Gabbing With Robert Glück
"'What do you write about?'" a hipster runaway named Paul asked Bob -- that is, Robert Glück -- in the story "Miss American Pie." Bob replied, "'Romantic obsession.' Paul shifted, embarrassed for me."
There I was on the phone, gabbing with Bob Glück, and I felt stunned when he told me that it had been nearly ten years since the publication of his previous book, Margery Kempe (High Risk, yep, 1994). Surprised because that lovely book has stayed fresh in my mind, as if I'd just read it last month -- and in fact I do pick it up often to reread passages. I reread Elements of a Coffee Service (1982) and Jack the Modernist (1984) with equal pleasure, and it's not as if his writing has been absent from my life for a decade.
Now Glück is working with the newly-launched Clear Cut Press, the brainchild of writer-editor Matthew Stadler (Allan Stein, et al) and publisher Richard Jenson. This fall, they will publish a collection of Glück's stories, entitled Denny Smith ("I know what you're doing," Denny Smith says in the story "Denny Smith", in the story collection Denny Smith, "I know that look -- you're composing this in your head." "Oh don't worry," Bob responds, "I already promised not to use your name"). The dry spell is over.
I am predisposed to liking this book. Predisposed, because I have published two of the pieces from Denny Smith in Best American Gay Fiction, and another in Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly. I've always loved the care and skill with which Glück creates silences in sometimes raucous moments (an orgasm, a breakup, a con artist's shell game), how all the things of the world, trashy and sublime, live just fine rubbing up next to each other.
Rereading those pieces in the forthcoming collection is such a pleasure -- they're the same, but different. I told him so on the phone. Bob tells me, "I'm always tinkering -- that's my delight. I rewrite over years and up to the last minute. I rewrite to fill out and deepen a passage, but also to make the story more porous. If a passage seems too buttoned down, I search for ways to bring contraries into it, because that is true to my experience, that's how I live. I want to go as far as I can with a story. Plot reversals and changes in mood, but also jumps in scale, like intense close-ups of sensory life, and long-shots of historical matter." His revisions, then, are not always a paring down, but an opening out.
Bob is part of a group of writers known to most for the movement called "New Narrative." Writers like the late Steve Abbott, Sam D'Allesandro, and Kathy Acker, and the very much alive Kevin Killian, Dennis Cooper, Camille Roy, Bruce Boone, Gail Scott, and Dodie Bellamy. What is new narrative? Well, there's a lyricism there, for one thing, and a rubbing of high and low culture and autobiography together. "New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen -- the book becomes social practice that is lived," writes Glück in "Long Note on New Narrative." Certainly, as proof, you'll note in Denny Smith how everybody, especially the character called Robert Glück, is real, though there's a sense in the world of new narrative that personality itself is a fantasy, a fiction.
"I wanted to write close to the body -- the place language goes reluctantly," Glück writes, and then he says to me, of Denny Smith, "When I put all the stories together, I discovered there was a lot of masturbation. That is, I was jacking off a lot. I was very alarmed! I thought, Oh my gosh, I'm going to look subnormal--like a pervert! I kept rearranging the stories so that the orgasms would occur as far apart from each other as possible, like molecules obeying the gas laws."
Well, yes, there is a lot of jacking off in these stories, but it seems like a different jacking off than you've ever read about or performed in your life. "Orgasm is an involuntary muscle spasm, and everything else is culture," says Earl Jackson, Jr., a writer Glück admires. Masturbation, in Glück's stories, is layered with history and emotion and social ramification. "It seems to me that I am always trying to match feeling and event. Often my emotions seem inappropriate or simply mysterious because the events they are tied to are inconsequential or too huge. Then I cast about to find a story that allows feeling to be expressed. Maybe that's why I write about sex so much. Feeling and event may be light-years apart in an obsessive love affair, but they are usually united -- and sometimes obliterated -- during an orgasm. At any rate, I have a sense that I have reached the end of a piece of writing when there is an integration of feeling and story."
Well, anybody can get the shock out of writing a story in which a son takes his aging father along the Boardwalk, participates in a game of "con the con," then finds a walnut shell full of the con artist's semen in a diner bathroom. What makes Glück a great writer is the way his prose, his training in poetry and form, allows the noisy and the silent, the bold and the timid, the brutal and the tender, to co-exist in the same story, the same paragraph -- even the same sentence. "I accept different valences," Bob acknowledges. "Something gross goes with something tender, the abstract next to the concrete."
Perhaps the most haunting notion of new narrative comes from Bruce Boone's description of figurative painters like Julian Schnabel and Eric Fishcl, kissing cousins to writers like Glück and Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker: "...the sexual roots of aggression come into question. There's a scream of connection, the figure that emerges ghostly: life attributed to those who have gone beyond." You get that sense, too, when Glück writes in the triolet "Three from Thirteen," of a guy who picked on him in high school, "I'm glad when he's killed in Vietnam." Before anybody thinks that there's anything kittenlike about Glück's engagement with emotional states, consider that ferocious feeling, its honesty and its brutality.
There are many other writers Glück admires, too -- one of the great pleasures of talking with him is to discover new writers, new artists. "I come from the lineage that includes Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille. Blanchot put enormous pressure on a sentence, so that each one seems to step on its own from a void of silence." It's clear in any Glück story that Blanchot has inspired him to pressure each sentence to serve as a canvas, a unit of composition.
That's all well and good, you're probably saying. But, so, what's so queer about Robert Glück? I mean, besides all that jacking off and the objects of his desire? Well, there is, at the heart of his tone in nearly every story, an almost adolescent feeling of total vulnerability, of complete exposure that seems a queer way of being -- and yet Bob (that is, the fictive personality that narrates these tales) establishes an intimacy and even tenderness with the reader, which allows Bob to demonstrate a million manifestations of the self: fictive buds, alternative universe versions of the self.
In one of the "Forced Stories," Bob is gardening, and his shovel breaks. He goes on a quest for a replacement, and no shovel can be found. Desperate, he sees one in the back of a mail truck, to be delivered to some home on his hunky mailman's rounds. Bob steals the shovel and the story seems to grow reality-rips, like shredded fabric. Now, he is running; now he is pursued in both senses by gay Officer Jim, now he is defending himself in court. How have these merry fantasies come about?
Glück tells me, "That story is about my dad and me. I think it comes through, even though it's a fantasy, that it is really me, really my dad. I'm not sure how -- through a tone of voice, a willingness to look at irresolvable emotional mess. All my writing is some version -- some attempt -- at autobiography. That shovel theft? Oh, that's from my son's Richard Scary Busytown video. Bananas Gorilla craves bananas, he has to have them, and he's looking everywhere. Finally he finds a huge bunch in the back of a mail truck, so he steals them. There's a chase. The big joke, of course, is that the bananas were being mailed to him. Who else would be getting bananas in the mail? I love this idea, like stealing the shovel in my story that my dad is sending to me. I steal something that is already mine. It speaks to me about how we are created inside the structure of the family."
This led us to discuss the sort of fantasia element I'd noticed in a lot of good writing recently. At the ends of new novels by Andre Codrescu (Casanova in Bohemia) and Aleksandr Hemon (Nowhere Man), a realist style of writing gives way to a kind of psychedelic departure down the rabbit hole -- and it seems more than coincidence that these writers are more than likely from former Soviet Bloc countries. "Yes," Bob agrees. "I love Danilo Kis. Those Central European writers seem like family to me." In a story from Denny Smith called "Downpour, 1901," Glück identifies himself as a Central European writer: "When I'm naked I try to hide my stomach, at least from myself...I imagine I am a Central European at the beginning of the century. He's content to be middle-aged, happy it's early morning...My Central European is stout...The idea of a diet is incomprehensible to him -- if it has any meaning, it's to eat more."
But this can't really be Kis, a Serbian who lived through the disasters of the mid-20th century. No, Glück's Central European "writes with passion, but he uses little restraint." He embraces expressionism and farce, for "[h]e's working on an opera libretto about a co-operative garden in which the fruit and vegetables sing." Still, Kis, too, would consider "this problem of knowing too much."
Says Glück, "Kis is from a part of the world where life occurs on a stage of murderous political factions and contending governments, ethnic traditions, languages. The writers use fantasy and farce to juggle these incommensurates. There are interior forces as well, but the answers to life's problems are not only psychological answers. I once asked my mother what our relatives mainly died of, thinking to adjust my diet or whatever, and she replied, "Fascism." Even if you resolve your problems with mom and dad, you may be sent to the gas chamber. How can you write about that? How can you address the incommensurates and historical nightmares in our present culture? We can all list them, from the murders being committed in our name in Iraq to any individual's unrequited love for the world. Once upon a time, we queers invented camp, a kind of farce, as a way to deal with the disjunctions of gender, sexuality and the larger culture." Bob and I talk a bit about this phenomenon -- the dark farce that replaces psychology and has an equal amount of gravity. I remember the shovel-stealing and the father who comes to represent the 20th century, the eponymous Purple Men who have a Mrs.-Dalloway-like day preparing for a party, a late-night television viewing of an old Busby Berkeley movie that disappears because nobody cares about it.
"I wonder if these qualify as farce or fantasy," Bob replies. "That is, the fantasy of the Purple Men is that they exactly equal the gay community's self-description. And that they were born in an experiment, when science painted their assholes purple to measure the spread of parasites." This is true -- in "American Pie," a story about teenage runaways, there is the jumble of cultures and hysteria. And in "Batlike, Wolflike," Bob turns his boyfriend into an all-powerful vampire.
"I'm more of an accreter," Glück says, when he talks about his writing method. "A given subject slowly gathers ideas, details, vocabulary, emotions, directions."
Bob Glück is also an enthusiast, an aesthete, even an amateur -- in the truest sense of that word. He loves his subject, and his work with the subject. We had to stop gabbing, eventually, because Bob needed to go out and shop for his 9-year-old son's birthday cake, which is to be in the shape of a fountain this year, with water shooting out of the mouths of his son's cartoon characters, Fluffy and Ruffy.
I imagine that Bob Glück is as great a father as he is a writer -- and he puts the same enthusiasm, aestheticism, and love into a birthday cake that he did into Denny Smith. In his prose, this lack of reservation keeps his stories from slipping into any sort of self-protective posture, any literary "cool," any of that sunglasses-on ossification that protects lesser writers from vulnerability and heartbreak and profound discovery. As I hung up the phone, you know what I thought? Bob Glück is square, full-on L-7 square. And that is why he's great.