by Ben Arzate
Welcome back to The Unreprinted wherein out-of-print books of every genre are spotlighted, dissected and, in some rare cases, eviscerated. Previously, we found ourselves in the fetishistic fray with Tim Lucas’s sublime novel Throat Sockets. Today’s installment finds Ben Arzate delving into the weird and exotic short stories of artist/musician Michael Gira.
Michael Gira is best known as the front man for the confrontational experimental rock band Swans. I personally became familiar with him through the band he formed when Swans broke up around the turn of the century, Angels of Light.
In addition to songs, Gira has also dabbled in writing short stories. His first collection of short stories, The Consumer, was published in 1995 through Henry Rollins’s 2.13.16 press. Now out of print, used copies go for some very hefty prices online.
The Consumer is divided into two parts. The first part, called “The Consumer,” consists of short stories written between 1993 and 1994. The second part, called “Various Traps, Some Weaknesses, Etc.” consists of pieces written between 1983 and 1986 and is mostly prose poems, flash fiction, and vignettes.
The sound of the Swans music is dark, brooding, and, especially in the earlier releases, harsh, abrasive, and violent. Gira’s fiction is no different. The reader is immediately hit with this in the very first story, “Empathy.”
A man living in a dilapidated house welcomes his sister into his home after she returns from an asylum. We learn that she’d been incarcerated for murdering their parents and she seems no better after her stay. He suspects that she simply wandered out. Despite that, he’s happy to see her and begins an incestuous relationship her, nailing his doors shut to keep the outside world out.
A number of the themes throughout the book are established here. Abjection as a means of escape, sexual deviancy, loss of identity, and the urban decay of Los Angeles. Almost all the stories either explicitly or are implied to take place in L.A. and Gira’s L.A. is like a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It’s full of horrible, broken people, everything about the city has decayed away, and there seems to be little hope for any sort of recovery.
This is especially present in the story “The Young Man Who Hid His Body Inside A Horse, or, My Vulvic Los Angeles.” A young speed freak murders his drug dealer and steals his money and speed. He takes the cash and drugs and rents a squalid room where he hides away and sniffs the speed endlessly. Soon, a massive riot breaks out which results in horses from a nearby farm rushing into the city. In his tweaked state, he kills one of the horses and hides in its guts for protection.
This story reads to me like a mix of Hubert Selby Jr. and Samuel Beckett. The former for its portrayal of the people on the lowest rung of society and the latter for its absurd and intentionally “pointless” narrative. The speed freak draws into himself more and more to deal with his surroundings and addiction. Eventually, he returns to the closet thing to a womb he can find.
The semi-titular story, “The Consumer, Rotting Pig,” is told from the perspective of an incredibly obese man obsessed with the degeneration of his own body, with growing fatter, and with the media. There is some pitch black humor here as he goes into detail about his sexual fantasies, which involves things like cutting out a rock star’s heart and using it as an “Acujack” (a masturbation toy).
The story is divided into five parts. The first part introduces Rotting Pig and his obsessions. The other four parts are notes written by him and go into what would be his ideal life, how he learned to speak, his sexual desires, and who he believes himself to have once been.
“My Prescription for Happiness” is the most fascinating part to me. Here, Rotting Pig expounds on what his ideal life would be. He imagines himself suspended in a vat of warm human blood, breathing and eating through tubes, and his eyelids replaced by small screens that transmit images directly into his eyes. His feces and urine would be allowed to fill the tank until he floated to the top and died.
Rotting Pig wants nothing but to consume, being nothing but a lifeless consumer until he rots away for good. This parallels a number of the lyrics themes on the debut Swans album, Filth. Consuming and satisfying base desires until it results in self-destruction.
The story I found most disturbing is “The Coward (II).” A drunk lives with his brother, sister-in-law, and their daughter with no direction in life. He believes his niece may actually be his daughter as he had slept with his sister-in-law around the time she would have been conceived. Despite this, he still neglects taking care of her, resulting in the young girl being raped in her own home.
This story shows a deep disgust both with the people who actively cause harm and those who stand by and allow it to happen, but it doesn’t feel preachy or moralizing. It’s simply an observation, and an extremely disquieting one at that.
“The Ideal Worker,” a prose poem, satirizes the Protestant work ethic by portraying a husk of a man who wants to be nothing but a pliable puppet at work because of his self-hatred. I can only imagine how shitty Gira’s job was when he wrote this.
“A Trap” is a flash fiction piece in a similar vein about a person seeking personal obliteration. A woman calls random men asking them to come over and have sex with her. When one agrees, she resists hoping to make him get violent with her. Instead, he loses his erection and leaves, leaving her frustrated and still wishing for obliteration through violent sex.
The Consumer is a dark and disturbing read, but an incredibly poetic and amazingly crafted one. The book is incredibly rare, but worth tracking down. People who are already fans of Swans should certainly read this, but I also highly recommend this to anyone seeking well-written transgressive literature.