The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing

laingThe Short Version: A journalist comes to meet with Roberto Acestes Laing, a near-mythic figure in film culture who worked for major directors and who, as a film librarian, destroyed the only copies of several films from now-famous directors. But what does the journalist really seek – and what does Laing actually offer?

The Review: Few books in recent years have stolen into my consciousness and set up shop like Marisha Pessl’s Night Film – specifically it’s creepy reclusive director, Stanislaw Cordova. And it has only been in the wake of that book that the films of strange auteurs like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have begun to make true sense to me. Their aesthetic has always been one that interests me, but I couldn’t say that I “got” those films until sometime in the last few years – certainly post-Night Film and, quite happily, pre-The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing.

This is not to say that you can’t or won’t enjoy Rombes’ novel if you don’t enjoy or understand the films of those directors, but having a working baseline turned this from an ordinary novel into one that connected, much more richly, with my world.  I felt awed and a little saddened by the prospect of these lost films, having been tantalized by Rombes’ (and/or Laing’s, depending on how you want to break it down on a technical level) descriptions of them – and I think any reader who likes film, who likes imagining lost things, will feel similarly.
But this book also pulls off an even more impressive feat than making short-story-length descriptions of films interesting; it evokes a mood of near-paranoia without ever actually giving you anything to necessarily be paranoid about. Perhaps this comes from my love for aforementioned filmmakers and Marisha Pessl’s book – but I think it’s more than that. Everything seems to vibrate at a subsonic level in this book and I found myself breathing shallow each time I picked it up.  There’s even the weirdness of things not seeming to line up chronologically, for something fundamentally corrupted at the core of the story, making everything recounted just a little suspicious. It’s all deeply weird and absolutely wonderful.

The films themselves are all, to a one, unsettling and strange. As Laing describes them to our main character, this interviewer, it becomes clear that there is something off about them. It’s a cool idea, don’t you think – an object of art (book, record, film, painting, etc) that seems to give you some quote-unquote fundamental truth of the universe… and that truth is, at the end of the day, altogether far too dangerous for public consumption? It’s the legend of Prince’s “Black Album” or the Necronomicon and everything in between, but instead of hinting at the unknowability of the artifacts, Rombes dives right in and has Laing explain (and, in one instance, deliver a full treatment on paper) the stories and the scenes… and one’s sense of terror slowly mounts.

This is not to say that he gives in, at all, to the expectation that horror must culminate. The book’s great staying power comes, I think, from the fact that there is not necessarily any conclusion to speak of – because what, exactly, was the quest or question in the first place? The journalist has tracked down Laing to seek truth… and he ends up, as the title of the novel implies, bestowing a kind of absolution on Laing… but the films linger in our minds. So, too, do the background hints of oddness: the missing children, the waitress at the diner, the mysterious red cone, the weather… something is off in the world and perhaps it is because these films existed even for a second. Perhaps Laing is a hero for destroying them, for shouldering this burden for himself. Perhaps he is a truly great villain, for depriving the world of such things for who knows what they could’ve done in the great scheme of things?

It is a testament to Rombes’ knowledge of film and his skill as a writer that these films feel real to me. I should be able to find Destroyer or Black Star or Gutman on if not Netflix than perhaps some TOR-found film site somewhere… but they don’t exist. Even if I can see these scenes in my brain as though I watched them on my laptop just now, I didn’t. I not only didn’t, I only actually ‘experienced’ them through a narrative within a narrative – that is, Rombes writing Laing explaining the films. There should be some level of artifice that separates them from me but, just as some of the films describe a sort of blurring out into reality, so too does this book. The lines of fiction and fact get hazy in the fog of paranoia and maybe, just maybe, you’ll stumble across an old VHS somewhere that’s simply marked AXXON N. and realize that it wasn’t just a story after all…

And even if you don’t, you’ll always wonder ‘but maybe’…

Rating: 5 out of 5. A far weirder book than Night Film but a sibling to it in a wonderful way. I looked at the world differently after reading The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, not in the sense of understanding it differently but in the sense of having briefly slid across into a neighboring universe and seen a glimpse of a place that is just slightly not the one we’re currently inhabiting. At its core, this is a novel about the power of film – but it achieves so much more than that with an ease and skill that bely the author’s debut status. And if you’re lucky and you reach out to Mr. Rombes, you might even end up, as I did, with more sense of the blurring line between fiction and reality – for in my mailbox the other day came a note with a filmstrip and some ephemera from Laing’s own archive…

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