Book of the Year: James Pate's The Fassbinder Diaries

by on Jun.24, 2013

James Pate’s The Fassbinder Diaries is definiely one of the best books of this ludicrous year. I have waited for this book to be published for many years, as long as I’ve been reading James’s writing. It’s not strange that this book doesn’t read like a first book – that it reads like someone who has definitely found his stride, is working in a beligerent zone – because James has been writing amazing stuff for years. In the perfect literary world, he would have had several books published by now.
silly pastel boy
I’ve been reading his work for many years. I met him when we went to grad school together in Iowa. He’d come from Memphis and I had come from NYC (Queens!), we both loved blues music and Wu-Tang Clan, Basquiat, b-movies and Godard (In fact used to be so obsessed with old-school blues music that I wanted to move to Memphis). James was already incredibly well-read and he introduced me to a lot of work I still love: for example Jack Smith, early Don Delillo (Running Dog, Great Jones Street, I hate the later stuff) and Twin Peaks. So we became friends. We watched movies until we fell asleep. I remember/don’t remember one particular night when we Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising stoned and exhausted.

I love the way James talks about art: a pornographic experience. “My hands started shaking,” I remember James saying about the first time he read Bataille’s Blue of Noon. But he has a similar attitude towards less obviously pornographic books, for example some mystic from the middle ages or Foucault.

When asked what his religion was, James would always answer “fallen catholic,” and “fallen” here is very instructive: fallen as in the tenor of the allegory is lost, we have been plunged into the saturative textures and gleaming fabrics of a ritual whose God is dead.
Cannibalism, pornography, b-movies and, most importantly, the physicality, the materiality of the artistic experience are key ingredients of James’s work.You can already see it in “12 Resolutions to a New Year,” a story he wrote while we were in grad school, and which I later published in Action, Yes. It’s one of my all-time favorite stories. The series of poems or piece of film (many of James’s poems/stories have the feeling of being a part of a film where we only get a glimpse of the overall film, or the feeling of two films roughly sutured) are held together by the figure of Fatty Arbuckle who seemingly murders the two lovers who come to see his movies in some dank Memphis theater.
Fatty Arbuckle is the perfect figure for James’s work because of his obesity (James’s characters love to eat or are starving or are desperately trying to stuff themselves, conditions that stand in for his vision of art), his sordid biography (accused of having killed a prostitute by giving her an illegal abortion) and because of the obscurity of his later career:

There are twelve stories about Fatty Arbuckle, and this might be the final one. We know how he spent (wasted, drank through, destroyed loved ones, burnt beds, to be seen in nickelodeons nodding off on junk and gorging pig-like on duck and busting heads and breaking hearts) his final decades. Because of the underground nature of his later years (basements and brothels and dank laboratories and warehouses and seashells) we can only hope certain makeshift records (napkin poems, restroom wall sketches, carvings in trunks, nails through voodoo dolls, digits sent to ex-lovers, whispers floating back off ocean breeze, legends from El Salvador, French myths, personally performed porno in blurred film stock, corpses in floor boards, postcards to cousins, a jam session on tape with Fatty on tenor) appear from the rivers of far drums. We wish ourselves luck.

Particularly because of this obscurity. Unlike the common “accessibility” debates, the obscurity doesn’t interfere with the communication of a meaning, but enhances the affectivity of the textures, the art. In this James’s writing is a close relative of Roberto Bolano’s stories. And like Roberto Bolano’s stories, James’s writings are on one level always about art. And the art is simultaneously physically overwhelming and obscure/apocryphal. In fact the two do no contradict each other but enhance each other: the obscurity is part of the materially overwhelming aspect of art. The Fassbinder Diaries are full of this. In fact the entire book starts out with:

The first scenes are silent. The footage is grainy, as if the world being shown has gone through a storm of broken glass shards.

And ends:

The entire factory or bedroom or meadow dripping light from its lips. Or maybe delicate drops of acid have eaten the scene. There are figures on the ground, silently squirming. But it’s impossible to tell if they are silent because they are silent or if they are silent because this is a silent film. We are watching them in the dark. It is a black-and-white dark. Outside, it is a black-and-white dark.

There’s the sense the materiality of the movies – the graininess, the wear and tear – is part of the viewing experience, enhances and intensifies the experience, and that the physical setting of the film might be part of the movie.
And there’s this great love of the apocryphal, the rumored, unofficial artworks that create a kind of “invisible republic” (to quote Greil Marcus, another lover of this occult space) that feels both incredibly intimate and absolutely convulsed with politics. For example, Franz and Mieze from Fassbinder’s “Alexanderplatz, Berlin” appear as characters in James’s book, but they not only act out scenes not in Fassbinder’s original (or the novel on which his piece is based), but they also watch a whole host of strange films:

Franz said bite me here, and Mieze bit him there, and Mieze said bite me here, and Franz bit her there. The curtains were closed. They were the color of gray snakeskin. Outside, a war developed in Berlin. A gun fired at Dillinger on a movie screen in Chicago. They were someplace else. The seconds were already ahead of them, waiting with their guns pulled. An alley with no escape.

More than any other writer I know, James revels in the apocryphal, the sense of the fan fiction as a perversion of the official account of things. Mieze for example believes that the rumored death of Paul McCartney during Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band is actually true. Or in another piece, there’s one female and one male Mick Jagger (and they hate each other) (I talk about this poem here and James’s work as fan fiction here.)

In keeping with this love of the apocryphal, The Fassbinder Diaries is full of snippets of film, full of little narrative glimpses. In a US poetry world where narrative has become something tasteless (un-“experimental”, basically b-movie), James’s deployment of narratives seems incredibly powerful and affecting. And these narratives create an atmosphere of intensive melancholy nostalgia. But it’s not nostalgia for something (say the 1950s) but saturated atmosphere without an original, without a home or stable ideal. In Freud’s distinction between melancholy and mourning, mourning is healthy – we identify the damage, then greive it and get over it – while melancholy is neurotic. In James’s writing, the melancholy cannot be overcome, the poems are dense with it.
And maybe the most melancholic figure – or the most representative figure – is the “film critic” whose “diary” this entire book might be:

The film critic tosses a slice of tuna to his orange and slender and expectant cat. The film critic argues with her mother while watching Klaus Kinski stride about in the rain, violet flashes of lightning in the mountains behind him. The film critic walks through one hallway after another, hearing a cellphone ring behind a distant door. The film critic dresses up as a dead Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. The film critic pours a bottle of wine over her bed while arguing with her husband over the phone, it saturates the sheets, it dribbles on the wood floor. The film critic plays a Johnny Cash CD during intercourse with the woman he met at a midnight showing of Liquid Sky. Behind them is a table with four empty cans of beer and a deck of old Soviet playing cards. The film critic cuts her hair in the mirror. She cuts it short. Then shorter. From an apartment across the alley comes the sound of salsa music playing. It is 3:12 in the morning.

Unlike the stereotypical Critic, the “film critic” is no rational evaluator: he/she can’t keep the movies straight, can’t distinguish between “life” and “the movies”, can’t even keep the Art out of the bedroom. Or worse yet, can’t keep art out of the outside (or inside).
But it’s not a gentle melancholy his Fassbinder melancholy. As I said, there’s a sense of the apocryphal being convulsed with the political, and the epigraph of the book tells us that “… hate is a passion / and that’s near to love anyway” (Marine Girls, “Tutti lo sanno”), the intensity of the affect in his Fassbinder world is also full of aggression and what might be hate (or love):

Pig Radio

There was always Pig Radio.
You can hear it later in the night.
When I listen I think of angels in pink surgical gowns.
I think of shaved cats that look like small pigs.
I think of shaved human heads that look like starved pigs.
I think of thin kisses followed by thick kisses.
I think of the parts of us that spew.
There are so many parts of us capable of spewing.
Maybe there will be more parts soon.
Parts capable of spewing further and further.
At some point we could spew and spew.
I want to leave the thickest of pink stains behind.

Buy this book, it’s really spectacular.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Matt Miller

    I enjoyed this review, Johannes, and I am psyched to read James’ book. This is awesome.

  2. j. g.

    I discovered your blog through searching something about Bolano, and Pate’s book through your blog. I’m from greece, and both yours and pate’s writing have been for me not exactly a revelation, but something close to that in terms of how existing art can be used in narratives, and how metaphors can be used in new, twisted ways. I’ve started translating the fassbinder diaries in greek in my blog, and if it’s okay I think I’ll try Haute Surveillance after that (there is no way these two books could get published properly in greece, so…) I know you probably don’t know greek, but I just wanted to let you know that someone far away from the US has read and appreciates yours and James Pates’ work.


  3. Johannes

    Of course I don’t mind. THank you, Johannes