PRINT December 1997

Gary Indiana

1 The Horror Vacui Effect If 1997 had anything particular about it—doubtful—it may have been the baleful evolution of the horror vacui effect in what we call “mass media”: television, magazines, newspapers, and radio, working in synchronicity, refined the techniques of mass manipulation in ever-more capital-intensive ways. When a promising item began taking shape—JonBenet Ramsey, Marv Albert—it instantly became the story, cynosure of all talk shows, leviathan gobbler of all attention, churned into thrilling, earnest-yet-pornographic twaddle, by the likes of Geraldo Rivera, Barbara Walters, Charles Grodin, and Greta Van Susteren. While the story played, all others formed a hazy nimbus around it, and once one story had been squeezed dry there was always another ripe for elephantiasis. Every sensation begged the question, Who started this? Let’s not leave out the tsunami of pathetic theorizing, delusional free-association, and unbuttoned paranoia available around the clock on the Internet. This corporate Babylonian chatter has produced a worldwide mental disorder whose main beneficiaries are Bill Gates and Ted Turner, reducing the rest of us to peasants huddled around the glowing hearth of the computer screen, gossiping like fishwives about the bold deeds and saucy indiscretions of the great and mighty, for whom we mindlessly toil, like the Albanian grocer who told William Burroughs in the ’30s: “Pour moi, le Roi est Dieu!

2 Crash (dir. by David Cronenberg): This movie’s revelatory unpleasantness gorgeously prefigured the death of Princess Di and its erotomaniacal spell over the public’s imagination. When all the humanistic blather of our age is pared away, the era’s true values emerge in garish relief, chief among them being the insatiable wish to maim and wound and kill each other and ourselves, psychically and physically, over and over again. The hypnotic thrill experienced by Cronenberg’s characters as they examine their own prodigious wounds, cruise crash sites, and gape at videotaped automobile carnage is exactly the same thing that glues people to Geraldo. It’s sick, it’s ugly, and it’s us.

3 Denis Johnson Already Dead (HarperCollins): Johnson’s story of psychosis, greed, homicide, and weird sex on the Mendocino County coast of California is the best Robert Stone novel ever written, and then some. Johnson taps into the poisoned idealist energies that traveled from the ’60s to the ’90s, mutating as they aged into malefic forms of “spirituality” and sociopathic madness. Already Dead is so brilliantly scary, so seriously smart, and so beautifully written that it makes all of this year’s “big” novels by all the darlings of the literary establishment just go away.

4 Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (dir. by David Mirkin): The winning thing about Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is the way it shows two fairly stupid people becoming smarter than everyone around them through a certain purity of heart and blabbermouth guilelessness. Played with transcendentally wacky panache by Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino, this movie starts with a ridiculous idea and carries it through with ever-escalating absurdity. And it contains the most embarrassingly funny dance number in recent memory.

5 Princess Di’s Deathapalooza Walter Benjamin: “In tragedy the hero dies because no one can live fulfilled in time. He dies of immortality. . . . When the tragic development suddenly makes its incomprehensible appearance, when the smallest false step leads to guilt, when the slightest error, the most improbable coincidence leads to death, when the words that would clear up and resolve the situation and that seem to be available to all remain unspoken—then we are witnessing the effect of the hero’s time on the action. . . . It is almost a paradox that this becomes manifest in all its clarity at the moment when the hero is completely passive, when tragic time bursts open, so to speak, like a flower whose calyx emits the astringent perfume of irony.”

6 Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, RIP It’s a ghastly joke to suppose that the passing of these essential writers doesn’t totally eclipse in importance the loss of a fashion designer, a fairytale princess, and the Death Hag of Calcutta, but to judge by column inches, literature is dead, rebellion is dead, experiment is dead, transcendence is dead, pour nous, le Roi est Dieu!

7 Imperial Teen, Seasick; The Geraldine Fibbers, Butch; Blur, Blur; That Dog, Retreat from the Sun; The London Suede, Coming Up; Belle and Sebastian, If you’re feeling sinister.

8 Thomas Bernhard The Voice Imitator (University of Chicago Press): This slender book contains 104 little stories by one of the century’s greatest writers. With the profound cackle of the philosopher who has seen through everything, including himself, crackling in the background, these tales of lower Austria shed a hideously bright light on the muck of human existence: madness, suicides, murders, perfidious swindles, a chamber-music concert performed in a home for deaf-mutes, amputations, bizarre accidental deaths, etc. What Bernhard observed better than any other writer, with a kind of gleeful calm, was the absolute, insane determination of people to make each other miserable, to connive and conspire against each other even when doing otherwise would better serve their own interests.

9 Mark Wahlberg’s Thirteen Inches Even if it was a prosthesis, it’s something nice to think about.

10 La Cérémonie (dir. by Claude Chabrol): Based on Ruth Rendall’s Judgment in Stone, Chabrol’s film is about a bovine housekeeper whose deepest, darkest secret is the fact that she can’t read. In Rendall’s novel, it’s a little more obvious why the exposure of this secret compels her to murder the overeducated family she works for, and a little more credible, since Rendall’s character is a stout, middle-aged creature from the slums, whereas Chabrol’s actress is a raving beauty. As far as I know, raving beauties have never needed to read anything. Still, Isabelle Huppert’s demonic portrayal of the deranged local postmistress was easily the best performance of the year.

Gary lndiana is the author of several novels, including Resentment: A Comedy (Doubleday, 1997). His essays were most recently collected in Let It Bleed: Essays 1985–1995 (Serpent's Tail, 1996). He contributes a bimonthly column to Artforum.