In the 19th century, Adah Isaacs Menken set a template for women bohemian authors in America. In the stage show Mazeppa, Menken showed off her body in flesh-colored tights, while in lush poetry books she showed off her soul (“O jealous soul! why wilt thou crave and yearn for what thou canst not have/And life is so long—so long”). Americans have always been suspicious of bohemians, but female bohos can easily turn this suspicion to fascination, which can sell a lot of books.
For women writers identified with the fringe, this is a marketing opportunity. It can be a literary one, too. If people are fascinated with you, then you can write a lot about yourself—sex is an obvious must-have, but you can also talk about other interesting things that happened to you or have crossed your mind. If the writer is not good, this is an invitation to disaster, which, fortunately, the two bohemian writers whose books I picked up this month, Lydia Lunch and Reverend Jen, have for the most part escaped.
Lunch, best known as a No Wave musician in the ’70s and ’80s, has released Will Work for Drugs; Reverend Jen, a popular downtown scenester in more recent years, has Live Nude Elf. They’re from very different eras, and inevitably this affects not only how they present themselves but the method and meaning of what they write.
Lunch comes from the pain-obsessed bohemia of New York’s dirty, dangerous days. Back then, she made some distinguished if excruciating music and played with sexual imagery. Everett True called her early band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, “all about sex: sharp, inspired, aggressive, irritating blasts of noise and saxophone: jagged, visceral, in-yr-face . . .” On film, she acted out grimy erotic fantasies, and on her “mainstream” album, Queen of Siam, she sang in a snotty Lolita voice over lounge music. She presented sex, but only with, or as, a problem. This was catnip to irony addicts, but confusing to pop-culture consumers, who preferred the Pat Benatar version.
Now that she’s writing books, without her body or song structure getting in the way, we learn in exhaustive detail that, for her, sex is still a problem—in fact, nearly all physical sensations and experiences are. Lunch has a real gift for nauseating detail. In one account of a childhood rape by her father’s drinking buddies, she notices “overflowing coffee cans filled with the diseased butts of two hundred Chesterfields . . . and two or three still spit-soaked White Owls whose gummed-to-death tips acted as magnets to cellophane, ash, and fingernail clippings. The browning air was moist and heavy with the mordant aroma that only men on the brink of drinking and smoking themselves into that big unfit sleep are steeped in.” You don’t even have to get as far as the actual assault by a “sleazy sad-sack door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman” (who’s also, it hardly need be said, impotent) to feel like throwing up.
But it’s not all puke-bait. The best passages detail Lunch’s more affectionate relationships with men. Her feeling for them adds another dimension to her writing. Her meticulous account of violent sex with a self-cutting boyfriend, gross as it is (“Deep steel glint. I hear his skin rip . . . small audible shudder. Slight smile. Sweet kiss”), actually comes as a relief, because it’s something more than gross, too.
Will Work for Drugs is padded with interviews (one with Hubert Selby, but still) and alt-lit magazine assignment pieces—one of which, about her simultaneous disgust and pleasure at taking care of infants, reads like goth Erma Bombeck. And there’s a lazy spatter of curses against the war machine, religion, etc. But considering that her métier is the sort of pain-poetry normally associated with moody teenagers, it’s amazing that so much of it is so good.
You won’t find any pain in Live Nude Elf. Reverend Jen’s account of her early New York days, performing “sexperiments” as a columnist for Nerve and having adventures with cooperative friends, is all breezy fun. The suburban escapee and former SVA student may never have achieved anything like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but there’s at least one thing she can do well besides self-promote: She can write very good magazine prose, of which Live Nude Elf is mostly composed.
Live Nude Elf, like Jen, goes down easy, and her descriptions of her sexploits are charming and funny (when her partner manages, after much effort, to get Jen to ejaculate, “we hugged and rolled around on the bed together like we’d just won the lottery”). She could be the new Candace Bushnell, assuming one is needed.
But if you’re the sort that can’t read about several rounds of even wonderful sex without wondering, “What is this person really like?”, you may be disappointed. Jen shows few signs of what we might call the deeper feelings—or, really, any feelings except joy, disappointment, and orgasm. She may feel anxiety over fulfilling a Nerve assignment (” ‘I’m depressed,’ I moaned. ‘I need to give someone a blowjob, and Nick is being a jerk’ “), or vague blueness over a boyfriend who hasn’t worked out (her “heartbreak” episode is essentially an extended panic attack), but little seems to really disturb her. When she says a new lover has “managed to fuck the sorrow right out me,” you might ask: What sorrow?
Jen and Lunch are both Adah Menken’s heiresses, but they could hardly be more different. Lunch distills all her experiences down into a thick resin of pain; Jen removes pain from her prose with the efficiency of a cotton gin. Lunch makes you struggle to read her; you might finish Live Nude Elf without realizing you’ve been reading at all. Lunch is less successful at what she’s doing than Jen, and probably won’t move nearly as many units. But I’m more likely to read Lunch’s next book. Maybe I’m just betraying the vintage of my own bohemianism.