New York Dolls
By Travis Jeppesen.
Transhumain, Bruce Benderson (Manuels Payot 2010)
Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), Eileen Myles (O/R Books 2010)
Last Seen Entering the Biltmore: Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975-2010, Gary Indiana (Semiotext(e) 2010)
Few living writers interest me. I suppose it sounds arrogant, and I’m happily willing to chalk it up to a deficiency on my part, this lack of interest in the present, really a lack of interest in the present literary world, though I strongly feel that there is very little of interest occurring in that world and therefore why should I waste my time with it when there are plenty of things going on in other media that merit much more attention, not to mention books by dead authors going back thousands of years that I have yet to read and seem so much more pertinent than anything going on today.
There are exceptions to this, of course, and the three main ones are living writers I’ve been reading since I was a teenage kid: Bruce Benderson, Gary Indiana, and Eileen Myles. On the surface, they have a lot in common. Though they all happen to be New York writers, all three are a bit more Valerie Solanas than Andy Warhol. They’re all homos who refuse to toe the line about what it’s supposed to mean to be a “liberated” (i.e. commodified) homosexual artist in America today. And for that reason and related ones, though they are all similarly known, they all are suffering, to some extent, from neglect. Well, let’s just say they have been the recipients of much of the same hostile indifference with which the United States increasingly rewards its most monolithic thinkers and artists.
“Je suis désormais convaincu que la révolution qui vient, la révolution technologique, est la plus irrésistible de toute l’histoire humaine. Les changements qui nous attendent, et qui se développeront à un rythme de plus en plus rapide, balayeront toute l’humanité, sans explication et sans préparation, l’entraînant vers une nouvelle réalité radicale qui ne modifiera pas seulement notre style de vie, nos moyens de communication, nos perceptions et nos émotions, mais aussi la nature même de notre monde, la structure de nos cerveaux et de nos corps et peut-être la certitude que nous sommes mortels.”
I should say that Bruce Benderson has been something of a mentor to me for more than ten years. He taught me everything I know about literary translation, a lot about writing, but most of all about life. So if anyone has a problem with me writing about my mother in public, please skip this section and move on to the next (I know Eileen Myles only a little, and Gary Indiana not at all.)
Benderson has long been celebrated in France, where he is revered as a major writer and an intellectual behemoth. His books often appear in French translation before they are published in the original English, and he contributes regularly to many of the country’s mainstream intellectual journals, magazines, and newspapers. Fluent in French – he has translated, among others, Pierre Guyotat, Virginie Despentes, and Philippe Sollers – he has recently begun penning essays directly in his second language, culminating in his latest book, Transhumain, his first written wholly en français.
Outside of the savvier circles of the urban milieu in his own country, Bruce is maddeningly underknown, despite being one of the more prolific chroniclers of the lost Eden that was Times Square in the 1980s and early 1990s, prior to Rudolf Giuliani’s Disneyfication of the New York city center. In his first novel, User, his best-known essay, Toward the New Degeneracy, and his early collection of short stories, Pretending to Say No, Benderson emerged as the leading theorist of New York’s counter-culture back when it still had one. As a stifling, middle American mall mentality began to take up every remaining breath of oxygen in New York throughout the last decade of the 20th century, there was nothing left to do but escape, and so it makes sense that Benderson’s work found its most solid footing on European soil during this time. This culminated in his winning the Prix de Flore for his 2004 memoir, Autobiographie érotique, later published in the US and UK under its original title, The Romanian, which relayed the author’s tumultuous relationship with a Romanian hustler he met while on journalistic assignment in Budapest. More recently, Semiotext(e) put out my favorite Benderson book to date, Pacific Agony, an uproarious satire of the roadtrip novel, which finds a displaced decadent New York homosexual – an extreme parody of Bruce himself – on an aimless tour of the Pacific Northwest.
The central premise of the book-length essay that is Transhumain is that within the next thirty-five years or so, technology and biology are going to converge, permanently altering what it means to be human. The implications of this cyborgian future are far-reaching and complex. Virtual reality will eventually overcome “reality” as we’ve previously known it and become the sole reality. We will no longer “use” the Internet; we will become the Internet. Even death will most likely be evaded, as it will become possible to copy and download one’s brain. When science is able to build a machine that is more intelligent than the most intelligent human being on the planet, then what will become of us?
The underlying point of Transhumain is that this is all inevitable, whether we like it or not. Knowledge is power; the best we can do is be aware of what is going to happen, and through knowing, we can hopefully play some sort of role in controlling what is our collective destiny as a species. Or, if not control it, then hopefully optimize it, making the conditions of the future less oppressive for our non-material bodies, our spiritless minds. The threat, of course, is that consumerism will overtake everything, that we will become slaves to the overarching system – though, of course, to a big extent, we already have. What’s more, the coming era will radically transform the entire Western philosophical canon, as it will put an end to all of the classical dualities that have formed the core questions of that tradition. Some critics have complained that Transhumain raises more questions than it is able to answer. Well, that’s the whole point that both Benderson and the technological singularists whose work he explores (such as Ray Kurzweiler) are trying to make. Once we manage to create, as a species, an intelligence that is greater than ours, we will have created God, and will no longer be able to predict – beyond Its creation – what It will do with us, Its creator-servants.
It’s a shame that Transhumain is only available in French at the moment, as it forms an invaluable link in the ongoing formation of Benderson’s oeuvre, serving as a sort of extended follow-up to the title essay of his collection Sex and Isolation, penned during the “New York decline” years, which lamented the loss of urban space for libidinal exchanges of energy, and explored the potentialities and limitations of the virtual realm as the new centerless center for erotic encounters.
“I would say by the time I lived in New York my poems were no longer abstract. I mean by the time I knew poets. I wasn’t writing about a symbolic world in which everything was all mental and preachy. I could tell when a poem had a little weight, it was real.
“For me, that weight is about feeling. I’m not an exclusively emotional poet, but I start with a problem and I keep returning to the feeling of it, not the idea. I don’t replace it. It seems if you stay in an actual groove (a non-verbal pot) then the poem never really gets lost or boring.”
Eileen Myles is really one of the poets who invented what it means to be a New York Poet – that entire mode of being in the world – and her new book, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), is a recording of that becoming.
I always find it interesting how every ambitious young writer in America believes it’s necessary to move to New York. To become a New York Writer. Without even realizing that that mold already exists or having any cognizance of who invented it, at least in the late 20th century sense – writers like Myles (and Indiana and Benderson, among others.) You have to go somewhere else to invent your own mold, your own way of being-in-the-world, and New York is no longer that place. I realized that when I was finishing college in New York, and then I got out of there. Then the towers came crashing down, America spent the rest of the decade suiciding itself, and I knew I had been right all along.
Prefaced with a Walter Benjamin quote – “The distracted person, too, can form habits” – Inferno goes on to show how distraction can truly be sculpted into an artform. I hate using hackneyed, high school English class terms like “stream of consciousness”; let’s just say that Inferno is a long poem masquerading as a novel. What this means is that the thing is rife with sentences that are more like lines. Though organized in prose, you can find little poems throughout the thing. Like a paragraph, or a section, or a chapter, will also work as an individual poem. And the thing, in its entirety, comes across as a Dante-esque epic.
There are also great gossipy bits about an entire generation of writers of which Eileen Myles has been a part. Though she only rarely calls them out by their full names, the discerning reader will pick up on a lot of “behind the scenes” doings of the likes of Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, Richard Hell, Sylvere Lotringer, Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, Alice Notley, and James Schuyler, to name a few.
There’s no underlying structure to Inferno, to speak of – there are sections; in reading it, you realize how fascist it is to yearn for structuring, this desire for art to impose structures on life, imprisoning it. Because that is not what life is; life has no underlying structure; life is disorder, and it takes a real artist to be brave enough to come forward and show that through their work.
That’s not to say that there’s no overarching “story” or plot, but as Gary Indiana says, the best novels have no essential plot. I mean, how do you a summarize a poem? You repeat the poem word-by-word. The same with a novel, or at least it should be, if it’s any good.
Fuck linearity, Myles says, I’m going to tell my story as it occurs to me. So what we get is a novel of fragments. Fragments that flow into one another, forming a great symphony. The form(lessness) is actually appropriate for a work that dares to ask so many difficult questions with no apparent answers. Such as: What does it mean be a female poet? What does it mean to be a lesbian in this society? How do you maintain relationships with other people when they are so difficult to read? Okay, so this one perhaps has a clear answer: You develop your own way of reading, suggests Myles, and you do it through writing.
For Inferno is very much what Roland Barthes would call a “writerly” text, or what later academics would call “generative.” Literature like this is the most exciting because you can actually feel it being created as you’re reading it. It’s all about flows of intensity, in the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense. Just as the poet carves out her own space, though, she also creates her own sense of time, and, as Inferno shows, even more so in a novel than in a poem. In this sense only, the novel is like a poem on a grander scale. There is no temporal unity in Inferno; Myles will be writing about something that happened yesterday and that flows into something that occurred thirty-four years ago. It doesn’t matter; there is no matter. Memory doesn’t spit out physical objects, all pristine and shiny. If there is such a thing as a truth in writing, about writing, then it’s always located in the roughness around the edges. The “mistakes.” The hedges.
It is certainly no mistake that a chunky middle section of Inferno takes the form of a sardonic grant application. All three of these writers are seasoned enough to know well the burdens of institutionality that form one of the few hopeful “alternatives” for the subversive under global capitalism. The presence of Myles’s designated audience in this section – whether real or imagined – gives us a sample of the author’s badass humor while reminding us of the inherent performativity of her work. The voice is everywhere. The voice repeats: Come on, I dare you, fund the unfundable. Enable this revolution to unfurl.
I’ve heard Eileen Myles called the Last of the New York School Poets before, and this sounds somewhat right, at least from a generational standpoint. But for someone who supposedly comes at the end of something, her work is clearly lodged in the continual presentness of productivity, which is perhaps the last vital weapon left in the war of art that is our culture.
“The implemental effects of this reality don’t only compromise writers: filmmakers, artists, every kind of cultural worker in the global capitalist system is compelled to internalize templates imposed by the apparatus of production and distribution. The bureaucracies that operate the consciousness industry now only allow 5 percent of originality into its menu items, so to speak, and what that means is, if you want access to mainstream markets, the bureaucracies tell you what to write, how to write it, and what ideas are acceptable and which ideas aren’t allowed.”
Gary Indiana’s novels, journalism, and cultural criticism alike stem from the worldly mind of someone who has lived his life on the fringes of society – the only position I’m aware of where one truly earns the privilege of exercising critical bias against that society. Whether working in the domain of “fiction” or “nonfiction,” this fascination with the endless monstrous possibilities of human consciousness always stems from a singular mind that has few living parallels I’m aware of. He’s truly an unusual fixture on the American literary scene, where the majority of what is celebrated tends to be lacking in both intellectual rigor and aptitude. If there were a place for the public intellectual in American life today, Indiana would be a celebrated media fixture; something like Susan Sontag in the not-so-long-ago, with a sensibility attuned to the humorous dark ironies of everyday life; on an international scale, his work is perhaps the most likely continuation of Frankfurt School criticism – certainly more so than Habermas’s wishy-washy pragmatic neo-liberalism. Whether he is addressing Fassbinder’s circle (as in his 1993 novel Gone Tomorrow), American politics in the Bush years (the brilliant book-length essay The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt), or the psychopathology of everyday life (read, if you haven’t already, his celebrated trilogy of true crime novels), Indiana is a brain surgeon for the brainless, all those who don’t realize that they need one.
I had seen mentions of Indiana’s plays in earlier bios of his books and was always curious. A new volume, Last Seen Entering the Biltmore: Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975-2010, collects all of his theatrical works as well as uncollected poems and prose, filling in the gaps of his early career, although to be precise, the book takes us up to the present day with its epilogue, “The Five Percent Paradox,” an extended dialogue with David Klein that dissects the workings of the consciousness industry that control the circulation of art and information.
In many ways, Last Seen Entering the Biltmore is as much an unconventional “coming of age” document as Myles’s Inferno. While hardly any of the work can be said to be directly autobiographical (though there are tidbits here and there, such as the brilliant account of the L.A. punk underworld, “Hollywood Signs,” penned in 1976), like Inferno, Biltmore shows us the inner landscapes of the artist’s evolution.
Indiana’s plays were produced in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s under the auspices of the Theater of the Obvious, a loose configuration of downtown artists and performers that included such luminaries as Black-Eyed Susan and Cookie Mueller. With titles like Alligator Girls Go to College and Curse of the Dog People, the plays are very much entrenched in a B-movie camp aesthetic, rife with over-the-top innuendo that calls to mind the antics of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company. They’re also pretty provocative, showcasing the outlaw fag’s daring to be as tasteless as possible; after finishing The Roman Polanski Story, which Indiana claims was written in the course of a single night while on speed, I found myself wishing for a sequel. And I can’t really think of a better coda for the ‘80s culture wars in America than Indiana’s last play to date, the one-man Roy Cohn, which portrays the closeted dirtbag of the Right in characteristic brutality.
Supplemented with interviews and introductory essays, Last Seen Entering the Biltmore brings much of Indiana’s early career into print. In that sense, it’s a totally necessary volume. Though I’m also still hoping that someone will compile all the art criticism he did in the ‘80s for the Village Voice and Art in America into a single volume. Soon, hopefully.
People ask me all the time, do you ever think you’ll go back to America to live one day. And I really feel like there’s no place for people like me there anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it—I do, but you can love something without particularly liking it. I don’t like the fact that writers like Myles and Indiana and Benderson aren’t more highly revered in their own city, let alone their own country. And I don’t think I’m alone. I believe that there’s a secret generation of young writers like me who have needed writers like this, who still need writers like this, and by denying them, then there’s no place for us to come up. So when Eileen Myles starts getting published by major publishers, when Gary Indiana gets a column in the New York Times Book Review, when Bruce Benderson gets a statue, that’s when I’ll feel like America is a country worth returning home to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Travis Jeppesen is the author of five books, including, most recently, Dicklung & Others, a collection of poetry. He lives in Berlin.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 25th, 2011.