Westernby Christine Montalbetti
Setting out to tell the story of a mysterious cowboy--a stranger in town with a terrible secret--Christine Montalbetti is continually sidetracked by the details that occur to her along the way, her CinemaScope camera focusing not on the gunslinger's grim and determined eyes, but on the insects crawling in the dust by his boots. A collection of the moments usually… See more details below
Setting out to tell the story of a mysterious cowboy--a stranger in town with a terrible secret--Christine Montalbetti is continually sidetracked by the details that occur to her along the way, her CinemaScope camera focusing not on the gunslinger's grim and determined eyes, but on the insects crawling in the dust by his boots. A collection of the moments usually discarded in order to tell even the simplest and most familiar story, Western presents us with the world behind the clichés, where the much-anticipated violence of the plot is continually, maddeningly delayed, and no moment is too insignificant not to be valued. Montalbetti's daring theft of movie technique and subversion of a genre where women are usually relegated to secondary roles--victims, prostitutes, widows, schoolmarms--makes Western a remarkable wake for the most basic of American mythologies.
Dalkey Archive Press
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By christine montalbetti
Dalkey Archive PressCopyright © 2005 P.O.L. éditeur
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Chapter Oneon the porch
Call him anything you want, this thirty-year-old in the checkered shirt who rocks back and forth under the roof of this porch in what can only be called a makeshift apparatus, haphazardly, with nothing like the harmonious movements of an actual rocking-chair-the slow movement of its curves in an ergonomic unity conducive to daydreaming-making do, under the circumstances, with this senescent chair, even being a little too hard on it, a chair covered in nicks and smudges telling of past carelessness (see that chipping, those splotches, the gashes on its rungs, the scars in its back), a rustic model (notice how thick the rungs are, the clumsy spindles fanning out), pushing it just a little bit too far, having wedged its back legs into a crack in the floor, while its front legs, like the lone two fangs, if you will, in some scarcely populated jaw, bite erratically at the ground, as though that jaw were snapping shut.
This haphazard snapping requires a driving principle working in alternation between balance and imbalance: our thirty-year-old's right leg is what provides this movement. Pushing down on the boot that rests on the horizontal rail built onto the front of the porch, well, it acts like a piston.
This precarious apparatus is keptin good working order by a modest but well-organized sequence of muscular activity, a whole series of motions, each muscle taking up where the last left off, at just the right moment (any distraction, any mistiming would result in a possible fall), and so, in this petrified dawn, deserted, seemingly frozen within a complete suspension of activity, utterly silent, there is only this imperfect rocking in the shade, only the scansion of the chair, to imply that all sorts of powerful forces are being called together, forces that-since the timing of the coming event isn't particularly important-we might as well keep on describing.
I'll summarize the situation for you. When the plantar muscles of our man's two feet start to flex as he rests on the rail, this engages, um, the triceps and the soleus muscles up in the calf. Our thirty-year-old, I'll go into more detail, relaxes the flexors of the feet, meaning, I think, the anterior leg muscle, and perhaps also, at the same time, the lateral peroneus longus, you can't exclude that possibility (I'm doing it myself, to try and feel what muscles I'm using, but even so, identifying them is not so easy). When you tense the knee, now, let's see how that works, it requires a semimembranosus as well as-there we go-semitendinosus relaxation, OK, done, and you can't omit the femoral biceps (as for the brachial, that's completely inactive, it just lolls around and doesn't participate at all). Stiffening the large buttocks muscle (come on now, no nervous giggles) then allows you to stretch your thigh while at the same time you relax the iliopsoas. Relax it. Good.
As for the rest, it's perfectly conceivable that there will be a slight abdominal contraction (I'll let you be the judge of that) completing the ensemble.
Only the boot, perhaps, the one resting on the rail, sticks out at all, because of the way it hangs off the porch, displaying its little leather mound, a hillock beginning to reflect the dawn, its delicate glow, still coming entirely from the horizon, still making its way up into the almighty ink, that's precisely the word, of the earlier nocturnal invasion. The boot's style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern-should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?-or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach-not the ribbons of foam that float on the air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy's wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it's inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand.
In this lethargic morning, which will arrive in its own good time, and notwithstanding the boot and the rocking motion, which we've tried to explain the best we could, there really isn't all that much going on, and for the time being it's hard for me to tell you much more about it, unless we move closer to the rail where the boot is silhouetted and notice that, look, whereas we thought we'd already given an exhaustive count of everything falling into the category of movement, of life, in this scene, just look, there are quivering droves of hexapods here, scurrying around, traveling at their own pace, with the result being that we can, while we're waiting for this day to break, and for our man to stir-he still seems to be in some sort of vague interior space, from which the only thing we can extract is a mishmash of drowsy thoughts occasionally resolving into more precise snatches of monologue-we can always look down into their winding column, watching the mobile and regular dotted line it traces so precisely, and from a macroscopic viewpoint recognize that they're really something to see, with all those terebra, hooks, pincers, and other stinging parts, and look, check out that one there with its disgusting labrum that it raises and lowers in the morning air as if talking to itself, harping on some old idea it can't get out of its head.
Let's adopt their point of view for a moment (those not interested in animal life can skip immediately to Chapter 2 with no harm done).
Traversing the rail, if you want my opinion, can't be the most enjoyable part of their expedition, spreading their six feet over the chromatic monody of gray wood beneath them, its texture not particularly welcoming for anything not (as they are not) xylophagous. There is, however, if you think about it, something grandiose about their journey, because for a minuscule entity taking it into its head to cross the rail, wouldn't this stiff, woody support seem like the dried-up surface of a dead, arid planet, fissured here and spiny there, where splinters, yes, are as high as rocks, splendid peaks lifting magnificently to the sky? Aren't they actually a sort of astronaut, far from the earth, and wondering-those of them interested in science-about the possibility of life being able to exist on such bloodless terrain, where all you can see are looming empty craters and desolate mountains?
Yet, this existence of life, something most of them were skeptical about when they first set out, shaking their heads, alas, now looms there in front of them in the form of a vague, dark threat: it's the boot, that enormous mountain of dark leather, radiating-they can feel it-some sort of heat, the heat of the human foot located inside, producing in all probability a diffuse caloric elevation that must circulate around the boot's outer limits like a halo.
Making their minds up right away-though if they were only concerned with advancing blindly, arriving more quickly, they could have scaled the aforementioned obstruction in order to take the most direct route-they skirt it by silent, tacit agreement, without first meeting in council to deliberate over the matter (imagine the disorderly jabber, the shrieks of objection, the vote, with the losers furious and a few of them perhaps beginning to wonder if it might be better to go it alone), the first in line taking it upon himself to make the detour, and each of the others following his lead without hesitation, with a docility that could make you wonder, was this the passivity, the scrupulous obedience of those resigned to having no opinions of their own, or, instead, seeing this great dark mass dangerously silhouetted in the middle of their path, were they all simply congratulating themselves on the decision of the first in line, on the wisdom he had been able to display once again and that had clearly saved them all from catastrophe-all they each had to do was take the detour, like their compatriots before them, rather satisfied with their guide and considering that a prudent later arrival at their destination was better than running the risk of massacre.
Because, yes, let's just imagine, if they had instead chosen to face the obstacle head on, having the gnawing feeling-whether due to ignorance or arrogance-that nothing bad could really hap pen to them on this nearly deserted dawn, or even, conversely, feeling inspired to have this sort of challenge thrust upon them by the foot inside its boot, motionless for the time being, and consequently deciding to brave the thing, what the hell, and beginning the ascent without too much difficulty, thanks to the adhesive qualities of their own feet, those same feet that could be counted in the hundreds, yes, just through their repeated tapping, delicate as it was-infinitesimally so, if you think about it-and which might have ended up provoking a tickly feeling on our thirty-year-old's instep, a feeling that would have given him no rest, put yourself in his place, until he stopped it, taking drastic and I fear irreversible measures, in this case lifting his boot up into the air to shake it and then knocking the rail with its heel several times in order to slay a portion of those responsible for this nuisance, leaving the survivors to escape any way they could, panic-stricken, heartbroken, disgusted at the precariousness of their existence, and, in mourning now for their many dead, waiting for our man to leave so they could come out and search for their shriveled little bodies.
And even if our hexapods' very light stamping wasn't something he could feel, can't we imagine our thirty-year-old-not feeling the literal tickling we've just now described-let's say metaphorically got pins and needles, his leg going slightly numb, tired of being up there for so long, so that, in order to wake up his sleeping circulation the leg engages in going up, whoosh, and back down onto the rail, this time with no dire purpose in mind, but lifting in spite of itself, when it goes up into the air, the column of those who at that very moment were crossing the toe and who, overcome with vertigo in the whirling rush, begin to slip, forming on either side of the shoe a helpless, swaying cord from which, sure enough, several links begin to fall, while those who manage to hang onto the leather no matter what are terrified to see the boot moving back down to the rail, and from their airborne viewpoint they can watch the different ways the others down below react, threatened with being squashed, some of them disoriented and fleeing in every direction, with no pre-established plan, others lifting their heads and opening bewildered labra, not really understanding, watching the heel's dark mass descend, their little morning monologues completely interrupted and not knowing how to react to the matter at hand, they who had followed the main part of the column unthinkingly, never considering the danger they were exposing themselves to, and who had taken advantage of their subjection, their mechanical obedience, to ruminate on a few personal thoughts in daydreams, plunging into these so deeply that now they can only panic; and the ones up above, hanging on, battling the nausea that the moving boot produces (so much swift, airborne motion must really take it out of you), as pale as if they were riding one of those terrible swings at the fair, anticipate the dreadful carnage to come, yet can do nothing and bid a mental farewell to those of their comrades who, scarcely perceiving what is about to happen to them, don't have time to get out of the way, alas, alas.
As for the one who seemed to be talking out loud to himself just now in the line, did he fare better than the others, or was he one of the missing-we can't know yet, in the confusion reigning on the rail, where some of the victims have been so deformed by the blow that you can no longer make out their features, others perhaps having taken advantage of cavities in the wood, crawling in and gathering up their little bodies the best they can, waiting in those tiny, unexpected caves for the shoe presently blocking the entrances to lift for good.
The ones who managed to escape have their backs to us, unrecognizable, a crowd already partially out of sight and indistinguishable from one another, unless maybe the one who looked like he was talking to himself is the one turning around, this time opening his lamellated labrum onto a soundless yawning gap, dumbstruck at the sight of this massacre and stretching his spindle-shaped and stunned antennae toward the dark mass of leather, wondering what could possibly have motivated such a bloodthirsty executioner.
Which mass of leather, in one final sally, raises itself again, making its dreadful shadow hover, a darkness wherein the ones still safe in their trenches hole back up, a few of them having stuck their heads out of their cavities as scouts before immediately diving back in (the dreadful spectacle of the rail surface sullied with those severed bodies), and this retreat was a good move, believe me, because the boot returns all at once to meet its shadow, to coincide with it, shutting in our survivors for the time being, with no provisions and only what little oxygen remains, while around the boot in the pale morning a succession of half-crushed bodies still writhe, begging as they desperately rally, in their final twists and squirms, for a few more moments of life.
Well, anyhow, at least we've escaped the worst, thanks to the prudent detour taken by our creatures, let's congratulate them as they slowly but surely make their way through what is in the end a perfectly peaceful dawn where each entity has its own place, the insects bustling around on the rail without encroaching at all on the chiropodic territory of our thirty-year-old who continues his frugal rocking, while the morning light, the true heroine of this crack-of-dawn, comes alive before our eyes, in a slow, sensual, overwhelming birth, a birth indeed, always inspiring for anyone up early enough to be its witness.
The second chapter opens with a description of the progress of the light making its heedless way through the resistant ether, making its leisurely way across the layers of atmosphere that are still for the most part filtering it out, given the angle of incidence, which, for the time being, continues to constitute a handicap.
But, though until now the color blue, with its low frequency, had been easily repressed in favor of a diffuse red, the latter is very visibly dwindling and, although the particles of oxygen, ozone, and water are still putting up their screen against the fragile, luminous flow struggling to break through, we are being plunged slowly into more subtle shades, while dawn drags on under porch roofs like long bruises that have begun to heal.
The knowledge that we, nonetheless, possess about the inevitable denouement of this conflict, waged by the valiant dawn against night, a conflict that, despite the initial disproportion of forces, will see dawn as victor in the end-unless the world is really falling apart-induces, of course, a rather passive attitude (it's not like you could help out and speed the process up), with the result that one lets oneself go a little, even me, waiting for the scene to become completely lit (a legend will be born from this shadowy magma), and you too, yes, you in allowing yourself be tossed about by these sentences, there you go, surfing on a main clause and then chasing after one that's relative, entering next into a temporal clause, smoothly, without troubling yourself, because you know that whatever you may perhaps have lost sight of will be returned to you when necessary, yes, you sled, you toboggan, you slide, leaving your worries behind, you have to, your grammatical concerns at least, all will become clear in due course, let yourself be carried along, there, there you go, you're riding on cushions of air, it's nice, it's cushy, I so much want you to be comfortable, to find these sentences as supple as any you could wish for, come on, give in to temptation, quit being so stiff, come on, there you go, easy now, easy, relax your body, I want you even more passive, more trusting, that's good, it should be as though you're on a little cloud, you're floating, you paddle around, come on, let yourself go, reading can be wonderfully regressive, yes, really nice, you let yourself regress, you bob along, you're a boat rocking all alone down these canals, you let yourself be pushed along, at cruising speed, you glance right then left toward the landscapes you're being offered, this is your time, a moment just for you that no one can come to take away, come on, give in, let yourself be carried, there, that's good, it's time for you to relax, I'm taking charge of things, not too abruptly I hope, I'm taking care of everything, trying not to be too heavy-handed, simply letting you, well, not drift, I'd be afraid that something bad might happen to you, that you might get lost, that you might stray too far from shore, so, not drift but float, float on your back on this slow current, which I'm making sure, that's my job, will take you where you have to go.
Excerpted from WESTERN by christine montalbetti Copyright © 2005 by P.O.L. éditeur . Excerpted by permission.
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