Reviewed by Caitlin Brown
In her novella The Revisionist, Miranda Mellis plunges her readers into a looming, apocalyptic existence where the natural world resembles an ominous machine, and the local convenience store has become known as the new natural jungle. Complemented by the mechanical yet strangely beautiful artwork of Derek White, whose images seem to be almost motorized, Mellis’ story of a nuclear age weatherman paints a world without sensation, or truth, or reaction. Yet, despite the empty void felt between her characters, Mellis manages to transcend the predictable feelings of hopelessness, and subtly, tastefully adds an afterglow of promise to her story.
A short 82 pages, The Revisionist vividly observes the world through the eyes of its narrator, a weather surveillance reporter who documents his--or her, Mellis never tells us--findings from an abandoned lighthouse, seven miles outside the city. Ironically, Mellis emphasizes the heightened sensation that can be felt through the use of the narrator’s telescope--to hear another’s heartbeat, or to read another’s mind--and juxtaposes this advanced machinery with both a narrator who has significantly distanced himself from the subjects of his observations and a human population that fails to feel anything at all anymore.
From the blind to the hearing impaired, Mellis’ world is one in which, as the narrator claims, “nothing was felt any longer, or known through the sense portals, despite the fact that every part of the body was designed for contact.” Some fail to even notice that their bodies are dramatically mutated or gone completely. Indeed, Mellis also intends to highlight the fact that even the animals of this world are more engaging and receptive than the people. While “people howled and chirped at one another” in convenience stores, spiders, seeing-eye dogs, and birds give long soliloquies on selfhood and pain. A postmodern tone of human disconnection and a sense of lost wholeness seem to glaze the narrator’s panoramic view of the broken down metropolis.
The theme of sensation is further emphasized throughout the book, both by Mellis’ spatial designing and by Derek White’s vivid illustrations. Mellis replaces the conventional use of chapters with artistic spacing throughout her prose, almost as if she is leaving legroom for the reader to think, question, or simply stare at the lack of words or images and treat the blank page as an aesthetic experience in itself. The randomness of her spacing choices further accentuates the fragmentation of this world of hers, as if Mellis is forcing the reader to acknowledge the vast distances and spaces present among characters and their stories, refusing to let them be ignored.
As for White’s images, dispersed throughout the book, they not only add an additional aesthetic angle to Mellis’ already pulsating descriptions, but seem to evoke something of the sublime in the reader. When viewed in conjunction with the story, these images are both horrifying and beautiful, painful and pleasurable. Below is one of White’s images, construed from Mellis’ following description: “Through my telescope, survivors were running around in circles. Buildings were curdling. The very air had faded, was pixilated.”
Though the reader knows that he gazes upon a scene of nuclear holocaust when viewing White’s image, he sees horror only in the fact that he finds the image pleasing to look at. Perhaps there is also satisfaction found in the fact that the scene takes place from a distance, just as the narrator sees it. Untouched by the disaster, the reader therefore feels no remorse--and that in itself calls for horrified reflection. Not all of White’s illustrations portray such infernal scenarios, but they are all captivating in their intricate detail, drawing the reader in and beckoning him to study each image for its elaborate elements. One might argue that Mellis’ colorful imagery requires no supplement, but the graphic illustrations are difficult to pass up, and one finds oneself excitedly anticipating the picture on the next page.
The sublime emotion found in White’s drawings provides a reiteration of Mellis’ subtle ambivalence present throughout the story. Though hers is predominantly a tale of loss and absence, of a deteriorating human race, leaving the reader feeling hopeless and depressed is clearly not her aim. Instead, Mellis manages to extract the beauty--or what little, simplified part remains left of it--from the rubble, giving her piece a more optimistic outlook overall. Various pairs of characters find camaraderie or “mitotic love” through each other’s company. In defense of the monotony of the world, the narrator argues for repetition as a new art form, saying “you could pathologize the repetition, call it futile, but if you considered the aesthetics of repetition as such, you might actually begin to embrace eternal recapitulation.” Though Mellis’ sarcasm is apparent, the narrator’s ambivalence between false and authentic feelings presents itself as a constant. Often he deems human feelings and relations pointless, while other times he sways and thinks there is something to them; and this ray of doubt in the uselessness of human contact becomes the beauty behind Mellis’ seemingly sad story. Mellis also mentions an intuition that all humans share, one that helps them know when they are being lied to--perhaps the only sense they still commonly possess, and perhaps the most important one of all: the common knowledge of what it means to be human.
Such instances in the story, though often fleeting, provide evidence that Mellis has captured in The Revisionist an aura of both a slow deterioration towards an end and, perhaps, an eccentric new beginning, tailored from the past. Even the narrator feels unsure as to which direction his world is leading, and this seems to be Mellis’ point--that the questioning and doubting are what must remain after most everything else has ceased to exist. The Revisionist is a tangle of surfaces and images that struggles to undo itself before the reader’s eyes; and its attempt--not its failure--to do so is where its beauty unearths itself.