Editor's note from a previous article:Neophytes to experimental fiction can cut their teeth on “Gaha: Babes of the Abyss”
(2014, Whiskey Tit, New York) the latest “sci-noir” work of Jonathan Frankel, a local author
Set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, 2540, the overlords of the underworld are the top
dogs and the free enterprise is run amok. Everything’s changed except, well: Money,
sex, and the lust for power. Forget about law and order.
Forget about life being sacred, too. The novel is trafficked by a host of complex bizarros, and armies of para-military monstrosities, some on horse back, armed with all the weapons of ultra-modern terrorists. Here and there are tender acts of humanity (usually on the part of a Martian), but all are tainted with some manner of gold-digging. Frankel is a skilled writer with a passion for satire and dark comedy and the sound; he packs the book with plenty of surprises and succulent language to keep the pages turning. “I’m not sloppy about anything,” says Frankel. “Every syllable is a deliberate choice. And I mean 'syllable.' I needed to create another world, and used language to do it.”
In a February interview with tiny town times, Frankel told us a bit about himself, his writing, where he's coming from and hopes to go. Here are segments of that interview. We may adding to this piece as time allows. He will be reading March 28, at 4 p.m. in Buffalo Street Books, DeWitt Mall, downtown Ithaca, NY.
TTT: What's your Ithaca connection?
JF: I moved to Ithaca from the city in 1988. I had two babies and was living in a tenement with urine in the halls
and crackheads on the corner. It wasn’t romantic anymore. I had a friend going to grad school at Cornell and he said to come up. We visited and then moved here a few months later. He didn’t mention the weather. Anyway, I worked at Micawber’s. It took years to accept Ithaca as home, but I finally did. I divorced, started to work at Cornell in the library, remarried, had 3 more children. I’ve got 5 children altogether.
TTT: How long have you been writing? Early influences? Did it come on early or were you late to it? Do you NEED to write ???
JF: I do indeed need to write. I started writing in elementary school, sixth grade, when I wrote "Iron Ass" comics with my partner-in-crime Bert Bloch. I wrote a movie with him too, a seventies police movie with huge blood gouts. We videotaped that in seventh grade. It’s been downhill ever since. The books I have been inspired by are many: James Joyce's "Ulysses," "Pick Up," by Charles Willeford; "Farewell My Lovely," by Raymond Chandler; and "Women," by Bukowski. There are books I love as a writer; I can read anything, but can only write some things. My imagination is engaged by low-life, I suppose. As a reader I’m engaged by a lot more than that.
TTT: Could you give tiny town readers a basic writer's bio?
JF: Writing as "Buzz Callaway," I published "Specimen Tank" in 1994 with Manic D Press ... It's about a couple of drug addict performance artists who test drugs for money and end up as test subjects in human experiments. It’s a near future book. I went to Oberlin, Ohio, for one year, but wanted to live in the city, so I left and lived in New York for ten years, working as a waiter, reading, and writing poetry. I’ve published a dozen or so poems over the years and was nominated for a "Pushcart Prize" by Slipstream, in 1993.
TTT: Ever do any time? Military? Jail?
JF: I was in jail for 3 weeks for antinuclear protest in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1978. That was with my other partnerin crime Al Giordano, a prominent anarchist, journalist and community organizer now. They kicked us out because we refused to sign any papers. And we were organizing sing-alongs among the inmates.
TTT: Why did you decide to write this book Jon Frankel instead of a pseudonym? How often have you employed synonyms?
JF: My pseudonym, Buzz Callaway, was to avoid people in my family knowing I’d written "Specimen Tank," because I felt they’d be disappointed. Also, I liked the idea of not being who I am. I dropped it for this book because my very slight, miniscule web presence is now tied to my real name, and I want this book to succeed.
TTT: What's it like writing science fiction in a town dominated by academic and literary fiction? And since I borrowed that question, what the hell town am I asking about?
JF: Fun. First of all, sci fi and noir books are guilty pleasures for many literary people and academics. Secondly, all of theother arts, besides fiction and poetry, have experienced Pop Art. I mash up genres. If it’s pissing on someone’s parade, all the better. I do not fit in with academic or literary culture in this country at all. I am very well educated and have read a lot and widely, but I’m a passionate autodidact and embrace my auto-didactical failings with enthusiasm, especially those failures of taste academic literary intellectuals are so embarrassed by.
TTT: GAHA is not Ha-ha funny, but it's funny. I didn't laugh much, but I get some of it. I don't get a lot of it. The book, is, as you state in the front matter, is wayward with language.
JF: It’s meant to be funny. It’s black humor and satire. Satire is best when savage. And humor is inherently cruel. There is a heart in all of it, of course. The wayward language was a self-indulgence. As a reader, I love wayward language. As a writer, it allows creativity. I am not a literary writer or an academic one, but I am an experimental one, with a strong intellectual and aesthetic background.
TTT: What is GAHA saying about our current situation in America?
JF: It’s saying we are a society without values beyond immediate short term profit, and that we are enslaved to stupid ideologies that dehumanize people and reduce us to means that serve others’ ends. Objectification, alienation, commodification. Environmental destruction for fun and profit. Contempt for humanistic values. Widespread coarse stupidity.
TTT: What do you hope people will take away from the book? Do you care if there is a take away from this book?
JF: I want readers to be entertained and absorbed by the action and characters. I want them to think about what a horrible world we are creating. I want them to see us for what we are now. I want them to laugh and be afraid and think.
TTT: GAHA is confusing me on a lot of levels -- most don't matter. One matters a lot to me: Authenticity. I have a couple problems with your protagonist, Bob.
JF: You’re not alone.
TTT: The landscapes, scene setting and descriptions are wonderfully rendered. The book keeps moving and that in itself it an achievement ... It's a very enjoyable ride in many respects
JF: It’s meant to keep moving. It’s a crime novel, a noir novel, like James M. Cain or Charles Willeford, set 500 years in the future.
TTT: Main confusion: The morals of the main character seem at odds with the futuristic date, his inner thoughts verus his actions and behavior ... He's not too ahead of his time in the sex category , for instance. The out-there women stuff is weird, but people have been having all kinds of kinky sex shows since Salome ... He's not exactly what I think of as a man of the future. He's more like a 80s guy ...
JF: On of my big assumptions is that we won’t be any better 500 years from now. Elma and Irmela (main characters in a romantic triangle with the protagonist) are exploited young women, sex slaves. Bob is a bottom feeder. They‘re better off with him than the pimps who’ve enslaved him. And he’s looking for love and lust. It’s an unholy trinity. The world itself assumes we’ve done nothing, and the consequences are as narrated.
TTT: You make a kind of apology by way of non-apology in the front matter: ... " For language I have been wayward, promiscuous, omnivorous, unapologetically (itals mine) ... And I found this an interesting editorial note: "Malaprop uses of languages other than English are not to be corrected."
JF: I don’t know how authentic any of the slang I use is. Native Americans really hate appropriation of their culture. I break these rules. I am unapologetic. I’m a novelist. Every syllable is a deliberate choice. And I mean syllable. My training is as a poet. And proofreading and language use are different. Small presses can’t afford editors or proofreaders and neither can I. I am deeply apologetic about mistakes. But the intentional use of an exotic vocabulary is a choice I made for many reasons, mostly to do with atmosphere, some personal (like, it was more interesting). I needed to create another world, and used language trash to do it.
F: Who is Oscar Eustis, mentioned in the kudos?
JF: Artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, my cousin, and a deep, close friend whom I love like a brother. Oskar has taught me more about narrative than anyone else. And I’m lucky, because it’s mostly famous playwrights who will tell you the same thing. I didn’t have to have ten meetings and a lot of luck to get him to read, and critique, my manuscripts. I just had to ask.
TTT: Who is Maja Anderson (also mentioned in the book's kudos)?
JF: She’s my wife of 20 years, best friend, lover, confidante.
TTT: In this Age of the Amateur, can you give me a map of how you've handled the "traditional" publishing route? Are
you an advocate of Indie publishing? Is there any such thing as a "gatekeeper" in literature these days?
JF: I tried for decades to get an agent. There are many gatekeepers, but few of them are aesthetic gatekeepers. The only thing that matters to commercial publishers, editors and agents is sales. They will say different, and all have their charity cases, but the bottom line rules in commercial publishing as it does in Hollywood or anywhere else. I totally failed. I do believe the novel is a commercial art form. I don’t write the kind of experimental fiction that would even be recognized as such by many experimental presses. So look, indie presses are also overwhelmingly agented. There are just very few presses that will accept unsolicited manuscripts. And they have to sell also. They have a much smaller market, but they have to sell. There are far more writers out there than readers these days, so as soon as even a tiny press has any success they are besieged with submissions. They set up gatekeepers. These young guards are in their 20’s. So breaking in is almost impossible. That leaves the real outsider presses, collaborations between tiny dedicated publishers and their handful of authors. Like a small art gallery. I think there are costs and benefits. The internet, ePublishing, blogs, Web sites, all of this means the artist is in control of production and distribution. Great. But the audience shrinks. So it’s rare that everyone is reading a challenging, culture changing book. It’s also rare that large numbers of people will read an eccentric, difficult book.
TTT: You have a supple way with tone and diction and a surprise vernacular that pulled me back several times from the brink of not wanting to finish ....
JF: Thank you. I worked hard on the dialog. Tone, diction, the use of vernacular, are the tools of the trade. Jazz musicians have to master all of the scales, and many time signatures and combine and recombine and mutate these. Comedians improvise from a stock of stories and jokes. Novelists draw on a wide variety of tones, diction and vocabularies. Like most novelists I’m an eavesdropper, a voyeur. I remember things people say, how they say them. And I work at it! Every word of this book has been rewritten 20, 30 times or more. The dialogue was spoken aloud dozens of times, and then read silently on the page. I did study music for years as a child, and played trumpet, and I am obsessed with music. I’m also a poet, and poetry, for me, has always been about the sound of the words. I love writers like Joyce and Shakespeare whose appeal is musical as much as visual or the meaning of the words. Spenser is a delight to read. He’s a warbling bird.
TTT: I don't want to even fake the comparison with PDK ... I've only seen the movies and that's my bad. Vonnegut is the last Sci-fi guy I had a relationship with for a long time. I'd love to know Bradbury, but he's way in my rearview and I'd like to read him again before I die, which is not rhetorical at this point in life and time ... So, that's a long way around the barn to asking: Who are you? Who do you think you are and Do you have an idea of where you'd like to go next or are you there, already?
JF: I’ve read both (Kurt) Vonnegut and (Philip K.) Dick a lot. I was well formed as a writer when I started reading PKD (I was 40), so he’s not much of an influence, but Vonnegut I read in early high school. He’s like Mark Twain. And that’s big for me. Who am I? In the movie "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" someone asks Bob Dylan that, and Dylan’s character answers, ‘That’s a very good question.’ I am an independent novelist, poet and artist. I don’t see the various parts of my life as separate, but part of a plan or desire to live as much apart from a commercial society that I find stressful, immoral, and uninteresting. Well, maybe it’s the most interesting thing out there. America is high entertainment if you have a sense of humor and have read some history. I am my own guy, and I don’t like groups, or schools, or anything like that. I am anti-authoritarian and reactive. Where am I going? I want to write a sprawling, brawling, multi-generational social novel, like "Buddenbrooks," set five hundred years in the future. That’s what I am doing, and probably will be doing for the next ten to fifteen years, given the speed at which I work.
TTT: Small point but, I thought a Fusca was a kind of black ant?
J: It’s Chicano slang for gun, or was at sometime somewhere. Google it. Except for the Native American words, every word is Googleable.
TTT: You got serious writing chops and I admire that. As far as this book goes I read it because I had to and then I kept at
it because it has lots of surprises ...You know how some movies aren't your cup of tea, but you might watch them through again just for the way some scenes rolled out of others? I kept at "Gaha" because there's a lot of stuff in here that is top shelf stuff ...
JF: I could not ask for more. And I do know what you mean (about movies).
TTT: Finally: What's the book you are reading now ... And: really absolutely finally: Have you or would you like to do a graphic novel?
JF: I’m reading "The Mob," a history of organized crime in New York City, from the colonial era until the 1970s. And Charles Dickens, "Great Expectations." I would love to write a graphic novel. Except for "Iron Ass," I haven’t written one. I would need to collaborate.
TTT: From the bleak hyperborean steppes of Central New York, a grudging new fan bids you adieu.
– Franklin "Read the Whole Book" Crawford