David Felsenstein is an American terrorist with a library card. He wears a magnet on his bald head to boost his weak sense of direction, but it doesn’t seem to be working. He’s lost in a destructive and solipsistic dream made frighteningly real from the very first page of Mark Swartz’s short, idiosyncratic novel, Instant Karma:
Saturday 5 November 1994
Guy Fawkes Day, a good starting point for the journal of an anarchist. A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy …
With that, Felsenstein launches into a darkly creative manifesto that jaggedly outlines his views on politics, art, love and society. More information fetishist than bibliophile, the anti-hero whiles away the hours in a branch of the Chicago Public Library hunting any miscellaneous data fragments that might feed or justify his paranoid, deluded theories.
He favors dadaist as well as Buddhist texts, among many others. From them, he scribbles fragmented quotes and insights in a heavily footnoted diary, which, along with a smattering of random graphics, makes up the entire book.
A manic dilettante comfortable in the roles of artist, theorist and critic, Felsenstein often dresses his penchant for destruction in aesthetic or philosophical contexts. To accomplish this, he draws from works by a long line of anarchists, artists, writers, terrorists, philosophers, scientists and modernists, cutting and pasting pieces of text into the chaotic structure of his journal.
His work also chronicles four months of research and lesser acts of anarchy, such as posing as a Salvation Army bell ringer with a paper bag over his head. Later, he burns an American flag as he observes:
After dreaming of the American flag in 1954, Jasper Johns began painting it, laying stripe after stripe until the creation became a kind of destruction … He dragged it into museums, where the ceilings are too low for it; hanging there at half mast, it imposes a perpetual state of grief on the nation.
In love from afar with librarian Eve Jablom, Felsenstein becomes confessional and shows he is just as much an outcast and idiot savant in the arena of romance as he is in the rest of the world. His views on intimacy are wildly skewed but — like the rest of his writing — poetically interesting:
Abundant sex, missionary style, is directly responsible for Picasso’s invention of figurative cubism, where the eyes of those whores The Demoiselles d’Avignon swell and come together like two sausage links.
Without an occupation, family or community, Felsenstein is free to, or compelled to, devote much of his time to thumbing through obscure reference books, copying lines from The Anarchist’s Cookbook or obsessing over conspiracy theories involving Tibetan Buddhist monks who drive Mercedes and frolic with movie stars.
His chronic boredom and mental disintegration converge in a lucid, terrible and inspiring moment of utter madness as he hands a handwritten letter to the librarian on March 5, 1995:
Call me Omar. Do as I say and nobody gets hurt. I have on my person a substantial explosive device and there is only one thing that will keep me from detonating it and destroying the library and all its books …
Because Felsenstein spends the entire book planning and glorifying the bombing of the library as a work of “pyrotechnic art,” the readers’ task in Instant Karma is not to brace themselves for the inevitable, but to flesh out the reasons behind Felsenstein’s drive to blow up a place that has been such a haven for him and a valuable resource for others.
In a day and age when destruction moves on the world and its psyche so suddenly and senselessly, these answers may be impossible to find. But the exercise itself has never been more timely and useful.
Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].