November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
When I read Eileen Myles’s most famous book, Chelsea Girls, I found myself regretting my mild little life. It’s a book wrought from the chaos of New York City in the 1970s: sex, crime, booze and drugs, poverty, and poetry. None of that had ever been in my life. My experience with Chelsea Girls was practically anthropological, so distant was the content from anything I’ve lived, and it stirred in me both jealousy and relief.
The book did make me wonder how its author ended up, in a metaphysical sense. In the movies, dissolute youth often ends in a fiery wreck at the bottom of a ravine. In life, how does a bohemian poet cope with middle age? What does settling down look like for them? After multiple books that avoid the “memoir” label, what will they elect to write about that finally fixes it on the front cover?
In Afterglow (a dog memoir), I have an answer, and yet another example of the shadow life, the what-might-have-been, that divides Myles from me. I have never had a dog, and always wanted one, and Afterglow revolves around Rosie, the pitbull whom Myles cared for from 1990 to 2006. In this book, Myles grants to Rosie a remarkable breadth of experience and ability, and they toy with form and narrative freely. An early chapter comprises a puppet talk show on which Rosie is a guest and in which a dream of Myles’s is embedded. Later, Rosie and Myles bat the first-person pronoun back and forth in chapters both confusing and captivating. Rosie calls them Jethro instead of Eileen, philosophizes about Manichaeism, and asks its author what the book is even doing.
“Dog ghostwriting”—great language, funny idea, but honestly aren’t all dog books dog ghostwriting. No dog writes a book, no dog wants a book written no dog reads a book and the only part that might be interesting is the idea that all writers are ghosts. Look at you! The writer spends her life reducing her own existence to that of a ghost.
In just a few sentences, Myles and Rosie 1) expose why dog books are sort of dumb, and 2) hew close to questions that have plagued me for most of my life as a writer: whether authors are as real to most readers as they are to me, whether the experience of reading is normal or actually psychedelic and bizarre, what an author’s name written on the cover of a book signifies.
Not all of their experimentation is successful. Sometimes Rosie’s recorded thoughts are so jumbled that they become tedious to read, and I don’t really understand what foam has to do with art. But Myles’s books always feel this way to me: some aspects hit so hard that they lodge in the mind, crystalline and perfect, and others drag across the eyes as if I’m forced to mop up a soiled floor. Of course, Myles reaches different readers for different reasons. That is the glory of experimental literature: in it, there is no such thing as mass appeal.
I appreciate the sound of Myles, so unlike any other writer:
Meanwhile the gentle tap tap tap of the music of the house still pouring out. One side of the fireplug is blue. Chalk blue. I want to say scrawl. The cat seems to get distracted so I’m luring him in. He looks back at this day. More agitated it holds a white dog barking jumping up and down. The wall behind him is rose faded salmon in sunlight going to white. Blazing. My yard he barks. My sidewalk. We’re close up and all we see is whiteness and fence.
Afterglow is a memoir primarily about Rosie, but not exclusively about her. The reckoning a writer tends to do after age sixty, the backward gaze at a life, is present here, but not in an ordinary way. Myles has maintained the fire, the dirt, and the immediacy that characterized Chelsea Girls as well as so much of their poetry, but they’re using it to examine the mortality of their dog and, in no small way, themself.
Yet this is what writing is. A leaving behind.
The two chapters that discuss Rosie’s death in detail are as affecting as writing gets, but they make up only one mood in a patchwork of them. Like much of Myles’s work, Afterglow is less a unified book than a conversation. With itself, with its author, with its author’s dog, with me, the anthropologist who can’t stop reading about a life she barely understands. Like all great conversations, it ranges everywhere, strikes wrong notes, stutters in finding its way, contains moments of astonishing beauty and insight. Like all great conversationalists, Myles has a profound sense of themself, as well as a willingness to risk saying something totally weird as long as it’s true.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
October 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
By Hannah Koerner
Over the past month I’ve been on a binge of queer nonfiction, devouring Eileen Myles’ Cool for You and Inferno and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, annotating the latter until ink from my pen took up more space per page than printer ink. The attraction isn’t just the quality of the writing—though stunning—or the presence of queer female writers—though still, disappointingly, too rare—but that those works deal in constant, staggering revelations. What I mean is that Eileen Myles’ and Maggie Nelson’s writings live and glory in excavating ambiguities: including, but not limited to, the ambiguity of being queer—what does queerness mean? and what does it mean for my art?
As a queer writer, both questions exist close to my heart. What I come across again and again in my own writing is a frustration with form; surely, one wants to do more than regurgitate heterosexual stories and gender-swap the love interest. At the same time, writing—or at least, writing with an eye towards publication—cannot be entirely free from the pressure for universal appeal. Nor can it be free from the structure of everything that came before it, a structure which is overwhelmingly heterosexual.
Both Myles and Nelson wrote glowing blurbs for Michelle Tea’s new book Black Wave, which meant I pre-ordered it a week in advance of publication. When I got to read it, I found Tea dealing with that same frustration, those same structures and traditions, in an immensely satisfying way: she throws up her hands, and destroys them, ending her memoir in a pre-millennial, all-consuming apocalypse.
Black Wave opens on familiar territory for Tea: 90s San Francisco, drug-swept and drowning under the high-tech takeover of Silicon Valley. It remains a straightforward account of the author’s sex and drug fueled twenties until, during her move to Los Angeles midway through the book, Michelle turns to her then-lover, Quinn, and declares,
“This [. . .] Is My Memoir.
Memoirs are true, Quinn, also a writer, pointed out.
This One Is Part True And Part False. All That Stuff I Just Said, About When We Dated, Is True.”
But, it turns out, it won’t be strictly true for over a decade past the book’s setting: Tea did not in actuality meet Quinn until long after the move to Los Angeles. Black Wave, she reveals, is her attempt at catharsis after an eight year relationship’s messy end—the catch being that her ex-girlfriend requested not to be written about.
In working around its subject, replacing the ex-girlfriend with a series of stand-ins ranging from Quinn to actor Matt Dillon, Black Wave disintegrates in its own hurtle towards conclusion; like the dream collapsing around Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Michelle-the-character’s world self-destructs as Michelle-the-author realizes the limitations of her memoir. The once-familiar Californian landscape decays beyond the effects of pollution and poverty, rushing towards the end of the world.
Perhaps equally impossibly, Black Wave remains, at heart, a memoir. It is poetic nonfiction in the style of Myles’ Inferno, riding on the surge and crash of drugs, alcohol, and doomed relationships. In keeping with that tradition it excavates its own ambiguity: a nonfiction account which edges closer to the truth the more absurdist it turns.
Michelle—both the character and the author—finds that the story she wants to tell will not fit into a traditional pattern. That’s not only out of respect for her ex, but because the content itself is profoundly marginalized. “If Michelle had gone to college she was certain she’d have been taught how to write from the perspective of a straight, white, middle-class man,” Tea writes. Hers is not a universal voice. She must do something different for appeal.
Seemingly at odds with the memoir form, queer art has a longstanding relationship with anonymity: for reasons of censorship, of authorial safety, and, as author Szilvia Molnar recently wrote in LitHub, of an embrace of fluidity: “the creator [. . .] can detach themselves from judgment that can be easily associated with a sex/sexuality or characteristics.” Although Black Wave is deeply personal and revealing of its author, it shares in that detachment when the emotional content of one relationship is foisted onto many, and many-gendered, other characters. It is a work that will be cathartic for any writer who struggles with the balancing act of remaining truthful while not impinging too acutely on the privacy of people they love or once loved. Tea manages to describe her breakup in all of its excruciating, frenzied, desperate emotion without mentioning the relationship itself more than a handful of times.
The result is an appropriately queerly-formed quasi-memoir, explosive and purgative, and exactly the break in form I’ve been itching for.
Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!