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Ofelia Hunt

Ofelia Hunt is the author of My Eventual Bloodless Coup (Bear Parade). She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first novel.

Blurbs

"This book would like to give you an ice cream, but you will have to get in the van."

– Amelia Gray, author of Museum of the Weird

"The ironic is a mere ancient whisper in this torqued narrative: its odd violence feels true. Today & Tomorrow crashes through the windows of strip malls and paints the hypertrophic aisles with bristly-creepy hilarity."

– Stacey Levine, author of The Girl With Brown Fur

"Ofelia Hunt is the balladeer of the doe-eyed detrivores of over-stimulation. Within Today & Tomorrow, readers find the fried and the frayed nerves in the youth of the Hyperworld. All will be well, America, as long as the rims keep spinning and Hunt keeps writing."

– Matthew Simmons, author of A Jello Horse

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Today & Tomorrow

Violence and Kittens

06/07/11

Tornadoes are gone, Megabus drivers are friendly, and here we are in America with NPR and ESPN and Powerpoints and naked deck lounging and kittens. Let’s talk about the first chapter of Today & Tomorrow, which introduces us to the hypnotic narrative voice we’ve been talking about.

J.A. Tyler, in a review of T&T over at Monkeybicycle talks about birthdays and violence:

Today & Tomorrow begins with the narrator’s twentieth birthday, an occasion for excitement and yet laced fear, focusing on how we attempt to let go of our youth, how we try to embrace our aging, a journey that the book violently pulls us through like an uncontrolled body over coral reefs, a juxtaposition of beauty and limb-scarring.

In the first chapter we’re introduced to this youth and violence that Tyler is talking about. We listen to the narrator imagine her neighbor catching her naked, and we get clued into her tangential daydreaming propulsion. We learn that she hasn’t spoken to her sister, Merna, in four years. We drift back in time to a kitchen with Merna, where the narrator admires Merna’s kitten (“Your kitten’s so pretty I could just pull her eyes out and roll them along the kitchen floor”) and watches Merna dry dishes. And the narrator can’t seem to settle on whether she likes the kitchen or not. On one hand, she can imagine “days of lovely waiting in the kitchen, drying dishes, stacking them in cupboards, lining cupboard-shelves with rose-scented shelf-paper.” On the other hand, she sees some sort of violence in the way Merna dries, and she doesn’t like it:

“The plates were white and clean with the tiniest bubbles of water huddling away from her rag and my sister was merciless as she carefully wiped every part of every plate and obliterated each tiny perfect bubble and slowly set each plate in its proper stack in the cupboard next to the refrigerator. I hated her plates then, her bubble-obliterating rag, her stupid silly kitten.”

At the end of the chapter, after we’ve been lulled by the voice, we are startlingly introduced to this narrator’s brutality and wobbly sense of reality:

“I cocked the kitten. The kitten was heavy. The kitten was cocked and I flung it and it moved slowly, sprawl-legged toward the window and the window shivered in anticipation and Merna and I gasped and there was a loud sound I can’t describe but was both wonderful and terrible and the kitten bounced and moved slowly toward the sink, its tiny legs stretched out oddly, at angles, as though disconnected from its round furry body.”

One funny thing about T&T is we never learn the narrator’s name, but we unmistakably experience the world through her. Even when we’re aghast and want to pull back, she’s our only way in. One thing that seems true is that everybody needs to tell their story, and another thing that seems true is that the more stories we hear the less the world is apt to swallow us with its strangeness, its distances and indifference. Right away, from the strange phrasing of the “sun’s sunlight’s” to the “little bits of dust moving and interacting with other dust-bits,” to the “tiniest bubbles of water huddling away” from Merna’s dishrag, and finally to the kitten’s “tiny legs stretched out oddly, at angles,” we meet a narrator obsessed with the intricate holding together that goes on.

It might be a cliche to throw out the idea that violence reminds us of fragility, and that an obsession with violence is really an obsession with testing, a fascination with finding breaking points. One thing about cute things is that they are often defined by the damage we could do to them (e.g. “you’re so cute I could eat you up!”), and one of the things I find so fascinating about T&T is the way this unnamed narrator navigates her own desire to be both fragile and terrible.

Do I “relate” to this? Do I “relate” to the violence? I’m not sure I know what that really means, but I know I feel something. I know—right away from the first chapter—that this book is going to open me up to the world in a way I don’t usually—you know, for safety’s everyday sake—allow myself. It’s funny to remember—even when we’re talking here—that we read by ourselves, and it’s interesting to picture yourself nestling into your eyes and holding the book and reading about kitten tossing on the train, in a park, where somebody might glance and see Bill Murray’s face on the cover but have no real idea the kind of re-wiring you’re privately allowing yourself to experience.

So what do you think of this violence in T&T? What did you feel when you read how the kitten came apart? Did you find yourself alienated by the description, did you find yourself re-calibrating? Has reading ever really shocked you? Isn’t shock more about framing than body count? Why is a kitten “cute?” Why do I think “hypnotizing” is such a good word to describe T&T? Does T&T remind you of Kathy Acker? Do you want to see a really terrifying clip from Ofelia Hunt’s favorite movie (warning, strange and R-rated)? What does it mean to be “de-sensitized?” Is sensitivity a matter of realization? To be surprised by what we’re capable of sensing? Those lovely different bubbles and the wonderful and terrible sound of the pop.

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17 Comments

  1. Molly Gaudry said on 06/07/11 at 11:25 am Reply

    My post also has animal violence in it today, and desensitization. While we’re talking about healing rituals / coping mechanisms in the comments at that post, I think your post is asking a larger question about violence and culture — and I hope others here will chime in on that topic, because it’s an important one to have.

    I want to ask you, though: Clearly you weren’t offended by the violence and you didn’t shy away from the book manuscript. So were you compelled by it? Did this have any part in why you published the book?

    Reply

    Mike Young said on 06/07/11 at 11:39 am

    Yeah, I’m interested in thinking about what’s commonly called a larger cultural “de-sensitization” to violence and I’m also interested in thinking about how “cuteness” relates to implicit violence or powerlessness or fragility, etc.

    I think most compelling for me was the language in the book: hypnotic and fascinating, and the violence is always complicated by the way it’s being depicted. Even in that first chapter, there’s almost more violence toward the water bubbles than toward the kitten. And the language is so precise and idiosyncratic and has this backbeat that’s very transfixing. The prose itself is breaking things down and then suddenly it’s talking about actually breaking things down.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/07/11 at 6:48 pm

    Mike, that’s really interesting about the language reflecting violence in ways that the actual violence doesn’t. And about the cultural desensitization, man, what a huge issue to tackle and talk about.

    I avoid violence and especially don’t watch horror movies (can’t handle them, which means I didn’t click the link to Ofelia’s favorite movie).

    But on the other hand, I love Cute Overload. My Doggers should have long hair but has a puppy cut (the link to Doggers is a dead blog, by the way, but I kept up the posts that couldn’t be deleted).

    For me, cute = innocent. And perhaps untouched by the violence of the world.

  2. Chris Newgent said on 06/07/11 at 11:49 am Reply

    It’s funny how my comments today on Molly’s post kind of echo the sentiments of your post, Mike. Over there, I’m talking about the violence I did to my body after my friend Laura died in a climbing accident–how I spent days and days at the local climbing gym with my friends there, all of us beating ourselves down.

    We all felt so fragile then, and tried and tried to break ourselves it seemed, like you say, a violence we did to ourselves as a way of testing what we might become on the other side of our grief.

    Reply

    Mike Young said on 06/07/11 at 12:18 pm

    Yeah, breaking yourself as a way of becoming new. A new interview with Ofelia just went up alongside that Monkeybicycle review (seems like everybody wants to interview Ofelia along with their reviews, haha; I wonder why that is? I like it), and she talks about violence:

    “There’s a strange humor to it (for me). Violence or imagining violence could be an environmental control? A way to focus one’s thoughts toward or away from one thing or another? The loss of perceived invincibility is certainly disconcerting. As is perceived physical weakness among peers. And perhaps subjective isolation plays a roll? I’ve often thought of the narrator as a mind turned inwardly, as a person, like me, who does not socialize well, who doesn’t feel comfortable with ‘small talk’/chatter, who attempts to define interpersonal relationships mathematically somehow. The idea that there is a right thing to say, to think, to do, to touch, to be at each moment.”

    Chris Newgent said on 06/07/11 at 2:14 pm

    I was just searching for a Vonnegut quote today and came across an interview with him that similarly talks about humor in response to tragedy:

    Cargas: Well, is it funny one year after the Lisbon earthquake or do we have to wait 200 years? The slaughterings of Genghis Khan, I imagine, could be made somewhat amusing because they don’t affect anybody right now. Will Auschwitz become a subject for humor 500 years for now?

    Vonnegut: Well, of course, humor is an almost physiological response to fears, as I understand it. What Freud said about humor was that it is a response to frustration — one of several. A dog, he said, when he can’t get out a gate, will scratch and start digging and making meaningless gestures — perhaps growling or whatever to deal with frustration or surprise or fear. I saw the destruction of Dresden. I mean I saw it before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterwards, and certainly one response is laughter. God knows, that’s the soul seeking some relief. So yes, I suppose any subject is subject to laughter and I suppose there was laughter of a very ghastly kind by victims in Auschwitz.

  3. brian warfield said on 06/07/11 at 6:56 pm Reply

    i actually found the violence in Today and Tomorrow to be less than in some of Ofelia’s short stories. in the novel, none of the violence seems real. at least not at first. none of the violence gets actuated. she wants to rob banks and wants to kill things, but in the end, she doesn’t. even in the ice rink where the dog gets killed and the security guard, she keeps going back to those moments so that they don’t happen. i’m trying to remember if the narrator actually commits any act of violence herself.

    Reply

  4. Ofelia Hunt said on 06/07/11 at 7:08 pm Reply

    I think the Vonnegut quote is interesting. I read a lot of Vonnegut in middle school / high school, and it always seemed he joked most about what he was most uncomfortable with (sister’s death, mother’s suicide, the Depression, Dresden). I’ve always thought humor was a sort of relief from fear (I’m running in the woods, trip, and bleeding from both knees–the only thing to do: laugh. I’m still alive.).

    I hadn’t particularly thought of T&T as violent, with the exception of one chapter (which is probably the most abhorrent thing I’ve ever written). Perhaps this speaks to ‘desensitization’. After I watched KILL BILL, I thought I could never watch another action movie again. Somehow that excessive violence (also in SUICIDE CLUB) comes off as humor/surprise to me. So cartoonish and strange that the violence functions as something else.

    I’m also reminded of Susan Sontag’s REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS for some reason.

    Reply

    DK said on 06/07/11 at 7:41 pm

    Good points, Ofelia – as a Vonnegut fan myself, I admire his willingness to cover a lot of very raw/painful ground, let alone to do so with that weird twinkle in his eye.

    Regarding violence, I think the cartoonish exaggeration of it in modern horror movies and Tarantino films, among others, is meant to distinguish it from, and make it less real than, the legitimate violence around us all the time. Displaying this violence as unreal can, in a roundabout and longterm way, make it less scary, which is one of the more common values of humor – it’s a hiding place from emotional or physical discomfort, especially in cultures where raw, undecorated expressions of emotion are seen as overly sentimental artistic shortcuts, or as sales ploys of some kind.

    Of course, this treatment of violence could also diminish the worth of our own mortality, which is exactly what a violent society demands. It’s a big weird circle.

  5. ydde said on 06/07/11 at 10:09 pm Reply

    It’s interesting, the difference between real violence and exaggerated violence. Maybe that does mean we’re growing more desensitised, which is something I worry about because violence is inherently dehumanising, I’d argue. And we seem to be accepting violence, the stranger and more stylised, the better. And violence as entertainment, I mean, it’s one of the oldest forms of entertainment, I think, so maybe there’s just a desire deep in us to watch people challenge one another physically.

    Violence is something I simply do not understand and find difficult to wrap my head around, but I wonder about the shift of art into violence. In my own trifling attempts at artistry, I aim to make beauty, so going towards the visceral and the violent is an interesting choice to me. I’ve only read the first chapter of T&T, but I didn’t find it especially violent. The language is surprising and, yeah, kind of hypnotic. I’m thinking now about Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, which maybe isn’t violent, but it’s extremely physical and visceral while containing this mesmerisingly fluid prose that pulls you through all the despair and wreckage of its surreal apocalypse.

    I think I lost track of whatever point I may have had. Violence is an interesting vehicle to make stories concrete and feel real, because I think it’s hard to deny that the world’s a violent place, even when we believe it shouldn’t be. But, even now, wars go on and no one seems to care about the legitimacy of any of them. We just accept violence, even implicit violence, like the american justice system, which is a kind of indirect violence against people. So maybe art should reflect this, and violence can be our vehicle to shine a light on a lot of social injustice. And maybe that’s the real thing, representing violence responsibly. To make it real and unflinching rather than something where the initial reaction is laughter. Humor’s great, but humor, in a lot of cases, needs some kind of distance, because there’s nothing funny when the violence is real and at your door.

    Reply

    Mike Young said on 06/08/11 at 1:00 pm

    I wonder if there’s a certain kind of visceral depicted violence that is actually “re-humanizing” in its effects, in its making us more awake to the actualities of violence. I feel like a lot of what’s going on in T&T—especially later in the book, and I think double especially in the scene (I’m guessing) Ofelia refers to above—that by way of its style and by the way I have to work in a specific way to “figure out” what’s going on, I end up actually “re-sensitized.”

    Ofelia Hunt said on 06/08/11 at 3:14 pm

    re: ‘visceral depicted violence that is actually “re-humanizing”…’

    I think this is very on point. The scene which I was speaking of, I think, was a kind of visceral horror, and at the time I was working on it, I think it in some way counter-balanced the unactualized imagined violences.

    I’m only guessing a little. To some degree, this all came out of writing the character.

  6. Cook said on 06/08/11 at 2:22 am Reply

    I got my ass kicked once in high school. Dude totally beat the shit out of me. I never had a prayer. But I was sleeping with his wife, so I probably deserved it.

    So after his friends pulled him off of me, I stood up, spat out most of the blood in my mouth, and said, “good, so you can beat up a 17-year-old. I’m sure that’ll make her want to fuck you again.”

    I got beat up some more. But, I also learned a lot about the kind of guy I am that night. Violence has its place.

    My buddy was in the parking lot at the movies with some friends, when one of the guys he didn’t know well slapped his own girlfriend. My friend waited to the count of 3 (for comic effect) and broke the guy’s jaw. Violence has its place.

    Reply

    Mike Young said on 06/08/11 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Cook. I think we’ve all been in situations where we felt like the only recourse was violence, and it’s interesting how when we look back on that we often talk about it like this: we learn something, we come out of it different. Similar to Chris’s story above. Breaking down, building up.

  7. Jordan Blum said on 06/09/11 at 6:28 pm Reply

    Honestly, the kitten violence didn’t shock me or bother me at all. I visualize her throwing the cat, it hits the window, is dazed, and then walks away. Honestly, it reminds me of a Monty Python skit where two men have this exchange:

    “This is Tibbles the cat. Tibbles will now fly across the room.”
    “By himself?”
    “No, I fling him.”

    And then John Cleese does just that. I’ve been told I am a rather desensitized person – I found one of the most “shocking” films of all time, “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” hilarious. And I find American torture porn films like “Saw” and “Hostel” G-rated compared to French and Italian stuff (where the real guts are, no pun intended). Similarly, that clip above from “Suicide Circle” made me laugh out loud because of how over the top it is; I’m not bothered by it at all. This may also be because I love Asian cinema so I’ve seen films like “Oldboy,” “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Ichi the Killer,” “Battle Royale,” and “Audition” many times.

    I’ve often been surprised by literature I’ve read, but the only time I was ever actually disturbed to the point of having to stop reading was “American Psycho.” I’m always searching for things to push the envelope and shock me, and some scenes in that book are honestly too much to take.

    I think a person’s sensitivity to such things depends on their level of exposure, as well as, arguably, age. I can’t definitively claim that as a 23 year old, I’m automatically less shocked by things that people twice my age, but I suspect it. And because I’ve seen so many violent films and read so many violent and perverted stories, I’m not very shocked or bothered by this chapter of T&T (which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it).

    Now, I will NEVER watch real violence (such as animal violence or snuff films). I know people out there do love that stuff, and I’d love to get them in here for a discussion.

    Reply

  8. brian warfield said on 06/15/11 at 2:38 pm Reply

    i was watching Sans Soleil recently and it has a quote from Apocalypse Now: “Horror has a face and a name and you must make a friend of horror.” and then it says: “To cast out the horror that has a name and a face, you must give it another name and another face.”
    and it reminded me of ofelia and this book.

    Reply

    Mike Young said on 06/15/11 at 3:05 pm

    That seems totally apropos, Brian! Especially with the narrator’s obsession with renaming (Erik/Todd, the Stepmother/Grandmother).

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