Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot"

It made perfect sense that Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon officiated Lily van der Woodsen's wedding on Gossip Girl this spring: of course they knew each other from the early '90s grunge scene, had stayed connected through Marc Jacobs, had daughters the same age...

Earlier this year, I read Noise, an anthology of short stories inspired by Sonic Youth songs, and I wondered at first why they weren't all written by Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories could come with Sonic Youth soundtracks in my wildest dreams, and if Janet Malcolm was the best chronicler of Gossip Girl I could have imagined last year, then Mary Gaitskill may be the solution to the show's current malaise--or at least to the boredom of Blair and Chuck. Gaitskill's 2005 novel Veronica could be some alternate (fictional) universe for Lily van der Woodsen had she lived on the Lower East Side with Kim Gordon in the 1980s. Let's see how this triangle of Gordon, Gaitskill, and Gossip Girl could work out, using William Deresiewicz's assessment of Gaitskill's early career and review of her new collection, Don't Cry, from the Nation:
A second collection, Because They Wanted To, appeared in 1997. Taken together, Gaitskill's first three books established a tightly coherent vision expressed through a narrow but powerful array of themes and techniques. For Gaitskill, [Ayn] Rand and [Ronald] Reagan are only extreme expressions of a universal condition, and the social world itself is a Hobbesian jungle of the hideous, the merciless and the weak. Its paradigm and training ground is childhood, which Gaitskill returns to throughout these three books as if it were a wound she can't stop licking:

The assigned classroom was filled with murderously aggressive boys and rigid girls with animal eyes who threw spitballs, punched each other, snarled, whispered, and stared one another down. And shadowing all these gestures and movements were declarations of dominance, of territory, the swift, blind play of power and weakness.

Given such conditions, the only viable strategy is to bury your feelings as deeply as possible. In Two Girls, the most despised of the classroom outcasts is nicknamed "'Emotional,' the worst insult imaginable": "Every answer seemed to come out of some horrible complex individuality reeking with humanity, the clarity and trust in her soft voice made them squirm with discomfort."

The result is at once self-enclosure and self-alienation. Gaitskill's characters are young women and men set adrift between adolescence and adulthood, members-in-training of the so-called creative class, like so many of us are or once were. They hole up in cruddy apartments, work demeaning jobs and nurse vague creative aspirations while making the desultory round of bars, clubs and parties in the demimonde of urban hipsterdom. But Gaitskill gives her characters a larger than ordinary allotment of psychic distress. It doesn't matter if childhood trauma figures explicitly in their stories; with their stunted or fragile or provisional selves, their baffled craving for comfort, they are all still damaged children. Their predicament creates a suffocating compound of psychological pressure and emotional desiccation, along with a lurking sense of threat that originates not in the outside world but in the hidden places of the psyche, in the violence that unacknowledged desires are capable of calling down. Gaitskill's characters have a blind spot where their personalities are supposed to be, and it's staring at the back of their heads. They can't feel what they feel or want what they want. They aren't struggling, like their peers, to decide what to be; they're trying to figure out who they are.

Take out "cruddy apartments" and you have a very interesting direction for the show! XO, XO.

Really, this post was supposed to be about Noise and the stories inspired by Sonic Youth, but I'm still puzzling over the new Gaitskill collection, and it's telling that her contribution to the anthology, "Wish Fulfillment," is an allegory that doesn't sound much like the piercing specificity of her previous work. The descriptions in those stories were often painful to read, and Deresiewicz, in noting that changed descriptive tone in Veronica (quoted above), is setting up his concerns about the way that description doesn't work as well in the allegories of Don't Cry. But "Wish Fulfillment" comes from a deeply personal place, Gaitskill explains in the introductory paragraph to the story in Noise, as she basically describes being saved by a Sonic Youth song.

Question #1: Do Sonic Youth songs inspire listeners to commit allegory?
How does noise rock relate to allegory--why do they go together, or do they? My first thought on reading the anthology was that I would have written a story inspired by "Disconnection Notice" from Murray Street--an allegory if there ever was one:
Did you get your disconnection notice?
Mine came in the mail today
They seem to think I'm disconnected
Don't think I know what to read or write or say
Glossaries injected daily
Words and numbers spell out the price to pay
It simply states "you're disconnected baby"
See how easily it all slips away

This is no direction
Prepare for the city
Angels turn on heaven's light

But I don't think I would have stayed in allegorical mode for my short story. I listened to that song a lot one winter, and it's one of those New York songs I think about a lot when I've been pacing around for several miles in the cold. So, no details yet for this as-yet-unwritten short story.

Question #2: Or is it the weird details of the band's songs, matched or exacerbated by the noise, that inspires some good writing?
I was most struck by the jarring details of the stories, as when Catherine O'Flynn writes in the introduction to her short story, "I think it's good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot of a car." Emily Carter Roiphe has a good story called "Little Trouble Girl," about living on the Lower East Side while the band was practicing and performing in Tompkins Square Park--agree or disagree with her assessment of the band, her details are well-noted:
No time to consider that art-noise-rock-screech soundcheck might be the one bit of indifference that would send a depressed, chemically dependent college drop-out over the edge, especially when she looked at Kim Gordon, all ice-cool and swan-like aloofness, while the college drop-out scraped the dirty sweat off her forehead with a matchbook.

Question #3: Does being inspired by a weird band make an author's writing style more like itself, or does it swerve it around to negations?

Shelley Jackson writes about Goo, and it seems very much in keeping with the rest of her work from The Melancholy of Anatomy, about bodily fluids and secretions. Katherine Dunn's story has some of the same freakishness as Geek Love. But Jess Walter seems to respond to the band's noisy negations when he writes, "this is not that kind of story" in the form of a note to a professor about a creative writing assignment. Jackson and Walter are two varieties of responses to the Noise project: either use it to reflect your style through the band, or use the band's avant-garde sensibility to try something new, or, more specifically, to have your story's characters try something new, as in the famous story from this volume that takes "Bull in Heather" to new directions that the author said he hadn't tried before.

There are two other books in the series: stories inspired by the Fall and by the Smiths. I think those would be two very different types of inspiration, and I'd be really interested to see what kind of variation there is among the Smiths stories.

Question #4: Or is the avant-garde weirdly cyclical in its inspirations?
My very favorite piece in the book is Tom McCarthy's introductory paragraph to his story about "Kool Thing"--I have no idea whether it's reliable, I'm even more interested if it's not:
I remember, in 1992, listening to Kim Gordon's voice monologuing over 'Kool Thing.' She was talking about a white girl lying on a bed with a dagger in her hand, staring at a black panther in a tree; and she said it had something to do with Patty Hearst. I didn't know who Patty Hearst was then. Years later, when I visited the Joyce Museum in the guntower where he spent the night that Ulysses emerged from, there was a life-sized black panther in the bedroom: Joyce's roommate, like his hero Stephen's, had a nightmare with one in it and, picking a gun up in his half-sleep from the night-table beside his bed, fired it over Joyce's head. Beneath the bedroom was a storeroom for gunpowder; in past centuries the guardians of the tower had to be careful not to generate any sparks. Maybe all avant-gardes begin with gunpowder and a dream of a black panther.

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