In 1977, Richard Hell appeared on the cover of his seminal album Blank Generation with the words “You Make Me______.” scrawled on his bony chest. While the term blank generation certainly resonated with the post-Vietnam, bankrupt New York of the 1970s, they had nothing on the blankness of our digitally obsessed 21st century. In fact, it feels almost prophetic.
“The journey home is a blank. I’m so blurry that the world and my interactions with it are too opaque for either component to illuminate the other enough to form anything approaching sense,” opens Thomas Moore’s second novel In Their Arms, which was recently published by Rebel Satori Press. The experimental fictional novel narrates the alienation, detachment and aloofness of our contemporary era despite the buffet of bodies available on online hook-up sites, gay bars and cruising apps. Even though, in 2016, there are many ways to be queer, Moore’s novel essentially shows that we are possibly even more alone.
And despite this seething isolation that runs through the book with characters glued to their smartphones and computers, In Their Arms is a genuine page-turner, which I read (quite ironically) on my iPhone in a little over a day.
In Their Arms follows an arts writing protagonist, who–like the rest of the characters that flow in and out of the book–is unnamed. Without a set identity, Moore already cements the narrator’s disconnection from the rest of the world, as well as the readers. You can never quite get a grasp of the narrator or his intentions, with the exception of some very relatable moments for fellow art critics (I’ve always wanted to write a review of a show I never went to).
Similarly, certain chapters are peppered with references to “you” (“I walk into the show that I’m supposed to review, with a black eye where you punched me last night” (57).) but there’s not a clear sense that this “you” is the same every time. It may be an ever-revolving set of hook-ups.
Like the vagueness of the novel’s characters, the plot of In Their Arms twists and turns through a series of darkened bars, various apartments, parties, openings, backrooms and obsessive skimming through Tumblr, Twitter and forums linked to an event called Cum Worship. “I feel like a ghost,” describes the narrator, “Like if I were to take my feet off the floor, I could just float or the wind would push me through the streets and cars could pass through while I was flinching for notion” (34). This sense of floating almost perfectly describes the plot–nothing particularly notable happens. Instead, there’s a strangely relatable sense of meandering through spaces–both physical and online.
Whether IRL or online, the spaces inhabited by the protagonist are hazy and indefinite, rendering the entire novel dreamlike and right on the border between memory and reality. As Moore writes, “It could be memories from anywhere” (3).
A moment mid-way through the book acts as a sly key to the ambiguousness of the plot in comparison to its emotional resonance. Writing a review, the narrator explains, “I talk about the artist using paintings as a queer space in which meaning and facts and specifics are bent out of shape and displaced by a dream-logic where things make emotional sense as opposed to a narrative sense” (84-85). This is precisely what Moore does through the novel–a nod and a wink to readers who may be wondering what the hell is happening throughout the text.
In Their Arms expertly draws a connection between physical and online spaces, which are treated as realistically as actual bars, restaurants and apartments. It is certainly no mistake that Moore’s work has been praised by one of our preeminent Filthy Dreams role models Dennis Cooper, who has his own interest with virtual linguistic spaces.
Of course, any queer experimental fiction writer will have to tangle with comparisons to Cooper, but Moore certainly earns it with chapters filled with tweets from the protagonist’s former hook-up who he found out was HIV-positive “after the internet searching and cross-referencing had helped me find out about the guy’s status, from a profile I found on a barebacking site, where the guy listed himself as a Pig, who was ‘cum crazed and greedy for as many BB loads as his boy cunt could take'” (16). With eye-popping tweets like “Headache tablet. Ketamine. Poppers. Prep – will that be enough for the #cumpigparty tonight PMSL #piglife,” you can see why Dennis Cooper might loom large in most reviewers minds (38).
Even more than the tweets, the chapters devoted to an artist’s daughter’s Tumblr blog called Dream Life of a Cutter read as if they could be a verbal recreation of Cooper’s notorious GIF fictions from his Google-deleted (now revived) blog.
But, it almost seems unfair to just make a comparison to Dennis Cooper and leave it at that. Yes, Moore translates at least some of the novel into the language of our times–tweets, GIFs and a Tumblr feed much like Cooper’s The Sluts employed the disjointed and superficial language of chatrooms. But, particularly in today’s world where our virtual lives are almost if not more active than our analogue lives, Moore’s treatment of online identities, language and connection feels like a comment on the increased alienation of, particularly, queer individuals in the face of boundless connectivity.
A Fog That Won’t Clear
“Whatever though…the internet is just a fog that won’t clear,” exclaims the narrator. And his narrator is unquestionably not the only one who sees the Internet and our contemporary era as one of lack rather than possibility.
In his chapter “Queer Forever” in How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin takes aim at the online social-networking communities that have actually restricted possibilities rather than opened them. “The replacement of gay bars by online social-networking sites means that you can now select the gay people you want to associate with before you meet them or come to know them,” asserts Halperin, “You can pick your contacts from among the kinds of people you already approve of, according to your unreflective unreconstructed criteria. You don’t have to expose yourself to folks who might have more experience of gay life than you do or who might challenge your unexamined ideas about politics. You can hang on to your unliberated, heterosexist, macho prejudices, your denial, your fear and you can find other people who share them with you” (440). Halperin continues, “That explains a lot about the character and preoccupations of contemporary gay politics” aka “assimilation and conformity” (441).
Pretty much all the characters in In Their Arms lie outside these assimilationist frameworks of contemporary gay politics. I mean, where is a place other than deep web marginality for a person going by the avatar Poz4life who fantasizes about having “full blown AIDS” ? Or the narrator who sits horrified but fascinated by this self-annihilation–fantasized or no–inside these chat rooms?
As Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco‘s writes in his essay “Rehab for the Unrepentant” in the collection Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification and the Desire to Conform, “The same bullshit, fear, shame and silence we have inherited as the 10% neurotic queer minority gushes through the veins of the Internet” (98).
Clear Skies, Warm Bodies and Embracing Nihilism
Which is why I find both the beginning and the end of In Their Arms so endlessly fascinating. The novel actually starts with the phrase, “The world is full of warmth.” On the surface, this sweet and optimistic statement lies in direct contrast to the following novel with its rampant alienation and definitive sense of nihilism.
In many ways, this warmth hinted at by Moore, which is only confirmed by the final chapter, is akin to the blue skies under which André Gide’s notoriously decadent protagonist Michel is damned in The Immoralist. In one of the first ever Filthy Dreams essays “So Many Ways To Be Gay: Nihilism and Andre Gide” (is it the ultimate in self-involvement to quote your own blog?), Marion argued that Michel’s tossing off of conventional morality (for the 19th century) threw him into nihilism, rendering him “damned under clear blue skies.”
But what of our narrator in In Their Arms? The narrator returns to the idea of warmth in the final chapter (Spoiler alert!). “The warmth hits me as I walk into the room,” he details. After describing the beats of the club, he reflects, “The room is moving. Men are fucking, everywhere. Someone touches my back as I order a drink. When I turn around, they’re gone. It’s like a ghost, or a cumulative spirit. I feel sick and I feel alive. Bodies gather around each other, immerse, meld and then scatter. It’s like looking at organisms through a microscope. Everything is in flux all of the time and nothing is fixed and no one notices, which is how the illusion works, I guess. I don’t know anything for sure. I move further into the darkroom. Nothing matters. I’m feeling my way through the darkness. I’m sculpting shadows into jewels. I’m in their arms” (119).
Is this the vague and seemingly unobtainable “affirmation of life” that Nietzsche claims is the way to overcome nihilism? I doubt it. The narrator still asserts that “nothing matters,” so it cannot be an entire rejection or overcoming of nihilism. Instead, it is more of a transgressive embrace and willful submersion into it. How beautiful!
In the conclusion of Marion’s essay, he wonders where Michel would be in today’s queer culture. He fantasizes, “And now, those discourses are exploding into so many ways to be gay–and queer! I doubt Michel would have assimilated into gay marriage and gay babies, but he would’ve had that option. Maybe he would decide to become even more queer. Had Michel lived to see the gay 90’s and beyond, I like to imagine that he would’ve become a pill popping Club kid dancing the night away…”
Quite possibly, Michel would have been like Moore’s narrator in In Their Arms–still isolated and possibly damned, but spinning away in the arms of the collective bodies.