Category Archives: literature

In Defense of Marie Calloway

Marie Calloway has recently achieved notoriety as the pseudonymous author of Adrien Brody, an autobiographical story about her sexual encounter(s) with a modestly famous New York writer. The original version of the story was first posted on Calloway’s Tumblr, but later retracted because it revealed the real identity of “Adrien Brody.”

Marie Calloway

from mrstsk.tumblr.com

Calloway’s story has been met with a mixture of interest and vitriol. The main detractors claim she lacks talent and berate her for her desire for recognition of her talents. They state outright or imply that her reported behavior is slatternly. The fact that her desire for attention is only equal to that of “Adrien” is given little, if any, weight.

It’s true that the original interest in Calloway’s story was due mainly to its unflattering (but not unaffectionate) reportage on a well-known figure. Attention persisted because the story is insightful and well-written, and because Calloway was all too happy to defend herself and her intellect.

Adrien Brody doesn’t merit ongoing attention because (some) readers know Brody’s real identity, but because the piece itself is sharp, its unapologetic author both vulnerable and shrewd. During sex, Calloway’s choice of conversation topic is remorselessly bookish:

He started to talk about things.
“I always feel weird talking during sex,” I said.
“But that’s the best part,” he insisted, grinning.
“Let’s talk about Gramsci,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and we did.

Adrien Brody is well-structured (very Ford Maddox Ford): we are placed in the action; the background is woven into the story; requisite development, climax, ending). Calloway’s voice is as blunt and incisive as Mary Gaitskill’s narrators in Bad Behavior. Here’s a little excerpt from the short story Secretary (this takes place just after the narrator’s boss non-consensually spanked her while she read aloud and cried):

I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.

A lot of people want to rip Marie Calloway to shreds. She is a spectacle because she has made herself vulnerable; her transparent desire for affection entertain in part because it is sad, and frightening, and such a very perfect reflection of so many people’s desires. As though a desire to be told that you’re worthy makes someone lesser. It does not, but in extreme cases, it may yield weird results. Adrien Brody is one of those.

As I read blogs and articles that pillory Marie Calloway I am reminded of the way those who had little or no stake in the JT Leroy case condemned Laura Albert. They despised the way Albert yearned for, then coveted, the vicarious attention she received for her talent. They assumed she wrote as JT for the attention, or for the fame, and not simply because at some point, it made sense for her to “be” JT.

It comes back to Andy Warhol, a man whose profound obsession with recognition was rooted in his own profound insecurity with his appearance (and his uncertainty of his own worth or worthiness).

There is always a great deal of anger directed toward those who want fame and pursue unusual means to attain it. Warhol is loved and hated in equal measure, and for a time Albert faded into disgraced obscurity (but she’s coming back!). One may or may not enjoy their output, but whether they hunger for fame should have little to do with it.

Speaking of hungering for fame: I have yet to read anything that confirms that Marie Calloway wrote the original Adrien Brody (before the Muumuu House edits) as a coldly calculated move to draw attention to herself. Calloway had already been published on Thought Catalog. She already wrote and posted autobiographical stories on her Tumblr. As far as I know, the primary version of Adrien Brody was posted in that context. In an interview she says that she was “excited” about the story, but that could as easily be attributed to the content as the (potentially fallacious) assumption that it would bring attention.

The personality cults of girls with Livejournals (or, more recently, Tumblrs), have finally spilled into the mainstream. Yes, Adrien Brody is self-absorbed, but there is something fascinating, something profoundly intimate, about directed self-absorption. As they grew older these women tucked their insecurities and meditations safely away behind Friends Only posts, presuming that need and confusion were unacceptable traits in anyone past the age of 19. Something was lost, then, in the fear that honesty could only be permissible in juvenilia.

Marie Calloway intentionally lets the raw edge of her damaged youth show. Yes, her writing is solipsistic, but the solipsism is intentional and affecting. It’s involving and cleverly rendered and happily, because of a certain Adrien Brody scandal, there’ll soon be more of it. I hope her stories stay keen.

Addendum: The more I think about it, the more I think Marie Calloway might be a hoax, a pseudonymous personality and not just a nom de guerre. What proof is there that the letter to The Hairpin was real (or even that the original Tumblr post existed)? It’s interesting that people are asking “Who is ‘Adrien Brody’?” but not “Who is ‘Marie Calloway’?” We’re quick to assume that she is who she claims to be, despite her affiliation with people dedicated to adopting multiple online personas and staging publicity stunts (Momus and Tao Lin). It seems equally likely that Marie Calloway is who she claims, and that she isn’t who she claims. It doesn’t matter all that much. What’s really interesting is the way she and her writing have been treated, validated, invalidated, et cetera, based on assumptions about her identity and motives.

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Utopia Deferred: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Having been awoken from a recurring dream of a bizarre Wonderland, a young girl asks her father whether she is going mad. Her father assures her that she is, but, smiling gently, tells her that “all the best people are.” This is an auspicious beginning to Tim Burton’s new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), which celebrates eclecticism, imagination, courage, and rebellion, drawing on the familiar and ever-evocative characters of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books (and also Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland) to reinforce a message that is, up to the penultimate scene, utopian. In the final scene, the film inexplicably belies its previous message and replaces it with empty rhetoric.

Alice enters Wonderland.

19-year-old Alice enters Tim Burton's Underland.

That Burton decided to focus on many of the more utopian aspects of the story—frequently repeating the idea that one may “believe six impossible things before breakfast” and that “all the best people” are mad, the film glories the untamed imagination and fully recognizes its potential to cause social upheaval and positive, humane change. Indeed, in the end none of the film’s characters are slain save the Jabberwocky (though the audience is denied the thrilling “SNICKER SNACK” that traditionally accompanies the Vorpal Sword’s fatal blows). Even the cruel Red Queen is spared; she is, however, banned from the kingdom, and chained forever to her equally unpleasant steward, the treacherous Knave of Hearts (played by a delightfully creepy Crispin Glover). The White Queen transforms the entire kingdom into a peaceful, human, and equal place—a mad utopia, but a utopia nonetheless.

The ending, however, belies the rest of the film—Alice chooses to go home instead of remaining in Wonderland. She spurns her loathsome suitor’s offer of marriage but decides to follow her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneurial explorer, expanding business into new lands and distant countries (specifically China). In the end, the film suggests, the most important thing is not humane change but potential for exploration and boundless personal and financial gain. Through its rather heavy-handed use of a visual caterpillar (The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, to be exact) transformed into a butterfly in the final scene of the film (the butterfly soars over Alice’s shoulder as she strides confidently toward the bow of a ship that will take her to China), the film suggests that Alice’s real destiny, in fact her happiness, self-expression, and true freedom, are inextricably bound to explorations via venture capitalism. Indeed, her imagination seems more contained, more limited than ever—it has been “domesticated.”* Of course, the domestication of the imagination is par for the course with Disney—and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, after all, a Disney film.

By borrowing the penultimate act of The Wizard of Oz (in Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland Alice is given Jabberwocky blood which allows her to be transported home, if she so chooses), Burton reasserts the utopian implication of Frank L. Baum’s novel and of the various Oz films—that home, the real world, can be improved, and made better. However, Burton’s Alice hopes not for improvement of overall conditions, but only for the limited improvement of her own personal life. As Jack Zipes writes in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tales, Baum lost faith in the utopian American dream over time; in the final Oz books, Dorothy decides to remain in Oz forever, having no use for the vast, unresolved social and economic inequalities of her original home in America.

Alice in her armor.

That Burton’s Alice is blind, even indifferent to greater social concerns. Although her adventurous actions would have been unusual, even subversive for a woman in Victorian England, viewed in a contemporary context her decision to use her imagination in order to succeed in business perfectly corroborates the myth that iconoclasm, risk-taking and hard work create not just success but also joy. Moreover, the film equates the genuine social parity and happiness achieved in Wonderland with the boundless expansion of business and personal wealth—implying that the latter (personal wealth/gain) creates and support the former (social equality), despite the fact that inequality—especially economic inequality—is entrenched in American society. We need utopian stories to help suggest fresh ways of addressing social imbalance. As Jack Zipes says, “I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after — extraordinary hope.” That’s why the conclusion to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland upsets me so deeply—it lacks the extraordinary hope present in the rest of the film.

A quick look at recent fan fiction based on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reveals that large portion of the fan fiction written about the story either change the ending so that Alice remains in Wonderland or send her back to Wonderland after she becomes discontent with her drab life in the real world. Perhaps we’re all holding on to that extraordinary hope after all.

*The “domestication of imagination” is a phrase that Jack Zipes uses many times over in his books.

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Shanghai Art and Science Fiction

Objects In My Drawer

Jiang Zhi -- "Objects In My Drawer"

I didn’t know I was interested in Shanghai’s contemporary art scene until I started reading the blog Asian Art Nerd.  The blog offers commentary and showcases Shanghai art (often via the author’s own photos) such as Jiang Zhi‘s photographs, which recallsome bizarre combination of dreams, nostalgia, and horror films:

Sucker

Jiang Zhi -- "Sucker"

Each image makes my skin prickle, as though images of my private nightmares are being put public display. It feels great to see them so clearly in focus, but also frightening, even embarrassing.

On a completely different note I’ve also been enjoying Space Canon, a blog reviewing Science Fiction exclusively. Sounds dull and common place until you actually read the thing. Here’s Space Canon’s recent review of an Arthur C. Clarke novel titled Imperial Earth:

Impetuously, a space-living
Man, still young,
Plots his first and last journey to
Earth, for him, a
Return to his long-forgotten birthplace.
In the ship, he trains for
All those forgotten rituals, including:
Life with gravity.

Everything he finds, including the most anodyne of
Animals, seems mystical, meaningful, alien.
Returning to his home on the moon of
Titan, he is
Humbled.

Here’s what the author has to say about this undertaking to read books from the SF canon:

I would like to become a kind of expert on the subject, and because there are no genuine, bricks-and-mortar institutions where a person can do such a thing. Because I would like to continue striding straight and calm into the future, assured of all possible realities, of how to foil the pitfalls of humanity when faced with sentient clouds, steel planets, and moon pools. And, while the canon of traditional literature forms a majestic, complex image of humanity, the space canon as a culture is as yet lightly-trodden, but full of important, and undoubtedly prescient, ideas.

Happy reading!

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“If you don’t see it in the work in front of you… your job is to write it yourself.”

“You want to read work that reflects yourself, not necessarily literally yourself, but your perspective, your point of view, and the community around you, and if you don’t see it in the work in front of you, as a writer, your job is to write it yourself. You want to put that world on the page.” –Speculative Fiction editor Sheree R. Thomas on NPR, August 13, 2007

I remember reading a message board discussion about the potential of Fantasy and Science Fiction to champion possible worlds in which race is dealt with deftly, interestingly, unusually – the very context of race and race relations is altered. Power dynamics can be shifted (Martha Jones from Doctor Who and Torchwood, anyone?*), sometimes even made void and null (Ursula LeGuin). The point was that Speculative Fiction (Science Ficton, Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism, etc.) can offer a more flexible context to present and consider race. Unfortunately, a majority of Speculative Fiction offers little more than dulling doses of “Blandy McWhitey White in Blandy McNeighborhood in America or Blandy McMedieval Europe or Blandy McDefaulty Man in any setting anywhere.”**

Speculative Fiction appeals to the imagination and the unconscious – and therein lies its power. It can be used not only for escapist daydreaming, but for social commentary (which, of course, lots of Science Fiction already is), change, even as a visionary medium. Speculative Fiction can be used to address race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., all within unusual or altered contexts.

*Actually, Martha’s treatment by the Doctor was always disappointing, but her treatment by the Doctor Who scriptwriters wasn’t (Martha’s character is great, the Doctor is boring and patronizing). The characters of Torchwood appreciate her far more.
**This is the second time I’ve quoted The Angry Black Woman – an excellent blog on “politics, race, gender, sexuality, anger.”

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In Defense of JT LeRoy

Everyone reading this blog probably already knows the story: a 15-year-old boy named J.T. LeRoy who has suffered a life of physical and sexual abuse, been neglected and deprived, worked as a prostitute, and been on and off drugs, emerges into intense fame after the publication of his collections of short stories, all popularly considered to be semi-autobiographical. A few years and many friendships with celebrities later, it’s revealed that the 15-year-old boy doesn’t really exist. In fact, he’s the alter-ego of a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Scandal and mud-slinging ensue. Laura Albert is denounced by The New York Times, not to mention the many authors and movie stars who assisted her ascension to literary fame. Many of those people are angry that they were lied to. They feel betrayed – and understandably so.

But what about Laura’s reading public? I admit, I was once amongst the dewy-eyed fans who packed into overpriced bookstores, wine bars, etcetera to hear minor stars read the reclusive author’s work. I trembled with excitement when I saw an androgynous boy in a blond wig and sunglasses sitting on the stairs (J.T. LeRoy was known for showing up at his own readings “in disguise” and watching). Laura Albert’s Warholian combination of shyness and desire for acknowledgement birthed J.T. LeRoy. I longed to be noticed by LeRoy in a similar withdrawn manner (although I adored him, I never once wrote him a fan letter).

Maybe that’s why I’m not upset by Albert’s ruse – I can understand the feeling of “[being] completely ignored and disregarded and disdained.” That total feeling of invisibility and loneliness wells out of some lack of safety deep inside, like a night when the wind is up and no one is outside, like the concrete slab of clouds in the sky will suck you up and trap you. Sounds crazy, right? I suspect that feeling of an internal vacuum drives a lot of people – not just Laura Albert, but also Hans Christian Anderson and the aforementioned Andy Warhol (to name a couple off the top of my head). I’ve felt that way. But I also fear visibility.

This is the sort of catch-22 that seems to have birthed JT LeRoy.

However, it may be unfair to ask you to be sympathetic to Laura Albert’s cause on those grounds. Laura Albert was and is a mess, I agree. But I also think that whether she’s a mess isn’t really my business (much less in my control), so I’ll reiterate what has been said repeatedly, endlessly, not about Laura Albert but about her writing: the books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. Fiction fiction fiction! When asked if they were autobiographical, LeRoy would always insist that they drew on his experiences abstractly. He never suggested that the stories were verbatim, or to be taken literally. The public simply inferred it, and LeRoy/Albert never denied the rumors.

The rumors were never denied because there was some truth to them. Whatever Albert may not be (male, young, living on the street), she has obviously been through some kind of hell – enough so to write short stories that can be acutely joyful and painful to read.

However, these arguments may fail to elicit your sympathy. After all, LeRoy/Albert spent years coyly courting celebrity and soliciting fame.

The books have been attacked because writing of the quality Albert produced is (supposedly) less impressive from someone in their forties than it is from a young street kid. However, sidestepping all debate of literary merit, I’d like to suggest that the books had another value: they were, in some ways, for some people, therapeutic. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe for some people they were triggering. For others, they seemed silly (I have several friends who would roll their eyes at any mention of LeRoy’s work). However, for some people – especially trauma survivors who had experienced a certain inexplicable type of psychological mangling – the books resonated. They made intrinsic, intuitive sense out of the internal feeling that the wall between sanity and nonsense – or sickness – was broken. To me, and some others I talked to, it felt like someone had written about things we knew – the way trauma twists instinct so that it bends away from self-preservation and toward self-destruction. Albert wasn’t writing down our own experiences – the events of the stories were far worse than anything I ever experienced – but the settings, the descriptions of emotions and tastes and personalities – were pitched with an uncanny perfection.

Other authors – Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper – have written about abuse and lasting trauma with delicacy and a similar dark humor, but no one articulated it quite like J.T. No one was quite so good at writing characters who were both sympathetic and sickening. In Laura Albert’s words, “the characters in JT LeRoy’s books…strive for goodness, even in a world where all their experience contradicts this. I feel that this desire is essential to my story as well. When I would reach a point where I wanted to commit suicide, something gave me hope.”

The stories were and are hopeful. They suggested that even from the dregs of the most awful repeated abuse, a writer could emerge. And they still tell that hopeful story – after all, Laura Albert survived – damaged, maybe, but intact enough to get the story out.

The stories also described, subtly, that abuse could be confused with love, and that children and adolescents could mix up their desire to be loved with their willingness to (in Albert’s words) “serve.” They suggested, that these confusions could be overcome, that in time one could make enough sense of them to write them all down using vivid description. The stories reminded traumatized people that their trauma wasn’t unspeakable and that trauma could escape their bodies if they just gave it vent. Moreover, Albert’s writing showed that even the worst events and people could be seen with wryness and humor, even sympathy.

Or at least, that’s how the stories made me feel.

Yes, LeRoy/Albert’s writing was overwrought, but the experiences described were distressing enough to warrant such a literary style. I no longer feel the intense attachment to J.T. LeRoy/Laura Albert’s books that I once did. However, my feelings didn’t change because of an alteration in the author’s identity. My need for the books lessened because I begin to work through my own trauma. LeRoy/Albert’s books helped me to talk about the trauma I experienced, and get it out. Now I know it’s not unspeakable, and I feel safe much more of the time. I don’t long for the acceptance of ephemeral celebrities as much as I once did (although I admit that I have yet to fully overcome the shameful-seeming Warholian urge). I owe a part of my ability to speak about trauma and to let it subside to Laura Albert’s books. For me, and perhaps for some of the other people who her books imprinted, that means quite a lot more than any public identity hoax.

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