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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

John Jeremiah Sullivan: Michael Jackson's Body Is "The Greatest Piece of Postmodern American Sculpture"

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 10:56 AM

click to enlarge pulphead_john_jeremiah_sullivan_cover.jpg

Great writing is never passive, and so great reading must follow suit. Throughout Pulphead, Sullivan's new essay collection, the urge is to press the book right into your face. This is as close as one can get to wading through the Appalachian canebrake, praising Axl Rose's serpentine boogie, or watching as the Miz from MTV's The Real World signs another pair of young implants.

The 37-year old Indiana native is what Terry Southern called a 'writer's-writer's writer.' He operates from a unique and enviable vantage point, crafting taut, precise narratives from a wide swath of inherently surreal Americana. And he does it for a readership, a "chorus in his head," that is as curious and unknowable as the stories he mines, as if from memory, from this great weird country. Between two books and multiple contributions to such literary favorites as Harper's, the Paris Review, and GQ, Sullivan is insistently prolific.

New Journalism, that perennial cocktail of journalism and literature, lends much to these essays. Where traditional reporting is personality-free, here we welcome the author's perspective. Riding solo in a twenty-seven foot RV, Sullivan documents time spent at a Christian rock festival with Darius, Ritter, and Bub, a group of young, amiable West Virginians. He eats frog legs sauteed in butter, reminisces on his own brush with American evangelism, and watches as a man dies of a heart attack, in line for funnel cake. Currently making the rounds on a national book tour, Sullivan pays a visit to San Francisco's The Booksmith on Wednesday.

He spoke with us about his love of the South, David Foster Wallace, and what it's like to edit Tom Wolfe.

You wrote that "Michael Jackson's body is the greatest piece of postmodern American sculpture." What did you mean by that?

In a way I meant it literally. Actually that's the only way I meant it. If sculpture is visual

expression in three dimensions, that's what Michael's body became, and it's hard to

imagine a piece of art that more thoroughly transmitted the anxieties and contradictions

of his time.

You were called the "new Tom Wolfe" in Time. Do you feel a kinship with him, or that style of writing? Your work, while it loosely owes something to New Journalism, still feels very separate from that category.

I don't see a lot of overlap there, but I've probably stolen things from him, and have certainly stolen all kinds of things from the New Journalism more broadly defined. Terry Southern, who kicked off that whole little movement, is the one I relate to best.

I got to work with Tom Wolfe once, at Harper's. In fact, his essay "Rococo Marxism" was the first piece I ever worked on there. I remembered he schooled me, as an editor. He let me believe for a month that he intended to take all of these edits I'd thrown him. Then, a few nights before we needed to close the issue, he rewrote the whole piece by hand and faxed it in at midnight, pretty much as he'd written it to begin with. I was stunned. His judo was so strong.

In each of the essays in Pulphead, there are moments in which the reader feels as though they have learned something at the very moment that you have. Can you speak to any specific moment, in any of these essays, in which you were truly shocked, or surprised, or in love?

There was a moment like that in almost every one of the pieces. But I'll never forget getting a phone call one day from Jan Simek-- the anthropologist who works on the prehistoric Southern art caves I wrote about-- saying that his team had discovered a 6,000-year-old image on a cave wall in Tennessee. This was after I'd been following the team's research for seven years.

What "things" do you think writers have picked up from you and those writers to which you feel indebted, like Southern, David Foster Wallace, etc.

If anyone picked up anything from me, it was probably bad habits. But if we're talking more broadly about the so-called New Journalism, of which Wallace's essays were a late flowering, what mattered there was the use of 'literary' or experimental methods on non-fiction, reported, topical, fact-heavy subjects. People had been doing that since the 17th century, but the New Journalism really put it in your face.

How hard was it in those early days to get editors to bite? I'm asking this as a writer myself - what kinds of devices and taunts did you use to sell them on an ambitious story, particularly when your resume was slender?

I started out as a magazine editor, so I was often pitching pieces from the inside, to my colleagues. That was both easier and harder: you knew something about the taste obstacles you'd need to navigate around.

At the same time, there was more pressure not to blow it. On a purely board-game level, your assigning editor is like your enemy, so you have to learn his or her mind. What makes its little joy buzzer light up? Once you know that, you can figure out where those sweet spots match up with your own, your own interests and obsessions. Never pitch a piece you don't really want to write, just to get into a certain publication. It's almost always a disaster.

Do you think the reality-show era is over? In your piece on the Miz from The Real World, you acknowledged that the current generation is completely aware of the charade, so much so that it's not even a charade anymore. There can't be much steam left.

I think that every year, and every year there are more. Partly it's the economy of production: those shows are so cheap to make. Partly it's that the genre has metastasized to such an extent, you can't tell what's reality tv and what's not. Half the time the news feels like reality tv. I can't see it all ending before Western civilization does. Then we'll go back to sitcoms.

You said that shows like The Real World are not about sympathy or judgement, but immersion. But doesn't immersion require a certain amount of sympathy, in that it allows you to relate to the subject? You very artfully portrayed The Miz in a way that still leaves us feeling that this guy sucks, but you didn't make any firm value judgments. That's on purpose, right?

Immersion can be hostile. In that case, The Real World piece, it was mostly aghast. I'm not sure, though, that I wound up feeling the Miz was a jerk or a bad guy. Definitely didn't want the reader seeing him like that. It's more that he was a cog, every bit as much as we were, the viewers. Reality TV had become a whirlwind in which people were increasingly swept up, often as cast members.

What do you think about social media, blogging, and the like?

Do you mean the fact that I don't have and have never had one? There's no moral choice. I just can't handle it. Same with Twitter and whatnot. Any bogus neo-Ludditic disgust I felt toward those things evaporated in my 20s. Media just are -- they know no right and wrong. My problem is that they're bad for my writing.

Focus and time- management are two of my major life-challenges, and a blog would not help with either. So I'm left feeling slightly sad that I can't really participate in my generation's major forms of communication. I have done a little blogging for the Paris Review Daily. It was as fun and distracting as I expected. Within ten minutes there are people on there going, I like this! I hate this!

John Jeremiah Sullivan appears at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight (at Belvedere), S.F. 863-8688 or

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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