NO ONE MADE YOU BUY THIS BOOK—YOU BOUGHT IT BECAUSE YOU NEED TO VENT SOME POISON TOO. And I hope in return it inspires you to scream—not in your lover’s face—but into the bottomless void of the eternal night backlit on some shitty stage howling your guts out seeking purgation surrounded by a handful of hungry orphans desperate for the nourishment of creation’ s offal.
So begins Lydia Lunch’s collection, Will Work For Drugs – and with it, my descent into abusive prose. Since then, Richard Hell has shoved a needle in my arm and left me somewhere in Kentucky in Go Now; Henry Rollins shot me dead in thirty-seven different ways in Black Coffee Blues; Charles Bukowski ripped my womanhood to shreds in Women; William S. Burroughs fed me to the roaches in Naked Lunch; Georges Bataille shoved a urine-soaked, freshly plucked eyeball into places no one should look in Story of the Eye; Kathy Acker locked me in a room while an old Persian man taught me how to be a whore in Blood and Guts in High School; and Irvine Welsh held my head down a soiled, blocked-up toilet in Trainspotting.
Before this descent, I’d been deep in a yearlong Virginia Woolf–Elizabeth Harrower–Alice Munro–Doris Lessing daze. In fact, the last book I read before Will Work For Drugs was Woolf’s The Waves, which is just about the most lyrical, meditative, dreamy novel one could ever pull from a shelf. But my landscape-gazing days are behind me, and now I’m staring down the barrel of Rollins’ revolver, whiskey in hand, and I think I’ll stay a while.
The truth is I was mad when it began. I was angry. Shit was going down in my life, and being the pacifist, non-confrontational, kind of shy, kind of anxious person that I am, I couldn’t let loose on the people who deserved my wrath. So instead, I got in a car with Jack Kerouac, lit a cigarette and let him drive me across America so fast I felt dizzy. I felt safe with him, just as I feel safe with the other cruel or angry writers – though their mouths are so foul the pages smell, though they hurl abuse at me, though they thwart my beliefs and hold my eyes open and head still and force me to stare at all the bad things, A Clockwork Orange style. I feel safe because they acknowledge how hard it can be. How messy and messed up and complex it can be. Though the air is stagnant between the chapters, it makes for refreshing reading.
If you spend enough time staring into niche lifestyle magazines and weekend newspaper pullouts, you’ll begin to believe that your life – in comparison to the mindfulness and positivity they peddle – is a total train wreck. Even when they do nod to the hard stuff, they usually tie a ribbon around it or offer a listicle of idealistic, slap-in-the-face advice on how to ‘cure your anxiety’. But these writers don’t patronise you like that. They let you sit with the ugliness, and explore it until you understand it. They let you deal with it so it doesn’t manifest in a rash.
They get straight to the point, and speak in second person to your greatest fears. Rollins does this well. Knowing you’re scrolling through your phone at two in the morning and the only people in there are exes you can’t call, he asks, who the fuck are you going to call to help you? You have no one to call. Knowing you’re feeling out of place and a little lonely at the party, he asks, did you find out that you got invited because they thought you were so weird? And just knowing you, he says, you thought that you were ugly and that everybody was looking at you. And though it’s uncomfortable, reading those lines and reacting to them lets you know where your anxiety lives. You will see yourself, says Rollins, and he’s right. When someone speaks so directly to you, you hardly have a choice.
All of the writers I’ve met during this spiral are extreme atheists, so unfortunately transferring responsibility onto – or finding hope in – a higher power is not an option. Lydia Lunch debunks God as ‘an egotistical dictator whose sadism was so immense that he insisted on the murder of his only begotten son just to prove what he was capable of after he condemned us all to rot in eternal damnation like flesh puppets in his own private dungeon’. Burroughs seconded this sentiment when he wrote: ‘Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch. His word ain’t worth a shit – not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal’.
Whether or not they were designed to do so, these works provoke the reader and purge them of pent-up anger and resentment and fear. They allow the reader to ‘vent some poison’, as Lunch said, to entertain thoughts they wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate verbally, to themselves or others. In this way, this form of writing is very similar to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty; a wave of avant-garde theatre developed in response to the vulgarity of World War One.
The players on stage would act out scenes of great violence, allowing the audience to vicariously express emotions shoved away and locked deep in their subconscious. Artaud put the audience’s fears and nightmares in front of them, and invited them to explore the mess in a very visceral and real way. And though this probably wouldn’t have made for the most pleasant night at the theatre, Artaud truly believed the experience to be a cathartic and therapeutic one; that in dealing with and purging these pent-up emotions, the audience would be less likely to fuck with one another in the outside world. The theatre is a safe and controlled space in which to ‘vent poison’, just as literature is.
Artaud was interested in the phonic elements of language, an interest he shares with our writers. He communicated meaning and connected with his audiences through the feeling of words, rather than their meaning. Similarly, in these books, grammar and sentence structure are not what’s important; like theatre, they’re experience-based. Their sentences are often so long and exhaustive you run out of breath and their grammar can be so mangled or non-existent you don’t know where one thought ends and the next begins and they’re often written in a desperate relentless unapologetic stream of consciousness and they pile image onto image onto image and you’re not always sure what’s going on but you’re feeling it all and isn’t that sometimes what life is? Sometimes bad days aren’t punctuated by a good night’s sleep, and sometimes things come at you so hard and fast you wish you had a few commas in your pockets to break it all up.
Reading these works certainly did inspire me to scream, but not in my lover’s face. I screamed into the pages, and screamed through the words. I took all the images into my mind, and like a game of Snap, each time a destructive image on the page matched a destructive image in my mind, it would somehow vaporise. And though it’s hard work, every now and again you’ll come across a line like Rollins’ ‘yes, I think I know you’, and feel like someone has seen all you’re capable of – all the darkness you hoard – and held your hand anyway.
- Richard Hell – Go Now
- Lydia Lunch – Will Work For Drugs
- Henry Rollins – Black Coffee Blues
- William S. Burroughs – Naked Lunch, Junky
- Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting
- Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
- Georges Bataille – Story of the Eye
- Charles Bukowski – Women
Main image credit: Ryan Alexander