About this book
From award-winning playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill comes a masterful and moving novel in the tradition of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be.
At 11:04 a.m. on January 21st, 2017, Jordan opens the door to his mother’s bedroom. As his eyes adjust to the half-light, he finds her lying in bed, eyes closed and mouth agape. In that instant he cannot tell whether she is asleep or dead. The sight of his mother's body, caught between these two possibilities, causes Jordan to plunge headlong into the uncertain depths of consciousness itself.
From androids to cannibals to sex clubs, an unforgettable personal odyssey emerges, populated by a cast of sublime outsiders in search for the ever-elusive nature of self. Part ontological thriller, part millennial saga, Liminal is a riotous and moving portrait of a young man in volatile times, a generation caught in suspended animation, and a son’s enduring love for his mother.
I am wary of revelations. I find anyone claiming to have them dubious. They’re usually charlatans, the ultra-religious, or insane (not that these three types are mutually exclusive; in fact they rarely are). And I find any description of these revelations some combination of sinister and comical, like John Smith receiving golden plates from the angel Moroni in a secret language only he can translate. Even the words “revelation” and “epiphany” are mired in Christian connotations. The first conjures images of John on the island of Patmos having visions of the Whore of Babylon and the Beast, while the second is the realization by the wise men that Christ is the Son of God, rendered throughout art history as the Adoration of the Magi.
I suppose the synonym that feels the least corrupted by spiritual chicanery is “eureka,” and yet this word feels burdened by the mythos of masculine scientific discovery, from Archimedes fateful bath to Newton’s gravity-weighted apple (why do I always imagine it hitting his head?) Darwin said he could remember the exact moment during a carriage ride in which he was struck by his “hunch” about natural selection. Nikola Tesla, while recuperating from a recent breakdown brought on by his obsession to solve the mystery of alternating current, was on a walk with a friend in Budapest’s Varosliget Park when he was pierced by his moment of insight. Tesla was looking into the setting sun whilst reciting a passage from Goethe’s Faust (naturally) when a vision of a functioning alternating current electric induction motor appeared to him with such clarity that he grabbed a stick and drew a diagram of it then and there in the dirt. One can almost hear the angelic choral accompaniment. Perhaps because of these bearded white men and their long lineage of eurekas the word has acquired a certain sense of finitude: they each had a question and in an instant it was answered. As if, through years of research and inquiry, their minds were already filled with the necessary information and all that was required was that final synaptic connection to illuminate the network of association.
A word that seems part of this revelatory cohort is “vision,” which again has religious undertones, but also the unfortunate limitations of its sensory association. A vision suggests something that is seen, either literally with one’s eyes in a new way, or seen within the mind’s eye. As the ever-favoured child of the senses, we seem inclined to give seeing undo credit as the conduit of discovery. Though as Proust might agree, throughout my life I’ve probably had more ‘visions’ induced by smell than any other sense. For me, a new awareness is rarely an apparition to be seen or viewed; it does not appear to me like Tesla’s motor. It is something that is felt. An awareness that dawns and slowly spreads its light through my body.
What I seek is a word that does not suggest a long-sought for answer but rather a deluge of questions. A word for kind of illumination that recalls a caver holding a torch up in an underground chamber and apprehending a few dashes of rock wall at a time, uncertain of how far the cavern extends into darkness.
Counter-intuitively, I found something approaching this word in the Bible. The first word in the Book of Revelations — and from which it derives its name — is apokalypsis, which in its original Korine Greek means "unveiling" or “revelation.” I find the notion of ‘unveiling’ — of an encounter, smell, sight, sensation that unveils an infinite system of questions and discoveries (which in turn spur more questions) — to be the most vivid evocation of this I can find. I might be even inclined to use the original Greek apokalypsis, as it seems to contain the possibility of discovery in the moment of destruction. Much like the theatre; an art revealed in the moment of its disappearance. And like life itself, theatre can not be rewound or reread; it exists in the temporal present between being and un-being, in what Plato calls the “something inserted between motion and rest (. . .) in no time at all.” An art conjured in the instant of its erasure. And I like the almost preposterous gravity of the world apokalypsis; how it’s cataclysmic and eschatological associations seem to mimic the way in which one world seems to end and another begins in a moment of newfound awareness.
But in this instance, for what I’m about to articulate, “unveiling” is the apt word. It conjures for me the image of a man in white gloves pulling a cloth of a painting; the removal of a covering that concealed that which was there all along — something which has been rendered ever more extraordinary by the very fact of its concealment. Rather than by divine conjuring, “unveiling” suggests a moment of discovery arising from matter-of-fact and mortal circumstances. A new way of experiencing something already in the world.
In this way, the world is constantly unveiling itself; a stand of trees seen from a fresh angle, the laugher of a dog, a nameless colour, new patterns of movement, of light, of behaviour, patterns in fabric, in birds, in traffic, in music . . . In this way “revelation” is not something a bearded white man once an epoch apprehends but rather a state of becoming that imbues all things at all times. Of course to be in a state of perpetual unveiling is exhausting and disorienting; it’s essentially the way we moved through the world as babies, when everything was revealed and nothing was legible. Gradually, to make sense of the chaos, we fixed things in place, we fixed meaning, we fixed potential, we fixed objects and people and places as knowable and predictable entities and attempted to reduce the instances of unveiling because those upset the order by introducing new variables into the mix. Unveiling, by nature, un-fixes.
This is what happened at 11:04 a.m. on Saturday, January 21, 2017 when I walked into your bedroom and saw your body in bed. In a moment something — perhaps everything — became unveiled. And I became unfixed. It was a moment that lasted less than a second. The interval between a hand feeling water and the pain of it’s scalding heat; between sense and sensation.
About the Author
JORDAN TANNAHILL is an award-winning author, playwright, filmmaker, and theatre director. He is the winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama for Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays and was shortlisted for the prize again for Concord Floral. He has twice received Dora Awards for Outstanding New Play. His play Botticelli in the Fire won the 2017 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best New Play and is currently being adapted into a feature by filmmaker Stephen Dunn. From 2012 to 2016, in collaboration with William Ellis, Tannahill ran the alternative art space Videofag, which became an influential hub for queer and avant-garde work in Canada. He is the author of Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama and The Videofag Book; and his latest play, Declarations, will be published to coincide with its premiere at Canadian Stage in January 2018. Tannahill’s films and multimedia performances have been presented at festivals and galleries such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Most recently, his virtual reality performance Draw Me Close, a co-production between the National Theatre (U.K.) and the National Film Board of Canada, premiered in May 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival. His play Late Company will be transferring to the West End (London, U.K.) August–September 2017. Liminal is his first novel and is being made into a feature length art film by the NFB and the National Theatre in the UK. Born in 1988 in Ottawa, Ontario, he now makes his home in London, U.K.