I Have Voluntary Tourette’s (and Am Insane)
It seems like just yesterday when Blake Butler, all doe-eyed and full of weird collections of words, began writing for us on a weekly basis. Over time, what started as a regular space for him to write about literature morphed into something bigger. During the last couple of years Blake has branched out to explore topics as diverse as the horrors and wonders of a Wendy’s Pretzel Burger to thedusty rumors of literary giants to interviews with both emerging and established authors. This is Blake’s 100th post for VICE.com, and to mark the occasion he told us he wanted to write “something more personal” than his usual fare. In that spirit, he sent us the below peek inside his brain.
I have long been a creature of habit and repetition. The more any day feels exactly like the one before it, the more comfortable I am, and the more productive I become in whatever I happen to be working on. At the same time, I hate planning. I never know what I want to do until just before I do it. Plans—even fun ones like having dinner or watching a movie with someone at the house—seem designed to disrupt my concentration. As uptight as this might make me sound, on the outside I feel I’m generally easygoing, even at times when my insides are all screaming.
This daily masking of discomfort has instilled in my person an odd habit of regular stress relief in the form what I’ve come to think of as “Voluntary Tourette’s.” In other words, I make repeating patterns of private sounds that I don’t necessarily have to make the way someone with actual Tourette’s literally can’t control, but that I perform now throughout the day with such regularity that it seems like I can’t stop, or at least haven’t stopped for over a decade. For the most part I can keep myself from doing these things in front of others, though after a few days in the same room as someone I’m on a trip with or whatever they start leaking out, slowly opening into my regular manners of conversation.
"Thank You" – New Fiction by Alejandro Zambra
Alejandro Zambra is one of our favorite living writers. His first book, Bonsai, won the Chilean Critics’ Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2006. We first read his work when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Ways of Going Home in 2013. What distinguishes Alejandro from his contemporaries is the sweetness and intimacy of his writing, and his confidence in letting himself be as he is. As you read his work, there’s never the impression that he is second-guessing himself, thinking, “So-and-so would do it this way,” or “Such-and-such editor would say that.” He exhibits this remarkable confidence on the page, one that allows him to be himself and to speak, a special kind of generosity. It feels like knowing and speaking to a sweetheart—it never feels like he’s an author who pretends, or tries to teach, or falls into egotistical traps. Flaws in writing often come from flaws in character. Alejandro doesn’t seem to have any of those. He’s just a lovely, special, strange person who seems to look at his actual world and describe it in his actual, natural voice, and he leaves it at that. He has the authority that J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, and Bret Easton Ellis have all identified as the writer’s bedrock.
“I got a feeling you two are together and you’re keepin’ it a secret”—“No we’re not,” they answer in unison, and it’s the truth: for a little over a month now they’ve been sleeping together, they eat, read, and work together, so that someone with a tendency to exaggerate, someone who watched them and carefully parsed the words they say to each other, the way their bodies move closer to each other and entwine—a brash person, someone who still believed in these sorts of things, would say they really loved each other, or that at least they shared a dangerous and generous passion; and yet they are not together, if there is one thing they are very clear about it is precisely this, that they are not together. She is Argentine and he’s Chilean, and it’s much better to refer to them like that, the Argentine woman, the Chilean man.
They’d planned on walking, they’d talked about how nice it is to go long distances on foot, and they even reached the point where they were dividing people into two groups: those who never walk long distances and those who do, and who they believe are, because of that, better. They’d planned on walking, but on a whim they hailed a taxi, and they had known for months, even before they’d arrived in Mexico City, when they’d received a set of instructions that was full of warnings, that they should never hail a taxi in the street, and up till then it had never occurred to them to hail a taxi in the street, but this time, on a whim, they did it, and soon she thought the driver was going the wrong way and she said as much to the Chilean in a whispered voice, and he reassured her out loud, but his words didn’t even get to take effect because right away the taxi stopped and two men got in and the Chilean reacted valiantly, recklessly, confusedly, childishly, stupidly: he punched one of the bandits in the nose, and he went on struggling for long seconds while she shouted, Stop it, stop it, stop it. The Chilean stopped, and the bandits let him have it, they showed him no mercy, they may have even broken something, but this all happened long ago, a good ten minutes ago. By now they’ve already given up their money and their credit cards and they’ve already recited their ATM PIN numbers and there’s only a little time left that to them seems like an eternity, during which they ride with their eyes squeezed shut, “Shut your eyes, pinches cabrones,” the two men tell them.
Writing to Live in Hollywood – by James Franco
It’s safe to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a poor relationship with Hollywood. He had three periods of steady work with the studios: in 1927, at the height of his fame; in 1931, when he was in need of money for treatment for Zelda; and in 1937, when he was on contract with MGM making a paltry $1,000 a week. All of these Hollywood sojourns ended in frustration for both Fitzgerald and the studios.
Fitzgerald spent the last year and a half of his life in Los Angeles. At that point, his only steady income was from the piecemeal sale of the Pat Hobby Stories to Esquire. The Pat Hobby Stories are the collected tales of a desperate hack scriptwriter who shuffles around the studios of Hollywood scrambling for work to pay for his drinking. Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 from a series of heart attacks before he could effectively organize the stories into a single work for Scribner. It wasn’t until 20 years after his death that the Pat Hobby Storieswere collected into a single volume,
The Pat Hobby Stories are Fitzgerald’s final testament on Hollywood. In a twisted way, they are also his last nightmarish take on his own place as a great writer brought down by circumstance. Bruce L. Chipman pointed out in his book on Hollywood novels called Into America’s Dream-Dump that the Pat Hobby character is probably “the frightening image of what Fitzgerald saw himself becoming.” Like Fitzgerald at the end of his life, Pat is dependent on intermittent Hollywood jobs to make ends meet. But although Fitzgerald had suffered from debt and demoralization, he was nowhere near the depraved and irredeemable state that Pat Hobby has succumbed to. So Pat Hobby is not an autobiographical figure as much as an ironic clown that allowed Fitzgerald to write about his plight as a writer who was writing to live, rather than as a author who was living to write. The distinction between the two is made clear to an east coast novelist by Pat Hobby in the story “Mightier than the Sword.”
James Franco on Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God
It is Cormac McCarthy’s m.o. to uncover the underbelly of American history and explore some of the most violent and immoral acts swept under the façade of progress and civilization. The cyclical recurrence of violence is his bass beat. I find that the epigraph forBlood Meridian says everything about the endless conflict between men that is ever-present in his writing:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN June 13,1982
But even though violence, depravity, and unending inhumanity are in ALL of Cormac McCarthy’s books, he is also a writer who has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and is part of the Oprah Book Club. After his Tennessee Gothic period culminated with Suttre and he moved to Texas to write Blood Meridian, he began to nestle bits of humanity in between acts of chilling violence, offering a chord of hope that was rarely found in his earlier books. Take No Country for Old Men, which features the lamenting officer who makes us feel that at least someone is trying to do what’s right. Or look at The Road, which plants a tender relationship between a father and a son in the midst of a blasted, postapocalyptic landscape. With The Road, it was the book’s glimmer of hope—something McCarthy has attributed to the birth of his son—that contributed to the novel’s popularity, caught Oprah’s interest, and made it transcend the postapocalyptic genre.
However, unlike the books of The Border Trilogy or The Road, McCarthy’s early work have no room for hope. They are immersed in darkness and violence, and then silence before they erupt in more pain. This bleak quality is certainly characteristic of Child of God,McCarthy’s third book after The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark. Last year I directed an adaptation of Child of God. It just premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals to what I’m told are great reviews especially for my lead actor, Scott Haze. (Sadly, I can’t read any reviews about myself, even the good ones in the best outlets, because it’s like a drink for an alcoholic. I read one review about myself in The New York Times and the next thing I know I’m wondering what Perez Hilton thinks about my love life or what Just Jared thinks about my latest jacket.)
James Franco on 120 Days of Sodom
Not long ago I caught a double feature of portraits of creative types at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue in New York: Noah Baumbach’s great Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig at her best, and Paul Schrader’s strange The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan and the porn star James Deen. The first movie capitalizes on the filmmakers’ knowledge of New York culture for its quirky and moving portrait of a dancer’s struggle amid financial and personal woes. The second movie purposefully showed unlikeable movie types in Los Angeles using each other and being disgusting for no good reason. It was a depressing film, not because the characters were all anti-heroes, but because it seemed like everyone could have had more fun depicting such people. If you’re going to get depraved, at least have fun doing it. And if it’s not fun for the filmmakers, it’s probably not going to be fun for the audience. That said, I am still a Schrader fan for his stylish explorations of America’s underbelly and a Brett Easton Ellis fan for his unabashed and flagrant embrace of narcissism and nihilism.
While waiting in line for my small popcorn, no butter, I saw that the IFC was selling a new Criterion edition of Pier Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom. I bought it along with a special Werner Herzog shirt that mashed his name with a Danzig logo. I had seen Salò years before on VHS after buying it out of some bargain bin on Melrose. I felt dirty watching it alone in my little Sherman Oaks apartment. If you don’t know, Salò is the name of a town in Italy where Pasolini plays out some of the activities that the Marquis de Sade describes in his masterwork, 120 Days of Sodom. The text was written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for some sort of extreme behavior in a brothel (Whipping? Stabbing? Sodomy? Whatever it was was nothing compared to what is described in 120 Days). Sade’s text catalogues the depraved acts in an isolated chateau that a quartet of wealthy decadents inflict on a group of teenagers that they have either kidnapped or procured for this purpose. The descriptions of the live acts practiced on the teenagers are interspersed with sexual narratives from a group of old women hired to spice up each day with such lewd stories from their own youth. In the textual format both the acts imposed on the teenagers in the present and the storytellers’ narratives about the past are flattened into the same mode of delivery. There is little difference between an old prostitute talking about her experiences and Sade relating what the rich perverts are doing to the children, you readboth things. But in the movie, the stories from the past are told and the acts with the teenagers are shown. “Manga, Manga” says one of the men to the children when they are forced to eat their own shit that has been collected in a large pot. And we watch them consume it. (It’s really just berries, and sausages, or something like that, covered in brown sauce.) On film what is shown and what is told are very distinct.
What James Franco Talks About When James Franco Talks About a Couple of Raymond Carver’s Short Stories
Yesterday I was roasted for a Comedy Central program that will air on Labor Day. All the comics at the roast were great and seeing them perform their monologues amazed me. I was just happy to be in their company because they were so skilled. Each one was experienced at performing in front of a live audience, whether it was in stand-up or sketch comedy. Comedians have an way of working that involves honing their material in front of a crowd. But I realized during the roast, that essentially they are writers—they just write with their performances in mind.
Short story writing is a different beast than live comedy, but in some ways it resembles what the comedians did at my roast. There is usually one protagonist guiding the story and there are often some insights given along the way about the human condition. When you take away the laughter, the jokes at the roast achieved the same things. Raymond Carver is generally regarded as a master of the form—he took the Hemingway iceberg theory about simple surfaces that concealed great depth and mixed that with working-class humor, alcohol, and cigarettes (or, as he insisted on spelling that word, “cigarets”). His story “The Bath” isn’t the funniest story in the world, but there is something about his writing that makes the death of a kid by a car accident not only interesting, but entertaining.
In 1981, he published “The Bath” in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, then revised the story and changed the titled to “A Small, Good Thing” (“AS, GT”) for his collection Cathedral. What We Talk About is noted for the minimalism of its stories. It was Carver’s first major success and it earned him a reputation as a godfather of the minimalist movement of the 80s. (It was also heavily edited by Gordon Lish.) But the revisions made to “The Bath” to turn it into “AS, GT” show that he was moving away from the dark, purposely vague, and cold world of minimalism into a more precise, redemptive, and descriptive form. The changes Carver made between the story told in “The Bath” and “AS, GT” are a perfect to dissect to learn about him and his evolution as a writer.
What I Remember from Getting an MFA in Creative Writing
There’s a long running argument about the benefits and bullshit of getting an MFA in creative writing. Some people say it turns you into a cookie-cutter fuckboy, others say it helps you get a job. After I finished undergrad and realized I wanted to write instead of joining the real world, I devoted all of my time and energy toward staying in college, which meant I’d get an MFA whether I needed one or not. In hindsight, the whole experience kind of bleeds together into a mass of time I look back on not unfondly, but I’m also curious as to what exactly I got out of spending two more years on education instead of becoming a functioning member of the American workforce. For better or worse, that time is gone. Here’s what I remember.
1. On my first day in the dorms I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and saw reflected in the mirror an older woman naked in a bathtub behind me. I’d heard the dorms at my school were haunted, having been built in like the late 1800s or something, but when I turned around she was still there. There was actually a bathtub in the public showering area. It was a co-ed bathroom, and she was sitting in it buck naked washing without the curtain closed. She loudly introduced herself as one of my classmates and said she was from Milledgeville, Georgia, home of Flannery O’Connor. It feels appropriate that my earliest memory from getting an MFA is checking out a granny’s boobs in a public toilet.
2. People said the room next to mine was famous because Bob Dylan screwed the student who lived there when he came to play the school in the 60s. Whoever was staying in it while I lived next door apparently decided to keep that spirit alive, because many nights I could hear the sex noises… or maybe that was sexual ghosts.
The Magician’s Retreat: Searching for Eternal Life on David Copperfield’s Private Island
Montreal-based writer and former VICE editor Adam Leith Gollner is one of those seemingly regular Joes who continually finds himself in strange, almost unbelievable situations. His life has been peppered with many “What the fuck?” moments that might cause you to wonder if you’re wasting your life. (You are.) He attributes this to a natural curiosity, openness, and a constant search for things to write about. I think it’s partly that, and partly some sort of cosmic charisma and weird horseshoe-up-his-ass thing. Either way, when you get an email from Adam asking if you want to visit the private Caribbean island of a world-famous illusionist in search of the fountain of youth, you don’t question it. You just say yes and start packing your bags. This happened to me a few years ago. The story, recounted here, is an excerpt from Adam’s new work, The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, out this month on Scribner in the US and Doubleday in Canada. —Rafael Katigbak, editor VICE Canada
everal years ago, the magician David Copperfield issued a press release stating he’d discovered the fountain of youth on his private islands in the Bahamas. “We found this liquid that in its simple stages can actually do miraculous things,” Copperfield claimed. “You can take dead leaves, they come into contact with the water, they become full of life again. Bugs or insects that are near death come in contact with the water, they fly away. It’s an amazing thing, very exciting.”
Copperfield had hired biologists and geologists to examine the fountain’s potential effects on humans. Until the tests were carried out, the magician said, he was refusing anyone else access to the water. Its precise location—a spot where “everything is more vibrant, ageless, and full of life”—is a secret.
All I knew was that the fountain was somewhere on one of the 11 Islands of Copperfield Bay, a 700-acre archipelago he’d discovered by drawing a cartographical line from Stonehenge to the statues of Easter Island and another line between the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán; the lines intersected at the exact latitude and longitude of his Caribbean hideaway. In aerial photographs, the main island resembles a bat with its wings outstretched.
It seemed like a story just waiting to be written, and after a lengthy negotiating period, Copperfield agreed to let me visit for a few days. He was adamant in his refusal to show me the fountain, which he described as “a liquid that reverses genes.”
“You won’t see my wrinkled hand go into a stream and come out young,” he said. “This is not a trick. But if you want to talk about the meaning of the fountain—that, we can do. I speak about the fountain with great verbal aplomb.”
I was fine with that; after all, I’d still be able to sneak out at night and try to find it.
Shortly before the trip, Copperfield suggested I bring someone along. “To be there alone is going to suck,” he explained. “All the experiences on Musha are shared experiences.” I didn’t want to go with my girlfriend, as a 21-year-old beauty-pageant runner-up had accused Copperfield of raping her on the island (the charges were ultimately dropped). Instead, I decided to bring my former bandmate Rafael Katigbak, editor of VICE’s Canadian edition and an amateur magician who as a child idolized David Copperfield. “God, I hope he rapes me,” Raf sighed, faux dreamily, when I filled him in on the allegations. Here’s what happened instead.
What Your Favorite Writers Put in Their Mouths
Writers tend to be mum on what they are currently work on, but what about a different, but still intimate, aspect to their creative routines—like what they eat? I asked a boatload of writers what they are having, or had, for lunch, on a random day this year. Why lunch? Because it usually happens squarely in the middle of the day and seems optional; lunch seems like the meal with the potential to be the most varied. You could eat a bloody porterhouse with mashed potatoes or a handful of microgreens with no dressing: lunch is chaos.
Gary Shteyngart - A ham sandwich. (He emailed an hour later to add “lasagna bolognese.”)
Amelia Gray - Steak in the pan with butter.
Ron Currie Jr. - “Mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topped with a few ounces of tuna, accompanied by a glass of tap water and a heaping helping of body image issues/fear of sudden cardiac catastrophe. Followed with a cigarette.”
Zadie Smith - “The prawn wrap from Pret. Most days. I’m not proud of it.”
Brian Evenson - “At Chipotle I ordered a salad to go, with lots of lettuce, black beans, fajita’d veggies (there’s probably another term for that, an actual term), chicken, mild salsa and corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole, and some extra lettuce on top to keep it from sticking to the top of the container, and some chips.”
Elissa Schappell - Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, green salad, and water with lemon.
Jesse Ball - Theo chocolate 70% with almonds.
Emily St. John Mandel - “Usually quiche from the cafeteria at the university where I work.”
Blake Butler - “I don’t eat lunch unless I’m on vacation.”
Swim on, Cheever – A Few Impressions by James Franco
For many, the name Cheever evokes images of rich Yankees in the old suburbs of upstate New York. It’s true that much of his work takes place there, but this milieu was not his natural habitat and the denizens that populate his stories were not of his blood.
John Cheever was a self-made man. Just as he created his fiction, he created his life’s circumstances in order to write about them. Salinger may hold the scepter when it comes to novellas about the privileged in New York, but—leaving Salinger’s great writing aside—I think this is due to youth being at the heart of his work. Salinger’s stories are part of the coming of age within an American liberal education, while Cheever’s subjects don’t fit as well into school curriculums. But Cheever is a master in his own way, with the short story as his domain. In honor of all the essays that have been written by ninth graders about Holden Caulfield, here’s a little book report about Cheever’s best story, “The Swimmer.”