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Authors: Sarah Schulman


BOOK: Empathy
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Sarah Schulman's
is a strange, funny, and disquieting book. Said to be lesbian literature's first foray into postmodernism, it is intentionally structured to be suffering from its own identity crisis. With wit and sophistication, Schulman toys with style in
. Traditional narration and development of both plot and characters are rejected outright by the author, just as she rejects Freud's most dubious and regrettable theories. But even this rejection of Freud takes place within psychoanalytic sessions - one sweet irony among many. It is a calculated, but ultimately humane book, and Schulman's fierce intelligence crackles on every page. The critic Sally R. Munt once described the lesbian identity in
as “a traveling implosion,” which may be the simplest summation of this wonderful book.
Sarah Schulman is a tremendously gifted author whose books deserve regular revisiting, and we are pleased and honored to add
to the Little Sister's Classics series. This edition includes an insightful and personal introduction by the writer Kevin Killian and in a new afterword, Schulman herself reflects on the impact of
and the changes that have occurred since its release. Also included is a thematically related short story by the author and further complementary writings.
- Mark Macdonald, 2006
“Now we may perhaps to begin?”
My copy of
is battered, as though it's been field-kicked a couple of times. I don't remember kicking it myself, but the purply, green, black, and yellow jacket has lost a bit of its luster, grown faded and bumpy with use. I open it up, and inside the inscription returns, “For Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, all my love, Sarah. December 10, 1992.” That long ago! Dutton's edition was laid out entirely in boldface type, except the chapter headings, which were gray. Exactly the reverse of conventional printing style. A little disconcerting, as though asking readers, “Is everything backwards? Are the inmates running the asylum?” That
is finally back in print seems to me one of the few just things that have happened in publishing.
was Sarah Schulman's fifth novel, and it delighted us - even those of us who had loved her previous books and wanted her to stay exactly the way she was, by virtue of an unabashed and offbeat formalism. By 1992, she had trained us to expect the unexpected, but still we were unprepared for the gleeful, mordant satire she offered up this time. No two chapters were anything alike, and the writing itself - its syntax, the connections her words make with each other - had undergone a sea change. It's the “acid test” by which I measure another's devotion to the art of the novel. Say it's a guy. He'll be jawing
on about David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk, and I'll interject, “Yes, but what did you make of Sarah Schulman's
Should he profess dislike - or worse, indifference, that indifference which must be the opposite of empathy - my mouth will maintain its smile, glinting brittly, but inside my soul coils with contempt, the low-lying radiation which poisons from underneath the skin, so that he moves away changed, an unknowing victim of the harshest test yet devised to separate sheep from goats. I see his innocent back, with my invisible knife in it, and like Marlene Dietrich at the end of
Touch of Evil
, I'm muttering at his gravesite, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
I remember meeting Sarah Schulman at the poet Norma Cole's house, in Noe Valley in San Francisco around 1989 or so. It was just a cocktail party type thing, but as it turned out, became one of the signal events of my life. I had just finished reading
After Delores,
Schulman's deconstruction of the hardboiled detective novel, and it had plunged me into the splendors and miseries of New York's Lower East Side - its complicated women, its harrowing sexuality and pain. I had so recently finished reading it I had it on me at the party, and whipped it out to show everyone around me. You know the crazy things you do when you're awestruck. Norma said, “Have you met Sarah Schulman?” but I thought she was speaking in general, not in reference to the remarkably composed woman who stood in front of me, a glass of something pale and fizzy in her hand. She looked like a young girl to me. The kiss of youth was on her; it was hard to believe that already she had written
The Sophie Horowitz Story
Girls, Visions, and Everything
(1986), and of course, my new favorite,
After Delores.
Maybe it was 1988 because as I say, I was carrying around that book like a badge, reverently, the way Bataille must have carried around the work of Laure.
When I met her, Sarah was dating the poet and filmmaker Abigail Child, and the two of them were living in San Francisco for a time, shooting a feature-length video they called
Swamp. Swamp's
premise is a simple one, though a host of farcical and apocalyptic events give it color and dash: the US has become so obsessed with keeping Mexicans away from its borders that it has turned all of Southern California into an artificial swamp. In an eerie parallel to later developments in so-called “Homeland Security,” borderlands themselves must keep expanding exponentially, and soon San Francisco will be “swamped” over like all of the acreage to the south. George Kuchar plays an agent of the state who informs a bookstore owner that her property has been commandeered for patriotic purposes. “My shop a swamp?” she keeps crying, in shock. Carla Harryman, as the bookstore owner, in a little black dress with prim yellow polka dots, is the heroine of
When I found out that Sarah Schulman -
Sarah Schulman! - had written the script, I tried to get cast in the video. Why not? Everyone else I knew was getting their face in. I found out the number where Sarah and Abigail were staying and I kept calling, insinuating myself into the rhythms of their days and routines, offering to show them Kevin Killian's San Francisco, and boasting of my extensive acting career, which pretty much consisted of one-minute cameos in no-budget student films.
At the time, Sarah was hard at work on
People in Trouble,
the caustic, challenging ACT UP novel that was to change my life. For me, she came to embody the spirit of social change. “You must change your life,” she said, like Rilke. It was a vision of reform, of revival, a wind of hope in a time of complicated misery. I had thought of postmodernism as a stateless thing, divorced from the political, and after reading her books I was never able to be so willfully innocent again.
was made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when ACT UP was still going strong, and though I think some of us saw it then
as a bit of a relief from AIDS politics, when I saw it again recently I was struck by how fragile the city looks in it, how febrile and shakey. The poet and activist Tede Mathews, soon to be dead himself from AIDS, has a startling role as Steve Benson's mother, and when he's on the screen I have this weird sentimental attachment to him I didn't have in “real life.” I finally landed a role in
I was Tom, an acclaimed, self-absorbed conceptual artist in the Vito Acconci/Matthew Barney mold. I sprang to fame with my expensive-to-stage, dazzling
coups de societé
; in one project, I suspended large girders from the ceiling of New York's Grand Central Station, and when a critical mass of homeless people had gathered beneath them, my computerized eye would release the beams and voilà! Instant fame, and I didn't even have to be there.
begins, Anna is a young Manhattan office worker (temp division) having the sort of breakdown that leads to a total disarray of syntax. Doc, a street corner psychiatrist, lacks a diploma but works cheap and guarantees a cure within three sessions (just like latter-day HMO coverage). Anna's been rejected by a “handsome and wicked” woman who dismisses lesbianism as, if not pathological, then lacking the “fun” factor she can find with a man. Devastated, Anna plunges into her sessions with Doc, and eventually each winds up utterly changed by the other. American literature has had its “shrink” novels before, and to an extent
depends on our vague knowledge of them, as we bounce Doc's apercus off similar doctors from the past. Dick Diver cures then marries Nicole in Scott Fitzgerald's
Tender is the Night.
In Sylvia Plath's
The Bell Jar,
Esther Greenwood succumbs to shock treatments. The narrator of Ralph Ellison's
Invisible Man
is tossed into a mental home for being a troublemaker. Most salient of all, in Philip Roth's
Portnoy's Complaint
, Portnoy tells his whole story to a silent psychiatrist, a tale so lengthy many readers forget that the
psychiatrist is there. Dr. Spielvogel has only one line of dialogue, the last line in the book, so pointedly ironic it amounts to a shock ending: “Now we may perhaps to begin?” It seems to me that I remember Sarah asking Philip Roth to write a blurb for
Portnoy's Complaint
is one of the books that Anna remembers from her parents' bookshelf.
BOOK: Empathy
8.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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