Empires like to make little monuments to the cultures they swallow. The British Museum collects Pakistani slippers; juju masks from Cameroon are exhibited in France. And in 1993, New York University opened a bright new archive in its Fales Library: the Downtown Collection.
It was, among other things, a tribute to the bohemia that NYU had happily destroyed. For years, the university — a real estate imperium — had hacked away at the tangle of establishments and apartment buildings in Greenwich Village and beyond. By the early ’90s, it was far from alone. Developers everywhere joined forces with police to take revenge on a city they felt they’d lost to perverts and the poor. Minorities were banished to Harlem and the outer boroughs; the young men, to prison. And the white artists of lower Manhattan, their cachet dwindling and their numbers slashed by AIDS, found themselves shipwrecked in this sloshing new city, clinging to rent control.
The mood grew foul. It was clear that something — something called Downtown — had been stamped out. So a loose clique of painters, novelists, performers, filmmakers, punks — pallbearers of the avant-garde — began to root around their lofts, snatching up whatever seemed significant. Personal effects took on the zombie glow of the archive. Sketchbooks, manuscripts, photographs; collages, journals, letters. Boxes stuffed with ephemera, flotsam of a life lived on the so-called fringe, were packed up and sold to NYU, to be rather spookily enshrined as one’s “papers.” The Richard Hell Papers. The Lynne Tillman Papers. The David Wojnarowicz Papers. Downtown was dead. Now it could be embalmed.
To view the Gary Indiana Papers, you must first make an appointment with Fales. Copies can be made for fifty cents per page. Scans cost $15. Books and journals are brought out with priestly ceremony and propped on a Styrofoam cradle, their pages gently parted and weighted by braided ropes.
This is all sharply ironic, of course, because Indiana has groaned for years that there was no such thing as Downtown. The word was a fetish, a slur — a “punitive construct” dreamed up by the New Yorker to mark anyone who baffled the upper middle class. Yes, there were artists and writers doing striking things in the Village and on the Lower East Side. Yes, many of them carried themselves with a lip-jutting insouciance that seemed, in a way, punk. But it was never a movement, and only barely a “scene.” As Indiana notes in Last Seen Entering the Biltmore (2010):
I moved to New York permanently (or so I thought) in 1978, from Los Angeles, and after a brief spell of living uptown, gravitated to the regions below 14th Street where, often to my regret, my early efforts as a poet/impresario/playwright caused me to be stereotyped for decades as a “downtown writer,” a meaningless term which many people still like to blather, though I never, in fact, wrote much of anything specific to “downtown” Manhattan.
A valid protest, but that last bit is false. Indiana was the art critic for the Village Voice, a house organ for Downtown, and three of his novels take place “below 14th Street,” all dotted with familiar Downtown figures. Alas, he was in and of that milieu, but his resistance is touching — and telling. By now, it’s a classic posture: Indiana the disputer, Indiana the sansculotte, Indiana the gritty homosexual rascal of American letters who finds himself within spitting distance of the bourgeoisie. That at age 65 he finally wrote a memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, portends a reckoning of sorts: a summa of those “early efforts,” or at least a proclamation as to what Downtown was or wasn’t. But Indiana has told the story of his life with many of the legendary parts cut out. The book is, for the most part, about his life before New York, and flouts the conventions of the writer’s memoir. No gilded memories of this or that fateful encounter; no smug retellings of visitations by the Muse; no hints as to how or why he wrote what he did.
Indiana has told the story of his life with many of the legendary parts cut out.Tweet
This is Indiana’s latest attempt to resist his own mummification — to stay swiveling and fluid while the culture tries to pin him to the cork. A polymath, polemicist, intellect, and occasional actor, he was raised in working-class New Hampshire and traipsed through the much-mythologized hysterias of the Bay Area of the ’60s, Los Angeles of the ’70s, New York of the ’80s — a belletristic Forrest Gump. A poet first, he soon turned to drama, essays, and fiction. But even in his earliest works he was hammering out his ethos, as in his poem “America the Large,” from 1976:
Matchbooks say Thank you in today’s America
Telephone operators tell you Have a nice day
Restaurant checks say Please come again
And so do the men
Color TV gets better reception here than over there
Criminals spend less time rotting in jail
Everybody has a lot of rights, even the poor
Although they’re often too poor to notice
The bitter invocation of “the poor”; the insidious boredom of “Color TV”; the tossed-off, glinting eroticism in the rhyme of “again” and “men”: from the start Indiana savored the flip and the bleak, fusing them into a sardonic style.
Early attempts at poetry were mined for performance: works like “Rock ’n’ Roll Funeral Party,” performed at the Mudd Club in September 1979, have a brittle jocularity — the snap and beat of avant-garde stand-up. (“if i could bring people back / i wouldn’t.”) But after his 1978 move to New York, monologue bloomed into dialogue, witticism thickened into plot, and Indiana became a Downtown dramatist. He began to write and direct plays with Bill Rice, the middle-aged artist who had washed up on the beaches of theater. A painter, sculptor, and photographer, Rice rose to cult stardom when he strutted into his first audition drunk — and aced it. He and Indiana never agreed on a name for their company, with Rice favoring Garbage After Dinner and Indiana insisting on Theater of the Obvious. I prefer the latter, as it trumpets the brash vacancy of works like Alligator Girls Go to College, about mutants who try to get an associate’s degree, and Curse of the Dog People, a gay, gothic mystery about horny aristocrats in a drafty castle.
It was brusque, absurdist theater, never dull or difficult. Indiana claimed to write plays as if they were films: scenes changed quickly, actors dashed on and off the stage, and the writing itself flaunted the sickly sheen of camp cinema. (Cookie Mueller, John Waters’s lisping muse, was in many of these productions.) Here was a brightly amoral world, full of flat, cracked speech:
ROMAN: Hi, I’m Roman Polanski.
SHARON: Hi! Let’s fuck!
This is from a piece that debuted in 1980, The Roman Polanski Story. It would announce Indiana’s fascination with celebrity crime, a subject that dances through his film A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking (1981) and would later be elaborated on in the novels of his American Crime Trilogy. But by 1982, he was spending summers acting in Europe and elsewhere on low-budget film sets, continuing to write poems and acquiring a reputation. (Jamaica Kincaid, in a 1980 Talk of the Town column for the New Yorker, dubbed him “the punk poet and pillar of lower-Manhattan society.”)
In 1985, the Village Voice presented Indiana with a Faustian bargain. In exchange for a steady paycheck and a modicum of prestige, he was to be that simpering, parasitical thing: an art critic. This would not only bolt him down to a publication and a subject matter — both, in his eyes, limiting and self-important — but have a hardening effect on his prose. His opinions had always made glancing appearances in his work, his poems and plays hooking the snickering rebellion of camp to a savage, Artaudian vision. But criticism would force Indiana to formalize that gesture: to enunciate, in real time, a stance, which he would have to assert and defend.
He took the job. As the art market frothed away and East Village charlatans floated to the top, Indiana wielded a mace when no mere pinprick would pop the bubble. Julian Schnabel’s ego would have to be impaled. The Gilbert & George show at the Guggenheim would have to be strung up and flayed. An estimation of his environs revealed a more profound suspicion of art: its surrender to capital and its predilection for cynicism. As much as Indiana despised the former, he could not stand “the self-righteous revolutionary anger of those who toil in capitalism’s luxury industries.” But toil he did.
The Richard Serra episode is emblematic. In 1981, Serra, the Postminimalist sculptor (and maximalist personality), installed his twelve-foot-tall Tilted Arc in front of Manhattan’s Federal Building. It had been commissioned by a government agency and eight years later was to be dismantled. The piece itself was an abomination: it blocked the sun, scorned the eye, and thanks to the felicities of its placement was an ideal spot for New Yorkers to take a piss. A petition was drafted calling for its removal, a fact that struck Serra — and a few of the idler intellectuals skulking around the scene — as a portent of state repression.
A trial was held. Alliances were formed, delusions indulged. Indiana addressed the controversy with an article titled “Debby with Monument: A Dissenting Opinion,” which rolled its eyes at a blue-chip artist’s fury at the System:
Who on earth did these people think they were dealing with in the first place? Granted, everyone in public life is somehow involved with power. But if you are so enamored of it that you regularly ornament its dinner tables, ride cackling through the night in its limousines, and sign worthless contracts with it, it is no problem of mine or anyone else’s if power decides, one bored afternoon, to add you to the menu instead of inviting you to eat .
But there was more to the scandal than that. The ’80s, he went on, had seen the rise of a new kind of public sculpture, a kind that demands our attention but, like much public art, fails to hold our interest. “I am referring,” wrote Indiana, “to that genre of public sculpture known popularly as ‘the Homeless’”:
In the late 1970s, most of these sculptures were decrepit, caked with grime, and seemed to display the latter stages of terminal alcoholism. Since the election of our current leader, however, fewer and fewer of them have been hopelessly incoherent . This is because there are thousands more of them, recently dispossessed. But the people who occupy their former homes know enough to regard them as nonhuman entities, to confront them as aesthetic objects — untouchable vehicles of “aura,” worthy of investment on the basis of their degree of cleanliness and lucidity. . . . They die, in public hospitals or on the street . . . unremembered by the Gracie Mansions and Bianca Jaggers who have given so much, so unstintingly, to the society in which we are forced to live by the sheer accident of birth.
This is grim — but noble. Few people were writing like this, and even fewer do now. To read Indiana is to feel a bit bovine; the reserves of optimism we deploy to make the world bearable are suddenly revealed as a shameful indifference to things as they are.
Not that there is much we can do about it. Many of Indiana’s criticisms ring with a sense of their own impotence. This is a man who proudly announces, at the start of his review of Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War, that he fell asleep five times. This is also a man who thinks that at the end of her career, Mary McCarthy was too nice: her later novels failed due to “a drying up of vitriol” and “an unwillingness to admit how truly awful people are.”
Like McCarthy and the New York Intellectuals of yore, Indiana has acquired the status of a novelist-critic, gleeful in his evisceration of public morality and correction of popular taste. But they had an audience and a sense of ponderous grandeur: Indiana, condemned to a less “intellectual” time, mans his post at the margins. His great theme is solitude.
Horse Crazy, Indiana’s first novel, is a love story. The book opens with the unnamed narrator — a thirtysomething art critic for a Downtown paper — as he takes a short trip back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry with his friend M. The voyage out is pleasant enough, but the return is strangely horrible: without incident but full of bad feeling. “This problem of attrition has been creeping into many experiences lately,” notes the narrator. “Things commence in reckless hope and die away in stifled longing.” The mood already sour, their conversation turns — inevitably — to love:
M. says the boy he’s been seeing uptown is infatuated with him and mistakenly believes this is love, true love. I know what M. means by “mistakenly” but it often comes to the same thing. Affection is the mortal illness of lonely people.
I dimly recall, from childhood, a movie where a man and a woman meet on the Staten Island Ferry late at night, by chance. It’s gradually revealed that one or the other, maybe both of them, had planned on jumping off the boat . But instead they fall in love, each becoming the other’s ray of hope. Love, the rescuer’s flashlight. Perhaps we all grow up with these salvational fantasies that never get entirely dislodged by experience.
These are the narrow roles allotted to love: a “mortal illness” or a “rescuer’s flashlight.” It can murder us or it can save us — never, we see, can it lie stably within or between us. So that old myth of love’s transformational power is kept desperately alive. This is absurd: sentimentalism snapped free of knowledge. But it serves a psychic function, as love — Love — becomes adamantine and unattainable, a soaring standard against which we might measure the failings of the world. And the world is always intruding into love, sullying it or invoking it, worshiping it and requiring it, even when it’s nowhere to be found. It’s a theme that will trouble Indiana for the rest of his writing life: What can love possibly mean, in a society that bristles with exploitation and cruelty?
Soon our narrator is catapulted into an erotic obsession with a younger man — Gregory — a waiter who wants to be an artist. From the start, their relationship is shot through with a mercenary impulse: Gregory might be using him as a means to hoist himself a bit higher in the art-world hierarchy, or perhaps is merely flattered that this vaguely prestigious Downtown character is so smitten. The narrator, for his part, is driven mad with sexual desire; his thinking degenerates into petty obsessions and agonizing reenactments that devour the time he would like to devote to writing. His delectation in Gregory’s body is consuming and a bit scary: he’s starved, incapacitated, groveling with need. We never really know what Gregory’s motives are — though we suspect that Gregory isn’t in love. He’s always whining, or arguing, or taking elaborate, unjustified umbrage at the most lighthearted remarks. He tortures our narrator with his fickleness and vanity.
Gregory, throughout all of this, refuses to have sex with the narrator. Just beyond this miniature scene of psychological collapse, AIDS is feasting on their friends. Horse Crazy chronicles the social aspects of the epidemic — the mourning and collective fear — and its lacerations to the psyche. Perkins, an old friend, falls ill, and money is thrown together to buy him a color TV. His death is a prolonged exercise in numbness as his thoughts fuse with the tube: “It showed him funny pictures that weren’t really funny and brought him news of catastrophes that were somehow beside the point.” Meanwhile, paranoia about the disease alights on the mind, racking it with doubts and perverse compensations: at first, Gregory claims that he is abstaining from sex because gay men are being punished for their lust. This bootleg puritanism — strange for a streetwise novel set in 1980s Downtown — makes a twisted kind of sense within the confines of the book:
Now, he says, because of AIDS, he’s not having sex with anybody until they find a cure. The only safe sex, he says, is if one person jerks off at one end of a room and someone else jerks off at the other, both trying to hit the same spot in the middle of the floor. I hate the smug, funny delivery of his little speech. It’s as if the disease gratified his sense of justice.
Todd, the narrator’s former lover, gets sick, as does Paul, a former enemy. The story of their slow, parallel demise is never planted in the foreground. The decay of the flesh, the passing of all things — these used to seem like flat certainties, nothing to protest. But AIDS has politicized the body in a new way; death becomes an outrage, an insult. The narrator sighs to himself after a visit to Todd’s bedside: “We used to say: How can we live like this? And now the question really is: How can we die like this?”
Slowly, the thematic strands that mark Indiana’s writing draw closer together, twining and knotting. Gregory also needs money, attention, and cooing encouragement so that he can be sent hurtling into the stratospheric realms of prestige (he is, remember, an artist). All the neuroses that have made him impossible to deal with are present, in glossier form, in his work. He confects lurid collages about male sexuality with images ripped from porn magazines, slapping together Boschian grotesques that depict the kind of orgiastic indulgence he claims to have renounced.
This attraction to surfaces soon reaches a point of sexual hyperbole. After one of their stupid fights, Gregory breaks the tension with a frigid enticement: “You know what I’d like?” he asks. “Kiss my . . . collar. Not my neck, honey, my collar. Gregory doesn’t want his skin touched today, just the collar. Twenty kisses. One, two, three, four . . .” It goes on like this for the rest of that horrible page. The narrator runs his lips over Gregory’s belt, his pant leg, his toes, his heel, his instep, his ankles — “Lick with your tongue, sugar, taste the whole sock.” It’s an illustration, in hauntingly erotic terms, of the “stifled longing” that opens the novel and of the closed character of the times, in which human life must be impenetrable, invulnerable, vilely healthy, to go on. Connection is weakness, maybe death. This is another one of Indiana’s motifs: how people become cracked shells of feeling, holding nothing.
Gregory, it turns out, has another, intermittent lover, who punctures the narrator’s fantasy that Gregory is above sex. AIDS is revealed to be an excuse, a cynical alibi for withholding love. But it seemed, for a moment, that AIDS had destroyed romance. Passages in Horse Crazy are strewn with neurotic justifications and explanations: faced with the rampant amorality of the disease, the mind starts grasping at talismans, performing the mystical acts that accord significance here, find causes there. These feelings — crazed rationalizations as you contemplate your own demise — look a bit like falling in love:
It wouldn’t be strange to get it and then to decide as Perkins did that this one particular person gave it to you, one out of ten or fifty or a hundred, maybe because that person made you feel something special, had done wonderful things in bed or gotten you to trust him physically and mentally as no one else ever had. . . . You would naturally connect your most vivid memory of pleasure to infection and death because the others weren’t remotely worth getting sick from, just pale skimpy traces of sex crossed with thin trickles of “bodily fluids,” if the two things had to be linked, better for a cherished memory of sex to connect with transmission of the microbe.
Affection is measured by its deadliness. And then this, a miserable wager that raises the stakes of all sexual relations:
In any case, if you had sex now it was a matter of deciding, even if you took elaborate precautions, whether the degree of risk involved (and who could calculate that?) was “worth it,” whether your need for that kind of experience with another person outweighed, in a sense, your desire for survival.
There is a thin and scattered archive — call it the Leftist Critique of Love — that doesn’t congeal into a tradition or a genealogy, but offers us aphorisms and provocations as to what love means or does. “Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression,” Fassbinder once said. Erich Fromm, the somewhat loopy Freudo-Marxist tenuously associated with the Frankfurt School, intoned the opposite: that real, “mature” love has in fact been abolished by our acquisitive society. The gay French communist Guy Hocquenghem, wrestling with Deleuze’s “philosophy of desire,” asserts in his deafening manifesto The Screwball Asses (1973) that “love is only dead in certain minds. This is not because it is bourgeois, but because its contamination, by the bourgeoisie, by property, by security, has rendered it inane.” And some of the radical feminists of the writer Vivian Gornick’s generation posited that romance was marked, irretrievably, by the diktats of the patriarchy — with its patterns, requirements, and expectation of subservience on the part of the love-struck woman. She recalls a slogan from her militant youth: “Love is rape!” But they — she — continued to fall in love, and to be rankled by the compromises and betrayals that still lay coiled at the bottom of romantic desire.
Indiana’s work suggests a spiritual ambivalence that sees love as tethered to the brutalizing character of our society yet holding out some twinkling promise.Tweet
Indiana’s view of the matter can’t be slotted into any of these positions. He doesn’t pontificate outright on the “meaning” of love, and his fiction proceeds with lyricism and sensuous texture, never halting to pound out a program. But love’s presence in his books seems to overlap with, or at least abut, Fassbinder’s refusal, Fromm’s sanguine utopia, Hocquenghem’s fury, and Gornick’s melancholy. Indiana’s work suggests a spiritual ambivalence that sees love as tethered to the brutalizing character of our society yet holding out some twinkling promise: a “mortal illness,” yes, but also a “rescuer’s flashlight.” He would object to the comparison (Indiana’s is a fitful radicalism, always wriggling out of ideology’s drab uniform), but his orientation to love resembles Marx’s critique of religious faith: love devolves into an opiate of the masses. Religion dreams of utopias, grasps at transcendence, dignifies our slogging trials — and is fastened to the notion, however distant, of redemption. Might the desire for love, too, be an “expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering?” Might love be “the heart of a heartless world,” “the soul of soulless conditions” — or, in Marx’s most swooning, sympathetic formulation, the “sigh of the oppressed creature”?
Many oppressed creatures — and many sighs — form the crumbling center of Indiana’s sixth novel, Do Everything In the Dark (2003). A companion of sorts to Horse Crazy, it presents a desolate frieze of New York’s aging bohemians, and is colder and more controlled than its predecessor. It’s narrated by a writer who, as we learn quite late in the story, is named Gary Indiana, but the vantage point is always pivoting to somewhere else, as the novel tracks the lives of characters in Indiana’s circle. It fans out into a kind of roman à clef for Downtown: the photographer “Chrissie” is Nan Goldin; the gaunt Polish-American artist “Adam Z.” is David Wojnarowicz; “Baudelaire Junior,” the poet and grimy fop, is Rene Ricard. And the most glaring symbol in this little allegorical scene is “Tova Finkelstein,” a pompous public intellectual who dabbles sparingly in Downtown but is defined, in the end, by her self-seriousness, her fealty to the highbrow establishment, her profound (but shifting) political commitments, and her knack for totting up her pettiness and vanity as signs of some grave ethical preoccupation. Many people resent Susan Sontag, but perhaps Indiana most of all.
AIDS, in Do Everything in the Dark, is no longer a monster rattling at the gates. It is something to be remembered, as the newly corporatized New York scrubbed clean by gentrification is still haunted by the dispossessed artistes of the ’80s. “Our necropolis with anvils of memory chained to every street and building, every tourist postcard view. All its sunsets and bridges and mutilated dawns.” These are not the cheeriest opening lines — nor do they shudder with foreboding. The horror has passed, and what remains is the slow, lingering bathos as people shuffle into the future.
Bathos flutters over this later novel like a pennant: tragedy has been abolished. It had never flourished in Indiana’s fiction, as most of his work is about the folly of grandiosity and the laughable inadequacies of our master narratives, triumphant or not. But tragedy — like love, or art, or religious faith — might have elevated the spiritual torture of those who populate Do Everything in the Dark. Instead they fret about recognition and legacy and prestige, vying for attention within the jumbled stalls of the cultural marketplace. The novel becomes an extended exercise in flattening and reduction: human endeavor shrinks into miserable tics, love is stripped to sex, and culture shrivels into documents, commerce, currency.
At one point, Edith, a frantic performer who flits in and out of Do Everything in the Dark, captures the sentiment with a line that now seems prescient:
“I write down weird things that pass through my head. Mainly about people who died, little things I’ll suddenly remember about them. It keeps them alive for me a little bit. Of course, when I die they’ll be lost anyway. You might get an archive somewhere, but I sure as hell won’t.”
I think to reassure her that some sort of Edith memorial trove will outlive her, but it does seem rather doubtful, though I’m sure she’ll float through many people’s memoirs.
The path from Horse Crazy to Do Everything in the Dark is strewn with a few intervening works of fiction: Gone Tomorrow (1993), about an absurd film being made in Colombia in 1984; Rent Boy (1993), a witty, malicious novel told by a male hustler who gets mixed up in a organ-harvesting ring; and, perhaps most significantly, Indiana’s American crime trilogy. The crimes in question are famous murders that attracted the gaping eyes of the TV-watching public in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This is another one of Indiana’s obsessions: the injurious inanity of journalism and the primacy of the spectacle. Resentment, perhaps the most conventional novel in the series (reissued by Semiotext(e) last year), is based very loosely on the Menéndez brothers of Los Angeles, who killed their parents in 1989. Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (1999), the best of the three, might be called a nonfiction novel, cobbled together from extensive research and interviews with the murderer’s and victims’ families and friends. The form is bracing, experimental: florid passages that enter the twitching mind of a soon-to-be killer are placed alongside petty comments from the people who knew him and terse, inarticulate police jottings. The murder of Gianni Versace — Cunanan’s most famous crime — is reduced to a glib whiplash ending, a flourish on this ponderous mass of human pain. Murder, here, stands as a hyperbole for a more general failure of interpersonal communion. Indiana writes of Cunanan’s first sexual encounter with David Madson, a boyfriend he would later kill:
Andrew wanted him to take his fist, when that was refused he ordered David into the bathroom and told him to get in the tub and “bathe in his manwater,” that too was declined, and after some perfunctory humiliation they cuddled in bed and fell asleep. It wasn’t Utopia, but Andrew had found Love.
Depraved Indifference (2001) is the trilogy’s final installment, a funny novel with a perfect title. It re-creates the murders perpetrated by Sante Kimes and her son, a pair of nouveaux riches grifters who in the late ’90s picked off the New York socialite Irene Silverman. The goal was to seize her townhouse, so even that bloody plotline turns back to the question of Manhattan real estate.
The American Crime novels cluster around a few elements — homosexuality, incest, murder — that conjure a whole constellation of influences, or at least comparisons. Depraved Indifference especially, with its madcap picaresque full of brightly painted villains, bears a likeness to John Waters’s cheeky trash. In both cases, perverts kill and cackle away with gleeful sadism. “All people look better under arrest,” Waters has pronounced — though his criminals, of course, are the poor, the rural, the disenfranchised. Waters’s Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos are films in which violence flaunts its schlocky texture and slashes at bourgeois norms. The killers who jaunt through Indiana’s books come from the middle and upper classes; their violence isn’t some lumpenproletarian revenge, but an excrescence of privilege, or the yearning for it. Crime does not carry with it the earthy musk of a Genet — it’s muted, suburban, fidgety. The Sante Kimes character in Depraved Indifference is named Evangeline Slote; here the lair of the murderess is described with leering exactitude:
Evangeline reposes in a chenille armchair, her feet in furry bunny slippers resting on a tufted beige ottoman. All, here, is beige, or peach, or pistachio, or mango. She considers these her “safe” colors, colors that evoke a sense of relaxed control over her environment. The blue of the sea, the cotton clouds, all of that. Her lap supports a large oval tray of painted tin with a portrait of Britain’s Queen Mother waving from it. On the tray, a phone with the speaker switched on, a prescription bottle, two miso soup bowls, a two-pound bag of Gold Medal flour, a coke spoon, and a stack of paper napkins from Burger King.
A stack of paper napkins from Burger King. Indiana’s novels are full of deflating postscripts like this. Even sorrow, hatred, or revenge cannot be expressed without irony or qualification; everything is modulated, made less absolute and less precise by the murkiness of the world. AIDS patients die, tellingly, of “complications.” Caroline, a writer character in Do Everything in the Dark, goes through a manic episode and is always weeping, but for no discernible reason: “Caroline’s crying apparently didn’t signify an upsurge of unhappiness,” the narrator tells us. “It was, by now, a spasm of nervous release, like a sneeze.” In Horse Crazy, our hero visits a friend in the hospital and, in a moment of swelling emotion, launches forward and grasps his hands — hands covered in lesions from the disease. “Did that hurt you?” Gary asks. The reply: “They don’t actually hurt, he says. They just suppurate.”
It’s impossible to untangle this narrative motif from its political equivalent: the fact that defeat has not destroyed the erstwhile radicals of the ’60s and ’70s, only left them bitter, sick, and voluble. Toward the start of Resentment, a character named Jack seems to be a signpost of Indiana’s concerns: he’s been diagnosed with HIV and, “since losing faith in dialectical materialism,” has started to formulate crazed theories about the occult. In an age of disappointment, the mind slumps toward paranoia, or cynicism. The psyche, too, suppurates.
And no one has the stomach — or the stamina — for hope. In Do Everything in the Dark, Leon, an aging but handsome Argentinian painter, tells Gary that he absolutely must see some Chris Marker film whose title Leon can’t quite remember — he’s thinking of A Grin Without a Cat — because it tells the whole story of the left, with all its vanquished aspiration. Leon’s metaphor is revealing: “It tears your heart from your chest.”
“It’s four hours long,” Gary replies, and besides, “I don’t want my heart torn out from my chest.”
I Can Give You Anything But Love, Indiana’s memoir, opens in Cuba in the present. The scene will toggle back and forth between Havana, where Indiana has spent long periods over the years, and a series of remembered scenes from his childhood in New Hampshire, his young manhood in Los Angeles, and (very briefly) his time as a “figure” Downtown. Cuba, however, is where he is assembling his memories, sorting through the wreckage of human relationships that has composed an entire life. Indiana scorns nostalgia, and a chapter at the end explains the book’s sardonic character:
At some point I began to prune away anything suggesting the sort of “triumph over adversity” theme that gongs through much of the so-called memoir genre, paring away most evidence of my eventual career as a writer and artist — which has not, in any case, been an unmitigated triumph over adversity. I’m almost sixty-five, I still have practically nothing of my own, and could very well end up on the same trash heap where most old people in America get tossed, regardless of whatever “cultural capital” I’ve accumulated.
This is a book, in large part, about “cultural capital,” with those quotation marks locked on like handcuffs, but rather than let us breathe in the heavy perfume of the writerly life, the memoir goes forth with the most unappetizing vision possible. Indiana is “old enough to justify writing about my history, but too old to remember much of it.” He must fall back on the feelings — not the facts — that linger after all this time.
Gary Indiana was born Gary Hoisington, in 1950. His childhood was by turns dull and hurtful. In this book, it’s presented as a montage of blurred visions:
School: If we donate twenty-five cents a week to Catholic Charities, we’ll redeem one pagan baby in Red China by the end of the year, supporting our missionaries who are shown on the pamphlets the nuns hand out being martyred by Chinese Communists who drive long, rusty spikes into their skulls with what appear to be ordinary toolbox hammers. These agonizing deaths draw them even closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than they already were.
There is more like this. His alcoholic parents; his selfish brother; an episode in which two camp counselors, motivated by nothing but a bored adolescent sadism, take the young Gary, age 8 or 9, and tie him to a raft in the middle of a lake. He’s trapped there for several hours, shivering, listening to the splashing water. This is horrifying — it must have left a gash in his consciousness — but the episode is related with a blasé knowingness that will come to characterize other moments in his life: his rapes and near-fatal car crash, for instance. No reason is given for the counselors’ horrifying behavior, nor does the episode have psychic reverberations that Indiana cares to share. The traumatic — like the tragic, the romantic, the revolutionary — has no space in Indiana’s mode.
This is a book, in large part, about “cultural capital,” with those quotation marks locked on like handcuffs.Tweet
That mode is abetted by his presence in Cuba. What better place to recall the slow souring of love than this country that was once such a rosy symbol in the leftist imagination — a plucky socialist island, thumbing its nose at the empire to the north? He observes the country now with urbane melancholy:
In every quarter, houses built for the rich who fled half a century ago were redistributed after the Revolution, parceled into ciudadela or left intact for single families. You’d have to be a determined swine not to see something wonderful about this, considering who owned these houses under Batista.
His portrayal of content (but understimulated) Cubans, left to rattle around this diorama of socialist planning, is equivocal. The revolution was not an unambiguous success, but you’d have to be a “swine” not to sympathize with its origins or relish even its piddling victories. Indiana still prefers Cuba to America — capitalism will always be his foe — and the island seems an objective correlative for the state of his soul. For a time, “Havana no longer seemed the place to be. But it is. It always has been. This city is my heart. I will never fully understand why I ever let it go.”
Romantic affection merely flashes through the book — it does not structure it. Lovers saunter in and out of the narrative, often jostled aside by Indiana’s digressive impulse. (A whole chapter is devoted first to pillorying Ernest Hemingway, a specter who “would like to haunt” the island of Cuba, followed by a report of an awful afternoon spent with David Lynch.) When love announces itself, it’s with a shaky, uncertain voice. The young Indiana enters a casual yet gratifying relationship with Dane, an exterminator in Los Angeles. The connection is deep, though not quite total. Indiana’s summary of their time together juts from the text like a billboard for his sensibility: “Dane accepts the world the way it is. I don’t.”
If there is anyone Indiana comes close to really loving, it is his friend Ferd Eggan. A former pornographer, he would transform himself into a Marxist saboteur and an AIDS activist, made and remade by the exigencies of each successive decade. He is, in a way, Indiana’s foil. If Indiana’s life has been a gradual reconciliation to the irreconcilability of things, Ferd represents the capacity — crazed and beautiful — to be joyfully angry, galvanized by the miscarriage of justice. They meet at the figurative and literal end of the ’60s:
The autumn of 1969 was a creepy season in San Francisco. In the long, rancid afterglow of the summer of love, the Haight-Ashbury had puddled into a gritty slum of boarded-up head shops and strung-out junkies, thuggish dealers, undercover cops in love beads and fright wigs. The hippie saturnalia had continued as a sinister Halloween parody of itself, featuring overdoses and rip-offs and sudden flashes of violence.
But Ferd still manages to muster up a certain romanticism: “He would have liked to have been born in symbolist Paris, clutching a calla lily and gargling absinthe.” In later years, when he accompanies Indiana to Cuba, Ferd is always impaling himself on tiny moral scruples: he feels the division between himself and the Cuban boys they pal around with as an injury, some lurid token of the world’s iniquities. He is always climbing to a “world-improving altitude” that clashes with Indiana’s hardened demeanor. In the end, Indiana’s tenderness for him is defiled by the accumulated contempt that clogs up human relationships. “Ferd and I had stored up too much mutual resentment over thirty years to ever feel completely safe with each other.”
Ferd’s life as an AIDS activist, like Indiana’s development as a writer, is almost entirely gouged from the book. The same can be said of all the AIDS activism — much of it anticapitalist — that was happening in and around New York. Tonally, it has no place in Indiana’s catalogue of despair. A line from a recent interview in the White Review might explain this strange aporia. Indiana says of his relationship with Ferd,
Writing about it freed me from certain myths I’d spun around that friendship for years. For instance, that Ferd always felt that he should’ve been doing what I was doing in life, and that I kind of felt that I should have been doing what he was doing. That may have been slightly true, inconsistently true. He was, in fact, sometimes a frustrated artist and writer, and a little part of me sometimes felt guilty for not becoming a political activist .
In I Can Give You Everything but Love, passing mention is made of Ferd’s “really praiseworthy, selfless political things,” but ultimately he’s just a kind of emotional instrument, one that makes deep, regular incisions in Indiana’s life. The withdrawn attitude of the novels — their fear of intimacy — is here manifested as a narrative decision. The last lines of the book are a gesture of what might be called literary empathy:
I haven’t told the story of his life here, but rather the part of it that repeatedly intersected with mine. Ferd really deserves his own book; someone else will have to write it .
I have met Indiana only once. Like Voltaire, he doesn’t stand very high from the ground. At a book reading in Chelsea, he read selections from I Can Give You Anything But Love in his grand, slightly mocking drawl, only stopping now and then to splash a bit of Kalashnikov vodka into his glass. After the reading, I was surprised to notice that everyone queued up to have their book signed — I sensed that many of these people were his friends or Downtown compatriots. When I handed him my old copy of Let It Bleed, a mid-’90s anthology of his art criticism, he looked me up and down and then seemed to lose his train of thought. Then, snapping back to earth, he printed my first name in giant capitals at the top of the page, beneath which he scrawled, “Fuck me when u have a minute. Gary Indiana.”
Remembering it now, I’m embarrassed by my embarrassment, shocked by my shock; I thanked him sunnily and floated, stunned, out onto the street. But as I walked to the train, my mind started turning over something else I’d seen, a tableau that seemed a refutation of everything I’d read or seen or heard by or about Gary Indiana. Before me in line were two women in their twenties: rather giddy, and almost visibly in love with each other. Indiana took their copy of the memoir, turned to the title page, and crossed two words out so that it read, preposterously, “I Can Give You Love.” Then, in big, joyful cursive he wrote, “Go for it!”