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I first learned about the artist Rammellzee from Dave Tompkins’s book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, and I saw his Letter Racer sculptures in an exhibition a few years ago (which Tompkins wrote about for the Daily). Rammellzee is easily one of the most unique and most overlooked artists of the past fifty years, but until seeing the survey “Racing for Thunder” this week at Red Bull Arts, I hadn’t realized the extent of his genius. It’s impossible to sum up the breadth and depth of his Ikonoklast Panzerism (in which language is armored for protection) and the prophetic Gothic Futurist project in a few sentences—overlapping modes of music, graffiti, collage, performance, sculpture, writing. He worked according to faith and intellect and intense creativity. Included in this show are his Garbage Gods, intricate costumes constructed from material found on the streets of New York. (His loft-studio, the Battle Station, was on Laight Street in Tribeca.) Each figure is composed of and encrusted with myriad small objects—belt buckles, calculators, radio antennae, jewelry, lots of random plastic stuff—but the individual items disappear into the form of the structure; the whole is the sum of its parts. In these costumes, the fluidity of Rammellzee’s vision is most apparent: in a bit of discarded nothingness, he saw not just a larger creation but a world, a system, and a future. —Nicole Rudick
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what Sayaka Murata is doing in her award-winning novel Convenience Store Woman, which will be published in English next month. The plot (which really reads more like a long short story or a novella) follows a convenience-store employee nearing middle age, a woman who since childhood has been unable to perceive or adhere to social cues or norms. In her job as a clerk, however, she happily and successfully follows the unspoken guidelines and regulations of social transaction. The novel feels, at turns, like a critique of consumer culture and the strange comfort it provides, a feminist critique of the societal expectations placed on single women as they age, and an odd experiment with personality, forcing us to ask ourselves how much we draw on the outside world to shape what we believe to be our own unique identity. Amid these shifting perspectives, what remains constant is the witty, dark humor and charm of the well-intentioned narrator, who wants nothing more than the autonomy to simply do her job. —Lauren Kane
Photograph by Nicole Nodland.
On a slow day at work last week, I tore through Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetic memoir, The Terrible, in a matter of hours. I opened the book, read the words “My little brother and I saw a unicorn in the garden in the late nineties. I’m telling you,” and then four hours had passed, the sun had descended, and I had lived through a childhood in Northern England, a precarious adolescence, and a dangerous young adulthood. This is a complicated story, comprising dozens of characters and taking place over decades, and I wasn’t familiar with any of it, except to the extent that being black in America translates to being black in England. Somehow, though, I was able to glean the complexities of Daley-Ward’s life as lucidly as if it were my own. Untethered, the memoir slips in and out of tenses, perspectives, and styles, as the narrator sees fit. The Terrible is an impressive take on the memoir that prioritizes emotion over event, and Penguin Books is publishing it in less than a month. —Eleanor Pritchett
My girlfriend is writing about The Fourth Estate—a new documentary series about the New York Times’s coverage of the Trump administration—and so in a plus-one capacity, I recently got to watch the first three episodes. (It premieres on Showtime on May 27.) If you compulsively check the Times’s website, and did so throughout 2017, it’s fascinating to see, Rashomon-style, what was happening on their side of the screen: the staff meetings, the moments where they huddle around a single computer monitor, the dopamine fireworks whenever the Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, clicks the “publish” button. In one scene, Maggie Haberman takes a call from Trump, and you hear his voice from her earpiece. You hear how she laughs at his lame jokes and lets him feel that he is charming, and gets him to talk. (He goes off the record at one point. Those lines are tantalizingly bleeped.) When, in a different mode, Trump attacks the media to their faces at a rally in Phoenix, and his followers hurl threats, the camera is right there on the profoundly outnumbered Times reporter Mark Landler. You also glimpse these journalists’ personal lives, or lack thereof: Matthew Rosenberg makes a quick breakfast for his kids and spills his raspberries on the kitchen floor; Michael S. Schmidt talks about how he doesn’t even keep food in his apartment—he’s a bachelor, and all he does is work. Like any docuseries with reoccurring characters, the staff starts to feel like “the gang,” like a reality-show cast, and this is part of what makes The Fourth Estate fun and not just a stressful reliving of Trump’s America in 2017, setto the music of Trent Reznor. In the words of Haberman, who answers her cell phone right after posting the story about Priebus’s firing, “Are you just calling to say, Holy shit, can you believe this isn’t just an episode of House of Cards?” —Brent Katz
Photograph by Hickey-Robertson.
The late-afternoon light is thick on the ground in Houston. The long shadows of oak-tree branches feel unconnected to the light, more like paintings on the grass. Amid this gold-and-green landscape sits the Rothko Chapel, a squat octagonal building. Inside is one room of eight white walls hung with fourteen monumental monochrome Mark Rothko canvases, each seeming at first a solid pane of black. The only light is that which filters through a skylight fitted with a dark parasol. The outside light is abundant, but here, light is parceled out reluctantly, like a precious and guarded commodity. The Rothko Chapel is a space demanding time, for as your eyes adjust and you become attuned to the slightest shift in the light outside, the featureless black dissolves to reveal other colors glowing beneath—a purple spackle, a blue streak, a flash of red, a yellow haze between purple. It is like being inside a great closed eye. One does not see the paintings so much as one engages with the phenomenon of seeing. It reminded me of a tour I once took in a submarine. Before we left, the guide gave us a palette of color swatches and instructed us to watch them while we descended. As we did, and the light filtering down grew weaker, the colors drained and began to converge into a single grayish shade. Yet I could still see, or think I saw, a small suggestion of blue in the blue, red in the red, and I found them more beautiful in their spaciousness, blocks of color far from any light, shining. —Matt Levin
The camera is too close. Standing on a porch somewhere—it could be anywhere—the man sucks a long drag off a cigarette, dips the lens so we can see the smoke, and spits. “It’s fuckin’ nice out,” he says, and though you can’t see what he sees, you believe him. This is Young King Dave, a neck-bearded proponent of weed, a wannabe rapper, and the creator of some of the funniest things I saw on the Internet last year. With the oddball charisma of so many dead-end characters I met in high school, he coined his own vernacular (the comically large blunts he smokes are “doinks”; a stand of corn on the side of a rural highway is “in Amish”) and stole my heart. And like these same dead-end characters getting picked off one by one back in my hometown—by suicide, opioids, car crashes, other circumstances—Young King Dave is dead. He was nineteen. And though I saw him only in these twenty-second slices, blasted out across social media, I feel like I knew him. How do I mourn this loss? How often do we consider the human on the other side of a meme? Where is Lil Meatball? The screaming chasm of the Internet offers few pleasures. Young King Dave was one of them. Rest in peace. —Brian Ransom
Gorky and Fielding at an early stage of their relationship, taken by her brother on a beach near Norfolk, Virginia, in 1941. Image courtesy the Arshile Gorky Foundation.
Like most troubled romances, that between the famed Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky and Agnes Magruder (who later became Agnes Gorky Fielding) began with a misunderstanding. In February 1941, Willem de Kooning and Elaine Fried, themselves soon to be wed, encouraged the pair to attend a party so that they might meet. Gorky was expecting a blond, Agnes an extrovert, and though their expectations were initially disappointed, they quickly fell in love. He called her “Mougouch” (little mighty one), which she took as her name, and she moved into his apartment within the month. She became his muse, and together they had two children. Her life, in the years that followed, became consumed with housework, an occupation she resented with increasing disdain. Soon, things took a dark turn: the barn that housed Gorky’s paintings burned down; he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a colostomy; she had an affair with a Surrealist; he had a car accident in which he broke his neck and temporarily paralyzed his painting arm; she tried to soothe him; he pushed her down the stairs. When she and their children fled for her mother’s in Virginia, he hanged himself in a shed. She continued to shepherd his legacy, arranging exhibitions and sales of his work. Below, she recounts her initial meetings with him.
Her First Evening with Gorky
On our first night out, Gorky gave me supper at an Armenian restaurant on Thirty-Eighth Street. Afterward, we went for a walk uptown. It was snowing. We eventually arrived at Central Park and went right on walking. We got to the reservoir on Eighty-Sixth Street and went round it. Then back down the park, down Fifth Avenue as far as Fifty-Eighth Street, where I announced, I’m hungry. It was about two in the morning. Gorky had to feed me all over again.
It was a strange time. Lots of people were scared about the war. Scared about not having the right papers, scared about their identity. It was not clear on whose side we would fight. East of Lexington, from Eighty-Sixth Street upward, was Germantown, full of Hofbrau houses and dance halls. They didn’t want America in the war. Then there was Irishtown. Understandably, the Irish weren’t in favor of helping Britain either. I remember seeing a mad Irishwoman under the Third Avenue El, shaking her fist at the noise overhead of a passing train, thinking it was our bombers off to help the effing Brits.
Seeing Gorky’s Studio for the First Time
A few days after meeting Gorky, he took me to his studio on the east corner of Union Square and Sixteenth Street. My amazement at the great white room he occupied with his huge easel and the array of vases and jugs along the side of the low skylight, the silver gray parquet floor with only a round table and three straight chairs and a sort of daybed and a square black model stand punctuating this palatial space—thirty square feet—was overwhelming. He brought out painting after painting from a room off the entrance hall, some so huge and heavy I couldn’t see why the paint didn’t fall off. What did I think? I simply don’t remember, but considering my near total ignorance of everything after Cézanne I imagine I just felt, and what I felt never left me: a feeling of reality, as real as the man in front of them, or coming to my side, laughing at my wonder, smoking his cigarette, so at ease as though he were showing me a very strong chair he had made. And I took them that way, without question, astonished that paint could look like that.
I suppose we went out to eat afterward—perhaps in the little blue-and-white Armenian restaurant he took me to the first night I went to supper with him. And he took me back by bus to Fifty-Seventh Street, where I was staying and I agreed to come there the following evening after my work in the squalid little office of the Chinese communist magazine on Twenty-Third Street.
But when I arrived at that corner again I looked in vain for the windows of this palace. The building began at the corner I knew—there was a “quick and dirty” cheap eateria on the corner but no windows that betrayed such an interior on the second floor. I went up and down the street, anxious because I was late—I had no watch and was always late, alas. Suddenly he appeared at a window looking for me and rushed down to bring me up. The next time he would put his shoes in the window so I could find my way, he liked to air them that way anyway.
The paintings had all been put away. The great studio was spotless, nothing on the walls. The floor I discovered was parquet, which he scrubbed with beet salts, like the deck of a ship. This time he showed me drawings all on the floor, mostly pen and ink (N.E.N. et cetera), and then the portrait of his mother in pencil, now in Chicago, then some early sketchbooks, landscapes, friends, heads of real or imagined people. And then his living arrangements. The studio had a white kitchen sink in the far corner near a small passage where he had a small gas stove and opposite a small neat bathroom with a proper door and another door opened into his bedroom. Quite a small room with a window on one side opening onto a flat roof, and just room for a double bed painted gray and a small chest of drawers. To make the room less like a well, Gorky had painted the walls maroon up to about ten feet and then gray above and over the flat ceiling. The ceilings were very high in the whole apartment. The bedrooms and kitchenette and bathroom having been made out of a bigger room. I don’t remember a cupboard.
The studio had two plain large windows giving onto Sixteenth Street and looking onto the hideous Victorian dark pile that housed Mr. Klein’s huge store—dusty windows of store rooms, I suppose, and below, opposite the cafe, a tobacconist. A very important place for Gorky as it supplied not only cigarettes but a coin telephone and funny jokes with the proprietor. The two storage rooms also had each a large window on Sixteenth Street. So he had four windows on this quite noisy street and on the other side this very large skylight coming to within two feet of the floor. On the same side, the bedroom window and one on the entrance hall. In the entrance was a 1920s cupboard with shelves and a hanging space and a mirror on one door. There was also an open cupboard with two shelves to the left of the front door where he kept all his small paintings, with a few larger ones below the shelves. Beneath the window, a plain deal table.
Outside the front door, between the stairwell and his front door were two large rubbish bins, emptied several times a week by the grizzle-haired janitor who lived in the flat above us and had been there since ages. He was a good friendly man with a wife, and Gorky and I used to laugh at the creakings of his old iron bedstead, which reported his marital activities on certain nights of the week.
I was drinking coffee with a friend in Los Angeles, in an adorable cafe that also happened to sell books. On a whim, I decided to see if they had any of mine.
I made my way to the w’s, and there it was—my first novel—on the shelf. I felt happiness followed immediately by anxiety. Why had nobody purchased it?
I opened the book and realized it was a used copy. There was the inscription: “For Sarah—I hope you enjoy my twisted little book!” Followed by my signature and the date.
I went through a mental Rolodex, trying to figure out who Sarah might have been. I knew many Sarahs—it must have been one of the most popular girl’s names in the early seventies. I pictured first the writer Sarahs, several of whom I respected greatly as my peers or my same-age betters. I tried to remember whose names ended with an h and whose didn’t.
I wanted to impress these Sarahs. I wanted them to find my work as valuable as I had found theirs. It pained me to imagine one of them deaccessioning an inscribed copy of my first novel.
I had dated a Sarah once too. I tried to remember whether she had come to any of my book events. Yes, she had been there at the publication party. She had been so supportive in those college years. When was that party? I tried to remember the date. Had it really been that long ago? I was back in her parents’ house, showing her some pages, and then I was in the bookstore, wondering how it had taken so many years to write a couple novels. The habit of writing books has a way of simultaneously compressing and expanding time.
I looked at the inscription again and noticed that the date was earlier than the book’s publication date by a month. Odd. Then I remembered the book festival. My publisher had provided early copies for my appearance on a fiction panel.
I had been paired with two high-profile debut novelists and an award winner. Many people showed up to the panel, and quite a few lined up to buy the books afterward. (I thought it would always be like that, but in subsequent years, the only other time I saw a crowd of similar size was when one of the panelists was the son of a famous novelist.)
The Sarah of this copy had likely been in the audience at the festival. Maybe she had liked the book, maybe not. Maybe she had felt pressured to buy books from all four panelists. I was liberated. I felt no pain, bore no grudge.
Nevertheless, I asked for a pen at the counter. I crossed out the inscription, replaced it with “for YOU,” and signed and dated it.
Months later, I got an email from a writer I knew vaguely whose work I admired very much.
“I bought a copy of your book,” he said, “and it was already inscribed to me!”
Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper.
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
Original illustration by Ellis Rosen.
I feel like I’m living in a world of decay right now. My mother and both of her brothers are dying of Huntington’s disease, which slowly kills your mind and body over a decade or so (think ALS + Parkinson’s + Alzheimer’s + extra mood/psychological challenges). My other mother has cognitive challenges that are making it hard for her to manage their care, and she seems to be worsening. As a twenty-six-year-old, I certainly am capable of taking on responsibility, but I often find myself feeling like a scared, lost child.
I’ve moved back home to New Orleans to help, but I struggle to find anything like optimism or contentment. My city is also in a state of cultural and physical decay—it’s being taken over by those who seek to exploit my fellow native New Orleanians. These things (and of course the state of the world) weigh on me daily.
Hoping you might have a poem to bring a little solace,
Dear Seeking Hope,
When someone shares their experience of loss, I often think of Lisel Mueller’s poem, “When I Am Asked.” The speaker laments the persistence of natural beauty in the face of her mother’s death.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
Searching not for an erasure of her loss, but for company in her grief, the speaker turns to poems:
[I] placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
Sometimes, we need to dwell with the loss to learn how those transitions transform us. That is to say: I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this.
But you have named yourself seeking, so today I want to offer you a poem to fortify your search: Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense.”
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
I used to dislike this poem for these lines. They remind me of that dangerous line of thinking that posits trauma as a precondition to insight. But I think the poem’s truest intelligence is here:
We must risk delight.
Often we say vulnerability when we mean pain, but amidst all that is pain—loss and hurt and grief—it is vulnerable to search for something to love. Vulnerable not only to name the loss that already is but to love enough to risk losing again. Now I appreciate those previously despised lines. I understand them to mean: don’t relinquish the expanse of your attention to destruction. Gilbert writes:
… We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
I hear that same stubbornness in you. Your “struggle to find anything like optimism” is the record of hope. If you didn’t already have hope, you would have stopped struggling. Keep going.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
I am in love with a man who mispronounces my name. I feel myself turning into a ghost each time he does it. But I am also a shy ghost, and it has come to the point where it is really too late to correct him. This man, he is in love with someone else. Despite the wonderful somersaults of the heart, I hate this state of unrequited love. I am always overtaken by my own lack. I find myself never good enough. I know, though, the greatest thing is to face love (and the world) with openness. I just can’t seem to win against my own dark. Do you have any poem at all, really, for another poet in love?
In Love and Lacking
Dear In Love and Lacking,
Unrequited love is painful. It’s difficult to feel the chemical charge of desire without the alchemy of reciprocity. It sounds, though, like one of the most painful parts of this experience is that you feel far from yourself. Love—even unrequited—offers an opportunity for learning more about yourself, exploring your desires and experiences like “wonderful somersaults of the heart.” For you, a poem I hold close when I feel lost to myself. Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering” is like a compass for interior exploration:
… the exaltation in knowing
you are lost. Say your own name backwards to prove
you exist, an ancient tongue that steels the simple evening air on which
you rely like Pharaoh building the tomb for years
Honor that you are finding it difficult to be open in this moment. Part of caring for yourself is knowing whether you have the capacity to hold whatever might enter. Reorient yourself toward truth. You know your name; that is true. It is never too late to correct this man’s mispronunciation. But, more importantly, this poem calls you to that talisman of how well you know—and speak—your own name.
You are not what is lacking; it’s in the way that you and this man meet each other. Maybe this man will never love you. But if you distort yourself and he does not love you, then you will be without him and without yourself. If you distort yourself and he loves you, then who, really, will he be loving? What if he loved you by a name that wasn’t yours? That sounds very lonely. Meet the world with your truest shape so that when you are held, it will be you who is held. Kocher’s poem invites you into the elemental stretch of your own desire and circumstance. “Go where you will,” she writes. “The sun rises there.”
Could you recommend a poem that helps explain why I am still smarting with pain from every loss I have ever experienced: from my mum dying slowly in front of me to the person who just couldn’t love me to that copy of The Ethics of Ambiguity I am positive a student stole from my office. It all really really hurts. Poets, please help me out!
Dear Eternally Hurting,
When an old loss resurfaces and I feel like the window of grieving should have closed, I have a friend who always reminds me, We don’t just get over things. I find such comfort and permission in her words. In those moments, more than solace, I want someone to hold open that window of mourning, to remind me that it has never, in fact, closed. In that spirit, I give you a poem that is a rock thrown through whatever glass would pretend to contain loss: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Time does not bring relief: you all have lied”:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
The speaker spends the majority of the poem enumerating elements and spaces that elicit memories of her lost love.
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go—so with his memories they brim
Even the form of this poem—the sonnet—is the well-trodden ground of love. Where the form sets us up to expect a turning point (the volta), the speaker instead doubles down:
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
I love this poem for its petulance—for its refusal to diminish the truth of its feeling. And I love this poem because, in spite of the grandeur it proclaims, what it enacts is in fact tightly controlled: fourteen lines and a regulated rhyme scheme. Sometimes form can offer us a way to hold—to live with—what can otherwise consume us. As Toni Morrison writes in Sula, “Like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” I can’t offer the explanation you’re seeking, but I offer you St. Vincent Millay’s company and the wish that you, too, find forms—writing, singing, gardening, running—that can give shape to your losses.
Want more? Read earlier installments of Poetry Rx.Need a poem? Write to us. Next week, Kaveh Akbar will be answering questions.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound. Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Emma Thompson in the HBO film of Angels in America.
There are some of us who would rather face death than face our own delusion and, friends, I am one of those people. I have argued for the existence of horrible things—ovarian cancer, bedbugs, even a gluten intolerance—rather than face the fact that I am a healthy hypochondriac with a genetically inescapable amount of anxiety. New York did me in, like it does so many people. What began as low-grade anxiety transformed—after a period of uncertain part-time jobs, rent beyond my income bracket, and Daily News ebola headlines—into near dementia. Why would I want to believe that I was the problem? Creating my own headaches? Heart palpitations? The desire to believe in the self is strong. Hundreds of times that year, as I felt wandering pains and icy chills, I was faced with two options: I was sick in some serious way or I was—at least partly—insane. The former seemed preferable.
During the worst of my anxiety, one of the many things “I couldn’t do” was sink into Angels in America. In the past, it had been my easy remedy for a bad day or a worse night. I would just open up my two-disk set and turn to any scene in the six-hour masterwork. But anxiety kills empathy, and, when I was at my worst, I couldn’t see Kushner’s story of human dignity. All I could see was sickness.
Since the fall, a painfully negotiated détente has meant I’ve been able to turn to it again. With a starlit revival now up on Broadway, I realized it had been at least a decade since I’d read the play itself. There is a magic to seeing the play performed, a magic I still seek to understand, but in rereading the play, I found myself with a new unanswerable question: Is there really an angel in Angels in America?
Angels in America begins in the autumn of 1985 and reaches into January of 1986. After Pryor is diagnosed with AIDS, he is abandoned by his lover, Louis. Betrayed, scared, and very sick, he is visited by an Angel. She comes to him many times, played by a female actress on a wire, each time splendid, fabulous, a being of light and spectacle. I’ve always thought she was real—real with the “realness” of vogue ball culture, real to Prior, real to the audience. It never occurred to me to read her as a hallucination or a metaphor.
One of the most satisfying aspects of Kushner’s playwriting is its ambiguity. Line by line and in his stage directions, he breaks the fourth wall, then the fifth and sixth. Nestled in a flashback, there is a scene in which the angel actually crashes through the ceiling, showering dust and glory. Prior tells his friend and former lover, Belize, about it as they stand together outside of a “dilapidated funeral parlor on the Lower East Side.” Scene 2 is marked by these notes:
Prior changes out of his [current] garb and into his pajamas onstage. He does this quietly, deliberately, forcing himself back into memory, preparing to tell Belize his tale. At first Belize watches from the street, but soon he’s drawn into the bedroom.
A visit from an angel is complex enough to stage, but it becomes even more so when Prior and the angel copulate (suffice to say it is hot and divine). Afterward, Belize enters the room.
BELIZE (he’s heard enough; stepping into the bedroom): Whoa whoa whoa wait a minute excuse me please. You fucked this angel?
By stepping into Prior’s memory, Belize reminds us of the fictional constructs of the story. In a dizzying, wonderful manipulation in the script, Belize fails to see the angel, though of course all three actors are standing together on stage. Kushner has said that of all the versions of Angels he has seen, he prefers those with the most conspicuous stagecraft: “Richard Eyre was concerned that the angel wasn’t flown in on thin, nearly invisible wires but that instead she came swinging in on this big obvious rope. But I loved that. I thought, Exactly. That’s the idea.”
The play is about many things, although of course it is also undeniably about AIDS. Kushner came out to his parents in the early eighties. He watched the AIDS virus devastate his community. But in 1985, when Kushner began writing Angels, he had not yet lost anyone close to him to the disease. He eventually would, but never a lover. The story of illness and abandonment between Prior and Louis is based on Kushner’s relationship with a straight woman. In 1984, his friend Kimberly Flynn, his very close but nonromantic companion, was in a traumatic car crash. Flynn, twenty-eight at the time, was studying to be a clinical psychologist, but she emerged from the accident with serious neurological repercussions. Kushner tried to be her partner in sickness as well as in health. In 1992, the journalist Arthur Lubow interviewed both Kushner and Flynn for The New Yorker. “[Flynn] was furious at her doctors,” Lubow wrote, “who administered routine pinprick tests despite her protest that her problems were cognitive, not neurophysiological.” As her friend, “it took Kushner some time to conclude that Flynn’s injuries were severe and, to some extent, permanent. As she wrestled to understand what was wrong with her and how to begin to remedy it, he became her sounding board, her medical guide, her companion in doctors’ offices.” A year after Flynn’s accident, Kushner accepted a directing fellowship in Saint Louis. He worried he was abandoning his friend and suffered from survivor’s guilt. Kushner has said that part one of Angels, “Millennium,” is “completely infused with dealing with the consequences of the accident.” In The World Only Spins Forward, a new oral history of Angels in America edited by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, which speaks to the flourishing offstage life of the play, Flynn confirms her role in the character of Prior: “The articulation of crisis followed by outrage, and the sense of ‘Can I get a witness’ that you hear in Prior was in part fueled by something I was experiencing and that Tony was hearing on a daily basis.”
Of her neurological trauma, Flynn has said, “The experience was entirely new—not only something that had never happened to me or anyone I knew, it was something I had no idea was possible.” As those with atypical ailments know, it is a special kind of medical nightmare to know something is amiss but to be told that you are exaggerating or that it is all in your head. I wouldn’t know. I am exaggerating, and it often is all in my head.
When I got to an exchange between Prior, who’s seen the angel, and Belize, who hasn’t, I began to see a subtext of the play I never had before. Prior isn’t just being betrayed by his body, and his boyfriend, he’s beginning to wonder if he is being betrayed by his mind. It took my own betrayal of the mind to notice it.
BELIZE: Visited, Prior. By who? It is from you, what else is it?
PRIOR: Something else.
BELIZE: That’s crazy.
PRIOR: Then I’m crazy.
BELIZE: No, You’re—
PRIOR: Then it was an angel.
BELIZE: It was not an—
PRIOR: Then I’m crazy.
It was like catching an unexpected glimpse of myself in a mirror. You? Here? I thought, I have had that conversation. Prior is bargaining with the last chip he has: his sanity.
The way the play is written, it had never occurred to me to wonder if the angel was real. Of course, she was real and she was splendid and multitudinous, with eight vaginas. Now, I am not asking you to believe in the angel any more than I am asking you believe that Peter Pan really frequented Victorian London. But no one suggests lead paint fumes played a role in Wendy’s encounter with the lost boys, and it never occurred to me that, within the reality of the play, pharmaceuticals or other aspects of AIDS-related dementia were a coauthor of Priors visitations.
But in The World Only Spins Forward, the actor who played Prior in the Dutch production by Ivo van Hove insists, “The Angel is something Prior imagines, because it’s inspired by those early days of patients having AIDS medicines and becoming delirious and seeing hallucinations.” The Kushner devotee, the Jew, and the hypochondriac in me all cried out together, How can you be so sure?! Kushner however, sounds off next: “The central tension comes from Prior, and the question of whether this is real or a delusion, AIDS-related dementia, is it some sort of runaway psychological manifestation of something.” If the central tension of Angels is whether Prior’s reality was a delusion, then I’ve been missing the point of Angels for twenty happy years. In recent months, I have seen at least half a dozen references to ADC, or AIDS-dementia complex, the medical term to referring to neurological side effects of the disease. In middle school, I had done a lot of research on AIDS. I must have known about its neurological effects before. I knew them until they became a threat to my own mind and I lost them.
The character Hannah Pitt, who is Prior “ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother,” speaks right to the theology of the issue. Prior finds Hannah and asks her: Do angels exists? Hannah and Prior make quick work of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.
HANNAH: People have visions.
PRIOR: No they—Not sane people.
HANNAH: (A beat before deciding to say this): One hundred and seventy years ago, which is recent, an angel of God appeared to Joseph Smith. In Upstate New York, not far from here.
PRIOR: That’s ridiculous, that’s—
HANNAH: It’s not polite to call other people’s beliefs ridiculous.
PRIOR: I didn’t mean to—
HANNAH: I believe this. He had great need of understanding. Our prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that.
Hannah cuts us the ultimate slack. And by us I really mean me, with my need for a scan and my need, at two A.M., to make a three A.M. appointment, and to have walk-in hours, and a thermometer and blood tests and ophthalmology tests and one super unnecessary, and you better believe expensive, upper endoscopy. There is something I have realized about hypochondria and anxiety: it is largely the need for confirmation. When I trust neither my rational nor my irrational self, I need a tiebreaker. I was brought up to think a doctor’s as good an authority as any, but if you took away my health insurance I would find another arbiter. Faith, as I understand it, is about sitting with your uncertainty. I hope to read Angels again and again, till the end of my long, healthy life, and I hope to never fully know.
At the Aligre flea market near my Parisian flat, I haggle over a trinket I’ve decided to give to my on-the-rocks lover. It is a rock, a small but well-shined one. Twenty euros is too much, I insist. I’m from Ukraine, I tell the seller, in an attempt to get sympathy for my country’s political climate in the form of a discount. He replies that our eyes are drawn to objects that can read us between the lines. I pay the twenty.
Let’s back up: as a Ukrainian kiddo during the fall of the Soviet Union, at six years old, I was held back from starting school while my family awaited immigration approval. The process dragged on for over a year, and when we were finally granted entry into the American Midwest as Jewish refugees, I was seven, and my literacy a club-footed Cyrillic. I was put into an Orthodox Jewish school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began groping my way through two more alphabets, English and Hebrew. The page transformed into a vertical stage, complete with curtains of chattering.
At home, literature was background music. Pushkin, the Russian Silver Age poets, Mayakovski, Vysotsky, and Okudzhava—my mother sang or recited whole chapters from memory around the house. Her side of the family, intellectuals—her father taught Russian literature. My father’s side, laborers—his mother was a Moldavian housemaid who fled to Romania, then Ukraine, and spoke with what I thought was an accent and later realized was a mix of three languages within her Russian.
After my three-year stint at Jewish Orthodoxy, I was transferred to a public school, where I traded in long-skirted Torah study for a Slavic-style scoff at American scholastics.
Oh, I blossomed: I was the smart-ass on social aid. I found ways to get around my anxiety of reading. “Hey, teacher,” I complained, “English isn’t my first language, so … ” I got out of as many required reading assignments as I could. My parents were none the wiser and all the tired, budgeting on welfare checks, paranoid of losing their jobs, overstudying English, taking business courses to match their Soviet diplomas (Engineering, Applied Mathematics) to the American job market.
So I emerged: Rebel Moskovich with her transgressive zabastovka. I flicked Dickens off my desk and watched it slap the floor—no way was I reading five-hundred-plus pages when even a single page was strenuous labor. And when puberty hit, it tuned me to an even higher frequency of alienation. Cocky and delicate, I cracked wise and fantasized about dying.
And yet I continued to pursue books, with stealth and ego, as if perceiving my own intent for life within the text, seeking sentences like blood transfusions to the loneliest heart.
It’s no coincidence, then, that my relationship with the Milwaukee Public Library catalogue coincided with my coming out to myself in my early teens as a lesbian.
“The will to survive requires / Fictions that confirm / Every act of being,” reads Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poem “The Search for Home.”
I was prowling the public-library shelves to the rhythm of this very poem, staking out books with two women on the cover, keeping one eye over my shoulder while keyword searching “lesbian,” “sapphic,” “homosexual,” mustering up the courage to walk by the erotica section at the used bookstore (where they stocked LGBT literature at the time), loitering at Barnes & Noble and paging through promising paperbacks, careful not to bend the binding for fear I’d have to pay for them. Well, I ended up reading a lot of classical erotica by the age of sixteen because that’s where lesbians seemed to make appearances: Marquis de Sade’s Justine and The Story of O, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus …
I moved to Boston, then later to Paris, but I remained that huntress I’d become in hole-of-the-wall America, ignoring syllabus lists and the critically acclaimed in the search for my own canon. Access to the Internet helped.
In retrospect, it all felt in line with my Soviet past: reading books for the invisible other-books they contained. I’ve always had a taste for writing that stimulates language on both a narrative and metaphysical level. Within the act of storytelling, I want to feel like language is becoming and the content can walk through walls (my own, cellular, and the four walls of the room).
I don’t believe that censorship guarantees this experience, nor that it is a prerequisite. But when the space between the lines is activated, language can move in every direction.
Years later, I found my metastory delight in lesbian pulp fiction, the pocket-size smut novels printed on low-price “pulp” paper. They were available for just a few cents at drug stores, train stations, and newsstands during the fifties and sixties. Their covers usually featured a blonde-brunette combo, one heaving, the other hungry-eyed. Today they’re known simply to be cheap, badly written, and nauseatingly moralistic.
However, like the LGBT content in the erotica section, their shelving is a mere guideline for visibility. (How often does femaleness, especially gay femaleness, have to be sexual in order to exist at all?)
Women’s Barracks (1950, republished in 2005 by Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatale series), the first lesbian-pulp accidental best seller, was written by the French convent-educated Tereska Torrès, whose Polish Jewish parents converted to Catholicism in France for safety. It’s a fictionalized autobiographical account of her wartime service in London for the women’s division of the Free French forces, where we follow a barracks full of young women navigating identity, love, and politics amid their French Resistance duties.
Torrès wrote the novel in French, then translated it into English with the help of her husband, the American novelist Meyer Levin. Levin took it to America, where he found an enthusiastic publisher who, fearing an obscenity trial, asked Levin to “adjust” the narrator’s moral standpoint and add passages of condemnation for any lesbian activity, which Levin wrote in for Torrès. (You can feel the voice shift in the novel where Levin’s pen leaks over Torrès’s masterful prose.) The novel avoided ban but was condemned by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, which didn’t even dare to quote passages from the book at its official proceedings. In 1952, the book was banned in Canada but still went on to sell more than four million copies in America. It was translated into a dozen other languages—except the original French. Torrès claims she lost the initial French manuscript, and only sixty years later did she write a new version, this time under the genre of memoir, called Une Française libre.
For all the hullabaloo around the novel’s lurid content, the real stir comes from the writing, with its appetite for emotional candor (reminiscent of Anaïs Nin) and daring reflection upon the human condition in the face of private turmoil, worldwide horror, and spiritual disquietude. “It seemed to me that our indifference, the indifference of the ‘normal’ world, made the life of such women [in the barracks] even more tragic,” the book reads. “For they suffered from their loves, like any other woman, but without the balm of sympathy and understanding.”
Another early lesbian-pulp and layered reading experience is Spring Fire (1952), by Vin Packer (one of the pseudonyms of the prolific author Marijane Meaker). Although its seemingly naive Americana tone reads today as camp, the novel plays with semantics and morality in its own way. Within this supposed “steamy page-turner … once told in whispers” is the tale of a newbie Midwestern student named Susan Mitchell. (She goes by—you guessed it—Mitch.) Mitch is seduced by her sorority sister, the come-hither green-eyed Leda, when she asks Mitch to give her a back rub and then suddenly “rolled over and lay with her breasts pushed up toward Mitch’s hands.” Although the prose at first rings as high-strung, it echoes with complex undertones. “There are a lot of people who love both [men and women] and no one gives a damn, and they just say you’re oversexed,” Leda explains to Mitch. “But they start getting interested when you stick to one sex. Like you’ve been doing, Mitch. I couldn’t love you if you were a Lesbian.” (Note the capital l.) There unfolds a surprising intricacy to each girl’s behavioral subtext, as if Meaker left crumbs throughout the text for the reader to follow into a semiotic subworld. In the darkness of their shared room, Leda crawls into Mitch’s bed: “I talk like an idiot, Mitch. But I like to touch you.”
Stranger on Lesbos (1960), by Valerie Taylor, also promises cover-to-cover heavy petting and hot breathing. It follows Frances, who after dropping out of school to get married and have a son resumes her studies and meets Bake (Mary Baker) in her literature class. (Bake stands out among the other prim girls as “alert and intelligent and perhaps a trifle sulky.” For anyone who’s been to a lesbian bar, this three-point description is like an insider’s code toward lesbian posture) What is shocking is not the lesbian sex (which is quite tame) but the way that Taylor delivers the socioeconomic complexity of a woman’s desire not only for salacious girl-on-girl but for education, economic independence, and physical agency.
After one of their late nights at Karla’s, the lesbian bar downtown, Frances and Bake return to Bake’s apartment, where Frances begins to think about true independence:
“It’d be nice to have some money of my own, not have to ask Bill for every penny. Not that he minds, only—”
“Only you feel like a whore.”
“Well, yes, I do.”
As her relationship with Bake grows, however, Frances realizes that it is not just financial independence from men that she needs but from anyone with whom she shares her body, including Bake.
There are more famous pulps: Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule (made into the famous 1986 film Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch), and of course Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (perhaps better known now as the the basis for Todd Haynes’s 2015 film Carol).
I have hunted down other lesbian classics, too, predating the lesbian-pulp era, like the Russian ones (Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal’s 33 Abominations and The Devil  and Marina Tsvetaeva’s The Story of Sonechka ) and the chef d’oeuvre Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (1936).
A lesser-known classic, one of the few hardbound lesbian novels of the early twentieth century, Torchlight to Valhalla (1938), by Gale Wilhelm, follows a beautiful motherless aloof twenty-one-year-old named Morgen (with a “long throat and her hair like fine white wine”), who after the death of her painter-father is left alone (unmanned) until Royal, a talented pianist, begins to court the daylights out of her, persuaded that she will learn to love him if she gets used to him. But Morgen asserts her need for wildness and spends her days roaming. When Royal demands to know where she’s been all day, she responds with unexpected assertiveness: “ ‘Don’t ever say where’ve you been like that to me.’ Her voice was like ice over moving water. ‘No one, no one in the world has the right to ask me where I’ve been.’ ”
Morgen’s “lesbianism” comes quite late in the book, unfortunately, when the dark-haired Toni moves in next door with her aunt, but when it happens, to the reader’s surprise, both women pursue the attraction without hang-ups. (All this in 1938!) The prose is lucid and unencumbered, at times deceptively so, much like Morgen herself, who seems to resist her own taming with ethereal lightness. “You say my name as if you’d given it to me,” Toni avows to her long-throated lover.
Closer to the end of the century, a couple experimental lesbian novels stick out to me, in their negative semantic space and in their hybrid-genre beings.
The Monkey’s Mask (1988), the acclaimed Australian poet Dorothy Porter’s erotic mystery written in verse, is a terse, staccato Basic Instinct with a view of the Blue Mountains. It promises a “femme fatale to go to hell for.” The off-the-radar cop Jill investigates the missing “sweet nineteen year old girl” Mickey and becomes entangled in the girl’s violent past, including her irresistible former poetry professor, Diana.
And yet the hypnotic intrigue is in the language, not the plot: “The full moon / plops on a phone booth … I ring Diana anyways / ‘Mickey was murdered’ … / I go on about dogs/ digging her up/ my hand shines white.”
Similarly, it is the articulation between genres that makes Sarah Schulman’s Empathy (1992) both bizarre and enthralling. Part prose, part play, part psychoanalysis, the book follows Anna O., who goes to see Doc, a post-Freudian analyst who promises three free sessions to drug addicts, prisoners, and the down-and-out of the Lower East Side. Together, they navigate the symbolism of Anna’s anguish, which warps from surreal confession to allegorical reality.
ANNA: “I was thinking about all the woman I’ve ever loved … The opera singer who couldn’t stop coming and the waitress who didn’t know how. I was thinking about the women who had to fight for their orgasms and the ones who got theirs like they got their lunch. I was lonely because of the weather. I was reviewing all the ways that my life has been propelled by strategizing for access to the female body.”
To work toward accessing one’s own body is also to pursue one’s own body of work. I want words and stories that provide not just lesbian visibility (though that’s a start) but language and structure for its stratified invisibility, ambiguity, and obscurity. Books that confirm the act of being.
At home in Paris, I find the crumpled gazette paper the trinket had been wrapped in, months back. The weather page forecasts ample snow that never comes. I smooth out its dented surface, then toss it in the bin.
It may just have been an overpriced rock that was made briefly metaphor. (My lover and I broke up two weeks later.) Or maybe, when my eyes touched that stone, an unseen part of me was revealed.
Yelena Moskovich is the author of The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016; Dzanc, 2018) and the forthcoming Virtuoso (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). She is also one of the curators and exhibiting artists of the Queer Biennial of Los Angeles this year.
Norman Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights pad is on the market! The fourth-floor two-bedroom apartment overlooking the promenade was first listed in 2011, but the sale fell through when the prospective buyer discovered the atrium wasn’t up to code. Norman Mailer was afraid of heights, and so, macho to the core, he had his apartment outfitted with crow’s nests, gangplanks, galley ladders, and hammocks. In short, he built himself a nautical jungle gym on which to exercise his biggest personal fears. Now his son Michael has removed all that, bringing the space in line with those rigorous regulation-atrium requirements. The walls have been painted white, and Norman’s stacks of books have been whittled down by professional stagers, but the $2.4 million price tag is the same as it was seven years ago. Mailer had nine children (from six wives), who will split the proceeds. “The nautically themed space is iconic, like its creator,” the real-estate listing reads, in excellent Executioner’s Song–esque prose, “with a two-story glass and wood atrium and a sloping wood ceiling recalling the curves of a grand sailboat.” Sure, as Joan Smith wrote after his death, “Mailer hated authority, homosexuality, women and almost certainly himself.” Sure, he stabbed one of his wives in the neck with a penknife, complained about the “womanization of America,” helped spring a murderer from jail, made a failed run for mayor, and declared himself an “enemy of birth control.” But the place probably isn’t haunted. Look at that view.
And here, for good measure, is what the space looked like in 2011, before professional stagers painted the walls white and removed the gangplanks:
If any of you have a spare $2.4 million lying around, the Paris Review staff would appreciate it if you’d invite us over.
Nadja Spiegelman is the online editor of the Paris Review. She is also the author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
In our new series Writers’ Fridges, we bring you snapshots of the abyss that writers stare into most frequently: their refrigerators.
Any discussion of my fridge in the current moment needs to begin with a discussion of who lives in my home: my husband and I, our nine-year-old daughter (who likes Lunchables but not the particular flavor of Lunchable that has been sitting in our fridge for the past week), and our three-month-old daughter—who, in her beautiful way, takes up much of the time that might otherwise be spent, say, cleaning out the fridge. Which is all to say: our fridge is actually a pretty decent portal into the acts of survival that constitute our daily life.
Witness: the Tupperware of beef stew that a good friend brought over when our baby was just a week old; leftovers from the takeout we’ve been living on but haven’t gotten it together to toss; corn we haven’t managed to cook; marinara sauce that looks graced by heavenly light; an apple that I placed in the middle of the bottom shelf to make us look a bit healthier than we actually are!
I look in this fridge and see aspirations alongside realities: the fresh mozzarella that never became part of a caprese salad, the forgotten strawberries, the saving grace of Brooklyn takeout. What impulse makes us save the rice from our last Chinese order, when everyone knows that rice gets hard almost immediately? It’s the impulse to use every part of the buffalo, to waste no portion of the meal we didn’t slave over—to express our gratitude for takeout by using every single last morsel of it, to take none of it for granted. So the rice goes uneaten, for days and days. And yet, there’s a part of me that feels almost affectionate about the wilderness of our fridge, that wants to see: these are the holy days of getting by with our new baby, any way we could.
Once more, I see good intentions and disorder crowding the shelves. I see the three cartons of milk we bought because we never knew if our milk had already gone bad, and it was easier to just buy another one. I see cider purchased to celebrate my elder daughter’s report card. I see the stories of my younger daughter’s early life: the coconut water my best friend brought me in the hospital; the mango smoothie that my mother insisted on pouring for me—over and over again, during the first days of my nursing—and the beauty of being mothered by my mother, as I was learning to mother.
Back in the day when I was stepping out and Anatole Broyard kept a one-room city fifth-floor walkup in which I would not infrequently step out in, Tom was living only a block or so easterly and would, damn our eyes, catch me making my way to or from where I wasn’t supposed to have been stepping and, bless his heart, not inform on me, despite his being the straight-arrow Virginia gent he was.
Back in the day when there was talk between Tom’s Sheila and my Barbara of the two squads going halvsies on a great big house in Hamptonia, we all were sitting around in said real estate after a Sunday brunchy fress—Tom’s sidekicks Eddie Hayes and Richard Merkin among the newspaperbound bagelbound boasters—and I just so happened to have launched myself into a rapsode bearing on my baseball-playing startlements, this before I was expelled from the school where I’d done the startling, and Tom said he had a couple of mitts, why didn’t we go on out onto the lawn and throw it around awhile, and I said, thanks but no thanks, I having been a catcher when I was doing my startling and would therefore require the glove worn by a catcher if I were to catch a ball thrown by a pitcher known to me to have been a farm-team pitcher for the Dodgers, unless it was the Yanks, whereupon Tom allowed as to how he had happened to have fetched out from the city to Hamptonia the very variety of mitt, and so he had and so we did, humping it out onto the lawn and just as humpily regrouping among the housebound, Tom mum as you’d want that no toss he’d lobbed at me could I, the be-mitted braggart, begin to handle.
This was the thing about Tom Wolfe, a Virginia gent limitlessly decent, good to the core, and thus silent on the matter of my madness when we (Sheila, Barbara, Mrs. Yaeger, she being Chuck’s missus) foregathered at the Russian Tea Room for to see if the Man Who Broke the Sound Barrier might take to me flutingly enough for me to ghost the general’s life story. He didn’t. Me, all I could manage to make conversation out of was all of the mishaps I’d happed upon when called upon to try my hand as a scared-shitless junior-grade air traveler in coach. Tom covered for me ever so intrepidly for weeks thereafterward, still burning them in over the plate to get me the job—but alas.
You bet, Tom Wolfe was a champ of a man right down the line—and I will miss the renewable evidence in him of his genius for intelligence and for prose of whatever disposition the manual has prohibited and for talk few dare acknowledge their heart has funded deep fluency in. So why is it, then, that since 1983, the pals we had been found ground to find no ground beneath ourselves anywhere near in common again?
The answer is this—that rupture was back in the day, wasn’t it? Whereas at my age, life’s turned night, and the only remembering I’m given to take what’s left of my brain to is either solicited and sponsored, as these paltry remembrances were, or, you know, forget it—because, fuck, Tom, it’s all, every pettiness, been ingeniously forgotten.
My condolences to you, to Sheila, to the children and their families.
Michael Kupperman’s work traffics in one-off and absurdist premises and is immersed in a certain kind of Americana nostalgia. His ongoing series Tales Designed to Thrizzle, which comprises eight issues collected in two volumes, features jokes that riff on everything from Dick Tracy villains to the Hardy Boys; Mark Twain and Albert Einstein team up for raunchy adventures; and fake 1940s-era ads for haunted chewing gum punctuate oddball comics about magicians and Picasso. Kupperman’s work is notable not just for its impeccable comedy but for lampooning its subjects in a contemporaneous style and language, making the comic simultaneously irreverent and ahistorical.
It was a surprise, then, to learn that his latest effort, All the Answers, isn’t humorous. The graphic memoir is a serious look at his father’s time as the math whiz on the popular 1940s radio and television program Quiz Kids, a show that featured hyper-bright children and teens answering difficult questions on topics in their area of expertise. While most kids ended their tenure on the show before high school, Joel Kupperman stayed on well into his teens, spending a decade or so living as a minor celebrity—a life that was fraught with anxiety and discomfort. As an adult, he repressed the experience and refused to talk about it until Kupperman began researching his years as a child and teen sensation. On a sunny day in April, Kupperman and I spoke by phone about the book’s impact on his family and his own understanding of his father’s trauma.
All the Answers begins with your early awareness of a decline in your father’s mental acuity. Why did you decide to make that decline the subject of a book?
It was really a combination of personal and professional coming together. I was looking for a more serious project to do, because all my work up until that point had been humorous, and my career trajectory was not going in a positive direction—it felt like things were falling apart. I also realized that my father was losing his mental cohesion and that I had very little time if I was going to get anything from him. In some ways, honestly, I didn’t want to do this book because it was so personally painful. If I’d had any excuses not to do it, I would probably have abandoned it in the early stages. Once I passed a certain point with it, and some realizations about my family and myself had become apparent, I really had to complete it.
What were those realizations?
My father’s early stardom was an odd bit of trivia we never talked about in the family, and when you stop talking about things, you stop thinking about them, too. And when I began examining ideas and conditions I grew up with, it was startling—not just for me but for other members of my family, including my mother. I shared with her and others some of the conclusions I’d arrived at, including the belief that he was partly used for propaganda purposes. They were resistant at first, but they came around, and it changed their conception of our family’s dynamic, too.
For me, I realized that so much of what I’d grown up with and what had informed me as a person was the effect his stardom had had on him. To give one example, I realized that my parents’ attraction to English culture is partly because of its intellectualism and linguistic cleverness, but it’s also because the British grant themselves an enormous amount of reserve and emotional privacy, which, to a person like my father, was immensely attractive. The things my parents went for, socially or intellectually, were things that allowed them cover. So some of what I was taught as a kid were the result of a psychology born of trauma, and that trauma, in a way, had been passed to me secondhand. Once I’d come to understand these things, I had to engage with them. There was also the fact that, because my father was entering dementia, I was becoming the head of the family, and I wanted to seize control of the family narrative and understand it. I wanted to own it, not hide it anymore.
My father’s story had been a kind of skeleton in the closet for so long. I don’t think what happened to him was something to be ashamed of, which is the way we were taught to think of it, but as a cautionary experience. And I started to see the effect it had had on me. I am an extremely conflicted person. I have a need for attention that’s central to who I am, but I also have a strong need to avoid attention, an instinct to hide that is very hard for me to fight. I’m modest, not in a healthy, pleasant way but in a profoundly self-negating way that has worked against me in many situations. I struggle with an extremely negative self-image. Most of this, I realized, can be traced back to the way I was raised.
How did you navigate the serious tone of this book, given that your earlier comics are comedic?
It was a lot of work. It’s not hard not to be inadvertently funny—you just don’t write the funniest thoughts that occur to you. But here, I worried most about keeping the tone of the language informational and keeping the flow going. I believed that if I could communicate humor through my writing, then I could communicate other emotions, like sadness and loss. But there were issues I’d never faced before, and I wrote draft after draft after draft.
Was it a matter of reduction, or did each part of the narrative pose its own unique problems in terms of that tone and fluidity?
I didn’t want a reader to have to work to get through this book. That’s why the structure of the chapters is modeled after classic comic books. It’s meant to pull you through, keep you reading. And reduction was the key. I had to keep my eye on what the story was about and focus on that. There are many fascinating details, cool stories, and bits of trivia I removed. This book is not about old show business per se, or how cool it was to be in his position—even though he had many extraordinary experiences, he didn’t enjoy most of them.
And the book isn’t about me, either, even though it needed my pain to work. I changed the final two chapters radically during the last months of work on it. There was a lot more about who I am, the negative effects I feel my upbringing has had on me. I removed that stuff because it was wrong for this book. This book is about my father first—my experience is secondary.
Did you have touchstones you referred to as you worked on the book? And did you read a lot to figure out how you might work through the story?
It’s funny, because before starting on this I hadn’t been reading a lot of graphic fiction, only stuff people thrust into my hands. But right before beginning, I read as much as I could, pretty much any comics I could get my hands on, looking especially at the storytelling. I read a lot of Grant Morrison, who I think is one of the greatest storytellers in superhero comics. I read a bunch of graphic memoirs, and most I took as negative examples. Many of them are not clear enough in their story, too many digressions, and are difficult to read. The closest I came to a positive example was David Small’s Stitches, which was about his scientist parents.
But most of what I read was not an influence. I think a lot of graphic work, even when it’s personal, is cold and withholding of emotion. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to have something that would communicate emotion. I wanted this book to be readable by anyone, even people who did not regularly read comics, or people who are not used to that style of getting information. The other thing I realized about superhero comics, as opposed to graphic memoirs, is that superhero comics are more likely to give information only in visual form. A lot of graphic memoirs will give information in verbal form, which is then backed up by the image. I wanted some of the information in my book to be purely visual, otherwise it’s not enough of a reason to be a graphic memoir.
With humor, you start with a premise and unwind the plot or bit for comedic beats. Since the goal of this book isn’t to parody, lampoon, or generally be funny, how did you find the narrative marks that would shape it into a cohesive story?
I looked for those markers in my own experience and in what I was feeling. Those were my biggest cues—remembering how the train of my investigation and my thinking about the subject had developed. I tried to keep the experience I’d had while doing the book as authentic as possible, so it really is as though I lived it and then arranged it in a narrative format.
And as I said, part of developing this book was restricting what it wasn’t about. I tried to give a few moments of flavor of what our relationship was like during my childhood. His essential coldness at certain moments really stood out. And I don’t even believe he is essentially a cold person, at the center of his being. I think he does love me. He was imprisoned by trauma, frozen and unable to express himself. After he entered dementia, his emotions became much closer to the surface.
Your earlier comics draw heavily on the era of your father’s youth.
Absolutely. I didn’t realize until doing this book how many references I’d put into my entire body of comics about that era. There’s a story I did called “Boybank,” which appears in the first volume of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, about a boy band, and there is some stuff in there that’s straight from a 1940s comic Mark Newgarden gave me about the Quiz Kids. There’s a character I did called Wonder Book Junior, Boy Detective.
It’s obvious now that it was always in the back of my mind. In my twenties, I became very interested in the humor of the thirties and forties. I was watching a lot of Marx Brothers, and it was a shock to pick up a book about them and see a picture of my father with Chico. He spent time with the comedians I was becoming fascinated with. I’d ask him about them, and he’d always say the exact same thing—Oh, he was a nice man. He said that about everyone—movie stars, ballplayers, politicians, war heroes, and all the celebrities of the era. It was the only impression he seemed to have allowed himself.
Your drawing style in the memoir isn’t distinctly different from your other comics work. Did you think about approaching it differently in order to separate it emotionally from that work?
I feel like my father is sort of the genesis for a character type that has been seen repeatedly in movies and comics since then, including in the stories of J. D. Salinger, the comics of Chris Ware, movies like Magnolia, and so on. The reality of being that type of person is very different from any artistic depiction I’ve seen. I thought long and hard about the approach. I wanted this book to feel very immediate and somewhat loose, so I didn’t want to get too labored and fussy. I wanted it to feel as if I had done it all in a rush, which I had.
I hand-lettered the whole book. I also did all the cover design and lettering, indicia, every piece of the book except the bar code. Every bit of it was done by hand. I haven’t always done that, but I felt it was important to do with All the Answers because the book is like magic for me, it’s a ritual of a kind and I wanted it to be absolutely perfect, or as close as I can get.
Did the personal nature of the book produce any challenges in terms of the drawings?
The area where that really applies is my likeness, because I tried in earlier drafts to present a real portrait of myself. It was quickly apparent that that would be too exhausting and would add a layer of emotional stress. I realized I had to create a cartoon character that would represent me, because that was going to be the only way I could get through it. I mean, one of the things I didn’t explore in the book is the fact that I have a hard time seeing myself. I’m just not aware of myself in the same way I’m aware of other people, and I find my appearance distressing. So to draw my father from memory two hundred times was no problem, but to draw myself even once was an immense labor.
The cartoon you is a sort of Tintin look-alike, complete with beady eyes and flipped-up hair. Was this a way to position yourself as a character on an exploratory mission?
That’s very true, and portraying myself as a character that represents the investigative energy of the book required, I think, that kind of stylization. In terms of structure, it’s not a comic book per se, but it has the language of comic books, so it has chapters that are structured somewhat like issues of comics, and it has a central figure that is recognizably a cartoon character.
At the end, you ask whether it’s ethically appropriate to publish a book about your father’s greatest pain and struggle. Have you now reconciled that question?
Well, yes, I do feel that I have a right to tell this story. I’ve earned it, and I needed to do it, for myself and my family. As for my father, he’s passed the point of knowing. He passed through an arc of saying, No, I don’t care, you can do a book about it. And then a little later, saying, No, I don’t think you should do a book. To which I replied, I’m sorry, but I’ve put in too much work on it. I’m not going to stop. Then, later, he was okay with it again. And now, he’s at stage-four dementia. If you mention Quiz Kids or the fact that I’m doing a book, he looks very troubled, but he can’t articulate why.
You mentioned at the start of our conversation that you felt things were not going well in your career. What did you mean?
There’s a glut of humor right now, and nobody really wants to pay for it. I’ve had some good luck in my career, but some hard luck, too. A lot of a career is timing. I started after the undergrounds and Raw were over, during the age of the zines, and, although I’ve worked for a lot of places, I’ve never had a long tenure with any of them, never had any kind of security. A lot of art directors and clever people in the publishing world like my work but think it’s too clever, weird, or anarchic for regular people. They’ve hired me to do other, less interesting work. And the twenty-first century is a terrible time to do what I do. The complete failure of the trickle-down economy means that you can be employed past your physical level of endurance and still have trouble paying the rent.
Meanwhile, I think that readers right now are obsessed with meaning, that they are hungry for it. So that also informed this book. If I’m lucky, if this is a success, maybe some people will be curious and discover my earlier work. As it is, I don’t know how I can continue. I need this book to do well. The great comic artists of the twentieth century were allowed to develop their styles over years until they became masters. They were allowed to suck, and that let them become amazing later. Those conditions don’t exist anymore.
I was also doing comics all the time I was doing this book. I did a huge amount of comics for both Vice online and adultswim.com, partly because I needed to keep money coming in but also because I wanted to be busy while doing the book, as counterintuitive as that may sound. I didn’t want this book to be created in a void. I wanted it to have the feeling of someone who was doing other comics at the same time, if that makes sense. It was a device to prevent myself from making it too fussy or precious. If I increased the pressure on myself, and also the amount of drawing I was doing every day, it felt like that would help, and actually I do believe it did.
Eric Farwell’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.
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