Damnation by Janice Lee: A Study in Temporality*


Have you ever read/watched/listened to a book/movie/song that really annoyed you because it challenged what you felt to be aesthetically pleasurable? And then you kept on reading/watching/listening and you realized there was a beauty in the formerly perceived grotesquerie? Which caused you to not only find said book/movie/song actually awe-inspiring but also caused you to recalibrate your whole sense of aesthetics in general?

That’s kind of what Janice Lee’s Damnation will do to you. Or not “do” to you, so much as endlessly “be” to you.

Damnation is based on films by Bela Tarr—which I tried to watch on YouTube. I guess because I’ve seen similar work like Solaris and Russian Ark (a film made up of one 96-minute take), I wasn’t really struck by the snippets of Tarr’s work I found online—however, I think one needs to be in a certain mood (or altered state?) to fully appreciate his work.

Anyway, Tarr is known for his long takes. In the introduction to Lee’s Damnation (since Tarr has a movie of the same name), Jon Wagner writes, “No technique of cinema is as royal and as risky as the Long Take—audacious in its promise of unified time and space, terrifying, as Lee apprehends, in what that might imply… The present, perpetually inaccessible, is always a déjà vu composite of an already seen that we are trying to reflect into a future. The future of things past. That instancy, that intimacy we imagine as a presence is never really here, but only there [Wagner’s italics] in a co-temporal, non-linear estrangement of the pure Presence we desire” (12).

After I read this intro, I was stoked to read on. I was expecting long rolling sentences without punctuation/end that would lull/mesmerize me into the terrifying Present. That’s the style, I imagined, that would best serve as a written version of a cinematic long take. The writer László Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr’s collaborator, has works written in this Robbe-Grillet-ish style.

Instead, Lee greets us with vignettes/what I would analogize to scenic cuts in film—instead of long takes:

To a small village, at the end of winter, comes a mysterious package addressed to no one. Wrapped in brown paper and then underneath wrapped once again with a shroud, several members of the community open the package to reveal a strange looking copy of The Holy Bible. The book is bound in tattered black leather, and the mail sorter who holds it in his hands describes a sudden sense of wretched misery when he attempts to open the book. (19)

After this horrific Holy Bible (aka “the Word,” as it’s referred to later in the book) arrives, everyone in the village is inundated with the noise of “the repercussions from hearing the words” (19). So, it’s not the words themselves that terrify the town, but the deafening silence that these words leave. The words are never even cited anywhere in the text—the “content” doesn’t matter—it’s the impressions of the form that create the haunting/elusive Present.

This realization helped me enter Lee’s text differently. At first I found the multiple undeveloped characters/stories in this village (a machinist, lovers, a mail sorter, a doctor, a bartender, horses, dogs)—just that—undeveloped (and therefore annoyingly boring). Sure, there were moments of spectacular beauty amidst the boring/nothing—like the 46-item list of sensation between two lovers:

01. The smell of fresh rain on her hair
02. The feeling of the slight dampness of her hair on his nose
03. The feeling of smelling, looking at, and feeling her hair simultaneously in the rain
04. The feeling of being rained on while with her
05. The experience of waltzing with her in the rain… (52)

In his afterword, Jared Woodland states Lee’s “fragmented mode of telling makes incompleteness the dominant narrative condition… Narrative does not redeem” (144). So if the long take in film shows us how constructed our realities are, then the undeveloped narrative is our “modernist determination to restructure reality [mediating] the message into nothing but the medium” (Wagner 13). I think to translate the filmic long take into short, undeveloped prose (rather than bloated, run-on sentences) is a smart new look at staging the temporal.

I think one of my favorite parts (of many) in Damnation is one of the Machinist scenes (which I’ll leave you with to whet your appetite for more so you can go out and get the book). The repercussion of the utterance of the Word is, again, no words—taking the form of percussive rain—and the noise of that rain mixes with hackneyed song lyrics and vague recollections (I think Lee based this section on a scene from Tarr’s Damnation):


damnation scene


He could remember when the rain, like a sleepless assassin, would drown out everything else. You could barely hear yourself think … He used to love listening to music, before the noise, but it was now impossible to distinguish one sound over another….He couldn’t remember if it had been raining or not but he imagined that it was and now he could hear the rain matching the tone of his mother’s intermittent sobs, the radio still playing the sad melody. To him, it seemed the woman’s beautiful voice was translating the scene in his kitchen that night, was watching them like an angel and was singing for and about them:

It’s finished, it’s all over… over

And there won’t be another

It won’t be good ever again…

What can you do?

You lose your words,

Yet you cannot go.
It’s been over long ago.
It’s good there’s Shangri-La,
Good to know
I won’t be here long…

The sad saxophone: crying, the sound: beautiful and distant.



*Note to readers: For my book reviews, I may pick books that are not overtly feminist. However, I think in choosing to review books by women- and/or trans-identified people, I am choosing to promote writers that will hopefully change the overall (demographic) landscape of literary discussion, which, in my view, is predominantly male. In their essay “Numbers Trouble,” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young found that “between 1960 and 1999 women make up an average of 22% of writers [in mixed-gender anthologies].” Also, the VIDA Count is updating yearly stats showing that women are woefully underrepresented in the literary arts. Hopefully through this series/this blog, we can promote gender equality and great literary works at the same time.

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