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The Disintegrations

Author David Francis interviews Alistair McCartney

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Alistair McCartney’s The Disintegrations stares in the face of death and change and life. (Photo by David Francis)

Alistair McCartney’s compelling new novel, The Disintegrations (University of Wisconsin Press) is the story of one man’s obsession with death. It pulls no punches. As Australian author Christos Tsiolkas wrote, it’s “a book that takes possession of you right from the opening and will not let you go. Challenging and gripping, a rumination on death and memory that speaks eloquently to our sense of loss, both personal and communal. The writing is exquisite. I know this book will haunt me for the longest time.”

I found myself similarly haunted as I read this genre-bending book, engrossed in the stories of suicides, serial killers and a disquieting array of natural deaths. I was drawn into the unique and surprisingly funny perceptions of its narrator and moved by the warmth that arises in unexpected places. McCartney establishes a wonderful intimacy between the author and the reader.
I recently caught up with my fellow Australian-American in his neighborhood of Venice Beach to talk about The Disintegrations, as a warm up to our conversation at Skylight Books on September 16th.

How did you come to write The Disintegrations? Can you talk about how your fascination with death was born?
The book arose from an obsession. That’s the source from which all my writing springs. My first novel, The End of The World Book was an encyclopedia of obsessions, literally, A to Z, but for this book I narrowed the lens to just one. Who knows why we become fascinated with anything? I was fixated on the subject and I needed to write my way out of it. It’s not a subject I would have chosen to write about. That said, since I was a teenager, most of the writers I’ve gravitated to—Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, Dennis Cooper, W.G. Sebald, to name just a few– have taken the excavation of death as their primary subject. And I think it’s a fairly common preoccupation, though one we’re taught to repress. My narrator can’t repress it.

The protagonist of your book spends a lot of time at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, wandering around, trying to get to the bottom of death. I am also someone who is fascinated by and writes in cemeteries (my local being Hollywood Forever.) Can you talk about your relationship with Holy Cross?
Well, like my narrator, I do teach across the street from Holy Cross, at Antioch University. I’ve taken my classes there, had my students write there. My book is very much an investigation of that cemetery, drawing on that great tradition of writers mining the mythology of Death and California, like Joan Didion. But at a certain point, I didn’t allow myself to go there or even look at it, even though I can see it from my office window. The “Holy Cross” I conjure up is based on the actual space, but it’s a character, it’s the cemetery I’ve fashioned in my head.

You call this book a novel but it reads as a subtle fusion of fiction, nonfiction, memoir and prose poem. Did you write The Disintegrations with much awareness as to the form it was taking?
Yes and no. The book took me about 8 or 9 years to write, and one of the reasons for that was figuring out the “right” form to tell this story, to hold together the pieces I’d written.  It was originally much longer and more traditionally structured, but I realized the structure wasn’t working and last year I did a pretty radical re-write and re-visioning that arose organically. One thing I was always clear on was that even though I would use real names, this book is fiction. My stories are eulogies, but they’ve fictional eulogies. It’s impossible to access the truth of the dead. Like I say in the introduction, “death makes fiction of us all.”

You became a US citizen last month, after a long immigration struggle, something your husband the performance artist Tim Miller has done great work on.  What was that like? And can you talk about your identity as a writer – an Australian writer, a gay writer, an immigrant writer, a California writer? Do you particularly ascribe to any of those monikers? Or do you find them limiting or unhelpful?
To be sworn in with over 4,000 new immigrants at the LA Convention Center was amazing and moving. For me, that only became possible when DOMA was overturned, and Tim and I were able to finally marry. For years we were living in great uncertainty, so becoming a citizen after more than 20 years of bureaucracy was a huge relief.
To answer the 2nd  part of the question, I think all those categories arise in this book. Some of the stories take place in Australia, much of it is rooted in California and LA. The narrator’s sense of distance from the past and from his own life is perhaps the predicament of the immigrant. And one of the recurring threads in The Disintegrations is the intersection between sex and death. But if I take up any moniker, it would be, to go back to the first question, obsession: I’m an obsessive writer who has to follow his obsessions through to the end.

David Francis and Alistair McCartney will talk more about The Disintegrations at Skylights Books, 1818 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027, on Saturday September 16th, 5:00pm.

 

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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Garbo: ubiquitous yet mysterious

An illuminating biography of screen icon and her time

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(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”

Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.
After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”
While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

‘Garbo′
By Robert Gottlieb
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$40/448 pages

Few icons are more ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, yet more mysterious than queer icon Greta Garbo.

Even if you’ve never seen “Grand Hotel,” you likely know that in this 1932 film, Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone.”

Even the most fervent teetotaler would savor watching Garbo say, in the 1930 movie “Anna Christie,” “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”
Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.

After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”

While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

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Books

After 1,000 pages, you’ll hunger for more Highsmith

Acclaimed queer novelist revealed in new tome of diaries

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(Book cover photo courtesy of Liveright)

‘Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995′
Edited by Anna Von Planta
c.2020, Liveright
$39.95/1,024 pages

“The unfortunate truth is that art sometimes thrives on unhappiness,” queer novelist Patricia Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995, wrote in her journals.

Fortunately, for aficionados of charming murderers, Hitchcock and queer folk on the cultural scene decades before Stonewall, this was true for Highsmith.

The creative process will always remain mysterious. Yet, in “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995,” brilliantly edited by Anna Von Planta, we gain insight into how Highsmith made art while living a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-loving life. Along with gossip and fascinating glimpses of Highsmith’s travels.

But fair warning: seeing how literary sausage is made isn’t always pretty.

Highsmith lived an often unhappy, misanthropic life. As she got older, she came to prefer snails to people and dedicated one of her books to her cat.

Yet, Highsmith created more art than most of us could even dream of.

Over half a century, Highsmith wrote numerous short stories and 22 novels. Some of her best-known works are embedded in the cultural landscape.

Her novel “Strangers on a Train” was made into an unforgettable movie with the same name by Alfred Hitchcock. If you can sleep soundly after watching the amusement park scene in “Strangers,” you’re a more intrepid movie fan than I.

Her 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (later reissued as “Carol”) is one of the first novels to feature lesbian characters with a happy ending. (The characters don’t die or go to prison.) In 2015, “Carol” was made into a movie by Todd Haynes.

Her Ripley novels featuring the captivating murderer Tom Ripley have also been adapted into movies.

If you’re entranced by murder, you’re likely a Highsmith fan. And, you’re in good company. Gore Vidal called Highsmith “one of our great modernist writers.” Graham Greene dubbed her “the poet of apprehension.”

Sometimes an iconic writer’s work stops being relatable. Not so with Highsmith.

Her novels, in which murderers routinely disguise themselves and identities shift, are more timely than ever in this age of avatars and catfishing.

A film adaptation of HIghsmith’s novel “Deep Water,” starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, is forthcoming in 2022.

Yet, despite her popularity, during her lifetime, Highsmith hid much of her private life.

Born in Texas, she went to Barnard College and lived in Greenwich Village in New York in the 1940s. After that, she lived in Europe.

Her last home in Switzerland, her friends said, was “practically windowless.” They likened it to “Hitler’s bunker.”

It’s not surprising that Anna Von Planta has said that it took 25 years to edit Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks.

At some 1,000 pages, the volume is a lot to read. Yet, after Highsmith died, 8,000 pages of diaries and notebooks were found.

Unless you’re an indefatigable, insatiable scholar or fan, you wouldn’t want to read Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks in one sitting. It would be like eating five holiday feasts without a break. No matter how delicious, the food would be too filling, and, boring, by the fifth go-around.

These journals and notebooks are meant to be dipped into and savored morsel by morsel.

In her diary entries, Highsmith recorded the events of her life – the gossip, the sex, the drinking, the break-ups – the parties.

“Why can’t I go to a resort, pick up a girl, have a whirl, and drop her?” Highsmith writes in her diary in June 1950.

Highsmith’s notebook entries contained her thoughts on writing and writers. “Why writers drink: they must change their identities a million times in their writing,” Highsmith writes in a August 1951 notebook entry. “This is tiring, but drinking does it automatically for them. One minute they are a king, the next a murderer, a jaded dilettante, a passionate and forsaken lover.”

In her journals, Highsmith is witty, observant, bitter, narcissistic and bigoted (as, when, as she aged, she became increasingly anti-Semitic). But, she is, always, alive.

“I am ravenously hungry for a woman” she writes in her diary in 1950.

Long after reading Highsmith’s last journal entry, where she writes “death’s more like life, unpredictable,” you’ll hunger for more Highsmith.

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