Anton Chekhov Versus Jeffrey Dahmer
Long considered one of the forefathers of the contemporary short story, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has continued for more than a century to be held up as an example of how to tell a human tale. There is perhaps no larger precursor for realistic short fiction in its most popular form: clearly stated, socially involved narrative displays that set out to objectively mimic human life. I can certainly tell you that more than a few times while studying fiction as an MFA student, Chekhov was passed on like some holy washcloth everyone should rub their faces on.
You might also be familiar with Jeffrey Dahmer (1960-1994), who raped and murdered 17 known male victims over a period of 13 years. Made most infamous for his proclivity to store or cook and eat parts of his victims’ bodies, Dahmer remains one of the most unnerving of all repeat killers, despite his oddly calm and mechanically regretful outward demeanor. I can’t remember ever having a teacher mention Dahmer as someone I should use as a model for good art.
And yet, somehow in my mind these two keep crossing paths. I find I can’t help myself from thinking about Dahmer every time I hear someone mention Chekhov, like a lurking shadow in my spirit. I can’t help but want to draw them out, to put them together in a cage and watch their brains bump. Finally, the other day I started culling quotes from both and began to find weird intersections between their thoughts. Below I’ve pitted some of each against each other, and tried to make sense of the wide gap between the two.
I realize this likely means I will never be allowed to teach collegiate fiction.
CHEKHOV: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”
DAHMER (of his first victim): ”I, uh, didn’t know how else to keep him there other than to get the barbell and hit him, over the head, which I did, and then strangled him with the same barbell.”
If I could point to one artist’s quote that has done the most damage to keeping things interesting, it’s Chekhov’s faux-ominous gun. Besides the fact that it completely discounts the concept of mystery or aura, what it really means to me is Chekhov imagined his audience as too stupid or bored to appreciate anything that doesn’t go boom, kind of like a 19th century Russian take on Michael Bay. A gun is a gun and a face is a face and death is death. There’s no need to pretend just because we’re in a novel or a movie that everything you see has hidden purpose, or can’t be beautiful without application to the human.
An Interview with Harmony Korine
In 1998, shortly after his feature-length directorial debut, Gummo, Harmony Korine published a novel called A Crackup at the Race Riots. The book is built from an insane collage of images and thoughts, including lists of ideas for movies, titles for novels, suicide notes, joke routines, celebrity rumors, and strange short scenes and dialogues involving rapists, amputees, dogs, vaudeville performers, and manic-depressives. Like all of Korine’s work, it is a rare collision of fun, fucked, funny, sad, and bizarre—the kind of thing you pick up every so often just to buzz your brain. For years the book has been out of print, fetching prices upward of $300 used online, until recently when it was repackaged and rereleased by Drag City. Harmony was kind enough to get on the phone with me and talk about the making of the book.
VICE: The first thing the reader sees when they open A Crackup at the Race Riots is a picture of MC Hammer at age 11. Why did you decide to start the book that way?
Harmony Korine: At the time I was doing a lot of narcotics. I remember basically the process was that I would hear things, or I would see things… I would hear somebody walking down the street, and maybe they’d say something interesting, and I’d put it on a piece of paper. Or I would see a pair of socks hanging from a telephone pole with a Star of David on the ankle, and I would just write that. Or whatever… I’d see someone juggling some toilet paper, and I would describe that. And then I would see a picture of MC Hammer at age 11, and I would just think maybe it all kind of came from his imagination.
The book is a thought in MC Hammer’s mind?
Well, it could be. Like most things in life, it could be. [laughs]
So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you basically started acquiring bits and pieces and then just let them fall as they may on the paper, in the order you found them?
Not exactly. What happened was I would just write everything down. I’d write things in crayon or on the side of the wall in my apartment, or on a typewriter or whatever. You would just see things, you know… cut them out of books. I might hear something really crazy that somebody said on a city bus, like somebody might be spewing some kind of crazy racial rant, and then I’d go back home and write that down, and then I would just look at it for a while, and I would imagine, like, What if it wasn’t that guy on the bus? What if Harrison Ford said that? What if I was actually riding a horse or something, and Harrison Ford was riding a horse, and we were riding somewhere, we could even be racing, and what if he just turned to me, and he said that same exact thing that I just heard? And I was like, Whoa! The context completely changed the humor. That’s basically what the book is. I started thinking about it like that, and there started to be these thematic connections in that way, and after I had amassed all of these fragments, these tripped-out, micro narco blurts, I went back and recontextualized them into something that was closer to a novel, or closer to a novel idea.
100 Literary Rumors
I don’t know what you’ve heard but I’ve heard a lot of shit. People whispering in hallways and Gmail chatting about all kinds of dark secrets. People up in parties with their coat and hair all looking nice and their mouth just full of you wouldn’t even want to know. I’ll tell you anyway.
Lydia Davis can’t stand the sight of children wearing bike helmets.
Richard Brautigan never crossed state lines except on foot.
Jack London loved braiding men’s hair.
Matthew Rohrer claims to have never been inside or seen an ad for Chili’s.
Jack Kerouac was addicted to licking stamps.
Jhumpa Lahiri has collected more than 200 personally autographed headshots of Al Pacino.
“’Wow, cool sky!’” was the original first sentence of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Gertrude Stein was on the payroll of the New York Mets.
Virginia Woolf passed the bar exam in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Maine.
T.C. Boyle ghostwrote the screenplay for Mrs. Doubtfire.
Gordon Lish religiously eats at the Applebee’s on Times Square on the 13th and 18th of every month.
Michiko Kakutani‘s Gmail password is wolfdickfourteen.
Barry Hannah hated the sight of charcoal.
Gary Lutz has beaten Mike Tyson’s Punch Out more than 400 times.
From ages eight to 18, Ann Beattie earnestly believed she was born wrapped in a shower curtain.
Dave Eggers bathes in almond milk every Sunday and video records it.
Thomas Bernhard hated the color blue until the creation of Cookie Monster.
Angela Carter had an erotic fixation on pumping gas.
The wallpaper on Mary Jo Bang’s laptop is a photograph of Rod Stewart holding a baby up to the sun.
George Orwell wore a cock ring 24/7.
Andre Breton lost tens of thousands of dollars due to his inability to remember a flush beats a straight.
Marco Roth believes people who drive white cars are innately selfish by definition.
Samuel Beckett lost every game of chess he ever played by eventually conceding.
Karen Russell owns an original audio recording of Carmelo Anthony reading Gravity’s Rainbow aloud from beginning to end.
Joyelle McSweeney once threw a football so hard she burst all the veins in her right arm and had to have the arm surgically replaced with a fake.
Paul Auster has responded to over 8,000 missed connections ads on craigslist under various pseudonyms.
Though he can see fine, Michael Martone prefers to read in Braille.
Ron Silliman started a Kickstarter campaign under a pseudonym attempting to raise funds to buy the RZA’s childhood home.
Italo Calvino peed sitting down.
A Day in the Life of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about three years ago. After an extended stay at the hospital and stints in two different rest homes, my mom brought him home to care for him herself. She did this despite warnings that it would be too much for her to handle—even with regular assistance—because the conditions in the homes were too depressing to bear. There is an unseen routine in the lives of most home caregivers that makes Michael Haneke’s Amour look like Sesame Street. I wanted to find out what the day-to-day life of someone tasked with keeping another adult alive is like, so I talked to my mom about it.
VICE: How does your average day begin?
BB: Usually I wake up before LD and get dressed, and I try to get the coffee made and the cereal stuff out. But if he wakes up first, I just get him cleaned and dressed and then do the other stuff.
What time does he get up?
He’s gotten so he goes to bed between 8 and 9 PM and sometimes sleeps until noon. One day I was so tired and exhausted that I didn’t hear him and he got up and went into the den at seven in the morning. He ended up somehow falling, and I found him on the floor tangled up in the chair. But usually I wake up before him and get dressed real quick, because if I don’t he watches me do every single thing, and it drives me crazy.
Why does he watch you?
Because he doesn’t have anything else to do. He just stares. And he wants to see what food I’m making.
I know he usually wets the bed at night, even through the disposable underwear. Do you change the sheets after you wake him up?
I take the sheets and the pajamas and the shirt and socks and just wrap them up in that plastic liner that keeps the mattress pad dry. Sometimes if he wakes up before I do he’ll have already taken his underpants off. I get him to the bathroom and have him sit on the toilet so I can get his wet clothes off and wipe him off with Handi Wipes.
What Is Obscene?
Recently, a printing house refused to print a novel set to be published by Tyrant Books because they found it obscene, which seems extremely lame. There are still such things as “obscene” books? I traded some emails with Giancarlo DiTrapano, Tyrant’s publisher and frequent VICE contributor, to try and figure out what sort of puritanical printing houses are able to stay in business in 2013.
(Full disclosure: Tyrant published my most recent novel, Sky Saw, in November.)
VICE: It’s been a long time since I can remember feeling offended—especially about obscenity in art. Honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a time ever when I saw something and was like, “That’s so fucked up it shouldn’t exist.” Do you remember the last time you felt offended?
Giancarlo: That’s a hard one. I was talking to someone the other day about Max Hardcore’s legal problems, and how some of his porn is about the only thing I have ever been offended by. Like the ultra-violent, five dicks in a crying girl’s mouth, her eyeliner running down her face stuff. Have to admit, that shit is pretty unpleasant. But I wouldn’t ban it or anything.
What was it about the video that got you? That it seemed against her will?
Yeah, that. The look of like pure terror on these girls’ faces. There is something about gagging in porn. It’s almost this biological line of consent. But it can be hot. Why’d we start talking about porn? Can you imagine being offended by Piss Christ or NWA or any of that shit people have freaked out over that made it to the cover of Newsweek? I feel like the one thing that would seriously offend me would be child pornography, and that is probably the only type of pornography I haven’t seen. There’s something about kids. Adults, I don’t really care what happens to them. They can do whatever, so long as it’s consensual, but kids need to be watched over.
Yeah, I can remember feeling upset—or at least emotionally stressed—by things where a person seemed to be inflicting sexual shit on someone against his or her will. I’ve never looked at child porn either, but I’ve read a bit by Peter Sotos, who has been arrested for possessing child porn and writes about it in great detail. I’m not sure about his personal preferences, and wouldn’t support him doing anything to kids, but I also think it’s good that someone is out there thinking about that stuff in a way no one else is—exploring ideas of why it exists and what it does. I think people immediately turn their brains off when they hear shocking keywords like “child porn” or “rape” and almost act as if they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. I think being open to thinking about things while also knowing they are wrong is important to not only understanding the world, but to intellect. Like anyone who could get that upset about Piss Christ, no matter what god means to them, I’d question their emotional intelligence.
People don’t like when I talk abut this (a friend once dragged me by the arm from a house, because I was offending the host), but whenever that show To Catch a Predator comes on I find myself not “rooting for,” but kind of sympathizing with the “predators” instead of Chris Hansen and his camera crew. In Germany they have billboards with phone numbers to call where you can seek help if you are attracted to children. That is what you call civilization. On To Catch a Predator the cops get online, flirt with lonely men, and lure them onto national TV. And it’s not like the children are eight or nine. They’re like 15 or 16, which in a lot of countries is not against the law. Wow, this is hard to talk about without sounding like a fucking creep. OK, I know that what the men are doing is wrong, and pedophilia is bad, but how about, “Hello. We’re here to offer you help” instead of “I’m Chris Hansen and you’re on NBC. Care to tell us why you’re such a sad and awful loser whose life is now going to be a hundred times worse since you’re going to jail and when you get out you won’t have anyone waiting on you since you’re a child rapist?” You know? Pedophiles do not choose to be pedophiles. Who would choose that? Did you choose to be into whatever it is you’re into? Because I definitely didn’t choose to be into what I’m into. I am only grateful that it falls on the right side of the law. I have this deep sympathy with pedophiles, especially the ones who make it through their entire lives without ever acting on it. That is a lot of repressing.
Crude Drawings of Hot Scenes from Literature
I hate when people say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I decided to draw a bunch of pictures that aren’t worth a thousandth of the words they were based on. Fortunately, I’m a perpetual eight-year-old at drawing, so this came naturally. I drew the pictures based on some scenes from books I remembered while seated on the floor at my coffee table drinking whiskey and apple juice, which means they might not be anything like the scenes at all, but only how they are now forever damaged in my brain.
Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H.
This scene is pretty much the only one in the whole book: a woman standing in her bedroom by a wardrobe from which a cockroach has just emerged. Lispector is able to maintain this scene for 173 pages, requiring little to no action and only the depth of her inborn disorientation and horror of several seconds to maintain a rigorous, insane monologue that floats behind my face like the color green.
Blake Butler read 135 books this year, a number that is about as impressive as Wilt Chamberlain’s 10,000.
Considering Roberto Bolaño and Woes of the True Policeman
I absolutely hated Roberto Bolaño the first time I read him. I’d heard the endless hype surrounding the release of translation after translation, a kind of post-death onslaught in the manner of some literary Tupac who kept pumping books out after losing his life too young. I tried not to be automatically skeptical, but it’s hard, particularly when the man seemed to come from out of nowhere despite legends of being one of the most revered authors in Chilean history. Finally I buckled and bought a copy of The Savage Detectives. I dug in lying face up on my bed, waiting and waiting for the alleged fireworks to come alive. I made it straight through the first 150 pages before getting angry and taking the book back to the store.
It was a long time before I read any Bolaño after that, and I talked a lot of shit during that time. I couldn’t understand what was so regaled and vital about a novel whose first third centered around a bunch of overly-romantic young male writers going on and on about the beauty of poetry, how they wanted to be famous poets, and trying to get laid amidst their self-worship. Everyone kept telling me that the book changed completely and became something else after the opening, but I wasn’t interested in seeing it any other way. Despite not having read any of his nearly 20 other books, I was convinced the Bolaño craze was a sham around a mediocre foreign writer who died young and was being fetishized by profile-worshipping Americans who thought he had done something new when really he was just another boring narrative writer. Sure, the man could turn a sentence, but it was nothing that would carry forward over time. We get sold a lot of shit in this country by jacket babble and stupid awards, and I figured this was just another big dull wash mirage.
My Greatest Moments in Binge Eating
My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, because the whole point of it is to eat like a hog and then lie on the floor and pretend we aren’t a country of tunnel-visioned murderers. Food fills your blood and brain, and if anybody talks to you it is acceptable to just grunt in response. Even sports start to make sense, which means to me that to live in America is to be approaching a certain death by endless, needless fat ingestion.
Having grown up a fat kid who lost the weight of a whole third grader over a summer to assume my current body shape of a normally-appetited guy, Thanksgiving is one of the few times I let myself feel like who I really am on the inside. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my mother used to tell me when our family would go to Morrison’s cafeteria and I’d try to take one of almost every item (they were eventually forced to limit me to five). Sometimes I think my entire life has been me trying to prove I can eat everything I touch.
Holidays not-withstanding, here are some of my choicest moments on my lifelong journey to becoming a lard ass. Some are marathon-like, and some stretched over years, because the truest form of binge-eating takes whole eras; each is pretty much the only time I’ve ever really began to feel like a person among people. In other words, a human.
1. Lettuce Soup-Rise You
My friend John and I were bored in the suburbs and we’d already watched Eddie Murphy’s Raw three times and Dumb and Dumber twice when we decided to go to the soup-themed buffet chain down the street and see who could eat the most. Lettuce Soup-rise You was a place that had a salad bar in the front that was hyped as the central draw, though every time I ate there I remember everybody walking straight past the salad to where they had the pasta with meat sauce and the pizza and the beefaroni and the bread and the ice cream and the chocolate cake. John and I ate plate after plate for three hours, refusing to say anything to each other while shoveling horrible things into our faces that we had stopped enjoying after the first ten minutes because all buffet food tastes like it was made for horses. At some point the food turns from seeming like food and into cement, and there you are. I don’t remember which of us offered a truce, but I do remember I couldn’t really lift my arm to shake on it. When we got home we both went into our rooms. I felt so disgusting I came up later to find John watching Dumb and Dumber again and told him I felt demonic and he told me I should force myself to puke like he had as soon as we got back. Having never been able to force myself to barf, I let John talk me into taking my first shot of vodka ever (I was straight-edge at the time) to induce the barf-desire and then hung over the toilet semi-crying and still not able to get it out. The food liked where it was in me and insisted to stay there. Finally I decided to go for a run for the first voluntary time in my life, putting on sweat-clothes that felt tighter than ever to go pudge-trudging through the neighborhood sweating grease. I have run at least six days a week every week since, trying desperately to rid myself of what the rest of me keeps making.
2. Taco Bell Drive Thru
Some percentage of my current total body is comprised entirely of Taco Bell shit. It’s probably my face. I don’t know what it is about the colors of that sign, but every time I’ve had even a drop of alcohol I find myself magnetized to the glass like a brain damaged vacuum toddler. You can tell you’ve eaten Taco Bell when the next day you wake up feeling like someone rinsed your chest with rubber cement. Once I actually called ahead to the Bell from the bar at 3:00 AM to verify they were still open on a Sunday. The most I ever spent at Taco Bell was when my friend York and I pulled through and pretended like we were ordering for all the other people we’d been at the bar with, even though they’d already gone home to bed. Somehow every time the lady asked “Is that all?” one of us said “No” until we’d racked up $50 worth of recycled beef and beans and flour and cheese. I remember somehow we were both riding in the backseat on the way home like blue-eyed human voids each hoarding nachos and folded taco shit into our faces while an invisible driver escorted us magic carpet style to the scene of the crime where we would each gain ~10 pounds in beef weight before passing out still listening to Danzig.
“Sometimes he will just come up to my mother and do his best to hold her and he will say thank you or I love you. Then he will go back to knocking his fists against the door’s glass.”
—“I Asked My Dad, Who Has Dementia, to Annotate Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone” by Blake Butler is a thing you should read right now.