If you can wipe from your mind the notion that this is a slice of autobiography–difficult, since the book jacket is so emphatic that this is what it is; if you can stop brooding about the legitimacy or otherwise of passing real life off as art, or what effect the public dissection of parental sexuality and misery is going to have on the children, and accept this book just as a novel, why then, what a very fine novel it is, passionate, hurt and hurting. A novel as good as Elizabeth Smart’s classic By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (though not so soppy: In Breakup we are dealing with the distress of a grown woman with children, not the broken heart of a girl back in the 50′s); a novel as good as Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (though not so funny, not one bit, these being the soulful 90′s, not the bitter 70′s); a work that stands as a definitive statement of love and loss in this the age of therapy. A brief, exquisite novel dealing with exquisite personal pain, of a kind I’d thought women no longer felt, now that true love gets defined and denied as neurotic dependency, but evidently still can feel, poor things, in the face of all common sense.
A novel–elegantly, poetically written–which makes the reader, or at any rate this one, start up from her chair in indignation and distress for the writer, crying, “The bastard, how could he!” (that’s the husband), “How could she! The bitch!” (that’s the mistress). Nobody but me blames the mistress. Why is this? Is sisterhood now confined to so few?
Novels that deal in You’s and She’s and I’s and refuse to give an actual vulgar name to anyone, usually drive this reader mad. Arty, evasive drivel! But in the case of a roman à clef such as this, it works like a dream. Gossip will finally tell you who everyone is, even if you’re not really the insider you’re made to feel you are. You feel in the know and special. But for once it’s not a very comfortable feeling. There’s too much pain around.
“‘When did you see her?’
“‘Whenever she could. Whenever I could.’”
If you, too, have known love and loss, you don’t keep out of this book. You’re in there with them, shallow-breathing. When Catherine Texier, the putative “I” of the novel, says of her rival, “I’m trying to keep my jealousy in check about her,” this reviewer abandons all literary judgment and just longs to shake her and yell, “Why? Why? At her throat, now! Before it’s too late!” and as for “You” (the husband, the traitor), it’s “Take the scissors to his suits! To his balls with the knife! To his computer with the ax!”
But of course “I” can’t be like that. “I” has to behave well. “I” went into therapy and in learning how to be a better mother, to “be there” for her children, ended up “not there” so much for her husband. Now look. No end to his justifications, the things he can hold against her, now that he’s found someone new. ” Nothing will do but that “I” must control rage, hate, spite, those negative, healing emotions, and accept that we all have to move on, out of old loves into new, more advantageous ones, should they turn up. “I” must deny her own suffering, though it drives her mad. “I”‘s revenge can only be, at best, lukewarm. “So I finally called the lawyer.”
For “I” is held in the strongest, strangest, cruelest device of all. She lives in the new therapistic world. She is French, but weighed down by New York and its mating customs. Everyone must behave with emotional correctness. “I” must suffer because “You,” therapist-driven, must follow his heart. ( Bollocks! Toe rag! ) “I” reminds him of his mother: She is too “needy.” He can’t be expected to put up with it. He still loves having sex with her, but he’s such good friends with the mistress, who’s such a good editor! Thus he dithers, month after month, passing the time with idle cruelty, while slowly, slowly he murders his family–for that is what it amounts to–with the encouragement of his Pardoner. (I refer to those priests who in Dark Age Europe forgave sins in exchange for money, and have lately re-emerged, in force, in post-Jungian New York.)
And still no one censures the mistress at all. Back in the 50′s, she’d have got all the blame, for enticement. And if “You” left home, he’d never have been asked to dinner again, let alone to a publishing party. For him, all would have been gray, gray, gray thereafter, penance for personal sins best never committed. Now it’s wives who carry the can, blamed for failure.
When “You” finally leaves–coming home from time to time, though, to make the supper omelets for his damaged children–he congratulates himself for having given his wife the opportunity “to take charge of her own life.” She can do without him! What a useful lesson he has taught her; how love at first sight, sex the second night, and a passionate life for 19 years, that “furious combination of sex, writing, and children’s laughs and cries,” which was everything to her, meant nothing to him. Heaven forfend that too many of us have to learn the other lesson, that therapists with their jargon can make fools and knaves of us all.
“I will never forgive you.
“I don’t love you anymore.
“I will never make love to you again.”
These phrases, with variations, echo through this curious, powerful, illegitimate book. It’s the heartbroken sob of the little girl, dealing with absolutes: absolute pain, absolute loss, which can never be forgotten, nor forgiven, because it is not hers alone to forget or forgive. There is no cure for love like this, not even writing a book. Reliving trauma never cured anyone. Though I admit, in a similar novel of my own I burned down, on the page, a house which stood firm and true in reality. Passing it the other day, I was astonished to see it still standing: I had truly come to believe it was a pile of ashes.
An illegitimate book, I say, this Breakup (as mine in retrospect was, and bad for the children, who saw through all disguise), and Ms. Texier acknowledges it. “Sometimes,” she concludes, “I feel like a vampire, sucking on our life to create writing out of it. The words are stigma that I’m imprinting on the yellow pad, to bear witness.” Well, yes, a vampire: But what’s a girl to do? He turned you into one, what can he expect? I am interested in this business of yellow paper: On my side of the Atlantic, we tend to use white. I shall buy some yellow tomorrow and see what happens.
But you know how it is. We have only one side of the story. The poet George Barker made a firm reply to Elizabeth Smart, she of Grand Central Station , in his own novel Dead Seagull . Perhaps “You” should do the same. But let him name his protagonists, not rely on pronouns, if only to make the reviewer’s life easier. So many quotation marks make a piece look untidy.
( Breakup , by Catherine Texier. Doubleday, 159 pages, $19.95.)
The chronicle of Catherine Texier’s breakup with her husband Joel Rose, who was editor with her of Between C & D , the foremost downtown literary magazine of the 1980′s, turns out to be a very public blade job, a salaciously mesmerizing, well-constructed, unanswerable work of middle-class revenge. Breakup also is one of the first memoirs of the downtown literary scene, and it dispels, in unintended ways, any notions we might have had that the movement was ever seriously intellectual or truly subversive. While we are sad for her busted-up marriage, and for the fate of Between C & D , which was slated for revival before the marital implosion, we are also sad to be reminded how unlikely it is that New York, or American culture in general, is capable of producing an authentic avant-garde.
In this not-quite-memoir, Ms. Texier has changed the names of her children, the neighborhood of her husband’s lover’s apartment and probably a good deal more. But everyone in publishing (and those who read the April 14, 1997, issue of this paper) knows that Mr. Rose left his wife of 18 years for his editor at Crown Publishers, the sexy and vivacious Karen Rinaldi. Imagine Ms. Rinaldi reading about the frequent lovemaking sessions between Mr. Rose (who was already her lover) and his wife: “[Y]ou pulled me to you and sat me on your face and I felt your mouth open my cunt lips like you love to do and I placed your hands on my tits and you started to play with my nipples while you were eating me, sucking me off till I came into your mouth with deep grunts and I slid down your chest and you were soft and I played with you with my mouth and my fingers till you got hard again.… And you let go inside of me right away.”
This encounter–revealed to us on page 20–could, perhaps, earn avant-garde points in the category of literary porn, nothing being more out of sync with mainstream values than hot sex between married people with children. But it is another scene that Ms. Texier reveals, 83 pages later, in a marriage counselor’s office, that ends up telling me all I need to know about her and Mr. Rose as cutting-edge literary figures. “You said she”–Ms. Texier means the other woman–”was the passport to a world you wanted very much, a world of parties and glitter that you weren’t sure you could get without her, that you weren’t sure you could have access to just on the strength of your talent.” (Mr. Rose has long had to suffer the difficult position of being not nearly so good a writer as his wife.)
What Ms. Texier has written ends up, weirdly, a memoir not about the demise of a marriage that was key to a literary movement, and the writers who were their friends and colleagues, but an account of her husband’s very uptown ambitions, as well as the usual lust and betrayal. As went the gentrifying neighborhood, so, apparently, went Ms. Texier and Mr. Rose.
The Between C & D Legend: Attacking Middle-Class Hypocrisy
The Fales Library at New York University, which is the repository of the university’s special collections and is headed by the intelligent and immensely charming Marvin Taylor, is well along in an ambitious program of collecting material from the downtown literary movement, including the archives of Between C & D . Introducing the journal in the catalogue copy about the collection, Mr. Taylor and his colleagues write: ” Between C & D was to support writing that deviated from conventional norms and questioned accepted standards of literature. Thus, much of the writing featured in Between C & D focuses on the gritty underside of urban living; often shock value is employed, and the safety of middle-class standards [is] attacked for [its] underlying hypocrisy.”
Ms. Texier and Mr. Rose were key figures in a movement that explicitly sought to undermine and reject the established kingdoms of official literature and success, though you wouldn’t know it from reading Breakup . The couple started their downtown ‘zine in 1984, publishing a mix of ethnic Lower East Side writing and the work of suburban refugees such as Mr. Rose himself, who grew up on Long Island. Each copy of the magazine was dot-matrix printed on connected sheets of computer paper. Artwork was reproduced and glued onto the pages, and the whole issue was wrapped in a freezer-size Ziploc bag, a gesture reminiscent, it has many times been said, of the drug trade conducted so openly in the neighborhood. Along with the The Portable Lower East Side , Bomb and Appearances , it defined the parameters of an interesting literary and artistic movement that included Dennis Cooper, Lydia Davis, Mike Topp, Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana and Patrick McGrath. The movement lasted a decade or more and sharply affected American literary sensibilities as they exist today.
Between C & D , in addition to its mission of undermining the hypocrisy of middle-class values, contributed to the fashionability of what you might call indigenous ethnic writing: in this case, the work of kids and others from the community, talking out their fantasies and rage. Back in the 80′s, the Lower East Side was a world of baroque poverty that had been mixing steadily with the new wealth that rode in on the capricious flow of fashion. In the 70′s, the Mudd Club and other punk venues had begun drawing young whites to the neighborhood, adding a layer of gloss to the Beat coloration. The cheap rents and club scenes encouraged many of these aspiring writers and artists to move in. The neighborhood picked up cachet; soon the art galleries and cafes arrived.
The writing that emerged from this milieu was exciting; it held the promise of an authentic literature of a new generation of urban writers, separate from the mainstream publishers and the ever more precious university-based literary magazines. I remember one scene, perhaps in 1984 or 1985, a reading in a hole in the wall called ABC No Rio on Rivington Street. The gray people, as a friend of mine called the dour-looking youths of the downtown arts crowd, stuffed into the room on old folding chairs and splintering benches, everyone stepping carefully amid broken floorboards and keeping one wary eye on the wires and pipes hanging from the ceiling. One very good-looking boy, a poet named Don Yorty, got up and read a Keats sonnet. Then he took out a lighter, set the Keats on fire and, in a dramatic voice, recited his own poetry from memory–the past burned by the present–timing it beautifully so that he dropped flame from fingertips when he reached his own sonnet’s final phrase. His poetry was impressive formal work, Romantic with a capital R, and his performance was also a nice piece of drama, a small literary pentecost.
While the painters and sculptors who went on to make their names in that scene seemed purposefully trivial, the writers captured something of the neighborhood’s simmering anger and unease. The introduction of new money, much of it suburban, did not have a binding effect on the Lower East Side. It was a violent place to begin with–three times in those years I saw cops beating up suspects in the street and threatening anyone who stopped to watch or protest, something I have never seen anywhere else in the city. Everyone I knew there was either mugged or burglarized at least once. The ethnic writers took up such themes as part of the obvious drama they saw around them; white kids from the suburbs were drawn by a sense of authenticity and actual human consequences that their upbringing had been shaped to obscure. Between C & D published a lot of bad, derivative and forgettable work, but it also published some of the best authors and artists to come out of the movement: in particular, Ms. Davis, Mr. McGrath and the late David Wojnarowicz.
Nothing of this gets discussed by Ms. Texier in her book. From a literary figure associated with transgression, what stands as most transgressive, ultimately, in Breakup is the story’s depiction of her and Mr. Rose, devoted writers and editors who seemingly never think about or discuss literature or books. There is much talk of clothes: Mr. Rose likes the simple chic of Agnès B., Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss and–I was left slack-jawed by this one–has a personal hat maker. He also likes motorcycles (BMW is his brand). Who Ms. Texier’s designers are, we are not told. We do know that she frequents Spy and Bowery Bar, where she drowns her sorrows with whisky sours and Euro-friends. We learn of furniture, crockery, Italian cooking, co-op meetings and leather jackets. In 159 pages, not a single other writer or book is mentioned. And Ms. Texier’s and Mr. Rose’s marriage has been one of the signal literary unions of our era.
Much has been said recently about fiction with an edge, about grittiness and reality. Commentators have included Ms. Rinaldi who, in this newspaper, referred to such writing as having “the edge thing.” Of course, when you’re paid more than $100,000 (as Mr. Rose reportedly was for his novel with Ms. Rinaldi, Kill Kill Faster Faster ) by an arm of S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s publishing empire (since sold to a German conglomerate), under the aegis of an editor who used to date James Truman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, well, that gives new meaning to the idea of being near, at or over the edge. Someone should find this edge. God knows a lot of people have been looking. Time Warner Inc.’s Web site, Pathfinder.com, even has a cultural dictionary (alt.culture) that lists Ms. Texier and other Between C & D figures under its “transgressive fiction” entry. Very few definitions I’ve seen offer an explanation of what exactly is being transgressed. There is no idea, not one, that the mainstream can’t accommodate and make its own. Witness the downtown literary scene’s transition to television, the movies and, via editors like Ms. Rinaldi, high-end trade publishing. There are very few artists, it seems, who aren’t panting to be absorbed.
One of the things I kept thinking when reading the many sex scenes in Ms. Texier’s book and pondering the whole notion of transgressive fiction (particularly the fuck and shit and piss variety favored by the Between C & D crowd) was, What’s left to transgress? During the week I was reading Breakup , I stayed up late with insomnia one night watching HBO, a division of Time Warner. I missed Hookers on the Point: Going Out Again and Autopsy but did catch Taxicab Confessions 5 , which featured actual riders in cabs in Las Vegas performing oral sex at the cabby’s urging, reviewing adulteries that had ended their previous relationships, discussing a heroin habit. One woman told of how an uncle had abused her as a child–with her father’s implicit consent–until, after many practice sessions, the uncle convinced her, at age 9, to pull the trigger on a loaded shotgun he’d pointed at his own head. End of uncle. The literary form and the imagination of all but a few of its practitioners have no chance of keeping up with the all-consuming malignancies of the mainstream culture that we have created.
And so the easy birth and quick absorption into that culture of this brief and second-tier literary movement makes for a case study of the impossibility of a true opposition in the arts. In the late 20th century, the culture maw is so capacious, so all-blending and all-digesting, not to mention so easily bored, that even to set forth the primary conditions of an avant-garde, which include the existence of an established set of cultural standards against (or better, in defiance of) which artists choose to work, ends up sounding pitifully quaint.
At one point in Breakup , when Ms. Texier discusses laying out frozen hamburger patties for supper (nothing could be less transgressive–except, perhaps, anguish over adultery), I couldn’t help seeing those Ziploc bags again. This time they signified not the drugs of “the gritty underside of the urban experience,” but frozen prefab patties of chopped meat, nicely grilled and served up on Ms. Texier’s much-loved yellow Fiesta ware, with organic corn. Some underlying hypocrisy with your butter and salt.