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Artists Go to Hell Available Now

16 Nov

Artists Go to Hell 2

My collection of short stories, Artists Go to Hell, is available as an ebook on Amazon.

Buy it HERE

Below is a description:

Artists who manage to get some exposure, at the very least, have to deal with the public. At the very worst, they end up in Hell.

Hell may come in the form of smarmy agents, sycophantic students, bad film scripts or journalists with ulterior motives.

There are lights at the end of the tunnel, albeit, peculiar ones: whether it is the solace that a struggling actor finds in impersonating the kind of cop he used to play on television or a philosophy based entirely on food which one ancient teacher adopts.

Some manna from heaven proves to be full of worms, however, as it is with one man admitted to a ‘hospital’ which turns out to be a strange prison run by subterranean authorities. As bookstores around the world close and the human race stops reading, God sits in Heaven with a representative of man as they negotiate on what to do about it.

Ultimately, the stories in this book form a whole which deals with what it means to be an artist in a blood-hungry world driven by its need for entertainment, pleasure and its neurotic tendency to destroy its own idols.

Buy HERE

‘Artists Go To Hell’ Coming Soon

13 Aug

Artists Go to Hell 2

Artists Go To Hell is a collection of fiction I wrote which will be available as an ebook on Amazon very soon. My ultimate goal is to make it available on other platforms and as a print-on-demand book. I don’t have an exact date set yet, but I’m shooting for sometime near the end of this month. I’ll keep everyone posted and give you a link to it once it’s available. 

Below is a description of the book:

All artists who manage to get some exposure, at the very least, are going to have to deal with their audience. At the very worst, they end up in Hell. Hell may come in the form of smarmy agents. It may be surreal prisons. It may even be sycophantic students, bad film scripts or journalists with ulterior motives.

There are lights at the end of the tunnel, albeit, peculiar ones. In this collection of novellas and short stories, a struggling actor takes solace in impersonating the kind of cop he used to play on television. A Greek philosopher decides that everything in life ties back to food. Hassidic Jews offer a safe haven to a man condemned for obscure crimes by subterraneous authorities. As bookstores around the world close, God sits in Heaven trying to figure out what to do with his human creations who have stopped reading books.

Made up of previously published works along with all new ones, the stories in this book form a whole which deals with what it means to be an artist in a blood-hungry world driven by its need for entertainment, pleasure and its neurotic tendency to destroy its own idols.

 

To Call Oneself an Artist

28 May

For the fear of sounding pretentious, people have given up referring to themselves are ‘artists.’ When people ask them who they are and what they do, many people would prefer to refer to themselves as ‘teachers,’ ‘statesmen,’ or ‘grad students.’ Meanwhile, the artist goes to his cave at night when the day’s work—which funds the very allotted time that turns art into a mere hobby—is done.

Granted, if you’re an artist who has a day job he finds stimulating, then wonderful. For many people of my generation, art is something done in the margins of life, often compromised and squandered up in devotion to cultural activities and ‘entertainment.’ One might argue that the price of being a true artist is high, but is not the price of assigning art to the realm of ‘hobby’ not higher? It only proves the unfortunate contingency of our world today: that that which is worth doing is not worth living for. And why is it not worth living for? Usually because it doesn’t pay.

Since we all know that respectable citizens go to university and get jobs, an artist must be someone with superhuman strength of intellect and energy, willing to produce masterpieces and best-sellers in eight-hour spurts on the weekends over the course of ten years, right? For some of us, this simply isn’t good enough.

The starving artist is a romantic image for those who have prevailed, ‘made it,’ in other words, with a big royalty check, a big advance or a television spots. There is a subtle belief that goes with this romantic image that one day if one starves long enough, it will pay off when they inevitably ‘make it big.’ We take for granted that, in ancient times, artists were not often issued royalties or given television spots. They did not have blogs, agents, promoters and zines. They sung, spoke and wrote, aware that their lives were not long (as they were indeed shorter) and that each day would see the furthering of art and life. At the end of life would come the end of art.

An artist who is charming enough can get by homeless. Eventually, a charming person may find someone or some people who are willing to take care of the homeless artist for a time while he does what he does best (and if not what he does best, then what he does inevitably). Unfortunately, there is no aptitude test to measure charm, so one best put this potential future out of ones mind (since most people, artists included, are not terribly charming anyway). The next option is to live for your art with no expectations at all—no hope that anyone will reward you or that anyone will offer you an open door or any easy way out. At the very least, this way, you are bound to make art that isn’t constricted to the limits that other art runs up against—that art which can only be made under comfortable circumstances.

Some artists might be in the fortunate position of a Goethe or a Proust—coming from money and, therefore, having little to worry about but the production of their art. Everyone else, however, must consider different options if they don’t want their art to belong to the realm of ‘hobby.’ The starving artist lifestyle may suit some people just fine, but there is another solution too, for those of you who want to live somewhat comfortably without compromising your entire life by doing something you hate.

It comes down to the very attitude with which you approach your life. Are you going to school to be a teacher, but what you really want to do is paint? Perhaps you feel that teaching will help your painting. In this case, when people ask you ‘what you do,’ tell them you paint. Most of the time, the question ‘what do you do’ means ‘how do you make money,’ but that wasn’t what was actually asked, was it? If it wasn’t asked, put the ball in your court. Don’t tell people you’re a bank clerk or a salesperson if that’s not how you identify yourself. Tell people the thing that you think most about yourself, and people will see you that way. Tell people you are an artist and they will treat you like one. They won’t want to talk about how much money you make; they will want to see/hear/experience your art. You might even run into someone renting out an incredibly inexpensive room or even opting it out for free, simply because they believe in your art as much as you believe in it.

If your art isn’t making you a living, be honest with your employers and potential employers. If you’re working full time at a job that offers part time work, take the part time work and let them know that the activities you are doing in what is deceptively called ‘free time’ is just as important to you as medical school would be for someone else. When you go to job interviews and your potential employer asks you what your long term goals and plans are and what you want out of the company or the business or the hustle, tell them that you want to do something fun which will provide for you and stimulate the more important activity you do outside of work. When you’re transparent about these things, you will get the life you want. You will probably be turned away from several dozen more interviews, but who cares? There are many ways to make quick money and quick money is usually a small compromise. A small compromise is better than the big compromise: lying to yourself and your employers in interviews for jobs you are going to hate for the next five years.

It is still possible to be an artist in this world. You may need to come to a compromise, but let the world compromise with you and not the other way around.

Found

14 Apr

In what amounted to only a brief sleep, I had a dream that I’d already had many times while awake. I dreamt that I’d been very lost. Today, ‘lost’ might mean being thirty miles away from home without a GPS or wi-fi. In the ancient world, to be lost not only meant to wonder if one would ever make it home but to wonder, upon that very slim chance, if it was even worth it to come back. Time would have rendered everything that made it ‘home’ completely foreign.

Men wishing to visit exotic new places were not even sure how big the world was—if it was indeed limitless, or if their travels would pit them right at the edge of heaven or hell (if the earth was flat, who was to say one couldn’t walk right off the edge and into another world?).

Travel needed to be thought about with a great deal of courage and pragmatism. For one setting out into the world, one had to trust their resources and powers of perception if they even had plans to come back. One had to calculate the harmony of the winds and seasons and weigh them against the temperaments of foreign cultures and bonds made through great effort and much learned, and sometimes, much lost.

Men taking to the open sea, leaving wives and children behind, were obligated to live for that very hope of return, even if it meant dealing with great deals of change. But to those with no ties but cultural ties, ties of bloodline and heritage, being lost to one place is to be found to another.

In my particular dream, I set out into the world and became so incredibly lost that I was forced to wander and wonder for 100 years. Why did this strange fantasy keep occurring to me? Why did it color my dreams with images of such investment toward this all-consuming, life-long project, this simple but very heavy act of returning?

And I realized that this was just it—this word ‘project.’ This very thing we call ‘life’ is something we perceive to have linearity. Not only do we see it as having the linearity that exists between birth and death, but there is a linearity that begins from some quite remote moment and reaches toward a sense of purpose or a goal.

I will not bother asking what the purpose is, for I cannot suggest anything like an accretive purpose for mankind or even an individual purpose. But what we do know is that everyone seeks to fulfill a purpose of some kind, but the question is, where do these varied purposes come from? Some want to get rich or make good art or raise children or accomplish all of these at once. Some want to make their parents happy or serve their country or destroy their country.

In all of these things, there is a sense of investment in a project that is bigger than the individual undertaking it. We are wrapped up in and living in narratives not of our own making. The stories that make up our world will either see themselves lived out through us or we can make our own new stories through them.

Perhaps this is why I had become so obsessed—if at first only subconsciously—with being lost. It represents the most refined example and highest summit of what it means to invest oneself in a project. Being lost is the biggest project of all. The project is not simply survival—one could clumsily refine every other sense of ‘project’ to a sole drive like will to survive or will to life. Rather, when one is lost, the project is to forsake the biggest change, to forsake nature’s most violent act against man, which is not death, but this—to destroy his sense of knowledge. When a man finds himself alone on the shores of a distant island with no promise of ever being seen again or when a man wanders through the wilderness on some foreign continent, unsure as to what direction he is going or if his home even exists or if his family has not moved on altogether to a new place, all of his learning is either burned up by the circumstances or thrown into that inevitable journey.

By throwing what little knowledge one is even capable of acquiring in this great stretch of life into a simple yet heavy project such as returning, absolutely everything that doesn’t matter is trampled into the muds and dusts of time.

The artist is like one who sets out on a very far voyage from which he may never return. But the artist’s sense of ‘return’ does not belong to a home that can be located within the artist’s life. The artist loses himself and seeks to return to a place that has escaped man altogether—to a place that may never have existed or which is so primordial that it only leaves some trace of itself in our minds and keeps passing through us in a never-ending inheritance.

The artist is not doing something so different from everyone else, and yet no one sees it. The artist’s project lies so adjacent to the projects of the world around him that their very foreign variables would appear to pose a threat to convention—few would like to admit that the strangeness of the world is not entirely strange, or far too related to what they consider normal.

Most surfaces of the earth have been explored and exploited. There are very few places to get lost anymore (even when a man is lost today, he knows where it is that he is lost, at least in some general sense). It is no longer really possible to be geographically lost to the degree that ancient man could.

But it is still possible to get lost in other ways. Think about the very concept of being ‘lost’ and what makes up its essence. It is to be plunged into the unfamiliar. The narratives that make up today’s world, though varied, numerous and contradictory, are familiar. Perhaps the only way that one can be lost today is to travel so far from the narratives of culture that one finds oneself in completely foreign territory, which one never thought one’s mind could reach. To be lost today does not necessarily have anything to do with even moving an inch. One can become lost while one is completely still. It is a perceptual loss.

‘Loss’ has often become a synonym for a kind of despair or the absence of something good. But that is the only to have lost something else. Once you yourself are lost, it would seem that you lost the entire world (or at least, the world you knew).

To seek a new voyage is to accept or embrace the fact that you might get completely lost and will have to dwell in that place of loss. Is it so strange to view the artist as someone who willingly accepts that voyage into the loss of the world they know, so that they might find or be found in a new territory altogether?

The Form of a Collection

9 Apr

As I continue work on a current project of mine, I reflect back on the time I started it, thinking it would be a quick affair. It is now April of 2014 and some variation of the project has existed since November of 2012. It is a collection of stories whose title has also existed in some form for the better part of a year—it is Artists go to Hell.

An unpublished novel of mine, a comedy about suicide, had been assigned the name God Hates a Coward after the Mike Patton song with Tomahawk (Not sure how to get a hold of Mr. Patton for permission to use his song name. How long did it take Murakami to get a hold of The Beatle’s legal team for his novel Norwegian Wood? Or how long did it take Douglas Coupland to get a hold of Morrissey’s legal team for his novel Girlfriend in a Coma?). Between that possible title and another envisioned collection, which I wanted to call Statesmen go to Heaven, I started to recognize an unexplainable theologically punitive strain to my tentative titles.

My intention for the collection Artists go to Hell is and has been that it would be a series of stories tied together by one theme. While some pieces were meant to stand on their own and had been written in isolation from the others (or had at least started this way) I wanted them to play off of ideas that had been of great concern to me. I found myself writing about celebrities and their idiosyncratic relationships with their public and the world around them.

I thought to myself, am I really concerned that much about celebrity and pop culture? Hasn’t this all been done before? Am I trying to write Bret Easton Ellis books now? It seemed puzzling that this would be a concern of mine to deal with in fiction, just as I think it puzzling that some artists spend an inordinate amount of time carping on the dangers of technology though H.G. Wells and J.G. Ballard had done it much better.

It occurred to me that there was a certain theme in this work of mine that ran underneath the more obvious, topographical one. Celebrities and their publics were mere stand-ins for ideas that transcend the borders of popular culture and run into our everyday lives. I was dealing with scapegoating and codependence. I was dealing with the way that society turns people into symbols that mean quite a bit more than what that society intended, and often when society doesn’t know it’s doing it.

Discovering about a third of the way through my work that the collection had this element to it, it was then easier to steer the other pieces in that direction, and to offer subtle variations on the theme.

I was looking for a sense of harmony that would be almost musical in execution. I wanted to think of the piece as a Rock and Roll record as much as a collection of fiction. The term ‘concept album’ gets thrown around a lot in music, but I think the term is a much more determined and rigorous version of what music albums already are. Every time an artist makes an album title that isn’t concurrent with any of the song titles, the artist is trying say something about the whole (that is, so long as the record company isn’t raping the meaning or pushing some agenda for marketing reasons).

I am committing myself to a certain unnamed tradition by making this collection. I am certainly not the first nor will I be the last. The cohesive, theme-oriented collection of fiction will survive and take on new forms, despite what the general markets have said in the past about collections not doing as good as novels and other genres. If you care about the money, you should probably create a different kind of fictive structure.

But for those of you trying to carve a form out of a formless wood, or for those of you trying to tie a certain set of obsessions together through means that have been so far invisible, I would encourage you to take a great deal of time to reflect on what it is that has dominated your thought life.

Perhaps it is books you’ve read. Perhaps it is past stories you’ve written. Perhaps it is music you’ve listened to. Perhaps it is a certain set of things that have happened in your social life, or any great number of harmonies between these different areas. If you are trying to find a form for a collection, I would encourage you to forget about the money, because, as past occurrences tell us (in other words, the statistical realm, which is a different subject altogether), collections don’t make money. If they don’t make money, you don’t have much to lose by giving it the extra moment needed to discover the harmony inherent in the stories or essays or posts you’ve been writing as of late.

If you dig into that substance of your life you are most curious of, you will find something worthy of you.

April Fool’s Day 2014

24 Mar

1


April 1st, 2014 is approaching. May I still hold onto the hope that our president will come forth and tell his people that his plan is all an April Fool’s joke?


The government scoops a portion of the worker’s wages out of his hands with the assurance that, in return, immaterial rewards like ‘safety,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘right to property’ will be granted to him. To survive, The State made it impossible for man to live without his labor-wages. How does the state—a symbolic structure which doesn’t provide any temporal goods—survive? By taking a portion of the earnings of the workers and capitalizing on the temporal goods of others. Taxed for earning. How vulgarly simple the newest state solution is! How come nobody thought of it before? Tax people for labor? No. Tax people for merely existing!


It’s quite simple. Who suffers? Those who have the fortune of existing and are in the position of being Americans. If you are an American, and you exist, you must pay the premium or be charged for your very existence.


What is being offered for these premiums? ‘Medical insurance’—in other words, that to be in the company of men and women who may or may not be able to cure your disease, patch up your wound or locate the physical solution to your mistake will not cost as much as it could in the future. A metaphysical state of grace, guarding all against the threat of harm—protection from future occurrences.


What happens to one who does not or cannot pay for these future occurrences? One is charged for every moment one exists without coverage. If one doesn’t pay the charges? It goes to collections. It damages one’s ‘credit’—‘good credit’ being a fictive stamp of capitalistic approval born out of the needs of big businesses to guard themselves against the dangers of future occurrences. Damage to one’s ‘credit’ prevents one’s ability to maintain or own property—a capitalistic Mark of Cain. Who, then, is on trial? People who do not have money. How will they be punished? By being pushed into the financial hole of ‘debt.’ ‘Debt’ in a world operating on ‘credit’ is just as much a fiction as the latter, even if the weight and resulting anxiety of that debt are real. The real punishment? Anxiety. Stress. The crushing of one’s spirit.


We’ve been invited into a logical circle. The relationship between the causes of commodity and the effects of fetishism has caused us to assume, as individuals, a relationship with the government that presupposes the discourse of ‘debt’ and many inherited gestures and thoughts that have been doubling up and adding to our psychic baggage for thousands upon thousands of years, reaching into pre-history. We are only beginning, as a whole, to ask those questions that all of society was built on—the question put forth by the debtor. ‘To whom does my debt belong and why am I in his debt?’ Ancient man, who had no kings or rulers, began with this question when dealing with personal transactions that benefited him temporally.


Capital is so built on this relationship between debt and the debtor that we often forget the very vehicle by which this debt was stressed—guilt; a sense of anxiety by which one party could remind the other of the ‘value’ at stake in failing to fulfill a contract. Because those in power have, for countless millennia, enforced punitive measures on those who have failed to fulfill debts—whether that debt be that of one party steeling something for which others would be required to pay or that of one who has caused irreversible damage—guilt has grown many limbs and taken on a terrible life of its own in the cultural psyche. It has grown so large that it has become a punishment itself. Where men of power in pre-history merely carried through with their contracts until the blood of the weaker party soiled the ground, men of power today merely remind us that because they are powerful, they require our constant debt to keep them powerful—thus the illusion of our security—and when the mere sensation of debt is refused, we are then guilty of not paying reverence to the sovereignty of power itself.


Systems that capitalize on a lack or complete negation of money are, in the long run, merely punitive.

2


Health, though a necessity (but never a right) belongs to the domain (that is to say, the limits) of science. Where the state has a hand in the domain of science, it has produced weapons strong enough to kill millions and strike fear into the rest. It has widened the divide between social classes by forcing workers to be agents of production for the well oiled state machine to continue running smoothly. We may deplore the crimes of the industrial age now. We may cast our eyes away from a history filled with millions of lives snuffed out by war like candle-flames before a fan, but we cannot afford to continue to believe—and if not to believe, then frivolously accept—this fiction perpetually peddled by our statesmen: that they own the scientists and have, therefore, traced the perimeters of the material world. I distrust any man who tells me that he owns the truth because he understands nature. Today’s ‘natural truth’ is tomorrow’s forced vaccination.


A rule of approximation
It matters little if a conspiracy theory is true or not. If a man of power puts something into effect that even has the bad appearance of confirming the public’s ominous suspicions, it speaks badly of his discursive propriety. In a world where the masses rule, where the loudest truth is the truest and the most violent expression is the one that creates history, mere ‘bad appearances’ will cause nations to sink into the ground like the walls of Jericho. In other words, if we owe billions of dollars to a foreign country, it is in bad taste to charge everyone arbitrarily for insurance that we should, with good conscience, be able to pay for of our own volition. At least make it difficult for our suspicions!


Say what you will about the state’s propensity to glue words together, and not even with their proper compound word dash in between! Combining your last name with the word ‘care’ to denote a political entity is not only cute but also quite ingenuous. Everyone likes to be ‘cared for.’ Can we not continue this trend? Refer to war as ‘Bushwhacking.’ Refer to office sex as ‘Clinternizing.’ It is unfortunate, though, that words do not ennoble names when attached to them. It is the name that ennobles or cheapens the word.


What should I say to those who think that voting is duplicitous? That petitions are paltry? That protests are obnoxious and township rebellions are only invitations for tighter leashes? It is, perhaps, not for everyone to act. There are, of course, those who will not suffer from forced premiums. There are those who have much more to lose by way of ‘bad credit’ and ‘debt’ even if the disaffected no longer believe in those metaphysical, economic nouns. Perhaps it is not even for me to act. Could I justifiably call for others to willingly dive headlong into the anxiety of bad credit? Debt? Prison? Where does this state of discursive damnation, this ‘debt,’ not sink into with its talons? What fabric of life does it not now affect in some remote way? When things arrive at their worst, people will say, ‘If only we’d paid more attention earlier on!’ ‘If only we would have voted!’ Or even, ‘If only we would have met the state’s requirements!’ But suppose that a necessary change could not have come about through any other means. Suppose that an all out collapse in the modern value of ‘credit’ and ‘debt’ were to occur—for, realistically, it could only ever be a collapse in our concept of ‘value,’ as Marx was keen to show us. With more and more people having to exist and having to find some sort of vague contentment or mere will to go on, will our threshold for anxiety not be widened? Will we not be able to undergo more and more psychological hardship wrought by the metaphysics of this whole political bad faith? It will be at the expense of our comfort that we will finally have to appropriate and practice those gestures that we were warned we must start adopting long ago when all of this was merely a philosophical problem … Suddenly Heidegger’s ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ and ‘retrieval of being’ will have meaning beyond their use in dusty classrooms. Heinrich Heine will suddenly ring as true to us as he did to war-torn Europe in the twentieth century, an age he prophesied. Those ideas which for far too long only had strength as concepts in classrooms will suddenly reveal most of today’s mechanisms of control as mere concepts as well, thus revealing their weakness.

3


It is imperative that the state perpetually reevaluate its ability to give, otherwise it is merely a tyranny, like most states in the world. If the state wants to continue to exist and enjoy the temporal support of its people, it must recognize itself as nothing more than a clever fiction—The state must develop the ability to laugh at itself.


But then, can we really choose to see it this way, if we wish? That the state is nothing but a brutish, bumbling warrior who takes what he wills by strength and has no mind for managing the world beyond his own comfort, but that with a little learning and wisdom he might better learn how to take care of his people? I’m sorry, but it’s all quite a bit more sinister than that. The prices will always rise when there is war being had on many fronts.


Our leaders are quick to pay praise and respect to those men and women who risk and sacrifice their lives for us in wars. They are not brave enough to talk of the sacrifice that the common man must put up with when portions of his wage and most of his livelihood fund those wars. It is no longer sacrifice but forced debt. Of course, the state is unwilling to release information on just how much of the common man’s money is used for funding wars, just as the state is unable to release information on just how much money is used on making your society ‘safer’ and rife with ‘better education.’


When there is a war, all premiums and raises in price are immediately suspect.


Though Marx diagnosed the problem with capitalism, his solution was all too similar to the coming mandate of April 1st. Marx’s solution was little less than cutting out the cumbersome business of currency, and by doing so, he made human utility the currency. So his solution could be seen as an extreme opposite to the mandate of April 1st. Where his solution made humans into money, April 1st, merely supposes that it will make humans into commodities by which the state might make money.


My examples may be of the crudest sort, and perhaps they may say very little about the mechanics of the whole political dynamic involved in the conversation, but is this not what the subject has reduced us to? The marginalization of various classes of people, various types of people, all in favor of a set of dead ideals? That something could be for the sake of social welfare and rob precisely the people who need it most? What we are dealing with is not ‘social healthcare’ as it has often been referred to, but a mere capitalistic imitation of it. It is no kind of radical democracy, as it would greatly like to fashion itself, but a means of widening the gap between rich and poor.


But who then is rich and who is poor? Is the poor man the one asking for food on the corner of the street or is it last year’s millionaire who’s electricity is about to be shut off? Perhaps there will come a time when it is not the gap between the rich and the poor that is widened, but the gap between the anxious and the vigorous. Debt may crush the spirit the same as food deficiency. In America, there is not yet a famine, and this is the final summit of the problem. Where there is no famine, there is no true annihilating, violent poverty. The poverty of America is a poverty of desperation, not a poverty of death. Desperation may earn one food, but so may cunning and persistence (not exclusive from desperation but not married to it). You mustn’t be afraid when you are cast into the margins and the abysses of society. Most of the weapons formed against you simply do battle with your mind.

Blurred Lines – Matters of Fiction and Nonfiction

9 Mar

1
Everyone has an idea about the way a bookstore should be arranged in a perfect world. To some, we would be better off if there was only one fiction genre, to be called ‘Fiction.’ That would probably work, though I’m loathe to imagine what it would be like if those customers were ever correct in the grammar of their questions who came into the bookstore of my employment asking, ‘Where is the nonfiction section?’

There is a brand of novelist who detests the distinction between a Western novel and a Science Fiction novel to such a degree that one would think he was battling something he considered tantamount to racism. This brand of impartiality is usually espoused by writers of fiction embarrassed by the very corners of the bookstore to which their publishers have cast them or by writers who, due to contract or mere niche, are unable to easily switch genres in mid-career, causing them much professional resentment. Once in a while, an intellectual like Samuel Delany comes along with a direct interest in and rigorous dedication to the problem of genre and just what makes it what it is. The summit of Delany’s discourse on genre goes something like this: Genres, though they cannot be said to have no basis, are over-determined. Genre is not so much a way of writing as it is a way of reading.

In other words, when one enters a bookstore and opens a book titled Nova by a Samuel R. Delany and sees that its cover art portrays planets, stars and spaceships, one can put a safe bet that concurrent imagery will be featured, at least in part, in the text lying behind the binding. But for over-determined reasons, if the reader is familiar at all with the tradition or simply in touch with the way that markets cater to expectations, he knows that the book is not going to be a book set in space but which quickly isolates itself to a room in which nothing but Jane Austen types of plots and resolutions take place over tea and dances. He knows that the drama will somehow involve the characters in a spaceship, headed toward one of those planets and various technological, cultural, and biological malfunctions. The existence of the genre—and its marketability—depend on this kind of faith that the reader will approach the text with a set of presuppositions that will tell her what kind of attention to give the text.

This is just the same with different kinds of texts lumped together rather clumsily as ‘Nonfiction.’ The difference is that writers of Nonfiction are less willing to admit it. All but the shrewdest of biographers of Marilyn Monroe are doomed to deny that the very word ‘biography’ doesn’t automatically denote a sense of truth concerning the life of their subject and that their account is just as susceptible to the lies and prejudices of the great many people by whom information about the subject came about. Even less are those but the shrewdest of biographers willing to admit that their own tacit prejudices and presuppositions about the subject’s life may have seeped through the text.
If one portrayer of one subject can marginalize the story to such a localized degree, imagine what an entire tradition of thought, what an entire culture can do to history itself. Thus, we arrive in the section of the bookstore that deals with Art Criticism, World War Two, History of the Romani People, Mythology, or any number of sections formed out of genres. We approach these texts with faith that the authors conveyed this information in such a way that the narrative does not compromise the actual events (dates, places, births and deaths). If we were to believe—or if we were told—that the narrative compromised these things, we would be dealing with fiction.

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Sometimes the distinctions within one piece of text are clearer in intention than others, and we might find ourselves reading something that would count as a hybrid between Fiction and Nonfiction. We’re not talking about alternate history per se. We’re talking about a text that alternates between what is believed to be real by the wider society and what is completely intended as artificial. Some books do a good job of cluing the reader in on when the book is committing the crime of fiction and when it is eliciting an act of truth. Others intersperse so many different kinds of genres in such short space that the reader feels she is forced to stand back and look at the whole as though it were a completely unique genre to itself.

Roberto Calasso is one such writer. Even though the blurbs on the back of The Ruin of Kasch will tell people right up front what is happening in the book, the reader is forced to experience a page in which every piece of text is broken up the same way. The aphorisms don’t look any different from the fictive paragraph about Goethe’s birthday, nor does this look any different from the anecdotes and mini essays on art, culture, numbers, Marxism and sacrifice. Such books cause wars in bookstores concerning where they belong on the shelves. Because a large portion of Kasch deals with Tallyrand, many bookstores categorized it with French History. The blurbs within claim it as a novel in disguise. It is probably better to go with its author’s description of it when he was interviewed by The Paris Review—that it was, simply, a ‘narrative.’

Just as Kasch used Tallyrand as its rhetorical launch-pad, Callasso’s La Folie de Baudelaire uses the poet of its title. The book’s being put in the poetry section of the bookstore is misleading. The book is not necessarily about poetry, but about the very subject of modernity and how Baudelaire’s thought acted as its template. Just as artful and narrative as it is theoretical, we smell the streets of Paris and feel the sheets in the brothels and we hear the chatter in cafes and see the windows blinking on and off at night, all while Baudelaire haunts some place among it all, acting as a double agent between God and Satan.

Embellishments of real life, like Henry Miller’s writings, might serve to interest a reader looking for something with a narrative resembling fiction but which launches into all kinds of philosophical abstractions, anecdotes and asides. Some of the works of Geoff Dyer alternate quite clearly between fiction and nonfiction, as do the works of William Vollmann, especially in his book Atlas.

The works that interest me most now are those which seem to contain an unironic internal narrative rupture. I say unironic because the works in question are a little older and woollier, when the novel form wasn’t quite as rigid or bound by as many aesthetic laws as it seems to be today. One work that comes to mind is The Sorrows of Young Werther. The tormented main character’s personal diaries meet a friend’s removed account, so that we can logically witness the tragic end. While one could argue that this sort of unconscious use of narrative rupture is manipulative—merely a means to tug on the reader’s heartstrings—I would argue that more recent works of ‘experimental’ fiction, often lumped in as ‘postmodern,’ employ many of these same techniques but for reasons that compromise the internal integrity of the text. Whether a Robert Coover or a John Barth tries to play metafictional games with the readers to teach them about the act of reading by simply reminding them that they are reading, or whether a David Foster Wallace tries to invert these very tactics for some lofty moral purpose by using almost identical narrative ruptures, we are dealing with a kind of fiction that seeks to arrive at some point outside of itself—that tries to transcend itself. But to what purpose?

We may fall endlessly back into arguments between art-for-art’s sake and art that is socially utilitarian, but nothing can convince me that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is not the summit of this sort of narrative gamesmanship that his American academician successors aped every chance they had. Yet at the same time, in Pale Fire, when I read John Shade’s poem, I don’t feel as though I am being tricked into thinking outside of the book. When I read Charles Kinbote’s forward and commentary on that poem which comprise the novel, I feel invited back to a different, personalized interpretation of that poem to serve a narrative rupture—though perhaps ‘rupture’ is not the best word, for it is more like a sort of narrative flowering. Pale Fire does not talk down to the reader and it does not wink or offer transcendence if only you would recognize that it is a fake product. It works off of its own energy and locates all of its meaning only in the world of the book.
Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge probably has more in common with the works of Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski than fans of any of them would care to admit. I name them all together for, with the exception of Henry Miller, they all wrote highly fictionalized accounts of their own lives using distinct alter-egos. Rilke’s narrator, however close to Rilke he might be, is not Rilke. The highly transient, listless Rilke was always embellishing his distant blood link to a reputable aristocracy, as though believing himself to be a lost prince from some older world (a real life Charles Kinbote?) while his Brigge is able to tell us precisely who his relatives are and just how distant he is from them. On a much simpler level, Rilke’s Notebooks is a novel narrated by a struggling writer, as are the others mentioned above. But in this book, few are the adventures and episodes of this struggling writer as would happen in a Factotum or a Post Office. Rather, in this book, Brigge can develop some of his most frightening conclusions about the world where the real life Rilke might have only flirted with them in his poems and more so in his letters. It is Brigge who concludes his accounts with his final, lonely views on love by turning the tale of The Prodigal Son inside out—that it was the son who needed to forgive his family for loving him.

If Henry Miller developed an alter-ego, he didn’t bother to change that alter-ego’s name. Rather, he changed the name of his second wife and a few of his friends. God knows how much of it was real; given the way that his books are filled with passages in which friends, acquaintances and lovers compare him to Jesus, speak incessantly about his genius and pretty much seem addicted to his personality altogether, I would suspect, precious little.

If only as a nice break, I’m drawn to books that follow the sort of path laid out by the works listed above. They are fictions that do not seem like fictions and real events that couldn’t possibly be real.