Zachary Lazar by Christopher Sorrentino

BOMB 103 Spring 2008
Issue 103 103 Cover
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Marianne Faithful in Lucifer Rising , directed by Kenneth Anger, 1972. Courtesy of Fantoma Films.

Early on in Sway, we see the Rolling Stones at the start of their careers, living and rehearsing in a London squat. In the novel, Zachary Lazar links people who, having begun to create in isolation, later enact their visions in public. The distinct historical figures characterized in Sway are the Stones, along with their muse Anita Pallenberg, Kenneth Anger, Charles Manson, and his acolyte, Bobby Beausoleil. Sway depicts the alienating early performances by the Rolling Stones; the discontinuous, dreamily violent sexuality of Kenneth Anger’s films, and the rise of Manson’s cult, each strand connecting to a theme of private obsession made manifest in a highly public way.

Christopher Sorrentino In your imagining, all of your characters are doing something secret, something taboo, which each wants to put on display.

Zachary Lazar I was thinking about the imagination as something that intrudes into what we call “reality.” That dichotomy has always interested me, perhaps because as writers we don’t usually get to see the products of our imagination take on such enormous dimensions as the people I’ve gathered together for Sway did.

CS Do you posit a link, if only in Manson’s mind, between such creative acts and his own weird vision—that he may have thought, or, God knows, still thinks, that his murders are inchoate works of art awaiting interpretation?

ZL I’ve looked for reasons why the Manson murders have fascinated me, all these years later. For one, they have this perverse aesthetic quality to them. They were orchestrated in a way that is calculatedly terrifying. Writing in blood on the walls, some of the stuff they would say to the people while they were killing them—you couldn’t script a more terrifying scene. And there’s Manson’s past as a would-be rock star, which may have been what instigated this whole set of murders: a lashing out by someone who didn’t succeed as a legitimate artist.

CS It’s difficult to try to separate Manson from that Laurel Canyon milieu in which he tried to ingratiate himself. I think we both want to steer clear of the facile insinuation that ritual murder is some sort of extension of the popular culture—but there is that tenuous link.

ZL Yes—the murder I describe in the book is one done by Bobby Beausoleil, and it’s much more mundane. It’s basically a drug deal gone bad, but that’s what started the whole series of murders. When Manson sent those girls to Sharon Tate’s house later, he told them to “do something witchy.” I mean, what a strange thing to say, and it essentially translates into “be creative.” There is a very perverse creativity being spoken about there, something that’s uncomfortable now to talk about.

CS What about the “helpful commonplace distinctions” made pointless by the Rolling Stones, both in their music and in their essence. You’re referring in particular to racial and gender boundaries that they simply ignored. You also refer to “a language of pure connotation, of suggestion and innuendo” to describe the attitude, the look, the style in general that began to emerge at that time among young people. How does that collage of intimation and reference differ from the knowingness of today’s culture, which is perhaps more cynically referential?

ZL There was a freedom back then that explored its own vagueness. Everything hadn’t been done before, and certainly not a thousand times over as it has been now. Currently, you can’t do much of anything without nodding at something that came before. Music, especially, is largely referencing older styles, putting them together in different combinations. Which is what the Rolling Stones did, actually. The difference is that they seem to have taken it on faith that what they were doing had meaning and potential, a kind of potential we would never dream of music having now.

CS The extent to which the changes in the culture as a whole took root and spread throughout the ’60s through the music, followed, in effect, the unvetted creative decision-making of young people. It’s hard for me to imagine a song by Band A or Band B lasting 40 years, not in the way that “Sympathy for the Devil” has, as you point out at the end of Sway. A song that still sustains that power—that sense of a different world opening for us—is certainly different from what we would expect from pop music.

ZL Yeah—it’s remarkable that it still works, that it doesn’t come across as completely stupid. I was thinking about Spinal Tap when writing the book. That movie is so funny and it does such a good job of undermining all the bombastic qualities of rock and roll. But I wanted to get at this thing. I’m amazed that “Sympathy for the Devil” still has a power beyond irony.

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Donald Cammell in Lucifer Rising, directed by Kenneth Anger, 1972.

CS From out of the blurring of those distinctions came a kind of anything goes sensibility—sometimes quite liberating. But Sway gives the sense that at some point the cup ran over—suddenly it isn’t as simple as dancing naked in Golden Gate Park—it’s Charles Manson exhorting his followers to “do something witchy.”

ZL Yeah…there’s that famous Whitman line, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” And the William Blake quote about the road to excess leading to the palace of wisdom.

CS Cleanse the doors of perception, that kind of thing. You use several such quotations as epigraphs to your book’s sections.

ZL William Blake was full of those exhortations to do anything and everything to expand the realm of consciousness or possibility. Of course he was William Blake. Walt Whitman was Walt Whitman. You take a bunch of 17-year olds and give them that kind of advice, it’s not surprising that some things happen that are not only far from sublime but in some cases sociopathic. A lot of different forces came together in the ’60s that allowed young people to get into more trouble than they ever could get into before, all of which was sanctioned by a philosophical outlook. You had it in the ’50s, to a certain extent, but not on that scale.

CS To a more rarefied extent, though, in the ’50s. I think it was happening to people who were older, people who had served in the armed forces, married, whatever. The desire for new experience really was a reaction against a way of living they’d become inured to. But there’s a point in Sway when you’re talking about the ’60s, London in particular—you write that everybody is a model, a designer, an actor, a photographer, or a rock star, and that these are people who’d never known hunger, service, war, never even really known boredom. They insisted upon novelty as a birthright.

ZL It’s interesting the way the impulse for novelty or sensation goes down these different branches. You must have thought a lot about that when you were writing about Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army in Trance.

CS In her case I thought it very likely she was bored stiff with who she’d been born as. And the SLA had quasi-cult appeal. In a way, the ’60s were one cult of novelty after another, or one big cult with dozens of different factions. The ones announcing themselves as cults—Children of God, and so on—were only the most klutzily obvious.

ZL It’s bad McPop spirituality. There was some quote I came across by Harold Bloom talking about American religions, and he said that for a very brief period of time there was a new religion which was rock and roll and lasted for about one year: 1968. It’s an interesting but exaggerated claim. There’s something that connects the music that the Stones were making during that period, which was openly messianic and openly satanic, with the kind of mentality that could lead to what happened with the Manson family. It’s hard to put your finger on; one of the reasons I wrote Sway was to make it so it wasn’t a ridiculous conceit. Just because these psychological undercurrents are vague doesn’t mean that they’re cartoonish.

CS Again we’re talking about murder as a kind of self-expression.

ZL One of the horrifying things about those murders is their aesthetic quality, their sensationalism. That’s why they’re so creepy, and part of why those people will never get out of jail even though so many other murderers are paroled. Aristotle includes spectacle as one of the five aspects of art. Raymond Pettibon has done a lot of Manson stuff that addresses just this point. It’s hard to understand exactly what Pettibon is doing with his drawings of Manson, but they show Manson as a celebrity, a Satan figure, a charlatan and a buffoon. So many different kinds of irony going on that it’s very confusing, very disturbing.

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Raymond Pettibon. No Title (Reading is Not), 1986, pen and ink and collage on paper, 11 x 8½”. Courtesy of Regen Projects.

CS During an anything-goes period like the ’60s, do you think there’s a tendency to move toward the abyss, culturally? It strikes me as significant, for example, that Manson so easily hung out with the famous, the quasi-famous. People who certainly had other choices were willing to accept the presence of this freaky little guy, as if they were accepting a kind of dare.

ZL It seems to be an unfortunate tendency of utopian movements to dissolve into these nightmares. Pursuing an ideal life always gets boring after a while, and you become fascinated with the nightmare and the thrill of the nightmare. That was certainly part of what I was trying to write about.

CS The ’60s almost institutionalized this process of upping the ante of one’s transgression. A society that had gotten itself into a high dudgeon over the physical appearance of the Beatles in 1964 was mostly unprepared to deal with murderers writing on the wall in the blood of randomly chosen victims in 1969.

ZL It’s preposterous until those fears of the Beatles end up coming true in the most drastic possible way. It’s impossible to listen to “Helter Skelter” now without hearing something else in it. I mean the sound of the song even, its very dissonance.

CS It’s definitely a departure for McCartney. I’m interested in the way you depict the power shift within the Stones, the way Brian Jones ultimately cedes to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. I’m not a Stones scholar; I’m aware of the conventional wisdom that Mick was the highly ambitious lieutenant who saw a way to usurp Jones and did it ruthlessly.

ZL It was Brian who was the originator of this inchoate kind of aesthetic they put forward—it had to do with the way he looked, the way he dressed, the way he played his guitar. You would have to be pretty hip to imitate that style, and Mick was hip enough to be able to do that and then go on to his own thing that surpassed Brian’s.

CS You also seem to suggest that the shift gathered momentum with the triangular relationship between Jones, Richards, and Anita Pallenberg.

ZL Among the group, Mick was the least interesting to me, so I focused imaginatively on Keith and Brian, and on the triangle of them and Anita, Brian’s girlfriend who becomes Keith’s girlfriend, because it’s a plot. In order to structure the novel it made sense to focus on that. Mick’s role in that whole business was minor. Anita, on the other hand, was fascinating as both a forceful, incandescent personality, and as a muse for the band. She was as magnetic as Mick and Keith, inspiring but also divisive. She pushed them to be more serious, more mature even. They made their best music out of the tension she brought to the band in 1968–72.

CS There’s a strong homoerotic overtone throughout Sway. The Stones living cheek by jowl in this terrible little apartment somewhere, sharing everything, literally sleeping in the same bed together. It’s sometimes explicit, since the filmmaker Kenneth Anger has gay adventures that I guess are characteristic for a member of his generation, and the Stones exploited that do-they-jump-the-fence-or-not mystique throughout their career. You open the novel, though, with Manson and Bobby Beausoleil. Your take on their relationship is interesting—the control Manson tries to exert is so insistently cajoling, this do-what-you-want-but-get-out-of-my-sight-if-it-isn’t-what-I-want kind of thing. Later in the book we learn that Beausoleil has had a sexual relationship with Anger, and the book’s climax, in some ways, is when Manson stage-manages Beausoleil’s murder of Gary Hinman. You’re suggesting an erotic connection between control and submission among men.

ZL I wanted to have a strong sexual undercurrent in the initial scene between Manson and Beausoleil. I didn’t want to make it too explicit, but the scene unfolds as a kind of coercive seduction. By dominating him psychologically Manson persuades Bobby to enter a stranger’s house and stay there after he leaves. In a weird sense that first scene is a mindfuck, on a metaphorical level. A kind of invasion is going on in there. Throughout the book, I was interested in the persuasive power of sexuality, even unconscious or half-conscious sexuality. Sexuality as a kind of electrical charge that Jagger uses to mesmerize a crowd, that Manson uses to mesmerize his followers, that many of the characters use to manipulate one another.

CS About midway through the book you depict Mick having a reverie; he’s thinking about forgetting himself in performance, about how he solves problems that arise onstage. It becomes clear that the solutions to these problems could never occur to him in actual life; that the only way to find solutions to artistic problems is through an artistic process. Do you relate to that as a writer? My father used to say that what he liked about writing was that it obviated the need to think, but my students have trouble with the concept when I tell them that writing isn’t the transcription of thought into words.

ZL I totally agree. That’s why it’s so slow for me to write a book, because of how long it takes each day to get into that part of the process where you’re not thinking, or you’re thinking in purely intuitive ways.

CS The decadence that the Stones famously cultivated in the ’70s—all that Page Six stuff—do you think that was in a sense a response to that equally pervasive satanic image they’d devised for themselves in the late ’60s?

ZL They’ve always been very self-conscious about their image. When they were playing around with the Lucifer stuff, the music was interesting because at least a part of them believed it, for a brief period anyway. But after that, the album It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll outraged the critics who thought the Stones were disavowing their importance, their social relevance. But I think to be socially relevant at that time would have meant to carry the burden of Altamont for the rest of their career. The ideal of the ’60s had passed and nobody knew what the next ideal was going to be. That was a question underlying the ’70s, in the counterculture at least, and one answer was an increased militancy and another, more pervasive answer was an increased hedonism. As for the Stones, I don’t think they were gonna do penance. Keith became a junkie and Mick became a new kind of dandy, the dandy of the discotheque. It’s a form of nihilism, and it has its own kind of glamour.

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Anita Pallenberg in Performance, directed by Donald Cammell, 1970. Copyright Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc.

CS Your book’s title suggests multiple meanings: there’s the Stones song of that name, there’s swaying to music or to the flow of events, and, of course, “sway” in terms of someone’s exerting influence over someone else. How much did the idea of control interest you when you started writing the book?

ZL The title was one of the first things for the book that I had. The multiple meanings of “sway” referred to control in the dynamics of the band, which is a little political machine; Manson’s control over his followers; and also the control that your time period has over you, whether you’re aware or unaware of it, or whether you want it to or not. I don’t know if you went through a period of feeling like you missed the boat and therefore wished that you’d been born in a different time, that you could separate yourself from the present culture.

CS I would probably be just as dim and groping in another era as I am in this one.

ZL I wonder whether I would have responded to the ’60s in a way I would be proud of today. I came across a New Yorker writer who was attacking John Lennon for his antiwar stance, claiming it was naïve, childlike. And I remember thinking, Wow, if I’d been alive then would I have been on her side or his side?

CS Your central characters are radically original. These people aren’t simply thumbing their noses at convention, per se, at the norms advanced by the establishment, instead they’re often thumbing their noses at their own outre milieu.

ZL The Stones had a self-mockery that didn’t deflate their impact but made it even more powerful.

CS Much of what you talk about in Sway has to do with the trial-and-error nature of working these sorts of questions out—questions of what one wants to do as an artist, and greater questions having to do with how to fabricate one’s identity. We see this with Kenneth Anger, as he invents both himself and a vocabulary with which to make his films; with the Stones, overcoming their origins and their appearance to create this really original, pervasive synthesis.

When you show the Stones performing in Hyde Park you have Mick observe that the tension and balance of performing in a band that’s taking on these enormous crowds is arrived at in pretending to dominate, when in fact you’re submitting. These are audiences that have gone beyond hysteria; it’s more like playing to an ocean. It must have felt as if all of London itself had come to the Hyde Park show.

ZL In that passage the crowd wants to get what it wants in the purest form, so there has to be an absolute separation between audience and band. People are there to be dominated by the band, which is antithetical to punk rock, for instance. Punk bands were the first that we could see in something like their prime. The whole ethos had changed; bands trying to establish a wall between themselves and an audience seemed like assholes, fascists, whatever. It’s interesting to contrast those two modes: the arena rock paradigm versus the sweaty, small club kind of thing where you can get up on the stage with the band.

CS It’s like the reformation. It periodically comes into being because things get so absurd; the idea of worshiping the band overpowers any give and take between living musicians and a living audience.

You talk about the process of creating identity in Sway, showing and describing how a misfit nerd like Keith Richards creates a shelter out of various elements; the misfit crawls inside and disappears forever. One of the scary things is the way you demonstrate that what works for Keith Richards or Kenneth Anger also works for a Charles Manson.

ZL And yet, at the same time, that doesn’t work for someone like a Bobby Beausoleil. He’s like 70 percent there. Rock and roll is about constructing an identity, not just taking one that is handed to you. It’s a miracle when someone like Keith Richards pulls that trick off so well that it pays off in spades for a lifetime. To create yourself out of whole cloth is the American ideal; we pay a lot of lip service to this idea, but I don’t think it actually happens much.

CS What’s the difference between a Richards and a Beausoleil? Talent? Charisma? Sheer determination?

ZL Beausoleil had charisma, and probably talent, though not as much as Richards. An artist seems to succeed best when he or she has one foot in the world of the mundane, not just the ethereal. Richards had that in terms of both his work ethic, which was considerable, and his ability to toy with his own myth and have a sense of humor about it too. If he had failed as a rock star, he would have become a bartender or something. He would never have fallen under the spell of a Charles Manson.

CS You treat Kenneth Anger with a lot of sympathy—your narrator is clearly impatient with Brian Jones, and clinical, if forbearing, with some of the others. But there is this compassion and wonder at Anger’s ability to maneuver through his life in middle-class 1940s southern California. He’s just on the wrong side of everything—gay and inquisitive and creative and strange even within the Arty Queen context. And those films: still demanding to watch, 40, 50 years later, very private iconography in play, very private pathology being dramatized.

ZL They’re deliberately threatening films. You walk out of them and wonder how in control of them the artist is, if he even knows what he’s saying. But from Anger’s point of view, they’re layered with meanings that are not private but derived from his lifelong immersion in Aleister Crowley. The iconography and even the use of colors in his films all have specific occult meanings and are intended to produce a magical, if unconscious, response in the viewer. It may be an exaggerated claim, but I think Anger uses the occult in the way Yeats used the occult in his poetry, as a readymade set of symbols (some of them pop, like James Dean or Marlon Brando) to express his view of larger forces at play in everyday modern life. The way he uses these images is so imaginative and skewed that even now in his films we see those familiar faces in a very different, uncomfortable light.

CS It’s almost the punch line of the book. Here you have this middle-aged guy, Anger, who’s more outrageous and adventurously original than these hip and rebellious young people he’s around. But part of Sway’s point is to show how close all these things came to one another in the ’60s—radical art, the radicalization of popular culture, the aestheticization of murder. How, if the ’60s accomplished one thing, it was to force mass outrage beyond that photograph-Elvis-above-the-waist mentality of the ’50s. It’s odd, like the DNA of Manson’s horrific acts, really finds its origin in—

ZL —very trivial stuff.

CS As you said earlier, the threat that was implicit in those things that straight society disapproved of in the ’60s did seem to find fulfillment and actual expression in a Manson or at Altamont. But your book acknowledges the ’60s as making many positive changes possible, too.

ZL Exactly. That was a hard thing to dance around in writing Sway. The era still, for some reason, creates this pressure for people to choose a side. While I wrote a rather dark book about the ’60s, I would not at all want the book to be interpreted as a broadside saying that the decade was somehow a mistake.

CS I want to float an idea by you. My sense is that a lot of writers around our age, fortyish, are comfortable taking aspects of the ’60s and ’70s counterculture as subject matter because we have no emotional investment in it, we have no desire to valorize it or romanticize its events, personalities, and institutions.

ZL It’s uncanny that so many of us in our forties are writing about this time period. I’m ambivalent about the ’60s: there is a fascination that comes and goes for me. I agree with what you’re saying about not wanting to valorize it. It’s been gratifying to hear responses from people who were alive at the time. Almost everyone has been positive; but, they’ve also been surprised by the darkness in the picture that I give. Dana Spiotta said that there’s something about 1969 that seems pivotal to our age.

CS Woodstock, Altamont, the Beatles dissolving, the moon landing, the My Lai scandal, and Manson…. Nothing systematic, but it seems like a year of historical signposts in an era full of self-designated significant events. The ’60s were self-valorizing; the era turned into myth on the spot. I’m wondering if an author tilts at that kind of self-importance. can see the marketing line on Sway being something like, “The Dark Side of the ’60s,” but don’t see anything hidden about your subject. Manson and Woodstock are opposite sides of the same coin. Maybe they come together at Altamont, which is where your book points….

ZL Many people who were around for the ’60s silence themselves now when it comes to explaining what it all meant, or why it was significant. For them to go into it too earnestly is not only unfashionable but almost taboo. They end up with a self-deprecating, “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” It’s very hard to talk about this without sounding pretentious. The metaphor of Lucifer that runs through the book was one way of talking about the double-sidedness, the real significance along with the degraded version of that significance. Another was the John Lennon quote near the end of the book, in which Lennon talks about God as being neither black nor white, good nor bad, but a kind of powerhouse, a place where energy is stored, which you can use to kill a man or light a room. As for 1969, it seems to have closed the door on that whole style of thinking. We think smaller now.

An Outtake from BOMB 103, Spring 2008…

The following is a Web Outtake and was not published in the Print Edition.

In the Spring 2008 print edition of BOMB, Lazar and Sorrentino discuss Sway, Lazar’s second novel. It interlaces fictional accounts of some of the ’60s most iconic headliners: the Rolling Stones, Charles Manson, and Kenneth Anger. In this outtake they discuss the historical novel, not so fictional characters, and art’s dwindling ability to shock.

Christopher Sorrentino What are your feelings concerning the nature of the so-called historical novel as a form, about the pitfalls of drawing upon the lives of actual people for fictional material? One thing I noticed while writing Trance was that the research gradually became irrelevant—at some point the models for the people and things in the book became obstacles to writing from an imaginative standpoint. The seductive authority of “the record” became a burdensome invitation to write schematically.

Zachary Lazar I had never done anything like this before, so it was a seat-of-the-pants kind of experience. I discovered that there are so many versions of every story that have nothing to do with each other, that don’t mesh at all. So you first of all end up making these arbitrary choices about which version to believe. Then, on the level of intimate detail, you intuitively make up how a scene might unfold moment by moment. I found it helpful, though, to use the facts as much as I could as a set of rules or limitations to be confined by, just like some people who write poetry in formal ways say that it makes them more, not less creative, if they are hemmed in by a bunch of rules.

CS I respond to what you’re saying about making things up. Having the facts is like having a black-and-white photo of a box that you’re told to interpret: is the box made of wood or cardboard, is it painted three colors or just gray? Inventiveness extends to the level of the individual sentences—

ZL —and that’s the level that matters to me. There’s no point whatsoever for me to do historical fiction, if I’m not going to do the fiction part, making up the sensory details that bring it to life.

CS Do you fool yourself? Was there a time when you were beginning the book and thinking, Well, this’ll be easy; I’ll just draw the connections between all these people, and of course the facts are here at my fingertips to refer to?

ZL Yeah, I fooled myself that way in the very beginning. There was a period of six to nine months where I had no idea what the structure of the thing was going to be. At one point it was going to be set up as a set of oral interviews—

CS Some of that’s retained.

ZL Did you ever read Jean Stein’s book Edie? I love that book and was fascinated by the way it was put together. But trying out different approaches like that led me back to something more traditional, where I could play more to my strengths. You were talking about the different possibilities for what the box itself could look like. To me a portrait is an analogy of the historical novel, a painted portrait that has much to do with the distortions that you bring to it. It’s not about getting a perfect likeness, but a particular kind of likeness.


CS There’s a tendency to fall in love with your research. You find the exact wording of the old commercial, the colors of the major appliances. You want it all. Sway gets that likeness of the ’60s without fetishizing its minutiae. It reads with such a lack of self-consciousness of its setting that it could have been written in the ’60s.

ZL It’s become an obsession of mine to be as concise as I can. I cut a lot of the stuff that gives me the most pleasure in writing, the atmospheric details, the production design. I have pages and pages on clothes and furniture that were cut.

CS You manage to inhabit each character using that close third-person perspective. There are very distinct voices for each, but an overarching tone bind it all together, a conversational quality that smoothes the transitions from the colloquial to the “literary,” from one character to another.

ZL That describes how contemporary American writers are doing literary fiction now. You’re trying to use language that takes some note of the way language is used in ordinary life, but also trying to retain the range of expression and precision you get with more elevated language.

CS Spoken language, high language, the degraded language of advertisements…. We have a vocabulary, a system of references that transcends region, even class. We saw the same shows, listened to the same songs and watched the same news reports.

ZL I remember coming to New York for the first time when I was in college and having a very romantic idea of what I would find here. In fact my friends in college who’d grown up in New York had done the same things that we did in Denver.

CS Well, DeLillo did a lot to rip the quotation marks off all those references to the popular.

ZL He is, for our generation of writers, huge. I was late in getting there because when I went to Iowa we were looking at straight middle-of-the-road kinds of models such as Raymond Carver. I came across DeLillo almost at random and it made an immediate impression, but I didn’t understand how important it was at the time.

CS You suddenly see that there are all sorts of ways to put together a sentence that’s absolutely mandarin in its design, but totally incorrect. And I think it’s beautiful, you know.

ZL I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg when I was writing Sway. I hadn’t looked at Ginsberg in a long time, but he does that too, the broken English that’s used beautifully.

CS A lot of that charged sense of language does generally come from poetry. Williams used language that’s just lying there waiting. Not too many prose writers are interested in taking up that challenge.

ZL Doing something interesting with language is crucial because it’s the one thing you can’t get anywhere else. I love The SopranosThe Wire and all that. You get amazing stories there, and amazing dialogue. But the interest in language is something that I hope keeps people coming to writing.

CS We were talking earlier about the ability of a work of art to shock—the Stones and their scruffy, androgynous musical miscegenation, about the formally evasive but sometimes campy homoerotica of Kenneth Anger, and—again, with qualifications—the murderous enactments of Charles Manson. Do you think we’ve arrived at the point where even the most provocative, way-out art has a spectator in mind and is aimed at a sophisticated audience with access to a critical vocabulary that nearly always precludes a reaction of shock or revulsion? Nowadays there’s only a critical distance, an inherent irony that has nothing to do with the Bart Simpson brand of irony.

ZL Yeah, the danger of having that armor of irony is that you don’t allow yourself to experience anything before you begin to process it.

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of Trance (FSG, 2005), a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as Sound on Sound (Dalkey Archive Press, 1995) and, most recently, American Tempura (RAM Publications, 2007), a collaboration with artist Derek Boshier. He teaches at Eugene Lang College and Columbia University.

Christopher Sorrentino by Dana Spiotta
Sorrentino Bomb 01
An Army of Lovers by Juliana Spahr & David Buuck

We work too hard
We’re too tired
to fall in love.

Jayne Anne Phillips by A.M. Homes
Jayne Anne Phillips 01 Bomb 049

A.M. Homes explores the many elements of Jayne Anne Phillips’s novel, Shelter in this 1994 interview. Her novel, Lark and Termite, has been nominated for the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.

Grief That Drives: R.O. Kwon by Colin Winnette
Kwon Headshot Smeeta Mahanti Color Vertical

The novelist on her loss of faith, youth culture, cult leaders, and spending time with syllables. 

Originally published in

BOMB 103, Spring 2008

Featuring interviews with Joseph Bartscherer, Steve DiBenedetto, Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Millet, Zachary Lazar, Harmony Korine, Tav Falco, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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