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.
Blake Butler read 135 books this year, a number that is about as impressive as Wilt Chamberlain’s 10,000.
PRELUDE TO ‘SOLO PIANO MUSIC’ -
WHY THE WORLD SHOULD READ SYRIA’S FAWWAZ HADDAD
Artwork by Khaled Akil
yrian writers have been marginalized for decades, left to languish on the Middle Eastern edge of a genre that is often reductively labeled “world lit.” Since the March 8, 1963, coup d’état that brought the Ba’ath Party (and later the Assads) to power, loyalty to the state has been a defining aspect of the country’s literature. The distinctions between “faithful” and “treasonous” writing are determined by a convoluted array of institutions, ranging from the General Union of Arab Writers to Ba’ath Party officials; however, the censorship matrix in Syria doesn’t neatly fit into Western notions of “freedom” and “totalitarianism.” Writers in Syria must operate under conditions that, in my opinion, can best be described as “freedom with restrictions.”
Syrian writers are particularly well positioned to comment on the historical progress and degradation of the political situation in their country even though many are persecuted. Novels banned in Syria can still be smuggled in from neighboring Lebanon. But a ban functions as a scarlet letter for authors, a way for the government to distinguish between who is with them and who is against.
Like much of the literary elite in Syria, the novelist Fawwaz Haddad has watched his country disintegrate over the past 20 months without explicitly taking an outspoken position for or against the regime. As an author, he evinces a fusion of clear-eyed realism and careful optimism in his assessment of the Syrian situation. He signed off one recent email to me expressing his wish that we would see each other soon, “once peace arrives in my country.” But as his homeland falls deeper into civil war, Fawwaz’s neutrality may have reached its limit. He has left the country, although he intends to return to Syria, as much of his family is still there.
Fawwaz was born in Damascus in 1947 and studied law before moving on to work in the private sector. His early writings consisted of historical fiction, with an emphasis on Syria during the French Mandate and the early days of its independence. But he was a late bloomer—Mosaic Damascus ’39, his debut novel, wasn’t published until he was 44. His more recent work has veered toward hard-boiled realism, which has vastly increased his notoriety. In 2009, Fawwaz was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel The Unfaithful Translator and in 2011 long-listed for God’s Soldiers. His stories explore the limits placed on the state and Syrian society, zig-zagging between high-minded principles and the dirty business of everyday life while offering insight into the workings of a broken system—one that seems impervious to both reform and revolution.
Fawwaz’s 2009 Solo Piano Music, an excerpt of which appears over the following pages for the first time in English, tells the story of Fateh al-Qalaj, a solitary secular intellectual who is assaulted in the stairwell of his Damascus apartment building. After he’s paid a visit by an investigator from the shady Terrorism Affairs Bureau, Fateh comes to believe that he is being targeted for his outspoken views on religion and the state.
In this Kafkaesque crime novel, the dance between “the investigator” and “the secular intellectual” is central to the narrative tension. Following Fateh’s assault, a childhood friend pays him a visit while he is recovering in the hospital. Fateh’s old friend reveals that he is mixed up with radical Islamists, and the role he played in the assault grows ever murkier.
In the book’s climax, the Syrian regime violently stamps out the perceived terrorist threat. Fateh is left feeling remorse for the murdered “terrorists.” He questions whether the Terrorism Affairs investigator had been lying to him, and whether he even works for the government. Fateh comes to the bleak conclusion that one has to rely on oneself alone.
Read Solo Piano Music.
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.
Talking Dirty with Edmund White
When others were not brave, Edmund White was open. Through his books, he forced the reality of the queer man’s life into the consciousness of this country. Not only was he one of the first openly gay writers to put the experience of gay life in the world on paper, he also made the people of the world want to hear more about it. His many books contain a thousand different worlds, countless unforgettable characters, and all of the complicated affairs of the human spirit. The erotic moments, I find, have the strange ability to give not only the crotch, but also the heart, an unflappable chubby.
His first novel, Forgetting Elena, was written 40 years ago, and he remains prolific up to this day. Ask any somewhat-educated homosexual and they will tell you how their life changed after reading A Boy’s Own Story, the book many consider to be his capolavoro. White released his latest book, Jack Holmes & His Friend, a few days ago, and it is already a bestseller in London.
Edmund is one of the last living giants, and will always be our Great Gay Hope. I once heard him say that his life is an open book; I recently interviewed him and tried my best to crack the spine.
(N.B. If you’re looking for thoughts on the craft, you won’t be finding them here.)
VICE: Your new novel is about a relationship between a straight man and a gay man. I’ve heard you say that no one has covered that subject in a novel before, but you must have had other reasons to write it.
Edmund White: Well, gay life is the most likely variation on sex. If you want to look at straight life and sex, just turn the tapestry over.
Have you ever been in love with a straight man? What happened?
Yes. A straight guy I sucked off in the 60s while he pretended to be asleep. Several times. He was a pompous lawyer with bad skin. I loved a wrestler in college who loved jazz and shot up heroin. Just as I was about to give my speech on how his friendship was enough he pulled down his underpants and revealed a big hard dick
Most of my friends are straight. I feel like a lot of gay men don’t accept me because I don’t comport myself in a certain manner. Why do you think that is?
You’re sort of a tough, thuggish guy. I’d imagine gays would go for that.
Is there a difference between sex with a straight man and sex with a gay man?
Straight guys usually just lie there and get sucked, though I had one straight guy whom I worked with in 1970 who got stoned and fucked the shit out of me and then ran away— literally—with his pants around his ankles. I guess he was freaked out by how much he liked it.
You lived through some of New York’s most sexually promiscuous times. What was the gay scene like then compared to now?
There was a lot of meat on the hoof before the internet. Pick-ups were quick and easy and often you’d score three times a night. Now, even with online cruising, it’s sort of slow.
Have you ever fallen in love with an anonymous hook-up?
I fall in love with everyone I have sex with—even stand-up sex.