I’m a fan of the film Begotten. Accordingly, I was drawn to Gary J. Shipley's You With Your Memory Are Dead from the first moment I read about it. The publisher’s description reads:
“When Mr. Shipley first shared with me his desire, to lock himself in a room with nothing but Begotten playing in a loop cycle, watching its images over and over again for two weeks, isolating himself from any outside influence, taking no interruption or break except to sleep, it seemed like a recipe from the writers of the old testament prophets manipulating and isolating all sense so they may unfettered by the noise of the everyday unearth their experience of the divine; Gary’s approach to making Begotten his own in a ritual of creative-conscious engagement is a decision to no longer passively ‘watch’ Begotten but to enact and digest within his own being a ritual which would remake the film inside his very temple of earth, his body.”
Sounds like fun, right?
Also, turns out the above is part of the book’s preface and attributed to E. Elias Merhige, the guy who made Begotten.
So between that comment, the book’s sinister-beautiful title, and the unsettling cover art (a very choice still from Begotten on VHS), I was totally sold. I put it on order.
It wasn’t until after the book’s arrival that realized You With Your Memory is something like horror-poetry, not prose.
No problem, I thought.
I’m a big fan of horror-poetry, so I dove in.
You With Your Memory Are Dead is 119 pages of free-verse, delivered via chapters broken into countless disjointed sentences. The sentences are descriptions of überdark imagery and phenomena. It's overwhelmingly very abstract. Much of it is difficult to visualize.
Take a look.
“A cloud’s puked black nuptial flight.
A light contaminated with every kind of tension.
A flickering licked dream of atomic waste.”
Hmmm. Had the book degenerated into this kind of thing from a more coherent or relatable start-point, I think the writing would have packed a much harder punch. But the abstracto insanity begins on page one. Here are the opening lines.
“I forget everything.
The un-knowing I knew that became the fetish of me.
And the room I’m in.”
What about Begotten? you might be wondering. How does this book connect to the film?
Some of the writing certainly references Begotten outright. At times it also does so indirectly. Often, though, it doesn't at all. If you’re a fan of the film, you’re liable to feel totally indifferent to this book.
Here's another excerpt.
“When there are shadows but nothing can cast them.
And a human flag made from human skin.
Because I look down at my hands, and my fingers look like the tangled skeletons of eaten mice.”
And from there we’ve got giant birds, “spectral goo,” a partially-melted walrus, and a total lack of context for any of these things.
Yes, it’s all very unsettling.
Dark shit occurring in a vacuum.
I have to admit, I would feel uncomfortable recommending this book to most people. Obviously, it's not for the whole family—or anyone who demands discernible meaning in the things they read. That said, the book is somewhat fascinating, and I do appreciate Shipley's literary risk-taking. You With Your Memory is certainly no Naked Lunch, but today's world is sorely lacking for anything along those lines.
While I'm not sure what I got out of this one, it's at least praiseworthy, on principle, for its raw madness and brazen, fuck-the-establishment aesthetics.
And there are some gems in the mix (to be clear, I did enjoy the partially-melted walrus concept). Here's an interesting segment that struck me as meaningful for reasons I still cannot fathom.
"And my throat clicks and whirs like a camera shutter. And I am swallowing rooms and light, and the brain from my head, and my home in pieces, in geometric chunks. And the universe going down. And I'll need some water."
Also, much of Shipley's writing in You With Your Memory called to mind seedy mondo films from the 1980s. That's another asset in my book.
Surreal images, dark fragments, and literary Rorschach experiments—these things are sometimes worth our time and attention. When handled correctly, they can help us to understand the world and give meaningful form our fears, anxieties, and ailments. I'm still trying to decide if You With Your Memory Are Dead offers any of that.
In the meantime, I would recommend this book to only the most diehard fans of dark, surrealist, and experimental writing.
Here's a long excerpt if you want to check it out.