Weirdness is a confrontation with the nonhuman. Weird knowledge does not deny the capacity of the human mind and body to produce knowledge, but it does not reduce the world to human subject experience either.
– Elvia Wilk, “Toward a Theory of the New Weird”
Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent and untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Paul Cunningham’s The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism Press, 2020) explores the poetics of space not through the private rooms of a home or apartment, and not through a clearly delineated public space (parks, public squares, etc.), but through a space that is public-masquerading-as-private: the showroom. The speaker, an assistant manager of an IKEA store, is attempting to train themselves in lucid dreaming, and the best place for such an experiment, we’re told, is the showroom. “My project requires a foreign bed,” the speaker tells us. “Luckily, I am sleeping on a bed so foreign that it’s called a floor model.” From the first pages of Cunningham’s book, two zones are being crosshatched: dreams with consciousness (through lucid dreaming), and the public showroom with the private living quarter. Why would a “foreign bed” (in this case, a floor model) be conducive to lucid dreaming? And what type of dream might it draw forth? The House of the Tree of Sores is an exploration of these implied questions.
If mannequins famously invoke the uncanny for many people, a showroom is capable of creating a similar sensation on a lesser scale. The “room” invites us, and everyone else, to imagine it as our own, and yet there’s also (and simultaneously) that sense of the room belonging to no one. And just as the mannequin might work backwards, defamiliarizing the human form in our eyes, so the showroom has the capacity to defamiliarize every furnished room. In a certain light, every room becomes a “showroom.” Cunningham’s book delves directly into this terrain. “From where I stand,” the speaker tells us, “the fake front door looks very real. From where I stand, I feel the pulse of another on-off-on-off.”
Language is at play here too. IKEA becomes a dream-manifestation of Sweden, or more specifically in the context of the book, Swedish-culture-within-the-U.S. (“What will the Imaginary Swedes think?” the narrator asks themselves near the end.) As the book progresses, Swedish words and phrases start to appear in the text. Some convey corporate-speak (one phrase translates into “there is a fee for assembling furniture upon delivery”), but at other times individual words in Swedish appear among the English phrases. The effect lends a charged opacity to the lines, especially for non-Swedish speakers. If the showroom bed, in its uncanny merging of public/private, invites lucid dreaming, it also invites a de-territorialized language. This language-play dynamic is one of the many surprising aspects of this daring book. A more conventional approach to the IKEA-and-its-showrooms theme would have been to counter-pose the uniformity of the showrooms with the human individuality of the speaker’s voice. But Cunningham’s book, as the use of quotations from punk and post-punk bands throughout infers, is more punk/Goth/New Wave than solemnly/earnestly humanist. The book powerfully de-naturalizes our moment of “capitalist realism,” but, to its credit, it doesn’t offer a “natural” human world as a ready-made (and easily digestible) corrective. This is a humane work, filled with rage and sorrow, and all the more humane for never backing away from its own expansive weirdness. As the speaker tells us mid-way through, “I have no desire to be clean. Somehow, I will push up and I will open, I will bloom into polygala, polyglot.”
Structurally, the book centers around the layout of an IKEA (and other such stores) with its showrooms based on specific living spaces: the first section in the book is labeled Bedroom, which is followed by Living Room, etc. Most of the sections conclude with a brief “Notes on Text” that can be read as the speaker’s notes to themselves (part of their “training” in the art of lucid dreaming), or as notes for the imagined reader. Each “room” conjures its own style of dream. In “Kitchen,” for example, recipes that include only the items that would appear in a showroom are given (“add ¾ cup of decorative bolts”), and the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show appears, but in a manner that emphasizes his puppetry so that he seems antically possessed within a televised nightmare (“as the hand inside the Swedish Chef / makes a body trip and spill / causes kropps to flood / cue laugh track”). This and other such moments in The House of the Tree of Sores creates an intense Pop Gothicism that reminds me of Alan Resnick’s film shorts Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014) and This House has People in It (2016). Cunningham, like Resnick, focuses on the unease just beneath contemporary commonplaces (the infomercial, the showroom, the children’s program). By turning the familiar a degree or two the image/sound contorts, heightening its latent spectral qualities.
As the speaker makes their lucid-dream journey through the showrooms, others accompany them, and whisper to them. The speaker is haunted by a soldier they had been close to who has died in a war, and is also followed/haunted by two children. “Am I mother?” the speaker asks themselves. “Am I father?” The children themselves are material expressions of this showroom universe, as they make clear to the speaker: “But I suit any space, the boy whines. But I consume up to 30% less energy, the little girl squeals.” The language of consumerism infiltrates the language of family life, making it alien, eerie.
Lastly, we reach the section titled The Tree of Sores. That The Tree of Sores appears after the names of the showrooms implies that it too is a kind of showroom space, but one that no company would ever consciously construct. It’s the Hadean/unconscious zone buried at the conclusion of the showroom journey. Following the anti-linearity of the unconscious, though, two arrows pointing in opposite directions appear at the bottom of the section heading, so that this “tree of sores” is retroactive and not simply proactive in its energies.
Lynch, David. Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores, 1990.
And the tree of sores itself has glimmered momentarily at different points in the text before we ever reach its room/section, including a note early on that tells us the phrase is inspired by a David Lynch painting called “Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores.” The note also includes a quote from Lynch: “My childhood was picket fences, blue skies, red flowers, and cherry trees—but then I would see millions of little ants swarming out of the cherry tree…” That tension between the seemingly idyllic with what’s beneath the idyllic is true for Cunningham’s work too. The house, our cultural/linguistic/environmental/metaphysical house, is diseased and wounded. “I feel the bark of the tree of sores moaning, howling across min face,” the narrator says. “Region after region of fire…Only wildfires and prisons of people.” Beneath the showroom, the open sore.
In these last dissonant pages, the conceptualized binaries we tend to hold in our minds to make meaning of our surroundings briskly erode: planet and human culture, tree and limber, dream and reality principle, “not-I” and “I,” the non-living and the living, the grotesque violence of war and the high-flown language of patriotism. The dichotomies switch back-and-forth like the “on-off-on-off” beat that underlines the book as a whole. “I don’t want to be a goner in this pentagonal interior,” the speaker says, “this cabin of wood, this cabinet of moulded shafts. The staircases of the Grand Foyer, still blocked by bulbous thorn inlays, jagged rifles, intersecting lunettes.” A little later, we’re told, “No awakening, no dreaming…I feel infested, deterritorialized.” What happens when the lucid dream seeps out, becomes no longer dream? And instead of the dreamer interpreting the dream, what if the dream begins to interpret us?
Cunningham’s book is a difficult and challenging one, and I mean that as a compliment. One of the disturbing trends in social media recently (especially Twitter) is to accuse any experimental technique or project as stemming from immaturity, privilege, or elitism (or all three). The marketplace mentality of user-friendliness and clear messaging has so saturated cultural discourse in the States that works that don’t conform to that mentality are sometimes seen as a threat to that familiar seamlessness. The irony, of course, is that arguments for an exclusively marketplace-friendly approach to art and creativity are the actual defenses of privilege/elitism, but Capital in the U.S. is ever-adept at hiding itself. In contrast, The House of the Tree of Sores is exhilaratingly not user friendly. It’s closer to a puzzle box without a singular solution, or a Lament Configuration that, if solved, only opens out to further forms of weirdness. The book concludes on a Bartleby note of withdrawal from the logic of Capital. “I cannot assist,” says the one time assistant manager. “I cannot manage.” The speaker drifts toward peculiar new zones, but the speaker (and the reader) can’t quite see them yet.