Language like tar, pick-and-mix identities, and a long sputtering of retcons.
Trisha Low is an electric writer and performer whose work rejects easy categorization. She manhandles sex, race, and the rigidities of form. She’s self-deprecating but unapologetic, with a voice like a post-doc teenage girl—rebellious and giggly but rigorously intelligent, with a talent so powerful she had to write a book with it. The Compleat Purge was published by Kenning Editions last year, and was a proud Emily Book in March.
We spoke on a Saturday afternoon. Imagine this conversation full of small pleasantries and endearing asides. Trisha was also generous enough to record a passage of The Compleat Purge for BOMB, which you’ll find above.
Sarah Gerard I’m interested in the way you use form in The Compleat Purge. Appropriating a form is the same as donning a mask, and exposing its underside, so I wonder if you use them in that way as a sort of protest. But there’s also a real love for these forms in your work.
Trisha Low Protest is always kind of a complicated word for me because it suggests a more straightforward polemic than I was going for. I feel a little bit iffy about talking about the way work works because I’m more interested in a play of response, but I think forms are important in the sense that you mentioned. I’m really interested in something Joey [Yearous-Algozin] said in his review a couple days ago about an accumulation of dead language, how genre really works in an affective way rather than in a content-driven way. There’s a lot of style in Purge—I would almost say style over form—and it’s kind of gushy and overwrought, and super sentimental. I’m interested in the lure of that because, even though you know it’s just a style, the sad feeling still comes forward. I’m not so interested in how any of those forms necessarily make a subject; I’m interested in how they’re operative in terms of how they’re manipulating other people. I guess I just want to manipulate other people! (laughter) Do you know that song “Born to Make You Happy” by Britney Spears?
SG Yeah! Of course.
TL I was listening to that this morning and thought, Wow, they just don’t make key changes like that anymore. It’s just this repetition of “I don’t know how to live without your love, I was born to make you happy,” then there’s this very precise key change. It’s the same phrase—the same phrasing exactly—but you feel like it’s suspended in a way. That’s what I’m interested in, in terms of form. I don’t know if that really answers your question.
SG Well, I think it does because the key change enhances the intensity of the song, and you do that over and over again in Purge, building up this narrative that comes to a real climax even though it’s not, traditionally speaking, fiction.
TL Yeah, it’s sort of a bait-and-switch. And I am thinking of the confessional, too. A long time ago Holly Melgard and I were talking, and she suggested my use of the confessional is like a “displaced act of listening.” I think that’s right. It’s not necessarily an authentic act of speech in any way, and it’s definitely not a protest or subversion, but rather an increased pitchiness. I was also reading Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy—sorry, you can tell I’ve had a cigarette and been, like, on the Internet!—but there’s a section in Pornography where she recounts an S/M porno piece and, instead of being a polemic, it’s just a repetition, but with increased intensity and compression—a torque. And maybe I’m interested in twisting forms in that way, in sedimentation or accumulation. I like to build things with Lego rather than embroider them. Maybe that’s a better way to say it. I like blocks.
SG The gushiness is a real feminine gushiness, too, and I’m interested, in light of that, in how the novel was originally a feminine form. Were you thinking about that at all while you were writing in these voices?
TL Definitely. I have a real attachment to eighteenth-century amatory fiction and the ways in which women’s interior lives have been fantasized. You think about Richardson writing Pamela, and how that novel is really just a fantasy of what a servant girl’s interior life would be. There’s real tension between “Oh, she’s so virtuous! She writes to her parents!” and this more lurid, lewd undertone of sexuality, because that’s what Richardson is really putting into his erotic fantasy about this girlish figure. And that spawned a whole series of parodies and a whole genre of men writing as girls. Like in Fanny Hill [also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure] by John Cleland, which is a far more licentious version of this, where he is really writing about a young girl who has decided that the life of a prostitute is the perfect life for her. The whole novel becomes his own sublimated homoerotic treatise on how beautiful and ornate cocks are—that’s the kind of tension I really like.
SG You did something like that in The Compleat Purge, too. You have this message board conversation between Fabrizio Moretti and—who is the other one?
TL Anthony Rossomando! I feel so bad for Anthony because everybody knows who Fab Moretti is and nobody knows who he is, and he was the one who I really had a crush on back in those days. I just saw him walking down the street the other day and it was one of those things where I thought, I need to consciously veer away from you because I spent years writing pornography as you and it’s really obvious and awkward to me right now. That’s really interesting, though, because I’m really curious about new iterations of fandom. When I was growing up—raising myself in fandom—there was this golden rule that you never broke the fourth wall, especially when talking about real people, or writing as or about real people. It would just be a gross ethical violation if you, for instance, wrote Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance, saying, Here’s a porno I wrote about an incestuous relationship between you and your brother. Like, that was just not done. And I still have a very deeply internalized sense of that, which is why I’m so fascinated when there are all these One Direction fangirls who, very literally, want to physically arrest their objects of desire. If you watch the One Direction documentary, there’s this moment where the boys are at a shoe store, and two girls see them, and it spreads virally through Twitter, then in a matter of minutes they’re totally mobbed. They’re just trapped in this shoe store and can’t get out.
SG There’s this whole genre of Instagram teenagers now who are professional celebrity stalkers.
SG And they appropriate the celebrity of their favorite celebrities just by association.
TL It’s funny, because the way that works is almost similar to the way I want to think about style. The idea is that all this ethereal, feminine language is really concrete, or a sort of sublime mass of flesh that can really press down on certain kinds of structures that produced it in the first place. Like tar. Well, I guess I’m not secretly a structuralist anymore because I’ve said I’m secretly a structuralist so many times that people just know. But I’m interested in the way that somatic disturbances can press up against templates or structures, which make them more visible. Or not even necessarily more visible, but which produce a tension between what you feel is the fleshy part and what you feel is the structure underneath. The two are still indivisible though.
SG You have a quote, at one point, or you’re quoting someone else, and you say, “Of course the fallacy of any inhibiting form can be easily discovered by any female who is willing to objectively experiment with conduct.”
TL I think it really goes back to what you said—this sort of love of form, or the fact that I feel like the only recourse I have to speech is a deference to another form, and in deference to that form, it becomes a deference to another form. You know, it’s a reproduction of that experience, in a way. I didn’t make the book to be pretty. I made it to be claustrophobic and terrifying. It’s like I have Stockholm syndrome or something. The whole book is like a love letter to my Stockholm syndrome.
SG The book is very romantic—tragically romantic.
TL I know! And that’s a form, too. It follows a three-act, tragic structure, which is both a tragedy and a revenge fantasy. That’s a kind of play I also love.
SG Who are you revenging against?
TL I would like to think that it’s undirected, just a sense of nihilistic, totalizing anger that is less a sort of projecting outwards than it is a self-implosion.
SG Like a teenage girl.
TL Totally like a teenage girl. One of the nicest things that anybody has ever said to me was when, somehow, I found myself getting dinner with Madeline Gins, and she told me that I had the gaze of a teenage girl. And I think that’s true! I think the intensity about that gaze is really complicated. I look at the world like I want it to accommodate me, but I want to be what it wants me to be as well. There’s an intense doubling there.
SG In one of the scenes you read just now, a boyfriend gives you—by the way, I’m using you as shorthand here for the character of Trisha—a letter about reaching the end of a video game, where the level is a composite of all the previous levels, and he sees all the names of the game’s creators scrolling onto the screen. I think this is a really nice analog to the book itself, and I’m wondering where you see yourself most in it?
TL The whole book is me, but the whole book isn’t me, too. Going back to the idea of teen girlishness—and I want to make it clear, I’m not making a claim to any experience of teen girlishness, I just have a nostalgia for it that I also find somewhat problematic—but, you know, when you’re younger, you pull things from outside of yourself to make a sort of ego ideal, and I think that’s a process that’s becoming more transparent with public online diaries and Tumblr and all that stuff. It’s kind of like pick-and-mix identities. You can make a portrait of yourself according to the kinds of pictures you juxtapose, the kinds of things you say. And the thing about video games is that there’s a futility in the repetition of them, right? Like, you play the game and you don’t beat the boss, then you have to go back and do it again. You do it until you do [beat it] and then that’s just the end of it. There’s this device that they use in science fiction novels that I’m kind of obsessed with called “retconning.” In time-travel narratives, the retcon is where you can go back in time and change the narrative. The big question is always about which reality is the real reality. So, in a way, I feel like Purge really is a long-con, in the sense that it’s a long sputtering of retcons. I don’t know where I am in it apart from the hand that’s playing the video game, or the hand that is deciding to make a retcon at a certain point, to sort of interrupt at a certain point and start again, and again, ad infinitum.
SG I think, as a reader, that’s a great way to enter the novel, too: the sense that even the writer is unsure, or is trapped, or is proceeding in fits and starts.
TL This goes back the teen girl gaze again, or the idea that on a given day, you pick and choose what defines you. But I was looking at Kara Jesella’s blog—I’m an admirer of hers, we were in class together in performance studies, and I had this weird hero worship thing going on—but on her blog, she was talking about this piece by Shulamith Firestone called “Airless Spaces,” which is about experiences in asylums and mental hospitals. And Shulamith writes about the experience in the hospital erasing everything that came before the hospital, and it becomes this continuous loop, where everything starts to lose its specificity but also its precarity, and that kind of feeds back into something I was thinking a couple years ago, in terms of Erving Goffman’s sociological studies of hospitals. He talks about this process he calls “looping,” which is where someone in an institution only has recourse to the language that the institution provides, like it’s a totalizing language. So you have to instrumentalize the institution in a particular way. That’s very relevant to the way Purge was built—and I like to say built, instead of written.
SG How long did it take you to finish the book?
TL Well, I don’t know. A couple of years. In a way, I think about it as a frame and a project. Coming back to what you were asking before—I think you were asking me this?—about performance, the book is the final factor, the sort of material product that has come from my working with and within a certain frame. But I feel like that really extended into a lot of different things, like poetry readings, romantic relationships, friendships—all those things were a part of it.
SG Did you have some idea of the shape it would take when you began or was that something you had to piece together?
TL I think it was very much a piecing together. It’s kind of like a Frankenstein project. You find yourself with a certain frame of thinking, then you figure out which blocks work, more like a jigsawing together than anything else. I’m not very good at taking line edits or anything like that. I think what probably speaks most to the way I work is this: Volume III gave me the most trouble. I just wasn’t happy with it for a long time, and people were talking to me about which kinds of ciphers I was using, or whether or not there was a clear conceptual conceit. One day, Joey [Yearous-Algozin] read it and just said, “Hey, dude, I just think it needs more plastic.” That made a lot more sense to me.
SG He thought there was not enough—this is kind of a problematic term—true feeling in it?
TL I think it was more like a style thing. It was almost a little too airless, even though I like airless spaces. You know, I always want to ask people how they feel about Volume II, because there’s so much sex in it, and that’s something people don’t ever want to talk about. I have trouble reading that section aloud actually.
SG I was really impressed with it, with the ways the characters revealed themselves over the course of the section. I didn’t realize at first that you were ventriloquizing, though you had been doing it for many pages already. I came into it thinking these were two men talking on the Internet, then there was a really subtle subversion that happened.
TL Well, that’s really nice of you to say. That section feels like there’s a suspension to it that I don’t necessarily understand yet. I like to make people talk about it so I can try to figure out what really happened there. I think it’s good to not really know what you’re doing sometimes. It’s like a hot mess.
SG But it’s not really. I felt like you were very intentionally crafting it along the way.
TL Every time someone says “craft,” I want to say, Yeah, let’s talk about The Craft, which is the best movie of all time! I always think about that scene where you realize Fairuza Balk is the evil witch and she’s levitating and gesturing toward the camera in this really crazy, gothy way. That kind of suspension is something I like.
SG You’ve used the word “suspension” several times now, which means we have to talk about it. Can you talk about suspension? What do you mean by that?
TL Yeah, I think I can. I’ll do what I specialize in, which is to constantly defer to another thing. Scott Ashton, who was the drummer for Iggy and the Stooges, recently passed away, and I got so upset about it because Iggy and the Stooges is one of the most important bands to me, and he was a big part of the way they operated. He was a drummer who beat really regular, and really, really hard, in this very concrete way, but he was always a tiny bit behind the beat, in that space between the rhythm that’s keeps the trains going, keeps them running on time, and the more virtuosic melody that people want to engage with. That interstitial, temporal space is probably what I mean by suspension, where what’s happening and the thing that’s making it run are messed up in a certain way.
Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in January 2015. Her chapbook Things I Told My Mother was published last year. Short works have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, The American Reader, Music & Literature, Joyland, Slice Magazine, and other journals. She works at BOMB.