Friday, August 14, 2015

Among Patrons of the Teatro

Last Tuesday night my wife and I attended a fantasy and science fiction reading group at our local university.  The topic of discussion was Thomas Ligotti’s short story collection, Teatro Grottesco, (2007).  Given the location on campus, I expected to be in a room mostly full of students and English professors.  Instead, I was pleased to see that our small gathering—about 9 people—was a diverse collection of artists, programmers, health care professionals, a librarian, and a technical writer.  A couple of people had some past association with science or technology, perhaps aeronautics.  We were homogenous in one aspect:  we were all boomers, with an average age somewhere in the mid-fifties. 

The reading group, we were told, had been meeting every month, continuously, for 25 years. Some members had come and gone, but most had been actively involved for several reading cycles, reviewing a book or movie each month, all year round.  Over a snack that consisted of enormous cookies, peanuts, and dry sherry, we took turns talking about what had intrigued us about Ligotti’s book.

Several of our party immediately confessed having difficulty understanding some of the stories in the collection, especially with respect to the motivations of various narrators. Most of pieces are told in the first person, and determining a clear plot and theme in many of the stories was a challenge.  One member described Ligotti’s work “post-modern”, full of self-awareness and frequent intentional violation of rules and expectations about fantasy literature.  Some of us appreciated the poetic transmutation of dream material into vividly strange images.  A favorite one was the “organic” factory depicted in The Red Tower, with its mysterious roots spreading outward into town, invading the most private spaces of the surrounding citizenry.   

A few damned the book with faint praise, claiming that the narrator in each story, à la Lovecraft, was the same person, and that a single tiresome theme, that of nihilism—“life has no meaning”—permeated every story.  Some saw a connection between Ligotti’s nihilism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism:  both authors created characters that passively accept their eldritch fates with resignation and little struggle.  One member was irritated with Ligotti’s frequent repetition of entire sentences, and his equivocation and vagueness with the concrete facts of his narratives.  “And aren’t writers supposed to show, and not tell?” he asked.


To be fair, as its name suggests, the Fantasy and Science Fiction Reading Group spends most of its time reading and discussing science fiction, and devotes only one month out of the year to a work of horror.  It may be that its sensibilities are not calibrated to the nuances of effective horror fiction.  Insofar as Ligotti relied on nightmares as source material, preserving their internal logic, dark cohesiveness and claustrophobia in his fiction, one would expect recurring images and phrasing to emphasize the intensity of the experience, as well as an indeterminacy or lack of concreteness that mimics the ever changing phantasmagoria of dream.  

Nightmares are usually lonely affairs, with rarely more than a few characters—and none at all if the terrified dreamer is in flight from some predatory monstrosity.  Though in dreams we often hear words spoken, the intent of their meaning is often completely different from the sentences they comprise.  Yet the language used is internally coherent and understandable in the context of the dream.  Language has a different function in dreams than it has in the daylight; it may be that Ligotti’s prose at times mimics this condition.  The author’s cleverness lies in being able to convert a highly personal and subjective experience into something that can be pondered as a universal condition of humankind.

One of the items from the collection that was discussed at length was the titular story, Teatro Grottesco.  The opening paragraphs are intentionally vague about the phenomenon of the same name:  “For a time it was all rumors and lore, hearsay and dreams.”  As the story progresses, more is learned about the nature of the Teatro Grottesco, but not much more—it seems to be knowable only indirectly through the effects it achieves, which are idiosyncratic to each individual it touches. 

Its principle aim seems to be the destruction of the creative impulse, to turn artists into “working stiffs”, to distract people away from their original and perhaps primary calling.  This prompted one of our group to compare the Teatro Grottesco to an understanding of evil derived from Catholic theology, (possibly St. Augustine):  that evil is not an active principle, not a thing so much as an absence, an emptiness or lack of some good that should be present. 

However, the story seems much more subtle and complex than this.  What can be made of the bizarre vision of a shrinking man who is viciously slashed in an alley by one of the artists?  Who is the mysterious Dr. Groddeck with his eyes—“which were the eyes of the Teatro”?  What are those “soft black stars” that begin to fill the sky at the end?  Beneath the strange and disturbing imagery on the surface move deeper and more perplexing currents.     

The afore-mentioned The Red Tower also attracted comment.  Several members of our group noted the preoccupation with gastro-intestinal imagery in this story and some of the others.  An abandoned factory that may still be operating, that has no obvious means of entry or exit, and produces ghastly “hyper-organisms” is surely a powerful symbol of—what?  Probably much more than the usual suspects: exaggerated consumerism, the oppression of the proletariat, the soul crushing experience of ceaseless and repetitive manufacturing.

One of our group made the interesting point that a horror of factory jobs and corporations may be generational, and may be fading, if not already gone.  Younger people are unaware of the more serious depredations of factory life in the previous century—they are likely to see the return of manufacturing jobs as more of a boon and opportunity and less as a depressing, life-long ordeal.  Robotics may also be altering this perception of factory life.  As for corporate life, Ligotti’s perceptions as expressed in various stories remain contemporary and insightful.*   

Because Thomas Ligotti was at one time a Michigander like ourselves—born in Detroit, raised in Gross Pointe Woods, attended Wayne State, worked for Gale Research—it was impossible not to look for some semblance of our state or its principle city in the gloomy settings of his stories.  Was the encrimsoning of the factory depicted in The Red Tower a veiled reference to the struggling Rouge River Plant of the late twentieth century?  Were the household and neighborhood depicted in Purity an autobiographical recollection of life in some benighted Michigan suburb?  (Probably not entirely; Ligotti’s stories are necessarily devoid of details that would place them in any particular time or place.)

All of us seemed to agree that the best venue for reading a Ligotti story was in an anthology of works by other authors, and not in a collection.  His unique and disturbing vision may lose its power when placed side by side with the other works of his, and read one right after the other.  Most readers would avoid eating an entire box of poisoned chocolates in one sitting; it would be ideal, safer, to make them last, to savor their toxic and disturbing effects across several samplings.  My plan is to keep a stack of Ligotti’s books on hand for occasional gnawing, especially on those tiresomely sunny days that are sure to come.


*Compare almost any of Ligotti's nightmarish visions of working in a corporation with the article that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, 8/16/15, ("Amazon's Bruising, Thrilling Workplace").  The article details the horrendous working conditions endured by employees, where endless data collection about individual performance creates a systematic and "purposeful Darwinism".  Systems are in place to encourage employees to report on each other to management, work well into evenings and weekends, and sacrifice family life. 

The enthusiasm for "big data" and its application to our personal lives has evenon a smaller scale affected the church I attend:  those who tend to the congregation's "Garden for Good" are now required to submit weekly figures on the weight of food donated to the poor, so that performance can be evaluated.  

In a Biblical context, "This calls for wisdom.  If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number..."  (Revelations 13:18).  To the extent that Amazon becomes a model for corporate management everywhere, these developments are unsettling.   

Another book of Ligotti’s, My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002) was discussed in an earlier post—see also Corporate Nightmares.  My enthusiasm for corporate lifefollowing the acquisition of my own company by a much larger onehas waned somewhat since I wrote that piece.

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