I think your text is still perceptible as homage even w/o that familiarity. Delicious stuff. And your employment of Mark Bingham is brilliant.

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