Gabino Iglesias on Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels
Luminol is a chemical commonly used to give lightsticks their characteristic glow. The compound also reacts with the hemoglobin in blood to produce a bright blue chemiluminescence, which is why forensic investigators use it to find blood traces in crime scenes. Luminol and blood feature in Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels as vehicles to explore institutionalized violence against women in a plethora of places that range from the violent streets of Mexico and the Catholic Church to mainstream media and pornography.
The Luminol Reels comprises short pieces that range from microfiction to poetry and constantly combine the two, often drifting in and out of the obscurity, surrealistic imagery, and metaphor-rich writing that characterizes high-caliber poetry. The lyrical nature of the text and the brevity of the narratives make it better to look at the book as a whole instead of attempting to offer synopses for each piece. Given that violence/red and luminol/blue quickly emerge as obvious elements of cohesion in the collection, Joyce clearly intended the book as a single conceptual piece and not a series of loose narratives anchored on a theme.
The brutality with which Joyce approaches violence immediately jumps out of the pages of The Luminol Reels. Instead of hiding the physicality of violence behind her discourse, Joyce uses words to propel to the forefront the female body, at once a vessel for the victim and recipient of the punishment. With rich detail and precise language, she touches on a Mexican murder with enough transparency to resemble the garishness found in the best tomes of contemporary hardcore horror:
First she gets rid of the blood by hanging the girl upside down and slitting her throat. Then she sews the girl back up. The liquid collects in a glass tank. They layer down — watery red, yellow fat, with shiny white gobs of plasmic waste. In the centre blooms a starburst of hot red — the richest blood fresh from her heart. It pulses and steams, lazy drifts staining the fat, the plasma, the pinkish water. She stirs the mixture carefully, for hours, until the heart blood atomises and spreads its magic through the gloop.
We find here another recurring theme in The Luminol Reels: willing female participation. Joyce does not treat gender violence as something in which women play only one role. Instead, she exposes the compliance involved in acts like going to church or celebrating a quinceañera — the former a place that openly accepts the patriarchal nature of Christianity and in which women can never hope to reach the same positions of power as men, and the latter a cultural practice that puts a primer on canonical beauty and reinforces biased gender roles. With these elements in place, the author takes it even further by oftentimes making a female the wielder of power and having her use it against other women. More than a reversal of roles, what Joyce accomplishes by placing the so-called weaker sex in a position of power is a comment on the seductive powers of hegemony; these women act against their gender cohorts because supporting the status quo is the path of least resistance and, maybe, siding with the oppressor will help them abandon the realm of the oppressed. In “Flesh,” for instance, a baby crawls out of her mother’s womb and into a world full of sexual harassment, screaming, makeup, and “women with surgery lips roiled naked on yachts.” Those visions let the newborn baby know what’s to come and that she’s coming into a world with a flawed, skewed system already in place. Her predecessors participate in said system and continually receive instructions on how they’re supposed or expected to (re)act: “You must sit still and watch the shows.”
Perhaps one of the clearest and sharpest critiques comes from a piece titled “Black Mass,” where the religious connotations are overt because the characters in this poetry-narrative hybrid are wearing robes while performing some sort of ritual around an altar. While the title and the sinister atmosphere of the story invite the quick and oversimplified conclusion that we’re encountering a satanic ritual, the complexity of the book up to this point demands a more profound analysis that yields an obvious fissure in the satanic theory: the iconography is simply not there. Noticing the playfulness of the title and the absence of Satan opens the door to other possible interpretations; every religious element reclaims the constantly shifting nature of signifiers, and the narrative becomes a critique of the imbedded misogyny of most religions. Here, again, women are told what to do: “Listen to all instructions and do not flinch at the butcher’s strange request.” While the presence of a butcher seems to obey the nonstop brutality of The Luminol Reels, its meaning also reaches out of the confines of the text to provoke a reflection on butcheries such as religiously-oriented female genital mutilation.
When taken in historical context, The Luminol Reels is as significant now as it could have been fifty years ago. Neither society nor the church has rid itself of misogyny and discrimination. Gender violence has entered the spotlight as new media exposes rape and abuse in Majority World countries. This development helps focus the public’s attention on events like the Isla Vista killing spree of May 23, 2014, perpetrated by 22-year old Elliot Rodger, who left both video evidence and an autobiographical manuscript explaining his motive for murdering seven people and injuring thirteen. According to Rodger, his destructive rampage resulted from frustration about being a virgin who had never been kissed. He also stated that women deserved punishment for not having paid him attention, much less sleeping with him.
The Luminol Reels shows disparity and injustice via the spilling of blood. Instead of a straightforward angry protest against sexism, a clear presentation of feminist ideals, or the construction of an academic discourse against patriarchy, the stories present situations that, while sadistic and gut-wrenching, approximate real life to an uncomfortable degree. These narratives are anchored in reality. They deal with everyday occurrences like the role media plays in the (re)construction of gender roles, women owing beauty to men, women existing primarily as purveyors of sexual pleasure for men, and the dismissal of inequality based on the fact that women are allowed to participate in a patriarchal society.
Ultimately, The Luminol Reels turns the tables on the instructions women are given and offers advice and warnings. In fact, in a roundabout way, it calls for an aggressive, destructive rebellion, especially in pieces like “Jewel Saint”
If you use the oven terminally, you become a jewel saint.
This reel is a compilation of all the gassings. The oven is wiped clean, silver. Stop motion poisons leak from it.
If you look deep into the mouth of the oven, you can see death, the apocalypse, violence.
You can be in the metal tunnel.
Throw the following items into the flames: water, glitter, oil, food.
The flames will change colour and sputter.
Blow out the flames on your sweet sixteen and lie down.
Given the multiplicity of venues that could have been explored when it comes to gender and violence, perhaps The Luminol Reel’s only shortcoming is its length, coming in at a mere one hundred pages. But its brevity guards against any dilution of its condensed discourse. Every word counts. This powerful collection slashes unapologetically at the injustices and violence perpetrated against women across geographical and ideological borders, forcing us all to examine our own complicity in these ubiquitous crimes, and making a compelling argument against the silence with which we welcome institutionalized sexism. This short text also shines a light on the nexus between religion and women, a nuanced space that, when it evolves, does so much slower than the cultures it’s enmeshed in. This vigorous push for the (re)consideration of gender roles makes The Luminol Reels a strong testament about inequality and a book with a depth that belies its thin spine.