Lit Seen: James Hannaham’s God Says No; Mark Z. Danielewski Exposed at PEN Fest


James Hannaham and I decide to meet one rainy Friday afternoon in a polished, low-lit midtown hotel, where the men’s bathroom is supposed to be great for cruising. Just off the first-floor lobby, the restroom in question is about the size of a Lower East Side bedroom and has mirrors on all four sides, conspicuously immodest urinals, and a private stall with a sturdy lock. The simple act of washing your hands in this bathroom is voyeuristic—should there be more than one of you in there, anyway. “Seemed like the more modern the design of a men’s bathroom,” observes Gary Gray, the closeted protagonist of Hannaham’s debut novel, God Says No, “the more it tried to prevent the perversions of the male sex.” Not this one. “It’s kind of ideal in a way,” says Hannaham later, after a lack of discernible action in both bathroom and hotel bar has chased us to a nearby restaurant. “You get to see what you’re getting, then try it on.”

God Says No opens at Florida’s Central Christian College, where Gary is an aspiring radio preacher whose America consists mostly of Disney World, heterosexuality, and second helpings of ice cream. He’s also irredeemably gay: Anonymous men in Waffle House bathrooms turn out to be more of a turn-on than Annie, the girl whom Gary is platonically dating. Even as he accidentally impregnates her on a college kitchen floor, he’s beginning to compulsively indulge in a practice for which he eventually finds other names: ” ‘getting a favor,’ ‘guy stuff.’ Not sex. Not sin.”

Hannaham, a longtime Voice contributor born in Yonkers, isn’t much like his book’s intensely sincere and religious protagonist. “I wasn’t raised in the church at all,” Hannaham says, before noting that, relatively speaking, he’d had a much easier time coming out as well: “I missed out on the essence of gayness and the essence of blackness.” If Gary is anything, he’s a “shadow self,” naive, conflicted, estranged from every community he knows—everything, beyond the parameters of race and sexual orientation, that Hannaham is not.

From the outset, Gary lives a double life. Married at 19 in a peach tuxedo, he quickly resorts to picturing “a muscular fire dancer” from Disney World’s Ohana restaurant and staring at his wife’s unbleached mustache while in bed with her. Later, Gary will abandon his family and live as a gay man in Atlanta under the alias August Valentine, then enroll himself at Resurrection Ministries, where he and 11 other men undergo therapy to rid themselves of “unwanted SSAs—same sex attractions.” There, he takes classes such as “Masculinity Repair, a monthlong workshop where we played football and learned how to build additions to houses and fix domestic cars.” Upon graduation, Gary calls his wife with the news that he’s straight again. “I promise I won’t disappoint you,” he tells Annie. “End zone. Completion. Touchdown.”

“I was tempted to actually go under false pretenses to one of those places,” says Hannaham, when I ask how he researched the world of Resurrection Ministries. “But I know that I would’ve blown my cover immediately. I’m too gay.”

I point out that I can think of more fashionable subjects for one’s debut novel than central Florida, Disney World, God, and homosexuality. “There are a lot of novels out there that make you think America is England, you know?” responds Hannaham, describing the type of fiction he deliberately didn’t write. “That book is sort of—it’s dark green, and there’s a very sort of sensuous but depressing-looking cover: a photograph, there’s like a blurry thing in the distance. It’s a beach maybe, and the title describes a relationship between a mother and a daughter, or a mother and a father, or a father and a daughter. And the typography is all done in the same typeface as money, and the interior is all about small lives lived in a small way. I’ve often felt like those books don’t have much to do with the way life is actually lived in America.”

The PEN World Voices Festival came to town at the beginning of the month, its fifth straight year in the city. As always, the week-long gathering presented a humbling challenge to many in New York who otherwise like to think of themselves as well-read. Sample panel: “Orange Groves, Olives, and The Last Fish Tale.” Huh? The festival’s opening-night gala was held in honor of the jailed Chinese activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, who received the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, although he could not accept it in person, as he’s being held captive in an “unknown location” in Beijing. The week’s only real moment of not-totally-cerebral levity came courtesy of the PEN World Voices Cabaret, in which Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson performed, shortly after Parker Posey, James Franco, and a handful of others reprised their fall New School performance of Jonathan Franzen’s New York chapter from State by State, a one-act we caught and wrote about in this space the first time around. So at least we already knew about that one, right?

The cabaret took place in the same basement auditorium of the French Institute that had earlier played host to two highly anticipated panels. One was a discussion between Paul Auster and Enrique Vila-Matas, an enormously charming Spanish writer already adored in Europe who, by the end of the week, had done much to further his reputation here as well. The other was a live appearance by the somewhat reclusive Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions—two of this century’s most notoriously labyrinthine and obsessed-over novels—who was paired, felicitously, with his friend, the author Rick Moody.

“Mark, you don’t appear in public that often,” joked Moody, before walking Danielewski through a bio that remains a bit shadowy: the author’s avant-garde filmmaker father; his childhood stints in Spain, Africa, Switzerland, and Utah; his time at Yale; and his pre–House of Leaves travels through New York, Vermont, France, and L.A. PEN World Voices is all about fresh discoveries, however, so we’re happy to bring news of a heretofore unknown Danielewski novel, titled The Hellhole, about “a very rich kid who became a cocaine addict, beat up a police officer, went to prison,” and “was sodomized,” before finally enacting “some sort of heinous revenge” on all who had wronged him. It’s an early work—Danielewski wrote it when he was 10.