Real to Reel

Real to Reel

by Lidia Yuknavitch

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With an intelligence that scalds every pretense and surface, Lidia Yuknavitch's camera pans across subjects as varied as Keanu Reeves and Siberian prison laborers. She zooms in on drug addiction, crime, sex of all flavors, trauma, torture, rock and roll, and art, all the while revealing untried angles and alien shapes. She traces the inner lives of characters…  See more details below


With an intelligence that scalds every pretense and surface, Lidia Yuknavitch's camera pans across subjects as varied as Keanu Reeves and Siberian prison laborers. She zooms in on drug addiction, crime, sex of all flavors, trauma, torture, rock and roll, and art, all the while revealing untried angles and alien shapes. She traces the inner lives of characters teetering on edges-death, birth, love, understanding-but never flinching at the spectacle of their violent descent. This collection represents a verbal cinematographer at her best as she captivates the reader with a prose style that is mesmerizing and fluid, deep and dangerous.

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From the Publisher

"Each story is a gem that could not have been written by anybody but Lidia Yuknavitch."
—Review of Contemporary Fiction

"This is not a book for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The skill of the writer is impressive and there can be no doubt concerning her formidable ability."
—The Compulsive Reader

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University of Alabama Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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Real to Reel

By Lidia Yuknavitch


Copyright © 2003 Lidia Yuknavitch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1573661074

Chapter One


I am not myself. It seems some slippage has occurred. I am not exactly sure when, but I suspect it began just under a year ago, perhaps closer to two. In some ways the slipping might be attributed to the normal flow of events. Changes in one's life, for example, function rather simplistically in this way, and I have never been one to be thrown or alarmed by what appear to be movements completely in line with ordinary or even cosmic patterns. Aging, seasons and tides, the way consciousness or wisdom changes the structure of things. The way thought rescues us from action time and again.

After all. I am old enough now to have a vantage point from which to view the story, so to speak, of a life. I can see plots, turns, echoes, the recurrence of main and subordinate characters, tensions, conflicts, resolutions, and epiphanies all in perfect little rows. Some no doubt would identify this as a kind of wisdom. However, something nags at me in the back of my head like a small worm burrowing through my skull. It says: this is not so. In other words I am struck with the feeling that I am entirely deluded at the very point at which this mythological wisdom is presenting itself. The tunnel that the little worm has dug reveals a vacant tube of ignorance. The vantage point moves. It is ablur of pure motion, thus, invisible.

Spinning in this way, I try to track what's what. As near as I can determine, this slippage of self may have a cause and effect relationship, or a kind of fated fall motif (you know, the adage that there are no accidents ...) or even an Eastern metaphysical shape, but it seems equally possible that the entire falling is accidental, without cause, effect, or meaning. It's not as if building a self over the course of one's life is tantamount to designing and constructing a building, now is it? In that architecture such systems and equations drive the movement that one cannot at any point step back and extract oneself from the matrix of its meaning. Conversely, a life, though we see it as designed (through our own consciousness or larger than ourselves), is.

Take Wittgenstein: "The flashing of an aspect of being seems half visual experience, half thought." Unlike artistic forms, being, to put it simply, wavers. Where art is open to interpretation, being is open to dissolution. The two cross paths however at the interstices of making and of signification; each thrusts its meaning forward toward an other and in that relationship we come to "know" or experience. And history, personal as well as cultural, derives from just these relationships. So in the case of Wittgenstein then we are speaking about being not as transcendent of meaning (as in god), but rather tethered, forever grounded, to the process of sight and insight. So my own slippage of self in this regard might be said to represent this fluctuation.

Making meaning, however, has its tricks. Part of how we most acutely make meaning of the events in our lives is theological in nature. I do not mean to say that we are yet bound to old notions of god and heaven. But we are still bound to their forms. For instance, when we hit any kind of difficulty or crisis, the first impulse of course is to narrativize, to make a story out of the event, a story complete with sin and redemption, moral trial and condemnation, transcendence, forgiveness, and resurrection. We take our emotions and make story from biblical form, from The Story, as it were. Thus all our smaller stories carry with them the plot elements of The Story: suffering, anguish, punishment, transcendence.... Do you see?

I will give you an example. A small and familiar human drama. Let's say a man cheats on his wife with a younger woman. Let's say the man and the wife's relationship, over time and with ordinary inevitability, has become rote. Not necessarily cold or sterile, not without love, not even without compassion. But habitual. The ease with which the man leans into the younger woman is based on another old story; she is attracted by his wisdom, or what she perceives to be his wisdom. He doesn't even have to do anything but look her way, pay attention to her. He need only be older and wiser than the young woman. Who is of course, beautiful. Already the setting, characters, conflict, and resolution are clear, yes?

You don't have to have read any canon to comprehend the idea here. You need only to have lived a life, subjected yourself to a culture's discourses. You need only to have been alive. These stories have supersaturated being, so to speak, and so they are no longer jettisoned away from us, they are in us, as in us as DNA, as close to us as skin. It does not matter what one chooses or doesn't choose in a life. Certain stories override any will you may or may not have. Certain stories write us. If you doubt what I am speaking of, make a list of the last five movies or books or songs or news stories which moved you. I suggest to you that each will have one thing in common. Each will draw from a very short list of preexisting scripts.

So the man and the woman fall to desire, or the story of a desire which entirely always already contains them. So too they exit that story with experiences which will no doubt shape their futures. Perhaps the man goes back to his wife, or divorces his wife and marries the younger woman, only to have another affair five years later. Perhaps the woman moves to the city in which the man lives, takes up a life with him, takes on his life as her narration. However, there are two interpretations here. Either the experience of desire changes them and influences their future actions or decisions, or the experience of desire neither changes nor influences them at all and is itself merely a nexus within which we dip in and out as individuals. Like a universe.

And so the end of this point. I did not mean to imply that I had an answer, either for myself, or in the form of advice for a reader. I meant merely to raise the question. In my individual case the question came to be about being, an old question, I admit, perhaps a dull one to some. I am not so much interested in whether or not I am, but rather, how I am. And certainly phenomenology, epistemology, ontology all rake through the chaos of that. But my "how" is embedded with perhaps a more subtle and urgent question ... a question I would leave with you, reader as Keats leaving his hand, open and extended: this living, isn't it simply to be storied?

She is not herself. It feels as if someone has sliced open her belly and is reaching inside. She closes her eyes. She places her hands-one under each lower rib-and pulls. Like a surgeon's tool. This is what it feels like to be her. And yet she does not count this as damaging or traumatic or depressing or terrifying; somehow this seems the natural order of things, like an animal shedding its skin or something dying giving way to new life. Bees swarming out of the carcass of a cow-isn't that how Virgil made spring happen from all that death? Poetry saves us. Words give us the ability to move.

After all, she has been moved by a single line, a page, she has been literally moved. Once at a bar drinking scotch she seized-up mid-sip, the scotch dribbling down her lip and chin; the words, a poet's; her mind, convulsing; her body, a plethora of blood and channels of vein like worm colonies mapping out whole new geographies. The line had so overtaken her that she had walked directly out into the street into the rain and the night and stood there until she had been entirely soaked, looking out into space, into the street itself, the black and white schemata of night, knowing with perfect certainty that she had to leave that city and go to another, without cause or erect, without mason, syntax, or insight. It was simply the line moving her.

Spinning in this way she enters a new city again or for the first time. Her clothes change, her hair, her creature comforts, what moves her, everything reinvented. She takes up philosophy not as hobby but as obsession. Finds herself inside books palm side up, Kant and Hegel, Wittgenstein. The words so moving at times her head rocks back. Secretly she reads Simone Weft, Lives of the Saints; their ecstasies keep moving her to ask, where are the bodies? She reads phenomenology thinking it will track the corporeal but finds that she is wrong. Sometimes it helps her to read direct medical descriptions of death, so the ideas that lift her in that transcendent way are always tethered to the ground of a human corpse.

Take Joan of Arc. She can see the image of her death. The details move her. The written account by Vita Sackville-West: "The sulfur was lit and the top layers of skin burned away; a faint honey smell was recorded." And Falconetti. In the silent black and white film. Her face is the word for it. Artaud's mad longing, his desire mixing with sacrament like blood and dirt from wounds in battle. These speak to her. Inside these words and images a body comes alive, faith made corporeal in wounding and even death. Love. She can make herself dizzy simply by thinking of it. She could probably faint right now if she let herself. Certainly she has been moved to tears publicly and endlessly simply by the named thing.

The meaning of things makes her. What moves her, makes her. In this way she becomes exactly what she is reading, she becomes Wittgenstein's line, she becomes Falconetti's face, she becomes a description of burning flesh. In slow walks down city streets into bars she is pale and lonesome, so pale and lonesome someone is always moved to ask her why she is so sad, exactly as in a movie or novel, exactly like the constellation of a philosophy answering the question, what is a woman, she becomes the embodiment of the knowledge to the point of near iconography. Seated at a table drinking she places a hand to her cheek and the other at her collarbone, she closes her eyes, she is seeing lines and lines.... Can you see her?

She is an example of the thing itself. She has been betrayed, scorned, shamed. A lover takes her, she falls. Then, inevitable, disgusted with her mind, with its complications and little weavings, with her constant weeping and overdramatic scenes, her cerebral contortions, turns her out either verbally or physically or emotionally. He either returns to his wife or former lover, or he gains self-worth and insight from their encounter; what it revealed to him about himself, his vulnerabilities, his being and purpose in life. First she is broken. And then she is simply a self again, but without ownership of any sort, she is simply a self set sailing across a sea of signifiers as if lifted from the pages of a story.

Books are not people. She knows that. And yet don't all of the people who people her life behave exactly as she has read? She has a private thought which is "all being is textual." She knows now not to tell anyone this thought. She keeps lines such as this inside of a dialogue never uttered. Her lines thus correspond with lines she has read in a complex discussion without beginning, middle, or end. Without primary characters or directed action. Just lines in the mind of one woman. She knows now that if someone speaks to her she ought to respond not with any of these lines, but with pre-coded body-specific phrases, like sound-bites or authorized advertisements. Someone says are you from here. Animal instinct-like she knows to say yes.

Yes she says to a man. To men. Any men. Yes like a serial. Yes to a desire without origin, without specific bodies, and yet located in her flesh perpetually. Yes to a future, as long as each future posits and then erases itself forever. Yes to a husband, a new city, yes to being, as long as being always posits itself and then erases itself forever. Yes to all of language, to all cities, all names, to open mouths and legs. Yes to life in Paris, in Seattle, in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Texas. Yes to metamorphosis, catharsis, epiphany, transcendence. Yes to the order inside of chaos, the moving particles underneath what appears to be immovable skin, yes to the entire nebula, to the entire night sky, to the endless cosmos.

Her telos has become beloved to her. She thinks this sentence as a man is coming inside of her. She does not speak it. She moans in the voice of a woman in ecstasy. He is pleased. Her telos, secret, private, entirely an ecstatic state, will be that which is closest to death. The last page. The last sentence. The last image. The last word, letter. The silence which comes then. Alive and unflinching and nearly unbearable, the space wherein one is compelled to find the next book, film, lover, event, life, self. Hurry, they all think. She thinks, die die die die die die in a loop. She smiles. He smiles back. Two lovers fucking. It is the way of the world. It is every story ever told, and she inhabits them all.

You are not yourself, and what's worse, you know it. It's been clear to you for some time, though you seem to have hoodwinked friends, colleagues, ordinary people such as grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, and waitresses. You exchange money and goods and services in the usual way, you arrive and depart as always, but secretly you know that these are acts of extreme stealth. At first you had some concern that someone would notice, as if you were carrying around a wound, but as time passed it became obvious that no one at all noticed, and wouldn't. Ever. In fact, you could be anyone.

After all, you don't give a flying crop about any of the people that people your life, now do you? Their inane and idle chatter and petty microscopic concerns. Their crawling through their own lives like blind earthworms in a clod of dirt no bigger than a baseball diamond. Their overwrought pathos and their absurd, tiny victories. They are cartoons of themselves. Their needs don't just bore the shit out of you, they actually repulse you. The way they proclaim insight from bogus interpretations of little events in their lives. Or how they are moved by great works of art and questions of being. A pile of steaming shit is what you really think even as you move through lively dinner conversations, attend concerts, go to funerals. You immovable fuck.

Spinning in this cesspool called a melting pot you wonder what's the use of this idiotic farce called democracy, and your place in it as an individual, the whole social organization of human culture into capitalist segments. Like chocolates in a box, prison cells, office cubicles. Lines at restaurants and museums, like cattle, like food in jars and cans and boxes.


Excerpted from Real to Reel by Lidia Yuknavitch Copyright © 2003 by Lidia Yuknavitch
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of two previous collections of short fictions, Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997) and Liberty's Excess (FC2, 2000); and a book of criticism, Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000). She is the winner of the 1997 Fiction Writer's Exchange Fellowship from Poets and Writers. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary magazines, and in the anthologies Representing Bisexualities (NYU Press, 1996) and Third Wave Agenda (University of Minnesota Press, 1997). She has been the co-editor of Northwest Edge: Deviant Fictions and the editor of two girls review. She teaches fiction writing and literature in Oregon.

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