Gonzo at the Heart of the American Empire
By Richard Marshall.
Andrea Lambert, Jet Set Desolate, Future Fiction, 2009
This is all night, all soul, all doom tripping talk spread through our last rancid decade ending in a floating severed rib of violence and desolation that makes total sense of the title and has the wild hair strands of its own gorgeously doomed prose dangling filthy and chewed into gutty freaks of semantic play in a punk re-enactment of amphibious yellow tragedy.
It’s a stream line of ominous delirium sliced into conversations that randomly shoot back and forth through a slippery, greasy wacked out senselessness of time. Everything seems to want to be killed in this novel – the sex, the drugs, the music, the spaces between people, all of them delirious for a high that can’t be fed and doesn’t satisfy even the meager expectation of recognition – characters that seem to hold some sort of self-definition, some sort of understanding in their own souls, each is thrown over and out, blammed into the edge of darkness which was where they started to unravel from before the story even had legs. Everything shreds as it talks, and as the dramas fray so too the sense of any way out, because these foxy characters don’t know how they’re doing so reasons become as flimsy as the excuse for not going back with someone after a fuck in a breakroom in the Rosetta Bar.
You get a shit smell of empathy with the shit through every sordid sour detail and hints in the breaks and restarts as the narrator tries to hold the narration together that this is fucked, that this is going to hell and that there’s nothing, nothing, nothing going to come out of this but bad dying. Lambert writes this like a death queen, perfect timing, perfect detail, perfect style, not blinking as the scenes shoot back with a fierce and savage illness. It’s hell but the scooped out perfection works like the spaced out uber cool of porn imagery or the quality of ice stocking the veins that you get when reading stories form the debauched countercultures of yore. The anchor of the steady voice throughout is cut to ribbons by the insistent nihilism of hope and scattered, abandoned self- consciousness.
This is an imagined sensibility of extreme loathing, a selfless delirium of seething disgust for what has been gifted to her by elder generations she doesn’t get and the powers that lord it over the world, the powers that curtail jacked up soaring bliss out with torture and bombs, rape and glamour, the faked up hope of Clinton ending in ridicule and a blow job cranking up into worse, so much worse to follow, Bush and his cronies with their money and stupidity. If the narrator loves and loves all the crazed sexed fag-end foxy boys and girls that make up her a force-field of self-destruction she does it with a remorseless and everlasting hating, hating to the point of extreme brain snapping close-down and there’s nothing that works, there’s not even the hope of any effective functionality beyond fucking, trancing out and sleeping once that gets realised.
This writer kills fascists with her book and we die again and again as she extends a story that the history books are going to retell without so much as dropping a syllable about the way modern Americans think about modern America. It’s a regroove of sixties freakout gonzo San Francisco. The horror the book exposes is the negative backwash of the gut wrenching thug leadership of the USA throughout the period, thugs who turn out to be mass murderers, more vicious and more stooped than any character in this story, so the blood on Bush’s hands and his cabinet of fiends is like way back then when we were reminded by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson that Lyndon Johnson was more vicious than Mussolini and more stupid than Hitler and that Robert McNamara’s hands were so bloody that after five years he forgot the smell of blood.
But it’s happening all over again, the same stupidity, the same pure viciousness ands yet again they’re getting away with it. Righteousness got stolen again and leaves a hole, a negative sense of oblivion that is the very heart of the American Empire. This is the oblivion that the lives in Jet Set Desolate define and demand visibility so that the scum of the higher echelons of the US administration with their secret torture camps and killing sprees and their black lies through cancerous teeth right through to the end mocks everything good makes us monkey stupid too, helpless in the shadow of its overbearing, impossibly strong and undefeatable horror. Money and politics stinks because the rich and political elites trotted with the typical gait of Amok and have taken abuse and cruelty beyond imagined limits.
The lives here, self-inflicted abuses and derangement, are the sane responses of young lives facing the total failure of humanity their government instantiated. The rape of the good and the goddam bad-queer dirty little thing that is the soul of Bush and his gang are flushed out as unwritten shadows looming over all these individuals’ lives, shadows that swarm out over the whole world touching the other even worse bastards out there. Lambert gives us how it is growing up with a conscience and an eye on a pure life try and live in this America that is the world without light, without conscience, without any sense of good power left anywhere.
Their hellish dramas are angelic dream worlds imperfectly relished and realized by traumatized children. The evil spell over their world has them gripped and trapped by a logic that has to destroy them but also enables them to reveal America and the world it’s policing as a brutal gang-banging freakshow. This is Howl revisited, the best minds of the generation (God help us if they really are the best…) sealing their own fate across a detonated, bombed out landscape of needles, semen, blood, shit, skin, and smashed up chemical relationships, the dumb spoil of the rejected working out their ethical response to a Word-God that first rejected them, deep down, in the belly hole of shadows and disgust.
These lives trawl through a living that, though it talks, isn’t determined by the categories of words. Word-God makes us all ventriloquist dummies according to Burroughs and the attempt to take the hand from under the skirt and not be anyone’s dummy, ever, but rather find a fleshy new way, is the evolutionary impulse storming through each character.
The death last week of Steven Wells was a sad reminder of how precious it is that writers write to make things happen, that reports from the front-line are not objects of mere art but are propaganda that haunt the blistered minds and hearts of anyone that can read. Wells took his extreme stance into what seemed even the most prosaic subject to force the reader to encounter the ethical and spiritual need that is everywhere and for everyone and never ends. Lambert is that kind of a writer too, sending out a front-line report from the border rumour of a crime that lies buried deep down in us all. It is bloody intelligent writing, doesn’t write outside of margins but maintains a cool disregard for subcultural mannerisms. Lambert knows that movements matter – there’s a riff three quarters of the way through when one of her characters makes this explicit – it’s not that Lambert is using characters as a cipher for her own opinions but she sure as hell knows what the argument is, knows that all the time art movements existed so did the monsters and often there was a disregard even collusion between them and anyway for many it’s too expensive to get engaged.
As someone says, “Artforum’s too expensive to stay abreast of, when I’m working my ass off just to eat.” The implosive stubbornness of this scene is one that has understood an ambition and seen a way of realizing those ambitions, those of wanting to be good and fulfilled and happy and just full of bliss – has understood it all and realized that it is all too far away, too out of reach, costs too much, and that if followed through you would just end up being ridiculed, humiliated and despised. There’s a sense that reality is humiliating them, that humiliation is another source of their desolation.
There’s a story the narrator tells about an art instructor. “I remember I was working this canvas once, all of these different scenes like postcards of Byzantine gold, with a Virgin Mary at the centre, and the story of a woman tying up a man and shooting him… when in a state of grace, when grace is lost… And he would come around, each week, and tell me, “Lena, you have to stop this, this type of art-making is over. You will never go anywhere with this, gallery-owners will laugh at you. You need to go abstract.” It kind of is emblematic of what’s happening in the whole story. That corny west coast cliché ‘when grace is lost’ ties us in with the rather shallow feyness that nevertheless means directly, without embarrassment, what it says. It is a chosen style – not the eviction of style – but one that doesn’t care a damn about whether it sells, embarrasses others, makes money, gets you anywhere. Rather it’s the damned catchiness of it, the fact that she wants to relate her paintings with what matters to her, that makes sense to her, to what she wants to say or express, it’s this that isn’t cool, is challenged and thrown down.
The naivety that this scene points up is that of the whole community of the novel. These are people who have edged themselves towards an attempt at self expression, a stab of authenticity as a way of finding traction to move forward but of course it’s a doomed place, a road going to hell. Lambert is a knowy writer – in her recent interview she makes it plain that she has her sources – but the book isn’t overloaded with them. It is a fast read, with a long reach. I could be a book that you could film because it’s all dialogue and cut backs and sliced forwards so time is very jagged. The dialogue is fluid and funny and the scenes are the kind of scenes that would work visually. So that makes it more like Jaws than the Great Gatsby which couldn’t be filmed. Obviously it was but the film was shit whereas Benchley’s shark book was a brilliant film.
This book references films all the time as well which makes me think that Lambert had a film in mind and that this might be the script ghost. But it references loads of things – art for example – so could it be a painting too. What style, which artist would paint the book? It’s interesting to think what kind of soundtrack would be great for it if it was to be made into a film. I’d use something that wasn’t of the right time but had that fey halo sound, that dumb pretty sadness that really is sad and hollows out a mood because its, essentially, naïve about itself, verging on kitsch. Maybe some Finnish opera. They all seem very white.
It’s a book that raises the issue about victims – are these characters victims and if so, what are they victims of? And should we like them or are they hopelessly irresponsible, spoiled, distressed by their own distress? Well, I think Gatsby’s a good reference for this because what she’s written is a great slice of a time like Fitzgerald’s novel is too. It’s one of those representative generation books. The lead narrator is a slice of time passing. There’s not a great deal of intelligence in anything she says. It’s not analyzing anything really, but referencing what gets sampled, what’s on offer instead. She doesn’t make head or tail of the road to disaster that any reader can see she’s heading out on right from the opening line. So she’s a representative dumbness, they all are, but it’s a shining example of what this generation have been feeling, thinking and doing. You can’t admire them but then Gatsby and that crowd are pretty unintelligent and dislikeable when you think about all the creepy dialogue. So admiring the characters is hardly the point. Interesting to see the large role of alcohol in these lives. Like Mike Bracewell did for his generation in England Lambert’s doing it for hers in the USA. It’s a fabulous ride with a great white shark of an ending that swallows you down whole.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 29th, 2009.