- Viewed on VHS
Two Dollar Radio
162 Pages; Print, $15.99
Near the beginning of The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, something strange happens. The novel’s titular character, a rare films librarian being interviewed by the narrator about a series of lost works—works that Laing himself burned, stands after describing one of these films and pulls from underneath his shirt a small red object that had apparently been taped to his back:
It’s about five inches long and is shaped like a cone, narrowing to a sharp point at one end. He sets it on the table. This doesn’t come across as a threatening gesture, as you might expect, but rather a protective one. I’m somehow grateful and relieved to see the object there before us even as the first word that fills my head when I see it is annihilation.
This object will reappear at various points during the novel. It is never explained. I must say that this is the only part of the novel that, strictly speaking, violates the dictates of realism, but that’s not quite right—there is nothing about this object that makes it in any way impossible; it does not defy the rules of physics or what we know of the natural world. But it doesn’t quite fit with the world we know, either. It is somewhere on a line between realism and the fantastical. It is worrisome.
Other things in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing more flagrantly disrupt the natural order, but these are reported second-hand at a remove from the narration. Things are described to the narrator-reporter by Laing, who, we are told, is not to be trusted. The novel, which represents the narrator’s interviews with Laing over the course of three days, is structured around Laing’s descriptions of destroyed films by directors such as Agnès Varda, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and David Lynch—creators of works that are, as the book has it:
Not in that category of films we call experimental or avant garde, but rather…that smuggle these strategies and techniques into films that appear, on their surface, to be more conventional.
The films ascribed to these directors do not quite align with what we know of each director’s work, a point which the book at times insists on: the most terrifying thing about the destroyed Lynch, for example, is “how un-Lynchian it is.” These names, and others throughout the book (John Barth, Jacques Derrida), appear in Laing’s monologues as though figures in a dream, at once themselves and others.
The films themselves, each described at length, allow the novel to venture into territory outside of realism with plots involving doppelgangers, post-apocalyptic worlds, and supernatural beings—fantastical elements which typically mark off popular entertainment from more serious fiction. However, included in Laing’s description of these films are moments that cannot be written off as simply fantastical elements within the films themselves. There is a blurring between the film and the world around the film. Laing seems to have access to characters’s thoughts or inner states in a way that one does not have access to while watching a movie. He reports these objectively, as if it’s not anything about him that grants such access, but rather as though the film itself is pushing its interiority into the surrounding world. At one point, a red line appears on the screen and then widens, first destroying the characters onscreen, then going further, “The screen itself is eradicated….It leaks out of the frame. It hisses when it hits the theater floor.” In his description of another film, viewed on VHS, a gap between trees onscreen widens “to expand—impossibly, and yet somehow it was happening—beyond the confines of the television itself.” Perhaps Laing is delusional or lying; nevertheless, when we’re in the midst of the telling, this slippage from the possible to the impossible seems to expand out from the novel somehow and implicate the world around us.