28 October 2015

I Can Give You Anything But Love by Gary Indiana

One reason I Can Give You Anything But Love is marvelous is that Gary Indiana plays the role of the Bitchy Queen with aplomb. It's the sort of thing he enjoys in the diaries of Richard Burton, who, he says, "cuts brilliantly through the grease in his desultory observations." The same could be said of Indiana, though we'd have to add that he's even better than Burton:
"His self-involvement was hermetic and vaguely reptilian. ... He was boastful, stupid, pathetically narcissistic, and sad, but such a deluded asshole it was impossible to feel sorry for him. I liked how he liked how I looked looking at him, that was literally all we shared."

"If the Tom of Finland types aren't stupid as boiled okra, they give that impression in conversation."

"I made the mistake of ferrying a frowzy, unlovely couple named Joni and Hank to Ralphs several times, creating the false impression that I enjoyed their company. They described themselves as sex addicts. Soon they considered me their friend. They began suggesting nauseating three-ways while piling giant bags of Cheez Doodles and cases of Coca-Cola into their shopping cart. They had a trailer park greasiness I associated with Charles Manson. Joni and Hank's dream was to 'break into show business,' a dream so remote from plausibility that it might have been touching, if they had been less needy and mentally dim."

"Notable figures graced our lobby. Anjelica Huston. Tony Perkins. I sometimes asked for their autographs on dispenser napkins, then took somewhat childish pleasure in using the napkins to mop up Coke spills."
Each chapter is filled with such passages. But if that were all, this would be one of those books you read just to feel superior to most of humanity (a useful antidote for self-hatred and depression, but cheap and nasty porn is more noble).

What makes I Can Give You Anything But Love more than merely marvelous is that Gary Indiana isn't just the Bitchy Queen. Indeed, by the end of the book I began to suspect that he, like so many, assumes that role as protection against the pain of being alive. That we see both the role and the pain — as well as the fierce intelligence framing both — is what is so special here.

For instance, the book has received some notice for its short, lacerating portrait of Susan Sontag. As a piece of writing, it's a tour de force of apparently long-festering bitterness, delightfully nasty. A small sample:
I was regularly exhausted by her limitless capacity for admiring things. She was perpetually "moved" by this Japanese film director, "exalted" by that lesser-known Janáček opera, "besotted" by the contortions of some ballerina. When the pleasure of her company segued into pedantry, I usually glazed over. I could be pedantic too, but... I once told her bluntly that this need to be exalted every minute of the day was terribly draining for people who had to pretend to be exalted along with her. Susan took, as was her wont, umbrage. It wasn't her fault if people were lazy and unadventurous, didn't care to eat a hundred-year-old egg or plod through a thousand-page Hungarian novel, though for the life of her she didn't understand why people were so lazy, though no doubt it had to do with television coarsening their sensitivities.
Compare the Sontag here with the far more affectionate (and insightful) portrait of Sontag that he created in an obituary in the Village Voice in 2004.

What's his true take on Sontag? I don't care, really. The obituary is a fine example of the obituary genre, and the bitchy portrait of Sontag in I Can Give You Anything But Love works very well within the structure that Indiana sets up in the book, the persona he creates for the narrator. The kind of nuance he displays in the obituary would be out of place in the book, because the book needs room for other nuances, ones in fact that rely on a contrast between the world of the successful and famous with the world of the ordinary, the struggling, the forgotten, the hopeless, the doomed. Again and again, the book shows us that the quest for fame, fortune, success, love, etc. is mostly a fool's errand.

(Perhaps that explains the strange opening to Chapter 6, an apparent diary entry about Indiana's inability to write about his friendship with and love for the film director Werner Schroeter. The short section is set in a different font from the rest of the book, and it does feel like it belongs elsewhere, somewhere outside this narrative, and yet also needs to be here for contrast, for a bit of reminder: not every successful person is a schmuck.)

Almost every chapter opens in Cuba, where Indiana lives off and on. It's a place of struggle, a place full of annoyances and injustices, and yet it also possesses (or exudes) something like grace, even authenticity (whatever that is). Nobody Indiana interacts with there is likely to become famous, nobody there is likely to become a world-renowned artist or writer or filmmaker or whatever. Cuba, as Indiana portrays it here, is the antidote to celebrity culture. His writing about Cuba and the Cubans he knows is more often affectionate than barbed. The Bitchy Queen is not the right role there. Instead, he's more playing the role of the Weird Foreigner and living, as best he can, for as long as he can, outside of time.

Consider what Indiana says about Hemingway and Cuba (first published at Vice, recontextualized here):
Most Cubans have never read Hemingway and never will. In fact most Cubans have no idea who Hemingway was, and only recognize the name as that of the marina, or, in some cases, the famous daiquiri. The myth of Ernest Hemingway as a Cuban national idol has not enjoyed much traction since the very early 1960s, when Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro were often photographed smoking cigars together or sharing a comradely embrace.
There, it seems, lies one of the attractions of Cuba for Indiana: the bullshit so perfectly represented by Papa Hemingway has no way to be mistaken for gold and jewels.

Indiana immediately follows that paragraph with a contrast that brings us back not just to the United States, but to one of the most venerated contemporary writers about US culture:
Now that Norman Mailer has joined the shades of ancient evenings, the only American writer who still carries a torch for Ernest Hemingway is Joan Didion, upon whom the influence of Hemingway has not been entirely wonderful. The irksome repetitions and overly precious one-line paragraphs in Didion come directly out of Hemingway and the pregnant white space he famously left around his sentences. The tough, laconic, manly men who serve as fantasy heroes in Didion’s fiction have the unmistakable Hemingway touch. So do the shrieking pansies and suicidal homos she scatters through her books for spice, like pineapple rings on a Christmas ham.
(He qualifies his dissection of Didion a little bit: "If Didion did not have the mind of a steel trap up her sleeve, she would be Ernest Hemingway, much to the detriment of American letters," but that sentence seems to me halfhearted, as if the Bitchy Queen was worried by some sotto voce grumbling from the more sensitive members of the audience.)

I Can Give You Anything But Love is (among other things) a memoir, and Indiana gives us a lot of what we expect from the genre: drugs, sex, abuse, travel. What he doesn't provide is what makes so many memoirs both insufferable and bestsellers: redemption, salvation, and the good ol' voyeuristic pleasures of a tale of trauma. There's a brutal paragraph describing Indiana's rape by a Hells Angel on meth, and though the experience is of course awful and has some immediate consequences for him, that and other terrifying experiences are not brandished as wounds for us to admire: "After the second sexual assault that I was supposed to feel less manly about having been the recipient of, turning both events into an ugly comedy was the only way I could deal with them."

After a friend tries to take responsibility for allowing one of the rapes to happen, Indiana writes:
"You know something," I said when he finished flagellating himself, "I wasn't as traumatized as you seem to think I was." ...

"Really?" The slightly sunken, drooping eyelids that gave him his Baudelairean aura flipped up in surprise.

"Oh, go ahead, asshole, you were about to say what a relief it is to hear it when you realized what that would sound like."
In some ways, I Can Give You Anything But Love is an anti-memoir, because a more conventional (and popular) example of the genre would invert that entire passage to give us a narrator more traumatized than anyone could ever be sensitive enough to understand. Such a scene in a conventional memoir would be designed to elicit our emotion, our sympathy. No need for sympathy here. But also no relief. The third paragraph there is the real genius, though, the little twist of complexity and nuance so rare in other writers, so common throughout this book.

I could say much more, but there's no need. This is an extraordinary book — sharp, surprising, funny, scary, moving, and beautifully written throughout. (And not only at the sentence level. There are, indeed, some scintillating sentences, but Indiana's real skill shows itself in the arrangement and rhythm of sentences in his paragraphs.) It's a book to give to people who are fun to shock, and it's a book to cherish if you are beyond shock, beyond needing a fortune-cookie meaning for life, and beyond being impressed by the ever-so-well-crafted, ever-so-forgettable prose that gets marketed to "serious readers" these days. Throughout his career, Indiana's writing has stood as a bulwark against the bullshit bromides that our culture machines spew over the world, the meretricious stuff that is not fertilizer but smothering goo.

I could leave you with all sorts of examples. Here's one that especially struck me, from late in the book:
Events, or a lack of them, have instilled in me an unshakeable sense of utter insignificance. I am too peculiar to figure importantly in anyone's life, including my own. Even years later, when the idea that I exist can be asserted with external evidence — books I've published, films I've acted in, plays I've directed, friends who can confirm my physical reality, passport records of countries I've visited, bank statements, dental records, blood test results, psychiatric files, hotel registers, airline ticket stubs, old photos, bales of early writing archived at a major university, and other documentary proof — I will continue to register as a blurry human smudge in my mind's eye.
Or maybe this:
"I'll tell you a better story," she said. "A famous soccer player became very depressed and one day he threw himself in front of a bus. The driver of the bus was a big fan of the soccer player. When he found out that he had accidentally killed his idol, he went into a depression and jumped off the roof of a building. Then the bus driver's wife became depressed. She went to a psychiatrist, but her life was ruined so she swallowed an overdose of pills. The psychiatrist felt like a total failure when he heard about this and hanged himself in his office."

"How much of this is true?"

"Maybe none of it is true, but it's a better story, isn't it?"