Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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What unites these pieces, these personal essays and a fictional sketch, reflections on sex work and heroin use, on artistic icons of the 1990s and the trash culture aesthetic, on sex and the desires that augment and replace it, on intimacy as something revealed or evaded or weaponized? I’ll call the most prominent unifying theme redemption, and I’ll try to explain and defend that claim.
For instance, in what was for me the most powerful essay collected here, Helmsley re-presents Courtney Love, lets us hear and experience that artist’s lyrics and career again, for the first time. Love becomes, then, something like a soundtrack to this book as a project, a redemption of the 1990s, lifting artistic figures and artifacts of that decade out of whatever dustbin they’ve been in and giving them a quick spit polish, holding them up to the light. People want to piss on you, strangle you, make you a victim in order to make you a thing in the world they name and own, Helmsley reminds us. How you respond says something about you, about the identity and world you want, about what you think is valuable, worth screaming for.
Among the many things Courtney Love is not is a saint, at least in the sense of someone perfect, offering a recommended template for imitation. Rather, Love is like that friend immortalized by Helmsley in another piece as being “a punch and a hug,” behaving badly but in a way that is always (almost inexplicably) excusable, a real pain in general but in ways that are given such appreciation here as to clearly be behind the begrudgingly. This is a book that celebrates, even as its pages contain all manner of horror, from explicit abuse to more quiet collapse of relationships. But Helmsley is less interested in “The full circle of things that don’t work out” than in the possibilities of constructive action in response to and as a means of shattering such a circle. This book is a redemption song.
Another example, taken from an essay about a childhood trip to the big city, New York. Helmsley writes that her mother wanted to keep her from noticing the crusted accumulation of the human all over the streets, to keep her from seeing “Every homeless person. ACT-UP activists. Black Muslims. Packages of edible, strawberry and peach flavored underwear, at Trash and Vaudeville. A woman’s exposed vagina, on a painting, in the lobby of the Chelsea. What was it about New York City that she wanted me to appreciate?” Dig this list, a mini-catalog of social problems and revolutionary responses thereto, of creative celebrations of the bodily, of sex. Here Helmsley gives us a glimpse into the adult world that she found to be formative, a memory tailored, in its remembrance, to what matters: structural inequality and pain, the discipline channeling of anger and the hope for change, seizure of the symbolic, a winking relish of the physical, a particular form of feminist noise—silence equals death, but we are the resurrection, and this is our flag. In a society still defined by “priapic he-man macho-man bullshit,” Helmsley points us to another way, another model of art and identity, or community as characterized by cooperation and empathetic uplift as opposed to exploitative egotism and pissing contests. A feminist punk canon is presented: “Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna, Lisa Carver, Cookie Mueller,” artists worth reconsidering, Helmsley holds, worth reengaging now.
And part of what these artists have in common is carving their own paths of redemption, cutting their own identities. In an essay on the label of “victim,” Helmsley talks about the aftermath of sexual assault as an ongoing struggle for autonomy. In short, she rejects the term because “‘Victim’ refers to our inter-tangled relationship, and whenever I can, I want to be as separate from you as possible. I don’t want to share a word with you.” It’s easy to imagine Love singing that last line, and loudly.
But generosity, not spite, is dominant here. And it is through this commitment to the value of generosity that Helmsley offers the most pointed critique—indictment, really—of some of her contemporaries, notably male artists in that ego-and-pissing-contest vein. She writes, “A lack of boundaries does not equal art. Godard was wrong. The first edit is not the first lie. The first edit is often the concession we make for the protection of the human heart.”
Along with her arguments about art are, of course, instantiations of it, with particular passages standing out like gems: Heroin users “are intoxicated by sleep; they radiate a sort of toxic languor.” A dress was acquired “online, second-hand, from a pin-up hula-hoop Satanist,” and “Sid Vicious would save my soul from Sweet Valley High.” We hear about the unique optimism of the dope fiend and we see a friend, who has “stuffed her bra with tissues from the refreshment table” in the process of “pulling them out from her cleavage to wipe the tears from her eyes.” As attuned as Helmsley proves herself to be to the lyricism of Love, she’s no slouch herself when it comes to crafting a sharp, strong line.
Such prose, within meditations about life focusing in on sex work and death, addiction and loss, make this book an engaging read. But the larger argument about art make this book something special, something important—on its own, as an example of this redemptive mode, generous and self-determined; but also as a valuable reminder of other artists worthy of reconsideration and a new age of appreciation.
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