An Interview with Benjamin Wiessman
Los Angeles-based writer Benjamin Weissman gets up so early that he’s forced to read the New York Times by streetlamp while taking his dogs for a walk. The ironies of a man in his pajamas absorbing the horrific news of the world are not lost on him. In a story from his most recent collection, Headless (Akashic, 2004), a narrator proclaims, “I am commander-in-chief of Saturday morning.” Patriarchy and political delusion runnel together, and even world doom shows its comic edge.
By 7 a.m., Weissman has finished his daily three-hour investigation of violence, fathers, omnipotence, skiing, sexual deviance, Hitler, and Teutonic absurdity, among other fictional themes. Then he draws until noon (he’s also an internationally shown artist and art critic). In the afternoons, he teaches at most of the universities within fifty miles of his home. Evenings, he plays a punishing game of tennis and is rumored to be a serial killer on the court (opponents lose badly, enroll in anger management classes or take Paxil). A comment he’s been heard to make: “If you are going to do anything, whatever it is, why not do it completely and all the way?”
In this same spirit—the metaphysical challenges that make men climb mountains, read Kant, that kind of thing—is the year that Weissman reviewed three hundred porn videos for Adult Video News, a feat of endurance he reserved for Sundays, with the assistance of triple-decker sandwiches, Gatorade, and a remote control with a functioning fast-forward.
In Weissman’s hands, infiltration and engagement are simultaneous. Written under the pen name Leopold Loeb, the porn reviews are poetic, weird, hilarious, formal descriptions that never discount mise-en-scène. From these vignettes to the fiction is no great stretch. In Headless, Weissman transmutes his influences—Thomas Bernhard and Robert Walser—into voices that read as though the Austrian insouciant and Swiss eccentric have been sending letters to Penthouse Forum. In “Enchanted Forest,” a story that brings new meaning to the term “logger’s breakfast,” foreplay takes the form of a menu order: “Four slices of sourdough toast, nearly burnt, buttered like a dairy truck crashed into them, if you know what I mean.”
Weissman sometimes sounds suspiciously like Leopold Loeb. And conversely, Loeb’s voice is Weissman’s, but reframed, sneaked into smutland. Yet despite this subversion, the porn reviews are relatively innocent. It’s in the realm of art that he is a threat: waging war, in high prose style, against good taste.
THE BELIEVER: You came to writing, and in fact reading, rather late. Could you share something of what happened, whom you read and how it was you clicked into the idea of devoting your life to fiction?
BENJAMIN WEISSMAN: I was just starting to make art, mainly painting, when I got a job working for a very bookish quadriplegic artist named Patrick Hogan. I cooked his meals, took him to parties, bathed him. Patrick read two or three books a week. He turned the pages with the eraser end of a pencil that was attached to a mouthpiece. I placed books on his reading stand and removed them when he was finished. One day he was reading Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. The deviant title struck me. I read the stories and was immediately impressed by Barthelme’s odd, luminous prose. I was looking at a lot of conceptual art at the time—Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, etc.—and Barthelme was a million times more interesting in terms of language and linguistic prowess, pushing what text could do to produce humor and cerebral pleasure. Most of the conceptual artists seemed so stingy with their words. Barthelme was generous and brilliant as a stylist. In interviews, he cited dozens of his faves and I sought out every one of them. I was twenty years old, and I had never read a book before—seriously—and I had the advice of the best fiction writer in America. He had great taste: John Hawkes, William Gass, Angela Carter, Grace Paley, Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, and John Ashbery. Barthelme was a fiction writer who didn’t ignore poets. I continued painting but started writing stories. I went to CalArts and wrote a lot of one-page stories that I made into posters. I hung them in the stalls of every bathroom on campus, and then all around Hollywood, on bus-stop benches and telephone poles.
BLVR: “Hitler Ski Story” is a funny and bizarre investigation into the Führer’s predicament as a “little man” in modern society. I thought of Barthelme’s treatment of icons like Robert Kennedy and Cortés. Hitler tries to learn the stem Christie technique, fails, and then pisses a swastika into the snow. What prompted you to put him on skis?
BW: Initially, I wanted to write that story from the perspective of a Hitler historian, under the premise that there was new information about Hitler having been a lousy skier, which is sort of the ultimate insult for a Tyrolean. But after seeing photographs of Hitler in the Alps, I couldn’t help but imagine his experience trying to ski. Maybe putting him on skis makes him an easy target for parody and humiliation. But he deserves it. Force him to ski. Have athletic Eva Braun, who really was a jock, show him up.
BLVR: You’ve cited Thomas Bernhard as an influence. Bernhard was obsessed with and loathed Austria. His work is about place in a way that yours doesn’t seem to be. And he writes about his own life and the people he knew—sitting on the terrace at the Sacher with Paul Wittgenstein—whereas you delve far deeper into fantasy realms. And Bernhard is much harder on people. I think one critic called his oeuvre “the cranky sublime.” Lastly, in terms of style, your descriptions and tone are dense and specific, while Bernhard is more of a meanderer. My guess is that the link between you is Bernhard’s “nothing is sacred” approach to writing and to the world. So what is it you glean from him?
BW: You tend to want your idols to bleed into you, but also for something that’s pure you to come through. I glean, or gleaned—such a nice word, by the way; does it mean obtain information via shiny objects?—that an angry approach can be useful. I realized that I had a lot in the angry tank and there was humor residing there as well. Though it is an essential experience in real life, I hate reading about joy. Bernhard’s narrators are the most aggressive creatures imaginable. He wants to push us off his page; he dares you to stop reading. I gleaned that I should challenge the reader however possible and hit subjects hard.
BLVR: Many of the stories are specific takes on maleness and patriarchy. Men are treated with this murky blend of love and flagellation, banishment, blandishment, and tenderness.Are you obsessed with the reflections and distortions of masculinity?
BW: Totally. How men do and don’t get along in the world. The alpha thing is so real and laughable and tragic. And over-the-top peculiar. I can never get over my shock of what it’s like to be male, to be myself among others, to watch my own psyche veer into odd places, and to see how other dogs proceed.
BLVR: In one of your stories, you write from the perspective of twin female lingerie models. I get the feeling the plural twin voice is a sort of metavoice, a self-consciously masculine rendering of an archetype.
BW: If I could rewrite that story now, I’d have the twins individually interrupting their awkward wall of we. As it stands, they do speak in a stilted caricature tone. The twins are embracing a layered stereotype of male fantasy, and then wrecking it with details of their awkward sexual experiences and their film critique of Shoah. But I do believe that there is some overlap in male and female voices and psyches. That said, the metavoice is always a temptation in writing, as well as in life; the tendency to be overly self-conscious, distanced, reflexive about what we’re doing, saying, thinking. Brecht über alles, his influence far and wide.
BLVR: To me, the most poignant female character is encountered on a canvas, in the story “Museum Boy” in Dear Dead Person. The narrator interacts with a girl in a painting and finds her radical and vivid. As I read the story, I thought of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s depiction of Joan of Arc at the Met, an electric blue-eyed girl, dirty and barefoot.
BW: Actually, that story came to me while looking at an exhibition of contemporary German paintings at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. I was freaking out about how much I loved so many of the paintings. And I was also falling in love with my wife, the poet Amy Gerstler. We were just pals at the time, but I was smitten. I blurred my feeling for her into my affection for those paintings. When I got home, I locked into a reproduction of an Otto Dix painting that I still have hanging over my desk. It’s of a young girl, stark naked, with giant ears and a veiny torso. She’s disturbing and hot and ultra-vulnerable. In my story, the narrating boy, who is with his parents at a museum, falls in love with Otto Dix’s painting. Lust is transformative. I guess that’s why I had the story merge into a sort of magical realm. The boy connects with the girl and projects himself into her world, or pulls her into his.
BLVR: You and I went together to see Monster, that film about Aileen Wuornos. A few days later, I mentioned that the film wrecked me. You looked at me with a surprised expression and casually said, “Oh, that film bothered you?” It was a very funny moment, and I thought, Ask him about his relationship to violence.
If such grisly depictions roll off without leaving scars, how is it that violence is meaningful? What does it offer?
BW: I guess what moved me about Monster was how true it felt. I recognized the look in Aileen Wuornos’s eyes. It was real. I had seen it before, in friends, a look that is desperate and bewildered and raw. I’m not sure why I identify with killers. It goes back to childhood. My mother grew up in weekly-rate, Southside Chicago hotels, sharing rooms with her own schizophrenic mother, who had violent encounters with random men (Hitchcock’s Marnie). My mother was fascinated with killers; I was weaned on them. Charles Manson, all the L.A. serial killers of the seventies. When I moved away from home after high school, she used to send me newspaper clippings about killings and we’d talk about them the next time I came over for dinner. She lived life in great fear, but in our discussions we always managed to flip the material until it had a comic edge. I think violence gave her odd solace. Remember, Hitchcock considered Psycho his funniest movie. I guess I find film violence invigorating and poetic. Or at least that’s the effect it has on me. But I wouldn’t say I’m not disturbed by it. The disturbance raises my interest, and I revel in its intensity. Murder is the lowest act. I’m fascinated by the details, the way a cheek flutters as a bullet passes through it in slow motion, as in Taxi Driver (one of my mother’s favorite movies).The way bodies collapse. There’s a part of me that insists on watching the most horrible things carefully, like maybe it will prove illuminating, in the belief that there’s always another clue.
BLVR: Slavoj Žižek asserts that the dignity of the individual does not derive so much from any universally shared human traits, but from what it is about a person that is totally distinct, particular, unknowable. And in Žižek’s opinion, what is particular about a person is his ˇ or her fantasies. This strikes me as an idea you would agree with.
BW: I do agree with that idea, although it’s important to note that fantasies frequently come in recognizable or codified forms, as if catalogued and numbered. As to the dignity of others and the particularities that make them who they are, I look for peoples’ recesses, their hidden traits and complexities. My wife is the most unknowable person I’ve ever met, and she’s the person I know best. She really is the heavyweight champion of the above mentioned topic, the unknowable fantasy spaces. This is one of the reasons why living with another writer can be so ridiculously gratifying. You get the remarkable daily-living aspects of her character, but you also get to read what wells up from her unconscious—the not-normally-available material from the repressed being— and you get it in an articulated, elegant form. To experience an intimate’s id, bursting through in lush prose, is more than a human could ask for in this life.
BLVR: The issue of morality comes up when people talk about your writing, because you deal with somewhat extreme issues. Your characters struggle with the age-old titanic battle of good versus evil, but the battleground is mostly in their own minds, their urges and issues and hungers and rage and prurience sort of piping in like elevator music or cracking in like thunder. The point seems less about societal boundaries and more about the funny juxtaposition between what people are and who they dream themselves to be.
BW: What a kick-ass comment. I’ll try to come close to that. I like evil characters struggling within the concept of good versus evil, as if there were moral choices within purely heinous acts. Violence is the craziest ride at the park, the weirdest drug, the most terrible; to cause personal injury for the sake of the rush. Like I said, I’ve been consumed with this stuff since I was a little boy. I’m inclined to exaggerate. It takes me to useful mental places, where maybe I can break into something honest or revealing. I’m more interested in comic violence than I am in the blunt, straight stuff. I love the violence of folktales, the twisted idea of lessons learned. The world is about harm. Floating in my consciousness is the sneaking feeling that to not be struck down by the bad man is a fucking miracle. But I wonder about the bad man. Who is he? Maybe he’d like me. Instead of killing me, he’d convert me into his sidekick. And then maybe I’d kill him.