There was a time when I fought against an impatience with reading, concealing, with partisanship, the fissures in my education. I confused difficulty with duplicity, and that which didn’t come easily, I often scorned. Then, in my last year of college in Gainesville, Florida, I was given secondhand a list of eighty-one books, the recommendations of Donald Barthelme to his students. Barthelme’s only guidance, passed on by Padgett Powell, one of Barthelme’s former students at the University of Houston and my teacher at the time,was to attack the books “in no particular order, just read them,” which is exactly what I, in my confident illiteracy, resolved to do.
But first I had to find the books, a search that began at Gainesville’s Friends of the Library warehouse book sale. Early morning, the warehouse parking lot was filled with about fifty men, women, and children waiting for the doors to open. At the front of the line were the all-nighters, hard-core sci-fi fans, amateur Civil War historians, and chasers of obscurities, rumored to have been there since before midnight. Some had brought with them hibachis and coolers and battery-powered radios, giving the parking lot the feel of a Gator football pre-game with less angry hope.
I bring up the book – The Life and Times of Little Richard, perhaps the best and most shocking celebrity tell-all book ever written. Penned by Charles White with Little Richard’s full co-operation and published in 1984, it is copyrighted in the names of the author, the star and his longtime, now-deceased manager, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. It’s a real lulu. Detailing his early life, in which he travelled with a minstrel show, sold snake oil in Doctor Hudson’s Medicine Show and performed in drag as Princess Lavonne, it touchingly includes early childhood anecdotes, such as the time Richard gave an old lady neighbour a bowel movement in a box for her birthday. (What a coincidence! Divine was on the receiving end of this exact same gift in Pink Flamingos.) Halfway through the book, you realise that you are in a stratosphere of lunacy. The bizarre lifestyle you’d fantasised for Little Richard is small potatoes compared with the truth. His onetime drug addictions and alcoholism, his hilarious threesome with Buddy Holly and his longtime stripper friend Lee Angel (with a “50-inch bust”), and his obsessions with voyeurism (“Richard the Watcher”) and masturbation (“six or seven times a day”) are all topped off with truly staggering photographs of his many fashion statements. Just when you start thinking Nobel Prize, you get to the final chapter, a compilation of Richard’s religious testimony that seems to sour the entire volume and turn off the very audience for whom the book was written. He seems to want it both ways.
The Internet is a compendium of broken and distorted souls: the blogs, journals, webcams, personal ads. Out there, self-exposure is no longer a niche activity, but a preoccupation that’s slowly colonizing the Internet, site by site. Let’s start with a text I recently saw online: 942422998 I tricked a good friend into betraying me so that I would have someone to hate other than myself. The post is one of 176,961 anonymous confessions currently on view at www.grouphug.us. Launched in October of 2003, the website attracted more than thirteen million hits in its first three months. As of the writing of this piece, nearly 8,000 posts await approval from at least three readers—any three—who happen to feel like moderating. It’s a public affair, though there are rules. As a moderator, you must understand the purpose of the site, which is, ostensibly, to provide relief, camaraderie, and perspective to the confessants, and hours of reading pleasure to the rest of us (cf. 907626756 i can’t stop reading through these confessions and hoping one of them will be someone confessing they love me). You must flag obnoxious formatting. You must weed out the pomp, gratuitous vulgarity, hate speech, and contact info. You must know the difference—and here is the trick—between a legitimate confession and horseshit.
If you subscribed to or even occasionally read Sassy, the teen-girl magazine that existed from 1989 to 1996, then that makes you, approximately, a pro-choice registered Democrat who came of age listening to alternative rock. You grew up on R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Hole, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, My So-Called Life, and John Hughes. Your romantic ideals were forged by repeated viewings of Dead Poets Society, Say Anything, and Morrissey riding around on a tractor in the middle of winter for the “Suedehead” video. You published a zine or bought zines, issued seven-inch singles or bought seven-inch singles. You were probably a high-achieving malcontent, a wearer of black in high school who became a thrift-store-haunting feminist theorist in college. If you were going to get married at all, you were going to marry an enlightened, sensitive man who washed dishes, and you’d do it for enlightened, egalitarian love—not money! Or else you were going to, or did, come out proudly as a lesbian, or you took up with members of both sexes and didn’t feel guilty. You were under the impression that the girls who came after you would never have to shave their legs.
More than a few years ago now, when I was living in San Francisco, I happened to walk by the office of a dot-com, a competitor in the online-pet-supply business, that had gone bust. It was midnight when I passed its brilliantly lit atrium, void of humans and furniture, except for a single desk where a night watchman sat looking dejectedly at the street. A huge white banner hung over his head, with red letters five feet high, spelling out THIS IS PETOPIA. I don’t mean to be flip or to equate the company’s marketing strategy with any genuine utopian impulse, but it did occur to me that the idea of utopia is strangely persistent. It crops up in all kinds of places; this was one of them. Even people who haven’t read Sir Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, or any of the other books in the utopian tradition—which is to say, most people—recognize utopia as a desirable parcel of real estate. You can sell things on the strength of it, or so it must have seemed to the founders of Petopia, all the way back in San Francisco in the 1990s, when many people were entertaining utopian hopes for the Internet, that literally placeless, or u-topian, region. Most of those hopes ended as Petopia did: furniture sold at auction; office space going cheap. But the question lingers: Apart from its questionable value as a marketing strategy, what is utopia good for?
On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Elsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was—in the strict sense of having been “shocked to death”—electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school at the time. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I requested something new, a song that he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with my brother and me up late, drinking, trying out our new “tunes” on each other. There is something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers, and I’m fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.
When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up alibis to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Bagdad.