A scar is born

Pub date January 28, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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What does Gary Indiana think of Obamamania? I have to ask, because Indiana is a peerless dissector of contemporary American political symptoms. The evidence includes his blistering appraisal of Jerry Brown’s blank gaze and sun-scorched face and other facets of the 1992 presidential campaign in Let it Bleed: Essays 1985-1995. Or more recently, the combination of laugh-out-loud descriptive power and pointed investigative fact (as opposed to typical journalistic trivia) in 2005’s The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt, a petite volume that somehow manages to depict the 2004 Republican National Convention, for the record, in words that do full justice to that historical event’s baleful hilarity and bottomless horror.

Indiana might be best known today as a novelist whose inspirations have ranged from pre-Disney Manhattan junkies and hustlers to jaundiced, post-In Cold Blood original fakes such as Andrew Cunanan and homicidal con artist and subconscious Liz Taylor impersonator Sante Kimes. Clearly this is a man who has something to say about American delusion, and the new Utopia’s Debris: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 320 pages, $28.95) includes a few brief but scathing riffs on the theme. "Kindergarten Governor" renders the 2003 California gubernatorial recall with great flair — the "aptly named" Gray Davis is likened to an "an especially depressive funeral director"; Arianna Huffington is tagged "inestimable" — while tracing the effort’s birth back to criminal business dealings in an office behind a Krispy Kreme in Sacramento. "The Excremental Republic" provides a sensible, revealing, and thus utterly unique reading of Bush vs. Gore and its impact.

Organized into five parts, beginning with the Nico-quoting "Desertshore" and ending with the title section, Utopia’s Debris collects Indiana’s journalistic writings, which are reliably several flights above almost all prose found in newspapers and magazines today, while never once stiff or pretentious. Quite the contrary: Indiana’s ever-active bullshit detector makes for the opposite of PR pablum, even when he flirts with the sin of log-rolling by sending a little textual love his to his frequent book jacket contributor Barbara Kruger (a better writer than artist, in my opinion), paying tribute to actress (and friend) Bulle Ogier, or eulogizing another close ally, Susan Sontag. To say Indiana is a writer who welcomes argument is an understatement. When he refers to one published eulogy as a "fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag’s entire lifework," his own hateful dismissal of the late Pauline Kael in Artforum — complete with a memory of himself and Sontag raiding a newsstand for a fresh opportunity to mock Kael’s writing does spring to mind.

As its name suggests, the pleasures and the value of Utopia’s Debris stem partly from the manner in which Indiana organizes these short examples of writing for a paycheck. In a one-two punch, an assessment of presidential election thievery ("The Excremental Republic") is followed by a look at the cultural relevance and role of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls ("Uberdolls"). A posthumous look at Leni Riefenstahl and her last years (checkout this whiplash truth: "[She’s] relaxed, genial, reflective in an undefensive way, and genuinely likable. Rather like the giant toad who has, at last, eaten its fill of flies and can’t see any buzzing in her immediate vicinity") arrives shortly before his tribute to Sontag, who famously attacked Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetics. The book’s final roll call of subjects — Robert Bresson, Georges Simenon, Brecht, and Weill as filtered through Harry Smith — is vital and dramatically potent.

A lifetime of sharpening sentences like so many knives means that Indiana knows how to write an intro: "You could infer from the production notes that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can. Spritz a little on a fundamentalist and change him into a liberal, or neutralize a whole church of basement of rednecks with a full-strength tolerance bomb." When he detonates explosives by pious pop culture it makes for entertaining reading. But the peak stretches of Utopia’s Debris occur within assessments of a wide variety — Gavin Lambert, Mary Wornov, Caroline Blackwood, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard, Curzio Malaparte, Jean Echenoz, Emmanul Carrère — of anti-canonical novelists. Through them, Indiana wrestles with his own ideas about life and chosen calling in a manner that is revelatory.