In the marine world, the kissing gourami is a popular aquarium pet known for its protruding lips, which always seem ready for a smooch. In reality, their puckers hide teeth used to rasp algae from stones and suck protective slime off other fish. Kissing, then, is a show of dominance. Similarly, Tiny Fish That Only Want to Kiss, Gary Indiana’s new collection of short stories, beguiles even as it wounds.
The title itself is bittersweet, taken from a tender exchange in the opening story between two men observing the goings-on of a Romanian ghetto: As one lulls the other to sleep, he intones, “Someone nice is kissing your eyes when they’re closed….Maybe like a fish….Tiny fish that only want to kiss.” The story drifts toward its conclusion like a skiff sailing toward the horizon — but stormier weather follows Indiana’s characters wherever they go.
A noted novelist, essayist, and former Voice contributor, Indiana has been producing biting cultural criticism since the 1980s. Having left his home in Derry, New Hampshire, at sixteen to attend UC Berkeley, he soon dropped out, dabbled in porn, moved to New York, and — from 1985 to ’88 — served as chief art critic at the Voice, where his witty, highly personal reviews took the gallery world to task and won him a cult following. Beyond the Voice, he published more than twenty works, all too sprawling or inventive to break into the mainstream. Among them is his so-called crime trilogy: Resentment (1997), based on the Menendez brothers’ court case; Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (1999), a fictionalized account of the life of Gianni Versace’s killer; and Depraved Indifference (2001), based on the story of mother-son crime duo Sante and Kenneth Kimes.
Even less well-known may be Indiana’s paintings, plays, and short stories; early collections Scar Tissue and White Trash Boulevard have fallen out of print. Tiny Fish borrows from both, and the new and the old merge seamlessly. Drawing on decades of artistic output, Indiana layers cultural detritus atop spare prose that is unflinching in its portrayal of unscrupulous characters.
“In any work of fiction you are imagining a world,” he explains in an email, “and for the reader to give credence to that world a lot of things that aren’t depicted have to be somehow sensed, via suggestion or implication.” For Indiana, these suggestions are relayed by sharp shifts in narration, allowing readers to play at omniscience.
In “Shanghai,” a photographer details the ruin of a film crew in Bangkok. The lead actress, caught in a dangerous love triangle, disappears, while the narrator falls further into despair. Interspersed are passages from a pulpy paperback (also titled Shanghai) in which the narrator seems to be the sole survivor of a high-tech, black-market fertility operation. Indiana’s camp complements a sharper, self-eviscerating humor. At one point the photographer recalls a lover left in New York: “Blond Californian type, vain, the type that’s always mentally on a surfboard. You can worship that kind of person and really keep your mind off the real problems in your life. It’s so irrational to even know them casually.”
Sometimes Indiana’s narrators vacillate between tenses, perspectives, and entire identities. “The SCUM Manifesto Revisited” knits together the musings of Valerie Solanis (best known for her homicidal critique of men, and her attempted murder of Andy Warhol) with fictionalized scenarios to paint a sympathetic portrait of a woman misunderstood. The voices Indiana lends to these pieces help construct and reconstruct truth, with varying degrees of success. Still, Indiana’s tales are so rich with winks and nudges, a trip down the rabbit hole proves irresistible.
Rent Boy, Indiana’s short novel about a college student/hustler, shows how he can coax seemingly discordant tales into a single narrative when given the room. At 116 pages, the novella was reprinted in Tiny Fish That Only Want to Kiss because, Indiana says, “it would be difficult to publish a very short novel of this kind… in the current publishing world.” Here the piece proves a satisfying note to end on: part flâneur fantasia, part diary entry, part underground medical thriller, with Indiana exercising an easy control over the disparate parts to recount a seedier New York.
Indiana has other reprints in the works, courtesy of Semiotext(e). Three Month Fever will appear in spring 2017, with Depraved Indifference to follow in the fall. As for his other ventures, Indiana’s not shy about counting his successes. “I did three solo shows in three years, which included films and photography and paintings, plus a big installation at the Whitney Biennial in 2014. That’s enough for a while, I think.”
Tiny Fish That Only Want to Kiss
By Gary Indiana