Resentment by Gary Indiana. Semiotext(e). $15.95, 392 pp.
Three Month and Fever by Gary Indiana. Semiotext(e). $15.95, 320 pp.
Depraved Indifference by Gary Indiana. Semiotext(e). Forthcoming.
In the summer of 1997, I was a chubby, white 11-year-old in a mostly Latino and Filipino suburb of San Diego who happened to be named Andrew. But to most of my classmates in Mrs. MacKay’s 6th-grade class at Harbor View Elementary, for that summer and most of the fall, I was Andrew Cunanan. I was vaguely aware at the time that my new nickname was in reference to the man who killed Gianni Versace in his Miami Beach mansion that July, because this had been widely reported by TV news on both national and local scales. Though I didn’t know it then, this was in part because Cunanan had grown up in National City and Chula Vista, not a 10-minute drive from my family home; he’d attended the Bishop’s School, where my best friend at Harbor View would later enroll, and the University of California, San Diego, where two of my siblings are now students. His father, like so many of my classmates’ fathers, came to California from the Philippines in a U.S. Navy uniform, and like my own father, found religion in the Jesus Freak wave of post-hippie discontent. In his early twenties, Cunanan frequented the same gay bars on University Avenue in Hillcrest where, a decade later, I was ushered in underage by well-meaning co-workers at the movie theatre around the corner. He committed his first murders just outside of Minneapolis, not far from where I eventually received a PhD. A killer of at least five people, Cunanan is remembered for his wit, his erudition, his flights of fancy (he claimed Israeli parentage, alluded vaguely to past service in both the IDF and the U.S. Marine Corps), and his childhood affectation of a jacket and tie in stark contrast to the SoCal norm of a t-shirt and shorts.
Versace’s murder came less than four months after San Diego, “America’s Finest City,” had made headlines around the world for playing host to the Heaven’s Gate cult, whose 39 members drank a fatal cocktail of phenobarbital, apple sauce, and vodka while wearing Nikes on their feet and plastic bags on their heads. Their bodies were discovered by police on March 26, 1997, the day after my youngest sister was born. Coverage of the mass suicides and the Versace murder seemed to undermine the city’s branding as a Reaganite paradise (later satirized in Adam MacKay’s 2004 film Anchorman): L.A. without Hollywood and the smog; not quite as Republican as Orange County, but with better Mexican food. As one of Cunanan’s childhood friends describes it in Gary Indiana’s semi-fictional biography, Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (1999), “I mean in California, a place like Bonita, it’s not as if brains, you’ve got the beach and the mountains and the whole car culture lifestyle the emphasis is more outdoorsy, this region, it’s surfers, it’s horses, it’s windsailing on the bay, it’s Jet Skis, what kind of car, . . .”
Southern California’s vapid, where-intellect-goes-to-die reputation found a new symbol in Marshall Applewhite, called “Do” by Heaven’s Gate’s acolytes, his empty stare televised worldwide, warning viewers against the psychic effects of year-round 70-degree weather. As the 24-hour news cycle exceeded Hollywood in narrative originality, the Menendez brothers became TV stars, O.J. got away with it, and California elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as its 38th governor (a friend who attended San Diego State University told me he voted Republican only so that his diploma would come adorned with the Terminator’s autograph). This Southern California—of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Irwin Shaw’s “The City Was in Total Darkness,” Kenneth Anger, Charles Bukowski, early Tom Waits, Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and Kathy Acker’s death, of breast cancer, in a Tijuana clinic—is Gary Indiana’s Southern California, an oasis of junkies, con artists, prostitutes, and thieves sipping afternoon cocktails in hotel bars. As Jean Baudrillard wrote about one of its many symbols in 1981, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” For every Marilyn Monroe, there are more than a few Norma Jeanes who never made it onto the lot, while others imitate the real thing in Las Vegas and West Hollywood—and then, Indiana reminds us, there’s Marilyn herself. Los Angeles is the city of Skid Row, but it’s also Kim Kardashian’s hometown.
Indiana hails from New Hampshire, and his contributions to the art world, both as artist and critic, are most often associated with New York, where he moved in 1978: putting on plays in the East Village, exhibiting photographs, and working as chief art critic at the Village Voice in the 1980s, a tenure he fictionalized in his debut novel, Horse Crazy (1989), a haunting Death in Venice for the AIDS era. But before living in Manhattan, Indiana—who changed his last name from Hoisington in a spell of “immense naïveté,” he told the New York Observer’s M.H. Miller in 2014—spent years in California, first as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the midst of the antiwar movement, and later in Los Angeles. It is from the perspective of an ex-Californian New Yorker not unlike Indiana himself—Seth, a marginally successful gay magazine writer who checks into the Chateau Marmont on a Condé Nast assignment to profile “a famous movie star who’s recently gone out on a limb, in the words of the movie star’s publicist, by appearing as a homosexual with AIDS in a television drama about AIDS”—that the reader is introduced to Indiana’s Los Angeles in Resentment (1997), the first in a trilogy of crime novels that are currently being reissued by Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint. All three novels are literary remediations—or as Indiana calls them, “pastiches”—of high-profile crime dramas first broadcast on Court TV and the nightly news: in Resentment, Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were sentenced to life without parole for the 1989 murder of their parents, are reimagined as Carlos and Felix Martinez; in Three Month Fever, Cunanan becomes the emotional core of the Versace murder; and in 2001’s Depraved Indifference, murderer, grifter, and modern-day slaver Sante Kimes appears as Evangeline Slote, an always-drunk Liz Taylor deadringer known in the guestbooks of roadside motels from Las Vegas to Sacramento as “Evelyn Carson” and “Eva Annamapu,” among other pseudonyms, any one of which may in fact be her legal name.
As novelist and Native Agents editor Chris Kraus writes in her afterword to the new edition of Resentment, “The Menendez trial was to its viewers what the Clutter murders were to Truman Capote’s readers in 1965: a sociological allegory that perfectly mirrored the era’s great themes and obsessions in a blood-drenched and zeitgeist-y way.” But Indiana does not write true crime, nor are these novels nonfiction. In his preface to Three Month Fever, Indiana writes,
It isn’t my desire to add word one to the “true crime” genre, or to the “nonfiction novel” à la Capote or Mailer. Three Month Fever is a pastiche with which I would like to dissolve both of these unsatisfying modes, concerning as it does a story that is itself a pastiche, and in many respects inextricable from its own hyperbole. And here I would evoke a different pedigree of hybrid nonfiction (that is, a hybrid of narration and reflection, fact-based, but with no pretense to journalistic “objectivity,” the journalistic mode, or any of its normative moral aporias) which includes Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Detection, James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Alexander Kluge’s The Battle, and to cite an earlier example, Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt.
Indiana acknowledges that he tried “to fashion a credible, but hardly seamless, documentary from the most reliable sources in the case,” including files from local and federal law enforcement agencies in Minneapolis, San Diego, and Miami, interviews with witnesses, and media reports—”the usual legwork,” he writes. But in the end he was forced to make some things up, which he lists in his preface, including changed names, composite characters, and even diary entries composed in Cunanan’s voice by Indiana himself. (“It was clearly necessary to simulate Cunanan’s mental state throughout the narrative, and to speculate, beyond the interferences evoked by forensic data, about the interactions between the killer and victims between April 25, 1997, and the final act in Miami.”)
Despite the forthrightness of these disclosures in the front matter, Three Month Fever’s publisher, HarperCollins, still marketed it as Indiana’s “first book-length work of nonfiction.” But just as O.J. Simpson’s acquittal resulted in a kind of legal and therefore historical truth, the historical record is not infallible in its reflection of the state of things as they actually exist. Reality is hybrid and negotiable; when she writes of Resentment, “Like the best speculative fiction, it’s also terribly true,” Kraus is likely thinking of the author’s idea of “a kind of reverse roman à clef in which what has already occurred in ‘life’ as collective spectacle functions as honorary ballast for an entirely speculative fictional narrative. Not an embroidery on actual events, but a narrative in which stray threads of reality reinforce an imaginary tapestry of the era’s psychic life.”
Indiana’s “reverse roman à clef” brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s “fiction of the image,” which “is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability on a state of affairs in which more Americans get their news from television than from newspapers and in which more Americans every evening watch Wheel of Fortune than all three network news programs combined.” Wallace’s critique of this “neo-postmodern technique” as “atavistic,” failing to “satisfy its own agenda,” betrays its 1993 publication date, which anticipated the white Ford Bronco chase of June 17, 1994, that attracted 95 million TV viewers and convinced media executives once and for all that news is entertainment when truth is stranger than fiction. Indiana’s image fictions can be read as a literary response to the “fake news” of celebrity magazines, advertorials, talking head political commentary, and reality TV. Chuck Klosterman writes that when The Real World first aired in 1992, “I saw kids on MTV who reminded me of people I knew in real life. By 1997, the opposite was starting to happen; I kept meeting new people who were like old Real World characters.” It is in this milieu of simulacra and hyperreality that Indiana challenges fact to be more sordid—and therefore more entertaining, more “real”—than the bruised fruits of his own imagination.
In his consideration of the mediated nature of contemporary reality, Indiana does not stop short at critique; he uses his talents as a fiction writer to outdo the absurdities of his source material, reminding us of the power of literature among manipulative media that trade in “alternative facts.” The reader of Three Month Fever finds himself tangled in Cunanan’s web of lies to the extent that when Cunanan bludgeons his first victim to death, rolling his body up in a rug, it seems like the only logical outcome. And yet, this is completely insane—like the Martinez brothers’ post-patricidal shopping spree, or Evangeline Slote’s attempt to get away with the murder of Wanda “Baby” Koukoulas Claymore and steal her boarding house.
Indiana’s unique skill is in complementing the outrageous narratives of criminality he borrows from headlines with invented scenarios whose satire is so precise that they might be taken for the real thing. In Resentment, Seth reads to his ex Jack from the Digest of Justinian over the phone while Philip Glass, Richard Gere, Allen Ginsberg, and Oliver Stone compete in an episode of VH1’s Celebrity Buddhist, which unfolds without comment from either character (though Jack turns up the volume). Later in the novel, Seth’s seat in the Martinez v. California courtroom is taken by his journalistic adversary Sheraton Pyle, whose coverage of the trial for The New Yorker, “Black Reflections on a White Double Murder,” comes out the week after the rap song “Kike Landlord” makes it to number 10 on the Billboard chart. In Depraved Indifference, Baby and her friend nominate public figures for the Ass Kiss Awards, “in such categories as ‘Most Obsequious Television Interview,’ ‘Most Craven Magazine Profile,’ ‘Most Shameless Logroller,’ ‘Best Ass Kiss of a Movie Star by a Female Journalist,’ ‘Best Ass Kiss of a Politician by a Male Journalist,’” and so on.
Indiana’s decades as a critic have left him singularly adept at inflating pop culture’s indulgences to their most ridiculous conclusions—but the media is not his ultimate target. He understands that our cultural artifacts are outward projections of our unspoken, if not unconscious desires, and even more likely, the closest thing to an authentic collective identity that can be said to exist. That is to say, if murder is what we want as entertainment, maybe that’s because we’re murderers—or not far off. Resentment’s Jack, an alcoholic Marxist cab driver-cum-screenwriter in his forties, spends much of his time in an AOL chatroom called “BlkM4WF,” disguised among other identities as “Lisamar704,” an avatar “twenty years younger than Jack, with fabulous breasts, Uma Thurman’s mouth, and an insatiable craving for Afro-American manhood.” Jack prefers Lisa to his other personae, “some of whom are ‘gay males’ in various stages of congruity to himself,” Indiana’s narrator tells us, because “the closer Jack approaches himself on the Internet the harder it gets to score, just like in real life”; likewise, he notes, handles such as “MANDINGO and HARD4U and BLKBONER” notwithstanding, his interlocutors “may or not be black, may or not be male for that matter, but who seem, at the very least, sincerely naked and stroking their organs while gazing into computer screens, conjuring a fully fleshed white girl sex slave from a series of distractedly improvised porno fragments.” As his libido extends itself IRL, Jack knowingly infects his partners with HIV, and rather than writing about murder, Seth commits it, drunkenly hitting a pedestrian and fleeing the scene on his way home from a Hollywood party.
All of these scenes are pure fiction, having nothing to do with Indiana’s disclaimer in the author’s note, which insists that “These people exist solely in the pages of this book, even if they evoke a superficial resemblance to people glimpsed on a city bus or a television screen.” (In his introduction to the Semiotext(e) edition, Patrick McGrath is apt to note that though “there is, currently, no superior court judge in California stalking an obsessive love object while presiding over murder trials, no eminent psychiatrist expert witness debilitated by Tourette’s syndrome,” by the novel’s end, it’s likely that Resentment’s reader will believe that there is.) By day, Seth’s is a world of writers, editors, publicists, and agents, judges, lawyers, jurists, and suspects; by night, it’s dealers, drag queens, hustlers, and has-beens. His professional identity is a mere simulacrum of his personal life, driven by greed, ego, violence, and lust. Indiana renders this exquisitely in Resentment’s courtroom scenes, removing the punctuation marks from the proceedings of Martinez v. California to create a stream of consciousness that resembles the legal record as much as it does the lunatic rantings of a drunk at last call (or modernist poetry, for that matter): “Could you tell whose footsteps they were I was hoping it wasn’t Dad but I was wrong After the footsteps did you hear anything else Yeah my dad pounding my door and telling me to open the goddam door Objection Overruled as to the question but let’s not refer to them as Mom and Dad Could you tell who the person was It was Dad What did your father say.”
What these characters—murderers and non-murderers alike—have in common are delusions of grandeur fueled by desire for sex, drugs, money, and fame, which are more often than not collapsed in Indiana’s novels into a single entity, desire itself, and depicted with unsparing violence. It’s easy to count Indiana among “transgressive” writers such as Kraus, Acker, and William S. Burroughs—which is one of the reasons that Semiotext(e) is such an appropriate venue for his crime trilogy’s reissue. It is puzzling when one considers the universality of his themes and the ingenuity of his prose that Indiana’s name isn’t among those of our major writers, but then one remembers the barb of his misanthropy, coupled with often brutal illustrations of human sexuality, and the fact that half of his books are out of print suddenly becomes less of a surprise. See, for instance, Indiana’s description of Evangeline Slote giving her pre-pubescent son Devin a bath:
Heat spread over his body. His breath quickened, like breathing in hot mustard, and his mouth fastened on her nipple, sucking. He tasted coconut and a bosky taste like smoked meat, a trace of rust from the water sluicing around his mouth. She went on kneading his balls, pumping his organ. Fingers brought his hand to the wrinkled slit at the bottom of the triangle, pressed his fingers into a sinewy place sticky with something like jelly, pulled them slowly out, and pushed them in again. Finally his entire hand sank into her hole, and nervously tugged it out and pressed it in again without help. She made a noise with her throat, more and more insistently. He felt an intense tingling, a nerve explosion in his balls, that wiped aside his consciousness, and when the feeling left he felt abruptly horrified by the picture he saw of them together. At that instant he felt his mother’s cunt shudder. Some kind of hot goo slathered itself on his fingers.
Incest is a taboo that Indiana’s reader can tell that the author has some fun with. In Resentment, Indiana is unflinching in his dramatizations of Fidel Martinez’s nighttime visits to his son Felix’s room, sexual abuse claims levelled against José Menendez by his sons in defense of his killing. Sex is everywhere in Indiana’s novels, and it’s usually the opportunity for Indiana’s most baroque linguistic constructions. Even Horse Crazy, a novel whose plot hinges on the fact that its narrator-protagonist is not sexually active, was called “a brilliantly executed piece of erotic writing” by the Washington Blade upon its initial publication. Indiana’s prurient frankness and refusal to appeal directly to a heteronormative audience—à la Bret Easton Ellis, say—seem to doom him to the canon of French writers like Céline, Genet, Bataille, and Sade, books like Tropic of Cancer and Story of O. Highbrow porn with philosophical pretensions.
Of course, many of those books are literary classics, and for good reason, because their authors understood that sex, one of humans’ most primal and therefore strongest drives, affords a writer access to a kind of comic sublime. The disparity between people’s ideas of themselves as civilized, sophisticated, or worldly and the animality of their sexual desires alone has served as a suitable metonym for hypocrisy in general since at least Lysistrata. And while Americans, at least, are on the whole less puritanical than they were when Lolita was finally published in 1958, some are still shocked at hearing the President say “pussy.” (I can imagine Indiana writing about Trump, as he did about the Gubernator in 2005’s The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt, as nothing but a total joy.) This is where the speculative nature of Indiana’s fictions comes into play: what if not one, but rather every patron at the bar is a con artist? That is, what if things are exactly as they seem?
The heightened sense of paranoia experienced by Indiana’s characters is in the league of Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick. As Kraus notes, “depicting anxiety as a cosmological state” is how Indiana made his entrée to the world of belles lettres. Take, for example, this passage from Horse Crazy in which Indiana’s narrator waits on the street for Gregory, the object of his obsession:
By now, it was several minutes past the appointed time, according to a digital clock over a bank entrance across the street––though one could never fully rely on this clock because it tended to malfunction in the winter months, sometimes erring by a few minutes, sometimes by several hours. It now read 1:36. I had never known this clock to run fast, except when the hour itself was wrong, for example, if it happened to be 5:00 and the clock reported the hour as 10:00 or 12:00 or whatever, whereas quite frequently, the clock ran slow, in which case it might well be 1:45 or even 1:50. And if it were now 1:45 or 1:50, I most certainly had taken up my vigil on the wrong corner, had been standing at a corner which was not only wrong but so far from the correct corner that Gregory, waiting at the correct corner, whichever it was, couldn’t see the corner where I stood, or couldn’t or hadn’t imagined it possible that I could confuse such a simple, unequivocal matter and in fact be standing at the wrong corner. In fact, if he did not imagine this, he might have been standing as nearby as the corner of Eighth and Second or Sixth and Second without even glancing at the corner of Seventh and Second, and I, so eager for a glimpse of him, may have been following complete strangers with my eyes, overlooking Gregory completely although he’d been in plain view for several minutes.
This is the logic of obsession, of the sick, the oppressed, the addicted—it is, as Fredric Jameson and others have suggested, the logic of late capitalism. Pages later, Indiana’s narrator finds himself imprisoned within the same Möbius strip, weighing the chances that he’s HIV positive: “I keep getting dates mixed up, I went to Thailand in ‘81 and I think I’d already stopped sleeping with Paul, so if I didn’t get it from Mike possibly I didn’t get it from Paul either.” This existential dread is the narrative engine of Indiana’s crime novels as well, what cheers on the Martinez brothers, Andrew Cunanan, and Evangeline Slote through their killing sprees. In each case, murder is presented as the only alternative to a glamourless future of relative poverty, a prospect too grim for any of Indiana’s characters to accept. Some people are too fabulous for this world, he seems to be saying. Could these crime novels constitute a sort of postmodern hagiography?
Indiana elaborates on his choice of subject in the preface to Three Month Fever by paraphrasing Gore Vidal: “if you want to see the face of a killer, look in any mirror. There are deeply criminal people who will never kill anybody, and perfect nice individuals who one day will run amok with an AK-47. Until a person goes postal, he just looks like part of the landscape.” Nonstop news coverage, Indiana argues, revealed a Cunanan who “seemed less a threat to the general public than to familiar narrative genres and their claims to classicism.” Like Baudrillard’s Disneyland, the serial killer trope is a mirage created to disguise the fact that evil is all around us, the circumstances of contemporary American life such that anyone can “snap,” even if they don’t seem to “have it in them.” That Versace, an international celebrity, became a bit player in the story of his own death is testament to the fact that murder has no finite number of explanations, but the illusion that a killer is a type protects us from knowing the crimes of which we are ourselves capable.
Almost two decades before the President had taken to denouncing the “Clinton News Network” and the “failing New York Times” on Twitter, Indiana wrote that in reporting Three Month Fever, “the wariness and cunning I found directed at me as a ‘journalist’ bodes nothing good for the profession. . . . People may be entertained by the mindless, predictable, redundant, distorting, and meretricious techniques currently used to cover news, but at heart they despise them. This makes any search for the truth of things something terribly close to folly.” He finds much amusement in the Slotes’ visit to Washington as part of a scam to capitalize on the bicentennial by selling American flags to public schools, which is based on a real-life meeting between Sante Kimes and Betty Ford. In his fictionalization, Indiana has Pat Nixon digging her nails into Evangeline, telling her, “Listen here, little miss nobody from nowhere, . . . it’s time for you and your little friends to take a hike,” smelling the liquor on Warren Slote’s breath and asking, “Who’s the juicehead, . . . Who’s the juicehead.” With this portrait of lowlifes in the White House, Indiana transforms historical fiction into a dystopian fiction which may have seemed realistic only to the most adamant of the anti-Bush crowd when Indiana wrote it in 2001, but comes off as tame now—less like fiction, and more like journalism. In 2016, a reality TV star was elected president of the United States, and the Simpson trial was remediated as fiction in the Emmy-award winning American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (a second season, in development, is slated to take the Versace murder as its subject). If the bite of Indiana’s cynicism has lessened over time, it is only because the lurid depths of reality explored in his crime novels, like the monstrous insects lurking in Blue Velvet’s suburban lawn, have finally risen to the surface as both news and entertainment.
Andrew Marzoni is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His work has appeared in ARTnews, The New York Observer, Review 31, Music & Literature, and other publications. At present, he is writing a critical history of Semiotext(e).
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff A martyr is not necessarily a saint, in any case, and those who knew him didn’t turn to him for saintliness. He was spellbinding, an electrical jolt for the psyche. An encounter with him, as a colleague or as a mentor, could be life-changing and endlessly rewarding. Warts and all,...
- The Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone As a member of the LBC, I was greatly impressed by Michael Martone, our Summer 2006 Reah This! selection. For those who haven’t read about the book on the LBC website, it’s a “novel” (or “fiction” as the author (also named Michael Martone) calls it) that is comprised entirely of...
- Visigoth by Gary Amdahl I. “The imagination will not down,” William Carlos Williams writes in The Great American Novel. “If it is not dance, a song, it becomes an outcry, a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity. If it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women cannot be content,...
- That’s Just Semantics! (or, the Proper Treatment of Richard Montague in Literary Fiction) Discussed in this essay:Less Than Meets the Eye, David Berlinski. St. Martin’s Press. $19.95.The Mad Man, Samuel R. Delany. Rhinoceros Publications. 520pp 0. Death is Not the End On March 12, 1971, the funeral of Richard Merritt Montague brought a very diverse crowd to the Praisewater Funeral Home in Los...
- The Art Behind Putting Together an Issue of a Literary Journal Dan Wickett talks to the editors of two literary journals to find out just how they do it....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Andrew Marzoni