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Astral Weeks: You are what you weave

Jon Armstrong's inventive novel 'Yarn' follows a young man's rags-to-riches story in a frenzied, fashionable, distant future.

January 14, 2011|By Ed Park | Special to the Los Angeles Times

The succinct title of Jon Armstrong's second novel, "Yarn" (Night Shade Books, 309 pp., $14.99), does double duty: It's a yarn about yarn, a tale about textiles in a furiously imagined far future in which the delirious thrills of white-hot couture get their naked-lunch close-up. It's a book for devotees of Lady Gaga and William S. Burroughs alike — if those groups aren't already secretly one and the same thing.

Armstrong embroiders his chronologically scrambled, globe-trotting story with yards of power-pop prose. (Sample chapter title: "The High Europas and Pacificum: Two Hundred and Forty Costumes in Two Hundred and Forty Days.")

His world-building is at once blithe and satisfying, bubbling with Dadaist brand names (Melancholy Mouse Burger, Python Duck Weapon) and anchored by a moral seriousness. All the details, from the slang to the stitching, add up to a dazzlingly grim read. Here, "cut" is a curse, and "fashion" is used as a euphemism for sex — the actual phenomenon of which is virtually absent. Everything, even shopping, is a kind of war. Robotic "infofighters" bombard customers with coupons and directions. Even more grotesque is what happens upon walking into a high-end boutique. A "saleswarrior" gives herself one hour to sell you something: "If I have not assisted your material freedom and truth, the necklace will cut my air."

Much of "Yarn" takes place in Seattlehama, "the volcano-powered sex and shopping capital of the world," a ring of woven ceramic skyscrapers "built around a mile-wide atrium with the circle of buildings all linked in such a way that supported and was supported by all the others."

But "Yarn's" resourceful narrator, Tane Cedar, becomes a much-coveted "Men's Precision Tailor" only through extreme good fortune and a preternatural talent for thread-snipping. He comes from the slubs, "the vast corn-filled world that surrounded the city for thousands of miles in all directions," where neutered men slave away in cornfields for megacorporations. At 17, Tane figures out a way to alter the requisite uniforms — shirts made of "a stiff and scratchy non-woven corn fiber" — to prevent the rashes that all the men suffer from. Fashion is in response to pain.

Tane's climb to the top of his profession is related along with his current quest: to create (for his former obsession/muse/employer, Vada) an outfit made of the rare, addictive Xi yarn — "old, immoral, drug-infused." His mission takes him to the literal end of the world (Antarctica), and it's a dangerous ride. For all of Armstrong's wit, the horror at the core is shocking in its inevitability.

(Andy Selsberg's article on "conscientious clothing," in a recent issue of the Believer, makes for a stimulating companion piece; Selsberg wonders: "I would like to know what a reasonable price is for a men's dress shirt…. A price that hasn't factored in extraordinary human pain and economic distress and environmental destruction.")

The architecture of "Yarn" is frustrating at first, as Armstrong toggles between these two narratives. But there is sheer pleasure to be had in what would be called the throwaway bits, if those bits didn't seem to be the very essence of the book. Tane eats bizarre foods (eel scones, ice curry doughnuts), listens to ZZZZ's "Infinite Nothing" ("the sound of one ton of sand being dropped grain by grain onto a pile of timpani and woodwind instruments").

And most enjoyably, he unreels giddy descriptions of the tailor's craft, from catalogs of material and tools ("acoustic jacquards, card punches, loom beams, air-jets, deweavers, flash seamers, water-knitters, flux steamers") to the psychedelic results, such as one man's jacket with its "small live, wiggling white worms that had been woven into the fabric."

Style is substance in "Yarn," then. Or as the book's mightiest couture goddess says, "Truth is a gingham parasol!"

Park is the author of "Personal Days," a novel.

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