It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
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One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.
Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.
Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.
Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.
All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky. He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books. A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.
The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.
The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.
It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.
A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s: “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”
This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself. But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.” The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.
And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.
The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.
The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more. Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.
Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.
Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.
Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?
Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.
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Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker is one of the best books of the year. A biography of an elusive, and barely understood, literary figure, it’s also a secret history of a certain time and place. When I read an advanced copy, I couldn’t stop talking about the book. This included a conversation with Kraus’s Semiotext(e) co-editor Hedi El Kholti. He suggested that Chris and I should have a conversation about our two books. I hadn’t even thought of it, but it made a certain sense: my new novel, The Future Won’t Be Long, is concerned, roughly, with the same time and place as Chris’s book. Which is to say New York. The dirty New York. Before Giuliani and gentrification. And, besides, Chris Kraus changed my life. Literally. She was the editor on my novella ATTA, which Semiotext(e) published back in 2011. It’s all gone weird from there.
A few weeks ago, we managed a conversation about our new books. Here’s the result.
Jarett Kobek: I guess the best place to start is to explain our two books and then move forward. Your book, After Kathy Acker, is a formidable biography of a foreboding figure, Kathy Acker. As you know better than anyone, it’s impossible to summarize the whole of Acker’s life in a sentence, but to give an ultra-uninformative biopsy: writer, artist, performance artist, minor-literary celebrity, with a deep connection to New York and its era of transgressive art.
My book, The Future Won’t Be Long, is a novel about (amongst other things) the East Village in the mid- to late-‘80s and early- to mid-‘90s, and is concerned with lives and secret histories in the aftermath of the real heyday of the transgressive moment. If I were to give a snippet summary, I could do worse to say that its characters exist in a world that came after Kathy Acker.
A few months ago, I read Angela Nagel’s Kill All Normies. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to it, but it’s supposed to be a book about the rise of the Alt Right. But it’s curious, because her book ends up being a meditation on the value of transgression as a strategy, and how the Alt Right succeeded on a roadmap of co-opting and adopting this strategy. This would seem to be the entire methodology of the presidency: transgress all social norms and then, while the world plays catch up, transgress again. So now everyone’s like the characters in The Future Won’t Be Long. We’re all living in a world that comes after Kathy Acker.
All of this is a very long-winded way of asking you to do the least envious of things, which is to iron out the ambiguity of your title. What does it mean in 2017 to be after Kathy Acker?
Chris Kraus: Matt Fishbeck suggested that title, and frankly, I didn’t think about it that much. It just sounded right. Mostly, I guess because, as you say, it evokes the distance between her era and the one we’re living in now. And my approach to writing the book was to write through that distance.
Transgression has become so banal. Even within Kathy’s lifetime, by the time she left the East Village, a new generation of people like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd had far surpassed her transgressive capital. I mean, Joe Coleman was biting the heads off of rats in his performances, and how do you compete with that? If you have any sense, you don’t even try. Kathy was actually quite critical of that work, in some of her letters.
Your book is an incredibly precise and inspired evocation of a decade, 1986 to 1996. Without seeming to be one, or taking history as its literal subject, it captures the difference in consciousness, the texture of life, that’s emerged since those years. For one thing, the characters — who, as they themselves admit, aren’t all that remarkable, they’re lumpen-creatives, more or less — are formidably informed, as only savants are today. There’s a great line in Gary Indiana’s Resentment where Seth, the narrator, observes during a night-long group adventure, how each half-generation seems so much less informed than the last. Were you consciously trying to depict the difference in culture between then and now?
JK: We’ve entered an era in which, in theory, anything goes and yet everything is so much more restrictive than it was 20 years ago. The rules are subtle until you bang up against them. You have an excellent example of this in After Kathy Acker, when you write about the case of the writer Janey Smith and his fuck list, a moment in which it became clear what aspects of Acker’s work had been adopted and repurposed and what’s been rejected.
The idea was with Future was, exactly as you suggest, about making a contrast between then and now. I have officially reached a point in my life where I’ve started sounding old, but I have an inescapable sense that we’re in an era of calcification. The 21st century has turned everything that was even remotely interesting from the 20th century into a kind of religion, completely with dogmas and priestly castes. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what turned out to be a transitional moment before the hardening had fully set in. As lumpen-creatives, the characters are haunted by a past that was much more interesting than the one they’re living (at any given moment, New York is always better 10 years before, but in their case it’s true) and they’re also haunted by a future that’s about to hit them harder than they can imagine. With one exception, none of them are even particularly good with computers!
Which reminds me: towards the end of Acker’s life, it’s a different story. You paint a portrait of someone, just before her death in 1997, who is totally addicted to her computer and the nascent online world, a place where almost everyone would end up 10 years later. Do you think this was a result of her own exhaustion/disappointments with the role she’d found herself in, or was it an expansion of her previous work?
CK: By the mid-’90s, Kathy hit a wall, both creatively and in terms of her career, that must have been very painful. Her last two novels, Empire of the Senseless (1988) and In Memoriam of Identity (1990) had not been well received, at least not critically or within the literary world, in NY or London. She was living in San Francisco, drifting further to the margins of what she’d previously considered central. To me, the great poignancy of Acker’s life was that she’d outlived her dream. Literature, capital L, was no longer important in the same way. The time when writers could be cultural heroes was already over. Her publisher, Grove Press, was bought and sold twice in the last few years of Acker’s life…publishing had already become corporatized and hegemonic. Her writing had become somewhat repetitive, and so non-narrative that it was unreadable by many, and she hadn’t figured out another way. But she was trying. Rather than change her writing style, she looked to aspects of internet culture as mirrors of her own interests: avatars as a means of escaping fixed identity in gaming; the intricacies of coding as a metaphor for consciousness. Still, she wasn’t stupid. She already saw the limits of the internet, and I’m sure if she’d lived longer, she would have pursued entirely new directions.
I agree with you about the calcification, and the rules. The present’s very puritanical. In both our books, there’s an ethos of self-destruction, of losing yourself however possible, that’s been replaced by rigid self-protection. But at the same time — there were definitely winners and losers in that game. Towards the end of the novel, you have that beautiful passage: This is how the world works…in talking about who does, and doesn’t take the blame for Angel Melendez’s murder. I always thought the double standard between self-destruction and self-advancement was one of the hypocrisies that’s been edited out of memoirs and other histories of that era. Do you agree?
And, I’ve got to ask – what about the murders? Really, two of the most central events in The Future are the grisly murders of Monika Beerle and Melendez — murders “shared” by their communities.
JK: Future was intended to be a much shorter novel, purely about the Club Kids. As I wrote, the book kept expanding. I remembered Daniel Rakowitz and Monika Beerle.
For the readers who don’t know about either of the killings: Daniel Rakowitz was a guy who wandered around the East Village in a religious delusion. He was considered a more-or-less harmless nuisance. Then he moved in with Monika Beerle, who was a dancer at Billy’s Topless, and very shortly thereafter killed her. Because of the grisly circumstances, the story was one of those New York infamous crimes. Rakowitz dismembered Beerle’s body in a bathtub, boiled the head on his stove, and then apparently served the broth to homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. When he was finally arrested, Rakowitz brought the cops to a locker in the Port Authority, where he’d stored Beerle’s skull in a tub of kitty litter.
Angel Melendez was Michael Alig’s drug dealer. Michael was King of the Club Kids, a loose group of kids who hung around the city’s nightclubs and performed all kinds of outrageous antics, and who ended up getting a huge amount of media coverage. In 1996, Angel went to Michael’s apartment and ended up killed by Michael and a guy who called himself Freeze. Angel’s body was dismembered in a bathtub. Then Michael and Freeze dumped Angel in the river. The story played out in the press for months and months until Michael was arrested.
What I didn’t know until I started doing research is how much the two murders paralleled each other. Much like Michael Alig’s murder of Angel, everyone knew. Possibly an even greater number than knew about Alig killing Angel. Alig at least hid the body from his friends and played coy, sometimes saying he did it, sometimes saying he didn’t. Rakowitz showed people the remains. He told a ton of people that he had murdered Beerle. And like the murder of Angel, it took forever before there was any official involvement.
With Michael, everything was fabulous. Even murder. But Rakowitz was just squalor. So it seemed absolutely vital to include. To strip away the glamor. No one posts to Tumblr about Rakowitz being fabulous.
There’s an easy narrative about these killings — a story about how excess ends in horror. I don’t subscribe to that, but I do think the killings speak to something about the social scenes that end up lionized in books like mine. It sounds horribly dated describing it like this, but if you try to create a lawless society of outsiders, essentially a world without critical judgment, then the real temperature of that scene is taken when someone’s actions force you into a situation which manifestly demands judgment. And nothing does that like forcible death. This gets us back to the question about self-advancement and self-destruction. Because I agree, it’s almost always hidden. But there are always winners and losers. And I think it may be the same conditions which produce a blindness about it.
CK: Yes, that’s really interesting. Your book describes a period of total decadence, the last days of the underground empire, before the fall. I didn’t see that before, but the way these ‘communities’ react to the killings puts everything into focus. I was very aware of Monika Beerle’s murder – horrified by it. In my film Gravity & Grace, her killing kind of a secret subtext…the character Gravity has made a kind of stained-glass graphic novel depiction of it, installed on the panes of the French doors in her slummy apartment. Although mostly during that period, I remember the hordes of people selling their belongings on blankets in the street, and the rash of break-ins and petty crime in the East Village. You couldn’t park a car in the street without it being keyed or broken into. You write about the destruction of the Tompkins Square Park bandshell — the way someone painted over the Billie Holiday mural. I remember when that mural went up — my then-boyfriend Bud Hazlekorn helped to paint it. We’re seeing the same thing now in Lincoln Park, Boyle Heights, and MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Vandalism is the last gasp of resistance. In The Future, Baby and Adeline and their friends are just living their lives, but of course they’re part of the force of gentrification. And people like the drag queen Christine/Christian in your book just disappear in the most sordid, but wholly predictable ways. There’s a whole population that becomes the collateral damage of “the democratization of lust,” as Baby puts it, or excessive freedom. As the former Urizen publisher Michael Roloff told me, when I interviewed him for the Acker book,“What looked like the ‘greening of America’ in that neck of the woods metamorphosed into the wildest kind of neo-liberalism down in Tribeca and the East Village.”
JK: Speaking of complicity. It sounds absurd, given that Future is populated by historical figures, but including Beerle (as necessary as I found it) has sat poorly with me. That’s a human being whose murder has reduced her to a story about Rakowitz. Which is one that I have used and now participated in. What I’ve done is in some ways the antithesis of what you’ve done with Kathy Acker, but I wonder if there was any hesitation on your part in taking on a biographical project of someone who (I assume) you personally knew? Not so much in terms of the exposing Acker, but exposing yourself, linking yourself to the story?
CK: I didn’t know Kathy at all, and I think that made it easier to work on the book. As I wrote diplomatically in a publicity piece for the book, “our two brief social meetings were tinged with antipathy.” That is: she reflexively disliked me because a) I was no one, and b) I was married to Sylvere, who she’d been close to. For those reasons, and others, I thought it best to leave myself out of the story. But Kathy and I knew many of the same people, and we shared the same cultural influences. Writing about Kathy became a way of writing a revisionist history of New York in the 70s and 80s, just as you do in The Future for the following decade.
But getting back to “the democratization of lust” and neoliberalism: Your first novel, ATTA, is a nuanced and unsentimental psychobiography of the 9/11 suicide bomber. The book never justifies Mohamed Atta’s actions, but it steps back far enough from reflex moral condemnation to consider his rationale and motivations. Atta’s master’s thesis critiqued the introduction of Western-style skyscrapers in the Middle East and called for a return to the “Islamic-Oriental city.” Your radically propose that, at least in his mind, the destruction of the World Trade Center was a form of architectural criticism. Do you think your background as the son of a Turkish Muslim immigrant has given you a different perspective on the value of “freedom,” and how these values play out psychically and geographically?
JK: I think the hardest thing to talk about when it comes to neoliberalism is how, particularly in the era of the Internet, everyone is to varying degrees complicit in its relentless process of change. You literally cannot live in the US without exhibiting some complicity. There’s obviously different degrees in this assessment, but that’s been my life experience from the moment that I moved to NYC. The changes of the Giuliani era were performed, essentially, for my benefit. So it was very important to make sure that the characters in Future were situated in a time when they couldn’t be anything but gentrifiers, but who (perhaps with the exception of Adeline) see themselves as existing in resistance to the surrounding society. But they are of course key components of society’s forward march. The future really won’t be long.
The moment for me of brutal awakening (the process is ever ongoing) was 9/11. As you mention, I’ve got a personal connection, which is that my father was a Muslim immigrant to America. What happened on 9/11 was this: the least interesting thing about the man suddenly became the most important. He went from 20+ years experiencing literally no animus or prejudice to someone who climbed down a fire-escape at 5 a.m. to avoid his neighbors beating the shit out of him. He eventually left the country, which has been hugely damaging in some ways. If nothing else, his apartment in Turkey has given me a staging ground for travel around the Middle East.
But yes, I think that 9/11 and ensuing years of an endless American dialogue about Muslims — one which creates endless wars despite the political party in office and which on all sides has nothing to do with the lives of any Muslims I know or to whom I related — has caused me to become increasingly obsessed and skeptical about almost everything.
So that’s the reason, really, I was interested in writing a revisionist history. You mention that you used Acker’s bio for the same purpose. Why did you think it was necessary?
CK: Richard Hell’s memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, mentions Kathy in passing, a reference to some kinky-sex episode they had. And of course Richard wasn’t writing a book about Kathy, but I thought she deserved better than that. All of these memoirs and novels, photo exhibitions and films, were coming out about that era, the romance of the last avant-garde. And I found those depictions false. They necessarily edit out the texture of life: the boredom, the small competitions and rivalries. If you can’t tell the truth about an era you witnessed and lived, you can’t tell the truth about anything. Initially my motivation was to tell the truth about that era, in some small way, by tracking one person’s life. As I did the research, I became more interested in Kathy’s writing. Reading it closely, understanding her process, I came to admire her in ways I hadn’t before.
Do you think people will ever be done with New York? In a way, I think we’ve both tried, in our books, to finish with that romance.
When will people be done with New York?