But madness isn’t really Myles’s theme – it’s sensation, whether it’s joyful or almost indescribable, the odd feelings that come over you as a child, the peculiar loneliness you can hide from within other loneliness….”
by kristina eldredge
Clues to Cool for You (Soft Skull Press, 2000), by Eileen Myles, can be found on the outside of the book. The cover photo shows a tough looking teenage girl, cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, slouched in a challenging posture. On the back is a photo of Eileen Myles, looking considerably more anxious and vulnerable. The truth of the book is closer to that back photo, just as the title, Cool for You, tells us the toughness is all put on, just a way to win hearts.
Myles is as lyrically analytical about her own artifice as she is about everything else in this autobiographical novel, told in fragments that start to feel like slides accompanied by an unusual narrative voice. Meditating on a photo of her mother, Myles writes:
My mother is a big-shouldered broad….There is hardly any femininity in my family. We are weak people, we are not striving people, we are not brave people, but we are posturing people, and we are masculine.
This funny, bleakly honest assessment is typical of Myles. Her novel is a tracing back of her own story to her family roots, after a life spent on the margins. In non-linear chunks, she describes a working-class Boston childhood blighted by the low expectations of her parents, and her determined efforts to locate some truth through a series of dismal jobs and confused relationships. The timeframe is the 60s and 70s, and Myles’s own fuzzy, messed up feelings are reflected in the atmosphere of the times. This was an era when parents felt ambivalent about being authority figures, and Myles’s were no different. “What my family had taught me was to not know how to work,” she writes. Despite that, she does work, and it opens her up to a world of class differences and hard-edged co-workers. All of them go into her portrait gallery, a file of human information she lovingly compiles. Myles, who is an established poet, is a writer who notices everything, and has a poetic knack for the detail that makes a description both bizarre and memorable. For instance, she writes about institutional food:
Is there a recipe book for everyone? In America, when it comes down to that: here’s something for everyone… food that anyone would eat when they had finally been determined to be in that position that they would eat anyone’s food. I don’t mean from the dumpster. I mean the mechanical lunches you got in school. Those vegetables no one wanted because you could see they had been prepared for anyone. Extra food. To think you might wind up eating it one day, looking around, the day you forgot who you were.
Myles’s grandmother had been institutionalized when she, Myles, was a child, and she spends parts of the book researching her grandmother’s fate. Since many of her jobs end up being jobs in institutions, she has plenty of time to ponder the differences between staff members and patients.
But madness isn’t really Myles’s theme – it’s sensation, whether it’s joyful or almost indescribable, the odd feelings that come over you as a child, the peculiar loneliness you can hide from within other loneliness. Throughout the novel, the Eileen Myles character searches for acceptance, mostly from other women, and her efforts to belong are touching and familiar to anyone who felt like an alien during adolescence and early adulthood (though this describes almost everyone, but Myles is more acutely attuned to it than most). Along the way, as she strives to be popular, she discovers her own off-center sexuality, yet the discovery doesn’t set her on a clear path, any more than her experience of college helps her to explore her unusual intellect. Myles’s journey is one of stops and starts, of intuitions laid over by other experiences. Cool for You is the record of an individual trying to trace, from a crazy-quilt of memories, identifications, desires and achievements, the history of her own, very distinctive identity. Occasionally the episodic structure gets tiring, as you read about one more peculiar character from her past, but then she’ll bring you back, fascinated, because her writing is so smart, so tangily imagistic, and her persona, with its honesty and vulnerability, so winning.
Sam Lipsyte is a different cup of tea, but not that different. Naked vulnerability underlies some of his harshest stories, the ones in Venus Drive (Open City Books, 2000). (He recently published a novel, The Subject Steve (Broadway Books), which has gotten solidly admiring reviews.) When I first heard about him, Lipsyte seemed worth checking out because he came with the impressive imprimatur of Open City Books – their only other title at that time being the off-center, wonkily intelligent, distinctive poetry book Actual Air by David Berman. I read Venus Drive and came away with the impression that Lipsyte was one of those writers who can’t write a boring sentence. But when I looked at the book again recently, I found his writing is very simple– it’s just that he leaves out so much, what’s left is extremely striking and smart. It’s Lipsyte’s mind that’s complex, what lies beneath his economical, hard-boiled, boiled-down-to-nothing stories.
For example. In “I’m Slavering,” people are waiting for a character named Gary, who will deliver them from some unnamed hell.
Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back. Everybody was from everywhere, had gathered here to hide from the daylight. Some of these people sat around a marble table with straws in their hands. It looked like they were waiting for lemonade. They were trying to get my friend Gary on the phone to get more lemonade. It was early, late, lockjaw hour.
There ya go. How do you write about drug addiction without resorting to cliché? Like that. Lipsyte writes about various states of abasement without naming them. He writes about a man living in his dead mother’s apartment, using up the morphine she left behind. Grief and depression are never named – instead the story deals with the character’s anger and paralysis. The opening story is almost unbearably shocking, about a man visiting his dying sister in the hospital after paying to touch a woman at a peep show. What transpires is an incredible transgression, a blurring of the character’s two worlds. But even though the harsh tone and bluntly descriptive writing are painful, what comes through again is a tortured grief.
Lipsyte often deals with incredible transgressions – he is good at shocking you. Something is terribly, or creepingly, wrong in the worlds of the people he writes about. But he’s also surprising, in the way best writing is. A phrase will catch you off-guard, a sentence will send a chill up your spine. Or as he puts it at the mind-boggling end of “Cremains,”
Something was setting beautiful fires up and down my spine.
Both Lipsyte and Miles are writers to savor, for their originality of outlook and the bravery of their prose.