Tragedy Queens

About five months ago or so, I received a notification that Leza Cantoral—an engaging fellow writer I’d met in passing at 2016’s AWP show—was editing an anthology called Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath for Clash Books. While I am familiar with the work of both artists, I am not what you might call a super-fan; however, submitting a story under those parameters seemed like an interesting challenge. Additionally, an earworm of a song called “Dayglo Reflection”—featured on Bobby Womack’s 2012 release Bravest Man in the Universe, but co-written by Del Rey, who handles most of the vocals—had worked its way into my brain, and it had been percolating there, waiting to spring into inspirational action. I worked hard on my story, sent it along, and went back about my business.

Well, my hard work bore fruit: my story was selected for publication in the anthology. I’m proud of it, and excited, and honored, and I hope those of you out there who are privy to this online whisper will seek out the book and give it a look. In addition to my own scribblings, it will feature a formidable collection of oddball authors who deserve your attention. Release date is TBD, but as I am helpless before the promise of a good plug, you can be sure that I’ll post that info here when I have it.

Thank you all for reading. Without you, I’d just be telling stories to myself in the dark.

Lady Haley

Some ghosts don’t haunt you; instead, they walk at your side, and they live a simultaneous existence, one that you never see clearly, one that you gather in snippets, in small messages, sometimes glimpsed between lines of text that seem banal until their full weight hits you in the middle of the night; it’s a weight that rouses you from a fitful sleep and sends you to your porch to sit under the street lights, and despite the discomfiting feelings that come with having been awoken by whispers that are not really whispers, you pull that weight around you, and it’s warm, and it shields you from the cool night air.

I know such a ghost. Her silhouette is long and narrow and draped in garments that highlight her otherworldly nature, and she steps along the dusty ground of the desert with what seems like conviction and purpose. Her smile is warm but inscrutable, and her eyes, though they sparkle, are deep black pools that betray nothing. And yet, there is a tentativeness that accompanies her movements, because her purpose is not a purpose, but a search, and one that may never end.

At night she lives with me; while I sleep, I can feel her breathe, but when I’m awake her breath is distant, and she is words on a page, or photos on a screen. All of this seems like it should be so simple, and yet somehow it isn’t.

Joan Didion once wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I am not usually one for quotes, particularly ones so calcified as that one, but in writing this, it struck me.

A Word on “Creative Nonfiction”

“Creative Nonfiction” is a bullshit phrase invented by MFA professors to sell gullible students on unnecessary writing courses. There is already a term for what “Creative Nonfiction” accomplishes: Fiction. For centuries, writers have taken true-to-life occurrences and exaggerated them and mixed them with flights of fancy to create a narrative—this is called fiction.

And there’s nothing wrong with it! Fiction is wonderful, and should be celebrated, and its practitioners should be proud. “Creative Nonfiction” is a phrase borne of an inferiority complex—the realm of people cowed by the idea that fiction is somehow less-than; it is the refuge of people who wish to call themselves journalists, but who are too lazy to do research. It is a phrase that should be shot into the sun.

Write fiction, my friends; enjoy the process! It is one of our great gifts as a species. But please, do not try to convince me that it is something else.

Nova Express by Andre Perkowski

I have been absolutely, positively obsessed by these fragments lately, and I yearn to see the full version, should it ever show somewhere again. Mr. Perkowski, if you’re out there, watching, listening, reading, please tell me how I can see this all of a piece.

Perkowski seems an interesting cat—the king of repurposed footage. The stuff that he’s shot by himself leaves me cold, for the most part, but work like this, and his Silent Shadow of the Bat series, is absolutely brilliant.

Mlle Lefebvre

dirty-martini-3

I went on a date last night, an early one, to happy hour at this place called The Falls in Downtown Los Angeles. I hate downtown; until recently, I’ve enjoyed Los Angeles primarily because of the sense of indifference it seems to have had toward the insults of other cities—New York and San Francisco in particular breed a certain kind of person, the kind who looks at Los Angeles and sneers because it’s “not a real city” or some such nonsense. I’ve always liked that about Los Angeles. What is a real city? Does it have to have a specific center? Must it be well-defined? Los Angeles always felt avant-garde to me because of its lack of a center. Incoherence has never been to me any kind of wall—more like a peephole. And so I’ve spent the last 15 years enjoying Los Angeles.

But Downtown puts the lie to LA’s attitude. Downtown Los Angeles, since its revitalization, has become desperate and sad. “Please love me, New York and San Francisco,” it cries. And it’s a bunch of bullshit. A similar sort of thing is happening to Hollywood now. There’s a plan to turn the building where Amoeba Music is into a giant glass high-rise, because apparently the future of Los Angeles and Hollywood is a series of anonymous glass high-rises. This is necessary because of the influx of NY and SF ex-pats. “If you don’t like what it’s becoming, then leave!” they say. But why should I have to leave? I liked LA as it was. If you don’t like LA the way it was, why come here? It’s maddening, and it reduces the town to a bullshit status symbol.

I’m more cynical than this, usually, and more resigned, but it bothers me. But downtown, despite its faults, is convenient. And that’s why I met my date down there, because it was between us. Maybe the city does need a center. Maybe I’m a dinosaur.

My date was this beautiful Belgian girl whom I’ve been out with several times at this point. What is our relationship? Who knows? But she is beautiful, and funny, and has a crooked smile and long, messy, brown hair. I’m not sure that we have much to discuss. We’ve got past the point at which we’ve shared personal stories and have moved into the “here and now” portion of dating, but neither of us seems to have a ton going on—that lends itself to fascinating stories, at least. She drinks, but I do not, so usually what happens is that she gets two classes of chardonnay in while I stay sober, and she reveals a lot of herself and then stops and yells at me about not revealing enough, despite me having revealed quite a bit, I think. But I am naturally more reserved, and without drink more inhibited, so maybe she’s right.

What I’ve learned is that she is rather bitchy, and pretentious, or so she says. I can see why she’d say it, but I like her anyway, so maybe she’s right and I’m just willing to overlook it. Does this have any sort of future? I have no idea, and I don’t really worry about it. Mostly I just like to watch her, because she is a fascinating creature. I don’t even care what she’s talking about a lot of the time, just that she’s talking and her teeth are beautifully imperfect, and her hair is a mess, and sometimes there’s a pencil holding it in place and sometimes not.

Last night I promised her a knock-knock joke, and I almost didn’t deliver. She hated my first attempt, and mocked me for being unable to follow it up, but I came up with a solid one later on and got a pass, which I was more happy about than I am now comfortable admitting. Christ, am I a people pleaser? This date was different from previous ones because she stood more fully revealed, in all her bitchy, pretentious glory. Before, there was a pleasant veneer, and I thought she was a nicer person, and so this time it took me a little time to catch up to the atmosphere. Once I was there, though, we traded insults for a long while, and snide comments, and shared some laughs before I walked her to a sushi restaurant, where she was meeting a friend in town from Mexico, named Ivan. Ivan looks like some ridiculous hippie type with a rope necklace and long wavy hair. I don’t know if he’s her friend or her friend, but I’m not particularly concerned. He seems nice enough, in a Eurotrashy sort of way.

I don’t know when I’m going to see her again. Part of me wants to take her bowling; she expressed an interest once, and I want to watch her body while she bowls. I really don’t know who she is or what she’s after. But dating I think is more fun when it’s about meeting interesting people instead of interviewing for the job of “boyfriend” or “husband.” I may never see her again, and that’s okay. But Lord knows I could use more Belgian disasters in my life.

La ballata di Hank McCain

hank mccain

About a decade back, a friend of mine handed me a CD on the occasion of my birthday. “I burned it specifically for you,” he said, as he pressed it into my hand. Then he wrapped the crook of his elbow around the back of my neck, pulled me in for a quick, strong hug, and jumped into his car. I never saw him again.

On the face of the CD, in his inimitable scrawl, he’d written “Manny Birthday Mix.” But it wasn’t a mix at all. It was, in fact, the complete Ennio Morricone soundtrack to the film Machine Gun McCain, starring the great John Cassavetes as the titular Hank McCain.

For years, I’d play that soundtrack on my birthday; speakers turned to the maximum volume, I’d listen to “The Ballad of Hank McCain” as I made my morning eggs, bacon, and toast, before I’d even decided how I wanted to spend my special day. It became my own little tradition, one of those tiny bits of good cheer that many people don’t take the time to find.

It’s difficult sometimes to put into words the way a piece of music makes you feel, but “wistful” comes immediately to mind when I think of Morricone’s music for this sadly underrated film. I think the Italian film industry—in its ’60s, ’70s, and’80s form, anyway, choked as it was with innumerable rips from and riffs on popular American genre films—gets a bad rap, but there is a beauty in many of those films that lives on even after their American forebears slip into sad, concrete Iconography. Faces in the classic American crime pictures are etched into memory, the actors’ names carved into metal plaques that hang forever in the halls of the popular consciousness. But the faces in Italian genre pictures, even the American faces, the ones we recognize, slip into our headspaces and elicit surprise, and then slip away just as quickly, so that we’re left with vague recollections, the soft and hazy memories of a fugue state. Italian genre films are jazz pieces. The standard beats are there; nothing else can really be measured.

mccainfalk

It’s interesting to watch a film like Cassavetes’s Husbands and to follow it up with something like McCain, which also features Cassavetes and Falk. While you don’t think of McCain while watching Husbands, the reverse is not true. While McCain was released a year before Husbands, it manages to absorb the cultural capital of Cassavetes’s own film on subsequent viewings. More than simple period curios, these Italian genre films act like sponges floating in a stoppered basin, the years surrounding them engorging them with a level of pathos they might not have achieved on their own. They are anti-auteur in the extreme; instead of being the product of a unifying vision, they are inclusive and collaborative to the point of drawing from other films and associations, eternally unsatisfied with what’s in their own frames, reaching into your head for more. They are ambiguous and opaque and haunting even though you can practically set your watch to their plots.

My birthday was this past Friday. I woke up, I put on the soundtrack, I had breakfast. I felt reasonably content with my life. I watched Machine Gun McCain, and I realized how much I yearned for something to be missing.