“A lot of times when we say ‘essay’ that’s just what we mean: a piece of journalism that has overspilled its own bounds.”
“The rules Faulkner doesn’t ignore in this novel he tends to obliterate. The plot, for instance. There is none.”
The second installment in the FSG/GQ “Originals Series”? RSVP: Yes.
Last November, on occasion of the release of his lauded essay collection, Pulphead, longtime GQ correspondent John Jeremiah Sullivan shared in conversation with host David Rees and Caveman’s Stefan Marolachakis before an audience of JJS-heads who’d turned out in reservation-only droves to fill a standing-room-only Tribeca loft wall-to-wall. Among the topics: the fate of Michael Jackson, the pursuit of Axl Rose, the uncomfortable comparisons to David Foster Wallace… Speaking of which: Sullivan’s GQ essay on Wallace, “Too Much Information,” is up for a National Magazine Award tomorrow night—and so in a nod to the achievement, here’s JJS in the first “Originals Series” event by FSG and GQ.
If you dig, mark your calendars for the next “Originals” go-around, featuring Amelia Gray, Hospitality, and host David Rees on May 8th at 7 p.m. at Public Assembly in Williamsburg. Please RSVP at http://originalsseries.eventbrite.com.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead, and Geoff Dyer, author of Zona, recently met for a discussion at 192 Books in New York City. Among the topics covered: Burning Man, Axl Rose, writerly influence, and why Geoff Dyer hates the Coen brothers.
Sullivan: Can I ask you about a remark you made in the book about the Coen brothers? Which did not seem flip—you accuse yourself of being flip with the Wizard of Oz thing, but you describe their films as “witless.” I’ve heard a lot of Americans criticize the Coen brothers, but it’s usually the opposite criticism that’s made—that they’re too clever by half, that it’s all wit and no heart. And so I just was hoping you could expand on that.
Dyer: Oh, with great pleasure! [Laughter]
There was an occasion when The Threepenny Review was hosting this symposium on Almodóvar, and I was really pleased to contribute to that because I really hate his films, but then I duly wrote something and they didn’t publish it because they thought it was too abusive. And I’ve been waiting for a symposium where I can really pitch into the Coen brothers, and it’s really quite simple, I think.
Here is the fact of the matter: I have a G.S.o.H. I really do have a Great Sense of Humor. We’re not going to debate it—just accept it. [Laughter] And when I’m in a Coen brothers film, in a cinema, I’m surrounded by all of these people laughing their heads off, and I’m sitting there stone-faced. And the reason I’m not laughing and they are is because I have a sense of humor and they don’t. What one realizes is that even people without a sense of humor want to have a laugh. Because it’s fun to laugh, of course. I always come back to this one bit. You know how sometimes you can see someone make a gesture in a novel, and it’s some kind of insight into their soul? It’s that sequence in Fargo, that bit where the guy says, “I need unguent.” Do you remember that bit? That is humor for people with no sense of humor. And after that I just despised them with every fiber of my being. And I even thought that the stoner film, what’s that one called? [An audience member suggests The Big Lebowski] Yes, even that is—well, I can see that we all love Jeff Bridges and all this kind of stuff—but that became tiresome so quickly. Then just the pointlessness of many of the films. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy. I think Cormac McCarthy is a great genius, but I thought that book No Country for Old Men was basically a kid’s book, really, because it had such childish attitudes toward violence. So, weirdly, that seemed to me to be a successful film, in a way. It seems to me that they are childish filmmakers. And then the remake of True Grit. It just seemed entirely pointless to me.
Sullivan: What about Raising Arizona, though?
Dyer: Oh, that is just unspeakably… [Laughter]
Sullivan: Satisfyingly shocking, is what you’re saying? But he’s talking about the pajamas. When the cops are asking the father who has had his child kidnapped, and they’re asking him to describe the pajamas and he says, “I don’t know, they had Yodas and shit on them. They were pajamas.” Come on, that’s witty.
Dyer: I don’t know, it might be. I can’t remember Raising Arizona at all, this is the problem. All I can remember is the vehemence of my own aversion to it.
Sullivan: That’s what makes us essayists. Your reaction dwarfs the reality, and so we write about the reactions.
“He was, I thought, one of the most authentically Irish-seeming guys I’d ever met, apart from his being Ukrainian. His family left before the Orange Revolution, and now they were scattered all over. A lot of his (very good) English was perfected in Ireland: his Ukrainian accent had an Irish accent. I can’t describe it, but it suited him.”
“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.”
“That something is in part what draws travelers to the Aran Islands: it takes an independent character to live perversely on three spits of barren limestone in the north Atlantic, the way they do, in a place where you couldn’t even grow spuds unless you created your own sad scrum soil with a kind of layered-kelp composting. If they were to suddenly offer to braid your hair or be smilingly hustling you onto group tours, it would spoil the effect. You go to the Aran Islands expecting to keep a certain distance from the population.”
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, “My Debt to Ireland”
My mother lived in Ireland for two years, and during that time, I visited the Aran Islands thrice. The place is enchanting, but also haunting and savage. The final blip of land before the expanding Atlantic, a land as frozen as it is rocky, where fishermen don’t learn to swim because the water’s too cold anyway. These are some of the pictures I took on Dún Aonghasa. [Nick]
“I landed in Dublin a few days before, having not been in Ireland, other than the airport, since I lived there as a 20-year-old, working in a restaurant, during whatever you call the life phase in which you try to reconnect with your roots — though what ended up happening, as is common in those cases, was I had my whole idea of ‘roots’ and ‘heritage’ and ‘blood wisdom’ and whatnot smacked out of me in a useful way and exposed for mostly self-serving sentimentality. ‘Jesus, Johnny, you’re more Irish than I am,’ said Liam, the little red-cheeked, red-haired chef for whom I chopped vegetables in a railroad kitchen in Cork, after I unspooled for him once more the glory of my Celtic lineage: Sullivan, Mahoney, O’Brien, Cavanaugh, Considine, my Fenian grandfather, my … then he began to berate me for having screwed up the tartar-sauce mixture again, for drinking seven ‘minerals’ on the job one hungover day, for having brazenly lied about knowing even the most basic, life-sustaining things about food preparation when he hired me.”
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.