Online Edition: Summer 2002

False Positive by Harold Jaffe

False Positive

Harold Jaffe

FC2 ($12.95)

by Mark Tursi

In False Positive, "doing violence to a text" takes on new meaning. Each "story" in the collection is a newspaper article that Jaffe has "treated," which is to say, blasted, uncovered, ruptured, expanded, exposed, scrutinized, and/or fictionalized to reveal an often insidious subtext, or, in Jaffe's own words, a "terrorist" one. In the author's note preceding the stories, he writes, "I enter the article, and by various stratagems expose the host text's predictable but obscured ideology, in the process teasing out its most fertile . . . subtexts."

From the Columbine High School massacre to a man accused of sexually abusing livestock, Jaffe unabashedly forays into the world of journalism to reveal a variety of often hidden or nuanced ideological agendas, or blatant cultural assumptions and political objectives that are so often overlooked by most readers. Jaffe dives into these "true" stories, and emerges with an unsettling almost Baudrillard-like vision of America; i.e. a horrific veil of simulacra replete with image upon image of startling, darkly comic, and nightmarish human behaviors.

In all of the stories, Jaffe attempts to locate the kernel of the narrative and reveal the grotesque, comic and absurd character of American culture. In stories like "Carthage, Miss."-in which a young, nine-year-old boy fails to report the death of his mother and presumably lives with the corpse in a trailer for days-Jaffe comes close to revealing what's beneath the veil of media discourse, i.e. real families and real people. In the final piece, "Dr. Death," a faux/virtual Internet interview with Dr. Kevorkian, the doctor responds to the talk show interviewer by saying, "Think for a minute. Because you're an Internet host in a shiny suit with surgically repaired features and a hair weave shouldn't prevent you from thinking." Later in the same story, in a somewhat didactic but poignant moment, he writes, "You say 'scientists' as if it's a privileged category. Scientists, like lawyers and corporate managers, and Internet hosts, tend to be cowards. Afraid to deviate from the culture that rewards their cowardice. When challenged, they justify their cowardice with lies and character assassination."

In the story "Mad Cow," the author weaves and juxtaposes numerous vignettes that range from agricultural terrorism to sex with livestock to what seems like a pre-9/11 glimpse at bin Laden. What emerges is a comic/tragic view of human kind's relationship to animals and to each other. Jaffe's deadpan humor and candor, in lines like, "Several ranchers reported that their horses behaved 'strangely' after what they described as Milhous's trespassing late-night visits," demonstrates his ability to joke as well as disturb, and his sardonic wit often buoys the text. However, his "treatments" too often do not explore deeply enough; they rarely uncover the disturbing "reality" or human quality that lies behind the news stories.

Still, the conceptual framework for this collection of altered-found-texts is an intriguing glimpse at the ways in which journalistic language is never completely objective, and in fact, how all texts are political configurations in one way or another. Jaffe is acutely self-conscious about the way in which these new "prosthetic texts," as he calls them, are "rearmed," to work a different kind of audience manipulation-one that he hopes will prove to be more insightful and enlightening than the original. Though he doesn't always pull it off, the more effective of these pieces engage the reader with a dark sort of laughter.

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Summer 2002 Table of Contents