Hand in Glove

Tausif Noor on William E. Jones’s I’m Open to Anything

William E. Jones, Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), 2006, video, color, sound, 11 minutes.

LIKE WRITING, fisting is both a replicable skill and a rarefied art form. Performance improves with practice; preparation is necessary; and the deeper you go, the closer you get to the heart of the matter. “The movements of manipulating a pen were not so different from what I did to manipulate a man’s innards. One activity made the other possible,” says the nimble, perspicacious narrator of I’m Open to Anything, the first novel by the artist, filmmaker, and writer William E. Jones. The protagonist comes to this realization near the end of the book, finally learning something useful about himself after feeling “paralyzed,” silenced, by formal education. During high school in his dying industrial Midwest town, where his erudition far surpasses that of his teachers, he is threatened with punishment for writing a treatise on James Ensor’s 1899 print Doctrinal Nourishment—“this image of the masses gobbling up shit”—for a homework assignment. The college to which he escapes is no better, full of shallow, intolerant hacks who differ from his childhood classmates only by their tax bracket. Peerless, friendless, our protagonist roils, tightly shut against the world. Only his reticence provides readers with sympathetic insight into his repressed desires.

That phrase—“repressed desires”is hackneyed, marred by romanticism, but its modifier serves as the epistemic key to Jones’s oeuvre. For nearly three decades, Jones has made a career of investigating culture’s fringes, plunging into forgotten histories at the intersection between homosexual desire and the banal injunctions that mark it as perverse. Jones’s expansive intellectual territory is marked in one direction by the porn industry (in which he worked for a number of years as an archivist) and in another by experimental cinema. He moves fluidly between the two to produce works that peel eroticism free from its sentimental associations. In his first feature-length film, Finished, 1997, his objet petit a is Alan Lambert, a Québécois porn star, graduate student, and Marxian eschatologist who commits suicide in a public square in Montreal, leaving behind a bizarre, rambling note. Jones interviews Lambert’s friends and lovers in an effort to get close to the man he would never know; they speak of Lambert’s suicidal thoughts, his faith in capitalism’s impending demise, and his belief in reincarnation. The filmmaker expresses surprise that such complex issues would preoccupy a gay porn model. Lambert’s friend corrects Jones’s taxonomy: Alan Lambert was a performer, not a model, because having sex with a stranger on film required some skills in acting.

Cover of William E. Jones’s I'm Open to Anything (2019).

Traversing the life of the mind and the flesh is what animates I’m Open to Anything, which gains momentum after our narrator moves westward to Los Angeles. He spends his time watching movies or reading in his room, ripping through a novel a day and feeding his pretenses and pet theories, such as his conviction that those who didn’t read “simply didn’t exist as humans.” He literalizes the John Waters maxim turned meme: “Whenever I entered the house of an acquaintance, I would gravitate to the bookshelves. If I found that this person had no books, I would turn around and leave without a word, taking the next bus back home.” But LA is not all study—or, if it is, there’s some degree of hands-on learning. Our protagonist frequents gay bars, noting with disdain the conformity pervading these spaces, driven by an aspiring professional class of men who “didn’t want to waste their time chatting up or fucking or possibly dating someone without a college education.” He seeks out the outcasts, who appear in this novel, as often in life, as characters, such as a paraplegic prostitute named Goddess Bunny, a former independent-film darling turned underground celebrity. But while nightlife expands his social horizons, he remains unsatisfied by days of menial work in a video store. He remembers a quote by Joe Brainard: “After an unsuccessful night, going around to queer bars, I come home, and say to myself, ‘Art.’”

Writing provides the only solution to our narrator’s quandary, but he initially struggles to plumb his depths effectively, to produce something he’s proud of. His carnal pursuits offer a substitute, and the act of brachioproctic insertion becomes a conduit for him to get to know others intimately. If in his films Jones shies away from depicting sex acts, his writing here is graphic, titillating: Our narrator describes the first time he fists a lover named Raúl, whom he meets at his day job, as feeling “like a cork popping, but in reverse.” “I hate the next man you’ll fist,” says Raúl. “You’re learning very quickly, and by the time you meet that man, you’ll be an expert.” Their tryst is passionate but brief; Raúl soon leaves Los Angeles for—fittingly—graduate school.

William E. Jones, The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, 1998, video color, sound, 20 minutes.

Interspersed throughout the novel are digressions on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, American foreign policy, aesthetic changes to gay porn following the AIDS crisis, the gay porn star Fred Halsted, and the literary style of the Argentine modernist Osvaldo Lamborghini, all signposts of Jones’s own sprawling artistic interests. Our narrator—referred to twice in the text by a pet name, Guillermito—glosses his intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations, sometimes to a ploddingly didactic effect, but this is countered by his self-awareness and his stirring polemics against the neoliberal regime, the failings of academia, and the callous cruelty of American empire. He knows that to idealize a former condition of queer life—one where subculture meant political beliefs and sexual practices that threatened normative heterosexual comfort—is to risk fetishizing a state of oppression. Yet, he cannot help but rail against the encroachment of capital on the revolutionary potential of homosexuality, bemoaning that many of his peers have accepted, in place of the disciplinary state apparatus, “another regime of power—a liberated consumer culture that does not punish the perverts, but rather, in a multitude of ways, encourages them to conform.” He doesn’t dwell on this wistfulness, instead channeling it into incendiary outrage and posing a pressing question: Given the possibility of a radically liberated world, why would anyone settle for something so vapid, so dull?

Writing in the London Review of Books in 1995, Edmund White noted that in recounting historical struggle, the contemporary gay novel exemplified dissident literature, and that in alternating between idealizing a life lived and documenting that life’s unique qualities, it was a form best suited to the genre of autofiction. I’m Open to Anything, with its imbrication of pornography, its cultural criticism, and its nostalgic depiction of a former Los Angeles, does this with great dexterity—shoving into the gaping American id a necessary reckoning of queer consciousness vis-à-vis a bildungsroman of sexual transgression. As the idiosyncrasies of queer life are subsumed by the shadow of neoliberal assimilation, wiped clean of their filth and force, this spry novel imparts the very useful lesson that prurience, erudition, deviance—those hallmarks of the homosexual—can all be effective means to self-actualization. You can very well add that to the list of things they don’t teach you in school.

William E. Jones’s I’m Open to Anything (2019) is published by We Heard You Like Books.

Tausif Noor is a writer based outside of New York.