Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
“John Reed: Untitled”
(A review of Tales of Woe, involving Rosalind Krauss in footnotes)
By Rami Shamir
John Reed’s Tales of Woe presents a sprawling landscape of contemporary apocalyptic vistas painted in the sweeping vignette brushstrokes of a master artist’s hand. Reed, whose previous All the World’s a Grave alerted the world to a timbre of postmodern genius never before seen in American letters, cements his historical legacy with Tales of Woe. The correlate-import of this moment for literature is to be found thirty years ago in the much-less-insular-and-more-acclimated-world of visual art with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills: TOW is a large step in the collective evolution of “the writer”—like the photographer, the sculptor, and the painter before him—into “the artist.”
Neither cut-up nor mash-up, the vignettes in Tales of Woe are an appropriation whose art-world counterpart was most recently seen in Shephard Fairey’s 2008 AP-propriation of Mannie Garcia’s 2006 photograph of then-Senator Barack Obama; but this is not a statement about whose Mondrians are whose nor what’s a Walker Evans anyway. This is appropriation for the purpose of illumination. The vignettes are “memory waiting to be summoned”; their importance is in “the simulacral nature of what they contain… [in their] condition of being cop[ies] without originals.” 1
As Reed states “The thinking is to facsimile straight journalism in every way, except for this structural difference: there is no sin to cause the suffering, and there is no redemption or happy ending. I was surprised to find that most mainstream journalism, even straight news sources, adhere to that model. Where from? Mostly local newspapers. But quite a bit of filling in after that. Phone calls, websites, emails.”
Starting with the tale of Rotwe, the baby-eating Chacma baboon, the book follows up with the story of Qui Mei Na, “an unwilling participant in the sex trade”—a common theme in the book, as it seems to be in the world—whose body was found in a garbage bag in the trunk of a car in Belfast on June 3, 2000. The book spirals into a competition of ruthlessness as one vignette tries to outdo the other: FATHER KNOWS DEATH—“Eduard Churdinov put the body of his daughter in the trunk of his car…. [T]o thwart the identification of the daughter’s corpse, he stripped her, covered her body with bushes, and burnt her clothing.” (TOW, 103); ELIXIR OF ALBINO: THE UNPIGMENTED ALIMENTIVE—“TAS called for the arrest of witch doctors who traded in potions derived from albinos. The potions were sold as powerful ‘get rich’ brews…. The sexual organs of albinos, especially of virgins, are considered a premium portion.” (TOW, 131); HOT DOG WITH RELISH—“When Mr. Simpson was 16, he was charged and convicted for twice raping a young boy.” (TOW, 159).
Reed is a collector of late capitalism’s neglected: he fills the void of the investigative reporter, who is quickly being exterminated by the likes of Good Morning America and The View (have you actually seen these shows—they’re so fluff as to be constitutionally poisonous); and Tales of Woe is Reed’s memorial to those world-neglected who’ve become invisible in the downward spiral of corporate hegemony to corporate tyranny.
Reed’s goal to “facsimile straight journalism in every way” is fully achieved with the introduction of eleven other artists into the book who then facsimile the (now) straight journalism (of John Reed) with visual facsimile/s of (Reed’s ‘original’) straight journalism, creating “boxes-within-boxes” 2 in the simulacrated box of the book.
Indeed, the introduction of these other-eleven artists and the subsequent creation of these “boxes-within-boxes” highlights the primary issue: How much of this book is about John Reed pointing out to us our out-of-control belief in media sources? How much of this book is about John Reed pointing out to us the extent to which our social infection of media-myth consumption has spread; how often we now “buy the pitch [and] fail to look under the hood.”3How much of this book is about John Reed bringing the corpse to its body?
Woe has already faced censorship problems abroad—the book’s publication was delayed because the book didn’t comply with Chinese decency law, and so had to be printed in Singapore—and it is very likely that our sophisticated American brand of censorship will have a suburban-going field day with the book (my we could never let our own little Susie/Johnny/Mike/or Sue be tainted by such a book why lord this is like that zeppelin band playing records backwards and out comes satan hisself and their grades drop and they might have to go to trade school and they mights have to be working class better that they were gay lets accost mall middle management across America well wallmart their behinds its like 1917 again John Reed is the new John Reed so panic); but ignorance is no match for compassion, and it takes a truly compassionate human being to undergo the Sturm und Drang involved in creating such a book. With Tales of Woe, John Reed has not only made another genuinely avant-garde stride forward, he has acted responsibly in what is—as Tales of Woe reveals—a grossly irresponsible age.
1 Rosalind Krauss, Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993 (New York: Rizzoli, 1993) 17
2 Ibid., 20
3 Ibid., 28
Tales of Woe, by John Reed (MTV Books, 2010)