Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inferno (A Poet's Novel) by Eileen Myles

Reading a novel by Eileen Myles is always a bit of a confusing experience for me, as she tends to write them from the perspective of a character named Eileen Myles, who, much like the author Eileen Myles, grew up in Boston, moved to New York in the '70s, and became a lesbian poet. So it's a novel--which, by definition, is fictional--in which the main character is the author. Or maybe not.

In a video on her website, she says, "The first fiction is your name, I think that's why I use it in my books all the time...I prefer to use my own name because in a way, there's nothing falser than 'Eileen Myles.' And like everyone else, I really don't know who I am." Which really gets you started thinking about your own name, and how it's sort of an arbitrary couple of words that someone else chose for you, yet really comes to define who you are. But anyway...

I like BookForum's review of the book, as it really sums it up pretty well, so I'm going to post some of that here:

"Loosely, Inferno tells the story of Myles, who left Arlington, Massachusetts, where everyone "lived in a roughly catholic world," to make her way as a writer in New York City. As the title suggests, the book owes something to Dante's Divine Comedy. Instead of a dark wood, though, we start out in a college lit class learning Pirandello from a woman with a beautiful ass, "perfect and full," and from there the tour—gossipy, funny, crass, earnest—continues.

Hell is scraping to pay the rent, working as a bouncer at a bar up by Columbia where you can still feel the aura of '68. It's being trained to give handjobs at a massage parlor. It's "inspecting lesbians because I was pretty sure I was going to be one. But I wanted to be a poet first." Purgatory is taking speed and working for James Schuyler. (See Myles's 1994 Chelsea Girls for more on both.) It's Deleuze's Masochism, grant applications, and a dog named Rosie. It's when "I didn't look like a woman or a man and didn't live here or anywhere." A clash with Amiri Baraka. A crush on Nan Goldin. St. Mark's Poetry Project. Touring Germany with Sylvère Lotringer and other Semiotext(e) writers, getting upstaged by Kathy Acker, peeing on Goethe's lawn.

Heaven, though, is Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan's kitchen. It's roaming the city with flyers for poetry readings. It's sex in a tent in a loft. René Ricard buzzing your apartment in the middle of the day...The prose often goes loose and raggedy, yet it always stays in focus. It's a novel in the way Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler's Speedboat are—that is to say, on its own terms."

A novel on its own terms. I think that's a pretty good way of characterizing what I was getting at at the beginning of this post.

Also, I feel the need to mention that you can actually choose between two different covers for this book. It's an interesting idea--and I'm glad that I got to choose this one, as I really did not care for the other one--but at the same time, I kind of think a book should have one cover. Or, since publishers are always repackaging books, at least one cover at a time. (Actually, I guess I should say one American cover at a time, as almost always the international editions of a book will be published with different covers.) A book cover is so visually defining, and I like the idea of the cover art being really iconic and in a way contributing to the book's identity. Which I guess must be a scary thought for the writer.

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