A Hall of Mirrors


First Person

Gary Indiana with Ashley Bickerton, circa 1986. Courtesy of Larry Johnson.

Do Everything in the Dark was the last of three novels I wrote while mostly living in houses in upstate New York or at the Highland Gardens Hotel in Los Angeles. It began as a collaborative book project with a painter, my extraordinary friend Billy Sullivan: I was to write very brief stories to appear beside portraits of his friends and acquaintances, many of whom were also friends of mine. The stories would not be directly about the portrait subjects, but fictions in which some quality or characteristic of a real individual was reflected, stories about characters they might play in a film or a theater piece.

This project was never entirely certain, the prospective publisher having had an opacity comparable to that of Dr. Fu Manchu, and somewhere in the summer of 2001, Billy and I realized our book was never going to happen. By that time I had written most of what appears as the first third of this novel, though, and in this instance I had written past Kafka’s “point of no return” much sooner than I normally did. (I have abandoned many more novels than I’ve ever published, usually realizing after 50 or 60 excited pages that they were heading nowhere I wanted to go.)

One early title I considered was Psychotic Friends Network. At the time, an unusual number of people I knew were experiencing crises in their personal or professional lives, having committed themselves to relationships and careers that, however bright and promising for years, were suddenly not working out. The binary twins, “success” and “failure,” were negligible concerns in what I was writing about, though some of my characters tended to judge themselves and others in those terms; I was far more interested in depicting how things fall apart and reconstitute themselves in the face of disappointment. My overall purpose in writing Do Everything in the Dark was to discover, if I could, what some would call paranormal ways in which a lot of monadic individuals and couples are connected to a vast number of other people, how networks of money, emotions, and wishes overlap across the shrunken geography of a globalized world. I also wanted to write a novel in which the two Greek concepts of time, chronos and kairos, were at work simultaneously, chronos being linear, consecutive, and irreversible, while kairos, “the moment in which things happen,” offers people an opportunity to employ time as a flexible medium—to write books, paint pictures, fall in love, or walk away from unfavorable situations.

When you live alone with characters you’re making up, you are more alone with yourself than you realize. Re-reading this book after twelve years, I see more clearly than I did then that it’s a hall of mirrors. Not everyone in it is me, but I distributed my own insecurities and madness quite liberally among the figures I modeled after people I knew. And the book I thought I was writing from such a dissembling distance from real life situations turns out to be transparently about people whom a great many other people reading it could readily identify. That doesn’t matter. I wasn’t indicting anybody in front of a grand jury. It isn’t a cruel book, or a score-settling one. In certain places, I did defend my side of a few long-recounted, wildly distorted stories people told about me, in a veiled way, but I wasn’t moved by any animus about them; they were just more material when I needed some.

I wouldn’t write a book like this today. A lot of it is prescient, it’s written well, and most of it, I think, is darkly entertaining. But it also has the autumnal bleakness of a cosmic downer, as if a bad acid trip were being experienced by at least twenty people at the same time in different parts of the world. The world is hardly a better place than it was then, but I think it’s possible that I am a better person now than the person who wrote this novel was.

At the time, I had just lost my mother, and my future prospects in the publishing “game” had been yanked out from under me. I was wobbling in and out of severe clinical depressions, which just rolled in clouds through the house at the oddest times, irradiating me with disgust at myself, and revulsion over every decision I’d ever made. I was often sunk so deep in depression that people could smell it on my skin. There was something upsettingly wrong about everything, including the house I’d impulsively bought simply because it was close to the one I’d been renting. The window frames were set wrong, a gangster contractor had installed terrible cheap wainscoting on the walls, claiming it was the only such obtainable these days, rather than the sturdy oak wainscoting found in so many old houses in the area. The original structure had been enlarged and expanded in an insensible manner, the whole layout of the place reflected some long-running cognitive disorder of its previous owners.

My cat, Lily, was terrified of the enormous basement at the bottom of a staircase off the kitchen, a maze of vast low-ceilinged chambers with the atmosphere of a horror movie. Lily never ventured a paw on those stairs.

Months after buying the house, I learned, piece-meal, from people who should have told me what they knew about that house before I signed the mortgage papers, that the sprawling white elephant I’d acquired had functioned in the middle past as a transient home for orphans and abandoned children awaiting adoption into foster care. A few years later, the house became an overflow domestic abuse shelter for women hiding from stalking husbands and boyfriends. There were even indications, in two of the basement areas, that meetings of some disreputable fraternal organization, something along the lines of Storm Front, had been held there for a while. These may also have featured a karaoke night, since besides the crumpled confederate flags and vague neo-Nazi debris scattered in corners, there was also a truncated proscenium stage with a microphone stand and a dead amplifier on it.

My cat had infinitely better sense than I did. She knew right away that house was haunted and that I never should have bought it. In fact the house and the entire area around it, after I had stumbled through the worst confusions of my mother’s death, became obviously, horrifically legible as exactly the kind of “community” I’d left home at 16 to get away from. It even looked like the town I’d grown up in.

I finished the book before I sold the house, but not before 9/11 happened. Writing two-thirds of it after that event probably added even more plangent notes to an already melancholic saga. I don’t think I considered for more than a minute whether to incorporate the disaster itself into the narrative. I decided it would be grotesquely distasteful. Everything I’d written to that point reflected in some manner an unmentioned catastrophe that had either already happened or was about to occur. But this catastrophe existed inside my characters, who were drifting on a historical current more subliminally pitched than the daily news. I didn’t want to exploit something actual that had affected millions in an immediate, dramatic way, or use it as some ghastly metaphor, or wheel it onstage as a spectacular backdrop for stories that were, by their nature, comparatively trivial. It was obvious to me that many people were busy penning exactly those kinds of things within minutes after the planes crashed into the Trade Center—that’s show biz. Even if literature is also show biz, I like to think it’s a reflective person’s show biz. So the book concludes on September 9, 2001, a day that nobody remembers, when the links between various microcosms I invented came full circle.


Gary Indiana is the author of seven novels, a prolific essayist, a visual artist, an actor, a playwright, and the former art critic for the Village Voice. Indiana lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This prologue appears in Do Everything in the Dark, which will be published in April by Semiotext(e). The novel was first published in 2003.