2014 was a year of heavy introspection for me. Easing out of a mid-20’s crisis, I began to examine every aspect of my identity. I was dissatisfied with myself as an artist and the direction my work was heading, the aimless way in which I was haphazardly consuming whatever media was most accessible, and even superficial issues such as my appearance. It was a period of voluntary isolation, and what resulted was a wealth of discovery, of self and otherwise. I thought about what was important, reassessed who I was as a person, and decided to focus strictly on content that challenged me. I voraciously explored films I had missed, began to avidly read carefully chosen work by a small selection of authors, and as a result my taste in all other cultural facets began to change. Quiet evenings at home spent busily working on a new artistic identity, and writing when possible, led to a deeper appreciation of music that i had previously only casually enjoyed. With time my attention narrowed mainly on Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, and their dual-genius of being both musical legends and literary figures. Soon my fixation widened to include Michael Gira of Swans, and after researching him and his various projects, I was eager to read his 1994 book, “The Consumer.”
In March 2015 I obtained a copy of his book. At the time, I could only find one or two copies online for a little over $100, which I hoped would be worth the expense. I had read some customer reviews and a sample passage online, but I had no idea what I was in for. As important as Gira and his book have become to me, it was definitely worth much more than that, as I would later realize.
In a single word, this book is: transgressive. It deals with incredibly dark aspects of consciousness, and it does much more than merely touch on or present them in a conventional, easily digestible way. Gira places us into disgusting, unsettling situations and forces us to linger there and absorb the palpable filth, which he describes ad nauseum in textured layers of adjectives, so that we may regard the abject realism of it all, no matter how abstract the setting. The book begins with its heaviest, darkest themes: drug use, rape, pedophilia, incest, etc, perhaps as if to break down the reader straight away before taking him or her into the less recognizable peripheral territories of its nightmarish settings. Self-hatred and body horror are the book's dominant themes, and simultaneously permeate the majority of content. It becomes clear the stories within are not a celebration of these themes, and while there isn’t a sense of Gira delighting in the shocking nature at the expense of the reader, it does very much read as his own depressive rumination over humanity’s true horrors. Lengthy depictions traumatically assault the reader with an overkill of details, piled upon each other like rotting garbage sealed inside a bag and left to fester. It is difficult to imagine the depths in which Gira immersed himself while fully realizing these hellish vignettes onto the page, but through his labor they exist for the rest of us as a portal to an alternate reality, one that no one else could have created.
At first, it was vexing to get through long readings of the book. Each story left me with a nausea that worsened the longer I went on, but eventually the shock wore off. I acclimated to Gira’s language and mood, and began to relish the immensity of description, the surrealism, and unpredictability. I question if the book’s scenes had been derived from life experiences, were drug hallucinations, or were solely imagined. Perhaps it is better without knowing, although the writing’s impact couldn't be diminished by an explanation. After finishing, I was a bit stunned, and surprised how much it had affected me, and couldn’t recall another book that had shook me up as much. Previous to “The Consumer,” I had been reading George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Haruki Murakami, etc., and was totally ignorant the transgressive literature that had most likely informed Gira’s writing to some degree, or at least categorically aligned with. After looking for comparative works online, and having a few conversations with friends, I soon discovered other writers and works like Comte de Lautréamont’s “Les Chants de Maldoror”, J.G. Ballard’s “The Atrocity Exhibition,” Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye,” Albert de Routisie (Louis Aragon)’s “Irene’s Cunt,” Henri Barbusse’s “Hell,” Jean Genet, and Dennis Cooper.
In just a year and a half, I have already attributed a great deal of nostalgia and importance to this book. It was very literally a portal for me into the underworld of literature that had always been there unbeknownst to me, existing just beyond reach. “The Consumer” has become very dear to me. Although it dredges through the grimmest settings, I can’t help but think of this book in the fondest way. It stands as a milestone in my life for the time when I discovered many important pieces of literature, and also continues to be a source of inspiration for my own writing. Thank you, Michael Gira, for writing “The Consumer,” and also, Henry Rollins, for publishing it.
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