Artificial Jungles

The Museum of Wax by Charles Ludlam

The overall effect is one of denseness and kitsch exoticism. It is clear that these people are creatures of fantasy.
—Charles Ludlam, stage directions for The Artificial Jungle

For a few weeks now, I have been bothered by the question of why so much American short fiction is, in comparison to poetry and theatre, unadventurous.

I got to thinking about this while watching lots of YouTube videos of Taylor Mac. Why, said I to meself, is little to no American short fiction as interesting and provocative and pleasurable as a performance by Taylor Mac? This is unfair, of course: very little of anything is as interesting, provocative, and pleasurable as a performance by Taylor Mac. But still. I wonder.

I began to bother a friend, whom I will call Richard, because that's his name. "Richard!" I screamed out to the sky (he lives a ways away, and so I must scream to the sky if he is to hear me), "Why is there little to no American short fiction that is as interesting and provocative and pleasurable as a performance by Taylor Mac! Further, why is American short fiction as a form so incredibly well behaved and formally conservative in comparison to poetry and theatre and even, for that matter, cinema?!" 

Richard is a very polite young man and, because he is a polite young man, he did not point out to me that as someone who has published short fiction (indeed, an entire book of the stuff), I am hardly free of this criticism, myself. Indeed, a truly impolite person might suggest that I should perhaps look within myself rather than projecting outward onto what is, in fact, an unknowably large and encompassing landscape. The fault may simply be my own. I may not read widely enough. I may not write imaginatively enough.

Richard asked a number of insightful questions, and speculated about something that still nags at me: Perhaps it is not the fault of short fiction itself, but rather what draws people to short fiction in the first place. Perhaps people who want to do, for instance, what Taylor Mac does, would never consider writing short fiction, but would, instead, like Taylor Mac, become performance artists. Wouldn't it make sense that if one wants to do that kind of thing, one would follow that path? We don't blame, for instance, plumbers for not being good air traffic controllers. 

This insight was provocative, interesting — and terrifying. I have been drawn to short fiction. Short fiction is the one form I have most consistently cared about throughout my life, despite frequent flings with other forms and a general proclivity toward formal promiscuity. And yet I feel a constant desire for short fiction to be more and other than it is. Are my desires at odds with my form? Have I fallen prey to a decades-long category mistake? Am I a plumber who should have been an air traffic controller?

In the mid-1960s, director John Vacarro and writer Ronald Tavel founded the Play-house of the Ridiculous, which is where the young Charles Ludlam's first play was produced. When Vacarro fired Ludlam from his own play Conquest of the Universe, Ludlam founded his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which would go on to have a significant effect on American theatre for the next two decades. 

"Anyone who defies the narrow limits of fashion and deliberately goes against the current trends," Ludlam said, "runs the risk of appearing ridiculous. And so we decided to strike the first blow and adopt the name, to create a theatre not about ridiculing others but about the risks of appearing ridiculous to them. ... The outward appearance is Ridiculous but the intention is serious."

I am especially interested in the "Instructions for Use" at the end of Ludlam's manifesto for the Ridiculous Theatre: "This is farce not Sunday school. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one's whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way."

Imagine providing those instructions to students in a short story writing workshop. What kind of texts might they create?

I want my work to prove that one can dedicate oneself to writing Lovecraftian horror and yet still make a real solid vital contribution to the genre, with fiction that is audaciously one’s own. Part of my uniqueness is that I bring in all of the other writers with whom I am obsessed, Wilde and Shakespeare and Kafka and Henry James, and stir them into ye mix. And then I add a pinch of punk rock and drag queen fabulousness, and oh girlfriend, look what we have!

Could it be that short fiction is just too short to accomplish much more than single ideas and moments of epiphany?

"But poetry!" I cry. Lyric poetry is shorter than short fiction, and American poetry is a myriad of plethora, a rhizomatic infinityscape of everything from the most traditional and conservative claptrap to the most avant of gardes. I've been reading Jos Charles recently and holymoly-mother-of-gawd it is lively, beautiful work that, for poetry, isn't even hugely avant garde but for fiction would be nearly illegible and probably unpublished. Not just because of the language (though there is that) but because of the ways language, structure, and topic bend around and for each other.

What, I wonder, is the short fiction equivalent of Flarf? I think immediately of Mark Leyner, a writer who ought to be more influential. Richard suggests Bizarro fiction. Yes, sure, yes, maybe. (I haven't read much Bizarro.)

But to be honest, I want something specifically, even brazenly, queer. I want James Purdy and Gary Indiana, I want the short story equivalent of John Waters crossed with Fassbinder.

I think I learned early on that the only subjects I could deal with were impossible.  That is they were impossible to write because they were so difficult; if I chose an easy subject, I could not write it because it would not mean anything to me.  So nearly all my books are based on “impossible” subjects. 

Then I wrote two books which infuriated and outraged the essentially stuffy New York establishment and terrified my timid publisher. 

“I’m not a gay writer,” he would tell interviewers. “I’m a monster. Gay writers are too conservative.”
A great novel can be a wonderful experience, which is why I read a lot of novels, and there is a power available to novels that is not available to stories, a power of accretion and duration, but as a reader I find what I often most respond to in novels are particular moments, particular passages. The more limited space of the short story allows moments and passages to offer a singular power, much as the more limited space of a poem allows words and phrases to offer a singular power. There is a density available to short stories that, when raised to the length of a novel, becomes simply exhausting. A really great short story collection is one that if you read it too quickly, it wears you out. (This is one of the problems with reviews of collections. Given the density that defines great short fiction, reviewers ought to spend at least twice as much time reading a collection as they do a novel, preferably longer — months, if not years — and yet the machineries of bookchat don't allow it. While it's easy enough to get through a weak collection of thin tales quickly, the reviewer will be rushed and undone by a collection of quality, depth, and innovation.)

In their density, great short stories are closer to poems, while novels are closer to full-length plays or films or TV series. Which once again makes me wonder if short fiction could ever be the vehicle for anything within the same galaxy as Charles Ludlam's or Taylor Mac's performances, work that in all its baggy monstrosity and capaciousness is novelistic. And is performed. 

What is the performance of a short story?

In the introduction to the 1979 edition of Theatre of the Ridiculous, Bonnie Marranca wrote:
What is the Ridiculous? Here's one way to describe it: an anarchic undermining of political, sexual, psychological, and cultural categories, frequently in dramatic structures that parody classical literary forms or re-function American popular entertainments, and always allude to themselves as "performances". A highly self-conscious style, the Ridiculous tends toward camp, kitsch, transvestism, the grotesque, flamboyant visuals, and literary dandyism. It is comedy beyond the absurd because it is less intellectual, more earthy, primal, liberated. Not tragicomedy but metaphysical burlesque, the Ridiculous offers a new version of the "clown". Its dependency on the icons, artifacts, and entertainments of mass culture in America — the "stars", old movies, popular songs, television, and advertising — makes the Ridiculous a truly indigenous American approach to making theatre.

Assignment: Watch Written on the Wind and write a story while you watch it.

Assignment: Watch Magnificent Obsession and then write a story from it like Kathy Acker wrote "Florida" from Key Largo.

Assignment: Watch All That Heaven Allows and Fear Eats the Soul and Far From Heaven, preferably one after the other, preferably when you are tired or inebriated, and then immediately after, without more than a few minutes of rest, write a story in one sitting, no stopping, just write, see what happens — and then, without editing it, call up your best friend and read the story to them. Or, if your best friend isn't available, or you don't have a best friend ... call a stranger.

All That Heaven Allows

I came out of a poetry world. My education was Black Mountain school—Charles Olson, Jerry Rothenberg, and David Antin were my teachers. But I didn’t want to write poetry. I wanted to write prose and there weren’t many prose writers around who were using the ways of working of poets I was influenced by. Their concerns certainly weren’t narrative in any way. Any prose writer, even if he doesn’t use narrative the way narrative is traditionally used, is concerned with narrative. I mean the reader has to go from A to Z and it’s going to take a long time and that’s narrative. There’s no way to get around it; that’s the form. ... I was connected to the St. Mark’s poetry people at the time. On the one hand, there were the poetry people, who were basically upper-middle-class, and on the other, there was the 42nd Street crowd. I wanted to join the two parts of my life, though they seemed very un-joinable. As if I were split. Of course, the links were political.

Poetry is often a field of performance. It is the form that most consistently thrives between page and stage. A play's script may be important, but few plays are written to be read; plays live when they are performed. Poems may be written only for the page, but many also live well (if not better, at least equally) in performance. A poetry reading by a talented reader can be as invigorating as a good theatrical performance. Slam poetry has helped revitalize (or just vitalize!) American poetry. Even when the poetry relies a lot on visual elements (spelling, punctuation, line breaks, arrangement on the page), it may also be powerful in performance — as, for instance, Jos Charles proves. Sometimes the performance of a poem opens up new possibilities. (I am forever grateful for being able to attend a Jorie Graham reading, for instance, about ten years ago, because it allowed me a way to enter her poetry, to hear it, value it, cherish it.) Because poetry readings are common, and even obscure poets can expect to get to read their poems in public at some point or another, the possibility of performance seems to infuse a lot of poetry and help enliven it.

Of course, writers of prose also get to do readings. But there's something different there. (Personally, I would rather go to a poetry reading than a prose reading any day.) Which is not to say that all readers of prose are bad — not at all. I've enjoyed some. But I'm rarely ever curious to hear a writer of prose read their work aloud, while I'm often curious to know how a poet reads.

In many ways, the Ridiculous today is impossible because everyday life embodies a good chunk of what was strange or outlandish only a few decades ago. Mainstream culture has absorbed and tamed much of what was once marginal and outré. Kitsch now includes its own irony at no extra cost. High and low culture keep knocking each other up. Gender got fucked. Hyperbole is EVERYWHERE! And satire (good ol' satire!) feels impossible in a world where Donald Trump is President of the United States.

In his essay "Tragic Drag", Andrew Holleran argues that Ludlam was effective because the Ridiculous Theatrical Company stood as the opposite of what the serious, respectable uptown theatre was full of: rote realism. Life was itself serious, and deadly serious during the early years of AIDS, when the everyday was constantly infused with the tragic. Meanwhile, art no longer even pretended not to be bourgeois:
Our teeth were fluoridated, our theatre air-conditioned. Too modern, too rational, too prosperous, too aware of genocide to care about individual fate. Why, then, did we sit rapt before dying Camille? Ludlam was our only showcase of the bravura roles, the classic acting of a sort one could no longer find, in the Age of Realism — in a culture whose solution for grief is grief counseling, whose reaction to catastropheis stress management and acupuncture, Ludlam played Tragedy. He played both Tragedy and Farce and refused to tell us which was which. He died onstage of tuberculosis, or heartache, and left us not knowing whether to laugh or cry, suspended somewhere (with parted lips) between the two; so that when he raised his gloved hand to his lips, as Camille, and coughed those three little coughs — just three — the audience both howled and stopped laughing altogether.
Now is not that era. Life is as tragic as ever, new genocides compete for attention with old, but mainstream culture has shifted gears from rote realism to rote escapism. (Not that realism was ever very realistic, or escapism much of an escape.) Ours is not an era of culture, but an era of fandom. Linked to our supersaturation by fandom is the simultaneous supersaturation by a particularly shallow, desperate moralism. In a remarkable blog post/essay, Liz Ryerson writes:
The 2010's were a decade where corporations were able to profit off our diminishing material possibilities and increasing distrust of authority and sell it back to us as empowerment. ... The 2010's were a decade where activism and popular culture became inextricably tangled up inside each other, and all culture became defined by a search for absolute moral clarity in the midst of a reality that had none.
Charles Ludlam's work still feels transgressive, even subversive, because its moralizing is that of Oscar Wilde, not Billy Graham — and today, though the conclusions may be different, the impulses, styles, and judgments of the moralists are closer to Graham than Wilde.*

To simply copy Ludlam's approach, as if the world now were the same as the world then, would create nothing but awkward articles of nostalgia. If there is any value today to Ridiculousness, whether in theatre or short fiction, then that value must rest on core principles and deep grammar, not props and external style.

Bluebeard by Charles Ludlam

The so-called uselessness of art is a clue to its transforming power. Art is not part of the machine. Art asks us to think differently, see differently, hear differently, and ultimately to act differently, which is why art has moral force. Ruskin was right, though for the wrong reasons, when he talked about art as a moral force. Art is not about good behaviour, when did you last see a miracle behave well? Art makes us better people because it asks for our full humanity, and humanity is, or should be, the polar opposite of the merely mechanical. We are not part of the machine either, but we have forgotten that. Art is memory – which is quite different to history. Art asks that we remember who we are, and usually that asking has to come as provocation — which is why art breaks the rules and the taboos, and at the same time is a moral force.

Thinking about what a short fiction of the Ridiculous might look like, I began to brainstorm a list:
  • Stories that are fabulous and campy
  • Stories that are just too much
  • Stories that are seriously melodramatic
  • Stories that are unseriously melodramatic
  • Stories that are highly theatrical
  • Very short stories that are maximalist
  • Very long stories that are minimalist
  • Stories that are like F.W. Murnau movies or Dorothy Arzner movies or Jack Smith movies or Kenneth Anger movies or R.W. Fassbinder movies or John Waters movies or Derek Jarman movies or Marlon Riggs movies or Gregg Araki movies or Cheryl Dunye movies or Todd Haynes movies or Céline Sciamma movies
  • Stories Judy Garland would sing
  • Stories that are like Charles Ludlam plays
  • Stories that would embarrass your parents
  • Stories that start with irony and end with earnestness. NOT THE REVERSE.
Looking at that list now, more than a week after (very quickly) writing it, I am especially taken by the last two items. The scream of the all-caps exhortation was deeply felt — itself bringing the whole tongue-in-cheek list to earnestness at the end. Irony is highly important to Ridiculousness, but it must not be left on its own, or else it chills and curdles.

One of the greatest writing teachers I've ever had was the playwright, director, and actor David Greenspan. This was at NYU, where for three years I was a playwrighting major in the mid-1990s. Though, from some things he said later, I don't think David thought he was a very effective teacher, he was everything I needed: an important writerly role model and someone who provided me with the permission I needed to write in the way I wanted to. He was, to put it simply, very kind to a confused and struggling young man.

Aside from my gratitude for the brief time we knew each other, and apart from his significant influence on me, I value David Greenspan as an extraordinary writer and performer — Tony Kushner once called him "probably all-around the most talented theater artist of my generation", and that judgment seems sound to me. His plays are rich and challenging in all the best ways; his performances are of the sort you remember for a very long time.

In the introduction to David Greenspan's Four Plays and a Monologue, Taylor Mac writes: "We come from the same line of queer writer/performers interested in blending the high and low and in expressing the full range of our abilities and humanity. I think of us as Fools: outsider artists who find our way to the center by jumping into our peculiarities full-tilt boogie. Or to use a description David uses in his play The Myopia, we are maenads in muumuus."

(Question: Have you tried writing a story by jumping into your peculiarities full-tilt boogie?)

(Question: Have you donned your muumuu today and summoned your inner maenad?)

In the end, I don't think there can be Short Stories of the Ridiculous. Not exactly, at least. Performance and prose are different creatures, we live in a different era, you shouldn't call an air traffic controller when you need a plumber, etc. etc.

But I do think we can strive to make short fiction more lively, interesting, powerful, and risky by taking to heart the motivations and explorations of various denizens of the Ridiculous, by studying their work, by seeking pleasure in their pleasures so that we might then transmute those pleasures to our stories. We can revel in eccentricity and imagination and artificiality instead of spurning them. We can appreciate wild styles (and not just the conventional avant garde). We can aim for too much, demand too much, pack too much into the small confines of a story, go big and never go home. Instead of cozy, well-manicured lawns on tiny plots of land — instead of cute little gardens that the neighbors will praise — instead of gated parks for the inhabits of penthouse suites — we can do our queer forebears proud and grow our stories into fabulous artificial jungles.

Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

*Consider what, late in life, Wilde said in "De Profundus" about Christ:
He felt that life was changeful, fluid, active, and that to allow it to be stereotyped into any form was death. He saw that people should not be too serious over material, common interests: that to be unpractical was to be a great thing: that one should not bother too much over affairs. The birds didn’t, why should man? ...

His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be. ... His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be. The beggar goes to heaven because he has been unhappy. I cannot conceive a better reason for his being sent there. The people who work for an hour in the vineyard in the cool of the evening receive just as much reward as those who have toiled there all day long in the hot sun. Why shouldn’t they? Probably no one deserved anything. Or perhaps they were a different kind of people. Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike: for him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely, as if anybody, or anything, for that matter, was like aught else in the world! 

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