I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
Literary failure is funny because it’s not like you get this massive slap in the face and become a figure of ridicule. It’s more that you do this thing, you write this book, and then this big thing is poised to happen on publication. And nothing happens. It’s just a weird non-event.
That’s just a story we’re telling ourselves because we’re rich and bored from the Irish point of view, and that’s exactly how I would feel if I were Irish. At the same time do you really want to foreclose on the possibility that cultures might be transmitted across generations and that there might be something in tapping into that? I’ve been a passionate reader of Irish literature over my life, and I’d like to think that I read it more intensely because I felt as if I had some stock in it.
If you haven’t read Pulphead yet, maybe this will convince you. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine. No, really, it is. I swear.*
ERIC BEEN on John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead
and a conversation with Sullivan by MICHAEL GOETZMAN.Collage Illustration © Lisa Jane Persky
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011. 369 pp.
In the swirl of commentary surrounding Pulphead, the essay collection by John Jeremiah Sullivan, nothing seems to come up more than the so-called New Journalism. Upon its release, for instance, the volume’s publisher claimed that Sullivan channels “the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion,” while Lev Grossman of Time magazine writes that he is “the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” And J.C. Gabel, in Bookforum, says Pulphead “calls to mind some of the best New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s.” Undoubtedly, Sullivan — a 37-year-old writer-at-large for GQ, a contributing editor for Harper’s, and the southern editor of The Paris Review — is an admirer of the ur-texts by the preeminent essayists of the movement. Like them in their best work, Sullivan proves to be a masterful handler of cultural confusion, approaching matters from oblique angles while eschewing boilerplate themes and orderly conclusions.
In his introduction to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism, Wolfe argues that the writers collected therein drew heavily from “the techniques of realism — particularly of the sort found in Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens and Gogol.” Sullivan’s work, however, isn’t a mere pastiche of his forebears. He’s not engrossed with social status like Wolfe, nor does he succumb to the cynical grandiloquence one often finds in Thompson’s journalistic transgressions. And unlike Didion, whose early nonfiction routinely stripped away façades to expose fraud, Sullivan works in the opposite direction, humanely revealing the complexity within subjects typically seen as neglected, overwrought, or insipid. Wolfe and his contemporaries, rather than illustrating, say, class hardships, chiefly addressed in their reportage newfangled phenomena and fringe subcultures with a mix of literary flair and a detached, ethnological eye.
What’s so fresh about Sullivan’s essayistic temperament, on the other hand, is that he runs his nonfictions through a Southern Gothic filter, emphasizing particularly the tragicomic side of the genre and its often overlooked compassion. Throughout the collection, his subjects — dehumanized outliers and the ineffable cultural artifact — are those with histories that adhere like kudzu weed. If there’s an ethos that frames the work, it’s at once an American sense of the grotesque and William Faulkner’s well-known adage from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
*I take all that back. You need to read this one, trust me.
From The Paris Review:
"The questions I wanted to answer with a ‘yes’ as I wrote were, Is this surprising? Does it make me laugh? Does it submit totally to the horny madness? Is it strange? I like strangeness. When something feels strange but doesn’t feel off-putting or unpleasant, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. So I was hoping for a certain amount of that. I thought the part where she ends up in the guy’s urethra was good and weird."
From The Paris Review:
"My twenties weren’t terribly productive. I wasted a lot of time. I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline. I had a job doing technical writing, which was really consuming me. I wasn’t sleeping. So my wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written. I would get up at eight in the morning and write until seven at night.
"My wife was working two days a week, so I would take care of our daughter, Alice, on those days, and she took care of Alice on the other days. When you have a child, you get a surge of ambition, or a surge of hormonal urgency, to get something done, something worthy of your new station in life. I gave myself a new deadline: Finish the novel while you’re still thirty. Do something your child might be able to read when she grows up.
"My code name for the book was ‘Desperation.’"
I always thought I would love reading what people wrote about my stuff and, obviously, I much prefer people to say nice things than nasty but, overall, I’m struck by how quickly I grow bored reading about myself (i.e. about my writing). This is not modesty, probably the opposite. More generally, one thing that is noticeable is that even if you think people writing in “established” papers are wrong or misguided or whatever at least the process of getting their opinions into print means that the spelling and grammar are cleaned up and corrected. The fact that everyone can now share his /her thoughts through the blogosphere is appealing from an egalitarian point of view but it’s opened the doors to wholesale ignorance and illiteracy.