The elements of bile

Gary Indiana slices through the cultural dreck.

FACE THE TRUTH Indiana urges you to see beyond polite discourse.

FACE THE TRUTH Indiana urges you to see beyond polite discourse. Photograph: Kate Simon

The title of novelist and critic Gary Indiana’s new essay collection, Utopia’s Debris, points to one of the significant tensions of his work—the drive to evoke a strong undertow of awfulness in contemporary culture and the pleasure of plowing through it. His nonfiction has an awe-inspiring syntax and rigorous sensibility that suggest Joan Didion’s political takedowns but have a droll power all their own, one that’s tuned in to the frequencies of art, sexual power and human folly. When TONY reaches Indiana at his East Village apartment, it’s the Monday before Election Day, and the author is in fine acerbic form. “Picking Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate—I mean, talk about surrealism,” the 58-year-old writer says. “She reminds me of the false Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, this absolute embodiment of the death instinct that sort of shimmers up out of the bowels.”

In the new book, Indiana throws verbal daggers at a variety of political topics, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jim McGreevey’s coming-out “scandal.” With a nod to Mary McCarthy, his arts writing gleefully topples figures whom other critics tend to cover in fairy dust. A review of several books by the hyperprolific French crime writer Georges Simenon states, “A month of reading him inevitably makes a writer like Raymond Carver look utterly bogus, and one like Cormac McCarthy seem terminally precious.” This is his take on Errol Morris’s documentary about Vietnam War–era secretary of defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War: “In McNamara, Morris has at last found a subject whose callow, self-serving evasions and stridently complacent banalities have a deep affinity with Morris’s insufferable delusion that his work digs deep below the surface of things.”

While it can’t be much fun to be cast under Indiana’s discerning eye, the writer asserts that he’s simply describing the ugliness and mediocrity that he sees in front of him, a practice that’s all the more important because it has become so rare. “There’s a fear that if you say what you really perceive, it will be seen as fanatical or over-the-top, or somehow cruel and unfair,” Indiana says. “Which is horseshit, but it’s the kind of horseshit we’ve all come to accept in public discourse.”

But his tone, one soon learns, is far too complex to fall into a monotonous hatchet-man groove. He can be hilarious, recounting that he took LSD before watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket for the first time as a teen (“I’m not saying it was such a great idea to watch that film on acid,” he tells TONY, “but it certainly left an indelible impression”). And even as his essays hum with a vitriolic charge, what makes them truly stand out is the way they derive pleasure from ideas and original thought. Many of the pieces here are wildly knowledgeable and insightful appreciations—of writers Caroline Blackwood, Susan Sontag, Gavin Lambert and Witold Gombrowicz; filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbet Schroeder and Mike Hodges; and actor Bulle Ogier, to name a few.

Sure, some of the artists are, or were, difficult—in their work if not in person. But according to Indiana, their willingness to overstate, to go over the top, allows them to approach a more accurate view of the world than their more-modulated, better-behaved contemporaries. “You take someone like Fassbinder, who has a penchant for making a really bad situation as bad as it possibly can be,” the author says. “He pushes things to an extreme, but he’s really just telling the truth.”

Anyone who’s read Indiana’s stunning books knows that he would resist attempts to pretty up or gentrify his work (witness his study of Versace killer Andrew Cunanan Three Month Fever, the L.A. murder satire Resentment and the mournfully sarcastic meditation on a group of bohemians Do Everything in the Dark). During our conversation, he rails against Disney World as “homogenous, sexless, puritanical crap,” and longs for the “sensual and carnal themes of the old Coney Island” (the first place Freud wanted to visit when he came to America, the author points out). And yet, for all his acerbic jolts, there is a common thread of decency running through Indiana’s writing. These essays are calls to actually dig beneath the surface of things, to educate oneself and “to find our way out of our delusions…to something like reason, and the golden rule.”

The truths that Indiana delivers are rarely soothing. He dwells on wasted lives, pathology and murder. But he also urges his readers to question culture, politics, personal relationships and the political system. In his own raunchy, cynical way, he advocates the same thing that a good liberal-arts education should: He wants you to think.

Probably because he resists absolute truths, his own thought continues to emerge with a shape-shifting ardor—in novels, criticism, political tracts. He’s currently working on a nonfiction book about Warhol’s soup cans, and he has a new novel, The Shanghai Gesture, which comes out in April 2009. But he’s also facing a very personal reality, namely the economic crunch. “I’m one of the first of the creative class to be impacted by the downturn,” he says. “I’m working on finding a job—a teaching job, probably. And you can print that.”

Utopia’s Debris (Basic, $28.95) is out now.

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