Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dreamland, A Collaboration between an Author, an Artist, and a Book Designer

Drawing by Alice Leora Briggs

[This essay appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Bloomsbury Review]

DREAMLAND: The Way Out of Juarez
Text by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs
Book Design by Kelly Leslie
University of Texas Press, 2010

by Scott Abbott

DREAMLAND’s final D has been turned in on itself, leaving REAMLAN crowded between the fat bellies of the D and its reverse image. And with that marriage of word and image a major theme is set: truth and its mirror, the mirror this book attempts to be, a book made like no other book because all other books about contemporary Juarez are simply not up to the task.
Dreamland tells a sordid story:
In June, a DEA informant called Lalo was caught with about a hundred pounds of marijuana. . . . Juanita Fielding of the U.S. Attorney’s office had the charges squashed because of an ongoing cigarette smuggling case by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that employed Lalo as an informant. On August 5, Lalo tortured, killed, and buried a man in a condominium in the city on the other side of the river. By January 14 the next year eleven more people went into the backyard of the condo, and at least one of them was an American resident alien. U.S. agencies knew Lalo was killing and did nothing lest they jeopardize the cigarette smuggling case. Or they knew of the killings and did nothing because they were trying to penetrate a cartel. The explanations varied as the dead came out of the ground. (9)
Lalo was once a cop. He worked for a local cartel. He hired state policemen for the cartel. He worked for the DEA and ICE. One day he got a call. He arrived at a meeting with his cell phone still on. He bought supplies for the murder. He and two state policemen went to the death house. A lawyer named Fernando arrived, hoping to arrange for a shipment of marijuana to cross the border. He was slowly smothered, hit on the back of the neck with a shovel, dumped in a hole behind the house and covered with lime. ICE recorded everything they heard through the phone, wrote parts of it into a memo. Not all the parts. After two DEA agents were almost killed, the DEA began an investigation of the house. What they found didn’t jibe with the ICE memo. Trouble brewed. The silence that inevitably ensued ended the trouble, especially after the twelve bodies were exhumed and a plaque was erected and justice was done.
As gruesome as the tortures and murders were, this is no aberration from a lawful norm, Dreamland tells us. The death house and its successors are the straightforward solution to the problem of how to enforce order in the drug business. And death, of course, is not enough. Dying slowly by torture in the death house is the sufficient deterrent. That has become the new order of things. Even where plaques are erected and justice done.
Charles Bowden has been writing about Juarez and the U.S./Mexican border for several decades, and each successive book has revealed his ongoing obsession with finding adequate forms though which to think about the border city. Juarez, A Laboratory for the Future (1998), for instance, combines essays by Bowden, Noam Chomsky, and Eduardo Galeano with full-page photos by Julian Cardona and other Juarez photographers. Down by the River continues to explore narrative possibilities (“This book is the archeology of a nightmare”; 2002), as do A Shadow in the City (“That is what this book is about. Getting to that place”; 2005) and Murder City (“She understands. And soon I think I will if I am given enough time on the killing ground,” again with photos by Julian Cardona; 2010).
Like Bowden, Alice Leora Briggs has a history of experimentation with form, especially forms related to torture, death, and suffering, aspects of the Western artistic tradition visible in any Italian cathedral, she notes. Her drawings depict scenes as conflicted and complex as the story Bowden tells: a vicious medieval flaying being filmed by one man while another mows his grass behind, or a classic pieta besieged by a photographers, or iconic phallic Breugel wedding guests dancing above a man in a hairnet cooking menudo for the inevitable hangovers.
            Bowden has written what amount to a series of short essays on the theme of contemporary Juarez and the death house at its center, essays that wrench apart our usual sense for how the border city is ordered and disordered. His fragmented narrative works much like Briggs’ drawings that are related by themes of violence rather than by a through story line. And the third contributor to the book, its designer Kelly Leslie, has woven Bowden’s essays and Briggs’ drawings into a bookish textile so textured, so graphic, so thoughtful, that a reader forgets the usual neat divide between words and images and can no longer imagine why a writer would not work with pictures or an artist with words.
What kind of book is this experiment in form? It is not a graphic novel, nor is it an illuminated manuscript. It’s not an exhibition catalogue with accompanying essay. It can’t be Blake’s Jerusalem, because this is twenty-first-century Juarez. And although images and words are related by a sort of dream logic, it is not Jung’s Red Book either. Leaving the question of classification aside, there is still the question of how to read the book.
At some point, I realized I was responding to Dreamland as I do to jazz. This book requires attention, simultaneous attention, to the complex interactions of several voices improvising on the basis of a given set of chords or themes.
Given his preternaturally deep voice, his belligerent insistence on the world as he sees it, and his remarkable ability to create new forms, we’ll assign Bowden the Mingus bass. Briggs is the Monkish piano player, knifing through the black India ink to the white ceramic clay of her scratchboard-on-panel sgraffito drawings, improvising thematically on Renaissance tunes. The designer Kelly Leslie is the drummer Billy Higgins, establishing crazy-like-a-fox rhythms over which Bowden’s text and Brigg’s images trade twos and fours throughout the book. Finally, the informant identified as Lalo is the singer, having played previous gigs with drug cartels and ICE alike, singing turncoat testimony here like the mirrored canaries with which Leslie backs his words.
A Rilke epigraph establishes the chord changes these book musicians will play, a tune from the Seventh Duino Elegy (in A. Poulin, Jr.’s translation): “Each slow turn of the world carries such disinherited ones. . . . This shouldn’t confuse us; no, it should commit us to preserve the form we still can recognize. This stood among men, once, stood in the middle of fate, the annihilator, stood in the middle of Not-Knowing-Where-To, as if it existed, and it pulled down stars from the safe heaven toward it.” On the same page as the Rilke quotation, a drawing pronounces an eternal round: the archetypal Ouroboros devouring its own tail, its body curved around the words “La Cadena Que No Se Corta THE UNBROKEN CHAIN.” Like Bowden, Briggs is a hopeful cynic, a believer in order with a keen eye for lies about order; and her serpent in this case is a dead rat.
            The musicians insist, as does the book’s title, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, that should someone find the true order of the chaos of the border city (and that order may be structured like a dream), the discovery might enable a truthful search for a way out of the current state of affairs. Otherwise, the way out of Juarez is through the house of death in which an ICE informant and Juarez policemen kill for the drug cartel that pays them. This is serious music.
Briggs configures. Bowden describes. Leslie lays down the rhythms. Lalo squeals. “Strange Fruit,” they sing, “Fables of Faubus.”
The problem, they tell us, is NAFTA and the subsequent job losses in Mexico. The problem is that people have no way to make a living. The problem is that working in the narcotics industry is the answer to the problem. The problem is that narcotics are illegal, which makes them the answer to the problem of a local economy foreclosed by the US (corn) and China (manufacturing jobs). And, fundamentally, Bowden writes, the problem is language:
One city is called El Paso, the other Juarez. One state is called Texas, the other Chihuahua. One nation is called the United States, the other Mexico. I find it harder and harder to use these names because they imply order and boundaries, and both are breaking down. So I stumble and try not to say these names even though they have meaning, at least some meaning, left, and they are right there on the maps and road signs. But they have the feel of the past, of dust and ruin and dead dreams. And so I say them at times, but often I struggle to find a way around these words because uttering them or writing them down contributes to a big lie and helps trap people in a dying world. (6)
            But I always stall at this point, my tongue gets thick, words are difficult to utter. My mind races and yet speech ceases. . . . I try to form a single word that captures what I am seeing and feeling and thinking. Finally, it comes out, to be sure it comes almost as a whisper. But still it comes. Dreams. (10)
            I must find a new language, one that avoids empty words like justice and crime and punishment and problems and solutions. (12)
            With wine, I do not hear the babble about humane borders, about worker permits, the screams of the murdered in the drug houses. . . . I must watch that temper. And keep my hands off guns. . . . And all I seem to hear are words and then, thank God again for drink, my senses open and the words disappear into the dictionaries where they lead safe and pointless lives. (64)
            This is the new geography, one based less on names and places and lines and national boundaries and more on forces and appetites and torrents of people. . . . . We have learned to live with the problem by lying about the problem. (139-140)
If the problem is language, the solution, if there is a solution, and there may be no solution, is language. The language of Bowden’s text. The language of Brigg’s drawings. The language of their complicated and horrific interleavings as Leslie works the drumheads of the pages with her designer sticks and brushes and mallets, with her digital mirrors and witchy magic. This book, in ways no book has ever done, probes the problem of Juarez and thus of the world’s future with an unlikely faith: “Two things stun me: how much I once believed and how much, despite the storm in the skies and the blood on the ground, that I still continue to believe” (1).
What does Bowden believe in? And Briggs? And Lalo? We’re left to find answers in the syntax Leslie creates with their images and words.
Listen to Bowden and Briggs improvising on the Rilke tune about preserving the form of the disinherited, and on one eternal ratround. Listen to their traded fours, to the one voice “comping” in that thoughtful form of jazz accompanying while the other voice solos, and then to the voices as they reverse the roles. And through it all, Lalo’s song.
Bowden takes the first solo.
Bowden: “There is a way out of here and it is called levanton, the lift or the pickup. You are going about your business and suddenly men with guns come and you go with them. Sometimes you return as a corpse, and this, of course, is a blessing.”
Briggs: A drawing of a seated man (it looks like Bowden) wearing a jean jacket, a large glass in his left hand, his hair wild and an even wilder look in his eyes. At his elbow a postage stamp, 1st CLASS, with Poseidon, perhaps, holding a triton while seahorses pull his chariot. “There is a way our of here,” the stamp proclaims, “it is called LEVANTON.” (2-3)

Bowden: “There is an order to things. At the crime scene, yellow tape defines the killing ground. . . There is an order to things. Everything works. The city lives two lives. One looks like order. One feels like decay. Both are the same place.”
Briggs: Firemen aim a hose at flames shooting out of a window. Below them a man reads a newspaper and another plays an accordion. Below them two men are drinking. To the left, a woman in Renaissance dress adjusts a machine in a laboratory. A postage stamp featuring a machine gun partially covers doubly mirrored hands holding spent shell casings. A second line of the hands and casings runs across the top of the page. (28-29)

Bowden: “The screams of the murdered are muffled by giant gags of duct tape. Giant hoses constantly wash the floor of the lab and tiny dreams and hopes wash down into grates and are carried off.”
Briggs: A naked Renaissance woman hoses off a carcass hanging in a row of carcasses. (30-31)

Bowden: “You make a list of absolutes, of touchstones. . . I know some things for certain. Nothing will stop people from coming north. Nothing will ease their pain. Nothing will stop the violence of the line. . . . I can’t decide if I am hearing the cries of a hard birth, or something more like a death rattle.”
Briggs: The naked legs and torsos of two people entwined.
Lalo’s song (and Leslie has pictured the words like redacted text in a government document, backed by a singing canary): “On another occasion Santillan mentioned to me that they killed a person who was one of his workers and who was called El Gordo, the Fat Man, and whose body appeared without a head.”
Bowden: “I hear a zim bam boddle-oo song in my head Li’l David was small, but oh my! He fought Big Goliath.”
Briggs: A postage stamp with a left hand crossing a right one over a piano keyboard. (40-42)

Bowden: “It’s a war with no generals and many privates. There is a new order in the wind and it looks like chaos but it is not. There is a new order in the wind and it sidesteps government, or, if pressed, steps on government. There is a new order in the wind and it cannot be discussed because any discussion might threaten the older order now rolling in the dirt.”
Briggs: “Birthday Greetings” says the postage stamp. A fat little Renaissance cupid sits atop skulls and plays with another. (60)

Bowden: “And it does not matter if the issue at hand is a truckload of dope, a death house winked at in Juarez by a U.S. agency, or a flood of poor people bumbling toward some promised land, still the response is the same, that the problem has a rational solution. I think otherwise. I think I am looking at the solution and it is agony under the sun, a body in a fetal position precisely five feet and seven inches below the surface of a backyard in a nice neighborhood.”
Briggs: A skeleton in fetal position.
Lalo’s song: “If they order to you, do this, you do it, and you’d better do it; and if you don’t do it, you get killed. . . . This first time, when I saw the killing, yeah, it – what can I do? Call the police? The police was already there.” (98-99)

Lalo keeps singing, Briggs takes the solo, Bowden comps.
Lalo’s song: “What was the Parsioneros house like? Didn’t it smell like crazy? No. . . . With bodies being drug underneath the staircase, blood – No, you prepare everything.”
Briggs: Two bodies on two cots in a morgue.
Bowden: “There is a belief by some that things are breaking down. This is false. There is a belief by others that things are getting better. This is false. Order depends on things staying the same. . . . There is no chaos permitted. There is only order, and order shackles all efforts at any other kind of life.” (102-103)

Briggs: A cropped version of the drawing of Bowden in a chair in a jean jacket holding a large glass in his left hand. Now there is only the hand and the glass. Where black ink formed utter darkness above Bowden’s torso in the first drawing, now hang a row of animal carcasses like the ones being sprayed by the naked Renaissance women in the earlier drawing.
Bowden: “He owes for a load and so they come and take him. He sits in a chair at a ranch. They are outside, drinking scotch, doing lines of cocaine. His partner is to come with the money. . . . For two days, the time passes this way. They sit outside. In front of him, a guy takes a sharp knife. A hog is strung up in front of him as he sits in his chair. First, the throat is slit. Then the belly is cut open and the guts spill out. It goes that way, hour after hour. Later, he says, you know, I thought I could wind up like that hog.” (114-115)

Briggs: A man (Bowden) stares into the distance, smoking, while a hanging carcass is butchered to the side and to the rear a naked man tied to a post is whipped by men dressed in Renaissance clothing.
Bowden: “And the point is this: we are creating poverty that exceeds the ability of the State to alter, we are creating violence that exceeds the violence of the State itself, we are creating lawlessness faster and over more territory than we are creating law. We must ask ourselves this simple question: Is the house of death the problem or the actual solution? Is this the freak show or the future? Are these men monsters or the coming human beings?”
And Lalo sings: How close did you get to Vicente Carrillo Fuentes? How close were you? No, not – not close. I never seen him. I didn’t know him. I never got close to him.” (116-117)

Briggs: A drawing shows a serious-faced man (Julian Cardona) sitting in front of a coffin on wheels, framed top and bottom with mirrored hands holding shell cartridges.
Bowden: “Small improvements could be made in this system. Decent wages paid by American companies in Juarez would lessen the violence and slow or end illegal immigration in that area, but this is impossible because the companies must compete with business in Asia. Legalizing drugs would destroy the cartel and end the cash flow into their hands of tens of billions of dollars a year, but this is impossible because American citizens would consume drugs without guilt. . . . Everything is impossible except the status quo.” (130-131)

Briggs: A version of Mantegna’s foreshortened “Dead Christ” lies stuffed under a steel-girded bridge and atop a set of pipes and vats that collect his blood.
Bowden: “Phrases will be altered and new words will be used for old pains. Still, it rolls on, the entire theater of dust and blood. . . . Most likely the body will show burn marks. The problem will be solved. Justice will be done. Business will not be bothered in an American city for a spell.”
Lalo’s song: “They will kill me or they will torture me and then will kill me. Who will? Yeah, the police, the cartel, the government, it’s all the same people.” (148-150)

After all the variations (thematic and chordal, Renaissance and contemporary, musical and visual, Mexican and American), the jazz quartet returns to the head, to the Rilke elegy whose persona pulls down order from the stars in the face of the annihilator.
Bowden: “The stars rise over Juarez and finally someone notices and feels the grace and peril of the night sky. That is what I think must have happened in these holes in the patio as the tortured men finally found the space in their hectic lives for the magic of the heavens.”
Briggs: Between doubled and redoubled rows of Friedr. Bayer & Co. Heroin bottles, an empty cab of a car, a starry night burning outside, and on the previous page slumps a bullet-riddled van. Then a short-haired man wearing a t-shirt and dark glasses steers his car through a starry night. The constellation Orion burns through his window. Is he whistling? (140-141 and 145)

Bowden, Briggs, and Leslie have stood, in the pages of this book, “in the middle of fate, the annihilator, stood in the middle of Not-Knowing-Where-To, as if it existed.” If it exists, that way out of Juarez, if it exists any way other than through the death house, it exists in these pages whose images and words may still be inadequate mirrors but don’t lie.
            As a final note, as a resigned yet resolute response to a book that questions many of my certainties and unsettles my very being, I’ll add my translation of another stanza by Rilke, this time from the eighth of the Duino Elegies: “We order it. It falls apart. We order it again. And fall apart ourselves.”

1 comment:

Adam said...


This is a beautiful piece of writing, a wonderful analysis of Dreamland. Thanks.