Taking tea with the gods: Baret Magarian’s binary realities
London has always been the smoky city of doppelgängers and pacts made with the devil. Marlowe wrote the first Faust there, between the late 1500’s and early 1600’s; Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll’s experiments and Mr Hyde’s depravities there; Oscar Wilde hung the sulphureous portrait on which the unbridled vices of Dorian Gray were recorded on the walls of a London residence; George Bernard Shaw, almost foreseeing the psychological mechanisms of the society of the spectacle, would dust off the Greek myth of Pygmalion; as if someone had revealed to him that in the new millennium youtube and tik tok would be populated with ephemeral idols, created from thin air, and assigned the expiry date of a month, a day, an hour. In 1939, accompanied towards his final session of self-analysis by an increasingly charitable dose of opiates, the great master of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud, died in London.
And London is the illusionistic theatre in which Baret Magarian stages his novel The Fabrications. I referred in my introduction to the literary material that I believe Magarian may have been inspired by or which in any case underlies his narrative mythopoeia, his central idea, his symbolic representation. A proper writer lives synchronously in the folds of an authorial collective unconscious and floats on the alluvial basin of past models. The Fabrications is a rich and complex novel because it takes into account the creative methods of previous narrators, confronts them and manages to extricate itself from them by proposing a new solution to the problem of perspective, updated to the terrible times we are living through, and their devastating loneliness.
At the start of the novel two friends of differing ages meet either by chance or design (it is not clear which). Daniel Bloch is a mature writer at the height of his success, tired of writing novels that are too popular; Oscar Babel, his young friend, is someone who can hardly even be defined, a draftsman with no vocation, a nonentity that lives like a shadow among shadows projected on a screen, in an old-fashioned, redundant cinema, of which he is the projectionist. The narrative mechanism seems to be triggered by magic at the intersection of the existence of these two men. Daniel decides to solve his creative crisis by writing – and then recording on magnetic cassettes – a story about his friend Oscar, and, in a kabbalistic way, Oscar’s life utterly changes, according to the dictates of Daniel, who either seems to represent a kind of magician or the embodiment of a person whose identity grows ever more febrile. Daniel’s existential crisis arises from the departure from his life of his wife Natalie, who has subjected him to the greatest possible humiliation: a kind of symbolic castration: she flew into the arms of her father-in-law, Father Saturno who, either owing to greed or lust, wasn’t able to stifle the act of consummation that devastates his son. Old Oedipal stories come back to the surface in our molten society, in which each and every taboo burn like the tip of a well-dried cigar, only to be frantically updated on the digital pages of youporn.
Oscar is beautiful and naive, he represents a clean sheet of paper which everyone would like to write on, the malleable clay that everyone would like to mold. Oscar Babel. A programmatic name, a flashing indication of the most coveted goal: success, money, globalized, Babelic Hollywood, in whose realm everyone longs to make their dreams come true. It is important to note that the two protagonists live in an existential dimension in which proto-technological tools are still used: Oscar changes the reels of film which have yet to be replaced by digital files, Daniel records on old cassettes his musings that grow increasingly detached from reality. The tapes are filled with authentic suffering and illusory hope. But at this point in the novel the Digital Age predictably appears, in the figure of Mephistopheles / Ryan Rees, a man literally without a face, without features, possessed as he is by the demonic drive to perfect the faces of others, a plastic surgeon of public relations. Rees is a ruthless producer of successful stars, a subliminal influencer, who perfectly embodies the state-of-the-art spirit of the media machine and its ability to attract the attention of the masses where the spotlight is focused on the paper tiger of the moment, on the fake idol soon to be turned into a sacrificial lamb when his popularity drops inexorably. Rees casts Oscar as a papier-mâché messiah, of well-assembled and glittering pixels.
“This was a real challenge… anyone could take a mindless idiot and turn him into a celebrity, but taking a nobody and turning him into a prophet required exceptional levels of propaganda, cunning, inventiveness. Only he was up to the task. If Ryan Rees could have created another Jesus Christ, pulled him out of thin air, then Ryan Rees could have done anything, literally. ” (p. 118)
A new Jesus Christ Superstar seems to be reborn, although the makeover calls for him to be presented as an expert on Sanskrit and a scholar of tantra. The musical is staged by Ryan Rees and his media contortions, which include, for example, the desecration of Westminster Cathedral with the high-definition projection of Oscar’s face on its sacred facade. The selected metaphorical code leads the narrative into new meaningful settings. The temple that the new messiah turns upside down is the commodified one of art, in which the faeces of famous fashion models are photographed as masterpieces. For the Sermon on the Mount, a stage is set up in Kensington Park, in front of a crowd of three thousand people. But Oscar does nothing but study Daniel’s reflections by heart, like a ventriloquist, giving Bloch a mouthpiece – like Christian repeating the courtly words of love scripted by Cyrano under Roxane’s balcony – and speaking to a paying and suggestible audience. But the gist of the speech is more Dionysian than sentimental.
“In other words, our perceptions function correctly during the sex act. Imagine what would happen if we could apply that intensity of perception to normal conscious life. We would be aware of the whole creation as if it were a vast lover’s body stretched out in front of us, ready to offer riches that too often we fail to see. Would we then be able to answer the call of others, be they friends or strangers? ” (p. 433)
In the resulting maddening confusion that is a fusion of Osho Rajneesh and Wilhelm Reich, it is easy for Oscar’s words to be misunderstood. Hey presto, Kensington becomes Woodstock. People begin to undress and copulate first behind the trees, then in front of everyone, letting themselves succumb to the wildest orgy. Daniel’s reflection on the strength of physical love as a catalyst of powerful universal energies is debased through the interpretation of the crowd: Oscar Babel is the man of the moment and therefore his speeches instead of leading to meditation, incite, without him being aware of it, the satisfaction of immediate desire. There is no challenge to the status quo, it is merely consumption for the sake of consumption, or prostitutional satisfaction, even between husband and wife, perhaps.
The culmination of Oscar’s success marks his moment of crisis and the renunciation of the golden world of the Hilton Hotel and its ultra-equipped apartments, not without the violent opposition of Ryan Rees who cannot give up the contract that provides for the withdrawal of Oscar’s soul. But Oscar has found a real love in the figure of Najette, who convinces him, through a sincere seduction a real desire for reciprocity, to abandon the avatar and go back to being a man. Those who expect a scene of unbridled sex as in any cheap novel of the last thirty years will be disappointed: Magarian has the good taste and sensitivity only to suggest, to intimate.
But who is Oscar Babel? The Christological relationship built between the two protagonists seems to abandon the spectacular side of mystification, to offer itself as a profound interpretative key of The Fabrications. As Daniel withdraws into himself through a process of fasting in search of the Essential, in a progressive reduction that becomes physical, so Oscar expands into the world in a dangerously popular dimension that could nail him to a messianic status quo that cannot be resolved except with the supreme sacrifice. Daniel / John the Baptist must decrease for Oscar / Jesus Christ to increase. Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui. The novel’s ending clarifies this dualistic polarity and bonding in a completely surprising – yet completely logical – way.
The constant search for a point of balance between individual interiority and the jumble of characters that follow one another, in banal and enriching encounters, is one of the characteristic notes of Baret Magarian’s narrative. The author’s magic lantern, expertly regulated, from the point of light of the confessional soul projects around the pale and colorful figures, united and divided in the tragicomic parade of reality. Mikhail Bulgakov was the master of this art, the latter’s The Master and Margarita unsurprisingly cited at the beginning of the novel with a quotation from it. I am convinced that the Russian writer’s is the greatest psychedelic novel in modern fiction. Magarian stylistically takes up this psychedelic paint that alters the realistic data of description and makes them liquid, iridescent, kaleidoscopic, so that reality sheds its objective connotation to become more and more visionary.
Thus, in the description the poles of the novel oscillate between the aesthetic taste of Decadentism and the harsh, abrasive one of cyberpunk, as if Oscar Wilde and J.G. Ballard were taking a hand-held walk together under the moon among the hovels and skyscrapers of the Isle of Dogs.
I focused my attention on the two protagonists (perhaps only one?). But The Fabrications is also an ensemble piece, capable of bringing out the depths of each character without relegating him, after brief tantalising hints, to the shadows. This is the great lesson of the Russian novel, from Dostoevsky to Sologub, to Bulgakov, in fact. The dropouts are not forgotten and take to the stage, under the lights cast by God. Each supporting actor has his own grotesque and bitter streak in this book, from Grindel, Oscar’s landlord, to the antique dealer Webster, to the homosexual fortune teller Alexei Sopso, and each reveals a defeated soul in search of a desperate tenderness. As the director Alastair Layor literally does, everyone metaphorically sets their home, their passions, their aspirations on fire, only to regret this a moment later. Layor subsequently stumbles upon liberating tears in the form of a chance meeting with a woman. But this woman, named Lilliana, rather than opening horizons of extravagance, offers the solidity of an understanding and domestic life. Well, in the variable world of Magarian, how long that life will last for remains unknown … Even for Najette who seems to be the only safe landing place to anchor Oscar’s fleeting personality in, affection is quickly jeopardised, when panic in the forest near a lake and the unconscious calls of inner dissolution become invincible. We see and hear things that shake the identity seismically. Oscar rushes to Daniel Bloch’s bedside. Bloch has by now been eaten alive by anorexia and battered by medical tubes, but the latter still has the strength to voice his desire for an impossible purity.
“I want… to exist in the void, away from human secretions. Spare me all the confusion… at least let me take tea with the gods. I don’t ask for much, my Cinderella dream – becoming vapor, drifting in space. ” (p. 495)
Oscar Babel has also renounced the world and reveals in this definitive conjunction his nature as an envelope, as a golem, as a medium, as a psychic projection. He finds at his old address a package that contains a music box and letters Daniel had sent him. The delirium manifests itself as the literal plan and outline of the last few months of his life during the summer that constitutes the novel’s time frame. The theory of existential relativity.
Past, future, present: terms that had lost their meaning, as if one inhabited an observation point wherein time curved, where earthly perspectives, set aside, revealed their local and restricted dimensions. Oscar was in a different place now. He saw everything. He saw beyond the corners and barriers of linear and sequential time. If he backed away enough, he thought, he could see everything. He was listening to a voice from the past that was the voice of the future, in the house that contained his now transformed past. But at that point the wonder vanished, and his thoughts turned dark. If everything he had become during the summer had already been foreseen – had already happened (in a sense) in Bloch’s head – didn’t that mean that he had never possessed free will? (p. 540)
The ending is admirable because it does not attempt to tie up all the loose ends, but leaves them unresolved in accordance with a deliberate narrative strategy, wherein the remnants of a kind of stream of consciousness emerge, some phosphoric traces of memory, and then … nothing. Oscar, recalling Margarita’s flight over Moscow on her witch’s broom, rises up in a hot air balloon above the chaotic vanities of London that appear insignificant from above. Reaching the purest sky he deliberately unhooks himself and falls headlong.
Oscar falls into Daniel’s center and Daniel absorbs Oscar into himself. Within the transition that separates one line of text from another, one resolves into the conception of the other, into his death, and into his definitive liberation.