What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (3 page)

9. One of the typists was said to have said of the book, “It’s worse than Henry Miller.” Dirtier, she meant. It’s certainly more complex and difficult to read in all senses than Miller.
sometimes falls into unintelligibility, into illegibility. When Warhol held a tape recorder up to life, the result was streams of consciousness, many narratives intruding upon and interrupting one another, phrases and anecdotes, wordplay (there’s none in Miller), incoherence, coherence, poetry, puns, witticisms (I love Ondine’s remark that “charity begins alone”), documentary, bits of all of these. It’s not an easy read. None of his work is.

challenges reading. How do you read it? Sometimes I heard it, sometimes I thought it was radio, not TV or movies, I didn’t see it.
Though I checked Victor Bockris’ geographical notes at the back of the book, I couldn’t find “place.” I tried to stay with Ondine, but when he became very high, what happened to me, the reader? It was a relentlessly strange reading event.
felt cerebral and became claustrophobic, airless. It’s a book with no space and in which space is a context, an area of contest, in which space is psychological territory that’s fought over. The space at the Factory, for instance, was fraught: there were territorial skirmishes, fights for primacy—over who Ondine wants in or out, what the Factory rules were and should be—and all of this is discussed in
. In one part, there were so many voices in one taxi at one time and so many interruptions, I began to think about the book as music, as a score. When I did that, I relaxed some, and reading it became less stressful.

a: A Novel
challenges writers because Warhol’s idea of what should be on the page allows for the chaos that writers are meant to control, to turn into art.
underlines how unlifelike most written dialogue and conversation is. Its most peculiar challenge is to the writerly conceit that writing just pours out of us, from our guts or our heads, without an enormous number of de facto decisions made even before what we’re writing came to consciousness or to desire. In other words, we receive language for the page, because other pages have been written.
a: A Novel
wasn’t written or conceived for the page in that sense.

The novel follows its protagonist, and in its way, and within Ondine’s limits, remains faithful to its structural idea: time. Time’s a constitutive element of narrative; it’s material. Novelists use time the way filmmakers use cuts, or long shots, close-ups,
etc. In
the reader is in real time, whatever that is, and every moment is precious or boring. Time and art in a sense are collapsed: Moments are precious or boring both to the reader and the story. Ondine could ask himself: What am I looking for tonight (and he does), what do I want, where do I want to go? (all narratives are journeys). The reader could ask: What am I reading for? What do I want to find?

Boredom tells us something about life’s relentless movement toward entropy and death. (Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once commented that he knew when to take someone into therapy—when they bored him.)

12. Warhol wanted Ondine to say everything, to keep talking, to say whatever came into his mind. It’s a psychoanalytic idea, and if that’s the case, Warhol’s the analyst, Ondine the analysand. Robert Polito suggested to me it’s also about confessing and confession. Confession mixes with the psychoanalytic, and one reads
expecting revelation, which is common to both forms of talking. I read expecting or hoping for discoveries—and found some. Warhol reveals a few secrets, Ondine many, and all kinds of vulnerabilities and fears are displayed—eventually. It’s the material that writers would have headed toward more quickly; writers would have edited away most of the other material. But it’s not cut out in
, it is
—the unedited relates powerfully to confession, to psychoanalysis, to not leaving anything out, accepting everything. To me, Warhol’s lust for the unedited is the most resonant and mysterious aspect of his work.

13. In another way of looking at
, along the lines of Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Warhol’s the queer-listening priest, Ondine the queer-talking Pope. An unexpected, moving moment occurred when Ondine said to the Sugar Plum Fairy, Joe Campbell: “You may think I’m not searching, and He—Drella—may think I’m not searching, but I’m searching. Which one of us, who isn’t searching, for God?” Joe Campbell was a formidable interloctutor—no wonder Dorothy Dean was in love with him—and induced Warhol and Ondine into making some of their most revelatory statements.

Pope Ondine was searching for God. With this revelation, suddenly his desire to get high shifted into a different gear. In
he spoke over and again about beauty and the beautiful, and so, in a way, his quest, his journey, was for the illusory sublime—some kind of state of grace. Taking drugs and listening to opera—especially to Maria Callas—were his ticket to God.

14. Since reason is retrospective, it makes sense that reading
as a score, as music, loosened me to its idiosyncratic rhythms. Opera is the soundtrack, the background music, to this book. The opera might be
, because of its aria, “Vissi D’Arte.” “I lived for art, I lived for love,” Callas sings.
a: A Novel
is a record of a life living for art, being recorded for the love of art.

15. Superstars like Edie or Ondine transformed themselves into what they thought was sublime. They were antiheroes performing a mostly unscripted high-wire act. Warhol believed in them, as self-creations, believed in their fictiveness; his belief acknowledged
their desires and the power of fiction itself, the reality of fantasy and illusion—and also contradiction, one of fiction’s difficult truths.

Another is verisimilitude, likelihood, a similarity to reality. A likely story resembles reality. It may use make-believe to arrive there. His superstars are likely stories, resemblances close enough or odd enough to question stars and stardom, actors and acting. They live inside a narrative that doesn’t stop when the film does. Serial, cinematic images, they perform their antiheroics again and again. Their will to be matters, their will to be there matters, and on Warhol’s screen, their psychic realities matter most.

16a. In a Warholian world, authenticity is ironic, even a joke, and essences are funnier. Actual histories, biographies, and sometimes bodies were left behind and new ones manufactured in the Factory. Warhol’s superstars could march in a parade for those who want to be switched at birth.

16b. The authority or authenticity of any fiction resides in the ability to make others suspend disbelief.

17. Warhol’s art questioned what art was, what was expected to hang on a wall, and the same is true of
a: A Novel
. It asks: What do we expect in novels, how should they be written, why do we expect them to conform to certain rules? Whose rules? Factory rules? Recently back in print,
a: A Novel
may be responded to, less vehemently now, the way everything Warhol did in the 60s was—as garbage or genius. Or it will be ignored and its perplexing, vital questions never considered seriously. This novel—and Warhol’s
work generally—doesn’t provide a walkway down the middle. It’s unorthodox, a walk on the wild side.

18. “The last words are Andy Warhol”—he was the last word, maybe, on the 20th century. Though think what he would have done on the Internet. (Is
a: A Novel
the precursor to the Internet novel?)

But are words important to Warhol? I don’t know. Talk was. Is talk cheap? He was both a spendthrift and thrifty, even cheap. He surrounded himself with articulate, talkative people—with wits like Fred Hughes, Ondine, Viva—but he was stingy with his words. He often pretended to do a dumb show and often had others speak for him.

19. The last words are Andy Warhol unedited. Warhol started
magazine and insisted upon publishing unedited transcripts. He wrote an unedited novel. He didn’t want to edit his films in the usual sense. Unedited versions came closer to what he wanted, but I’m not sure what that was. He wanted to keep his hands off, or to hide behind the density, opaqueness, of the material, or to let the idea do its work. He wanted to be inclusive, democratic. (After all, he wanted to name Pop Art Common Art.) He wanted something he could never imagine to happen, something he couldn’t fathom to occur, and he wanted to be there when it did, to see it or hear it.

Or he wanted the unedited in the way—sort of the inverse way—that John Cage wanted silence. How do we know what to pay attention to; how do we know for ourselves what’s important; how do we choose; how do we know if it’s art; how do we decide
what to see and to read, how can we tell unless everything is there to see and to read.

Blame it on Andy

Being human offers homo sapiens variety, or some elasticity, in social life, though sociologists claim that people’s personalities disappear with no one else around. Imagining this evacuation, I see a person alone in a self-chosen shelter, motionless on a chair, like a houseplant with prehensile thumbs.

Diane Sawyer, an unctuous American TV news anchor, once asked a mob assassin: “But haven’t you ever thought, ‘How can I do this? Who am I?’” The man looked at her with incredulity, then said: “I’m a gangster.” Now, it’s true that people (a.k.a. human beings) named themselves human and also defined humanity, but this tautological affair entails neuroses: Do we have a natural state? To say there isn’t one doesn’t quell anxiety, and “just act natural” and “be yourself” remain resilient punch lines to the shaggy-dog story called existence. There are instincts and drives, the basics from which Sigmund Freud theorized—but, oh, the complex array of acts that might satisfy these!

The bandwidth of human behavior includes self-image recognition and cerebration, prized differences from other animals (both premises are currently under investigation). With bigger brains, people have concocted notions about self-reflection and self-awareness, which allowed for “I think; therefore, I am.” Not “I think what; therefore, I am what?” One would have thought that might matter.

Human beings have, like other animals, sexual and excretory organs that either share the same orifice or sit near enough to confuse identification by children. In evolutionary terms, apparently, there have been no great improvements. Also, shit still stinks, which, given the horrors humans commit, seems appropriate.

Dominique Laporte’s
History of Shit
(1978) narrated the lengths to which people have gone to cover up the smell. But the body finds its way, discharging ugly odors, keeping humans close to their “uncivilized” ancestors. Human violence keeps people as close, maybe closer; it too has likely never changed, only the tools. But violence can’t be covered up with perfume. In part, theories about essence and construction, nature vs. nurture, address, directly and indirectly, motives for aggression and cruelty, ethical behavior—or its lack—and the power of the irrational in the human animal.

In the 1950s, American ethnomethodologists Erving Goffman, Harvey Saks and Harold Garfinkel examined tiny units of social life, such as conversation among friends. Seemingly meaningless conventions screamed disaster if not followed: no “hello” back to a friend jeopardizes the relationship. Little miscues caused rips in society’s seams. They studied gender, declaring masculinity and femininity performances in need of consistent routines, since people surveilled others for lapses that endangered identity but worse any hope for a life without torment.

Humans act differently in wars, in crowds; they act differently if they think nobody’s watching. Punishments and limits—prohibitions on murder, incest, cannibalism—mostly keep people in line, otherwise, humans would be no better than animals,
humans like to claim. But all mammals teach their kind and follow rules; they form societies often less violent than ours. Apes, chimps, elephants—the mothers commit years to training their offspring. Wolves, male and female, are ecstatic at the birth of a cub; all guard their young. So, that’s no insult: We do behave like animals.

At parties I observe people acting much like dogs, except for sniffing rear ends, which is generally done in private.

“Acting like a human” is a matter of opinion, too. “Did I do the right thing?” can translate into “did I act right?” Some people act better than others; even when being honest, some people aren’t convincing. Yet con artists are great at appearing sincere. Being honest or “yourself” isn’t necessarily a “natural” state, since the human capacity to dissimulate must always have been necessary for species survival.

I admit to wonder and consternation when people bemoan the loss of authenticity in art, in identity, in life. Andy Warhol is regularly blamed for its supposed absence. He’s blamed for everything. I don’t know what pure state, unmediated existence, or moment in history to which people can or should return. Homo sapiens call themselves makers and doers, and they never leave well enough alone.

Some people are actual actors. Theater has been around a long time, because it serves several purposes. For one, people can watch others being human, portraying emotions and actions, their consequences and vicissitudes. Which brings me to Ryan Gosling in the film
Blue Valentine
(2010). Gosling embodies an unusually sensitive human to a degree I find unnerving.
He plays the husband in this anti-romance romance—a so-called regular American guy, but one I had never seen on screen or stage. Not a rebel like James Dean or Marlon Brando, standard-bearers of “acting real.” No, Gosling’s character is content to love his wife passionately, to adore and care for their child; he is ambitionless, happy to have a lame job. This life is enough for him, and he believes it should be for his wife.

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