Kenning Editions: Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot and Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt
Friday, July 15th, 2011
Two new releases by Chicago-based Kenning Editions take on ambience as a central motif. Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot documents the various transformations of a fictitious music group that creates demos out of parking lot sounds, while Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt is touted as an “ambient novel, composed of black and white photographs, postcards, Google reverse searches, letters, appendices, an index to an imaginary novel, re-runs and footnotes.” A long time reader of both authors, I expected to be intrigued—intellectually tickled and incited—by these newest releases. I was surprised by how deeply both texts in fact touched me. The way Lu details the band’s various failures and successes, their persistent efforts at transformation, are by turns hilarious, exhilarating, and deflating. A long chapter written from the perspective of a pirate radio station master, to whom the band obsessively reaches out for recognition, stunned me with its quick changes and emotional breadth. I challenge anyone to not be profoundly moved by that chapter’s conclusion. Lin’s book, with its central themes of family history, death, and repetition winding dizzyingly together like a glossy Chinese finger trap for the intellect, startled me with its elegiac atmosphere: for all its detached accounts of television reruns and mini-treatises on the beauty of lies, I found Insomnia and the Aunt to be a terrifically somber, heartfelt text. Despite their differences, both books suggest how media/corporate influences have replaced the centers of our emotional lives to the extent that self-discovery or transformation are impossible in the absence of/without attending to our ambient preconditions.
Ambience: that which we, in our distraction, fail to register but are certainly affected/afflicted by. We are inundated with artificial, technologized sounds and images that populate our environments every moment; from the soft “plink” of light switches to the innocuous muzak in coffee shops, from ads along highways, the margins of web search results pages, or the commercial litter on the side of the street. Rather than bewail these effects as the terrible detritus of modern life that incisively part us from the true world, both Lu and Lin assume these characteristics as the foundational conditions of human life. The “natural” has been infiltrated by these phenomena and is no longer separable. That is not to say, however, that Lu and Lin defer pronouncing some judgment about this condition. Both writers have a strong sense of the sardonic, and their love of the declarative mode perform these conditions on the page with a sense of wit, charm, and simultaneous deflation:
We dusted off our math books and flipped through them, reacquainting ourselves with game theory to explain away the emotional volatility of our practice. We reproduced the stop and go of traffic in our longer sets, patterned after daily fluctuations in the stock market. Through these activities, the illusion of prolific output was created, free from the risks of personal involvement. As our songs seemed to write themselves, our inner selves retreated into hiding, watching and wondering from shelters of cozy detachment. (APL 53)
For my aunt, live TV of any sorts, except for the late night talk shows, is an unwatchable void. For her, TV is not a screen upon which remote images flicker or a metaphysical conduit for the selling of soap but furniture that moves like a glacier through American life, picking up all sorts of magnetized debris and junk which it affixes to the other side of the TV glass, like the rear view mirror in a pick up truck that reflects things passing by. (IAA)
The characters of these texts, surrounded by the aural and sonic excess of our own collective making, move with a detached engagement—one that allows them to be calmly swept aside. Part of what makes this stance possible for these characters is the apparent lack of a central identity. In this regard, these texts suggest that the digital/industrial/commercial ambience that surrounds us has also infiltrated us. We are truly inseparable from our environments. There are interesting resonances with ecopoetics in these works, but from a surprising vantage point: the logic of the ecology in this case rests upon throughly man-made environments.
Ambient Parking Lot ambitiously sets out to explore how one collective seeks to make use of and create sense from our ambient conditions. The novel opens with the group’s radical beginning as a conceptual experiment seeking to draw the vacant beauty and growling reverberations of parking lots to the limelight of public attention through their musical structures. The Ambient Parkers’ various transformations—from hyper-peripheral avant garde-ists to subcultural goth glam divas to darlings of the music industry, a quasi-Radiohead of their day, with academics and cultural pundits deliberating the import of their work—suggest the protean, elusive character of ambience itself. Importantly, they draw their inspiration from cars and parking lots—from fuel-injected propulsion and conspicuous absences. The group’s transformations take on the qualities of their muse; for all their “progress,” they are incapable of ever finding “a” “truth” in their work, and require the introjection of outside, individual perspectives to help them attain insight.
Her emphasis on collectivity and action has some resonances with Renee Gladman’s The Activist (Krupskaya), but Lu broaches her project with more humor and a stronger interest in voice. Her two chapters, “The Station Master” and “Death of an Automotive Dancer” are exceptional for being narrated by non-band characters. These two chapters carry the emotional centers of the text, and embody spiritual nadirs and zeniths that the band had been unable to attain for themselves. That such centers are embodied in individual and not collective narrations suggests that true insight or clarity cannot happen within or are occluded from the plural consciousness. However, is plurality or embedded-ness really the cause for the Ambient Parker’s ultimate inability to correctly appraise their own work? In a description of a performance artist’s agonizing dance in response to 9/11, ambience emerges as a “covert backdrop of collective amnesia and white noise impeding her efforts to secure voice contact with a savior” (23). If our preconditions are ambient—escaping notice, inspiring forgetfulness and distraction—then it stands to reason that our consciousness might be ambient as well.
It makes sense, then, that Lu would defer to the first person plural as a mode of narration. The novel centers around the band’s collective consciousness with specific numbers of its members continually in flux and undefined: “As individuals, they could have gone unnoticed […] but standing next to one another, they somehow came together as a group, amassing an identity that you couldn’t ignore or deny. […] What they shared most was an air of distraction, a sense of foreboding that came through in their restless shifting and quiet shuffling” (143). At various moments, people drop out and leave, but the band has a replenishable core that labors to continue its work. And that work also defines them-—aside from the admittedly fuzzy collective nature of the group, they are rooted in their ceaseless desire for recognition—though for what, precisely, is never perfectly articulated. For the most part, their yen for recognition seems to be a residual effect of their desire to create something that matters, but what their message or the content of that matter might be is always skirted over or slides into something new. In this way, Lu captures—and mocks as well, perhaps, but lovingly—the existential pretenses of artistic endeavors. In the end, Lu suggests that despite the absurdities and shifting metamorphoses inherent in human effort, the greatest grace and sense of humanity comes from attending, from recognizing that the deathly silence we fear is in fact fully populated and alive once we quiet ourselves. By the novel’s end, ambience takes on new meaning, and doesn’t require our torturously theorized amplifications but graces us when we quietly acknowledge it.
Despite her interest in ambience, Lu tends towards more direct structures—the text unfolds in fairly chronological order, and her syntactical forms are predominantly declarative, with subjects neatly followed by predicates. Though both Lu and Lin share ambient interests, I found Lin’s work better enacted ambience at a structural level. Insomnia and the Aunt recounts a young man’s memories of visiting his half-Chinese aunt at her motel in Concrete, Washington. The two mostly spend their time watching television together. Various black and white duplications of postcards and news images (a photo of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee was a favorite) pepper the book along with footnotes of fragmented texts gleaned from internet searches. Structurally, Lin’s text operates like a french-bound accordion book, with themes and events folded over and turned back upon each other.
The question of the aunt’s ethnicity and relationship to the Chinese language/culture are recurrent motifs, as are deaths in the family and the role of television in shaping our psychic lives. Lin explores these concepts through a self-conscious repetitiousness that emphasizes the endless reproducibility of images and sentiments into a new, non-material facticity. For example, from the beginning, we are told that the narrator doesn’t remember the hotel, but what he can recall has been gleaned from reproduced images.
I don’t remember much of this hotel, but there is, as I gather from the post cards and photographs, an occasional painting in the rooms and once, when I first thought about visiting my aunt, when I was in high school, I remember a photograph of a door that had been kicked in and which my aunt had pasted on the back office wall. I don’t know if this memory is based on something my aunt wrote me in a letter or said to me or whether I clipped the picture from a magazine many years later.
Lin offers us a simulacrum of memory that becomes the basis of the recollection, and any panic that might attend the sense of the impossibility of our lived experiences to approach the certainty of the constantly streaming, representable, and reproducible is initially negated by his detached tone.
Like most things in my aunt’s life, running a motel was a ritual enhanced by television. It was repetitive and beautiful. It was the opposite of metaphysical. It was the geography of the living room in the discontinuous form of a TV broadcast. In retrospect, I now realize it was the re-run of something inessential in a life, or a death inside a life.
On the outside, these turns in the text seem to vacate Lin’s sentences of emotional content, but in toto they created an elegiac atmosphere. The countless iterations, the constant streaming of texts and images, that transform knowledge into forgetfulness—best embodied by the endless television reruns—echo the way life barrels onward after a death. After reading Lin’s book, I started to conjecture that perhaps the best way to honor a loss is to recognize the impossibility of contemporary, hyper-ambient experience to allow for a space of that loss. I suggest this possible reading of the text based on the way Lin initially writes of the narrator’s father’s death—indirectly via an unmentioned event: “In the last letter I received from my aunt and which I have now lost, my aunt did not mention her son or the death of her husband two years earlier. The letter preceded my father’s death by at least a year.”
Lin also implicates various national, cultural, and historical forces for the family’s participation in a diaspora that transformed their lives into a type of media circulation. He references Chinese language educational practices and US immigration laws as a backdrop against which the television comes to stand in for the narrator’s relationship with his aunt. Lin writes as if the family’s indefinability/untranslatability are weak obstructions to their absorption into dominant media streams. For example, the aunt speaks in a unique register, inflected by her British schooling in China, a Xiamen dialect, and an upbringing viewing “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dubbed into voices singing Cantonese.” However, her unique history “makes her appear as a type of linguistic biography […] where nothing is awestruck because nothing is hidden or concealed from view.” Later, white landlords discriminate against the narrator’s parents, yet all he can remember is that “my father and mother never seemed angry when they told me this story.” However, I found that these familial details in fact had the opposite effect—that they gave the characters purchase and weight that distinguished them from the banality of the media onslaught.
For me, what gave this text such an elegiac cast was that I kept reading it like an homage to a lost father. I might perhaps be taking the text too much on its own surface terms, but though the father is rarely mentioned, he appears with a quiet emotional gravity that seemed too earnest to be simple play or stylistic convention.
And this is how my aunt’s understanding of her life in American was arrived at, as a delay in the speed of an understanding. In my aunt’s case, this delay was a place called Concrete. In mine, it was an aunt. In other words, the proper study of an aunt is a delayed aunt, like a father who has passed away.
Now that they are dead, my aunt and father exist inside a place where the less-than-honest ravages of the world can finally be made to unfurl without the violence of feelings that is normally attached to them.
These emotional tonalities I was inferring from the text surprised me, particularly coming from an author who proclaimed he was perfectly happy with his audience falling asleep. I have been careful to distinguish Lin from the young narrator, but the first person narration and emphasis on family details encourages me to read it as memoir. With these generic concerns in mind, if we read Insomnia and the Aunt as an extension of Lin’s BlipSoak01 (Atelos) interest in inattention and distraction, than perhaps this newest book seeks to explore the human elements at play in an ambient universe.
Both books’ interest in ambience also invites a strong consideration of ephemerality. Whether that ephemerality emerges as the shifting stylistic conventions of a music group, or the transience of a human life, both authors suggest that our in/ability to attune to its fleeting spirit is driven by our ambient preconditions. On that note, I come away both uplifted and defeated from these texts. What is it to be human and alive in such an environment? If we are always awash, is our only recourse to embrace the flow? I feel both excited by such possibilities and nostalgic for the illusion of our uniqueness, our distinguishability, alert to the universe. If our new environments are predicated on our inattentiveness, on the gorgeousness of the distractions in our contexts, what forms of imaginative flight are possible?