December 4, 2013 | by Ricky Tucker
The student worker guarding the doors to Beatriz’s (B.’s) roundtable discussion at NYU meant business. I had been late leaving a class several blocks over at the less austere New School, and for that he was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to fit in the room with B., José Muñoz, Avital Ronell, their cumulative brilliance, and about a hundred students who may or may have not been aware of the cultural master class that lay in store for them. “If someone leaves, you’re next in,” he assured me. I sat outside the lacquered double doors, deflated. Attending this discussion was my only chance to unpack, and from the horse’s mouth, this dense theoretical/narrative text I had been reading in a silo all summer. My interview with B. was scheduled for the next day.
Last July, when I first picked up the manuscript for what, in its final iteration, would be Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, I was in the hills of Ecuador at a straight friend’s wedding, far from anything remotely related to queer theory, pharmacological engineering, Foucaultian lineage, or writing, for that matter. B. toggles between a personal account of using topical testosterone, Testogel, as a kind of performative homage to a fallen queer friend, and a cultural analysis that investigates how pharmaceutical companies politicize the body– down to the molecule. The idea is that Testo Junkie picks up where Foucault’s The History of Sexuality left off, a chronicle of sex in an ever increasingly consumerist and pornographically identified modernity. Its mix of personal narrative and theory softened my point of entry, but still, it was a lot to consider on my own.
So, I waited outside of those doors at NYU hoping to get in, and if I did, I prayed that the complexity of the pharmacopornographic dilemma would magically break down into a series of alphabet blocks: pointing to big business as the culprit and queer individuals taking hormones as the politicized bodies. Of course it was not so simple; when the student going to class or dinner or whatever left the auditorium, making room for me, I found through a series of revelatory slides and discussions that this issue is wide-reaching but fundamentally inherent in everything we do—all of us. And that was just the panel discussion.
When I sat down the next day with the calming but intellectually compelling B., B. laid out for me the universality of the pharmacopornographic regime, how all bodies have become biopolitical archives for the powers that be, but also how taking testosterone effects one’s cognitive experience, how we romanticize substances like opium and writing, and how the pill is just a blip on the blueprint that is you.
What was the beginning of your academic research?
I went to the New School, for philosophy. I had come from Spain on a Fulbright scholarship, which was very different then. Continental philosophy was more of what I studied at the New School. But what was great for me was that in this context, I had the great chance of meeting Derrida, who became for me a mentor. He was my teacher in a seminar with Ágnes Heller, and I spoke French, so it was fantastic. He was the most generous professor I ever had. He invited me to teach a seminar. I then ended up living in Paris, and now I’ve been there for the last ten years.
He was teaching a seminar on forgiveness and the gift, but at that time, he was studying Saint Augustine’s transformation in relationship to faith and becoming Catholic while at a point of personal transitioning. It was kind of like a story of transexuality. So, I went to France to speak about this. Read More »
November 19, 2013 | by Emily Farache
She had a black mohawk, edged in green. Sometimes red. I believe there was a brief blue phase. She wore Doc Martens long before they were cool, and she only ever wore baggy, black clothing. I never once saw her smile. When she hung out with the other punks in the unofficial outdoor smoking section of our neighborhood, she inhaled her cigarettes slowly, gently. She wasn’t pretty or even conventionally attractive, but boys always surrounded her. Perhaps it was the heavy eyeliner, speaking of a life populated with interesting and equally enigmatic people and filled with rarefied events that neither I nor her admirers would ever experience, couldn’t even fathom. Part of her mystique, of course, was that she didn’t seem to engage with her entourage, but, eyes down, quietly murmur something once in a while that would galvanize everyone.
She lived just ten houses down from me, but in an older, separate subdivision. On my nightly walks with Maggie, our Rastafarian family dog, I’d hope for a glimpse inside her rundown house. Though lights often flickered through the drawn curtains, that entire winter I never saw a thing. Her home was as inscrutable as was she. Invariably Maggie would pull at the leash to go back home where it was warm and she could go to sleep and where my life, boring and uneventful, waited.
Many years later, I came across this photograph on Todd Hido’s Web site.
For a brief moment, I thought it was her house. Then I saw the dissimilarities; it wasn’t. But the effect on me was profound: my emotional response to the photo, the swoosh of nostalgia, became a portal. Suddenly I was once again in the midst of painful adolescence, projecting a narrative onto a girl I had never met. Read More »
November 12, 2013 | by Jonathan Lee
It is common, when assessing the achievements of a fiction writer, to consider how “well-rounded” his or her characters are. But one of the many pleasures of Kevin Barry’s work, and in particular of his most recent collection, Dark Lies The Island, is that it reminds us how—in fiction as in life—the most interesting people are often lopsided.
In a Barry story, people fuck up and then, after taking a breather, they fuck up some more. A guy walks out of a juvenile detention center and—fresh start!—concludes it’s a grand idea to start selling crystal meth. A boy on a rooftop thinks about kissing a girl, and keeps on thinking about it, and thinking about it, until hesitancy has nuked opportunity. In one of the collection’s most gnawingly memorable stories, “Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.
Although he’s not averse to the occasional earnest moment of romance, Barry’s usual mode is laughter in the dark. Writers producing work in this vein are not, these days, a publisher’s dream. There is therefore something comforting in the way he’s finding an admiring, expanding audience both in his native Ireland and here in the U.S. After years of producing work he was unhappy with (“I wrote these great sententious sentences, clause after clause after clause under a black belly of fucking cloud”) his first major breakthrough came in 2007, when he won the Rooney Prize for Literature for There Are Little Kingdoms. That story collection had been released by a tiny Dublin literary press called The Stinging Fly. His first novel, City of Bohane, appeared in the UK in 2011 and went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. When Graywolf Press gave the book an American release it graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was hailed by the reviewer as a novel “full of marvels … marvels of language, invention, surprise.”
Ale is one of Barry’s enthusiasms. The interview which follows took place over pints at Flatbush Farm, a bar in Brooklyn. He’s a keen, wide-eyed talker who’s always pushing at the limits of what a curse word can do. He injects bright life into a conversation and occasionally ad-libs the kinds of observations you underline in his books. In Dark Lies The Island, breakfast involves “scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast.” The summer staff at an old hotel include “a pack of energetic young Belarusians, fucking each other at all angles of the clock.” The sky at night “shucked the last of its evening grey” and “the buck in the kiosk at the clampers had a face on him like a dose of cancer.” Barry’s language drags you into a strange, darkly lyrical world, enacting his own definition of literature as a mode of transport. “It lifts you up out of whatever situation you’re in and it puts you down somewhere else,” he says below. “It fucking escapes you. That’s what literature is.” Read More »
October 29, 2013 | by Hope Reese
Ten years ago, Tommy Wiseau produced, wrote, directed, and starred in one of the best worst movies of all time. The Room, a six million dollar endeavor, was conceived as a “Tennessee Williams-like” drama, its insight into human relationships sure to place it in the running for an Oscar. The film, however, was not received as the auteur intended. Instead of winning accolades, its hilariously inexplicable writing, cinematography, and performances have earned it a devoted cult following.
But even stranger than the film itself is the story behind The Room. How did Wiseau, whose age, past, nationality, and financial means are shrouded in mystery, create this spectacular catastrophe? To begin unraveling the mystery, journalist Tom Bissell (who first wrote about the film in a piece for Harper’s) teamed up with Greg Sestero (costar of The Room and close friend of Wiseau) to write The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Their book pieces together anecdotes from Sestero’s friendship with Wiseau with the story of the production (the entire crew was fired four times over, for example).
With insight, appreciation for the bizarre, and genuine humanity, Bissell has helped create a book almost as hilarious as the film itself. Bissell is best known for his long-form nonfiction on subjects ranging from Chuck Lorre, the creator of popular TV shows, to the video game Grand Theft Auto, to the films of Werner Herzog. He now writes scripts for a video game company and is working on a book on early Christianity. I spoke with him over Skype from his office in Los Angeles.
It’s a bizarre experience watching The Room for the first time. What was it like for you?
I’d just moved to Portland. I was sitting in an empty apartment on an air mattress waiting for my girlfriend and all my stuff to arrive in a U-Haul. I spent the day looking on the Internet for something to occupy myself. I stumbled across clips of The Room and watched them in various states of amazement. It’s unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Through a stroke of coincidence I’ll never understand, it turned out that the movie was premiering in Portland that night at a theater five blocks from the apartment I’d rented. What’s really funny is that someone was recording an audience-reaction documentary there that night, so on YouTube there’s a clip of me being interviewed before I saw it for the first time. I felt so exhilarated by the movie, by its combination of complete incompetence and utter confidence. It swept me up, and my aesthetic life has never been the same since. I’m obsessed with it. I love it. Whether you want to call it outsider art or bananas art or disaster art, the movie has something that movies made with infinitesimally more precision and expertise will never have. It has a big beating heart. Read More »
October 11, 2013 | by J. Mae Barizo
Twenty-five years ago, Mark Morris created L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a vibrant, enthralling choreography inspired by the music of George Frederic Handel and the poems of John Milton. The New York Times hailed L’Allegro as “a glorious outpouring of dance invention and humanistic imagery,” and Joan Acocella stated that it is “widely considered one of the great dance works of the twentieth century.” Morris may indeed be the most talked-about modern dance choreographer of his generation, and he has a personality to match his renown. He didn’t so much appear for our interview as arrive, bursting into the room in red socks and his trademark scarf, thrown insouciantly over his shoulder.
A natural performer, Morris communicates with enthusiasm and urgency; his hands sliced through the air dramatically as he spoke. Our conversation was punctuated by his impish laugh and his opinions on everything from Lydia Davis, country western music, his figurine collection, and his choice of vodka. Morris is a voracious reader, and during the course of the interview in his New York apartment, he repeatedly pulled books from his shelves.
What’s the last great book you read?
You know what’s not great but fabulous is this book of love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s called Baby Precious Always Shines. And I just read this Mary Renault–style gay potboiler called The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I have to say I was so thrilled that Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize, because I was plugging her book to everyone I met. When I read her Collected Stories, I lost my mind. Those two-sentence stories really fucked me up. I think she’s a genius.
Is there any type of literature you steer clear of?
Boringness! Actually no, I have a tolerance for boringness. If it’s John Grisham I’m not going to read it. I’m not a big best-seller type, but I did read all of those terrifying, evangelical Christian books, the Left Behind series. Read More »
October 3, 2013 | by Whitney Mallett
Right across the street from my apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant, there’s a bookstore, True South Books. BOOKS ARE BETTER THAN TV, reads a sign in the window, in bold, black, hand-drawn letters. Another one reminds, DO THE READING. From open to close there’s a stereo that sits on a stool out front. The sounds of Boyz II Men or Nina Simone or Bob Marley often drift across the street and through my window. A few weeks ago, there was a reading there to celebrate two books published this year by Kiese Laymon: his first novel, Long Division, and a book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself in America. The bookstore was packed that night. (Bookstore/barber shop, I should say; there was a haircut in progress well into the reading.) In spite of all the questions directed at Laymon, he did his best to make the night about community rather than himself, sharing the stage with several other young writers.
Laymon was born and raised in Mississippi, but now lives upstate, teaching at Vassar College, where he’s an associate professor of English and Africana studies. He’s also a contributing editor at Gawker and writes regularly for ESPN. He has a lot to say about race, gender, sexuality, love, and how to survive as a young black man in America.
Long Division tells the story of fourteen-year-old City. After telling off the judges at a sentence competition (like a spelling bee) for asking him to use the word niggardly in a sentence, he finds himself a viral video sensation and arouses the ire of his mother, who dumps him at his grandmother’s in rural Mississippi. There he starts reading a paperback novel about a fourteen-year-old boy also named City, set in 1985. And through the book and a hole in the ground in the woods, both Cities travel in time between 1964, 1985, and 2013. Laymon notes this isn’t The Invisible Man. Neither City is in this hole alone—Shaylala Crump (City loves the way she smells) and a couple of other teenagers jump back and forth in time with him.
When I called Laymon to talk about Long Division, he remembered me. I was the one sitting cross-legged in the front row, wasn’t I? He was genuinely interested in asking me about me, where I’m from, what I do. Finally we got around to talking about him.
Ever since that event, I’ve been reading your novel and everything you’ve written for ESPN.
It’s just weird when anyone reads anything that you write. It’s crazy. Don’t you think so? Any time you think about people sitting alone or in moving spaces like trains reading some shit that you wrote? It’s weird.
When you’re writing, are you thinking about an audience?
When I think about audience, it’s strange. I think about people in a theater. In my mind, I’m always thinking about what groups of people are going to take turns sitting in the front row. Who is going to be at the front? Who is going to be at the back? Who is going to be on the balcony? Things like that. Even though reading is not like that. It’s so personal and individualized, but in my mind when I’m creating, I think about all these different people in a theater. So when I hear about people reading or when people take pictures of people reading—which is what my friends have been doing, taking pictures of people reading the book that they see different places—it’s beautiful and wonderful, but it’s really disorienting because people are just spending time with themselves and this book. That’s weird.
When you were writing Long Division, who were you thinking was in the front row of that audience?
It changes. The people in the front row the most often are the characters in the book, the kids like City and Shaylala. They are the primary audience. They are in the front the most. But sometimes they’re in the back and I’m thinking about people who have written shit that I’ve read that has inspired me. Those people are in the audience. And then I’m thinking about people like fucked-up English teachers who told me I’d never be shit. They’re in the audience. All these people occupy part of my imagination. It’s really like you’re writing to different parts of your imagination, but they’re dressed up in the form of characters or memories or whatever. Different sections have different audiences, are differently audience specific, but the characters are always really close to being at the front.
Did you talk to kids while writing the book?
I would talk to kids about it a lot, kids between ninth grade and twelfth grade. And even when they didn’t know I was talking about it, I’d be talking about it. You have to listen to kids nowadays and see you know how they are talking, how they are using verbs. I definitely had to talk to a lot of kids for the 2013 part. Because of the Internet, they just know so much language. Right? They just know so much language. Read More »