When I was in New York last week, I saw Gary Indiana read from his
strange, rebarbative, yet oddly compelling new novel The Shanghai
Gesture at 192 Books, and in subsequent days I read
through the volume of reviews, essays, and articles that he published
last year, Utopia's Debris. As I read, I found
myself returning again and again to the following collectible line from
its early pages:
Our representations of ourselves are
even more selective and partial than our portraiture of other people.
It comes from an obituary appreciation of
writer Gavin Lambert (1924-2005), and the thought is more than just an
attempt at aphorism: Indiana uses it to begin to describe a type of
peculiarly modern first-person narrator who is not
the principal subject of the narrative, and also the "I" who, like
Proust's Marcel, performs as the author's surrogate, while the question
of whether they are the same person has almost no speculative
Indiana is writing there of Lambert's
first book, a collection of stories of louche Hollywood types, The Slide Area (1959), but he returns to the
concept in more detail later in the essay, when considering that book
alongside one of Lambert's later novels, The Goodbye
People (1971). Both books
close identification of an unnamed "I" with the author but, more
significantly, shift frequently backward and forward in time and
foreground a succession of individuals as the temporary subjects of the
narrative–this portmanteau effect is rarely used in literature, and
even more rarely used effectively. Aside from Proust, whose work
contains multiple structures and whose principal work is a single,
many-chambered novel, the notable examples include Tolstoy's story "The
Forged Coupon," Gide's Caves du Vatican, and
some of Bunuel's late films.
Indiana is modest enough
not to mention his own novels in that mode, the best of which is the
stunning, and sadly neglected, Do Everything in the
Dark (2003), which I would rank as one of the best novels
of the past decade. As for Lambert, though I knew his name from the
novel Inside Daisy Clover (1966), which was
made into a film starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, I'll admit to
having never heard of his other books, for which Indiana makes a
convincing case. Serpent's Tail reprinted The Slide
Area in 1998–looks like a trip to my local bookstore is in order.
Debris captures Indiana in all his voices: admiring,
catty, cynical, angry, appreciative, caustic, thoughtful, and–even
when he's wryly piling on viciously well-chosen adjectives–always
fundamentally serious. In the preface, he writes that the pieces in the
in the end, reflect my own tastes, the
seductions to which my own sensibilities have surrendered me, and that
they do not, alas, primarily group themselves under the sign of eros,
but of death. If many of the works and artists examined in these pages
heighten a tonic sense of life, more often they have instilled an acute
and not entirely uncomfortable reminder of my own mortality, the
ephemeral nature of consciousness, and represent something of the
struggle of individuals to wrest from their brief time of existence something of value.
important, Indiana's essays, like his novels, pulse with empathy; the
following lines from a piece about artist Barbara Kruger could serve as
a pithy summation of Do Everything in the
This is the subtext: The conviction
that empathy can, in fact, change the world–a little at a time, and
not always, and you will only improve things a little bit, anyway, but
if you don't even try, the incurably ugly side of human nature has
already won the war inside us all.
Everything in the Dark is out of print, but readily available used, Utopia's Debris new; you could certainly do
worse with your book-buying budget this week than picking up the pair.
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