Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pontypool Changes Everything

Words are weapons in Tony Burgess’ work. His novel Pontypool Changes Everything is much like its predecessor The Hellmouths of Bewdley in that it presents the everyday world as a dreamlike horror show where everything has degenerated into a terrifying abstract. Burgess heightens the metaphor (or obliterates it) by stating that the very concept of language is to blame. A virus has infected the language centers of the brain (or, as he says, language itself) to eat away at our reason and our sense of self. This is an expression of the Uncanny, because it is what we recognize in the world that makes it frightening.

Burgess presents Pontypool Changes Everything to the reader with apology, stating in an afterword to a later edition that it was written without the intention of being read, which makes Burgess a man who built a bomb with no intention of it ever going off. This is similar to the dedicatory statement that Mark Z. Danielewski attributes to his alter ego Johnny Truant at the beginning of House of Leaves, which promises the reader: “This is not for you.” After this introduction we are also given the dedication of Zampanó, the supposed author of the work, who asks simply: “Muss es sein?” ("Must it be?") Zampanó seems to be an avatar of scholarly pomposity for Danielewski, who delights in his creation’s penchant for pretentious quotation, often offering quotes in their original language with no translation (usually the translations are offered by the editorial voices credited with writing the copious footnotes that eat away at every chapter).

But even in this manner Danielewski, like Burgess, is using language to remind us that what we don’t know about what we think we do know is far greater and more terrifying than what we don’t know we don’t know because we never knew to know.

Both writers, in their own way, are using language as an expression of the Uncanny. While Burgess uses our concept of language to demonstrate this, Danielewski uses the words themselves to create  perilous patterns across the page. In House of Leaves the actual book is a weapon and not just the idea of one.

Burgess refines his concept beyond the abstract in Pontypool, the screen adaptation he wrote of his original novel. He rightly deems himself the perfect person to write this adaptation because of his absolute willingness to throw out the source material and start over. In so doing he creates a vision of the story that is even clearer in its depiction of the Uncanny. The film even builds to a startling moment of hope when Grant Mazzy delivers a speech that reminds us that if language is our construct, then we decide its shape, and in that way it is no different from our fear.

Even while Danielewski is trying to ensnare us with word-traps on the page, he provides us with this insight as well. Those who enter the house of leaves’ dark passages seeking monsters to hunt or be hunted by find them easily enough, while those who hold to humor and hope are offered at least the possibility of salvation.

In the final moments of Pontypool Mazzy repeats the mantra “we were never makin’ sense”, reminding us that words can’t destroy us any more than they can save us, because all language is itself a lie regardless of whether or not we’re actually saying what we think we mean. Kill is Kiss, or might as well be, but none of that really matters. We should laugh at the darkness and look out for U-boats until the final reel.

Pontypool becomes the full expression of the book it re-writes in adaptation. Like Felix Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Burgess invented a bomb with Pontlypool Changes Everything with absolute indifference (to hear him say it) as to its impact. And like Hoenikker, when he later creates something that is meant to be more beneficial, he actually refines it into something with much more destructive capability. I should probably clarify that Burgess felt Pontypool was a more responsible story in regard to the audience, not necessarily “beneficial” to them. He felt he’d written something with the audience and story in mind. Hoenikker’s subsequent creation of Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle is no less indifferent than his contribution to the development of the bomb, but the purpose of the substance was not weaponization. That’s the extent of the comparison, I should say.

But the elegant irony that Pontypool is made with less apology and is much more skilled in its world destruction is what I’m getting at. While the film ends with a gloriously defiant monologue, it also ends with what we can assume is a nuking and/or firebombing of the radio station from which they are broadcasting. While Mazzy has learned the secret to defeating the virus, his exclamations are misinterpreted as manifestations of the symptomatic aphasia the virus causes. This is the ultimate ironic tragedy of the film. While Mazzy’s character lives and dies better in the film than in the book, his more altruistic incarnation bears the burden of being the one that brings the world down with him.

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