Friday, May 29, 2009

Death of a True Maverick

Yesterday a brief internet trawl yielded a shocking bit of information. One of my favorite writers, James Purdy, died in March in Englewood, NJ, after breaking his hip. He was 94.

I can't really speak about Purdy without plundering some of the quotes put forth by his contemporaries. "An authentic American genius," hailed Gore Vidal. He was notably championed by Dorothy Parker and Dame Edith Sitwell, who claimed that her life would never be the same after having read Purdy's debut collection of short stories, 63: Dream Palace.

His fiction was hard to classify, as the characters and dialogue often seemed to be beamed from outer space. Having lived for a time amongst jazz and opera musicians in Harlem in the early 20th century, Purdy was one of the first white authors to realistically portray black America. In fact,his ear for black cadences was so acute that many of his publishers and editors (and James Baldwin) thought upon first reading him that he was indeed African-American. Purdy's other two favorite themes were innocence corrupted and duplicity in small town America.

The language he utilized was a strange bag indeed, and has been a huge influence on my own style. Lurching from midwestern vernacular to bombastic apostrophe, often in the course of the same line, his characters sound like Biblical street prophets oraculating wildly. They seem to be motivated by vanity, poverty or revenge, however, underneath this they lie on either side of that Wildean catch 22: the problem of yearning for love, and the problem of getting it. In fact, if his novels are about anything, they are about how love can distort the human spirit.

The crown jewel of Purdy's oeuvre, the novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works, is set in depression-era Chicago, and features a cast of characters so destitute and emotionally impoverished that one can feel the desperation oozing off the pages. Fortunately the book is also witty and absurd, with a distinctive gallows humor which could only be ascribed to Purdy. But this doesn't preclude empathy. To elicit empathy for such unsympathetic characters is Purdy's tightrope walk. Furthermore it contains all the elements of a great novel: doomed, operatic characters, catty dialogue, sexually-repressed-and-sublimating-wildly military officers, Shakespearean and biblical allusions including overly symbolic scenes of foot-washing and crucifixion, and a gruesome late-term abortion which may have you reaching for the smelling salts. It all culminates in a scene of S&M martydom so extreme it should by rights redeem all the characters. But of course it doesn't. The sense of release, as pointed out in Purdy's New York Times obituary, is infinitesimal, though the book could definitely be seen as one long primal scream.

Chisolm set the stage for later works such as Cabot Wright Begins, a "rape epic" featuring a titular protagonist at the top of his game, conquering huge numbers of victims and cutting a swathe through Wall street and various American grotesques with ruthless abandon.

Purdy was also a poet and playwright. His first novel Malcolm was adopted unsuccessfully for the stage by Edward Albee. This apparently threw his publishing rights into a tailspin, and years of obscurity followed. Further works included, Narrow Rooms, which was banned in Germany and featured shenanigans in an Appalachian prison, and The Nephew, the tale of a woman who, while preparing a memory book about the life of the titular nephew, discovers that he isn't quite the all-American clean-cut soldier boy he's been hitherto cracked up to be.

You can hear an interview with Purdy, in which he also reads a fantastic poem, at the Don Swaim author interviews page.

Here is the link to the great man's New York Times obituary:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Towering Disco Inferno

A friend groused that I have been doing much social commentary and not giving updates as to what I've actually been doing. So I suppose I should insert some more episodic journal type of entries to please the masses. I've also toyed with the idea of changing the name of the blog, since it seems to have morphed into something not strictly about Berlin per se.

But I am here, and I am seeing things through a "Berlin lens", so there you go. Currently its a very fuzzy one, what with all the pollen from the lime trees covering everything like snow. It's quite magical and surreal. Yesterday I was noshing a burger at Burgermeister (go figure), a burger place under the UBahn tracks at Schlesiches Tor, and one of the fluffy little things flew into my throat. Aaack.

Last night my roommate Jan and I sallied out to GMX at Weekend Club. He had free passes, so Jan was Carrie and I was the "Plus One". The weekly fete is held every Sunday in the 12th and 16th floors of a skyscraper at Alexanderplatz. In fact, it's the same building where I did my teacher training for Arenalingua, so upon entering the building I had a slightly officious feeling. This feeling was soon assuaged by the huge murder of fags milling about the premises. The promoters commandeered the entire 2 floors for this night, the 12th pumping out R and B and the likes of Britney and Lady Gaga. The 16th floor is much darker and druggier, with really good melodic electro music. You could tell the DJ was a real connoisseur.

As Jan and I repaired to a place at the back of the bar, a mincing, grimacing queen came flouncing over, face twitching, and said something to Jan in German. He pointed at me and said "Huebscher Mann" and did the same to Jan and then drew his hands together, indicating that since we were both "hot", "aber natuerlich" we should be hooking up, which is a stupid conclusion in itself. He reminded me of the creepy old queen in the ship disembarkment scene in Death in Venice, the one who augurs Aschenbach's terrible demise, but this guy was younger than I and actually quite good-looking. Pity he was so strident and yodelling and mugging like Lindsey Kemp on a bender. He then pulled up our shirts and pointed out oh-so-cleverly that since I was hairy and Jan was smooth that we would make a perfect polar-opposite kind of couple.

We then decamped to the dancefloor, where I was accosted by what looked like a very slight 12-year old, who asked if I was a certain "Schauspieler". (This happens quite often, as I have been told I have a "theatrical" face). After I assured him I was not an actor, that I was really playing only myself, he declined to divulge the name of the actor in question (hopefully it wasn't Abe Vigoda or something). Anyway, he's quite a cute Aryan type, at University in Hamburg. We resolved to keep in contact, though I felt a bit like the cradle-robber. Although, May-December courtships are all the rage these days, what with Madonna and Jesus and all.

After a harrowing descent with 30 tweakers in a lift with a capacity of 20, we emerged into the damp warm air and sped away in Berd's smart car. Beats church any Sunday...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Tortured Essay

Many years ago I read an interview with the singer Jim Foetus. In it he was forced to defend the writing of such song lyrics as "Every woman's place is on my face." He said, "I consider myself a feminist but I don't act like one." Now that's my kind of feminist, one with a firm grasp of irony . I believe the same could be said for Mary Gaitskill (though she doesn't show it so much here) Here is she is reading hypnotically, as per ushe, from one of her essays for a Harper's anniversary celebration, way back in the stone age, the early 90's.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I recently discovered the work of an author I never knew about before, Mary Gaitskill. She apparently made a big splash in the late '80's with her debut collection of sort stories, Bad Behavior. She has been far from prolific, but one of the short stories from BB was co-opted by Hollywood sometime in the early noughties as the film Secretary. She was a bit chilly about the film's translation to the screen, claiming they had filmed a "nice...Pretty Woman version" of her story. One of her main contentions was they tried to make it into a PC version of S and M, so that practitioners could feel good about themselves. Gaitskill found it a bit silly that at the end of the film the characters say, in effect, "Hey, we like fact, we like this so much, let's do it all the time. In fact, let's get married!" When in reality, Gaitskill said, anyone attempting to exert that much control over their erotic life would be too riddled with issues to sustain something rooted in reality over the long term.

This got me thinking (there I go sounding like an ersatz Carrie from Sex and the City again) about the social dynamics which play out in the S and M subculture, between both male/male couples and male/female couples. The bedroom (alley, toilet, etc) is sort of a mirror image of what occurs in the greater culture, to the extent that the power imbalances between men and women in the workplace, for example, as well as physical and psychological differences, play a role. With a heterosexual couple, these games many well not translate into a conjugal setting because of the power-dignity relationship already germane to male-female relationships in society. The male, in other words, usually has the upper hand, due to physical, financial and social hierarchal circumstances.

Because there is a level playing ground between men in society, however, I think gay male roles in the sexual subculture play out a little bit differently. Men are used to negotiating power differently, and are quite naturally competitive. There's less of a stigma attached to dominance and submission between consensual males, and in some cases less lingering traumatic aftereffects. For example, when I first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, I really wasn't all that disturbed, because the first thing that came into my mind was, wow, gay porn! The themes and motifs therein were to me very similar to what many gay men take for granted in their erotic lives. Of course, for an Islamic heterosexual man, with the consensual aspect removed, this would be the ultimate degradation, being magnified into full-blown emotional violence. But for a number of gay man, this kind of abuse of power and heinous transgression, within the context of sexual fantasy and the very fluid power structures contained therein, would be a powderkeg of eroticism.

Gaitskill also touches at one point on gay marriage, stating that she had once believed that assimilation and the disappearance of gay culture was a good thing, because it signalled the waning of a mentality of difference. She has now altered her original opinion by saying that she that maybe the outlaw culture was necessary for some people, to hang onto an outsider identity. I interpret this as an alignment of the "outsider" culture (also necessary to the creation of art, but that's another essay) with the type of behaviors she ascribes to her characters, not necessarily homosexual, but also sex workers, disenfranchised people and psychologically dislocated miscreants.

I would argue that because of their very flexibility with respect to the acting out of power structures in the bedroom, reflected in the level social playing field between men and compounded by the easy social mobility within the gay diaspora, that some gay men, unlike Gaitskill's characters in their original incarnations, would be better equipped to maintain such a master-slave relationship within a serious long-term committed partnership. While feminism has been unable to completely confound socially prescribed roles for women, contemporary definitions of masculinity allow a great versatility in male roles. As James Baldwin said, "This (American ideal of masculinity) has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white."

By extension one could add, "bottom and top", "master and slave", "dominant-submissive." I have good straight male friends in the US who do things like enforced strangulation, farting on each other, bondage and tickle torture, precisely because it's so degrading, in fact, free from religious proscription and feminine power differentials, it imparts a sort of dignity the more control the male has over his compadre, the more he is able to "punk" his counterpart. Look at "Jackass" for Christ sakes. It's only natural, then, that these roles be acted out not only in a social crucible, but on the playground that exists within a man-on-man union (and in every gay man's imagination). Who said "to love, honor and obey?"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Minstrelsy of Victimhood

A few words about Elizabeth Edwards: what a cow. Really. Sure, she’s as terminal as a kiosk at Heathrow, but frankly it’s quite difficult to have empathy for the old gal and her one woman traveling pity party. She's giving victims everywhere a bad name. Have you ever seen someone in such denial? It was nigh-on unbearable how that gloating proxy for the American public, Oprah, rubbernecking her way into their creepily huge/empty basketball court (a metaphor for their barren marriage?), stood by while her husband submitted to one final humiliation in the klieg lights, their conjungal misery laid bare. Oh, the humanity. Ms. Edwards’ gambit reeks of desperation: a feeble attempt at character assassination, punishment of her husband for his transgression and validation of her relationship with a man who doesn’t deserve her love. All in one swell foop, and under the rubric of “getting the truth out there” and “inspiring others” with her struggle and "grace under pressure".

It is obvious Ms. Edwards is a smart woman making a stupid choice here, unlike her husband, who is obviously a man who has been making stupid choices since he could unzip his pants on the campaign trail. There will be a special place at the urinal of political ignominy for him, next to Larry Craig.

This Rielle Hunter – her name so assiduously avoided in the press at Edwards’ request -- is quite plainly trash. Just look at her – she reminds me of every full-of-it, perky peroxide bitch I ever worked with. Those roots! The lipstick! That hair rag! The quasi-spiritual jibberjabber! She looks like she queefs a lot. One can't imagine her delivering the ultimate bowel movement, the "it" that Ms. Edwards so gingerly dances around, the elephant in the room she clearly cannot face.

But Ms. Edwards’ victim game is backfiring, and putting this observer on the side of the other woman. Why? She has put out a self-serving and mendacious tome and commenced a degrading (think of the Children!) press junket, under the guise of concern for the welfare of the US. Where was her concern back when this mess began? When she declared to the audience that she had insisted Edwards run because of their shared “vision for this country” one was induced to gagging. Her mercenary motives are at the zenith of their transparency.

As far as getting at the root of the truth of her struggles, let’s face it: Ms. Edwards is still dissimulating, and is fooling no one. Although there is at the moment no direct proof that her husband has sired a love child with Hunter, or that her husband misappropriated campaign funds, the circumstantial evidence is mounting, no pun intended. Ms. Edwards’ walk-and-talk-show tour has squashed the turd underfoot, but the shit streaks remain indelibly caked on the heel.

The other fallacy she is propagating is that the affair was one-sided, that her husband was merely a fallen angel, a weak man whose knees buckled at the deployment of those three little words, echoing off the walls of a campaign hotel lobby: "You are so hot." How above-it-all she seems in her rarefied North Carolina air, but her words are an affront to Other Women and Single Mothers of Bastard Children everywhere. Sure her husband has absorbed some of the blame, but only in terms of her reaction to it. Her own martyrdom, compounded by illness and infidelity, has ensured that the legacy of their relationship, according to her own tortured and deluded logic, remains intact despite everything.

But the language she uses reveals the chinks in the armor of their much-ballyhooed relationship. When she snarkily speaks of “putting in the time” or “doing the work” – pointedly contrasted with the unnamed Miss Hunter’s “bargain basement” and cheap “hotel room” assignations -- little does Ms. Edwards know that she makes it sound like clocking in and out. This is all too common in today’s therapeutic palaver. Many self-righteous new age couples speak of their relationships in terms of a convoluted manifestation of a Puritan work ethic in order to justify mediocrity or settling for less-than. I knew one couple who justified their love by claiming that a relationship was like being trapped in an office building. You keep going and every once and a while you hit a wall, they insisted, which you then have to break down, in order to proceed to the next level. Then you keep going until you hit the next wall, which must also be broken down, and so on, ad infinitum. I guess the deeper your walls went, the more profound the relationship. I’m not sure if they ever hit the roof (would seem a bit difficult if they were ploughing horizontally through parallel walls -- you'd come out the side, more like) but I had never heard such Balderdash in my life. The only way they could rationalize being an unhappy "unit" was to make it sound like drywall installation or being trapped in some horrible existential labyrinth. If this is the model for modern marriage, better to simply play the whore. I’m not sure Ms. Hunter knows what role she is in, the Madonna or the Whore, but it’s glaringly apparent that she and the heir apparent are waiting in the wings for Ms. Edwards’ final act.