Let’s Die: The Soho Press Book of 80s Short Fiction
The Soho Press Book of 80s Short Fiction
by Dale Peck (editor)
$17.95 / 592 pp.
Anthologies as a rule aren’t great. I think of shelves in cabins in the upper Midwest donned with the best Short Stories, Nature Writing, and Nonrequired Reading for a given year and feel depressed rather than excited about what’s to come. This isn’t always the case, but more often than not, I’d hazard. Exceptions include genres or eras that are particularly fascinating. Collections of Modernist works, say, are less likely to disappoint than regional collections from any random year. In Heaven Everything is Fine, an anthology of writing devoted to, or in the tradition of, David Lynch, is arguably more fascinating than the World’s Best Loved Fishing Stories. Also exceptional are anthologies that exist from the get as a curatorial project. Mirrorshades, or the Ultimate Cyberpunk anthologies, edited by Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, respectively, are more intriguing based on their assemblers than a collection slapped together by a table of heads at Knopf.
All this in mind then, why does Soho Press’s anthology of short fiction from the 80s bear consideration? A short answer: where popular films of the era present a positive treacle of family values and neon swimsuits, this collection presents a strain of nihilism only typically associated with the very beginnings—with the establishment of punk and hardcore—and the very ends—with works like American Psycho embodying a realization that things were becoming very dark indeed—of the 1980s. In turn, this is a collection of a curatorial sort, having at its helm Dale Peck, a staple of a kind of 80s attitude that rewrites what some people understand as a sea of shoulderpads and bad pop music, into a Foucauldian mass of bodies in nightclubs after death and whole escape. Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s came to mind when considering Peck’s role here.
Dale Peck, in turn, having a reputation as one of the most scathing American critics of the past hundred years, makes for a fascinating study as the arbiter over the text(s) we’re offered. Peck has been known primarily for taking the axe to best-loved figures and nostalgic notions of literature in favor of a sort of monomaniacal vision that he’s attempted to articulate through criticism, essay collections, and through his own published fiction. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not—I am, it should be noted—Soho’s choice of editor is nonetheless a loaded one, and again more interesting than most names you’re likely to see astride anthology covers.
Peck’s introduction, written pretty recently one infers, delves quickly into the political, and it’s here that this anthology might take on an even nobler purpose than is usually the case. Firstly, Peck has collected works by several writers whose work is out of print, and pretty much unavailable anywhere else aside from by diehard collectors of a particular vintage. This by itself brings to mind figures like Foucault sifting through documents and publishing lost memoirs; the editor as archivist salvaging strains of culture that otherwise, sadly, might very well be lost.
Secondly, and more generally applicable, Peck’s invocation of political matters when these texts were written draws eerie, unfortunate, but solid comparisons with our times. Reagan’s 80s, as many have noted, paralleling the disconcerting situation currently faced in the states. This anthology, then, a chance to learn from history’s less exacting accounts, its fictions. Willfully skirted truths toward some nondescript purpose arguably closer to the mood of an era. The AIDS crisis being overlooked as comparable to the whitewashing of Muslim identities or the destruction of African-American bodies or the LGBTQ community’s uncertain, unsafe, unacknowledged position on the outskirts of society. The names Peck’s collected here are various, as are their apparent ambitions as writers, as artists, as potential commentators on their times. They all, however, coexist in a kind of outsiderdom, chosen as they are by a willful outsider from conventional strains of American fiction, criticism, and culture at large.
Finally there’s a bit of voyeurism that U.S. fiction devotees for the past few decades are offered here; for one can’t, in reading of Dale Peck, or reading his criticism, or even reading his fiction, avoid wondering what the writer does like. Here, we can assume, are pieces from some of the more formative years in which he’s written, that pass muster under his microscope. I say this not to fan flames, but simply to assert the import in the editorial hands of Soho Press, Dale Peck, and all involved in what we’re offered. For any who blanched at Peck’s previous acerbic approach to interpreting culture, this will seem a heartwarming enterprise. This anthology, from start to finish, is a labor and gesture of love, these pieces brought back—from apparent death in several cases—and presented in a context that asserts the reality not only of the possibility of art in the U.S., but of the avant garde to influence and disrupt the established doctrine in just about every capacity. Herein diaristic treatises on liberated fucking commingle with postcolonial listings-out of familial rhetoric and scenes from marriages, and queer bodily monologs jut into nods to classical poetics and idols; all of it toward the promise of experimentation in art—and though stanched out by so much greased flannel shortly thereafter these works cut as poignant and relentless as if they were written for our present.
Considering the problem of interpreting a whole anthology in one piece of writing, I’m here going to simply list the stories included in this volume. I’ll speak to their substance, and the overall mood of the text afterward, but given my emphasis has been on the question of curation here, of choices of inclusion and thus exclusion, the authors chosen and the particular works are arguably as much a part of the resultant (altered) text as Peck’s introduction, or the meat of the stories themselves.
“Introduction,” by Dale Peck; “Weird Fucks,” by Lynne Tillman; “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid; “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver; “Aphrodisiac” by Christopher Bram; “Pet Food” by Jessica Hagedorn; “Sex Story” by Robert Glück; “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” by Amy Hempel; “Spring,” by Brad Gooch”; “Sodomy,” by Gary Indiana; “The History of the World” by Jim Lewis; “The Angel,” by Patrick McGrath; “River of Names,” by Dorothy Allison; “How Soft, How Sweet,” by Suzanne Gardinier; “Secretary,” by Mary Gaitskill; “Wrong,” by Dennis Cooper; “After Delores,” by Sarah Schulman; “Work,” by Denis Johnson; “Debbie’s Barium Swallow,” by Laurie Weeks; “Giovanni’s Apartment,” by Sam D’Allesandro; “Lust,” by Susan Minot; “Pretending to Say No,” by Bruce Benderson; “A Real Doll,” by A.M. Homes; “Days Without Someone,” by Dodie Bellamy; “Spiral,” by David Wojnarowicz; “Ceremonies,” by Essex Hemphill; “Robin,” by Eileen Myles; “The Cat Who Loved La Traviata,” by Jamie Manrique; “Annotations,” by John Keene; “The Secrets of Summer,” by Bret Easton Ellis; “Letting Go,” by Gil Cuadros; “Sight,” by Gil Cuadros; “Chain of Fools,” by Kevin Killian; “Hobbits and Hobgoblins,” by Randall Kenan; “A Good Man,” by Rebecca Brown—including Contributor Bios at the end.
Now for the substance: the problem faced by anyone viewing this text in its entirety, rather than merely admiring a number of its authors and wanting hints as to what to read next, is a question of motive. Why does this particular collection need to exist? Peck himself notes that the stories published here were written or printed for the first time between 1980-1992, so it’s not quite as temporally-bound as its cover would indicate. Peck presents two standout theses in his primer as to what pulls the work together. He sees it as a “literature of the flesh,” invoking Foucault, which rings true; the writers here are arguably all concerned either formally or otherwise with the potential of a pretty physical writing. Dennis Cooper’s brilliant surgical prose dissecting a drugged teenage presence then taking over the country. Lynne Tillman’s frenetic sentences slipping comfortably between consciousness(es) and scenes reflecting lived experience with new attention paid to how language breathes. This is also the era of AIDS, of Foucault (again) and Herve Guibert and David Wojnarowicz (published here) and artists looking to document the effects of disease, addiction, existence itself upon their practice, their day-to-day lives, and in some cases their demise. Peck discusses a previous attention paid to institutions, writers railing against the military, say, or marriage, perhaps, or more national concerns. The writers collected here in large part have done away with anything nearly so absolute, in favor of a reading experience that reflected more exactly what was faced: an era’s end, what amounts to a present-day plague, laughable political theater and a mainstream content to heave moneyed slop on so many cracked plates.
Perhaps the most heroic stated goal of Peck—and, implicitly, the authors chosen and their pieces—“isn’t to define a canon or a school, only to dismantle one—or two, or three, or a dozen.” This proves helpful, actually, for reading A.M. Homes between the same printed covers as Laurie Weeks is odd in retrospect, and other apparent disparities throughout make Peck’s stated goal a serious consideration that transcends era. While most anthologies feature a cutesy commentary on the nature of the form and so forth, I struggle now to think of any who’ve sought to dismantle the problematic pigeonholing so overwhelming in all the arts. The experience then becomes about disparities, about moments that simply won’t cohere and shouldn’t; writers so apparently removed from one another as to make one question the canons, the schools, the eras and movements. I’d hardly go so far as saying it’s an assembled text by Peck to serve these ends, but it seems important in exploring the many and various paths taken by each of these authors since their heyday.
While every included piece is already sort of in conversation/concert with every other, each story’s subject matter enhancing or muting those nearest it, this anthology’s also working on levels of relative obscurity versus several short fiction standards. The effect of this is a bit like entering an independent bookstore of dim light, whose shelves up front might feature Carver, Hempel, Bret Easton Ellis and Denis Johnson, but the deeper you go the less the names are recognizable. Some stand out in a more infamous manner, Wojnarowicz and Cooper and Indiana and Weeks, say, Killian and Bellamy the New Narrative power couple to end all power couples. Seldom though do the choices enact a reading experience in themselves. Notable shifts in voice or manner of writing might differentiate fiction issues in lit mags a bit, but here at times the range reflects the disruption innate to each respective author’s career, m.o., aesthetic. You read vertically as well as horizontally, perhaps, linearly and schizophrenically if all goes well and the resultant sensation at best can feel like discovering a scene attuned to all your hopes of what art might be; at worst you’re reading excellent, challenging, boundary-pushing stories of a transgressive tint that shake loose cobwebs.
The generation spanned was an ugly one. Ronald Reagan’s state and AIDS and art awash in lazed Julian Schnabel pretense; things uncertain in a way they hadn’t been since the tail-end of the 60s, culturally, and decadence brought to new hilts in the name of this demise. It’s in those moments that artists face perhaps their firmest test. Many of those collected here were buried back in obscurity before the 90s turn. Some faced institutional pressures, some died and managed to transmit even that experience into something that burrowed deeper than all the era’s surface sparkle, its capital glint draped over all its wounds. The Soho Press Anthology of 80s Short Fiction unearths that experience and tension more than perhaps can be illustrated. The lives intersecting here both real and fictive have as much to say for our present as they do their temporal home, their origin. I found myself stabbed at once with nostalgia for something I’d not experienced and welcomed into a potential I see in fragments here today, the internet serving as a sort of wasteland equivalent to New York’s lure did for so many of these voices. I think of figures like Derek Jarman, Nan Goldin, even John Waters; documentarians of unlivable lives according to the dominant narrative mode; writers and artists and filmmakers so steeped in their work as to ignore the political, but in so doing making their work the utmost political body; David Wojnarowicz’ lips sewn shut and artful resistance to Ted Danson’s glassine skull and wig as it told the world how to be. This is and is not hyperbole. This is having sifted through anthologies for single moments of blood brought to bear amid pages and pages of bandaging. Here, at last, my attention held; I began to read on its terms as I doubt I ever have another collection on this order. Call it sentiment, a fondness for an imagined scene wherein a young Dennis Cooper hands out copies of Little Caesar and nights are spent dismantling recording equipment to remake music, art, theater; the 80s had their nauseas and yet just beneath Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party runs counter to all that middling. Here is anthology as time capsule, then, but curated severely, and Dale Peck’s career in hacking writers to bits is proven just, or at least strongly considered, amid works are stitched together with great care and love, and channeling as they do our times this anthology could not come soon enough.