The Emperor’s New Clothes in Reverse

Jack Henry, “3:AM Magazine Interview: Andrew Gallix,” Heroin Love Songs 5 Spring 2009: 87-90

JH: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

AG: My pleasure!

JH: My primary interest is in New Media and what some refer to as New Media Literature. In addition there seems to be resurgence in writing and poetry. Perhaps this is due to so many on-line outlets. Also, movements such as the Brutalist and Offbeat Generation owe their existence to the Internet and various on-line outlets, including 3:AM. I think some of these movements and/or on-line journals have sprung from some post-punk anarchy reaction against mainstream publishing. I’ve read as much and agree with it. Some of these questions may seem obvious, but I am sure others are curious, as am I, to your unique perspective.

What is the importance of a movement or school of work? Is it an idea or concept developed from a historical perspective or can it be witnessed in the present, as it emerges?

AG: We never sat down one day and said ‘Let’s launch a new literary movement!’. We sat down one day and realised that we were part of a movement. It was already there, and all it needed was a name to gain visibility. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse. So, to answer your question, we have been observing the development of the Offbeat phenomenon since 2005 when we became conscious of it.

JH: What can a writer gain, if anything, from the inclusion within a movement?

AG: First of all, I must make it quite clear that the Offbeats are a movement and not a school of writing. Offbeat writers are individuals — they all have different styles and influences, even though they all share certain values and a certain rebellious spirit. Writing is a solitary activity, so it feels good to also have that collective experience.

JH: What are the unifying characteristics of the Brutalists or Offbeats? What is their historical heritage?

AG: The Brutalists are not a movement; they’re a trio of writers (Adelle Stripe, Ben Myers, and Tony O’Neill) who sometimes come together to write under that banner. Instead of forming a band, they write poetry. The Brutalists are very much part of the Offbeat scene. What unites all the Offbeats is a rejection of a publishing industry increasingly dominated by marketing, rather than literary, concerns. The name ‘Offbeat’ is an obvious nod to the Beats, but punk is perhaps the biggest historical reference. At least for some of us.

JH: In a few interviews I have read, the Offbeat Generation does not exist within a single style or genre, I am curious what the literary influences have been to this group? And, more specifically, any influences from areas outside of writing?

AG: That’s quite right, and since there is no house style, influences are pretty diverse. There’s the Bukowski-John Fante Real McCoy school of writing embodied by Tony O’Neill. There’s the Maurice Blanchot-Francis Ponge-William Burroughs axis led by Tom McCarthy. There’s the Barthelmesque comic postmodernism of HP Tinker. There’s the more quirky Brautigan-tinged world of Chris Killen or Tao Lin. And then there’s all the others with their personal influences.
Music is indeed very important to many Offbeats. Tony O’Neill played in bands like Kenickie or the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Ben Myers is also a music journalist and he even used to have his own indie label. Will Ashon has a hip hop label. As far as I’m concerned, Howard Devoto’s early lyrics are right up there with the works of the greatest writers.

JH: As the Beats of the 50s/60s gained popularity, pop culture turned them into a caricature of their origins. Is there a fear that current movements could be mainstreamed and, potentially, lose their power as a dissenting voice?

AG: Definitely. In a way, it’s already happened. There are lots of young writers who think they’re being Offbeat by spouting clichés about sex and drugs.

JH: What is the goal of a movement? Is it collective? Or individualistic?

AG: Total surrender of mainstream publishing!
It’s both individual and collective.

JH: It is my opinion that America’s “disposable mentality” has migrated to literature and our literary tradition. Publishers rely on a bestseller to support their efforts with other books. In my opinion, a majority of these best sellers are total shit. Writers that repeatedly appear on best-sellers’ lists utilize formula and structure that will satisfy the widest possible audience, with lim-ited concern for craft, exploration and daring. Subsequently, the wider audience is “dumbed down.” Additionally, marketing departments focus a majority of their budgets on bestsellers thereby limiting marketing funds for up and coming writers. In short, big publishers continue to promote disposable writing in order to earn the quick buck. Does literature still exist, either via New Media or traditional outlets? What is the future of literature?

AG: I totally agree with your analysis of the state of things. It’s the same in Britain — perhaps even worse because of the presence of a huge middlebrow market. In the States, it’s either total shit or pure genius.
But, yes, literature still exists and will continue to exist. I can’t predict what its future will be, but I think the western notion of The Writer may be on the way out. I think there will be fewer career writers in the future: writers who write simply because that’s what writers do. People will write a novel when they really feel the need to do so, but will also have other creative outlets.

JH: Returning to New Media, how important are New Media platforms (blogs, social networks, YouTube, etc.) to writers? Is there such a thing as New Media Literature?

AG: Well, I think you need to make a distinction between e-literature which uses the Internet as a new medium, and most online creative writing which simply uses the web as a medium. As I wrote here, I get the impression that the future of e-literature is to merge into digital art. That view seems to be highly controversial in e-lit circles. As for webzines, blogs etc. I think their role has been essential. The Offbeat movement is the first literary movement of the digital age. Without the Internet, it probably wouldn’t have existed in the first place.

JH: 3:AM is a widely admired online journal and has been around a while now. I have always been impressed with the quality of writing that comes out of it. With the Internet providing a global platform and on-line outlets (websites, blogzines, etc.) is there a dilution of quality writing? Or, more specifically, is there too much content? Or, perhaps, is it just too easy to get published online?

AG: Thanks for the kind words.
Interesting questions. A band that releases an album on its own label has credibility. Writers who do that are accused of vanity publishing. It’s true that there are thousands of rubbish writers out there who publish themselves on the Internet, but there are also stacks of rubbish writers whose works are published by big concerns — just visit any bookshop to see what I’m talking about. Bad writers will give up eventually; the good ones will float to the surface.

JH: How important is marketing to a New Media outlet or, as a whole, “underground” writers and publishers? With my journal I market wholly to exposure the writers I admire and feel have talent. The only real cost is time. With the press, I have a different attitude. I want to promote the writer, but I want to have some profit, no matter how minimal, in order to publish more writers. In the age of New Media Literature and the expectation of everything on the Internet should be free or relatively inexpensive, how does a press survive?

AG: I’ve been editing 3:AM Magazine since 2000; we get thousands of unique visitors a day, and yet I’ve never made any money out of it. There’s very little money in serious fiction.

JH: Is it more important to publish than publish and profit?

AG: Definitely.

JH: Okay, enough of my bullshit, let’s focus on 3:AM. Would 3:AM exist without the Internet?

AG: An emphatic no. I’d been toying with the idea of a post-punk literary journal for years, but the logistics just made it virtually impossible.

JH: In researching this project I have read through a number of issues from 3:AM. In terms of quality and content, it is definitely one of the better online magazines available. You have had a long tenure on the Internet, longer than most. What do you attribute that to?

AG: To the fact that we’re genuinely interested in writing, and that we don’t expect to make any money out of it.

JH: What are the future goals of 3:AM?

AG: To continue to spread the word.

Interview conducted on 21 May 2009.

La faim du livre

Along with Gérard Berréby, Augustin Trapenard, and Hervé Laurent, I was interviewed by Linn Levy for a piece entitled “La faim du livre” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Swiss magazine Edelweiss. The article features on pp. 44-47; my interview is on p. 46.

La faim du livre

Edelweiss part en quête de la littérature contemporaine, des mots qui dérangent et se demande si être écrivain veut encore dire quelque chose par les temps qui courent. Quatre intellectuels se penchent sur ces questions et nous éclairent.

«Nous sommes les visages de notre temps», clamaient les futuristes russes, le poète Maïakosvki en tête, il y a exactement un siècle, pétris de la conviction que l’art qu’ils inventaient allait renverser l’ordre des choses, qu’en récrivant le monde ils façonneraient le futur. Et aujourd’hui? A qui appartiennent les visages de l’époque contemporaine? Peut-on encore écrire? Et quels sont, parmi le demi-millier d’ouvrages publiés cette rentrée en Suisse et en France, ceux qui tordent la littérature, l’éprouvent, l’inventent? Oui, dans quels livres trouve-t-on les questions que nous ne nous sommes pas encore posées? Difficile pour le lecteur de se retrouver dans le magma de fictions qui ornent les étals des librairies comme les marchandises envahissent les hypermarchés. Le divertissement, devenu la norme au risque d’endormir insidieusement les esprits, laisse peu de place au doute, la tension semble diluée, presque rien ne dérange, pas grand-chose ne dépasse. Alors, pour celui qui a faim d’autre chose que de spectacle et qui ne déteste pas être dérangé – «Etre scandalisé, un plaisir», assurait Pasolini –, il s’agit de résister en cherchant les lignes qui dévient, la littérature, la vraie, ce souffle qui a «la faculté d’empêcher la folie du monde de s’emparer totalement de nous», comme l’écrit Alberto Manguel. Quatre experts nous éclairent sur les mots d’aujourd’hui, l’influence du web, la mort imminente du droit d’auteur, celle de la figure de l’écrivain, sur le remix aussi, et l’irrévérence anglo-saxonne ou helvétique… L’éditeur Gérard Berréby, l’écrivain et professeur Andrew Gallix, le journaliste Augustin Trapenard et le critique d’art Hervé Laurent ont accepté de surcroît de dévoiler leurs titres préférés de la rentrée.

Andrew Gallix
Ecrivain, éditeur, professeur à la Sorbonne

L’écriture a cinquante ans de retard sur la peinture – triste constat de l’artiste Brion Gysin dans les années 60… «Et, pour le philosophe et romancier anglais Lars Iyer, la situation n’a fait qu’empirer. Le roman, censé échapper au monde des genres, est lui-même devenu un genre. Pour lui, la littérature est morte (comme la musique classique avant elle) et les livres que l’on peut encore écrire doivent exprimer la distance qui nous sépare de la grande littérature du passé. Cette «postlittérature» s’inscrit d’ailleurs dans un contexte politique et culturel plus général: pour Mark Fisher ou Simon Reynolds, par exemple, la modernité est derrière nous. Cette nouvelle crise du roman, symbolisée par Reality Hunger, le manifeste de David Shields, se traduit souvent par un rejet de la fiction.» Les idées se bousculent dans l’esprit brillant d’Andrew Gallix. L’écrivain britannique, professeur à la Sorbonne, collaborateur du quotidien The Guardian, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans, a lancé en 2000 le premier blog littéraire en anglais, «3:AM Magazine»1, dont le mot d’ordre est le très groucho-marxesque: «De quoi qu’il s’agisse, nous sommes contre». Un webzine si avant-gardiste qu’il a donné naissance à un véritable mouvement littéraire, The Offbeat Generation, regroupant des plumes anglophones non conformistes (Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy notamment), rejetant la culture dominante et le monde traditionnel de l’édition. «La littérature est quelque chose qui résiste, analyse-t-il. Même s’il n’existe plus vraiment d’avant-garde – le web l’a diluée en quelque sorte –, je remarque que l’écriture conceptuelle, expérimentale prend de plus en plus d’importance. Il y a toute une génération d’auteurs qui reste très influencée par la théorie poststructuraliste de Derrida, je pense notamment à Rachel Kushner. Il y a un autre courant d’écrivains, américains pour la plupart, qui s’inscrit dans la directe lignée de l’éditeur Gordon Lish – celui qui a en quelque sorte fait Raymond Carver. Pour eux, tout se passe au niveau de la phrase. Et, pour finir, je trouve passionnante et à suivre la scène littéraire qui s’est formée autour de la revue new-yorkaise n+1 (nplusonemag.com).»
1 http://www.andrewgallix.com / http://www.3ammagazine.com

Il lit:
Au départ d’Atocha, Ben Lerner (à paraître)
C, Tom McCarthy, L’Olivier
Nue, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Editions de Minuit

The Offbeats

Ben Ashwell, “An Interview with Tony O’Neill,” Bookslut 138 (November 2013)

… O’Neill built a strong reputation for his needles-and-all accounts of addiction by publishing his stories online, on sites like 3:AM Magazine. This led him to be grouped with a range of other writers — such as Ben Myers, Lee Rourke, Adelle Stripe, and Andrew Gallix — who were collectively branded “The Offbeat Generation” by The Guardian.

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[Me and Tony O’Neill, Paris, June 2009]

All the Latest

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Patrice Carrer, author of the French translation of Tony O’Neill‘s Notre Dame du Vide, mentions me and the Offbeats in his postface (pp. 237-238). The book was published in June 2009.

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Patrice Carrer, “Repères Critiques,” Notre Dame du Vide by Tony O’Neill (Paris: 13E Note Editions, 2009)

Parmi les principaux mouvements littéraires radicaux comptant de nombreux “amis en ligne” — notamment des figures de la contre-culture tels Dan Fante ou Billy Childish —, on trouve, à part nos Brutalists ou encore le collectif Riot Lit, l’Offbeat Generation, pareillement portée sur Huysmans, Bukowski et la dive bouteille. D’après son porte-parole Andrew Gallix, rédacteur en chef du magazine littéraire en ligne 3:AM, l’âge de ses auteurs s’échelonne de dix-huit à quarante ans; l’O.G. réunit des gens qui se sentent “aliénés dans un monde éditorial dominé par le maketing”. …Phénomène anglo-saxon, ces mouvements cousins sont de plus en plus présents sur le Net. Parmi les auteurs qui montent, retenons les noms de Heidi James-Garwood, Laura Hird, Matthew Coleman, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy, H.P. Tinker, Andrew Gallix… et, d’abord, bien sûr, Tony O’Neill.

All the Latest

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Inés Martin Rodrigo has published an in-depth article on the Offbeats in top Spanish daily ABC in which I — “el Rimbaud de la Red”! — am quoted at length:

Inés Martin Rodrigo, “‘Se lo que sea, estoy contra ello,” ABC 16 February 2009

Es el lema de un nuevo grupo de escritores anglosajones con sede en Internet que está revolucionando la industria editorial. No tienen reglas ni manifiestos, pero la Generación Offbeat reclama su lugar en la escena literaria

La industria editorial es aburrida, está embotada y estreñida, desprende un cierto tufillo rancio y amenaza con eliminar todo fragmento de imaginación que aún quede en la mente del lector menos conformista. No es una sentencia categórica de un crítico cabreado con el ultimo best seller que ha llegado a sus manos, ni siquiera la reflexión concienzuda de un intelectual con complejo de Nostradamus. Es el pensamiento y la bandera literario revolucionaria de un nuevo grupo de escritores con sede en la Web y que se (auto)definen como Generación Offbeat.

Qué menos se podía esperar de los potenciales sucesores de Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs y compañía. Autores todos ellos enraizados en la libertad y el compromiso con ser fiel a uno mismo, filosofía de la que dieron buena cuenta en sus años de lucha literaria con las armas de las que disponían. Las armas de la razón hecha palabra y empleada en defensa de la paz, en contra de la Guerra de Vietnam o como sagaz discurso contra el recalcitrante conformismo de la sociedad de la época.

Una generación pegada a los libros

Los años han transcurrido y el discurso se ha transformado, al igual que las armas para evocarlo y defenderlo. Pero la raíz prendió con fuerza en una generación de jóvenes que creció leyendo el “Junky” de Burroughs, “uno de los mayores trabajos literarios sobre el mundo de la droga, al lograr algo que muchos libros que le siguieron fueron incapaces: habló del modo de vivir de un drogadicto”, en palabras de Tony O’Neill, escritor offbeat por excelencia. Y es que Burroughs describió el oscuro laberinto de la drogadicción sin ejercer de falso predicador para el lector, sin miedo a llamar a cada cosa por su nombre. Porque, le pese a quien le pese, un heroinómano no será nunca un pervertido al que adoctrinar. Así, llamando a las cosas por su nombre y leyendo, sobre todo leyendo, empapándose de los popes del movimiento beat fue como este grupo de autores fue regando su propio discurso.

Un discurso que se vertebra en un nuevo y excitante trabajo de ficción, que corre riesgos y que, cada vez con más intensidad, empieza a generar demanda en cuantos lectores se topan con él casi sin pretenderlo. Y es que, demasiado ácidos, diferentes y afilados para la industria editorial tradicional, la generación offbeat se esconde (de momento, aunque cada vez menos) en los amplios (y libres) márgenes de la Web y en alguna que otra editorial independiente.

El origen del movimiento

El primero en usar el término offbeat (y por tanto quien lo acuñó) fue Andrew Gallix, redactor jefe y responsable de la revista literaria online 3:AM Magazine (puestos a hacer comparaciones, valdría decir que sería algo así como el New Yorker de los offbeats). De eso hace ya casi tres años aunque, como el propio Andrew reconoce, “el movimiento llevaba bastante tiempo emergiendo. Es un poco lo que pasó con el punk o los nuevos románticos, al principio no tenían nombre por lo que mucha gente desconocía su existencia”.

Un desconocimiento que se fue disipando a medida que los grupos fueron proliferando en el ciberespacio. Eran escritores, guionistas, periodistas, bloggers, artistas… con un interés común por la literatura pura (sin artificios), que empezaron a gravitar alrededor de 3:AM y a organizar lecturas, conciertos e incluso festivales. “Fue en esos eventos donde comenzaron a establecerse las relaciones –explica Gallix-. La primera vez que fui consciente de que había aparecido un nuevo movimiento fue en el baño de Filthy Macnasty’s (uno de los pubs londinenses preferidos por Pete Doherty), cuando Lee Rourke (escritor y a la postre integrante de la Generación Offbeat) se abalanzó sobre mi y empezó a hablar de la enorme revolución literaria que habíamos iniciado. Aquello fue realmente el comienzo de todo”.

Un inicio virtualmente surrealista para un movimiento con integrantes de carne y hueso. Son muchos los offbeats que, incluso sin saberlo, engrosan la lista de esta generación pero, si hubiera que etiquetar al movimiento como tal cabría decir que se caracteriza por la variedad de voces y estilos y la ausencia de reglas (aquí no hay manifiestos). “A pesar de la diversidad, muchos escritores offbeat comparten características. La mayoría son británicos, treintañeros y creen que la escritura es mucho más que un mero entretenimiento”, enfatiza Gallix. Y sienten la música como elemento catalizador y de equilibrio.

Una lista repleta de talento

La lista es interminable y suena francamente bien. Noah Cicero (novelista estadounidense a medio camino entre Samuel Beckett y The Clash), Ben Myers (autor inglés mezcla de Richard Brautigan con Lester Bangs), Adelle Stripe (poeta londinense heredera del cinematográfico “realismo de fregadero” de Sidney Lumet), el propio Andrew Gallix (el Rimbaud de la Red), Tom McCarthy (novelista estadounidense afanado en la deconstrucción de una nueva idea de novela), HP Tinker (joven inglés al que comparan con Pynchon y Barthelme), Tao Lin (el aventajado protegido de Miranda July –a quien pronto veremos publicada en nuestro país gracias a Seix Barral-, con todo lo que eso supone hoy en día) y los primeros (parece que las grandes editoriales empiezan a tomar apuntes) que aterrizarán en España: Chris Killen, cuya novela “The Bird Room” será publicada este año por Alfabia, y Heidi James y Tony O’Neill, ambos con la editorial El Tercer Nombre.

Todos ellos influidos por el particular lirismo de Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Scott Walker o David Bowie, de la misma manera que estos sintieron la influencia de los autores de los que la Generación Offbeat es heredera. Aunque también están los que prefieren huir de las comparaciones. Tal es el caso de Heidi James, para quien la comparación es un poco “perezosa, basada en el hecho de que evitamos formar parte de la corriente principal”. Esta joven autora británica, que en marzo publicará su primera novela en España (“Carbono”, Ed. El Tercer Nombre) y que se confiesa fascinada por Lynne Tillman, Clarice Lispector, Marie Darrieussecq, Angela Carter o Virginia Woolf, es dueña de su propia editorial en Reino Unido, Social Disease. Con ella, que debe su nombre a la famosa frase de Andy Warhol -“Tengo una enfermedad social. Tengo que salir todas las noches”-, Heidi se ha convertido en uno de los estandartes de la Generación Offbeat al publicar “literatura única y genuina al margen de su valor en el mercado”.

Un movimiento coordinado

La propia Heidi James, en una prueba evidente de que el movimiento está coordinado y sabe hacia dónde se dirige, ha publicado en Reino Unido a autores como HP Tinker o Lee Rourke pero, sobre todo, a Tony O’Neill, el máximo exponente de los offbeats. Este joven neoyorquino, devoto de Bukowski, responsable de una prosa brutalmente descarnada, ex heroinómano, miembro de bandas como The Brian Jonestown Massacre, ha publicado ya cuatro novelas (la última, “Colgados en Murder Mile”, llegará a España en primavera) y se erige en líder (sin pretenderlo) del movimiento con ansias de seguir reclutando adeptos.

Como su propio nombre (offbeat) indica, una generación extraña e inusual de escritores, para los que la Red es su campo de acción, con espíritu punk y ganas de comerse la industria literaria tal y como ahora está concebida. El mundo anglosajón ya ha sido testigo de los primeros bocados. En España está al caer, ¡y ni siquiera es una generación! Que tiemble Zafón.

Degeneration X

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This appeared in the winter 2008/2009 edition of Flux magazine (issue 67, pp. 66-67):

Degeneration X

Shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths with Tony O’Neill

Suffering from unspeakable withdrawal symptoms, a junkie bashes herself in the face with a book — repeatedly. Tony O’Neill does not mention the title, but a copy of Down and Out on Murder Mile, the hard-hitting sequel to his celebrated debut, would be most apposite. “My books are meant to read as immersive experiences,” he says. “You are dragged into the toilet stall and feel the needle going in.” This time round, however, the in-your-face squalor is shot through with the whitest flashes of transcendence. Whereas Digging the Vein showed the author “digging a big hole” for himself, Murder Mile relates how he crawled out of it.

There are cult writers, and then there is Tony O’Neill: the junkie’s junkie. This is a man who used to chase the dragon with the zeal of St George — even his dealer tried to persuade him to quit on one occasion.

O’Neill was born in 1978, on the wrong side of the track marks, as it were. He describes Blackburn as a “dying-on-its-arse old cotton town” where — according to one of his poems — those who fail to escape “pray for cancer or a speeding truck”. O’Neill legged it on the tail end of Britpop, playing keyboards with the likes of Kenickie and Marc Almond (he describes a later stint with dope fiends the Brian Jonestown Massacre as “Exile on Main Street, on a budget”). After his music career fizzled out, he relocated to the States and plunged headlong into the dark underbelly of Tinseltown, soon acquiring a serious habit and a couple of ill-suited wives. This dramatic period provided most of the material for his first novel, Digging the Vein, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described in his second.

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Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is billed as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” it seems to be based so faithfully on the author’s past that one wonders what is really fictitious about it. “My first and main reason for not labelling the book as autobiography is really simple,” he explains. “Who the hell would want to read my autobiography?”

Just as Morrissey grew into the kind of icon that graced the sleeves of his early records, O’Neill has become a biography waiting to be written. And inevitably, some readers are attracted to his work, not so much for its intrinsic value, but because the author has descended to the underworld Orpheus-style, and lived to tell the tale. But O’Neill (who mocks the idea that “drugs are a shortcut to any kind of insight” and is loath to ever become a “professional ex-addict”) knows that “you’d better bring something more to the table than your track marks and some missing teeth” if you are to become a proper author. “When I sit down to write, I don’t think that people will be fascinated by my story because of my personal history. I hope that the telling of it will fascinate them”. That said, he recalls attempting to compose a novel when he was 16 and realising that he had no story to tell. “Maybe for other people it’s different, but for me life had to knock several rounds of shit out of me before I knew what I wanted to say”.

More than its prededecessor, Murder Mile is what the Germans would call a Künstlerroman — a novel that is a portrait of the young artist. It chronicles its own genesis, but never in a tricksy, postmodern fashion.

The opening sentence hits a low point (“The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy”) and then it goes downhill for most of the way. Despite the seediness and hardship, the narrator’s loveless, and largely sexless, marriage to Susan — the aforementioned book basher — is quite romantic, in a Sid-and-Nancy kind of fashion. Here, drugs stand in for the love potion of so many traditional love stories, and there’s the obligatory coupling of Eros and Thanatos, the “unspoken agreement that [they] would eventually die together”. Witnessing this junkie couple in freefall, shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths, is often as exhilarating as a rollercoaster ride, at least on paper. “There’s something really romantic about death and self-destruction when you’re at a certain point in your life,” admits O’Neill. This death wish was underpinned by a kind of nihilistic hedonism coupled with a wide-eyed rejection of compromise and mediocrity. “Our lives are ultimately meaningless, so why not pass the time pleasurably? Heroin fed into that excessive, idealistic part of me: if I can feel this good for one moment, then I should be able to feel this good every moment of every day. Of course it can’t be, but I feel that there is some intellectual justification in saying that a life spent in the futile pursuit of some kind of transcendence is a life better spent than if you accept that it will never be as perfect as you hoped.” Drugs and sex offer fleeting intimations of immortality, but only unconditional love provides a way out. “Would I be dead if I hadn’t met Vanessa when I did?” wonders O’Neill. “In all honesty, the chances are yes. There certainly wouldn’t be any books.”

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Fresh Out of Dope

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This review of Tony O’Neill‘s Down and Out on Murder Mile appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 21 November 2008 (No 5512, p. 20):

Fresh Out of Dope

While suffering from withdrawal symptoms, a drug addict hits herself around the face with a book. Tony O’Neill does not tell us the title, but a copy of his new novel — in which this harrowing scene appears — would be appropriate. Down and Out on Murder Mile is the sequel to Digging the Vein (2006), the novel which established its young author as a figurehead of the “Offbeat” literary movement, alongside the more experimental Tom McCarthy. Unlike McCarthy, whose novels subvert the idea of authenticity, O’Neill belongs to the authentic school of writing as exemplified by Charles Bukowski and John Fante. To his admirers, he is a combination of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (or André Breton and Jacques Vaché), a resolution in himself of the art/life dichotomy.

Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is subtitled “A novel” and described by its publisher as “semi-autobiographical fiction”, O’Neill makes no bones about how closely it is based on his own history so that one wonders what, if anything, is fictitious about it. In the acknowledgements, for instance, he thanks his “wife and muse” — whose name in fiction, as in fact, is Vanessa — because she does not object to his “airing [their] dirty laundry in public”. The first-person narrator remains anonymous throughout, making him indistinguishable from the author, and the systematic use of the past tense (except for dialogue) reinforces the biographical feel.

Far from being a simple memoir, however, Down and Out on Murder Mile is a deceptively literary work, one which chronicles its own genesis. When the protagonist describes the mental games he once played to provide himself with “a perfect excuse for a little hit”, he takes a dig at the glamorization of junkie writers: “Did William Burroughs sit around, worrying about taking dope? Or did he just do it and then write immortal books?”. At times, heroin stands for the magic potion found in the traditional love story; at others, it brings about the obligatory mating of Eros and Thanatos: the “unspoken agreement” that the junkie couple will “eventually die together”. The fairy-tale qualities of the narrator’s romance with Vanessa are striking, especially in the squalid circumstances in which it takes place. Contact is first made when he drunkenly speed-dials a number at random on someone else’s mobile phone. Vanessa falls for him when he is at his “lowest ebb”, his “worst point”, his “most destroyed, destitute and bankrupted”, and she sees through all that as if he were a prince in disguise. The fatal attraction of dope is depicted in the novel as the result of a childlike rejection of compromise and mediocrity: “I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty — a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin”. Addiction is thus an attempt to give permanence to the “lightning crack of divinity” glimpsed at when shooting up. Epiphanies like these are better served by writing than by heroin; and this is the concealed theme of a novel ostensibly concerned with the day-to-day survival of an addict.

The opening sentence hits an almost comically low note: “The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy at a friend’s birthday party at a Motel 6 on Hollywood Boulevard”. The two soon get married and live unhappily ever after until they relocate to Murder Mile in East London, where the narrator is saved in extremis by unconditional love. A late chapter, entitled “Adulthood”, closes in true coming-of-age fashion: “And I know now, I need to grow up”. This is indeed a Bildungsroman but it is also a Künstlerroman — a portrait of the artist as a young junkie. O’Neill never mentions his first novel, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described here, but its composition haunts the book like a character in search of an author.

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