Body horror

Oh fuck, my body’s rejecting me.

—Zipper Mouth, Laurie Weeks
Judy Davis in The Dressmaker (2015)

I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.

The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way. 

The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”

I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag. Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts: a gushing of consciousness. 

Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion: 

“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.”

Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird. In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”  

Three months on, I don’t find myself thinking about this novel; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!

The other side of that moving window

Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”

Back around the time The IHOP Papers came out, I was poking around the zine section of Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side when I found an unassuming photocopied zine with Liebegott’s name on it. In my mind the writer was already famous, and I was stunned. Ali Liebegott still makes zines? Not only that, but she’d signed and numbered it; my copy, which I still have, is number 40 of 50. (To sign it she’d crossed out the typewritten “© 2007 Ali Liebegott” and scribbled her signature and an xoxo, which was a very ziney thing to do.) That little booklet held a couple of short pieces, excerpted from a longer work, about sex, suicide, and her dog. It was called The Summer of Dead Birds.

Continue reading my review of The Summer of Dead Birds at Utne

Memoir as Addiction

I recently read and wrote about Michelle Tea’s fine new collection of essays, Against Memoir, for the literary website The Millions. As I wrote in my review, I am a longtime fan (it might be more accurate, even, to say devotee) of Tea’s work, and she once gave me a professional boost by inviting me to read from my book White Elephants at her wonderful RADAR reading series in San Francisco, an experience I count as a highlight of my writing life. Still, I look at all the books I review thoroughly and write about them truthfully, and I can honestly say this is a collection that is worth your time. Read more of my thoughts about the book here, if you like:

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.

There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

Continued at The Millions