Shadow Influences: On Ambient Internet Time and Not Reading David Ohle

I was working on a story recently when the influence of David Ohle became too overwhelming to continue. I was proud to have channeled a writer I admire, but I also felt compromised, like I’d taken his influence too far to see the story through as my own.

The fact that I hadn’t, and still haven’t, read Ohle didn’t temper this feeling. I was communicating the version of me that is drawn toward the Internet’s version of him. After years of consuming Ohle reviews, interviews, essays, blurbs, and Amazon book descriptions, whatever of him I’d absorbed was ready to come out.

Of course you don’t have to read an author’s work to have to deal with their influence. Major figures like Faulkner, Pynchon, Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace cast such a wide shadow that they’re a liability for every writer today. You can’t write except by writing against them, trying to get out from under, not least because even if you haven’t read them your potential readers have, so the risk of having failed to negotiate their influence is unavoidable.

But this is a pre-Internet phenomenon, determined by the massive dents these writers put in literary culture through their books and public personae. Ohle’s case is different. The pride I felt in having written the story that reminded me of him came from how far out there it was, like I’d traveled to the edge of my mind and looked over. My recoil at seeing his half-formed shape on the other side came from fearing that he’d already colonized this outpost without my understanding how, and thus perhaps that there was no virgin territory anywhere.

I first saw the name David Ohle in an online Brian Evenson interview and immediately started splashing around for more of him. I found out from Amazon (he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page) that his books include the cult classic Motorman (1972), the more recent semi-sequels The Age of Sinatra (2004) and The Pisstown Chaos (2008), and something called The Old Reactor,coming out from Dzanc this fall. Everything I gathered about these, and the author-image they conjure, bonded with something in me that I’ve come to call him.

I was drawn to the fact that he’d been an assistant to Burroughs and then gone basically unseen for decades, while Motorman was renowned but out of print. He’s had a renaissance recently, getting credit from a new generation of dark and Weird fiction writers for having fleshed out a dystopia that Amazon describes with phrases like “disease and forced-relocation,”“random vouchers of innocence,” “elective deformation,” and forcible “shifting,” whereby people are “separated from — and then randomly coupled with — one another.” These people have names like Stinkers, Jellyheads, Mr. Bunce, President Ratt, and Reverend Herman Hooker, “an American Divine.” When I let my mind wander to this world, I enthusiastically picture insectoid sex acts mashed up with El Topo style violence, mediated by semi-comedic American rituals and authoritarian cults.

Taking all of my Internet reading together, I’ve probably consumed as many words about Ohle’s body of work as that body actually contains. I’ve touched his stuff enough to have its residue in me, but haven’t yet culled the time and attention to go there for real, despite my sense that the world I’m working to develop in my fiction shares a map with his.

This is par for the course with Internet reading: it takes up my time without my setting that time aside for it, and fills me with images and thoughts that I don’t perceive going in, like radiation. When I read a book or watch a film, it’s usually after I’ve finished work for the day and am fueled by relief. I can then dedicate my attention fully to communing with someone else, making linear progress through a single text.

Internet reading, on the other hand, comes only before a work session, and it’s a part of the day I try to minimize while it tries to maximize itself. I open my laptop and open the document I want to work on, and then, in a trance, I drift online to float above my work until I’m ready to be in it. This kind of reading is always transitional, fueled by addictive repetition, guilt, fear, and the nervous patience of waiting for emails.

The mass of other people’s work that makes up my path through these Internet sessions is a space between the total openness of the outside world, where I’m one of billions, and the closed chamber where I’m alone with whatever I’m working on, sealed in with the Internet-blocking Freedom app as soon as I manage to activate it. It’s a warm and nutrient-rich bath between the beach of daily life and the cold, black water of actual writing.

I used to punish myself for the amount of time I spent like this, wishing I could just sit down at my laptop and start typing on cue. But lately, thinking about Ohle and dozens of others who have filtered into me in this way, I realize that this time, however inefficient, is crucial.

It’s an outgrowth of the hours I spent in the video store in my hometown in the 90s, when I was four through fourteen. I’d wander the aisles after school way before I was allowed to see anything over PG, and worship whatever looked most potent — Friday the 13th, Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Body Double, Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers. I’d take down the cardboard boxes and sit on the floor with them, staring at the photos of bloody, burnt, dazed, or half-naked people on the back, and, above all, at the R rating (or, in the case of Wide Sargasso Sea, Henry and June, Showgirls, and Tokyo Decadence, NC-17, letters so powerful I had to close my eyes while whispering them). I’d try to imagine how these photos might come to life over the course of the film’s stated running time to produce a total vision so far beyond my grasp, like an afterlife.

These photos became source material for a pretend movie that has swollen into the inner grotesque that defines my thinking still. Lynch and Cronenberg were primary influences long before I’d seen their work or absorbed any cultural baggage about its import. I spent my childhood impersonating them in a kind of hero worship that was also my first inkling about how inner worlds can be let out and developed in reality.

The source of these videos’ power was their taboo. When I actually saw them at fifteen, I loved some and was bored by others, but none held the infinite allure they once did. Today, because of time pressure and distraction, Ohle’s Amazon page is taboo in a similar sense: with access to an obscene amount of media, the fantasy of working my way through all of it (of reading “everything I need to”) is both humiliating and erotic, like groveling before a master who beats me down every time I try to stand. So I obsess over a body of work like Ohle’s and dream of the day when I’ll be able to give myself to it and nothing else, just as I dream of creating something on that scale.

Until then, I churn through articles and read pieces of what others have to say, ruminating on all this pulp until my mind starts to write his books in lieu of reading them. Synopses become premises.

In these online minutes or hours, I drift along with my mouth open, absorbing whatever’s floating by, never chewing or even swallowing, just letting it all seep pre-chewed into me. The impurity of this content makes it far more consumable than anything pure, even a little bit of which is filling. This brine of Netflix and Amazon and iTunes, reviews and interviews, recaps and best-of lists and hostile and giddy comment threads, fills me with growths that are half-me and half-everyone. The basement of the video store, with its off-limits porn room hidden behind a door that was meant to look like a wall, was a primitive version of the same phenomenon.

Negotiating this kind of influence is not the same as taking on the giants of the culture I’m trying to find my place in, first stepping into and then crawling out of their shadows. Theirs is a rigorous, daytime influence. Ohle, who exists in shadow rather than casting one, exerts a less pure but perhaps even more profound influence over me, as it’s his residue, not Faulkner’s or Pynchon’s, that’s dripping from me when I finally get offline and down to work.

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