Library of violence

That winter there was an image on the internet of a late-teen trapped in a frozen family swimming pool, his body half-submerged in ice, the other half attached to the lithe crane that was attempting to lift him out. Someone had printed out the image and stuck it to the mirror of the men’s bathroom on the ground floor of the JFK Memorial Library. Looking at the printout of the picture, as I washed my hands after handling books, I could hear blue tiles and young bones cracking. It gave me the chills.

Here’s the thing about that, though: it shouldn’t have. The printout was timid compared to what I had seen for the previous three months. If, instead, the photograph had documented some sort of added accident, had the crane lifted the teen up and out too fast and in doing so torn his young body in half, leaving the lower half bleeding, the blood solidifying over the ice, then it would have been on par with the images I had been dealing with every day. Photographs – grainy scanned mutilations of their original selves – of the dead in various states of decomposition clogged my computer. Thanks to the two wars going on, there were the decapitated war correspondents to deal with on a daily basis, and surgical shots of sports injuries and close-ups of car crash victims were particularly popular.

These were images I was paid to appraise. They were forwarded to my inbox by Chris Savage, the prodigious and precious professor of the New Media Department at University of Massachusetts. Savage – twenty-seven, PhD finished long ago – was drafting an academic book which the university press imprint was pushing for publication. The study was to look at the distribution and uses of photographic violence on the internet. The book was to be a full-colour production, with hundreds of illustrative plates. Savage, despite the name, couldn’t stomach looking through the images. I was a visiting scholar in his department and, me being Australian, he must have imagined that I had some sort of tolerance to violence – whether through convict blood or feral genes – so he had one of his research assistants source the images for me and I wrote five-hundred word descriptions of each, which were then sent back to Savage to be edited and inserted into his manuscript. Professors often had little to do with the books that they published but Savage didn’t want anyone to know his book was co-authored. I signed a confidentiality agreement and tried to ape Savage’s style.

This was not the sort of work I had in mind when I came to America, effectively doubling as someone else’s eyes. I came to see that I was the optical equivalent of a ghost writer: when I saw an image, I didn’t assess it according to my own standards, but according to those of Savage. Later I may have questioned what I would have made of it on my own but I could not enjoy anything on its face value. Maybe this was the point of university, to train your mind to look at things in a certain evaluative way, in line with your academic instructor’s point of view. In this sense, Savage wasn’t such a bad example to emulate. He had experienced great success. His debut, Amateurs: The Rise of User Content and the Fall of Our Culture, although just as hysterical as the sloppy subtitle suggested, had made Savage a lot of money. Not that he needed it. He’d already hit the big time in the online boom, via San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He’d had a hand in designing the webcam before being recruited to UMass. He was a teenage prodigy – all his west coast work was done by nineteen – and still acted like one. You could not get around the campus without being reminded that he was a bestseller. His office was a shrine to his own achievements. He had his books stacked beside him and newspaper clippings with his name highlighted were stuck to the wall above his computer. He was the only professor at the school who had a photograph next to his office listing.

His success came at a price. At the same time as writing the new book, Savage was attempting to complete a revised edition of Amateurs. The task was near impossible but this was the burden of his subject, always changing so fast that he was forced to constantly upgrade his own theories as if they were computer software. The effect of this overworking meant that something inside of him was muted. His eyes, though knife-sharp, were constantly trying to take in the whole picture, and so rarely expressed anything other than the effort that they were making. Talking to him became like conversing with a security camera: you were aware of the image of you he was constructing and feeding back to other sources. I never felt comfortable around him but that might have been because shortly after starting work with him I had fallen in love with his young wife, Zora Savage.

Zora was the only vision I saw that winter that I didn’t see with Savage’s eyes.

I met Zora at a party held by a fellow research assistant. I was bored – how many times in my life could I be bored at a party? – and roamed through the rooms of the Newton townhouse. Climbing stairs, I heard the muffled sounds of conversation through the floorboards. I didn’t expect to see anyone else on the second floor but there was Zora, in the main bedroom, kneeling in front of a television.

She was going through a cardboard box of hyper-coloured VHS tapes. I had met her once before but we hadn’t been formally introduced. ‘You work for Chris?’ she asked, not even looking up from the cover of the video she was inspecting. I nodded and saw that she could see my reflection in the TV screen.

‘Can you believe these guys kept all their porno on VHS and didn’t convert it onto DVD?’ I could see now that the pink on the cover was the skin of a starlet. Zora opened the case and bent back the spine so she could slip out the cover design. She folded it in four and put it in the pocket of her jacket. She extracted four more covers and stood up. ‘It’s for an artwork.’ I nodded my head.

She asked if I wanted to watch one of the movies. I shook my head. I wasn’t keen to be caught out in this way but she pushed the tape into the machine and pressed play. She sat back on the bed and made room for me next to her. I sat heavy. She watched impassively for a minute or two and then pulled a notepad from her bag, copying down bad dialogue or sketching a dated haircut. I had to hide the fact that I was aroused by what was on screen, pressing down on an erection in the hope that it would go away. I could not escape the purpose of the video and felt ashamed that I couldn’t watch with the same detachment as Zora.

The film finished and she turned and pulled me towards her and kissed me and her mouth was hot and it was a relief to think that something had been stirred in her too. She turned the TV off and told me not to follow her down the stairs.

I sat on the bed for a half-hour and wondered what had happened. When I got back to the party, she had gone home with her husband.

I wanted to see her again. I knew that Zora rented a warehouse in an old industrial lot just outside of the city limits. I went through Savage’s emails to find the address and drove out there to invite myself into her studio. I asked if I could watch her work. She shrugged and went back to her multiple desks. She cut out images from porno mags that she bought by the boxful on eBay and glued them together in weird desexualised collages. Each desk was for a different magazine – Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler. Playboy was the desk she sat at the most, probably because it wasn’t such a hardcore publication. I had the feeling that she actually saw beautiful potential in those bodies and how she could configure them. I don’t think it had anything to do with transgression but, if she didn’t speak for herself, then I shouldn’t speak for her. I wanted to ask her what she was doing and whether it was art but she never called herself an artist and she didn’t seem to sell what she made. She never mentioned the word subversion. She did no interviews and received no reviews. I liked her for that. She seemed to like me because I took an interest in her work but didn’t ask questions.

I went to hold her, but she said, ‘Not yet.’

Despite the improper images that surrounded us, Zora and I had yet to consummate our relationship. She was waiting for her husband to disappear. It wouldn’t be too much longer. At the end of every semester, Savage checked himself into the Rehabilitation Centre for Internet Addicts, a large complex hidden somewhere in the largely technophobic Utah, costing him nearly $40,000 for forty-five days of treatment. His website was taken offline while he was inside. These were drastic measures but he never intended to kick the habit permanently; he needed downtime, before the demands of the next semester. It was like an alcoholic using rehab, not to reform, but to dry out before the next big binge. This was my take on it and Zora said she agreed. She saw it as a waste of money. I was grateful for the scenario, however. Savage was due to be out in the desert at the resort by the end of semester. Zora and I would then have our time together.

In the meantime I had nothing but time. The flow of forwards from Savage was slowing. His research assistant was goofing off on a novel narrated from the points of view of Jack Kennedy’s golf clubs (it was picked up by Faber and Faber). Savage was not around to sign off on my write-ups and the department didn’t want me to get too ahead on my workload. They decided to cut my teaching work completely too. I had been allowed to lecture at the start of the term, and there was talk that I would teach Savage’s New Media class in second semester, freeing up his schedule to work on the book, but these considerations lasted only very briefly. I was deemed unfit for teaching. My thick accent had students complaining. There had been a petition passed around lobbying for a translator, specifically someone to read from my notes in an American voice. I thought it was a joke at first, a weak attempt at Australian humour dressed up as a welcoming gesture, until the petition reached 150 signatures and they had me taken off the class completely. This phonic persecution was odd coming from the Bostonians, with their own distinctive, Irish-imported ass-ents. I had to remind myself that Mad Max had been dubbed in American voices when it was first released in cinemas here.

I refused their offer of an office or time off. I went skulking around the JFK Memorial Library looking for something to match the digital gore to which I had become accustomed. I was told by the front-desk that they did not have the Zapruder footage and I must have been a sick fuck if I thought that they did. There were dark reasons for hiding out in the memorial but the building itself was the thing worth considering. The Chinese-born architect I M Pei had become of great interest to me. Pei had chosen to complete his studies in America because of the entertainers – Buster Keaton and Bing Crosby – he had watched in his native China. Those seemed like good enough reasons to move anywhere – the kinetic rubber limbs of Keaton and the sweet singsong of Crosby.

I no longer knew my reasons for being here. I ignored my love for Keaton and Crosby. It was all cultural shorthand now. I could say akin to everyone else that I liked American films, books, TV, theatre, sports even. But I had originally come to America intending to complete a book-length study on crimes committed by Australians overseas. I had started in Indonesia, but became depressed with the setting. In America I became depressed with the theme.

In 2005, everyone’s eyes had focused in on a pair of twenty-year-old Australians who had robbed a bank in the ski-resort town of Vail, Colorado. The pair had been working in the town for the winter at a local sports goods store, selling ski boots and snowboards. They were well known by the locals. When they robbed the bank they hadn’t taken their name tags off nor did they bother to disguise their accents. They had been arrested for shooting windows with BB guns only a few months earlier and used the same childish weapons to hold up the bank. They were apprehended by Vail police ten minutes after fleeing the scene.

I drove out to Colorado – two twelve-hour days in total – to interview them in a county prison. Just short of the state line, the GPS on the rental car went down and I pulled over to the side of the road. As I waited for it to come back online, I looked through the photographs that were released of the pair fanning themselves with green hundred-dollar notes. I went through court materials and felt a heavy weight of embarrassment. I didn’t want to look down on the people I intended to write about but faced with their stupidity they had left me with little other choice. My enthusiasm for the project dried up. I turned the car around and went back to Boston, ultimately signing on as Savage’s researcher.

The natural element of the world was slowly becoming foreign to me. I spent little time outdoors. It was awful out anyway and I was suffering from seasonal claustrophobia. From the office window I watched the world I was actively avoiding. Sleet crowded the scene and the trees took extra weight from the snow on their branches so that they looked like cakes overdone with icing. The campus was in a white-out winter storm when Savage finally boarded the bus to his retreat. He left me with the keys to his office and told me to keep cataloguing his research material.

The weeks, though short, looked like they would be lonely, even in the company of Zora. Everyone was headed home, and those who weren’t were caught out in the cold. The students who remained were strange. Mathematicians mostly – all anxious that the year was coming to a close and that classes were off. I tried to do my best to avoid them as they doodled on the final pages of their diaries, depressed, and opened next year’s calendars from the protective plastic wrap, hoping for something more.

I walked around in the only coat I owned, wet at the sleeves, hoping to find Zora to defrost and finally undress. She was nowhere to be seen. I had been told that she was in the Fine Arts department screen-printing T-shirts. It seemed like an odd time to be producing such thin, light clothing but the idea was true to her spirit. She wanted the new students in the spring to be wearing her appropriated pornographic images to their lectures. I went down to the windows of the print workshop and stood on my toes to peer inside and see if she was indeed slaving over that hulking machinery. The industrial-sized screen-prints were coloured red, white and blue. I could not see Zora’s slick straightened shoulder-length hair. I made to move closer to the glass but slipped on some ice and landed on my ass. I let the water soak in as I sulked.

It was a rugged-up Zora who knocked on the window outside of my room that night. The glass rattled with the ice, loud enough so that it gave me a scare. I told her to come in from around the side. The front door was double-bolted.

I was in front of the computer finishing a five-hundred word summary for her husband. On the screen was a photograph of a homeless man, beaten to a bloody pulp, the low-res scan of which had been popular with video gamers. The image was part of a viral campaign to promote a soon-to-be-released game whose objective was to beat the homeless to death. I was left cold by it and couldn’t see the video game or the related image working in Australia or anywhere other than America. Did it need commentary or a diagnosis? I didn’t think so but I typed away dutifully anyhow.

Zora turned away from the screen when she came into the room. There were thousands of these images on my computer – a library of violence – catalogued for her husband.

She did not want to speak about her husband nor his work. She wanted to go straight to bed.

She was fascinated with the antipodean pronunciation of the letter z – zed. Would my name be pronounced Zed-ora? she quizzed, knowing the answer. Playing along, I said yes. She asked if I would call her by that name in bed. I asked her if it would arouse her. Of course, she replied. I wanted to tell her that the Australian accent had very little of the erotic musicality possessed by other accents but I feared the confession would kill the mood. I think she was turned on by the roughness of it, although I didn’t see myself as a particularly rough person – moody, maybe. In bed, as I called out Zed-ora, I couldn’t help but imagine her wearing an oversized fedora and I rolled off the bed laughing. She didn’t like the laugh and so sulked, sitting on a silk pillow. I rested my chin on the edge of the bed and trying to get eye contact with her, bellowed ‘Zed-ora, I adore ya!’ She didn’t turn her head but the smile on her face was reflected back in the TV.

In the last weeks of my work, I had heard rumours that the book was being finished without Savage. It was confirmed when I got home. The PDF of the mock-up cover for Violence was in my inbox. The images were all familiar, but the style of the design was even more so. Like Hieronymus Bosch with the background blocked out, the cover was a series of bodies overlapped and obscured by one another. On the bottom of the back cover, ‘Design by Zora Savage’. I smiled and wondered if the descriptions I had been writing were used as the brief for her cover. Looking it over, I felt a sense of freedom for the first time in months. My ties with the absent Savage were soon to be cut.

I shut down the computer and watched Zora continue to play with her artistic appropriations on my bedroom floor. She had covered the carpet with cut-out centrefolds (Zora took mostly to the lesser-knowns, like Marianne Gaba, Zahra Norbo, Dolores Donlon, with their wholesome, hubba-hubba names). She pulled a chair to the wall and stood up on it, supporting herself by leaning against the wall, taking photographs of her creations from the highest possible position in the room. I sat up in bed reading, well out of her way and out of the frame. I read the New York Times in print and checked the Sydney Morning Herald on my phone. The stories were different but they washed over me in the exact same way. News was meaningless when you were watching a woman in a white singlet take photographs of pornography with an outdated black camera. I pulled faces to try to get her to notice me but she was caught up in the pages of a 1959 Playboy. There was something else on her mind too. She wasn’t sure how many more nights like this there would be for us. Savage was due back in the morning – all straightened out by his silicon sobriety. I knew exactly how many more nights we had together. I was looking online at statistics of Australian arrests overseas, scouting locations for a city (hot-as-hell Bangkok was on the top of my list) to make a third shot at my crime study.

There was a call late on that last night, after we’d fallen asleep amid the scissored centrefolds. I picked up the phone and answered. The woman on the end of the line said she was from the Rehabilitation Centre for Internet Addicts and that Chris Savage was being transferred to a psychiatric ward at a nearby mental hospital. I couldn’t get the exact details from her and I didn’t know why she was talking to me anyhow. How did the retreat know to call my house? I stirred Zora and passed her the phone. I wonder if news had got to Savage about his book being finished without him.

Why were they moving him? Zora put down the phone and didn’t answer my question. I tried to quiz Zora on her feelings for him as she slipped into her stockings. It was the wrong time. I was the problem now, in her eyes. I had worked him to death on that book. I had exposed him to the images of violence which sent him crazy. I had emailed him endlessly and had him on the phone day and night. I was the New Media Department. I was the one who expected him to perform to an unrealistic standard. I was the reason he was a non-personality and seemed to carry around with him data rather than a soul. I got the earful. The department would never hear from her.

She put on her jacket last but I did not want to let her go. The Savages had both used me as their Australian plaything – and that was how they had stayed true to each other. She wasn’t as rebellious as she made out. The genitals in her ‘controversial’ portraits were all obscured. I wasn’t fully in picture either. How did I feel about this? I was never a big player in any of it anyway. I wasn’t going to get Zora to divorce her husband and design my book. I would have to go back to Sydney – worse than Sydney, Newcastle – and own up to certain failures, before starting out all over again.

Zora didn’t have time for my philosophising. She rushed to get her bag and grabbed the keys to her car. Her stocking caught on the door on her way out. She ripped it free but tripped herself up in the process and tumbled, hitting her head on the side of the TV with enough force to knock the TV off the stand. The TV went from playing snow to black and they fell to the floor together. The television landed first and with the more dramatic crash, because it had ripped its own cord from the wall and decided to bring the DVD player and lamp with it. Zora landed silently. She moaned and rolled onto her back. I rushed to her. There was a small slice in the high corner of her forehead where the skin had lifted. It was no bigger than 5 mm in width, like a small flaw in the canvas of an artwork.

I asked her if she was okay, but there was no reply. I was unmoved, or rather I was moved to inaction. I stood there for five minutes until I realised I had been too well trained to report these violent images back, so I went to the computer to draft an email to Savage describing what had happened to his wife. I took a long time. I went back and stood over Zora. I finished writing Savage the email in my head, to tell him that his wife was okay but that her image – on her back, beside a broken TV, as still as any photograph – was the first truly horrific one I had seen. There was all of the violence that I had viewed in the last three months in that 5 mm slick of blood. There was no need to enlarge it, no need to digitally enhance it.

Sam Twyford-Moore

Sam Twyford-Moore is one of the founding editors of Cutwater. His non-fiction has appeared in Meanjin and The Reader. He is currently finishing his first novel.

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