Dec/Jan 2011

Descent of a Woman

Iris Owens's darkly comic tour de force returns

Gerald Howard


"I left Claude, the French rat."

This opening salvo in the verbal barrage that is Iris Owens's sublime 1973 snarkfest After Claude is as good a first sentence as American fiction of the '70s offers, right up there with "Fame requires every excess" (Great Jones Street) and "Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic" (Ninety-two in the Shade). Mincing no words, Harriet, the laceratingly funny and thoroughly deluded antiheroine, launches her daisy-cutter diatribe with perfect economy. And, as she does throughout the book, she gets things exactly wrong. For in reality it is Harriet, a sexpot layabout and serial houseguest, who has been given the heave-ho by Claude, a reporter for French television, from his West Village apartment. She has long ridiculed his video dispatches to the mother country, but the last straw for the exasperated Claude is Harriet's loudly expressed disdain for the film they've just seen in that now sadly extinct Upper West Side temple to the cinema, the New Yorker—a film that, though never named, is transparently Pasolini's exercise in New Testament neorealism, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. "Some skinny guy schlepping a hunk of wood that weighs a ton up a steep hill for the express purpose of getting nailed to it, that was beautiful?" So exit Harriet, but not before she mounts a determined guerrilla campaign to remain in Claude's Morton Street floor-through, if not his good graces.

Click to enlarge

Iris Owens in 1983, photo by Peter Hujar.

With its eye for the offbeat and the unjustly neglected, New York Review Books has added Owens's harrowing comic masterpiece to its ever-expanding shadow canon. Much like the protagonists of the above-mentioned DeLillo and McGuane novels, Harriet is someone in retreat from the squalor of American life, except that far from negotiating a separate peace, she regards conversation as war by other means. With unflagging energy and spite she rails against the indignity of life in New York in the Fun City era, displaying a penchant for politically incorrect proclamations ("that brain-damaged segment of the population called women") that would make an editor of the Dartmouth Review blush. Her acute perceptions of "this freak show called life," while unburdened by either self-knowledge or an awareness of her maddening effect on her interlocutors, are endlessly quotable. At one point, she muses, "There are times when I'd rather converse with a crazed mugger than reason with myself." Twitting Claude yet again for his cinematic enthusiasms, this time Woman in the Dunes, she avers, "You couldn't torture enough Japs for his refined tastes." Zinger follows zinger like a perfectly timed stand-up routine.

After Claude was published to great acclaim by such figures as Leonard Michaels the year I got out of college, and its witty spleen and disenchantment won me over completely. At the time, I enlisted Harriet in the dyspeptic company of such figures as Simon Gray's Ben Butley and Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy—high-octane minds at the ends of their tethers. But in my latest rereading, Owens's creation reminded me of no less than the similarly pan-offensive Joan Rivers—if the Barnard graduate formerly known as Joan Molinksy had headed to Paris after graduation rather than to the comedy clubs.

Thus I was delighted to learn that Owens, née Kline, was herself a Barnard graduate who at age twenty, in the classic fashion of literary aspirants of the '50s, in fact did go to Paris. There, her funds running short, she was recruited by her lover, the proto-Beat novelist Alexander Trocchi, into the community of impecunious scribblers producing arty erotica for Maurice Girodias, the lit-porn maestro who ran Olympia Press. Under the nom de plume of Harriet Daimler she became what John de St. Jorre in Venus Bound terms "the lead mare in the Olympia stable, racking up four of her erotic books" and one cowritten title in the famed Traveller's Companion series, collector's items all, heavy on sadomasochistic games and rape fantasies in the prescribed European mode. The experiments in kink were not confined to the page, either; the DB (Dirty Book) writers formed their own little avant-garde tribe, and by Owens's own testimony, "We were all sexual obsessives of one sort or another." Even in that louche circle she cut a striking figure; no less an authority than Terry Southern, coauthor of the most famous Olympia Press DB, Candy, wrote, "Aside from her Junoesque beauty, [she had] a rapier wit and devastating logic. She was a pre-Sontag Sontag."

In fact, Owens caught the eye of the real Susan Sontag in Paris in 1957; ever alert to the competition in the room, she jotted down this wary once-over in her notebook: "from New York, age 28 . . . heavy black eye makeup (some carbon mixture)—once married . . . brightest girl of her class at Barnard." (Did Sontag check Owens's transcript?) A few years later, back in New York, the young critic Stephen Koch would meet Owens at a party at Sontag's apartment and fall under her witchy spell. They became fast friends but not lovers. Koch recently described her to me as "very, very absorbing—a powerful talker, until four in the morning if necessary to keep her listeners in thrall," and a man magnet whose admirers ran from Samuel Beckett to Paul Desmond. He believed that her father was a professional horseplayer who moved the family from apartment to apartment throughout her nomadic childhood; in later years, Owens sometimes lived off her poker winnings from games with the likes of Woody Allen.

As Harriet Daimler she was alarmingly prolific; as Iris Owens she was a dry well. Koch cited to me her "capacity for procrastination, indolence, and inaction beyond anything I've ever seen in someone so gifted." One day he seized on a few battered manuscript pages and lasered in on the sentence that opens this review, saying, "Here, this is a good start." Over the next five years, he became Owens's cheerleader, therapist, enabler, and typist as After Claude slouched toward completion. Sold to FSG's Henry Robbins, famed editor of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, the book enjoyed the sort of critical hosannas that almost any novelist would have died for. Not Owens—she contracted a virulent dislike for her publisher Roger Straus and complained to an interviewer, "I was very involved in being an elegant failure." Like her great alter ego, Owens was by all accounts an impossible yet compelling person.

In the years following After Claude, Owens was occasionally associated with such sex-positive feminist writers as Erica Jong and Alix Kates Shulman. This puts her and the novel in just the wrong company. For what lofts the book well above an amusing exercise in mad housewifery or late-stage black humor is its disturbing ending, the polar opposite of I-am-woman affirmation. After she's eventually dislodged from chez Claude, Harriet's next stop is the Chelsea Hotel, where she falls under the influence of a counterculture Machiavelli and human-potential creep by the name of Roger—a prototype of the Jim Jones figures to come later in the decade. He immediately senses the willing victim behind the facade of mouthy wisecracks, purring, "Under all that shame and hostility and lying and aggression is a lovely, vulnerable girl." Finally, a man who understands! At his instigation, Harriet concludes her long day's journey with an act of self-pleasuring in which all her self-loathing and need to be controlled rush to the surface. Drawing on her mastery of sexual power games honed in the porn years, Owens finally gives us a searing portrait of one woman's damaged psyche—and in the process a diagnosis of a psychodynamic of personal surrender soon to be observed in the wider world.

A more calculating writer could have parlayed the success of After Claude into a career as a literary flaneur of the Fran Lebowitz variety. (In fact, they met once, and it was, predictably, a disaster.) Instead, the silence once again descended, broken only by Hope Diamond Refuses in 1984, an amusing screwball comedy lacking in edge and heft. Her cult dwindled to a coterie and then to isolated enthusiasts like me; I tried to bring After Claude back into print in the late '80s, only to be told that our advance offer was "too too depressing." OK then. What Owens lived on we can only speculate, but she died in 2008 without the dignity of a New York Times obit, which she really deserved. What is left to us is this foulmouthed comic tour de force, still capable of offending the offendable and casting a blue-streaked spell of hilarity over everyone else. While such figures as Mary Gaitskill and Daphne Merkin have bravely taken up the cause of female abasement, there is no one you can name who is anything like this dame.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.

Advertisement