by Ali Alizadeh
University of Queensland Press
Published June, 2013
The writer must make himself, in the text, the spiritual actor either of his sufferings, those dragons he has nurtured, or of some happiness.
I happened to see the exhibition Direct Democracy at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) around the same time I began reading Transactions, Ali Alizadeh’s collection of interlinked stories. I was interested in the different ways in which the artists and the writer approached questions of the democratic process, of distrust of government, of threat and terror. The curator of the exhibition, Geraldine Barlow, asks in her catalogue essay, ‘How do we situate ourselves in relation to the events of the past? How do we put ourselves into the shoes of the victims, the perpetrators, the observers and those who didn’t realise what was happening, couldn’t look or were occupied elsewhere?’
In one of the most confronting pieces of the exhibition, Close the Concentration Camps (2002), Mike Parr allows his mouth to be sewn closed. To watch the video of his ‘performance’ is excruciating. His extreme act of identification with the desperate plight of asylum seekers in Australia engenders my most visceral and shamefaced reactions: disgust, horror, abject fascination. I am forced to acknowledge my complicity. Whether I have deliberately or unintentionally turned away from this reality, I am culpable. Mouthing sympathy is not the same as real engagement with the issue.
‘Art can sometimes rewire our response to what we thought we knew of the world,’ writes Barlow. The hope is that literature will also somehow pierce that fog of familiarity. But the critique of a particular political system and its injustices does not automatically guarantee either convincing characters or scenarios. Questions of intent, authenticity and exploitation must be considered in conjunction with aesthetic and literary merit.
Collections of interlinked stories can build up vivid impressions by concentrating on a particular geography, as in Tim Winton’s The Turning (2005), or a single character, as in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008). The connections linking the stories in Transactions are more obscure: locations are scattered globally; characters move across time zones, rub shoulders in passing, and reappear several continents distant; violence entwines lives which would otherwise scarcely overlap. Alizadeh seems to be having a grand time tinkering with genres, parodying the clichés of action-adventure writing and soft-core porn, and titillating his readers with allusions to other writers. He may have intended Transactions as a pastiche of voices, but the stories are marred by an awkward and didactic style. This is particularly so when characters speak directly to a second person, a ‘you’ who does not reply and whose responses must therefore be inferred.
A woman is observed typing. ‘What is she writing? And why does it matter?’ She addresses her dead mother:
Oh Mum, I know you don’t like me reminding you of the past …
It’s because of you that I live this life, flying from one person to the next, with these airport transit lounges the nearest thing I have to a home. It’s all because of your absence …
No, Mum, of course I don’t enjoy lying, or at least not as such. Do I need to remind you that we live in a world in which the only truths are tortuous lies that annul the possibility of a counterargument? … Of course you know what sort of place this world is. And what a fool I am to want to change it.
In the prologue, Alizadeh introduces this woman of mutable identity, who occupies a liminal space: the transit lounge of an airport. Unlike the rest of humanity impatiently waiting or labouring there, she is deeply engaged in her writing. Later it becomes clear that she stands for a kind of justice.
‘First world problem’ has become the catchphrase we use to congratulate ourselves on our awareness of the triviality of our common gripes. Of course, the inconvenience of internet failure or cancelled trains pales by comparison to starvation, abuse and homelessness, but it doesn’t stop our complaints. We assume a public face to mask whatever pain or grief we harbour, to mask the bruises of envy, rejection, failed hope and failed ambition. In private, the masks come off. Privileged and poverty stricken, powerful and meek, we all crave physical, spiritual and emotional satisfaction, security and connection. We want a narrative that makes sense of our lives. The writer works to transubstantiate our extraordinary and our commonplace experiences and desires from dross into revelatory matter, to animate an artificial world of words and convince the reader of its veracity on the page.
Alizadeh is an acclaimed poet and academic, and a self-confessed ‘unashamedly political writer’. His recent blog posts for Southerly on ‘Success’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Community’ in Australian literary culture give an insight into his ideology. In Transactions, he uses extreme examples of disenfranchisement, disempowerment and the unrestrained exercise of power to expose the inequities of the capitalist system and shock the reader out of his or her complacency. He names the chapters after the Major Arcana cards in the Tarot deck, and dispenses the contradictory attributes of the twenty-two archetypes to both the culpable and the innocent. Moral certainty fluctuates.
In the absurdist tradition of The Avengers (1961-69) or the Mission: Impossible (1966-73) television series, the protagonist of ‘The Fool’ is an assassin with the qualities of an avenging angel, who acquires specialist knowledge of her victims like manna from heaven. Her mission to rid the world of the perpetrators of evil has the fervour of a Holy War, but it is also personal. She is poised to exact vengeance for the death of her mother on the thoughtless, misguided, avaricious, treacherous and arrogant fools who are her targets. ‘Knowing what people desire is crucial to the success of what I do,’ she writes, and changes her name and persona accordingly. Like the legendary phoenix, which appears in the story in the form of the lapis lazuli amulet she wears on a chain around her neck, her identity is cyclically resurrected.
Another artist of the quick-change appears in ‘Justice’. Jim O’Reilly is a CIA operative, a spy and professional liar. His work involves government sanctioned murder, and the lesser crimes of lechery and infidelity. In his own mind, he cannot be held accountable for the sins committed under the guise of assumed personalities. Justice, in the form of ‘the most devastatingly beautiful woman he’s ever seen in his life’, finally catches up with him:
Her eyes glisten like black pearls amid very long and shiny eyelashes. Her lustrous black curls drift around her face like weeping willows blown by a gentle breeze. The perfection of her firm shapely body makes itself known under her tight, black business suit. Jim is breathless.
Alizadeh intends a semblance of Jim’s thoughts, but such extravagant descriptions are jarring nonetheless, as are the assassin’s last words to Jim:
‘It’s only fair. Your belt, O’Reilly. Give me your belt. That’s how you killed my mother. C’mon fat man. Give it here.’
The imitation of vernacular speech is clumsy and the assassin says too much. Terseness or silence would have been more effective. This sort of scene is, after all, common to popular film and literature. The reader is capable of filling the gaps, and might be better left to do so.
Humiliations accrue. Characters suffer cruel abuses and sexual abasements. Anger is expressed as self-loathing, or is sexually directed against women. A client’s untoward demands cause an online sex worker to vomit her distress (and her undercooked liver dumplings) onto a plate, which represents her only sentimental link with an abandoned homeland. The avatar of an elite video gamer suffers an ignominious and pornographic trouncing. A Filipina maid is forced to drink from the toilet bowl by her psychotic mistress. A masochistic loser begs his partner to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere, and then can’t handle the fallout. The Eastern Orthodox Church gives the appellation ‘Holy Fool’ to one who chooses to be deliberately provocative, irritating or salacious. In a secular context, so might a writer take revenge against exclusion and iniquity. But the tortures to which Alizadeh subjects his characters elicit little more than distaste. The disaffected, dispossessed, disillusioned and powerless remain ciphers rather than personalities. Their boldly outlined figures, and the scenarios in which the relationships of power and degradation are played out, have the simplified quality of a comic strip. Despite my sympathy with Alizadeh’s politics, I remain emotionally disengaged and unconvinced of their reality.
The obnoxious CEO in ‘The Fool’ is a caricature of the financially successful and stupid: she uncouth, insensitive – a cashed-up bogan. The dialogue between her and the assassin sets the tenor for the rest of the collection. It is an overt critique of people ‘who build their empires on the misery of others’ and yet remain serenely oblivious of their culpability. The assassin justifies herself by invoking what was done to her mother – ‘I had no say in becoming what I’ve become’ – but admits that her enjoyment of her vocation makes her uneasy. She recognises that her cruelty is not so far removed from her victims’ obfuscations, that she is becoming as guilty as the torturers she kills. In an oblique reference to Marshall McLuhan, she reconfigures the Global Village as a grotesque family engaged in bartering ‘sadism for masochism. Cruelty for slavery.’ Culture is just ‘one tribe’s justification for their desire to eliminate another’ – a bleak view of humanity indeed.
The prostitute mentioned in passing by the defunct CEO in ‘The Fool’, takes the lead in the ‘The Magician’. Karina, whose name means ‘pure’ and ‘beautiful’, provides online sex to her wealthy client, the Alchemist, one of Alizadeh’s most vicious creations. The Alchemist admits to choosing that pseudonym because of its ‘intellectual’ connotations, an ironic reference to Paulo Coelho’s deeply unintellectual novel of the same name, which illustrates this character’s naïvety better than the gleeful, fractured English with which she narrates her misdemeanours.
These stories of vengeance and justice are interspersed with humorous narratives, which satirise the pretensions of the publishing and literary establishments. The first poet to make an appearance in Transactions is a young and desperate Londoner. The poet of ‘The Chariot’ has an over-inflated ego with a penchant for ‘Shit alliteration / instead of lyrical innovation.’ Devastated by his reduction to dish-pig-toy-boy, he may even be suicidal. Alizadeh reinvents the overwrought blunderings of confession poetics only too well:
burns like absinthe and acid. Have I ever loved a woman
who didn’t hate me. Mommy, mommy you bitch
I’m not finally through. Who the fuck will ever remember me
for being so unmemorable? Distillation of self-loathing.
Of naked terror.
The poet’s self-pity and caterwauling do little to endear him. He says himself that he writes shitty poetry, that he is ‘just a fucking poet. Stupid. Self-obsessed. / Nameless.’ He is too familiar – is that the point? – for me to be anything but indifferent to his fate.
The second last chapter of Transactions is ‘The World’, named after the last card of the Major Arcana, which represents fulfillment, contentment, completion. Transactions might easily have ended here, with a poem, appropriately titled ‘Chapter XXII – Epilogue’, by the collection’s second poet, New Zealander Lilith ‘Lily’ Brannon. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, expelled from paradise for not submitting to her husband. The contemporary Lily, an ex-lawyer, has successfully made the change, instigated by her husband, from urban mortgage to remote rural idyll. Her poem, however, speaks of a conflagration, the city destroyed, the two of them as lone survivors. Lilith writes of warnings ignored, an expired world, the death of horrors – ‘things called globalisation, capital, religion’ – and the possibility of renewal, resurrection, and of loving her husband again, now that only hunger and death remain.
She smiles. Yes, this could be
their last day. The world
is no more. And there’s only love.
Writing as himself, Alizadeh has expressed similar sentiments. His poem ‘We’ begins with a quote from Jacques Rancière – ‘The political struggle is also the struggle for the appropriation of words’ – and goes on to excoriate the sloppy thinking of small-l liberals, who regurgitate the language of complacency without considering the cost of their comfortable lives on the environment and on the means of production – i.e. the ‘terrorised workers’. ‘We’ might almost be a synopsis of Transactions. The concluding lines of both are surprising. ‘We’ ends in a daydream of apocalypse and a struggle towards a better world
when we are the name of the immeasurable
power to rupture the reality of the world
and instigate new worlds, the traces of eternity.
The final chapter of Transactions, also called ‘The Fool’, brings the sequence full-circle, and ends with an almost mystical invocation spoken by the assassin’s last victim:
I don’t have a name
I am truth
Alizadeh was born in Tehran. He lived through war and displacement, and considerable racism when he arrived in Queensland as a teenager. According to his website, he has worked in academia in Australia, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and has been a performer, hair wrapper and deliveryman. It is perhaps redundant to note that the stories in Transactions likely draw on his own experiences, which in turn influence his reading of the lives of others.
The need to act, to write, that is described by Stéphane Mallarmé in ‘As for the Book’, is founded on the need to give weight to evanescent thought. After bemoaning the state of humanity and lamenting the horrors wrought by capitalism and general ignorance, and despite his political and theoretical justifications, Alizadeh reveals himself to be a romantic soul, as hopeless as the bleeding-hearts he decries. His act of writing affirms that writing can illuminate and effect change. His poetic voice is succinct, without artifice, authentic. It is a shame that in speaking through invented characters in Transactions, Alizadeh’s poetic voice rarely surfaces.
Ali Alizadeh, ‘June Monthly Blogger,’ Southerly (June 2013).
Ali Alizadeh, ‘We’, Meanjin, 71.1 (29 August 2013).
Geraldine Barlow, Direct Democracy, catalogue and exhibition, Monash University Museum of Art (26 April – 6 July 2013).
Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘As for the Book,’ Selected Poetry and Prose (New Directions, 1982).