A Lost Generation

Photo Credit: Jill Krementz

Publication, Emily Dickinson mused, “is the Auction Of the Mind,” a condition “so foul” that after a certain point she deemed it better to work in “Poverty” rather than pursue the acclaim to which she knew she was entitled. That sentiment caught my eye because of its slant resonance to the case of Heather Lewis. In 1996, Heather began submitting the sequel to her controversial debut, House Rules. Notice didn’t fare well with editors. Its lurid story—a nameless young woman turns tricks for drugs until she falls in love with the wife of one of her johns, a rich sadist who molested and killed his own daughter and uses the protagonist to reenact his crime night after night—struck industry readers as unbelievable or, even more discomfiting, too close to their notions of the author’s actual experience.

At the time Heather took the stoic route, shelving Notice and writing The Second Suspect, the final installment of what she considered a trilogy. She ditched the first-person narrator for third-person detachment, filtering the central conceit of incest, misogyny, and murder through a detective’s objective gaze rather than the unnerving subjectivity of a survivor. The crime-drama prism got the novel published but didn’t save The Second Suspect from being dissed as “transgressive,” its subject matter attributed to “an almost adolescent need to shock.” The taunts stung, not least because they deliberately failed to understand Heather’s work, but also because of the implicit suggestion that the kinds of experiences she wrote about weren’t fit materials for art. The situation was complicated by the collapse of Heather’s career in the wake of The Second Suspect’s failure; in addition, after a decade of sobriety, she started drinking again. These lamentable developments, coupled with who knew what personal traumas, culminated in her suicide in 2002; it is only through the valiant efforts of a handful of supporters that Notice is now being published nearly a decade after she wrote it.

For me, Heather’s death, virtually unnoticed by the publishing community, marked more than a personal loss. It also ended an era in literature. Some might call it a period of experimentation or innovation, but I think of it simply as a time when literature was, as it so rarely is, relevant to more than students of literature. This movement had its roots in the AIDS epidemic, but by the time Heather and I began our careers in the early nineties, it had become the sensibility of a much larger community. AIDS galvanized a transformation that permanently took gay men, gay life, and especially gay culture out of the closet. This culture was political, but it was also, hugely, artistic, and from the beginning, this art was neither exclusively gay nor exclusively male, nor even exclusively about AIDS. That’s because the disease was an affliction of sex and needles and bad luck, but the epidemic was perceived as a catastrophe of homicidal indifference. Just as World War I gave us the Lost Generation, AIDS gave us the Blank Generation, and its literary expression, New Narrative. It was this movement that inspired Heather and myself.

Terms like Blank Generation and New Narrative imply a self-awareness that smacks of backward glances, if not simply nostalgia. At the time, there was just the fragmented reality of political demonstrations and academic conferences, independent bookstores selling books published by small presses, “guerrilla Xeroxing,” and handmade ’zines, such as the influential New Narrative journal Between C and D, published as a dot-matrix printout in a plastic bag.

New Narrative was a term that floated around this milieu, and, like the term PWA, had meaning only if you were already acquainted with it. The genre remains hard to quantify. Less postmodern than post-punk, it had no time for the inebriating irony that had come to dominate American literature. The fear, doubt, and uncertainty that had paralyzed a previous generation were ploughed through, not confidently, but of necessity. Sentences were pared down, plots streamlined, self-examination and self-expression voiced in a present tense that measured the past in punches and orgasms, metered the future in breaths rather than years.

Like samizdat, the books of that period are slotted into my shelves, sliver-thin paperbacks lost between fat Victorian volumes and the self-indulgent tomes of the last decade. Kathy Acker, Dorothy Allison, Rebecca Brown, Dennis Cooper, Sam D’Allesandro, Karen Finley, Brad Gooch, Bo Huston, Gary Indiana, Kevin Killian, Eileen Myles, Sarah Schulman, David Shields, Lynne Tillman, David Trinidad, David Wojnarowicz.

Though we didn’t realize it at the time, Heather and I were betweeners, aesthetically aligned with a group of writers who existed out of the mainstream even as we ourselves were proof—thanks to the publication of each of our debut novels by major trade houses—that the mainstream could open its arms and expand its definition of normal. Only later did we understand that our success was predicated upon the demise of the writing we’d been weaned on—critics neglected the literary merits of House Rules in favor of a new obsession: victim art, as the reactionary reviewer Katie Roiphe called it, an epithet that became the hatchet with which all art that portrayed personal suffering without a concomitant “hopeful” moral was cut down.

In many respects, Notice reads like a purification of House Rules. It is an irreducible text, unforgettable, nearly unbearable, but never unbelievable or self-indulgent. In House Rules, a 15-year-old runs away from her sexually abusive father, only to end up in a circle of men and women who also use her, but throw in drugs to “lull” the pain, to “comfort.” In Notice, the protagonist is around 20, now turning tricks for drugs as a way of combining these two things. Her downward trajectory continues until she is raped by a man who cuts a strip of skin from her clitoris and tosses her a bullet in exchange. The event forces her to realize her life has been “about finding someone who’d do me in,” and this realization prompts the tiniest of changes: “The blackness came behind the heaviness. Came on comforting and big as always. But not deathly. Not exactly. Not for tonight at least. And this let me believe I could maybe just dip into it. For little bits of time. Go to it without that eerie pull to stay and, in this way, maybe get some rest. Get some actual sleep that might start me mending.”

In The Second Suspect, Lewis offered us two alternative futures for this character, one in the form of a prostitute named “Julie, maybe, or Jewel,” who is murdered before the book begins, and a second, slightly older woman named Carver, who managed to escape from the same man who killed Julie/Jewel, and whose testimony leads to his downfall. It is only at this endpoint that readers can tentatively accept what they’ve been told all along: that the aggressive hammering of the body through drugs and sadomasochistic sex is the protagonist’s way of reminding herself that she is not dead, and doesn’t want to be. What remains inexplicable is the trilogy’s larger theme, the insatiable cruelty at the heart of the American family, and how it infects every aspect of society.

In Heather’s case, that theme always had a more tangible—and more prurient—tinge because she came from American royalty: Her godmother was Lila Acheson Wallace, her father Hobart Lewis, the former head of Reader’s Digest and a confidant of Richard Nixon. Many found it impossible not to read her novels as though they were tell-alls by Patti Davis or, perhaps, Patty Hearst.

Regardless of the hole her childhood dug for her, Heather had climbed out of it, had built an ordinary, bourgeois life. She worked as a teacher and copywriter, attended AA, and took out a mortgage on an apartment. For her, there was no contradiction between the horrors she wrote about and more quotidian aspirations, no “outside” from which an “inside” could protect itself. As with the New Narrative writers who preceded her, Heather saw no difference between experience and our representations of it.

Mainstream publishing rejected this view. What America can’t exclude it absorbs, dilutes, mutes. The quasi-religious fantasy that a pattern hiding behind the chaos will emerge occasionally into view (like the Joycean epiphany) reared its head yet again, and denied New Narrative’s single existential truth: that the end of life implies nothing more tangible than a beginning, and art can do little besides measure the distance from the loss. Which is to say that in the end, New Narrative’s effect was different from what one might have expected. A varied cohort of writers incorporated aspects of the sensibility into a new postmodernism. Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace’s mandarin stylings look less like Pynchon’s than like Dennis Cooper’s, the periods replaced by commas, the amorality by immorality, while more fastidious writers such as Michael Cunningham and A. M. Homes softened New Narrative’s bluntness to reveal a blight on the middle-class soul. The message seemed to be that you could wear Prada, but you did so with the knowledge that its price wasn’t just measured in dollars.

More illuminating is the case of JT LeRoy, onetime prostitute and drug addict, whose auto-fictions have garnered legions of fans. His work itself is lackluster, recherché, vaguely Gothic. But from its first appearance, LeRoy’s writing has been secondary to the spectacle of LeRoy himself, a minstrel figure complete with wigs, masks, and “penis bones,” whose only public purpose is to encourage titillating speculation about the links between the author and his characters, and so to inculcate contemporary literature’s favorite cult, that of victim turned writer turned hero. The message seems to be that you can write about horrific personal and historical tragedies—you can, in fact, make a lot of money off them—as long as you let readers believe that writing makes it all better.

Seen in this light, Dickinson’s comment about “the Auction Of the Mind” feels amazingly apropos, and Lewis’s decision to stop writing seems the only one she could have made. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I wish literature was all she’d given up on.

  Like Heather Lewis, Dennis Cooper blurred the lines dividing sex, pleasure, violence, and death in his fiction. Yet unlike Lewis, Cooper enjoyed critical and commercial success, becoming the closest thing to a New Narrative crossover star; indeed, when JT LeRoy first broke, the name was briefly thought to be a Cooper pseudonym. The model for protagonist George—who appears in his first five novels—was not Cooper but a teenage amour who’d committed suicide. “I wrote the books partly to resolve my interest in sex and violence,” Cooper told a reporter. “But the stuff with George wasn’t resolved at all.” 

By Heather Lewis.
Serpent’s Tail. 217 Pages. $14.

A Lost Generation