LoveSexTravelMusik – Rodge Glass
Freight Books – 2013
LoveSexTravelMusik is Rodge Glass’ first collection of short stories after two novels, a biography and a graphic novel. The idea behind the collection is similar to the concept of Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall. While Morrison was interested in studying the impact of the expansion of shopping centres through a combination of fiction, fact and urban legend, Glass seeks to measure the consequences on individuals of another iconic transformation in modern societies: the spread of low-cost travel, which generalised “flights for the price of a family meal,” as one narrator puts it. The book, subtitled “Stories for the EasyJet Generation,” opens on a map pinned with the destinations visited by its characters, a kind of geographical table of contents mapping places as varied as Toronto, Bulgaria and Uruguay.
The opening story, “A Weekend of Freedom,” introduces a recurring character in the collection; a white middle-class young man facing an unexpected event (here, unemployment) that leads him to question his whole life, and to seek an answer to crisis through travel. Stuck in a life ruled by conformism and routine, the character embarks on a “lads-only going away party,” in “some hole in Eastern Europe.” There, they feel like they are “on a different planet. A better planet, worth living on, where guys like [them] were kings,” relishing in drugs, drinks and partying while showing little consideration for the locals. This feeling of empowerment is set in stark contrast with the narrowness of life at home, as one of the men explains:
I work hard, said Smith. I live in a boring suburb. I look at TEETH for a living – when I was a kid I wanted to be Superman, you know? Now I can’t even see my kids without written consent. So if I want to come and have fun, no one’s gonna make me feel bad. I don’t hurt anybody.
The protagonist is the only one seemingly aware of the weight of history in this touristic place, shown when he admires a Church erected to celebrate the liberation of the country from the Ottoman Empire. He considers how “never again, thought the labourers, as they heaved brick upon brick, stone upon stone, would this place be ruled by outsiders.” Through the description of stallholders selling souvenirs of “every dead regime who’d conquered this country and sucked it dry,” Glass seems to suggest that tourism might be a vector of symbolic violence towards local populations.
Allusions to the cultural impact of tourism are disseminated throughout the collection, with many references to globalisation. The most relevant examples of this are found in a series of texts, entitled “Orientation #1,” “#2,” and “#3”. These experimental stories read like a crossing between fictional narratives and parody samples from travel guides detailing different landmarks to visit. The first takes us to Copenhagen, home of Andersen, and shows us the “Tivoli orchestra, who are playing the theme tune to Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” A footnote justifies the presence of the Americanised version of the fairy tale, which originally featured “cut out tongues” and “eternal damnation,” by stating that “fans of the Disney version wouldn’t recognise it.” In another story set in Italy, people wearing Mickey and Minnie Mouse costumes can be seen walking past what looks like a pro-Palestine demonstration.
While these insights into the political dimension of tourism is relevant in these interesting pieces, Glass is more convincing when embedding it within more intimate narratives, as in “The Hips on Planet Latino.” The story takes place in a Tunisian bar that welcomes a specific clientele, a new generation in a country inhibited by stasis and passivity, “children of quiet religious men, who’d grown up on these streets and now wore sunglasses at night as a statement directed at their fathers.” Not only men but also women “who smoked, laughed and drank with the men like they were staking a flag in newly-discovered land they’d been inching towards for centuries;” people “who shunned tradition and spent their only day off in full-on rebellion.” It is this young circle, eager for change that would eventually “put down their drinks, rise up and wake the whole Arab world.”
Amongst this crowd stands the main character, a man fascinated with the curvy figure of an oriental dancer in a video clip. As he gets gradually hypnotised by the woman’s body, he ponders about the transcendental meaning of Isabella’s (as he called her) “hips jutting, grinding, bouncing and swaying harmlessly in the ether:”
He thought that, really, these hips were hips to finally crack the Middle East peace process. To unite the fucking world, you know? When you considered the issue properly, these hips (he looked), these hips, and all hips like them – or even not like them at all! – were, essentially (he kept looking), all of human history. Perfected. Sculpted. Condensed. They were the universe, these hips.
Similar retreats into imagination are common in this collection, such as in “There’s Always Arizona,” centred around a call-centre worker about to get sacked after swearing at a customer. On his way to work, he takes refuge in his mp3 player, as so many other passers-by “cocooned in their imaginations,” and listens to a song that successively empowers him and leaves him bitter as he realises that he has misunderstood the lyrics, that actually sound “like a kind of defeat.” Music acts as a way out of the real, a way of becoming someone else altogether:
The first notes open a valve in your chest that releases all the pressure inside your body, a valve that usually you can’t even find, never mind manipulate. It moulds you into a new shape, the shape of a taller, thinner man, who’s standing upright. Or a smaller, fatter one, reclining in a Jacuzzi, somewhere tropical. This morning the valve works fast and as the song builds you feel brighter, all that pressure seeping through your clothes into the cold air around, spilling onto the pavement, the road. You breathe the pressure out, up, up, into the grey, away and over the tops of the tenements, thinking that maybe you were strong.
Unsurprisingly music turns out to be an unsatisfactory escape: “what you need is not old words; what you need is Arizona.” This character reappears in “59 Places to Fuck in Arizona,” where the American state, of which he confessed in the first story he knew nothing, is omnipresent in his mind, as the source of his fantasies, both sexual and existential. Unemployed and stuck at home, with enough time to meticulously record the daily routines of his partner – such as how long it takes her to get ready for work (37 minutes) – his only way of dealing with boredom is fantasising about a life he does not have, in places he will never go.
Were he able to go, he would understand that, no matter how far one travels, there remains one place difficult to escape; one’s own mind and history. “Do All Things we Love,” one of the most original stories, is a contemporary allegory of suffering and healing. Switching between the perspectives of its two characters, this beautiful fable is about a wandering old man in Toronto, who suddenly realises he is abundantly bleeding from an unidentified wound. Ghost-like, looking like he’s “hoping to get picked up by aliens and carried back to Mars,” the man meets “a thirty-something angel bearing Kleenex,” willing to help him wipe the blood off his body, despite her fear of contamination:
Sometimes I think all Toronto goes into gamer mode, imagining hitmen, superzombies and world-threatening epidemics on every blocks. Turns out, when it comes to small holes on the chest of strangers, I’m exactly the fuckin same as all the other dumbasses in the city.
As they get to know each other, the man explains how he came here to keep a pledge made to his late wife: “he’d promised her he wouldn’t sit around the house and wait to join her.”
Mourning emerges as a common theme in LoveSexTravelMusik, as in “Liberation Street,” in which a woman tries to come to terms with her husband’s death by considering flirting with younger men. Addressing her dead husband, she wishes he had been less good to her, wishing she had had from him “a chilly comment here, an infidelity there, pregnant sighs, broken promises,” so she could be more like these other widows who “never had a genuine compliment in their lives, so they don’t have to notice the difference.” To avoid her sorrow, she escapes into imagining the life of the young man whom she feels could comfort her:
Every minute I spend thinking about this bullshit is a minute I don’t spend missing you, which makes it time well spent: what are my other options? Reading about the voracious sexual appetites of German prostitutes, ordering cocktails from the local eye candy and trying not to bawl like a child. I won’t let that happen, Jonathan. If I cry, even once, I won’t survive it.
Most characters in these stories share this longing to escape. In “The Monogamy Optician,” a man on a bus trip in Uruguay with his girlfriend realises he loves her like a sister more than like a lover and considers not going back home, so eager to stay that he could “wander back to the field and hang out with the cows for a few days.” The woman in the heartrending “I Know my Team and Shall not be Moved,” needs to run away from her abusing senile father who refers to her as a “waste of space,” thinking he is talking to his more successful son.
Inserted between each story as a motto for the collection is a quote by French writer André Gide, translated into different languages, that suggests travelling is not about reaching a given goal, but rather that travelling is the goal; confronting individuals with fleeting but meaningful encounters. The fourteen stories gathered here are as many journeys through the human mind, a perpetual quest for meaning for characters who, regardless of destination, find themselves stranded in the confines of their mind. With LoveSexTravelMusik, Rodge Glass has produced a compelling set of tales for our time, tales of displacement and misplacement in a contemporary world where distances between countries have never been so short, gaps between individuals so wide and the cracks within the self so great.
LoveSexTravelMusik has been longlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.