The Luminol Reels
By Laura Ellen Joyce
Reviewed by Natanya Ann Pulley
To say I consumed Laura Ellen Joyce's The Luminol Reels quickly is to suggest I took it all in willingly and with abandon. But I prickled and bruised while I read. And yet, despite the cringe-worthy, ultra-violent imagery, I couldn't keep the reel from slowing or stopping.
The Luminol Reels is a small artifact, about 100 pages choked into a 6" x 4" frame, with sinister photo collages as section dividers and an ever-present film reel frame along the top and bottom of the pages. I read quickly, as if the only way to escape was to get to the end. This novella pretends to be a compact and obvious thing, not only in size, but also in scene description. The work revolves around blunt images: blood, fluids, gouging, slashing, sores, holes, and damaged flesh and bone that could have spilled out of a B movie. But it's not just flashes of cool and gross shit, even though I said aloud to no one more than once: "This is some really cool shit. And gross. This is some really cool and gross shit." More than just a work of shock, it's a horrifying and too true account of the unstoppable violence against women and the body parts and viscera that pile up. And pile up. And pile up.
The Luminol Reels consists of small prose pieces, evidentiary splatters of rape, murder, mutilation, and physical assaults. We've all seen luminol used in every crime show around. Someone sprays something, the lights go black, and bright blue goo traces the movement and spoiling of every victim. It's a revelation — a step towards solving the scene, but one of repulsion and viciousness. It's a piece of data used to trace a crime and humanity's sickness.
Joyce revels in this fluid's abjection, in this phantasmic relic. Some scenes are specific to the multiple and brutal homicides of women in Ciudad Juárez, while others find their setting upon the stage of Catholic ritual and dogma. Several moments utilize an everywhere-at-once space with an anonymous character; as readers we understand there is no assured safety, not in setting or identity. However, the most difficult passages utilize second person narration, tying us directly into the work. We are forced to recognize (or even to permit) the danger undoing us and we are given commands and rules, which seem set up to fail us. This isn't just a record of assaults; it casts them out at the reader without mercy. I imagine for some the continual barrage of violence will stir up a readerly distance. One might say the images don't always teeter nicely between the horror that is a reality and the absurdity of pulp horror imagery. I agree that some pieces provide more convolutions than others, but I don't think the point of the read is to be always in the moment of negotiating institutional misogyny, pornography, and femicide, with some level of outsider distance. Rather, we are to sit (wriggle and panic) and take it. This novella is a dangerous exhibit of bodies taking it, a quality that's spelled out for us in Joyce's careful choice of words and in the blood, gore, and unapologetic imagery.
In order to keep the tension in a filthy workshop such as this, Joyce's prose is deceptively easy. The clean starts of the sentences seem ordinary. One sentence begins, "Threads of red hair," and another starts, "She tanned her small breasts." But each, like so many others, fall into an action or image that snags this steady line back into a complication: "Threads of red hair loop you shut," or, "She tanned her small breasts, ironed flat, like all of ours, from birth." We begin in one world: "You can lie on their soft, brown pelts," and end in another: "and make generic love." Other lines do not allow that safe admission: "There is time that is blank. You are on her and you are guilty." But these lines always build up to a contorted image, a knot of violations: "She slammed outwards, y-shaped, our mermaid openings began to empty of scales." In the end, what we can find of hope is only caught up in a strange type of comfort—one that builds and reinforces a system of defeated relief and ghastly transformation. The language assures us that despite the steady piles of flesh and loss, we will never know what we are becoming.
As readers we are comfortable in monitoring or steadying our own intake of text. We watch it on our time. We carry our e-texts here and there. We set things down to do something else. We tend to say a book that we can't stop reading is a good book, one that's lured us in. We are engaged. I'm not sure if I was lured in to The Luminol Reels. I had no desire to root there. And I didn't find myself wondering what would happen next or what mystery would be revealed, because there was no mystery; the female body made messy and chunked always happened next. I read this text quickly and did not put it down, because not reading was a lie and because pausing to process and accept this reality splashed on and gouged into these pages is a luxury. That is, only the privileged have the time and energy to reflect. This read is a gutting, but it's also a testament—a necessary one.