No Hard Failings

Andrew Hultkrans on “An Afternoon of Failure” at MoMA PS1

Left: Ben Williams and Victoria Vazquez of Elevator Repair Service. Right: Poet Eileen Myles. (Photos: Brett W. Messenger)

WHEN BOB DYLAN wrote “There’s no success like failure” in 1965, little did he know that his Beat generation mentors (the original slackers) would be thoroughly out-slothed by subsequent cohorts, primarily my own (Generation X), to the point where a bunch of talented youth from Triple Canopy can hang an event on failure, be successful, and look good, if appropriately maudit, while doing so. Indeed, these busy Y-sters have distilled and perfected the deception of cloaking themselves in the distressed sartorial aesthetic of their predecessors while being, in truth, fiendishly ambitious and competent. Did I mention the venue was that storied citadel of nonstarters, MoMA PS1?

Keyed to the release of the “Failure Issue” of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, a thirty-year-old journal dedicated to publishing undercelebrated avant-gardists, last Saturday’s ostensibly grim trawl through the sewers of literary loserdom turned out to be as full of good vibes and mutual support as a Miranda July reading: an SRO crowd of hipsterish twenty- and thirtysomethings happily watching a bunch of hipsterish twenty- and thirtysomethings read and perform about being unsuccessful. Really, it was enough to give failure a bad name, or at least to relegate it to the status of an heirloom—something that happened frequently, and quite spectacularly, in bygone eras, but is nothing but a charming curio today. At times, I wanted to scream at the stage a line R. Crumb wrote in a letter to a friend: “Your vigor for life appalls me!”

The issue’s guest editor, novelist Joshua Cohen, ascended the makeshift stage and said, “Welcome to this wildly successful afternoon of failure.” (See?) He read a prepared introduction that was a good deal longer than the few sentences he had scribbled in the issue itself. He discussed the centuries-long transformation of literary characters from heroes to antiheroes and noted that self-publishing had erased the old meaning of literary failure. “Now all that’s left is boredom, banality, and herpes.”

Cohen was followed by that unfairly marginalized pariah of the literary world, n+1 editor and novelist Keith Gessen. Reading an excerpt of the essay he contributed to the issue, Gessen mused about the perils of the “loser wins” mentality in artistic careers (think van Gogh, Kafka, Melville), otherwise known as the politics of the sellout. It was a gracious piece that liberally invoked one of the touchstones of the entire event, the recently dead antinovelist David Markson, whose utter refusal to conform to narrative or formal expectations and constitutional inability to hustle made him a failure in the old, I’m-not-fucking-around sense of the word.

Triple Canopy deputy editor Sam Frank took the stage and started reading about having a breakdown at Harvard in 1964. I marveled at his longevity; he looked no older than thirty-two. It slowly became clear that he was reading excerpts from his father’s diary or correspondence. Sam’s late father is the writer Sheldon Frank, and Frank fils’s piece in the issue blends his father’s ruminations on life and literature with his own. Sheldon had a strange antimentor relationship with Saul Bellow—an imperious, insecure asshole, apparently—which provided some of the more amusing moments in Sam’s fuguelike minimemoir.

Next up was poet and novelist Eileen Myles, who, having been around and of age during the Lower East Side’s post-punk ferment, seemed more qualified to talk about actual squalor than the rest of these bright young things. “So little female failure today; glad to take part,” she quipped, “but maybe it’s redundant—women and failure. What would a female on a cross mean?” Myles read from her failed novel that failed to get a grant, despite being written in the form of a grant application. Some funny, catty bits about a Semiotext(e) tour with Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, Richard Hell, Chris Kraus, and others probably flew over the heads of anyone younger than me, though I finally felt part of the crowd.

Novelist-poet-critic-Berlin-bad-boy Travis Jeppesen followed. Slim, intense, and gripping the sides of his manuscript as if it were the last rung of a rope ladder hovering over the Grand Canyon, Jeppesen promised a “hermeneutered” version of his contribution to the issue. I believe he called himself a “smelly homosexual.” In his discursive yet manifesto-like piece on “badness” in art, literature, and life, Jeppesen argued against “clarity” in creative work and dismissed postmodernism’s denigration of originality. References to Joyce, Stein, Conceptualists, Language poets, and others were interrupted by an excerpt from a novel he recently published, a literally ejaculatory load of flarf that went something like “Watch my teen honey juicy split gargantuan cums cam squirt juicy hunks teen splits slut cam” for an entire paragraph. He cited Godard: “Culture is the law. Art is the exception.” Word.

By Internet video link, novelist Helen DeWitt read something incomprehensible from a sallow room in Berlin. Smoking frequently, she resembled Cindy Sherman and broke into German or clicking insect nonsense at times. It was hard to tell. Before intermission, a real loser took the stage to flog his “one-page chapbooks,” which he offered to give to people for free as long as they returned them to him. After a break, the theater company Elevator Repair Service did a hectic computer- and smartphone-assisted performance of algorithmic cut-ups of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and The Sound and the Fury. More interesting on paper than in practice, the piece made much of the punctuative possibilities of “Dilsey said.”

Actor Derek Lucci started walking through the crowd, ranting about entropy. He was performing excerpts from William Gaddis’s last novel, Agapé Agape, which, as an extended Bernhardian monologue of complaint about technology and modern life, works well as a one-man show. Finally, U.S. Girls (Megan Remy), a woman who clearly spends a lot of time in her apartment with the shades drawn, wired together a bunch of drum machines, effects pedals, a mixer, and a Walkman, and unleashed a set of seriously damaged tracks that evoked particularly blunted Lee “Scratch” Perry remixes of Cambodian Rocks covers of Western pop tunes. Singing in a shrill, heavily treated voice, constantly fiddling with knobs, rarely acknowledging the audience, Remy was the closest to the stated premise of the event, partially clearing the room before she was through.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco . . . fine. But this ain’t no failure either. The gold standard of literary failure is lack of response—I mean crickets-audible-from-inside-the-empty-theater lack of response. This event, while diverting, failed only at that. “Failure’s no success at all,” as Bob completed the couplet. If this were a college symposium, I’d give it a High Pass.