To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ellen Zweig & Lou Robinson: from “Surveillance,” a discontinuous mystery novel

[“Surveillance” by Lou Robinson and Ellen Zweig is a long discontinuous mystery novel that has no resolution, a novel with a circular narrative that builds up suspense. The novel explores themes of memory and false memory within the framework of the erotic/political aspects of spying. e.z./l.r.]


The narrator, living in a duplex, believes that her next door neighbor has committed a crime (perhaps a murder or the sexual torture of women). One day, walking out of her back door, she enters a red barn that she has noticed but never entered. Once in the barn, she discovers a small hole through which she can spy on her neighbor. She is joined by her friend, Jim, who helps her to build optical devices to improve her surveillance activities. Meanwhile, another friend, Marilyn, who has suffered a concussion that has made her psychic, begins to travel towards the barn, hoping to arrive in time to warn Jim and the narrator of danger. The identity of the narrator is not simple; all of the characters seem sometimes to be part of a fractured self. Even Gary and the mysterious women he might or might not have imprisoned in his house are part of the self of the watchers.

In Part II, the narrator finds herself naked and a prisoner in a completely empty room without windows or doors. Then the rooms progressively change: objects appear, a door, a window. She is bothered by the voices of three characters: Anise, Mercury, and the Technician. Unsure whether these voices come from outside or inside her head, she tries to communicate with them, hoping that they are her rescuers and not her captors. In Part III, the narrator finds herself back at the barn. Everything that she thought had happened before her imprisonment is proved false or in doubt and the circle of confusion and ambiguity begins again.


“Surveillance” was written using a systematic process. Both Robinson and Zweig, reading whatever books they found interesting (fiction, non-fiction), collected phrases, 19 at a time, sending them to each other. Each set of 38 phrases became a chapter. Using a variety of rules to control the creation of the text, Robinson and Zweig had to use all 38 phrases. Thus, in any given chapter, repetitions in language are hidden in the text as a structural skeleton. One of the strengths of this process is how the plot, characters, descriptions (which have often been planned in advance) are subverted by the necessities of the found phrases. Pushing against the will of the writer, the language forces digressions; or the writer pushes back insisting on characters, plot, descriptions.

EXCERPT ONE (from Chapter 1)

Because I lived in a highly contaminated inner world, I hadn’t noticed the barn for the first few months of my stay in upstate New York. The red barn was merely a backdrop for crows and an occasional rabbit; that is, before the incident that foreshadows my obsession with a certain kind of alterity that can only be caused by the play of light and shadow in just such a red barn.

I had every intention of leaving, and with my finger on the map of the city, I was idly inventing neighborhoods in which to live. I had no idea what orgy of treason festered on the other side of my bedroom wall. My neighbor, a large red-faced man named Gary, was known for his complicity with the police in a scandalous gambling den on the south side of town.

When I finally entered the barn, for no other reason than that it was there, I noticed for the first time the invisible nervous presence of the accomplice. Although I had never seen anyone enter the barn, the indentation left by his weight at the end of the sofa haunted me as though someone was almost always looking over my shoulder.

I crouched in the neighborhood of the beckoning cat and stroked him down his silky spine. I remembered my friend Marilyn saying that vision was central to three of her explanations. Marilyn was known for her desire to control everything by rational means, but had suffered from a severe concussion (I found this out afterward); she had intense and unpredictable bouts of dizziness accompanied by blurred vision and irrational insights.

She had told me about a week before I entered the barn that something would happen to me, something very important and startling, at about twenty to six or ten past four. I did not know that she had already decided to leave Paris that evening.

Every time, every day, when I think back to that uncanny concatention of events, I think of her left eye twitching like it did in the grey light of November when she was about to speak.

I looked at my watch and suddenly remembered that it was in a restaurant that he said it: “The flesh is weak, but can be made to obey.” I’m speaking of his voice, so familiar, like an old 78rpm phonograph record.

It was still dark when I reached my rocks, the ones I had placed carefully on the side of the barn where I had seen the small hole. I knew that I was going to spend a long time in a present fixed with the help of a past.I desperately hoped that Marilyn could hear my thoughts as though they were her own. I thought I heard a sigh, a moan, perhaps a scream, but wasn’t able to interpret it.

EXCERPT TWO (from Chapter 1)

…Imagine it …: a room with no windows or doors. Smooth white walls, floor, ceiling. A woman, naked, lying on the floor; then, sitting huddled in a corner; then, pacing, feeling the walls, knocking for hollow places, anything that might provide the zone between life and death. One flourescent light bulb behind a piece of translucent plastic in the ceiling, no switch in the room, nothing to stand on to see if the plastic can be removed. A kidnapping: those who have mapped its path no where in view.

If I had been taken under protest, I would have been imagining my escape. But then, in this room, I felt nothing but a kind of deep apathy (probably the result of the drugs they had given me) and it wasn’t until later that I began to question the puzzle of this room…. There was no way in or out. Now, I think that the only way they could have gotten me into that room was if it was a room whose walls separate absolutely from each other, like the flat modules of a toy house….

I’m certain it was in the quiet room that I heard the sound of wings, of a great bird hitting itself against a window or a wall. Or perhaps a moth as big as the palm of my hand.

I attribute my dream not to death but to sadness. Jim was alive, come back from the dead. I ran over and hugged him, then couldn’t get enough of touching him. I stroked his head and shoulders and arms. No one had told him about the events that had taken place after his death, the memorials, the conversations between friends. I said: “Did you know that when we did the memorial for you in San Francisco, on the leaflet, we used that photograph you had taken of yourself sitting up in a coffin?” “Really,” he said, “no one told me. How wonderful.” Then, I suddenly realized that he must have been buried and I asked him how he got out of the grave. At that moment he turned into Avital Ronell. She was standing, leaning against a pillar. “Bodies are buried in layers in the ground,” she explained, “and they put in these long metal breathing tubes so that the earth can breathe.” She paused, “And something I read recently ruined me for life. Do you know that we fugue into consciousness over and over again after we’re dead?” This dream draped itself over me. I felt clothed.

[PUBLICATION HISTORY. Excerpts from “Surveillance” were performed by Ellen Zweig as part of the performance piece, “Absent Bodies Writing Rooms”, which premiered at the Center for Music Experiment, University of California, San Diego (April, 1995) and toured Australia in July and August of 1995. Excerpts were also published in 13th Moon, Vol.13, Nos.1&2, 1995; Black Ice, No. 10. 1993; and Trivia, No.19,1992. Along with other writings and performance scenarios, excerpts from “Surveillance” can also be found on Ellen Zweig’s web site:]

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