Controlled Accident is positioned as a game of chess played between a larger-than-life performance con artist named Jack and a savvy proto-emo kid named Louis. The object of the game is to capture the king by predicting and manipulating the reaction of others. The masterful slippage between game and reality is reminiscent of Trevanian’s use of go-ban in Shibumi. Most characters are both audience and pieces of the puzzle, but the game is mostly played for the benefit of one character: Mateo, a punk kid with a good heart who got Louis’s sister Sylvia pregnant. Like any other chess game, you cannot move your horse in a diagonal line, and we could say that this is why the dialogue and the action feel a bit contrived at times, a bit inhuman. But I would add that the dramatic tension in the novel (and where Kane shows the most promise) comes from the resistance of the ‘human’ to the limitations of the chess board. The novel makes much of sculpture, ceramics, injury and bodily transformation, reinforcing the idea that the characters are in danger of reification at all times. In the end (and despite him or herself), only the novelist can be the superior sculptor of figurines, but more of that another day.
I have to admit I didn’t like the novel, in the sense that one doesn’t “like” examining Guernica or watching a Pasolini film. In the face of the disfigurations and predetermined dialogue, I felt I was also becoming part of the dangerous chessboard —the final scenes of Clockwork Orange came to mind. As I reached the final chapter, I felt an uncanny lurking about, a foreboding. Then the novel lost its last body part: its cojones. After a thriller ride through bizarro Americana and the theory of performance art, the novel becomes a sentimental zero-sum game:
Jack’s theory of art reads as the chess theory appropriate to this particular endgame. To describe the ultimate manipulator/artist, he refers a couple of times during the course of the novel to the idea of the perfect criminal, the one which would have no remorse: a sort of fantastical pure evil, the anti-platonist par excellence (remember Plato claimed all men desire a good of some sort). As counterpoint, Jack talks about meaning as a consequence of the prelude to death, or the second death as some call it. According to Jack, death would be the appropriate border by which a life becomes one, perhaps in the same way that a child forms his ego based on the unifying reflection on a mirror according to Lacan. And that’s precisely what we get at the end of the novel, a meaningful death, a mirror death. Even if Jack loses the chess game, every piece of the puzzle comes together to give coherent meaning to Jack’s actions and theories which hitherto had seemed like a concatenation of disparate intellectual vignettes. But I say that the anti-platonist and the suicide-by-art are incompatible with each other, precisely because the anti-platonist can only play in a non-zero-sum environment. Meaning is justification, and justification is a boon sought after by the guilty. In other words, Jack fails as an artist-criminal because he can’t resist the urge to wrap it up. In one single chapter, Gray Kane (or is it Jack?) ties all the knots, cleans the shop and leaves you with a good feeling to boot. No pure evil there, only catharsis. I refer the reader to No Country for Old Men for different fare.
And isn’t this disappointment linked to one of Zizek’s most important points about ideology and faith?: It’s not that we believe in bullshit, it’s that we’re afraid to find out the Other doesn’t. In other words, we don’t want to find out our preacher doesn’t believe in the Eucharist, even if we don’t. Although all the characters more or less think and say Jack is full of shit, they still behave as if he believes in what he says. The problem is, so does Jack! His final words, “I win” reinforce everyone’s perception of Jack and of themselves. Furthermore, we realize that Louis, Sylvia and their mom have been playing the same game as Jack, except better because they don’t theorize while they play. Although this is appropriate to sustain the illusion that a symmetrical game is being played (chess is symmetrical after all), a larger quarry is forfeited for the sake of metaphorical coherence. Think of The Defense by Nabokov, for example, where chess-as-metaphor leads Aleksandr Ivanovich to paranoia and ultimately suicide without ever sacrificing the sense that reality eludes the game. After the denouement, Mateo is left with a greater illusion than the one he started with. At the moment when he realizes “what’s been really going on” he is only replacing a bombastic puppet-master for a silent one (the family). For me personally, I would’ve liked a more direct encounter with the truth, rather than a sentimental return to the family as master heuristic, at the very least I could’ve settled for a pataphor, who knows?
I might be wrong, of course… For all I know I’m one of the pieces in a larger literary chess game I’m not privy to…