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Review: The Abject Transmutation of Chris Kelso: The Dregs Trilogy

Updated: Jul 30

Jared Pappas-Kelley

If the Dregs Trilogy is any indication, then we are all interchangeable and occupying similar threads of torture—like really bad time share apartments—and revealed as intensely bleak and repulsive in the process. Horrible, horrible people actually. Big if true. In Chris Kelso’s latest book, each character reveals a wretchedness that inextricably places them in this landscape, slotting across parallels in the tale’s unfolding as existential horror. It is anguish and violence in a literal sense within the panic of moral squalor.

It is nearly impossible to trace the adherences or layered identities in the Dregs Trilogy, but in mapping, sticking pin into a diagram—a serial killer’s preferred method of showing correlations after all—from any character and stringing it to another. One character overlaying another, mirrors in reverse or inverse into each, demonstrating the needs and absences that constrain across time. And: if you could then pluck that string for insight, the noise it would make would be the sound of its own undoing.

The artist Bruce Nauman created a piece that consisted of the instructions: “Drill a hole in the heart of a tree and insert a microphone. Mount the amplifier and speaker in an empty room and adjust the volume to make audible any sound that might come from the tree.” The act of fulfilment destroys it. Something must be destroyed or betrayed in the making of the noise, and much like that noise, it is something that clangs through Kelso’s book like a character, observing “The ‘sound’ is her crying for help.” When inquiring about where noise originates, or what culminates as a mass suicide as extinction, the response, “Everyone knows her. You definitely know her.”

We find ourselves inhabiting apartments along with child murderers or worse—we’re never getting that deposit back are we? Straining through case studies and attempting to make sense of the pain and grey matters as Shrapnel Apartments, only with the faintest narratives to wander through when consciousness silts below the flicker or is lost. Chris Kelso observes:

I wanted the characters to be secondary and the horror of their environments and situations take centre stage to any motivation or arc. I had quite a lofty concept in mind and I didn’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of why characters do what. They're all essentially the same character with minor variations. The only character who is different is Florence and we should all take responsibility for killing her eternally.

We are all complicit as witnessing the compulsions, of being the crimes, of reading the words that invoke them. We are watched and watching. Murdered and murdering. And a song from Anohni filters into these thoughts; watch me in my hotel room, watch my outline as I move from city to city, watch me watching pornography … it is the burrowing between who is stalked and the crooning for fulfilment within it. I know you love me, cause you’re always watching me. And it’s you, it’s always you as I look into the mirror, murmuring of false promises: protecting me from evil, protecting me from terrorism, protecting me from child molesters, protecting me from evil. And it’s all tumbled up together with no way to sort out, better to set the whole thing ablaze and jump to nothing.

Discussing his approach Kelso explains:

Sex is always present for me… I think growing up as an introverted and sensitive boy in the West of Scotland my relationships with sex has been fraught. I think I was a passive observer for a long time. I was always a little scared to pursue it… It can change people, break them… That darkness and fear is something I've never really been able to get over fully…

One is never certain what is real or a figment or shambling apparition—what character might appear in another constellation with a changed name—the faces and identities oddly interchangeable as they flit across the page. A philosophical film cult, Tupac and Biggie style rivals between warring science fiction theatre companies in tabloids, “but there is no grand conspiracy, only the wayward meandering thoughts of a paranoid and sad Last True Hoper…

The writing is clean against the grime with all the most disassociated urges. The character Vincent falls carnally for someone named Swarthy—how could you not… er… besides the fact he is a murderer—and becomes swept up in his orbit and personality. Vincent:

I’m not saying what we’d decided to do was ‘right’ but in the name of art I was/am willing to stoop to any level to appear original. I want to be fearless as Herzog, be as vulgar as someone like John Waters and rebel against the tyranny of popular taste. In Swarthy I had a willing subject and collaborator. Klaus Kinski eat your heart out.

Meanwhile as they woo and fuck, Swarthy’s impressions of Vincent are instead calculated and not so amorous:

Bourgeois scum flowing through his arteries and filling his skull with sickly delusions of grandeur. He is toothless and his nature anodyne. I can tell he repressed his homosexuality for a long time before revelling in it later on. I should shatter his protective vertebrae and sever the spinal cord in one fluid motion.

One refracts into another, roles shift, the protagonist becomes displaced interplay where each must commit the infraction so that the other might experience as proxy, reversing until all permutations are considered through abject transmutations of the soul… or just some snug cigarette ash against the wetness on someone’s back. Keep in mind also that Swarthy may or may not ultimately exist. But as an idea into action, it is consummated, becomes ideology:

With this film we could attract a whole new breed of moviegoer, the kind only concerned with what’s visceral and real, people in search of the one true authentic, diasporic subject. Something pure! We could create a new genre – and that’s exactly what we set out to do.

And it builds, under the banner of art, makes art into something more:

It was not Bolshevik art collectors or their literary henchmen who laid the foundation for a new art or even secured the continued existence of art in this country. No, we were the ones who created this state and have since provided vast sums for the encouragement of art. We have given art great new tasks.

But then we must remember that it was, “almost a decade ago, back when he was a better person. When he was innocent and the world first betrayed him…”

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Jared Pappas-Kelley is an artist and writer. His recent book Solvent Form: Art and Destruction was published by Manchester University Press and his forthcoming collection To Build a House that Never Ceased: Writings, Interviews, and Letters on Art was released in late July of 2020. His visual work has exhibited internationally.


Reviews: Invert/extant is looking for smart book reviews to begin running on the site (to further the conversation about new or recent books coming out). We like challenging, beautiful, odd, specific, or transcendent writing… or as it says in the mission: writing that takes, "our breath away, to catch us unawares, revealing the world inverted through its subtlety, truth, or inventiveness."