by Erin Becker
Published by Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011 | 82 pages
Johannes Göransson’s Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate is, perhaps, a play. The work is structured like a play, unfolding in prose passages sectioned off beneath speakers’ names. Yet, if it is a play, it’s an impossible one: strictly speaking, it can never be staged. The “NOTE ON THE PRODUCTION” that leads off the work establishes this paradox with the instructions: “during the entire performance my daughter Sinead dances while changing in and out of various costumes.” Similarly outlandish stage directions follow: “At this point he castrates himself with a box cutter”; “while firing her guns into the audience”; “she might be a personification of the actress”; “played by Ronald Reagan”; “The two entities must remain on stage for the rest of the show, even if they faint they must remain on the stage, even if doctors have to be brought in, they have to remain on the stage.” And much else in Entrance is likewise laden with impossibility.
Entrance‘s protagonist is a “Passenger” who has been admitted into a medical center. Nurses there perform experimental operations on him and his fellow “Passengers” for reasons that remain unclear. Over the course of the play, a vast number of characters introduce themselves, address the audience—a sort of Greek-chorus-in-multitude—and change costumes, genders, and identities. Without any real plot or story to speak of, the work takes the form of a descent into chaos, its hallucinatory fragments driven by deep currents of menace and brutality. Göransson juxtaposes beauty queens to racial tropes, science fiction to politics and medical paraphernalia. It’s a blend of everything kitsch and grotesque, without empathy, softness, or charm, strongly reminiscent of the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses. Thematically, the work fits most comfortably in the genre of dystopia fiction (Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Trial), but Entrance pursues the genre to terra incognita extremes.
Entrance is in some ways more a prose poem, bludgeoned and stuffed into dramaturgical form. But Göransson has a clear reason for this: Entrance’s unworkable theatricality foregrounds the issue of representation. Its kaleidoscopic impossibility presses down upon the reader, forcing the question: Who writes the stage directions of life, the role each person plays in society? Göransson edges closest to answering this question when a character named Mimesis—stage direction: “(played by a black man)”—says:
I was invented to blame for the kidnapping and murder of a white woman’s children. I had supposedly stolen the car with the kids in it. The news elicited a national hunt. I was everywhere. It’s well-documented. But the important thing to remember is: I was everywhere. We live in a fantasy called America and I’m one of the props.
Life in Entrance is pure theater, its characters determined by their allegorical (structural) purpose. This plot-less, desultory narrative allows for innumerable readings and interpretations, but the pitfalls of public identity always seem to be looming. Do we decide who we are? Perhaps, like Mimesis, we are all “props.”
Like a mad scientist throwing together unexpected chemicals, Göransson delights in coupling divergent concepts, seeing which combinations smoke, sizzle, or explode. Just a few examples: “luxuriant pupils,” a “soundproof pose,” a “molested parade,” a “garbled hand,” “authenticity kitsch.” Entrance is an experiment in syntax; synesthesia is the rule rather than the exception. Its characters speak in simple thoughts and grammar, like children: “I had trouble eating the food”; “Foreign bodies must be studied”; “I cannot do the Twist”; “Passengers cannot be trusted”; “I am not here”; “We want to teach him how to speak.” The relentless subject-verb-subject-verb progressions make the book a simultaneously difficult and easy read. Beneath the words there is an undulating rhythm, at first comforting, then unnerving, then both simultaneously. Layered over familiar syntax, startling images are made more startling still.
It’s not only these pattern-shattering juxtapositions and relentless syntax that create this effect of strangeness. It’s also the way the trite phrasing, basic grammar, and clichés come down with a clank against the backdrop of linguistic madness. As Göransson’s characters soliloquize on their diseases and infestations, they forefront the diseased and infested nature of the clichés and banality that infects all communication. Tried-and-maybe-not-so-true combinations like “barely legal,” “murderous instinct,” and “kiss and tell” suddenly ring false against other, less customary language. The contrast between the unfamiliar and the familiar exposes the familiar in the unfamiliar and vice versa. Göransson asks: Where do we get our lines, the words that go into our ears and come out of our mouths? And to what degree do they get us?
Near Entrance’s end, a particular moment stands out as a pivot on which the rest of the work may turn. Like the “invention” of the black Mimesis, an “exoskeletal” Miss World provides a moment of clarity amid the comings and goings of entities more symbolic than real:
Because I’m a teenager I don’t yet understand metaphors and that is why I understand what the passenger doesn’t understand: The security officers are not trying to turn him into an object (that’s just his sexual fantasy); they are trying to teach him to have an interiority worth dying for.
A semblance of something definitive to take away? It’s hard to say. My sense is that Göransson does not want it to be quite so easy.
Erin Becker is an MAT student and Spanish teacher at the University of Iowa and a graduate of the English and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her interests include media literacy and the relationship between propaganda and art.