Jerry Stahl on fatherhood, pharmaceuticals, and the subversive humor of his new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills.
“The oracle at Delphi, in the form of a tattooed Sylvia Plath” takes center stage in Jerry Stahl’s eighth book. Readers like me have been spellbound by Stahl’s absurdist humor and singular voice since 1995, when his debut, Permanent Midnight, turned the traditional addiction memoir inside out to take us on a harrowing hellride. Stahl, who jettisoned the ponderous tone of the conventional drug-abuser’s confessional, let his ferocious gallows humor illuminate a descent into homelessness and narcotics madness. With subsequent works like: Perv: A Love Story, I, Fatty, Pain Killers, Plainclothes Naked, and Bad Sex on Speed he secured a reputation as a gleefully dark poet of the American underbelly. Searing and propulsive, his work is often hilarious and, just as often, terrifying. Stahl has probed a half-hidden realm governed by insatiable drives and violent impulses. His new satirical novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, skewers Big Pharma—an industry his protagonist, Lloyd, knows intimately. Lloyd’s job is to write the small print for prescription drugs—lists of side effects so gruesome they sound surreal. Beneath the comedy, the book is a work of social criticism that examines our collective dependency on dangerous chemicals and takes an unflinching look at the consequences. I spoke with the author, who lives in Los Angeles, by phone.
Lisa Dierbeck You’ve used the phrase “safe edge.” In writing, and in Hollywood, it’s a way of being palatable. Your new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, definitely crosses the line from safe edge into shock art, doesn’t it?
Jerry Stahl My favorite artists are those who say the unsayable. I’m not sure I agree that it’s shock art though. It depends on who gets to confer that judgement.
LD I don’t see shock art as negative. I like to shock.
JS Reality is so much more shocking and horrific and brutal than anything I can come up with. You know that Elvis Costello line, “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused?” Anything I can create is only a fraction as unjust and brutal as five minutes of what’s all over the media.
LD So you’d consider yourself, in some sense, more a reporter? You’re documenting what you see and perceive. You’re not trying to be a provocateur.
JS I’m a reality artist.
LD Interesting. From reading your work, I think maybe some of our formative experiences were similar—at least, in that they happened around the same time. I was born in 1963.
JS I’m a little older.
LD You’re just a little older, but we were both influenced by the counterculture. Is that still happening? Does the counterculture have the same kind of draw and vitality and vibrancy? Does it have the same pull for you as an artist?
JS I’m no longer a teenager having his head blown away by Lenny Bruce. Or even Bob Dylan. With Dylan, that was a major corporation behind him. Now, whatever passes for “revolution” or counterculture or subversion is corporatized. There are interesting individuals—like Darren Aronofsky in the film world. One off-the-beaten-path director. But you have to bend, if not bend over, to get it made. People go off the grid. It’s a tougher road to do this kind of work now. The modes of communication have all been corporatized. I think there’s just as much activity going on now. You just have to find it.
LD It’s been rendered invisible by the larger mainstream. I think of Gravity’s Rainbow, published by Viking in 1973. I honestly don’t know if that novel would even get published today.
JS I’m sure you know about the most famous example. In an experiment, they sent out a Jerzy Kosinski novel to the same publisher that had brought it out originally, but signed under a different name. They wouldn’t accept it.
LD No kidding. I didn’t know about that one.
JS Whatever it is, the next big thing has to have a patina of radicalism. Miley Cyrus twerking is what passes for subversive. But it’s not for lack of activity out there. It’s less of a movement now, more about individuals doing the work. The idea of a movement is usually invented by other people anyway, marketers and advertisers, after the fact. No one calls it a movement while it’s happening. . . . Tell me about Mischief+Mayhem [the writers’ collective]. How did that start?
LD When the publishing industry got hit with the recession, a bunch of writers got together and we said, “Screw it, we’ll just publish one another.” We started this little publishing venture and got a fair amount of media attention.
JS I was impressed by that. How’s it going?
LD I had a fantasy that I was Chrissie Hynde starting The Pretenders.
JS That’s a good fantasy.
LD Except no one shared it. It was my own dream. The men were unaware I was the boss. I’m not sure what I was thinking. No one listened to me. It was all men, and me. The men were under the impression that Mischief+Mayhem would make a ton of money. It’s on a shoe string. We had to take a break to go make money and go write books.
JS I like to see these unsanctioned things happen, like Johnny Temple at Akashic Books.
LD I love them. My friend Kaylie Jones started an imprint with Akashic. It’s a writer publishing other writers, taking risks. So, Happy Mutant Baby Pills is a story of partners in crime, with elements of Bonnie and Clyde. They are two murderous drug fiends. What’s the appeal of criminals?
JS It’s a world I know. Lloyd and Nora are radical lunatics on a crime spree. The only sane response to an insane society is insanity. I started this novel with busloads of information. I felt an urgency about getting it out there, partly because I was about to become a father. I found out that breast milk, the safest substance on Earth, is full of benzene and toilet cleaner and lithium. Not that my baby might not need a free dose of lithium, but that these toxins should be inside human breast milk? That, to me, is shocking.
LD The novel is about chemicals—the relationship of human beings to the legal chemicals that are supposed to be benign but aren’t.
JS Aspartame [artificial sweetener] was pushed through by Donald Rumsfield to get the approval of the FDA. It causes convulsions and brain damage. This isn’t out there, not in the mainstream media. This is not being written about or covered. You can find that stuff, but you have to seek it out. For once, I had a book driven by information. Out of a radical novelistic desperation I created these characters to subversively—and hopefully not too didactically—convey this information.
LD What triggered it? The research you started doing about how supposedly harmless products like everyday household cleaners are toxic?
JS I had developed Hepatitis C, as did Lou Reed and others who were shooting dope, and were lucky not to get AIDS. I tried every alternative remedy for twenty years.
LD What are the symptoms, if I may ask?
JS Massive fatigue. What they call brain fog. It’s like you have a hangover without ever getting loaded. In Chinese medicine, the liver is the organ of anger. You have this raging fatigue all the time. It leads to liver cancer and cirrhosis. The liver is the janitor of the body. Cleaning up. It’s perfect. This shit is stuck. My girlfriend, who later became my wife, got pregnant. I was being treated with this new medication for Hepatitis C, which is so toxic the baby would be a mutant if she even touched the pill, or if I touched the pill and she touched me. We stayed apart for the treatment, but it wiped out this virus that I’d been carrying around for twenty years in one week. So here I’d been raging against Big Pharma and wanting nothing to do with it. And I took this—it’s the only time I’d ever done something like that. It’s like you have appendicitis and the only doctor available is Josef Mengele.
LD (laughter) Agh.
JS What do you do? You let him treat you, then you get the hell out of there.
LD You had to get in bed with Big Pharma.
JS I didn’t want to, but I’d tried everything else. I was going to get cirrhosis, and I was starting to die.
LD Shit. God.
JS That’s just what it is. No melodrama. That’s it. Up until now, the only treatment was Interferon—awful, toxic. It had so many brutal side effects that some people couldn’t tolerate it. Two people I knew killed themselves while they were taking it. This is the first non-Interferon treatment, and it has a mysterious and as-yet-unnamed ingredient. It’s not approved by the FDA. It was a trial drug program offered by Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles for people with Genome 1, the most treatment-resistant type.
LD So, you were a human guinea with this thing.
JS It went with having a kid. I wanted to be here. The hard part was mental, and it was very strange. It was like bad acid in the 70s.
LD In the novel, Lloyd becomes absolutely captivated by this stranger, Nora, that he sees on a bus. She’s out of her mind.
JS I meant for it to have elements of a classic noir, along the lines of the alluring woman in Double Indemnity. But I don’t plot or calculate—that’s for when you’re being paid to write a script and need to let them know where the plot points are. I’m from the Norman Mailer school of novelists. He said writing is like driving at night. You can only see the next twenty feet ahead of you. And then you get there, and you can see the next twenty feet.
LD Why does Lloyd let Nora pull him into criminality and murder?
JS I’ve lived that world—homelessness, petty street crime, and conmen. When I wrote Permanent Midnight, the book was originally three times as long because someone had given me a computer and the way the spacing was set, I produced a six-hundred-page book instead of a three-hundred-page book. They had to cut it way down, and it became the story of this yuppie television writer gone bad. The even darker story was of being homeless in downtown LA with crackheads.
LD That’s incredible. It got cleaned up.
JS Not really cleaned up, shortened. That wasn’t the intention. I wasn’t complaining, I was just so grateful to be published. I used the money to get an apartment and a bed. That was the situation I was in. It was just one part of the story that became the focus. In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, the events in that netherworld of conmen and violence are present. I’ve known junkies and I’ve been a junkie. I’ve known murderers.
LD What’s interesting about the novel is how it explodes the distinction between legal and illegal drugs. These seemingly benign chemicals like household cleaning products turn out to be incredibly toxic, able to cause horrible birth defects.
JS There are canned tomatoes that a pregnant woman can’t eat because of the plastic lining of the can. I couldn’t believe that. The lining!
LD Lloyd’s job, which I love, is to write the copy about side effects for drugs being marketed—those terrible moments on television commercials at the very end, talking really fast: “Side effects may include itchy eyes, stroke, and feelings of lethargy.” Some of the side effects are minor and they’re just thrown in there with deadly ones like you won’t notice. I’ll bet there really is someone whose job it is to do that.
JS There absolutely is. They advertise the cure for restless knee syndrome, impotence, or testosterone deficiency. Then you see the side effects are so grotesque—anal leakage, stroke, and bleeding eyeballs. But people say, “I’ll take the medicine.” What’s scary is the desperation of it, knowing that my life is so unlivable that I’ll take the risk.
LD We just sit there watching the commercial like it’s normal. We accept it. It’s the context. Here’s a regular person having this small problem and the side effects are somehow normalized, even though they are so abominable.
JS “Ask your doctor about it now!” And the doctors are getting kickbacks and free samples. That’s the world we live in and that, to me, is shocking.
LD Happy Mutant Baby Pills is scary because the products we have in our medicine cabinets do all this shit.
JS Forget the medicine cabinet. It’s in the water. It’s so tragic and grotesque and massive. What can you do? I wanted to entertainingly convey this truth about the world we live in and, because I was about to have a kid, it had more urgency than normal. What will her world look like? There’ll be water wars in twenty years. I brought a kid into this world. To make it something other than a shrill, radical, pedantic book, I wrapped it in this noir story: Lloyd falls for Nora.
LD Nora is sort of the spokesperson.
JS She’s the sane one in the book.
LD Lloyd is, what? He’s in her thrall. She’s this figure of fascination for him. A young woman in trouble. A stranger. He becomes smitten.
JS I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten involved with someone who you knew was dangerous.
LD Oh, yeah. But Nora wants him to kill people. She’s unhinged, and he’s somehow persuaded—by her intensity, her conviction, her passion. She’s a doomsayer, but she tells the truth.
JS It’s not always a rewarding character. She’s the oracle at Delphi, in the form of a tattooed Sylvia Plath.
LD I like that idea.
JS No one is ever completely innocent in noir. Damage loves damage. They are each damaged in complimentary ways. A novel like this, in which you’re presenting radical information, you want a compelling story with wild-ass characters behind it.
LD Nora is a martyr but not in the usual sense.
JS She’s an involuntary martyr. She’s not a saint. She walked willingly into the fire. People always ask me why I write such dark material. It drives me crazy.
LD I know. People say that to me and I kind of hate it. Oh, you seem so well balanced, you’re so nice and cheerful. How can you write such dark things? It’s not like it’s some little occult hobby that you’re practicing secretly in a corner. What you write is the most personal thing about you and it’s the most important part.
JS And do you have a choice? Is it calculated? I don’t calculate.
LD It’s just what I write. It lets me express something that maybe I can’t express any other way.
JS Flaubert said, “If you want to be avant-garde in your art, lead a conventional life.” People can have black fingernails and dress like Marilyn Manson, but look at William Burroughs, in a suit. If you want to be a dangerous subversive, you don’t announce, “I’m a badass.” I knew a hit man in Cleveland. He’d blend in, take the kids to PTA meetings.
LD Since we’re getting fancy now and quoting from great literature, I have a quote by Colette pinned to my wall. She said, “The things you hesitate to speak about, those should be the things you write about.” I think you do that in your work.
JS I try to, and you pay a price for that. Do you know the darkly comic writers Terry Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman? Bruce Jay Friedman has a line, “If you write a sentence that makes you cringe, keep going.” I’ve made that mine. Permanent cringe. With this book, it was less a cringe than it was angry.
LD It was coming from someplace really personal. Taking experimental meds, you were risking your own baby being the Toxic Avenger and the X-Men.
JS (laughter) Right.
LD I’m glad you told me that. It’s a radical, edgy book, and darkly comic, but also thoughtful and personal and more vulnerable.
JS We’re being bombarded by chemicals. So, what do you do with your terror and angst? Some books are written and some are screamed. This one was definitely screamed.
LD How old is your daughter now?
JS I have two. One is 24, so she’s okay, except for having had a celebrity junkie dad, which wasn’t terrible. And I have a daughter who is 19 months old.
LD Are you working on anything now?
JS Definitely. I’m working on another novel. I have to write so I don’t go insane.
LD Was the author Hubert Selby a big influence?
JS He saved my life. Literally. He helped me to get clean. When you’re a junkie, you think, “I’m going to lose my edge if I stop.” He helped me see that it’s when you get off the drugs that you can write the most twisted books in the world.
LD Because then you don’t have an excuse.
JS Because it’s just you. And you see how really crazy you are. There’s nothing to muffle it. His books The Room, and Requiem for a Dream, are a real inspiration to me. Dark, dark. Relentless. All my heroes were junkies—William Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards. But then it hits you. Keith Richards isn’t standing there waiting for you with a hot towel to wipe your brow.
Lisa Dierbeck is the author of the novels One Pill Makes You Smaller, a New York Times Notable Book, and The Autobiography of Jenny X, a Vanity Fair Hot Type selection. She’s working on a fairytale, Satan Takes Brooklyn.