The James Purdy Society
Out With James Purdy:
James Purdy was born in 1923 near Paulding, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, twenty plays, and sixteen novels, including Malcolm, Narrow Rooms, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, In a Shallow Grave, Garments the Living Wear, and, most recently, Out with the Stars. Despite moments of critical acclaim and popularity, Purdy’s work generally has met with hostility, ambivalence, and indifference from the literary establishment. His novels also have provoked a mixed response from lesbian and gay communities in the US. In this interview, Purdy talks about the reasons for his neglect; he also discusses racial stereotypes, sexual fantasy, political correctness, religious fundamentalism, gay relationships, and contemporary American culture. The interview was recorded on November 27, 1993 at Purdy’s home in Brooklyn, New York.
Christopher Lane: Although various articles and two books of criticism have been published about your work, you have given very few interviews in the past. Is this is a deliberate policy on your part or an indication of the general neglect that you’ve received?
James Purdy: I think most people have never heard of me. A whole generation has died out since I was first published. I was rather young then, and I was very young when I wrote the stories but no one would publish them at the time, so they were published ten years after I wrote them. Generally, though, I think we live in a totally meretricious society that only knows what’s going on now, and most of the critics have never read anything beyond The Catcher in the Rye which they think is a great book, of course, and which is surely one of the worst books ever written.
CL: I want to talk with you today about the perceived difficulty and eclecticism of your writing and your response to the way your texts have been received, particularly by gay audiences in Britain and the US. Is the suggestion of a new conservatism and moralism in both these countries affecting how you’re read and what you can write about?
JP: I think I’m so beyond the pale that none of those things reach me. It’s a strange period because it’s both more lenient toward what I’m writing and more savage against it.
CL: Can you explain that?
JP: The New York Times has always been violently homophobic. It’s a policy I understand now they’ve changed—a little. The New York Times has given me some good reviews but also many vicious ones—reviews so vicious that I don’t think any civilized newspaper would publish them.
CL: And you think that this is homophobically related?
JP: I think it probably is. But it’s also related to a level of philistinism and ignorance that is abysmal; these are people who just do not respect culture or humanity.
CL: Does the issue of being politically correct surface now, especially since your work concentrates on a dimension of sexual fantasy that is often—if not always—at odds with the idea of being politically acceptable?
JP: Yes, what they call politically acceptable I call philistinism and stupidity. I think the women’s movement has harmed writers, and so have some of the black movements, because they feel you should write about people the way they should be. You know, we forget that the Dutch did not like Rembrandt because he portrayed people that weren’t pretty, or a woman cutting her nails, or old people, and blacks who show every mark of being ruined by slavery.
CL: So you think there’s a strong current of idealism now about our acceptance of gay representations?
JP: Well, it’s a false idealism, yes. It’s what I would call cosmetic respectability.
CL: I’m wondering then if one could ever represent a politically correct fantasy?
JP: I don’t know—I don’t really think my work is fantasy so much as it’s unconscious; everyone has an unconscious, even the politically correct. The politically correct must be very upset by their own dreams because they don’t believe in the unconscious; they think everything is conscious. They haven’t read history a whole lot.
CL: Or Freud.
JP: Or Freud!
CL: But there are ways in which the unconscious would have an effect on people’s fantasies that becomes more difficult when one writes about it, or at least attempts to.
JP: Right, and it makes people uneasy. One of the books that outraged the New York literary establishment was I am Elijah Thrush. There I’m not dealing so much with my fantasy—whatever that may be—as an old man’s fantasy, and I call that realism!
CL: Many of your novels have achieved notoriety because of their treatment of sexual fantasy—I’m thinking particularly of the Crucifixion scene in Narrow Rooms—and because they seem to deliberately unsettle and disturb our present orthodoxies, and perhaps pieties, about what we find acceptable, enjoyable, and reprehensible. Do you see your work as being poised on this unstable boundary between political, psychical, and ethical issues, and is there an attraction for you in operating at this level of disturbance?
JP: You know, when Narrow Rooms was published someone sent me a large clipping from a California newspaper. A young preacher had himself crucified to protest the atom war. Now he was only crucified for a minute or so, then taken down. But he had read Narrow Rooms, so everything that I write about is happening. But these politically correct people evidently just see other politically correct people.
CL: Though Narrow Rooms was re-enacted horrifically in real life, was it also based on a true story?
JP: Yes, of my childhood. We knew these new upbeat young men who did several violent things.
CL: Was there something about the scene that drew you to its violence?
JP: I don’t know. I was quite horrified by the story myself.
CL: So you meant the scene in Narrow Rooms to repel people?
JP: Yes. These bourgeois critics are so appalled by the subject, they don’t see that it is admirable writing. I write, I choose a subject, and I try to give it everything I have. Beyond that I have no real concern whether people like it or not. I represent my characters’ fantasies, though. I’m so involved with the book, I don’t really care if anyone likes it or not. If I can just get it out the way I want, I know that most critics will not care for it.
CL: Part of the reason for my question about the ethical and the psychical stems from a comment you made in a 1971 interview when you suggested that the only fictions you’re willing to pursue are those that “bristle with all kinds of impossibilities.” I assume by impossibility that you refer both to the difficulty of the text being written and the subject that you intend to convey?
JP: Right. I think I learned early on that the only subjects that I could deal with were impossible. That is, they were impossible to write because they were so difficult; if I chose an easy subject, I couldn’t write it because it wouldn’t mean anything to me. So nearly all my books are based on “impossible” subjects.
CL: Is there more appeal for you in trying to grapple with this impossibility?
JP: Yes, it’s the only one that I can really attempt to portray. Of course the public is so pleased with tranquilizers, they want a book that tranquilizes—they don’t want to deal with mine. They want to read the book, be entertained, and then forget about it. It’s interesting that so many of the best-sellers that were popular when Malcolm was published are now forgotten. They don’t even remember the author of By the World Possessed, James Gould Cousins. Most people have never heard of him, yet that was a runaway best seller.
CL: Do you think there is an ethical way of dealing with prejudice, hatred, and love, or do you find ethics incompatible with psychology? I’m thinking more of hatred than love because love may seem to us a more manageable and resolvable issue—what of hatred?
JP: I think hatred is the obverse of love, and that’s in Narrow Rooms.
CL: Except that it’s so closely bound up with the way you’re grappling in that text with the issue of antagonism.
JP: Right. It is. In America, for instance, we have this love/hate of the black, and the black of the white. It’s strange that the only part of the country that has ever understood the black is the South.
CL: Could you say more about that?
JP: In the North, most people are very “liberal.” They think blacks should have this and that, but they have never touched a black hand; they’ve certainly never kissed one.
CL: So you think that type of liberalism is a sham?
JP: Yes, it’s shallow. The white Southerner has been horrible, of course, to a lot of black people, but they’re also very close to the black both in hatred and love. Of course, they’ve done appalling things too, horrible.
CL: Often in the name of love. It reminds me of a point Paul Scott made in The Raj Quartet when he wrote that in an interracial friendship his protagonists “hide under the thinnest of liberal skins deeply conservative natures.” Maybe part of what you’re talking about now is the precise conservatism that circulates around people’s prejudices.
JP: Right. I think that most progress in black relationships is totally superficial. They change the laws but they haven’t changed their hearts.
CL: White people haven’t?
JP: Yes. I think relationships between blacks and whites are totally superficial, even fraudulent.
CL: In Out with the Stars, your latest novel, Cyril Vane ruminates endlessly on his “enjoyment of the forbidden,” which seems to be connected to this point. He also cries, “Rejoice, be happy. All that matters is joy, unenduring joy, the rest is rubble.” I wonder if there is a difficulty about joy in the framework of your fiction, and if external and internal forces seem to block it and close it down in the interests of another force—call it “convention,” “morality,” “law,” what you will . . .
JP: Well each character that I write about is different, so he would have different prerogatives and different pain. I based Cyril Vane on Carl Van Vechten who really did believe in joy. He was one of the first white men to have more than a superficial relationship with blacks. He flouted the convention which said that if black people visited your home in New York City they had to take the freight elevator. He told the building clerk, “No, they’re not taking the freight elevator, they’re coming regular in the elevator!” It seems strange today that this would be a problem, but actually it’s still a problem. There is no real equality between blacks and whites. The equality you see is totally factitious and superficial.
CL: Van Vechten’s project is the subject of some controversy now; there is one school of criticism that would see his project as paternalist and as expounding a fantasy of the exotic.
JP: Well maybe it was, but it’s better than nothing. Is it better to give someone a sandwich who’s starving or slap them?; I think the sandwich is better. Someone asked him once if he was pleased with what he’d done for the black people. He said, “I never did anything for them, they’ve done everything for me.” I thought that was admirable. A lot of people would think that by his having them come to his home; of course he also photographed all the famous blacks. So he knew that that he was giving very little and that they were giving him a great deal. I don’t think that’s paternalism. I think paternalism is hypocrisy and self-deceit.
CL: Your account of the destruction of much of Cyril Vane’s photographic work after his death has an obvious resonance with the mass burning of books in Nazi Germany, and the recent controversy about Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, particularly his eroticization of race. Perhaps we could talk about how you would respond the Mapplethorpe controversy, and whether you consider your own work as implicated in the same difficulty.
JP: Well my work is so unknown to the people who are burning Mapplethorpe, I don’t think they’ve ever heard of me. The media just doesn’t pay any attention to me. I think if I went out and shot someone, you know, they would like that. The media loves violence—it loves crime, scandal, filth; it has no time for anything constructive. You never read anything about people who are really doing something that’s beautiful.
CL: You once stated that “the whole of America is a giant pornographic workshop.” Now that the sexual and pornographic are pressing and almost intractable issues, how do you see your writing negotiating this precarious terrain? Some people, for instance, would describe your own work as pornographic.
JP: Yes, it’s not. I think pornography is the obverse of puritanism. They both hate the body and they don’t believe in love. They think love is dirty and many homosexuals are that way too—they really think what they are doing is filthy.
CL: So part of your concern is to rid us of this notion and to celebrate the body in all its pleasures and pains?
JP: Right. In Eustace Chisholm, for which I was burned at the stake by The New York Times, a young man who’s really an Indian chief can’t reconcile the fact that after nothing but sexual relations with women, he suddenly realizes he’s in love with this young boy. He can’t face that in himself. And I think that his problem is everybody’s problem. We can’t face what is most ourselves, what is deepest in ourselves. Like Macduff, in Macbeth, who was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, we want to rip out the really delicate, beautiful things in us so that we will be acceptable to society.
CL: Perhaps also the most macabre and aggressive elements of ourselves?
JP: Well it depends on what you mean by macabre. If it’s something destructive, then yes. It’s when we don’t face ourselves that we become destructive.
CL: So violence is partly a response to self-rejection?
JP: Right—and to self-hatred.
CL: Returning to the your earlier points about race and sexuality, one academic critic who’s black and gay, Kobena Mercer, has written about the way he first responded to Mapplethorpe’s work with irritation because it seemed to reproduce racial stereotypes. He subsequently revised his argument when he considered how Mapplethorpe challenges the viewer by confronting them with a stereotype, and that this confrontation seemed to insist on a new kind of attention to the aesthetic beauty of nonwhite bodies, especially since the aesthetic standard of beauty is generally formulated by white people. You may not be familiar with the specifics of this debate, but would you say you’re struggling with a similar difficulty in a similar way?
JP: Well I don’t think I’m that conscious of what I’m doing. I’m dealing so deep down with the subject that its hard for me to comment. These are political people speaking, who are talking to other political people.
CL: But they’re also people who are reading . . .
JP: They’re not reading me, I don’t think. Elijah Thrush was totally ignored by black intellectuals.
CL: Well what about this suggestion of confrontation with stereotype?
JP: I remember reading in some boring college and a young black man stood up and said, “Why aren’t your black people proud to be black?” And I said, “Because I based them on real people, not stereotypes, either from the left or the right.” I could say the same about my white characters—Why aren’t they proud of being what they are? See that’s the politically correct which hates art, because art has a deeper truth than political respectability. A real writer will never be respected, never, and he’ll never be accepted by the powers that be. He can’t be.
CL: Because as soon as he is, he’s assimilated and neutralized?
JP: Yes, he’s been chewed and swallowed.
CL: Out with the Stars seems very much preoccupied with these questions about stereotype, fantasy, and prejudice. At various points your characters struggle over the difficulties of an ethical relation to love as well as to creativity and composition (in the example of the two operas), to representation and censorship (around Cyril Vane’s photography), and finally, to race (for instance, the two man-servants, Harlan Jost and Ezekiel Loomis), which may be the most challenging and troubling dimension of your book.
JP: Yes, the strange thing about this book is that it’s all based on “fact,” shall I say. I think the black servant is fully aware of the limitations of Abner Blossom’s relationship with him. He also feels superior to Abner Blossom, as most black people feel superior to white people. Now that white people are trying to be so liberal, they don’t realize how condescending they are, and how self-conscious they are to other blacks.
CL: Which is again close to the tone of this book, and a kind of reverence or awe for race.
JP: I had a very close black friend once who used to beg me to call him a “nigger,” and I said I just couldn’t do that. He said, “Well you see you’re not really with me.” Because blacks do, when they’re irked, call themselves niggers—at least affectionately.
CL: But I think most of them would also feel uncomfortable about being called that by a white man; they would read it as an insult.
JP: Right. But he wanted me to do this so he could know that I no longer had that prejudice and he didn’t have it either.
CL: Or pretension?
JP: Yeah. I don’t know that that abyss would be conquered.
CL: I notice that you preempt this abyss on two occasions in Out with the Stars by turning around the anger of New York’s African-American communities and by encouraging their admiration—if not idealization—of Abner Blossom. One of the closing scenes when he’s carried across the Brooklyn Bridge comes to mind. However, I’m not entirely convinced by the novel that the issue of African-American representation in photography or opera can be solved by appealing to the beauty or the history of these communities. For one thing, the anger is maybe too extensive; for another, the question of beauty doesn’t exactly get us off the ethical hook.
JP: That’s true. I don’t think there is any solution, so there couldn’t be a solution in the novel because there’s no solution in life. For a novel to pretend that it’s found a solution would be a form of madness.
CL: But wasn’t that scene of hero worship slightly idealized?
JP: Well they actually did idolize Abner Blossom, so I can’t judge their worship as fraudulent. That was the best they had—it would make the writer superhuman to find a solution to such oppression.
CL: It would be interesting perhaps to envisage the possibility of this scene being reversed: not including pickets of whites angry at their representation by a black artist, but rather an African-American economically supporting two white male menservants and then photographing others because of his love of whiteness . . .
JP: Heh! Well, I think that’s happening, but it’s not in the newspapers!
CL: I’m not suggesting that you don’t disrupt this economy of representation. In a Shallow Grave seems to me to offer a striking confusion between economic and emotional dependency in an interracial friendship between Garnet Montrose and Quintus Perch. But there’s still something about this scenario that troubles me—something perhaps about its insistence on loyalty that closes down other possibilities.
JP: I don’t think it’s loyalty, I think it’s love. They respected one another but they can’t quite say it or do it. And yet the fact that Quintus returned is an amazing thing. And they neither have the ability to speak the truth because there’s too much history behind them. But who is left for either of them? When Garnet goes to his mother’s funeral, Quintus feels that at last he’s found someone who loves him. Black people will say well this is just shit, you know, all fake. But it’s as real as these two people can bring up. They’re both desperate people and have both lost almost everything. It’s like when someone is on a steamship which is sinking and then there’s a very frail little raft that comes along. Are you too good to get on the raft or are you going to sink? Life is not full of perfect political solutions.
CL: A lot of your characters are on boats that are sinking . . .
JP: Almost all of them. I think humanity is always on a sinking ship. Certainly America is sinking with outrageous crimes that our government has perpetrated.
CL: Is there a fascination for you about this sinking?
JP: I’m certainly concerned because it’s everywhere. When you think how America has declined at every level—moral, spiritual, aesthetic—since before Vietnam, it’s been downhill every day.
CL: I’d like to focus on some of the desperation you’re talking about because it seems to produce a kind of emotional dependency in the novels we’ve discussed so far. Some of the subtlety of In a Shallow Grave centers on the way that each of the men’s friendships is bound up with their fantasy of Widow Rance. There comes a point, for instance, when Garnet transfers all of his desire for her onto Daventry, an act which is not only homoerotic but also a statement perhaps about his idealistic and unrealizable relation to her. I’m wondering if this doesn’t make all of the relationships you describe quite arbitrary in the sense that the object and gender of desire becomes less important than the emotions they provoke and the way they deal with being on a sinking ship.
JP: Right. These are very desperate, confused people who are doing the best they can which, to a person of racial mind, is quite unacceptable. But I think if you look at anyone’s life, their life is not correct—they’re making one mistake after another. They’re blundering, they’re falling, they’re hurting people.
CL: Are you saying that intimacy with someone is also about a nonrelation with the person one apparently is involved with?
JP: I think we may never know whom we’re loving, and they don’t know who is being loved.
CL: That theme comes across very powerfully in your books.
JP: Right. I think that often the statement “Everything we do is wrong” is pressed on the tombstone of humanity. The little good that comes out of our lives is so small compared with the terrible mistakes we make. We’re so bewildered and harassed by our lives and what’s going on around us, it’s a wonder we do anything right.
CL: Perhaps what matters for Garnet is that Widow Rance exists; were she to be absent, he would be forced to confront his desire for Daventry or Quintus.
JP: Right. I think that when the book ends, he makes this decision at least unconsciously. He tries to get the black man to say he loves him, but neither of them can say it.
CL: That’s interesting because I noticed in the 1988 film version of the novel, the audience was left with an assurance that the widow and Garnet would marry—
JP: I know, that’s outrageous.
CL: —an assurance the book does not fulfill.
JP: No. Well they steal from me all the time in Hollywood and I’ve never been inquired of.
CL: There are grounds for this reading of loneliness in the film version, though your treatment of it obviously is more profound. When Garnet announces, “I do not even believe in death because what I am is emptier than death itself,” your text begins to examine the difficulty of living and staying alive—of staying on a ship that’s sinking. Later in the novel, Daventry comments to Garnet, “You do so cling to life, poor kid.” The same point emerges in Out with the Stars when the narrator comments about Val in a remarkable statement, “love had not surrendered him,” almost as if your characters are answerable to a more powerful force than themselves. Can you comment on this?
JP: Well I think all my characters are very confused as to whether life is really worth living since it’s so horribly painful. Everything changes so that they really don’t have any fixed idea about anything; they’re clinging to straws.
CL: So, at some points they welcome the idea of sinking, almost because it would annihilate them and would enable them to relinquish self-responsibility. Yet at other points, they seem to cling to the idea of themselves.
JP: With the little that they have, they do cling to the straw, yes. I think that what keeps most Americans going is drugs. Not just the cocaine and all because most Americans are on some kind of drug, whether valium or coffee. Some people drink twenty cups a day, after which I would have to go to the hospital!
CL: It’s certainly a very addicted culture.
JP: They’re all very ill people, but I think it must be worldwide. America is in the spotlight so you hear about it all the time, but what about the great companies that run everything? They run us, they make these school children drink Coca Cola. They tell them to smoke, which they do—they’re all smoking. They tell them to watch television which is just a pit of filth, nothing but lies; even the children’s program Sesame Street is full of the most terrible lies I’ve ever seen. And no one ever protests, not at any of it. Maybe it’s always been that way.
CL: Let’s talk more about the theme of abandonment in your texts because all of the later references in In a Shallow Grave to Garnet’s dispossession of his home indicate that he must endure another dispossession—his terror of being abandoned. This is a powerful and recurrent theme in your writing. So many of your protagonists beg not to be left alone. Would you say that the terror of being abandoned is related to an anxious relation to solitude, or is it more connected to an overinvestment in the love object as a fantasy of self-completion and fulfillment?
JP: In Garnet’s case, he’s lost who he really loves because he’s so deformed. He’s lost the real Garnet so that actually losing his house seems to be something that follows naturally. I don’t think he’s even surprised by it. He doesn’t have the strength to protest it. Since he lost who he was, he might as well become a derelict and not have a house. But, at the same time, he can’t give up the historical—the fact that he is part of a continuing history of the old South.
CL: It’s interesting that you talk about giving up the real Garnet because so much of the novel seems to be an inquiry into who Garnet is and, therefore, whether that truth factor of his personality actually exists. If the Garnet that loves Widow Rance seems to be one person, he’s certainly not the same as the Garnet who loves Daventry or Quintus.
JP: No, I think he’s been demolished and reborn, and that’s why losing his house doesn’t seem as terrible to him as it would if he’d come home a young soldier all together in one piece. I think then he would’ve fought to save his house. But he feels as if he’s lost everything except—as you intimate—he’s learned to love a man.
CL: Which is a powerful re-identification.
JP: Right, and he doesn’t understand it at all, but he knows that he must. Just as the boy in Eustace Chisholm doesn’t understand why he’s fallen into this terrible predicament—he just knows he does love Amos.
CL: So love operates as a kind of ineluctable force that breaks through people’s understanding of themselves?
JP: Right. It’s what the Greeks call Eros, which you couldn’t do anything about; if you resisted, you would be destroyed in Greek mythology.
CL: This may be related to your character’s longing for a love relationship that they have difficulty sustaining; it is also perhaps the reverse side to concerns about abandonment that constantly recur in your writing. Is it possible that you don’t fully believe in reciprocity; that the drama of being in love for you is always narcissistic and distorted by projection?
JP: I think most people never learn to love at all. They’re in love with someone’s body or their eyes, or they remind them of someone they can’t remember, but it often ends without any real reciprocity. I think it’s a universal predicament that people don’t ever learn to love; very few people do. They go from one person to another; they don’t love themselves either. In other words, I’m not dealing with a problem that is a narrow, personal blindness on my part, but with a universal tragedy. And the critics blame me, as though I invented these problems when I’m just writing about them.
CL: Then, there is something universal about this limit point to reciprocity? Is there also something insurmountable for you about knowing someone that prevents love from being fully receivable?
JP: In the New Testament, Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus, says that he can only forgive someone three times and Jesus replies “No, seven times seven will he have to forgive.” He’s really talking about love, I think—that if you’re going to love someone you have to go the whole way; you can’t just do it a little bit. Most people aren’t willing to go that far. I guess they can’t.
CL: In your books, there is also a violence connected to love and to being in love.
JP: Yes, I think Eros is the violent god.
CL: Eros connected to Thanatos, and not opposed to it?
JP: Right. But you see in America, everything can be solved by taking a pill. If you’re in love with someone, you just take a pill and then you don’t remember.
CL: There’s actually something more frightening and challenging about the kind of love you’re talking about.
JP: Right. Most people aren’t up to it, I guess.
CL: If Narrow Rooms is the best indication of this violence and challenge, could you talk about its origins? Is it for instance related to your characters’ internalization of cultural hatred of homosexuality, or something independently connected to the ambivalence of losing control, of being dependent on someone who might leave, and even of hating the one that you want so much?
JP: I think hatred of homosexuality is a deep sickness in America, in the world, and in Christian cultures in general. When you become very indignant over a group of people, it means you’re connecting with them very deeply. I can’t imagine there is such a thing as a normal man reading and writing and frothing at the mouth when he sees two young men kissing one another. He might think “Well, that’s unusual because I don’t know about that,” but how could he rave and rant and froth at the mouth? That means he’s connected with homosexuality.
CL: And the connection for him is intolerable.
JP: Right. I remember one of the most savage attacks on me was made by a writer named Nelson Algren. Someone told me that he had two great fears—one was that people would know he was Jewish because he was often stigmatized when he began writing. The other was that he was really a homosexual. I don’t know whether either of these claims are true, but the violence of his review of Eustace was such that he said it was a fifth-grade novel. What does that mean? And then he used all these clichés. The gist of the review was that since it was about faggots it could have no meaning for any normal person because faggots aren’t human; they’re really niggers or Jews or whatever the most hated group is. So you mustn’t read a book about faggots, apparently, because they’re not human. But the violence means that this person has deep problems about his own identity.
CL: That assumption about being inhuman is closely tied, I think, to the assumption that homosexuality is unnatural, and that if it’s unnatural it can be rejected and dismissed.
JP: Or extirpated by law.
CL: When in fact it never goes away . . .
JP: No. It reminds me of when I was in the army—I knew a lot of boys were queer or gay. I just knew they were but they did their work properly, and I did my work as best I could. There was no problem.
CL: Was there a connection between you and them?
JP: Well, we were moved around so much that you never saw the boys you did basic training with again. So I don’t know what became of them, but I didn’t form any real friendships because I was very uncomfortable there. I knew that at least one out of ten was gay and many more I observed were having sexual relations with men in town. They offered no threat to discipline or anything else because they were good soldiers.
CL: I’d like to hear more about you being in the army at this time.
JP: Oh, well I was terrified to be in.
CL: And in relation to these other men?
JP: Oh, I had nothing to do with any of them, except that I was friendly to them. They didn’t know anything about me. The army was so large you just got lost in it. If I hadn’t been in the army, I couldn’t have written Eustace Chisholm because I got enough material. Everything that happens to a writer, he’s going to use. He’s a real sponge. Except these intellectual writers—I think they always write about something they have thought about but never experienced.
CL: Was there a period of emotional discomfort for you about the presence of other gay men in the army?
JP: No, I was having other problems. It didn’t bother me whether they were gay or not. I was just having problems being there because I didn’t belong. But I guess the other boys didn’t belong there either. I guess we never belong anywhere!
CL: And did you go through a period of antagonism or discomfort about your own sexual identity?
JP: Oh yes, but my whole life was so difficult; that was not any more difficult than the rest. Everything was so hard for me. My family was separated, etc. etc. It still is very hard because I don’t feel that anyone knows who I am in America. I don’t even care anymore. Maybe I never cared. It’s a totally factitious culture, and fictitious too. It is a culture that despises the soul. Everything is money, conformity, fashion, shallowness, cruelty; it’s a great, great cruel society. And it’s now very sick because these children are killing one another. No one is doing anything about the real problems. We have a government that’s totally corrupt and television is a great bleeding rectum spewing filth which is poisoning everyone.
CL: That’s a very powerful image!
JP: It’s a bacilli on wheels. I’m ashamed to own a television. I hardly ever turn it on because first of all it’s too loud, and then we see these cretins—all you hear is this ersatz English.
CL: The relationship between Val and Luigi in Out with the Stars seems to demonstrate some of the ambivalence and frustration you have talked about in relation to love and intimacy, especially because Luigi is powerfully affected by a text that reads, “When love has reached its highest perfection, it can only begin to decline and like the sun set in darkness.” You seem to be suspicious of rapture in a love relation, but are you also troubled by the inevitability of its disillusion and demise?
JP: Yes, it’s very sad. I’m sure you don’t mean this, but your question seems to imply that there should be perfection in this world, that rapture should continue, and that when I portray it as ending there’s something wrong with my portraying that way.
CL: No, only that your characters seem to be stuck between two options—either to pursue rapture and to try and live it out to the full, as Cyril Vane does, by keeping that idea of endurable joy, or to confront its demise, and learn to do without, which is shattering and painful for them.
JP: I think that’s true of AIDS. We’ve never had a culture in America where young men were free to go. Instead of going to church and flirting with someone, they’ve been able since the sixties to go to places where young men abandon themselves to other young men. I don’t think the rapture lasted very long and the awful thing—which is like something in Greek tragedy—is they got this horrible disease which is unprecedented in the history of the world. I mean the Black Death killed one third of the population of Europe, but at least you died in a few days or weeks. It was not dragged out. And you didn’t know how you got it either. But death, like the rain, falls on the just and the unjust. Everyone got it or didn’t get it.
CL: But there’s obviously no justice to getting AIDS by going to the bathhouses. You say that they had no option—that they couldn’t flirt in church, for instance. So it’s a tragedy, but it’s not justice.
JP: No it certainly isn’t. It’s horrible. It shouldn’t have had that effect—it’s just some mistake in the nature of things, so that I’m sure in earlier periods in America young men did find one another but not so freely.
CL: You commented on my presumption that there should be a success to a relationship—that the rapture should be sustained. It’s tempting to ask you what dynamic would indicate a successful relationship for you—you mentioned flirting in church . . .
JP: I think the only successful relationships between men are when they find a deeper spiritual connection. And there are such friendships that last a lifetime. When you look at heterosexual relationships you find the same thing, that most of them end in failure. Statistics say that most marriages are a total mistake—they end in divorce, or at least a great percentage do. So it’s very hard to have an enduring relationship with anybody, including your parents.
CL: There’s something almost Proustian about this inevitable failure and disappointment.
JP: That’s great writing proof. I think he’s so much greater than Joyce. He’s to me not even a novelist. I find Joyce’s characters very parochial, not examined in depth.
CL: What fascinates you about Proust is a level of self-involvement with one’s fantasies?
JP: Right. And there’s a galaxy of characters, there’s just a whole opera house of characters. Proust was a great novelist. Joyce is sort of like a wordsmith. I like Finnegan’s Wake, the best thing he wrote. But I don’t find his characters involved and interesting.
CL: The same kind of difficulty about successful relationship seems to emerge in Garments the Living Wear. But this novel may be more disturbing and unsatisfying than the others because it resists any idea of sexual truth. We talked about this before with Garnet Montrose, the real Garnet. You represent gay characters as being interested in heterosexuality and bisexual characters’ complete indifference in gender, which is quite disconcerting for gay and straight readers alike. So, for instance, you write that “Jared’s predilection for young boys was as well known to her unfortunately as his other weakness for mature women.” I’d like you to talk about the anxiety that emerges from our being denied a sexual truth about your characters’ preference, and the insistence that we discover one—or, perhaps, the ambiguity we confront when we don’t know whether they have a preference.
JP: I think Jared is resisting his own homosexuality in trying to love women. Many homosexuals go through that. They do have sexual, rather heated sexual contacts with women and then they realize that’s just not real.
CL: But one could also say that Jared is very content with his male lover.
JP: Oh yes.
CL: So his resistance to being gay doesn’t seem appropriate . . .
JP: Well it’s based on a real person who did that, which just shows that you never get over prejudice you’re brought up with—you never quite get rid of it. Even when you think it out, it is still inside of you.
CL: I guess that what interested me in Garments the Living Wear was a reworking of the coming out story in which one gives up a “false” identity to take on an “authentic” and “truthful” identity by declaring “I am gay” or “I am lesbian.” However, you begin with—and then transform—already gay characters who seem satisfied and content with their preference. So the myth of coming out into a truthful, honest identity seems to be challenged in the process.
JP: Well, I based the novel on a young man who is very ambivalent toward women, so I’m stuck with the model and not the point of view. That’s another thing that critics don’t understand in me—I’m basing these texts on real people and they want something thought out, you see. People don’t think out their lives, they are tossed as if on waves by every wind that comes, and man is not a rational creature. But the critics seem to think there is such a thing as rational behavior. They haven’t read history, I guess, which is a collection of lunacies. We contradict ourselves every day. Life is contradictory. What we are one day, we’re not the next.
CL: But it’s almost, at times, as if you’re suggesting there’s something too “straight” about a man who loves men. Val Sturgis in Out with the Stars is, for instance, a much less complex character than is Cyril Vane, whose “indiscriminate love” is much harder to pin down.
JP: Val Sturgis is very happy being gay, and he has no intent of ever changing or even thinking about any other form. Cyril Vane is much more complicated. He actually has been married several times. And yet I think the woman he’s married to is sort of an anchor to his stability. And then his dream world is these young men—many of them black—whom he has to have. She sort of understands that, though she’s very jealous.
CL: But she also despises it later on.
JP: I know. And yet she can’t give him up so, to keep him, she has to keep his fantasy or whatever you want to call it. I know a woman who loved this man deeply but he had one vile habit. He chewed tobacco and he spat these golden spittoons all over the house. She just thought at times she’d kill herself or leave him and yet she couldn’t. But he had that one horrible habit, and I think that’s love. Nobody’s very nice, really. You have to put up with terrible things. And we have to put up with ourselves, which is an unclean beast in straw.
CL: Perhaps that’s the hardest part of all!
CL: Connected with this point, is there something less certain and therefore more enigmatic for you about bisexuality? I noticed for instance that Garments the Living Wear often uses an indeterminacy about desire and sexual preference to indicate precisely how little we know about ourselves and other people.
JP: Right. We’re not here long enough to figure out that much. And most of the time we have so many problems just to find enough money to pay the rent. These reviewers seem to think everything should be figured out. I don’t know where they’re coming from. I’m sure their own lives must be a mess.
CL: That mess is perhaps related to another anxiety that Garments explores, which is our inability to attach any truth to anatomy. Is this again used to unsettle and disturb our expectations, to make us confront our wish to see Estrellita as either a man or a woman and therefore to know whether Edward Hennings is an honest gay or a confused heterosexual?
JP: [Laughs.] Well I think Shakespeare suffered from this. I think he loved men but he says “Nature as she fell a doting added one thing to my purpose nothing.” I guess he meant his cock, of course. But that doesn’t mean you’re not gay. He loved the rest of his body and he loved it as a boy’s body and not as a girl’s. I think Edward Hennings is in the same place.
CL: Have you seen Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game?
CL: Because, it also seemed to draw on this transgender confusion and to be borrowed from Garments.
JP: Probably it was. I’ve been told that I’m stolen from all the time. But I often see a girl I think is so beautiful I’d like to love her because she looks like a boy, so it’s very enticing. And you think, I could really live with a girl like that because she looks like a boy. So you see this gets back to the fact that nothing is simple. And even when it looks simple, it’s not going to be simple tomorrow. So I’m accused by these awful reviewers that there’s something wrong with me. What’s wrong is they’re not studying people, they don’t know people.
CL: Garments the Living Wear often draws on magical realism, which may explain some of its difficulty to readers accustomed to psychological realism. The scene with the evangelist, Jonas Hakluyt, bursting into flames is one of the most astonishing and powerful in the book. I wonder if you meant this to be read as a just apotheosis for a religious fanatic or to parody the spectacular allegories of the Bible, where these kinds of events occur all the time and we’re expected to simply believe them.
JP: Well in America the most terrible things are happening all the time. I don’t know how they think I invented these events. Don’t they read the newspapers? I’m horrified by all of them, I can’t believe what’s going on. To go back to Narrow Rooms, that young man had himself crucified—that was on the front page of all the California papers. A young man was angry here because he was told he couldn’t enter this Hispanic dance hall because he’d been misbehaving, and was told not to come back. He came back with a whole jug of gasoline, poured it, set fire and killed eighty-two people—they were all burned to crisp. He’s been sent away for life, of course, but that happens every day in New York, something like that.
CL: And so your use of that example is to demonstrate the kind of fanaticism that surfaces around religion?
JP: Well religion is like Eros, I think, or most of it is. It’s crazy. Did you ever hear of the Holy Rollers? [Laughs.] They speak in tongues and they roll on the floor! I don’t know if they exist anymore. I guess they’re called Pentecostals now. But as a child I used to peek in their doings and I was quite frightened because they were grown-up people acting like animals.
CL: When Edward Hennings insists that “Jesus is an invention of everybody’s fancy,” you seem to be making a comment not only about the terrifying fervor of evangelism in the States but also about our capacity for putting trust in the most exploitative of structures and our demand to have some kind of faith in a system of meaning.
JP: I think religion asks us to believe in the unbelievable. It’s very hard to believe that Jesus was the only begotten son of God.
CL: Or that he was produced by an Immaculate Conception . . .
JP: Yes, and that if we believe in him we’ll go to paradise with the thief on the cross. I don’t know that the real Jesus believed any of those things. That’s what we’re asked to believe, and no one can believe it.
CL: Is religion for you, to quote Edward Hennings, “what has made America a nation of meringue brains”?
JP: Well that’s his opinion, not mine. But there’s truth in it. I don’t know whether it’s religion that’s made us meringue brains but something has. Maybe it was Mr. Reagan who had a meringue brain . . .
CL: Would you consider that we’re all living under a kind of pervasive hypnosis—the kind that prevents us from inquiring into the truth of our personal, social, and even global conditions because, like Garnet Montrose, we are too dispossessed to ask the right questions?
JP: Right. I think we’re all punch drunk, we all have softening of the brain. We’ve had to witness too much history. I think that’s why young people don’t seem to know anything. I think there’s too much to know, so they have just conked out.
CL: And there’s been too much atrocity. Is some of the atrocity of history related to the World Wars for you, or to Vietnam and the Holocaust?
JP: It’s just too much to swallow. The other day a friend of mine who collects stamps went to the post office to get the new Joe Lewis and a young black woman waited on him. And he said, “Oh isn’t this a nice stamp, I like this very much.” She said, “Yes. By the way, who was Joe Lewis?” He thought she was joking! But it’s still shocking that a black girl wouldn’t know one of their most famous heroes. It shows that people have conked out; they don’t want to hear about history.
CL: We’ve already talked about your radical treatment of sexuality and gender in Garments the Living Wear, but the book also struck me as forming a dialogue with very recent debates about queer identity, politics, and desire. Would you consider your work as part of this reappraisal of sexual identity or is the queer movement demonstrating for you an antagonism between gay generations because it plays up an unrealistic fantasy of self-invention and a too-easy dismissal of the past?
JP: Yes, I don’t know that I have it thought out quite that clearly, but it’s what I feel. That I don’t think the gay movement is kind to art or to artistic truth. I don’t think any political movement is going to like artists. They only like people like themselves—naysayers. So much of this is like the writer David Leavitt who wants gays to be very nice people.
CL: And not to have sex.
JP: And not to have sex. And to be well-behaved bourgeoisie. So he could be published and praised by The New Yorker, which hates anything that is seminal. His characters never have anything but nice talk. But many gay writers are like that and of course his books are applauded by the media, or were.
CL: So you feel you have more in common with more recent movements like ACT-UP and Queer Nation?
JP: Yes, because I think I’ll always be—I hate to say this, I hate to categorize myself—but I guess I’ll always be a revolutionary. Whatever is, is wrong.
CL: Talking of revolutionary and peripheral positions, I know you have immense respect for Jean Genet’s writing but I’m interested to know if you see yourself in dialogue with contemporary gay writers, presumably not David Leavitt.
JP: I imagine David Leavitt is a very nice person. He has written me letters, he wants to use one of my stories in an anthology. But he and I just belong to different worlds, really.
CL: And other contemporary gay writers?
JP: There’s Matthew Stadler, who arranged my recent trip to Seattle. And I met other gay writers there that are very close to me. There’s one gay writer that is very interesting, Tom Spandbauer, who wrote The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. It’s a new thing in gay writing.
CL: Your work has always reminded me in the best possible way of the visual subtlety and sexual nuance of Derek Jarman’s films.
JP: Oh yes, he’s trying to do Narrow Rooms, but he’s too ill to do it.
CL: That’s interesting because Out with the Stars seems to end with a gesture to Jarman’s The Garden in its closing references to religious parody. I’m sure in turn that your fiction has had a big impact on his films, especially The Last of England, Caravaggio, and Edward II.
JP: Right. I think he was filming that when I met him.
CL: Could you give me your thoughts about his work?
JP: I like it very much. I like him and his friend Keith Collins, who takes good care of him. Keith said I was one of his heroes, which is nice because I always feel I’m neglected. People say that’s your paranoia. No, it’s not. Is it paranoia to be black and think you’re going to be lynched? No, that isn’t paranoia; that’s genuine knowledge. I always feel that no one knows me and then, when Derek Jarman wants to film me, I realize people do know me, somewhere. And that I’m influencing people.
CL: Do you see your work as going in tandem with his?
JP: No, I think I’m always . . . I don’t like to say ahead of him, but I’m going ahead and he’s at the end, he says. So I imagine, not to blow my own horn, but I imagine I’m going to influence other real filmmakers, as opposed to American filmmakers who are doing absolutely nothing, they’re just dead, dead, dead. They’re recycling everything. Now they have the dinosaurs [in Jurassic Park], you see that’s all just a joke.
CL: Perhaps the danger of reading your work, as you intended, is that it will confront your readers with elements of ambivalence, prejudice, and hatred for which they may have very little tolerance.
JP: Right. That’s true of my readers, or most of them.
CL: Could you explain some of the ways in which you’ve been taken up, misread, or simply ignored by the literary establishment?
JP: Oh, it’s almost total. Even some of the good reviews don’t understand what I’m writing. I think intellectuals are the worst sinners because they want everything clear and life is not clear. Actually I think my books are very clear, but they don’t get it because they come with preconceived notions as to what fiction should be and what political correctness should be.
CL: Perhaps in addition to clarity, we’re placing too much emphasis on resolution. Are you more interested in maintaining irresolution as the most satisfying way to live?
JP: I don’t have it thought out that clearly. The book takes me with it. The “truth” of the book carries me along. I always know that I have to be wrong to be right. I remember that when I wrote what people think is my most ambitious book, The House of the Solitary Maggot, I based it on the stories my grandmother told me. They shoot out the young boy’s eyes in the book. When I was rewriting that, “I thought I just don’t think I’ll have this, it’s too much for me.” And then it was as though my grandmother’s voice came, and she said, “No, I’m sorry, but that has to go in the book because that was the story I told you, so don’t change it.” So you see, I sometimes am thinking of being false to myself, and that’s one reason I’m not successful because the books are “true” as far as I’m concerned, and that isn’t the truth the public will ever like.
CL: And it’s that truth factor that keeps you writing, even if it’s also uncomfortable and on some level impossible.
JP: Right. I always have to be wrong to be right, but I’m used to that. You just have to not worry about society, what it thinks. It’s never going to like anyone, gay or straight; society is this dumb brute. Of course it’s harder to be gay than straight because society doesn’t like us and never will; it doesn’t like anyone really. It’s so immersed in its own mire and people are really very stupid except about their own feelings. They show no interest in their own country, and they don’t care about what we do.