Terminal Park, a novel by Gary J. Shipley, reviewed by Dave Fitzgerald

How do you write about the meaning behind a book whose core subject is essentially the end of meaning? How do you encapsulate a book that struggles to contain itself? That churns, and roils, and seeps off of every page until its typeface is practically crawling up your arms and invading your orifices like the sentient swarms of saprophytic flies that darken its apocalyptic skies? How do you do it? And what, exactly, is the point in trying? Indeed, it feels like there is more to say about Gary J. Shipley’s isotropic nightmare Terminal Park than any single write-up could possibly contain, and yet the gnawing suspicion remains that the book itself would urge you not to bother. That there’s nothing you can say about it—and more than that even, nothing it can say about itself—that hasn’t already been said a billion times over and counting (always “and counting”). That humanity is on its way out. That whatever meaning you’re searching for will not save you.

The basic setup for Terminal Park is the experience of one man—Kaal—living alone near the top of a luxury high-rise in Mumbai (a keen, fleeting vantage point, obtained through some combination of foresight and incalculable good luck) and quietly observing the evolutionary collapse of his species. What’s happening outside the tower isn’t an extinction-level event exactly. Extinction, in point of fact, would be an inarguably kinder state of affairs. Rather, Shipley imagines a future where humans have begun spontaneously splitting in two—or “fissioning” as it’s called in its earliest days, when society is still functional enough to assign names to phenomena—reproducing, over and over again, a la amoebae or bacteria, at an increasingly alarming and literally unsustainable rate. In short order, we learn that the Earth’s resources are all but decimated, that what’s left of the government has taken to firebombing dense pockets of population, obliterating people by the tens of thousands on a daily basis in hopes of beating back the tide of infestation, and that even such unthinkable measures as these barely move the needle. By the time we drop in on Kaal’s deluxe fallout shelter in the sky, the surface of the Earth has actually gained a new layer of human flesh—a gnashing, wailing, writhing, chewing, half-conscious, half-decomposed outer film of arms and legs and mouths and guts, teeming ever upwards—ever closer to Kaal’s glass-frame terrace—in the name of survival.

And survival is truly the name of the game under the rules of this Hellscape scenario. When I said earlier that Terminal Park was a book about the end of meaning, I was speaking somewhat physiologically, as in it Shipley imagines a state of existence where humans have lost touch with all but the most primal, biological needs; where everything to which we ascribe importance, everything in which we lose ourselves to distraction, everything that we tell ourselves matters, has been subsumed by the animal need to consume liquid, and organic matter, and oxygen; just in order to keep living for as long as our synapses will fire. If you think The Purge or The Walking Dead are as bad as life on Earth can get, then you’ve got another thing coming. Terminal Park is beyond kill or be killed; beyond eat or be eaten. It is only kill; only eat; kill, eat, repeat, ad infinitum.

As if that weren’t horrorcore enough, at the other end of the existential plain Kaal has begun a binge-watch for the ages—a video art project called 195 Days in the PsychoBarn, in which a man calling himself NB (short for Nikolas Berg) has embedded himself inside a separate art installation (a real-life piece by the artist Cornelia Parker) atop the roof of the Met (a 2/3 scale recreation of the house used in Hitchcock’s Psycho, a structure which was itself inspired by an Edward Hopper painting), and proceeds to film himself living there in secret for, you guessed it, 195 days. Conceived as a separate-but-parallel project with another artist (a woman, similarly delineated MC—short for Maeva Christensen), NB’s occupation has been planned down to the last detail—up to and including the volume of bodily waste he will produce and thus have to discreetly dispose of every day—but the longer he spends documenting his work (which takes place entirely inside another work) (which is itself a replica of yet another work) (which was originally based on yet another work), the further removed he begins to feel from his own artistic agency, and even the validity of such a concept. Doubling abounds, as near-identical reenactments of Psycho‘s most iconic stabbing begin appearing nightly in the park stories below NB’s clandestine perch. But if he’s the only one who ever sees these kabuki murder shows, then are they even really there? And if they are, in turn, being performed for his benefit, then is his presence in the PsychoBarn truly unknown? Is he in fact just a pawn? A living facet of MC’s work? Which is itself dependent on Parker’s? Is his work, as such, in fact theirs too, by dint of plagiarism, or conquest, or osmosis? Does any artist retain control of anything—own anything they’ve created—once it leaves their head and becomes part of the real world?

If there is any single plot point in Terminal Park that could reasonably be considered spoilable, it revolves around NB’s psychological unraveling in the latter half of 195 Days, so I’ll refrain from divulging too much more about his story here. The main thing is that, for Kaal, getting lost in the massive, 24/7 video project of another isolated person living in a time when humanity still found value in things like art and commerce and politics and morality, provides no real comfort. Just as the hordes of dismembered living and regurgitated dead will keep piling up outside until they crest his terrace window, and the top of his building, and presumably keep stacking until they reach air too thin to breathe, the minutia of interpretation and explication and theory and criticism and layer upon layer upon layer of real and possible meaning inherent in Psycho, and the countlessly repeated and referenced and homaged and pastiched works of art throughout human history also carries on without end. It’s no exaggeration to say that Terminal Park contains the bones of a fascinating Graduate Thesis on Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but it proceeds to spread them out and study them so closely as to render the idea of a functional skeleton all but moot. Its questions only lead to more questions, while outside the bodies only lead to more bodies. Perhaps the most heartbreaking observation Shipley makes in the entire book is that it is humanity’s very ability to remember life before the fissioning apocalypse began that prevents them from just giving up and letting go. It’s the hope for a return to the past—a return to meaning—that keeps them mercilessly cannibalizing the future.

So, in the end, it’s fun to think about what all Terminal Park means, at least in part because it’s worked incredibly hard to tell you that it doesn’t mean anything. Or that it means everything. Or that those two things are one-in-the-same. Is it an environmentalist fable about humans’ devastation of the planet? Absolutely (an oblique subplot about aliens having set the fissioning effect into motion as a way of turning Earth into a viable fuel source only drives this particular reading home). Is it a macro-satire of the overinformation age and the doomscrolling cacophony of social media? You betcha (a bit where NB describes listening to museum-goers make the same banally erudite observations while visiting the PsychoBarn day after day can’t help but bring to mind the infinite cove of IMHOs we stare into every day of our oh-so-modern lives). Is it meaningful that Kaal translates literally to mean “time” or “era” and can also refer more generally to the Hindu god of death, establishing his character as a kind of nexus between eternity and oblivion? Probably! What about the fact that, in addition to corresponding to Norman Bates and Marion Crane (the two main characters in Psycho), the initials N and B represent the abecedarian outward expansion (forward and backward, respectively) from the letters M and C, suggesting that the latter and his art (and his attendant psychic meltdown) are little more than an orchestrated outgrowth of the former and hers—a real-time reincarnation of the perverse, mother/son doppelgänger feedback loop depicted in the film? Maybe! I thought it, and I wrote it down here, so sure. Why not?

Or rather—and this is pretty clearly where I’ve landed with this sensational, mind-expanding-to-head-exploding work—is Terminal Park an invitation to examine our own priorities, desires, and ethics as it radically centers its protagonist, and us along with him, directly between the infinite without, and the infinite within? A pinhole of daylight, hollowed out between twin crushing expanses of endless night? A quiet spot to sit and think? I couldn’t help but notice that the title itself, Terminal Park, never appears within the narrative proper, and as such I found myself coming to read it (rightly or not) as perhaps Shipley’s own meaning for this text: a literal park at the terminus of existence; a sandbox for ideas; a jungle gym of competing theories, all interconnected, but all leading to the same place (nowhere); a playground from which to safely interrogate both the infinite, and the infinite impossibility of that same interrogation. For as grim as Terminal Park is—and it is quite grim—it also still manages to be bizarrely funny, and surprisingly moving, amidst all the entrails and viscera. That the PsychoBarn installation was real, and thus that the book itself is heavily dependent on the existence of yet another work of art, was a fascinating discovery I didn’t make until after I’d almost finished this article. It truly is a bottomless trip—a cannonball into the void. But whether that void is a terrace window slowly filling up with our abject fellow man, or a video screen staring back at us from our own doomed, nauseatingly repetitive history, the void is, and has always been a mirror, above all things. And try as we might, we cannot look away.

Terminal Park, by Gary J. Shipley. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Apocalypse Party, September 2020. 208 pages. $12.99, paper.

Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.

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