By Brendan C. Byrne.

In the last decade Benjamin Kunkel has written a couple dozen uncollected critical pieces, a novel, four short stories, a political-economic tract, and a play. The last two, Utopia Or Bust and Buzz respectively, appeared earlier this year. The shifting of formats feels less like restlessness or some obscure anti-professionalism and more like an author straining to articulate for (slightly) different audiences. Kunkel’s work has always been, with differing levels of explicitness, ‘Marxian’ (as he would put it), and the difficulty of Marxist art/entertainment in this late age of the Spectacle has been exhaustively discussed. Theatre, while more marginalised than other forms, is just as compromised. However, in its summoning of both high levels of existential/environmental dread and reflexive hilarity, Buzz proves the medium is perfect for Kunkel.

Buzz also serves as the culmination of a running obsession with spiders and flies Kunkel’s work. Indecision’s narrator feels terror at spiders as “not only as hairy, parasitic, stealthy, patient, easily deceived, and genuinely, actually, unmetaphorically poisonous, but also because they were hairy like the crotches of human beings…’ The spider-narrator of ‘My Predicament’, the short story included with Buzz, begins with celebratory gorging and then ‘the old guilt returns… and I know myself for the thing I am, and resolve to starve.’ The spider here is the Neoliberal Human, one only at peace with its appetites when ‘so faint with hunger, and my mind so nearly blank, the sac of my belly so light and empty… I hardly even know that I remain myself…’ There is a repugnance to being alive here worthy of a Ligotti or Brassier, though on economic-political grounds rather than those of philosophical pessimism. To consume others (as spiders are forced by their nature to, and we are forced by our society to) renders life desperate and disgusting. ‘My Predicament’ is a barely a story in the best of ways, disdaining any external conflict and refusing an ‘ending'; it also uses the spider metaphor in the most bald manner of Kunkel’s texts.

‘All animals are greedy,’ is spoken twice in Buzz, but the play is more interested in emphasising the constant background irritation created by this world’s inescapable flies. The loft which serves as both the set and the home of playwright Tom and playwright-enabler Sasha has just been fumigated, but the infestation-lite has begun again. Sasha and Tom talk about their predicament with the kind of muted desperation we might speak about bed bugs, if the infestation brought not the censure and judgement of one’s contemporaries but instead was a civilisationally-accepted irritant. Tom and Sasha are very certain they cannot continue to be themselves with the flies, and they are deeply unsure whether or not they want to continue being in a society which accepts the flies. As such, the flies are not quite a metaphor for thanatocratic climate-changing capitalism. A visiting dinner guest, taking umbrage with Sasha and Tom’s drive to eradicate their flies, exclaims, ‘Am I better than an African? That’s how I look at it. Am I somehow better than an African that I shouldn’t ever have something land on me?’ This seems directly repurposed from some IRL argument about climate change. Tom is also capable of telling an interviewer, ‘I guess I’m afraid either that we’ll run out of oil or that we won’t…. I’m also afraid that economic growth will continue, or that it will stop.’ The anxiety and neurosis created by our present situation, and the responses and helplessness they generate, are Kunkel’s concern, though he’s just as interested in showing the way couples invent little worlds for themselves, then go quietly insane in these worlds.

While Buzz lacks the first person POV of Indecision, and thus also lacks the deliberately overbearing and cloying voice of its narrator Dwight, it implicates Tom in the same manner the novel implicates Dwight. If Dwight was just as interested in finding something to do with his life as working toward something like social justice, then Tom here is perhaps most interested in ending the background irritation which keeps him from completing his play. All other options exhausted, Sasha purchases a spider. Tom’s reaction, moving from deer-in-headlights to sarcasm to violence, leads to the cruel denouement, as well as to Sasha’s exclamation that, ‘I know you don’t like spiders. You also don’t like flies. Spiders too hate flies… Spiders eat flies. Flies prefer shit.’


Brendan C. Byrne‘s criticism appears in Rhizome, and his short fiction has appeared in Flurb. A novella, The Showing of the Instruments, was published in 2010.