I Am Not Jackson Pollock: Stories

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Who I Am Is Everyone: The Millions Interviews John Haskell

John Haskell’s fiction is like little else. Or is it non-fiction? Or is it just magic and not something to be too greatly dissected? In one collection and three novels, he explores the mind’s torsions in an uncommon, questioning manner within a first-person sense of orality, like being around a campfire with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At times, the wending way of Haskell’s narrators—who include a Steve Martin impersonator, a ghost, and those disembodied voices who talk about films and artists in I Am Not Jackson Pollack—are incredible chess-like gambits and logic-chopping suppositions both pre- and post- to frustrate (in a good way), embolden, and prod the reader. In his new book, The Complete Ballet, Haskell again presents a first-person speaker who is trapped by a real-life threat, based on a John Cassavetes film, but muses on the great figures of ballet in an effort to right his present trouble and past grief. We talked about the book, his process, and the Internet, through the Internet, this summer.

The Millions: As in American Purgatorio, death lurks in this new novel, the death of a child. Since you have a young daughter, I imagine there was more than a little mining of your day-to-day life. Something along the lines of Julia Kristeva’s “The speaking subject gives herself away.” I felt an inkling of that in this book, like the earlier one. Your narrators approach death and grieving obliquely, almost erasing themselves in the process of grieving. The subtitle of this book is A Fictional Essay in Five Acts. Which leads me to ask a naive question, Who is who? Or better, How close are you to your main characters? Do you feel you give yourself away when writing? And if you do, which self do you give away?

John Haskell: The whole idea of identity is slippery. It’s not a slope because there is no actual place where a person might slip, or if there is, it’s the place of having no identity, which to me seems similar to inhabiting multitudinous identities, and so, getting around to your question, yes, everything is real because once I’ve pictured it and once I’ve lived inside whatever event might be happening, it feels as real as so-called reality, so that who is who, meaning who am I, becomes a different question. Who I am is everyone. I’m both Haskell the ballet critic and Nureyev the dancer. I’m Cosmo, the character in the Cassavetes movie who kills the Chinese bookie, but I’m also me, the writer and character, and having said all that, the character of me in the story isn’t me.

TM: I noticed in this book a breaking up of narration within the sentence, a unique and fast way of pushing across action and scene, as in this sentence, “Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I’ll have one too.” That last clause, a brush of dialogue, of which there is barely any in the book, adds a sort of grace note to the details before it. How did you go about writing this way? Was it a conscious choice?

JH: Ah, the idea of conscious choice, or unconscious choice. Again, not to seem opaque, I’d have to say that conscious and unconscious, although they’re obviously not the same, seem the same when I’m writing. And maybe that happens because of rewriting. Going over and over, smoothing and simplifying and clarifying, and if I’m not listening to Bach then I’m listening to the continuity of thought that gets sucked into the language, creating a language that, I hope, makes sense of what I’m thinking.

TM: Do you mean you listen to Bach when you write?

JH: I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote The Complete Ballet but lately I’ve been listening to Bach. At the moment I have a flute concerto playing. When I say Bach I’m talking about what is almost a metaphorical music, with phrases that expand and collapse, which join and separate, not beginning because there was no ending to begin with, just flowing, an overused word but like a river flows the words of a sentence or thought can get carried along, sucked into the larger river that comprises the language itself.

TM: This book is made up of some plot points of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976. I know you have a love of film (and certainly Cassavetes) and have plumbed other great works from Psycho to Pickpocket to the film noir Detour. What made you take this film as template? Is there a special affinity for Cassavetes’s take on an old film noir standby, the gambler who loses and has to make up the mark for the mob? The film itself isn’t even a neo-noir really, with its examining the life of the striptease club Cosmo runs. Its cult reputation has grown, with many saying it was Ben Gazzara’s best performance.

JH: I’d been thinking of working with that movie, partly because of the mood of the movie and partly because of the narrative. And partly because of the way the movie disrupts that narrative. But I had trouble making it work for me. I kept writing and rewriting it, altering my version and getting farther away from the Cassavetes version, my character becoming less and less like Ben Gazarra and more like Cassavetes himself, and when I still couldn’t get it to work for me I thought it was because of the color, the sharp, saturated, contrasty reds and blues, that the color was messing with my plan. So I set it aside. But it didn’t go away, and eventually, after many transformations, I found myself inside the story in a way that started to make sense. And the milieu of ’70s Los Angeles started to make sense. Of course it made no sense to juxtapose that story with essays on Romantic ballet, but as I kept revising all the various incompatible elements the more it did make sense, or seemed to, and that’s why I called it Complete, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek because it would never be complete.

TM: I cling to what you say about the contrasty reds and blues in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Maybe because there is no color Cassavetes film that seems so memorable in terms of color, which may have to do with the nightclub scenes, but also those eerie daylight scenes. Did the ballet crossover come out of the nightclub act? What is your history with ballet?

JH: Not much history with ballet, but it started, I think, with some research I did, many years ago, on Joseph Cornell, an artist and balletomane who worshipped ballerinas with a perverse kind of nostalgia. Then, a few years ago, an ex-ballet dancer started telling me some of the stories of the ballets. That got me thinking, as did conversations I had with a choreographer friend about George Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers. Then, when I was rewriting the book, my daughter, who was about three years old, became a ballet fanatic. Together we watched the videos on YouTube and I began to see the stories of the ballets, including the stories of the people who made them and danced in them, as mythic. And I’m interested in how a story, especially a personal story, becomes mythic.

TM: Tooling around the Internet the other day, I found a Goodreads review of your novel, Out of My Skin. “I am not sure about this book. The language isn’t offensive-the writing isn’t bad-but it just made me feel really awkward. The weirdest part for me was when the main character goes into the impersonator’s house to meet his parents and gives them a tour of the neighborhood. It just seemed like too many boundaries were crossed.” The “it just made me feel really awkward” piqued. Are you adverse to writing in a way that would not make people feel awkward? Often we hear about people who avoid a book or movie because they think it will “depress” them. Do you think art can make one feel a certain way?

JH: Well, it often makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t have a design for what a person should feel. Only that something happens, a thought or emotion or…and speaking of Cassavetes, I remember the first time I saw Faces, or possibly it was Shadows, another early movie, and afterwards I walked out of Lincoln Center into Central Park, feeling a sense of excitement in my body, and it wasn’t directly about the movie but more about the art that had been revealed in the movie. I could call it beauty or honesty, and as my daughter said when she took her first swimming lesson, I feel excited and nervous, and I certainly don’t mean to make anyone feel awkward, but maybe being awkward is a kind of excitement and nervousness and maybe it was what the person needed. Or maybe that person preferred a different kind of book.

A Year in Reading: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Putting together a new syllabus reminds me of making mix tapes back in high school, something I really liked to do. I devoted a lot of thought to them, and their purpose was always a proselytizing one: to turn the recipient into a kindred spirit, or at least a fellow traveler. I hoped that if I came up with the right selections and placed them in the right order then the listener would find herself spellbound by songs that in another context might sound simply weird or loud or dated or spooky — and ultimately she would be changed by these songs, as I had been, and together we would see the world in a different light.

A syllabus offers me a lot of the same hope and pleasure that a mix tape once did, and this year all of my hopes were met, and more. The focus of this particular syllabus was experimental fictobiography (a clumsy term for a fluid form), and I wanted to include works that I not only loved but that also demonstrated a variety of methods for telling the story of a “real” person’s life: collage, verse, photographs, fragments, rebuses, found texts, etc.

The reading list looked like this:

Kathryn Davis: Versailles
Donald Barthelme: “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Cortés and Montezuma” from Sixty Stories
Anne Carson: “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God
Michael Ondaatje: Coming Through Slaughter
Anna Joy Springer: “Kathy Acker’s Mystickle Snail and Bone Pedagogy” from Encyclopedia Vol 1 A-E
W. G. Sebald: The Emigrants
Todd Haynes: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Jonathan Coe: Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
John Haskell: I am not Jackson Pollock

And I don’t know exactly why, but this turned out to be the best mix tape I ever made. Somehow the possibilities suggested by these texts gave rise to the most surprising and beautiful work I’ve seen in a writing class. Students were writing about subjects ranging from Helen Keller and John Hinckley, Jr. and Messalina to Amie Huguenard (girlfriend of Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell) and Alisha Klass (gonzo porn star) and Bando Tamasaburo (kabuki actor), and doing so with supreme confidence and insight and adventurousness. Never before has one of my syllabi (or my mix tapes) brought forth this sort of thrilling response. It made for a year of elated reading.

More from A Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: An Emerging Best of List

Last year, Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network and its accompanying blog sent me his list of best books by emerging writers. The post was a big hit, and he was kind enough to share this year’s list with us. Enjoy:NovelsAmerican Purgatorio by John Haskell (interview, audio) – Haskell follows up his I Am Not Jackson Pollack with a page turner of a novel. He has adapted to the longer form with no problem at all.Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos (excerpt) – This is the debut effort by Dean, who has also published many excellent short stories in literary journals the past few years.Homeland by Sam Lipsyte (excerpt) – This one won’t be unfamiliar to LitBlog readers. Lipsyte’s paperback original has some great black humor and was well deserving of the attention it garnered.Bitter Milk by John McManus (excerpt [pdf]) – John’s debut novel after two well received short story collections, and it is quite original with a narrator that may or may not exist, and if he does, it could be in various relationships to the youth he narrates about.Belly by Lisa Selin Davis (excerpt) – Another debut effort, Davis takes an interesting look at how small to mid-size American towns are changing, or Walmartizing, in the 21st Century. That she doesthis and allows her readers deep into the relationships of a specific family is pretty impressive.Garner by Kirstin Allio (excerpt) – A winner from Coffee House Press – Allio writes of a small New England town and sets her tale nearly a century in the past. Her descriptions of the landscapes and the townfolk put her readers right in their lives.Last year’s list had two authors that were established, but not nearly as much as they should have been, in Steve Yarbrough and Percival Everett. This year sees a similarity with authors Lee Martin and Walter Kirn:The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (excerpt) – His second novel and sixth book (including a hard to find chapbook) overall, The Bright Forever is a stunning novel told in various points of view. A little girl disappears and Martin slowly allows his readers the full story – the anguish and honesty he is able to infuse his characters with as they spill this tale is incredible.Mission to America by Walter Kirn (excerpt) – Like Martin, not a newcomer, but a well-respected author who hasn’t received the sort of attention that he has with this latest effort which only boosts Kirn’s reputation as one of today’s better satirists. He takes on religion, new ageism, health nuts, and many others his latest.Short Story CollectionsSightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (excerpt) – An excellent debut collection from this author whose name is sprinkled about in the story anthologies the past two years – Best New American Writing, BASS, O’Henry, etc.God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell (excerpt) – Bissell lets his experiences in the Peace Corps and as a journalist lead him into many excellent short stories mainly set throughout countries formerly part of the USSR. The best in this collection will rival the best you’ll read this year.Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami (blog) – This collection, Lalami’s first, follows four Moroccans as they try to find what they hope will be better lives if they can get into Spain. The stories are very well written and the collection is set up very interestingly with the story of the attempted trip to Spain leading off, and then individual stories about each of the four characters Lalami concentrates on – first a story of each of their lives prior to the trip, and then a story of each of their lives after it.We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake (excerpt) – Coake is a writer not afraid to tackle the longer story as this collection has a novella or two in it. He’s also not afraid to tackle heartbreak and sorrow, but does so in a manner that doesn’t beat his readers up. He gets right into the minds and feelings of his characters.Copy Cats by David Crouse (excerpt) – One of this year’s Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winners. The collection has some excellent stories, including the title story which leads it off, but the big winner is a stunning novella that leads me to hoping Crouse is working on something a bit longer like a debut novel to look forward to.Big Cats by Holiday Reinhorn (excerpt) – With her debut, Reinhorn slips into T.C. Boyle neighborhood – her opening lines completely grab the reader and let them know that the author is completely aware of her characters and their situations. The stories also tend to grab odd situations you hear of occasionally, but rarely read about, and use them to allow her characters to move their lives forward.Non-FictionOrphans by Charles D’Ambrosio – (excerpt) – This collection of essays has the bonus of being an interesting little book published by Clear Cut Press. Besides the different look, and pocket size, the book has D’Ambrosio’s writing which is frequently stellar. I found myself reading about religious haunted houses and mobile home inspections without being able to set the book down – a true testament to his writing. Beyond those couple of essays, there are some really interesting efforts that were previously published in a Seattle alternative newspaper about topics I’d be more inclined to read about.House: A Memoir by Michael Ruhlman Ruhlman continues as one of the best in the non-fiction genre these days, choosing a topic and writing about it, completely covering it and allowing the reader to appreciate it in ways they may never have considered. Following past efforts that took on single sex education, cooking, and wooden boats, this time around, Ruhlman writes of a 200 year old house in Cleveland that he and his wife purchase and restore.Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) (interview) – I don’t think I set this 300 plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.One Last BookThe Bear Bryant Funeral Train by Brad Vice – Unless you already have a copy, or are willing to drop nearly a thousand dollars to obtain one, you’ll not get a chance to read this former Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner. The press recalled and pulped as many of the copies as they could (and it sounds like they got most of the small print run) due to what is being referred to as plagiarism in the opening story, “Tuscaloosa Knights.” It’s too bad something else couldn’t have been figured out as Vice is one helluva writer. If you look around, you can find many of the stories that are within the pages of the few copies floating around – at least two have been in the Algonquin Best New Stories of the South series in the past few years. A recent Five Points has the story, Mule, in it. The story that caused the trouble can be seen at www.storysouth.com (look for the link there to Thicket, where the story truly is located).{Ed: Dan recently responded to further allegations of plagiarism against Brad Vice at his blog.}

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