Live Free or Die
On Lisa Carver
Lisa Carver. The Pahrump Report . Pig Roast Publishing, 2021.
In Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, the narrator describes flipping through a stack of books at her sister’s house.
One of the books was a sex diary, which exerted the particular frontier charm of internet writing before 9/11. This sex diarist wore pigtails and had eyes like blue sequins and lacked inhibition entirely. She made New Hampshire sound like a place you wanted to go: an endless orifice among black ice, buzzing like an OPEN 24 HOURS sign. Cups of coffee in the morning, adrenaline-fueled emails in the afternoon, solitary preparations for threesomes at night.
Following the vogueish new evasive style, much of Lockwood’s novel avoids proper nouns, and she does not name her subject. But the sex diarist in question is identifiably the legendary memoirist, zine editor, and performance artist Lisa Carver, and the book is The Lisa Diaries — Carver’s 2002 anthology of sex writing, the third in a corpus of fourteen mostly self- and micro-published books. The latest — The Pahrump Report, a memoir about living in Pahrump, Nevada, written between June 2017 and June 2020 and published in 2021 — bears a blurb attributed to Lockwood: “This diarist had eyes like blue sequins and lacked inhibition entirely.” As marketing goes, I think this is very funny and resourceful. Something about it also strikes me as kind of heartbreaking. In spite of its title, Lockwood’s novel, a beneficiary of the late conglomerate era’s winner-take-all, twice-a-season hype cycle, was for a while one of those books that everyone talked about. Almost nobody, on the other hand, talked much about The Pahrump Report.
But I think we should! Like basically all of Carver’s books, The Pahrump Report candidly reduces writing to its most essential and material facts, circling around the question of how to make a living as a writer. The book, which began as a series of monthly installments distributed via the newsletter platform Patreon, chronicles three years Carver spent in the desert, going through a divorce and then rebuilding her life in solitude and poverty. In contrast to Lockwood, who refuses to call even Twitter by its name, Carver is practically addicted to saying what she means, and The Pahrump Report has the sometimes shocking immediacy of a private diary — or of Carver’s revered zine Rollerderby, which was infamous in the 1990s for its randy, honest, free-flowing sex writing, a genre in which Carver is extravagantly gifted and prolific. Her more recent work is mellower and rangier, and sometimes even more direct.
Harsh realm, I kept thinking — the previous generation’s flawed anticommercialism had always appealed to me, and more and more it seemed like ancient history.Tweet
The Pahrump Report was published by a tiny Rhode Island–based house called Pig Roast Publishing. Along with the rest of her similarly small-run publications, Carver distributes the book herself, on her website and via Instagram. In some ways this arrangement feels continuous with Carver’s origins in a DIY zine ecosystem, like she’s deliberately refused to scale up or cash in. But of course “self-publishing” these days connotes something less punk and more Amazon-entrepreneurial than it once did. It is also, without the boost of the dot-com boom’s “frontier charm” and attendant frontier freelance budget, a dramatically less viable path to an even halfway-lucrative life as a writer than it was a couple decades ago. Nearly all the major figures of Carver’s zine milieu either transitioned long ago to more formal publishing contexts (Nell Zink, Pagan Kennedy, Andrea Lawlor) or, more often, stopped writing altogether and adapted professionally to a millennium in which the cost of living has violently outpaced the minimum wage. A few of them have also died. Carver, who is fortunately one of the most alive writers I’ve ever read, offers a rare and special case study: except for some noteworthy forays into more lucrative projects — after Henry Holt published her first book, she spent a few years in the 2000s writing a column for the defunct Nerve.com, plus a few articles for Vice and the New York Times Magazine — she never really stopped self-publishing.
I encountered Carver’s writing at a moment when traditional publishing apparatuses were bumming me out. Capital appeared to be accumulating in all the wrong places. Scarcity ruled the marketplace, except when it offered huge advances to the least risky and most self-promotional writers. The only people with any sort of self-publishing spirit all seemed to be receiving money from Peter Thiel, or worse, their parents. Nobody talked about selling out anymore, only about managing to carve a bearable life out of the long and increasingly competitive march through the institutions. Harsh realm, I kept thinking — the previous generation’s flawed anticommercialism had always appealed to me, and more and more it seemed like ancient history. But Carver was still going, stylishly and bravely. Her unusual combination of tenacity and clear talent made me curious. (Also, I am always on the lookout for aspirational Lisas.) What did it look like, I wondered, to keep writing into middle age as though the older structures of DIY publishing were still intact or viable? To what extent can you just decide to continue refusing to sell out, even as rents go up everywhere and safety nets disappear? What kinds of writing does that produce?
Carver finished the first issue of Rollerderby, as she writes in her 2005 memoir Drugs Are Nice, “in the last month of the last year of the ’80s.” Published regularly throughout the next decade, the zine chronicled such a vast range of Gen X iconography that to read it today can feel, to the younger reader, like tapping into a comprehensive account of all the coolest parts of the last cool decade. Most issues included interviews with figures like Lydia Lunch, Vaginal Davis, and Courtney Love; amateur semiotic exercises with titles like “The Brutality of Little House on the Prairie”; and gloriously outrageous descriptions of sex at the peak of feminism’s third wave, usually involving Carver’s numerous musician boyfriends, like the shock-rock artist GG Allin and the songwriter Bill Callahan, whose drawings of cats and penises also featured heavily.
Carver was in her early twenties when Rollerderby’s first issues came out, and the zine’s writing, editing, and design were as indebted to tabloids and porn as they were to the relative highbrow of punk and riot grrrl. (“I do it all on the typewriter, and with scissors and glue,” she wrote later. “I have no money for a computer, and besides, I’m suspicious of them.”) From across the chasm that separates the Nineties’ analog bounty from the present’s digital austerity, its twenty-five issues read like a testament to self-publishing at its most idealistic: unpretentious and collaborative, welcoming to readers around the country (Carver reflects in a memoir that the zine was a “freak-seeking missile”), and above all an experiment in non-market-driven creative freedom.
Freedom, as it happens, is a lifelong theme of nearly all Carver’s work. Like her punk forebear Gary Indiana, Carver grew up in New Hampshire, a place with a famously extreme relationship to the concept. (A tattoo on her arm broadcasts the state’s unusually threatening motto: LIVE FREE OR DIE.) Aside from an introduction about hitchhiking to California as a teenager because she feels “wild and free, and [her] country is big” (a story that’s repeated in her liner notes to Sonic Youth’s EVOL; she is always popping up in places like this), Carver’s first memoir, Dancing Queen: A Lusty Look at the American Dream (1996), takes place mostly in her hometown of Dover. The essays in Dancing Queen affectionately explore the Eighties blue-collar pop culture of Carver’s early life: Kmart (“the problem most people have with Kmart clothes is they’re cheaply made and behind the times, but that’s no problem for me! Some of my best friends are cheaply made and behind the times”), the Bee Gees (“they realize the world can be a very sad place but they don’t forget they’re singers and entertainers, they’re dancing men!”), and above all “poverty, all the sleazy pleasures and nowhere-left-to-fall freedoms it brings.” Freedom is the book’s refrain and ecstatic aspiration. Its last lines, in an essay about Carver’s admiration for Anna Nicole Smith: “Long live the fiery, the unguilty, the unhumble, the dazzling, the cheerful and the brave. Even if they don’t live long, even if they look obnoxious or even stupid in a certain light, they’re still wonderful and magnificent to me, and they’re free, free, free.”
“I eat Cheerios for breakfast and hot fudge sundaes for dessert. I yell at my TV. I’m enthusiastic, abrupt, self-obsessed, and I love boobs.”Tweet
As the less-daring sex memoirist Maggie Nelson recently enumerated, freedom is one of political philosophy’s more elastic terms. When Carver uses the word, I don’t know that she’s working in any established theoretical tradition: it is neither right wing nor especially left wing; it is neither negatively nor positively defined. (Or rather, it’s both: freedom from having a bourgeois job; freedom to fill your days with performance art and baroque sex instead.)
What Carver’s conception of freedom really reminds me of is the term’s more recent Franzenian register: freedom as a uniquely American crisis of excess choice between outlandish vulgarities. Carver, who has a better sense of humor than Franzen, likes it that way. “I’m American,” she writes in the introduction to Dancing Queen. “I eat Cheerios for breakfast and hot fudge sundaes for dessert. I yell at my TV. I’m enthusiastic, abrupt, self-obsessed, and I love boobs.”
Dancing Queen was published after Carver was approached by Henry Holt on the success of Rollerderby, and the above voice — at once charming and blazingly self-mythologizing — is more or less the same as the zine’s. (“I try to write not like a ‘good writer,’” she announced later, describing her own writing style, “but like I’m telling something I can’t wait to tell to one person, who already knows everything about me and still likes me.”) One of the most famous Rollerderby pieces is a manifesto written shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain, whose “guilty, bored, ironic, baggy” persona Carver disapproved of (she seems to prefer it when musicians choose a position on commercialism and stick with it, like industrial noise or the Bee Gees). “HE DID NOT DIE IN VAIN,” Carver proclaims,
for if I hadn’t gotten so annoyed at the pervasiveness of the esteem this hypocrit [sic] got upon dying, I might have stayed put in my room and not realized how serious things had gotten out there. A lot of people I know are embarrassed to belong to a generation that complains so much. Well we responsible, proud, excited, groomed people don’t have to feel like outcasts from our own generation anymore — we can ditch Generation X and make our own. . . . Someone must rise up and take care of things, and I figure it might as well be me. I feel up to the job. I have many qualifications for being the new voice of our new generation: I’m younger than Kurt, cuter, and I don’t mumble.
Thus Carver, with the pomp of a class president delivering a campaign speech, proposes a new generational designation: Generation L! An accompanying list catalogs some rules for the new cohort: “get up early,” “more naked flesh,” “all women wear makeup,” “the men have muscles and erections and fix things when they’re broken,” “whiners get killed.” Of course Carver — with her unlistenable band and $3 zines — is ultimately more representative of the anti-sellout Xer ethos than Cobain ever could have been. But when, alongside nude photos of herself and adversarial Q&As with the Nineties’ actually good bands, she winningly appoints herself the voice of a livelier and freer generation, you really believe her.
Dancing Queen‘s autobiographical sections mostly linger on Carver’s life before Rollerderby. Though she also collected a selection of zine clippings in Rollerderby: The Book, Carver’s definitive chronicle of the zine years is Drugs Are Nice, which sits alongside Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation as one of the era’s most luridly iconic works of transgressive confessionalism. The book gets going with Carver’s accidental entry into underground performance art: understimulated by life as a working-class New England high schooler, she starts taking buses to random East Coast cities. One day she meets “the king of the scum-rockers” GG Allin (birth name “Jesus Christ Allin”) at a bus stop, and invites him to play a show in Dover. When he doesn’t materialize, Carver and her friend take the stage themselves and invent a band on the spot (“as we don’t have any songs, we’ll make them up as we go along”). So begins Carver’s band, Suckdog, whose stage act would become known for its terrifying combination of harsh noise, real and pantomimed violence, public urination, and onstage sex with audience members. In The Pahrump Report Carver lists a handful of performers whose work “opened up life for me”: “Dadaists, Viennese Actionists, Yoko Ono, Antonin Artaud, Benny Hill.” Suckdog’s performances, by all accounts, took things further than any of these.
Having stumbled into a career as a teenage performance-art provocateur, Carver finds herself enamored with the bottom-up creative freedoms of “the DIY underground”:
People around the world trade cassettes for free of their own music, and play for audiences of ten or twenty in each other’s living rooms, knocking out the need for producers, managers, agents, bookers, distributors, seed money, melody, or even talent . . . . It’s a whole other society, operating under the regular world’s radar. There’s so much going on! You won’t make a lot of money, but what you can do is . . . anything!
Zines, of course, provided these communities with a medium of exchange, and the most exuberant parts of Drugs Are Nice are Carver’s descriptions of making and distributing Rollerderby. “In five or ten years, people will start blogs, will find others on the internet who share their aberrant tastes, get really specific using on-line dating,” writes Carver, in one of the book’s rare instances of prolepsis. “But for now, zines are all we have. Solitary people around the country . . . who are strange but outside the traditional, acceptable ways to be strange finally get connected. Rollerderby is a hand with hundreds of lo-o-ong fingers reaching into far-flung holes with weirdos hiding in them.”
This is the stuff that makes Carver and her milieu seem inspiring: icons of the kinds of seedy, resourceful, punky anticorporatism that were briefly possible in the final decade of urban low rent. But as has by now been well documented, in accounts of parallel zine communities like Jim Goad’s proto-alt-right publication ANSWER Me!, the punk fascination with brutality and power also accommodated a strain of real violence. (Allin, for instance, repeatedly assaulted his girlfriends, as well as random audience members.) Carver, with her commitment to breaking PC taboos and her embrace of contrarian work by alienated outsiders, was not immune to this strain. Drugs Are Nice — written half a decade after Rollerderby ceased publication, during her tenure as an early internet sex blogger — looks back at some of the darker parts of Carver’s 1990s that are absent from the affable raunchiness of Dancing Queen.
As a kid, Carver remembers, she liked to read “anything that had to do with surviving in alien landscapes against terrible odds. Which was what childhood felt like to many of us who went on to become performers.” It’s true that nearly every character we meet in Drugs Are Nice — Allin; Carver’s best friend, Rachel; the French noise musician Jean-Louis Costes, whom she briefly marries; the American noise musician Boyd Rice, whom she also briefly marries — seems to have had a truly fucked up early life. If a reactionary current ever surfaced in her friends’ and partners’ art, Carver attributes it to this fact. “To protect ourselves, we spun cocoons out of TV, books, video games, early stolen alcohol, and dreams,” Carver writes, in a more solemn generational appraisal than her sunny Kurt-is-dead manifesto. “We try to get out of these cocoons and make our way down to where our bodies are. We try shoplifting and racist/sexist/ageist humor (trying to offend our way out); we get naked on stage.” Was their short-lived avant-garde — perpetually skirting a line between the norm-shatteringly lawless and the truly offensive — simply an expression of shared generational impoverishment? “All the writers my age write about blackouts and floating,” she observes.
In the second half of the book, Carver falls out of the scene. She does sex work for a while, which is liberating in the same way writing is (“I get to change my personality five times a night, stepping into other people’s ideals”) — until the cops show up. She and Rice have a baby, who has some disabilities. Rice, a self-described fascist who hangs out mostly with a Satanic cult, turns out, not shockingly, to be abusive. Isolated in his scary basement in Colorado, Carver quietly hands off most of her Rollerderby duties and takes a kind of forced maternity leave from the underground. She mourns the loss of her old ideal: “You swallowed my freedom whole,” she writes to her son.
A couple years later, she extricates herself from her bad relationship and moves back to New Hampshire with the baby. Reentering public life, she’s surprised to find that the Nineties are over.
I poke around, make some calls, and discover that our whole post-punk, DIY movement (our downfall might have come through never having one good name) is dying, or dead. During the years my life revolved completely around the machinations of Boyd and Mary [her evil mother-in-law], big business was swooping in on anyone with any potential for mass appeal, like Henry Holt & Co. did with me, thinning and separating our herd of crazies, until finally we aren’t even a “we” anymore. Stores that used to not care have started censoring fanzine cover material; distributors demand barcodes, which are expensive. Small presses or labels, formerly run out of basements or bedrooms, now take on too much and go bankrupt, creating a ripple bankruptcy effect . People are dicking other people over.
I keep finding myself block-quoting Carver’s work, because that’s how it demands to be read. As might be expected from a writer whose early work was assembled via Xerox, her style operates best in the scannable unit of the paragraph. The closest analogue for her individual sentences might be Eve Babitz or Cookie Mueller — one of those declarative Seventies adventuresses — but the way she assembles them reminds me more of the reckless unpredictability of Jane Bowles. Here for example is a description, from Drugs Are Nice, of her relationship with her first husband:
He thinks I’m knowing and depraved and very driven. “You make no move that isn’t prosperous to your future,” he says, squinting. People who don’t really know me describe me as “oddly innocent,” “perpetually tipsy” — even “a half-wit .” But once they get close enough, they start wondering if I’m not some kind of monster — secretive, and hardened by ambition. Jean Louis, though, seems to like monsters. Still, he’s keeping his eye on me. He draws a really big eye on a piece of paper and tacks it up on my side of the bed, where it can watch me whenever he, reluctantly, falls asleep. I like the eye. I find it comforting. I’m suspicious of me too.
This is classic Carver: blunt, flamboyant descriptions of the outside world secondary to her own self-analysis but still piercing and quietly sexy (that horny “reluctantly”). But it’s the flow of it all that truly marks the paragraph in the Carver style, the slapstick movement toward an unexpected payoff: a literal eyeball!
The paragraph is the primary unit of How to Not Write, Carver’s 2014 book of writing advice, quasi-Situationist exercises, and prankish notes on process (“Raymond Chandler is so enthralling. I longed to be as dry as him and did not know how. I decided to try doing a stakeout”). The book is structured as a series of mini-essays on craft, with short but meandering chapters headed by enigmatic imperative titles like “Love your editor,” “Cut everything!” and “Let your sensations travel,” as well as “Stay up all night,” “Get welts,” and “Attend a 12-step program – or go to Moscow.” Each ends with a paragraph-long writing prompt:
Assignment: make a dating profile so scathingly honest, it’s repugnant . Being repulsed does get alluring sometimes, doesn’t it? If you’re already married, show what you wrote to your spouse, and take her or him out as that person, who is you. (Have a pina colada, haha.)
Or this, a piece of self-help that doubles as self-description:
Assignment: Open with a sentence of a scandalous or petty action you took. Did you ever take something that belonged to a friend? Don’t explain it . Don’t tell us some bad things about the friend to butter us up to you giving her comeuppance. Just say what you did, not why, and say what happened next . And next, and next . Be brave!
Who are these exercises for? A note at the book’s beginning (titled “Hi”) suggests that Carver is writing mostly for her old milieu: for “writers who used to feel . . . eager and then life beat them down.” She gives a swift, heartbreaking account of the state of the cohort she once called Generation L:
For a while, we became those solid, lame people. And it was good. Then the dot-com bubble popped and the housing bubble burst and kids and parents and trauma and failing health and marriage and divorce and remarriage and stepchildren happened. Someone we know became homeless. We used to be homeless from time to time but no one called it that, they called it staying at so-and-so’s house. Now it was different . It was terrifying.
Framed as a kind of Artist’s Way for Gen Xers skipped over by a generational transfer of capital, How to Not Write is one of several Obama-era Carver books that address the long end of the party that was the 1990s. Much of her mid-career work proceeds according to the tonally bifurcated blueprint established by Drugs Are Nice: an experience of zany joyfulness — a relationship, a living situation, a publishing environment — turns suddenly dark; a condition of freedom implodes and becomes a constraint. The careening, punch-line-driven style is the same, but the material has attuned itself to the abject. In How to Not Write, the promises of the independent publishing avant-garde have given way to inequality and middle age. Elsewhere, she revisits the details of her own early life with a similar sense of mounting darkness. Carver’s father, for example, flits in and out of Drugs Are Nice as the template for her later romantic relationships, a threatening figure whose crimes are severe if secondhand: he spends much of Carver’s childhood in prison, and confesses that he might have killed someone. His role in that book, while abstractly scary, is more chaotic than acutely violent. But in a 2011 untitled memoir — the most upsetting and difficult of her books — Carver details a series of early memories that she claims were unavailable to her during the Rollerderby years. “I think it was obvious to anyone who saw me perform on stage, or read any of my books, or witnessed me drunk, that I was molested, tortured, and starved as a child,” the book begins. “It wasn’t obvious to me.”
In 2015, Carver published a collection of personal and cultural-critical essays about finances called Money’s Nothing. In it, she describes the flip side of Dancing Queen’s bedazzled approach to her “white trash” upbringing, writing about her own childhood with a new awareness that while poverty may have its sleazy pleasures, it’s also almost always the cruel result of “people dicking other people over.” “The premise of my childhood and of my class and of my gender,” she writes, “was that I was a bother, I was greedy, I cost money.”
Where did Carver’s new class consciousness come from? From the same place it always does: economic immiseration. Set mostly in the present, the first-person sections of Money’s Nothing offer an update on Carver’s whereabouts. We learn that she’s had a daughter, and that her son’s physical disabilities have remained severe and expensive. (In one essay, the kind of text that makes you want to burn down a bank, she crowdfunds money to send him to a group home but is turned away after a housing official googles Carver and is offended by Rollerderby.) She and the kids spend most of the book living in New Hampshire with her latest boyfriend, a corrupt and frigid rich guy on whom she depends financially. Throughout much of the early 2000s she’s maintained a Web 2.0 version of the Rollerderby free spirit by writing an online sex column, but she loses that gig during the financial crisis. That year, she writes, she “made $5,000 instead of my usual $12,000 to $25,000.”
Of all the material challenges that the new millennium posed to do-it-yourself artistic production — corporate consolidation, the ad-driven internet, a murderous and racist war that suddenly made commercialism look like a somewhat frivolous target for dissent — it’s the 2008 recession that Carver identifies as the most disastrous for her underground milieu. The crash, according to one essay in Money’s Nothing, effected a bleak inflection point for a generation of writers who already felt that the world was hostile to their work. “The collapse of our anything-for-adventure DIY civilization was all so ephemeral,” she writes. “We’d already all been working at the poverty line fourteen hours a day seven days a week for years. Some of us had children. When the economy tightened, there was nothing left for us to squeeze except our beliefs.” This is how a lot of Carver’s 2010s writing sounds: like the reflections — honest, accepting, and not entirely defeated — of someone who has tried hard not to place her faith in institutions but has been vividly let down by a lot of them anyway.
By the time Carver moved to Pahrump, Nevada, in 2017, a decade of post-recession self-distribution had taken its toll. “I knew how to do everything I did; nothing felt new. I was churning out two books a year for so long, I didn’t even think about what I was saying anymore. Here I say nothing.” Two books a year is a lot. Between 2011 and 2019, alongside Money’s Nothing, How to Not Write, and the unnamed memoir, she also published an anthology of micro-profiles of strangers, a co-bylined book of illustrated prose poetry, another reflection on the Suckdog years, an assemblage of ekphrastic essays called I Love Art, and a short monograph on Yoko Ono (“what she does in art — tries to free people — is the most important thing you can do in life, period”).
Pahrump is an unincorporated desert town located across the Nevada border from Death Valley. Carver writes that she landed there because her then-husband — a millionaire who seems to be experiencing some sort of violent midlife crisis — was in pursuit of cheap real estate. He buys a foreclosed-on house, which we get the sense are numerous in Pahrump, as are brothels and libertarians. Carver follows him, seeking a break from her precarious life and fascinated by the town’s outlaw emptiness. The desert seems to her like a place where capital might exert a little less gravity than it does elsewhere in America, just as it did for the “poverty jet set” who populate the 1991 Douglas Coupland novel that gave Carver’s cohort its durably cool name.
But in Generation X the desert — Palm Springs — is full of comrades and groovy swimming pools. In Pahrump, writes Carver, “absolutely no one around me cares about what I care about.” She uses the solitude to try leaping out of her existing rhythms. Writing, impossibly, that she’s taking a break from writing (“I’m not a writer anymore and I don’t know what I am”), she attempts to shape herself instead into a citizen of Pahrump: she befriends drifters, preppers, exiles from Las Vegas. She gets a job caretaking for a man she meets at the optometrist, until he invites her on a drug-running sex vacation to Mexico. She spends long mornings writing reverently about the sky. (Her landscape writing is beautiful — subdued and arid, only distantly related to the live-wire boisterousness of Rollerderby.) For a while she helps her husband fix up the house, alongside a cast of day laborers who all seem to be running from the law.
The central Carverian dialectic — freedom and its opposite, constraint — has asserted itself again, in the drama of a terrible marriage in a beautiful open place.Tweet
Then, a third of the way in, The Pahrump Report becomes one of the most harrowing reading experiences I have ever sat through. After a decade of marriage, the couple’s new life in Pahrump surfaces a host of subterranean resentments and pathologies. Keith, Carver’s husband, turns out to be a hoarder and a jerk. He keeps buying shitty cars and leaving them broken in the yard. He disappears into the desert for days at a time, then gets arrested for drunk driving. For a while she’s a pretty good sport about it all. When he fails to show up for a dinner party the couple has planned, she writes: “Had it been a Woody Allen movie, I would have bellowed: JESUS, DON’T YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN SOMEONE’S OUT DOING BLOW AND WHORES AND TRYING TO DESTROY ME? Instead I smiled grimly, tight lips and no teeth.” The central Carverian dialectic — freedom and its opposite, constraint — has asserted itself again, in the drama of a terrible marriage in a beautiful open place.
One of Carver’s particular pleasures, and the quality that’s made her first-person work since early Rollerderby so compelling, is the frequency and panache with which she makes the sorts of decisions that for most of us feel paralyzing and life-defining: marriage, pregnancy, divorce, and cross-country moves occur in her work as regularly as other memoirists describe their furniture or dreams. Reading most of her work, you’re reminded that it’s possible to live extraordinarily densely — that a life, even a very difficult one marked by repetitive domestic and economic struggles, can be dynamic and multiple, punctuated by frequent reinventions. A mutual friend told me that Carver once instructed him to “get married as often as possible,” and throughout her memoirs, this is the almost campy attitude she’s maintained toward relationships: that one can benefit from them, and meaningfully experience love, even without buying into the bourgeois fantasy of their permanence. But when Carver finally leaves her husband and The Pahrump Report establishes itself as one of her numerous divorce memoirs, the effect is a lot more brutal and miserable than the breakups in her other books. Maybe because the book was initially written in near-instantaneous monthly newsletter installments — or maybe because we get the sense that Carver took this marriage more seriously, and stuck it out for much longer, than previous relationships — the whole thing feels almost unreadably immediate and raw. Have you ever read a stranger narrate their divorce in real time? “I don’t love my husband anymore,” she admits at one point, plainly.
When Carver and her now-teenage daughter move out of Keith’s house, she has a hard time finding a place to live. “Being poor because you choose to do work you love is nothing to be ashamed of,” she writes, but she still pins her precarity on her writing career: “My credit is so horrendous from self-publishing my last two books and paying for everyone’s plane tickets for a half-the-world promotional tour that traditional landlords wouldn’t want me even for their disgusting hovels.” Reading this sentence made me want to cry. I’ve heard a few people say that they feel their writing has ruined their lives, but none this persuasively or materially. How could publishing be so unfair?
Post-divorce, the second half of The Pahrump Report finds Carver attempting to strike a balance between loneliness and creative potential. In that way, the book begins to sound like parts of Drugs Are Nice. “There’s just me: an abandoned woman in an abandoned town,” she writes after a breakup in the 2005 memoir, in a line that could easily be from the newest one. “This is what I wanted — eyes open — but it sure is no fun place to be.”
In the desert, where the heat “cooks the hubris out of you,” Carver becomes increasingly preoccupied by her surroundings, like she wants to look outside herself for a while. Her descriptions of horses and tumbleweeds grow increasingly fond, almost transcendental. (“I look at the sky and I feel happy. I accept where I am in life, how old I am, how poor.”) She uses Groupon to take Zumba classes, writing workshops, and, at one point, a party bus to Las Vegas. In Vegas she, for maybe the first time in her career, writes non-weirdly about meeting people who aren’t white. She does some online dating and has a few affairs, culminating in a relationship with a new variation on her usual bad boyfriend template: a rich religious banker. At one point she goes with him to church. “It was so packed Steve and I had to stand the whole two hours on either side of a bowl of holy water sticking out of the wall. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other and I kept knocking into the bowl and getting splashed, so I’m totally holy now.”
It’s amusing to see a former experimental sex icon writing about religion, although of course she still sounds just like her buoyant self. It’s more jarring, somehow, to read her write about eHarmony and Groupon. Contemporaneity and its breathtakingly un-punk platforms! I thought, reading. They find you anywhere, no matter how wild and free your life has been.
But then the entire memoir owes its existence to a digital crowdfunding platform, and every so often its beholdenness to Patreon asserts itself. The Pahrump Report’s monthly installment structure enhances the amazing, accretive immediacy that all of Carver’s work possesses — but it also highlights the inevitable repetitions that accrue in the work of any serial memoirist, especially one spending years in the same desolate place. Parts of the book feel rushed and unpolished — not in a zine-y way so much as an under-edited way. As is the case with a lot of newsletters, Carver’s seems to have incentivized its author to play the hits a little bit, and as she enters a relationship with yet another awful guy, she increasingly converges on her old themes.
One of those themes, of course, is economic instability. More than any formal hurdle, this is the condition that the book’s newsletter structure desublimates. Writing to her two hundred or so subscribers, who collectively supply her with around a thousand dollars to live on monthly, she makes a defense of writing outside of commercial safety nets. “I had nothing in my savings account but my readers,” she writes, but claims that this situation opens up a twisted sort of possibility:
Constantly seeking money is the undertow I just barely out-swim, perpetually. It’s weirdly enjoyable. It feels like who I am. An escape artist . Well. I should clarify: the money imperative never made me alter one word of what I write — which is who I am. But the transactional nature of communication for money does steadily facilitate the when of what I write. The when is right now. . . . Writing from within doubt . . . is what the desperation of poverty has both asked of me and given me.
As in Drugs Are Nice, passages like these find Carver turning toward a retrospective mode. Now in her fifties, she has a lifelong project to look back on — one that’s been forgotten or passed over by a host of commercial institutions, but that’s only gotten more interesting as a result. And still: it’s hard to read passages like this and not feel that, even as she’s found precarious and small-scale ways to make them work, Carver is being underserved by her current conditions.
How might a less unjust publishing environment treat a writer like Lisa Carver? In the absence of an actual redistributive state that might allow poor geniuses to flourish, we can still identify the occasional precedent. Similarly out-there writers have benefited from later-in-life rediscoveries and reissues (or, just as often but less helpfully, from posthumous renaissances). Every once in a while a big publishing house with a long leash will still pluck a writer out of a zine scene or other self-publishing ecosystem; Brontez Purnell, whose brazen sex writing shares certain qualities with Carver’s, is a recent example. Speaking of Carver-adjacent writer-performers, there is always the Chris Kraus route, of staying in Nevada and becoming a landlord. But would Carver want any of those outcomes? Her ungovernable Nineties principles have remained admirably intact. Sometimes it seems like poverty — mitigated by the self-punishing private safety net of always having a frustrating husband with money — is a condition her work requires.
“The desert is like 1990,” writes Carver toward the end of The Pahrump Report. As a conclusion to the book and to her body of work so far, it’s an astonishing analogy, suggesting that Pahrump, with its fertile harshness and sparse outsider population, might offer possibilities that the rest of the world has withheld for three decades. “You can truly lose something there,” she continues, “or be the lost thing.” Loss is the condition that saturates the book, as it does all of Carver’s post-Rollerderby work. But by The Pahrump Report’s end, it’s begun to look more like freedom.
In the book’s final pages, as the pandemic descends on Pahrump and everywhere else, Carver prepares to leave town. She’s fallen in love again and will eventually follow the guy to Botswana, like the narrator of Mating. According to her Patreon — still updated regularly, with writing that will likely become a new book — she’s left the US for good and is now living with yet another husband in France, a country that is marginally less cruel to its poor. I’ve been following along, paying a couple dollars a month to read her posts. Whenever I do I remember a line from Reaching Out with No Hands, Carver’s 2012 book about Yoko Ono. “I care about her,” Carver writes. “She puzzles me. There are areas where I wish she made different decisions, and it bothers me, but still I’m rooting for her.”