Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - My Work is Not Yet Done

Thomas Ligotti writes to prove human existence a blind travesty and an unending tragedy. His stories are dreamlike and oppressive, seething with atmosphere and malevolence, and his characters are the deformed and the sick. My Work is Not Yet Done, a collection of "Three Tales of Corporate Horror" marks a deviation from his usual, Lovecraft-influenced Weird Tales style, focusing not on the supernatural or the metaphysical as the source of their horror but rather on society, work an all encompassing metaphor for the futility and barbarity of humanity.

The opening and eponymous story is by far the longest piece of fiction that Ligotti has written. The seasoned Ligotti reader will notice several changes right off the bat, one being the absence of any supernatural elements for quite some time. Ligotti’s dense and ornate prose is still, in part, present, but it’s offset now by a far leaner style and a sardonic wit. Our narrator, Frank Dominio, is a bitterly unhappy man who’s been sorely abused by the corporate framework he finds himself in. When he tries to please his new bosses and creates a new product, he finds his creativity exploited and is driven out of the company by the panel of supervisors he was once a member of, the group he refers to as The Seven Dwarfs: "Barry, Harry, Perry, Mary, Kerrie, Sherry, and, of course, Richard." (p. 18) Cast out from the company, exiled from his old role of invisible and inoffensive worker, Dominio recasts himself: There are no angels unless they are Angels of Death…and I would never again doubt my place among them or lose my resolve to serve in their wild ranks. (p. 102)

Dominio haunts abandoned buildings and is fascinated only by the broken, by the "humble charms of wabi, the morose pleasures of sabi." (p. 67) Like many a Ligotti narrator, he rarely hesitates to discuss the emptiness he sees behind our lives, but Dominio is not your standard authorial spokesman. He is only too aware of the absurdity of his position, of how far outside the norm it leaves him. He’s fond of bitingly sarcastic commentary and never-ending slander against his coworkers, but there’s an unmistakable element of self mockery to his words. The world has attacked him so many times that he can do nothing but join in, even while he tries to preserve what’s most important to him:

But what could I say to her? that I'm drawn to those old buildings and junk because (voice beginning to seethe)…because they take me into a world (the seething builds)…a world that is the exact opposite of the one (voice seething to a pitch)…the one I'm doomed by my own weakness and fears to live in (uncontrollable, meta-maniacal seething)…to live in during my weeks, my months, my years and years of work…work…work? (p. 53, My Work is Not Yet Done)

To this point, My Work is Not Yet Done is an odd specimen of a Ligotti tale. Darkly pessimistic words have been spoken, yes, but our perspective has been more the whiny and wronged worker than the psychotic subjected to the truths of existence, the equivalent of reaching the end of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness  and finding a polar bear instead of an inter-dimensional monstrosity. Our hypothetical Ligotti reader, the one who went in expecting the cosmically grandiose and so far has received comparative normality, will no doubt be relieved to see the tale explode from the gate as part two of our tale begins. As he prepares to embark on his quest for vengeance, Frank Dominio dies. But his work is not yet done.

The mundane quest of Frank Dominio here takes a turn toward the cosmic, our friendly worker quite literally meeting the meaning behind life. In his nonfiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti discusses Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will-to-Live and also its counterpoint, Philipp Mainländer’s idea of the Will-to-Die. Both ideas attribute life to a single all powerful but unconscious force that propels our unthinking bodies -- and everything around us -- for its own ends. The difference between the two is that, for Schopenhauer, the Will struggles to continue existence, while Mainländer believed the purpose of life to be its inevitable end. In My Work is Not Yet Done, Ligotti brings those ideas to grotesque life. Dominio’s entire miserable existence was leading him up to the slaughter of his coworkers, and he will not be allowed to stop until his life’s work is completed. As Dominio realizes, the world is nothing but premeditated strife, conflict engineered for its own sadistic sake:

I -- and you -- now understood: We were brought into this world out of nothing.

I -- and you -- now understood: We were kept alive in some form, any form, as long as we were viciously thrashing about, acting out our most intensely vital impulses, never allowed to become still and silent until every drop had been drained of the blackness flowing inside of us.

I -- and you -- now understood: We would be pulled back into the flowing blackness only when we had done all the damage we were allowed to do, only when our work was done. The work of you against me…and me against you. (p. 127, My Work is Not Yet Done)

As the enacting of a philosophical idea, My Work is Not Yet Done is a complete success. From death on, Frank Dominio is both more and less than he ever was. He is, in fact, a deeply considered version of the standard vengeful ghost seen so often. His view of his coworkers has changed. He now sees them as arbiters of everything wrong in the world, and, at the same time, no more truly in control than he is, ultimately irrelevant to the grand scheme of things. Dominio's new perspective doesn't change his mission, and he sets out to destroy them one by one.

As a novel, however, My Work is Not Yet Done has serious problems. Surprisingly, those problems are in large part precisely what makes Ligotti’s short form work so effective. What works for an eighteen page short story, however, does not necessarily work as well at a hundred and forty-eight pages. The story here is interesting both for its execution and its implications, but it’s never one that the reader wants to follow for its own sake.

The very things that contribute to such a pure depiction of the grand Will-to-Live and Will-to-Die ideals does not work as a narrative. The plot is inevitable; Dominio is unstoppable and near omniscient, his foes mortal but, essentially, everywhere and everything. As a result, there’s no tension when Dominio confronts his former coworkers, because we know that they cannot stand before him, and there's no tension when he tries to track them down because we know he will not fail. As for the confrontations themselves, the various gruesome tortures that Dominio enacts upon his fellow man are nothing short of sickening. In all likelihood, that revulsion was intended – but intent doesn't make disgust more appetizing.

The characters of the novel are resolutely unsympathetic. The arrogance and flaws of the Seven Dwarfs – and Dominio’s relentless mockery of their character and being – make them thoroughly unlikable, but they’re no better than Dominio himself. When the idea of the massacre first occurs to Dominio, he tries to write a manifesto that would insure he wouldn't be "dismissed as just another kook," or, "Even worse -- to be perceived as a psychological casualty of the times." (p. 70) He never succeeds, because he realizes that there is simply no way to write his thoughts without saying: "They made me feel bad, so I bought some guns and killed them all." (p. 152) Of course, it’s the very senselessness of the violence that makes the novel’s ideas shine through so clearly. If Dominio was sympathetic, or if he was truly accomplishing something with the barrel of his gun, we wouldn’t be left with the same horrifically dark vision that we are. But that doesn’t make the reader care about any of the characters, and without caring about killer or victim, the violence is distant and unaffecting even while it upsets us, reading like spectacle for its own disturbing sake even while being anything but.

The other stories in the collection are both focused on similar settings and themes, though neither’s as graphically bloodthirsty as the title tale. The book's second piece, I Have a Special Plan for this World (a title that Ligotti also used, earlier, for a poem), is far more atmospheric than the prior story, but is hamstrung by the obviousness of its creation and the metaphors therein. Tension palpably fills the office to the point where the workers can’t see clearly for more than a few feet. The former supervisors of the town aren’t fired but killed. The new supervisor doesn’t even bother to wear a mortal face but is, instead, the simple, amoral, ruthless presence of the company’s soul itself. Etc. Surprisingly, this story’s faults are almost the direct opposite of the prior one’s. Where My Work is Not Yet Done was too open, too focused on rubbing our faces in the hideous edge of its protagonists acts, I Have a Special Plan for This World leaves all consequences off-screen, creating a piece that’s interesting but never emotionally engaging. If located in one of Ligotti’s other collections –Teatro Grottesco, say – I Have a Special Plan for This World would be fairly unremarkable, neither sticking out as a failure or being remembered as one of the volume’s key tales.

The Nightmare Network is the collection's one unqualified success. It's told through brief, disconnected scenes and documentation from OneiriCon and the Nightmare Network, two corporations that seem to encompass everything we know and can ever know. The story is similar to The Red Tower from Teatro Grottesco in being utterly devoid of any human elements. There are no characters here, no suspenseful plot, nothing but mood and the ideas that come as the reader fits the tale's pieces together. The other main note of interest when comparing The Nightmare Network to the rest of Ligotti's work is that, despite Ligotti's stated disinterest in the genre, it's quite obviously science fiction, right down to the "artificial entities" (p. 194) that pop up now and again. Despite that, the writing here is the closest thing in this collection to the claustrophobic, opulent density of the man's usual prose. The tale may shift between perspectives and scenes fast enough that it's difficult to ever get one's bearings, but the prose is anything but disorganized. It's flowing and dark, amusing without losing its edge, and it's both expository and churning with atmosphere:

Our names are unknown and our faces are shadows drifting across an infinite blackness. Our voices have been stifled to a soft murmur in a madman's ear. We are the proud failures with only a single joy left to us -- to inflict rampant damage on those who have fed themselves on our dreams and to choke ourselves on our own nightmares. In sum, we are expediters of the apocalypse. There is nothing left to save, if there ever was anything...if there ever could be. All we desire (in all our bitterness) is to go to our ruin in our own way -- with a little style and a lot of noise. (p. 193, The Nightmare Network)

Ultimately though, no matter how interesting The Nightmare Network is, the main part of the collection's impact comes from the story that takes up three quarters of its length. My Work is Not Yet Done is, like all of Ligotti’s work, something that I greatly admire. But it’s not something that I can enjoy. Is that a problem? Is it wrong to seek enjoyment in a work as bleak as this? Perhaps, but I think it’s a problem when the reading is, at times, as unpleasant to the reader as it is to the characters. If My Work is Not Yet Done was the first thing that I’d read of Ligotti, I would still have respected it -- but I’m not sure that I would have sought out more of the author’s work.

[Note: All page numbers from the Mythos Books hardcover edition]

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