Bookforum talks with Gary Indiana

Resentment: A Comedy BY Gary Indiana. Semiotext(e). . $.
Cover of Resentment: A Comedy

“Sometimes I joke, well, I must be really good,” says Gary Indiana, sweet and wry, lighting his third cigarette of the four he allows himself daily. “To have been such a fucked-up mess, and to still have a body of work that I think—I hope—will live after me, that means I must really have been good.” We are outside Lucien, the Lower East Side bistro, after our interview, during which he did not swear at all. I note this because in his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, out last year, he complains that one young interviewer added obscenities to his answers to make him sound edgier. As if there’s any need! Indiana, a playwright, art critic, artist, and novelist with the sensibility of a rogue private investigator, is edgy in two or three ways. He’s hip and unchill, he’s lived on the edges of a lot of things, like fame and Los Angeles, and I’ve heard it said twice that he’s paranoid. (He does keep his London Review of Books bag tucked under his arm as he smokes, too nervous to leave it in a dark, quietish corner inside.)

Indiana was sitting at a wine bar in Paris in 1994, waiting for an established French writer who should not have been forty-five minutes late, when he thought, What if resentment were the only emotion in the world? What would a model of that world look like? He had already been following the trial of the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents in a bout of either affluenza or vengeance, and soon a whole house of cards, replete with queens and jokers, fell into place. The result was the novel Resentment: A Comedy, the first book in his astonishing turn-of-the-century crime trilogy, now being reissued by Semiotext(e). The second, and least fictional, Three Month Fever, is about Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace and several other men, and defends not Cunanan’s acts but his motives against a news media that painted him as a bad copy of a Patricia Highsmith cipher. The third, Depraved Indifference, is a speedball of a novel based on the con artistry of Sante Kimes and her son Kenneth, who killed their Upper East Side landlord in a bid to possess the whole house; Indiana does for Kimes what Don DeLillo does for Marguerite Oswald in Libra, writing to the beat of her highly irregular heart. There’s a line in Fever, written in the imagined voice of Cunanan, that describes life in his father’s home country, the Philippines: “Everything that looks disorganized is really highly organized.” So you could say of Indiana’s work, which is criminally underread; ergo, is sure to be reexamined, over and over again.

To prove that one version of a chaotic series of events is true, it has to be set in a very precise order, by a prosecutor in court—or by a writer. How did you go about ordering things in Resentment?

It’s almost absurdly difficult to talk about the real-life trial of the Menendezes, because there were really two trials going on, with two juries. The two brothers, Erik and Lyle, were allowed to separate their cases and have different defense attorneys, but the defense attorneys worked in concert, and there was one prosecution team. It was bonkers. Virtually anything that the defense argued was relevant to the case was allowed in as evidence, going all the way back into the childhoods of the brothers, into the histories of their parents. How the prosecution got them on the retrial was that the same judge excluded practically everything he had allowed into the first. The first trial was like a Russian novel. It was all about why, not how, they did it. I thought every trial should be like that, although of course it would cost billions to try anyone for murder.

My theory has always been that the brothers were abused by their father, or at least that Erik, the younger brother, was, but that it happened maybe once or twice, not with the regularity that was argued in court. The defense had to make the parents seem monstrous. But my other theory is that most parents are monstrous, most families are monstrous. The trial was about an idea of family that was falling apart, or an idea that the family had never been all that together. I wanted to demonstrate in the structure of the book—and it is a very structured book—this idea of everything falling apart.

Like a Jean Tinguely sculpture, carefully precarious.

I made a list of things that had to happen in order for it to end with an apocalypse. I needed to have a mudslide, I needed to have an out-of-control fire, I needed to have certain things that are part of our imagination of Los Angeles.

Were you thinking of The Day of the Locust?

I was, actually. I also had this peculiar idée fixe on How to Marry a Millionaire. I wanted to have the three gay guys in Resentment be based on the three women in that movie: Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and I can’t remember the other one.

I can’t either. Betty Grable?

Yes. And they’re all scraping by, and they all have a salvation fantasy. At the same time, they’re mired in drugs and alcohol; they’re sleepwalkers. The strange nocturnal life of Los Angeles claims them. And running through the bloodstream of all this, infecting everybody in the city, is the Menendez, or as I called it in the book, the Martinez, trial. People had bumper stickers: “I BELIEVE LYLE AND ERIK.” It was amazing.

I like the way you describe Los Angeles, with a light that’s more yellow than gold. It’s a nice seediness, allowing things to bloom in scattered places, unexpectedly.

Resentment is a love letter to LA. It’s changed—I lived there through the ’70s—but you can still see parts of LA that are more underground. There’s also a lot more space than there is here in New York. There’s just more nature, which seems to include human nature.

There’s more room in LA for things to happen and not be seen, which is what makes LA noir, like Raymond Chandler’s, more compelling than the noir of New York.

The secrets are more glamorous in LA.

Do you think of living there permanently now?

I do, but I’m not sure it’s the time for me. I don’t want to use the word “existentially,” but—I’m old, and I want to live somewhere where the ambulance can get to me faster. You know the whole Donald Cammell story.

I don’t!

Donald Cammell shot himself in the head, but after he discovered he was still alive, he was on the phone, talking to his wife for an hour, waiting for the ambulance. Because it was Los Angeles, the ambulance took two hours to find the house, and in the meantime he died.

Jeez. For Three Month Fever, you did a lot of talking to people around the case, as well as reading every primary document. For Resentment, you stuck to the documents. Which do you prefer? Joan Didion, for example, preferred analyzing documents, but is that just because she was a better reader than she was a reporter?

Anybody who really knows human nature prefers the primary documents. People tend to get in the way of the story, after the fact, when their memory is fallible or they’re not under the threat of perjury. When you’re face-to-face with someone, you can tell they’re lying. You also don’t want to show them as liars. I don’t agree with the whole Janet Malcolm thing, or rather the Joe McGinniss thing, of conning the subject into revealing themselves. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just couldn’t do it with a straight face.

Well, reporters feel that what they do is in service of the public good. No writer—no writer I love—can tell you with a straight face that their work is in the service of a public good.

Most writers are in search of something a little more ephemeral than the public good. I don’t understand the concept of the public good at all. I assume that I have a responsibility not to make up anything without signposting to the reader that I’m making it up. In Three Month Fever, I got as close as anybody could get to the truth, and to do that, in some cases, where nobody had the information, I had to fill in the blanks. Of course, what I got was totally contrary to what had been reported by the media.

Did you want to write the book because of how tendentious or wrongheaded the media had been?

I was shocked by it. When a prostitute gets killed, the media doesn’t care: Oh, it’s a prostitute, that’s what happened. It was almost like that with Cunanan: Oh, he’s a gay man, we have the template on him, who cares what the truth is. I never say anything “as a gay man,” but I did feel, as a gay man, that it was outrageous. It was even more outrageous to say that Cunanan was a killer because he was a homosexual than to think that the Menendezes killed their parents for money. By the way, I don’t believe anyone kills their parents just for money. Think about it. Maybe you’ve wanted to kill your parents, but would you?

No, you have to have a really good reason. Because you’re going to watch your parents die anyway. Why go to the trouble of murdering them?

I think, with the Menendezes, it was a case of the older brother making the younger brother crazy in the hermetic environment of that house, convincing him that if they didn’t kill their parents, they’d be killed by their parents. In any story, or any love story, where two people are crazy, it’s usually the case that if they were separated, only one would be crazy. That’s also the case with the Kimeses, where as soon as the son was extradited and separated from the mother, he changed his mind and confessed to what they had done.

A book can be a hermetic environment, too. Can an author draw a reader into a temporary folie à deux?

Oh, absolutely. Think about people who read Atlas Shrugged when they’re twelve.

What were you reading at twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen?

Nausea had a huge impact. I fell into the spell of that book completely, and Sartre still has a great mystique for me. I don’t care if he was a Stalinist in the ’50s, I don’t care about any of that. What affected me was reading someone whose experience, as he described it, was very true to me. I understood at a very early age that I did not believe in God, and it was so confusing, because I didn’t know what to make of the world I was in. That confrontation in Nausea with the immitigable fact of existence, with how alone we are in the universe, was revelatory. Strangely, it made me feel not alone.

I was just thinking about Sartre—about Saint Genet, which advances a theory of criminality that seems to apply to Three Month Fever. In the playground, if someone taunts you, you can say, “Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” But Sartre writes that for Genet, it was like, “Whatever you say about me, fine. I’ll be that. I’ll be more that than you thought possible.” Maybe for Cunanan, too.

I remember the first Genet books I had, which were Our Lady of the Flowers and The Thief’s Journal, in old Bantam paperback, and I must have read them until they fell apart. Then Beckett was a big thing for me, too. I had a Grove Press edition of three Beckett novels, and it got so worn out that every time I turned the page, it fell out of the book. Which is so perfectly Beckett.

It must seem weird that I was reading these things when I was a teenager, but I really was. I was looking for any way out of where I grew up. Then I had to reread things later, because there were things in Beckett, for example, that I didn’t understand the first time. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is another one I didn’t understand until later.

I’m still not sure I understand Anna Karenina. What’s your understanding?

Well—I don’t understand it, exactly. It’s about the wages of sin.

The wages of farm labor, maybe.

Or how to make strawberry jam.

I have to say, I always preferred Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, and I prefer Gogol to either one. Dostoyevsky was a great psychologist, and he really did understand the dark places of the heart, whereas Tolstoy put himself forward as the great moral thinker of his time. Dostoyevsky had a Nietzschean thing. He’s more divided in himself. His whole thing with gambling, with constantly being at odds with authority, I relate to so well.

How did you relate to each of your subjects in the trilogy, or stay interested in them?

With Depraved Indifference, I had some grasp of the mentality of Sante and Kenneth Kimes—though no sympathy for them at all—because I’ve known quite a few grifters and con artists. It was a different kettle of fish from the others in the trilogy: Killing wasn’t a big stretch for these two. The interest there was the nonstop confidence game they were running, the mom-and-son incest situation, and the gullibility of their victims. With the first two books, the intimacy of the crimes caught my attention—killing your parents, or your ex-boyfriend, involves a profound fracture of what holds you together as a person. I tried to enter the states of mind of these young men who’d gone over the edge, maybe set off by years of family madness in one instance and many kinds of cumulative disappointment in the other. These struck me as greatly enlarged versions of things I’d experienced myself, so I was able to imagine, moment by moment, how these killings might have gone down. I had a certain sympathy for Eric Menendez, if not for his older brother. Same with Andrew Cunanan, who might have made something of his life if he’d just wised up instead of going on a rampage. It was easy to stay interested. The protagonists were complicated people who could’ve stepped out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

This is a leading observation, but: I have a friend who’s a painter, and who loves your writing, and he’s painted a couple of male murderers—very beautiful boys.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Part of the attraction for me with the Menendez brothers, or with Cunanan, was that I thought they were sexy. To stay interested in these guys for the time it takes to write a book, you have to have something to look at. It’s not just that, but that’s part of it. Do you ever watch Happy Valley? In the very last episode, there’s a woman named Frances, a prison groupie, and she’s obsessed with this really hot-looking serial killer. The lead in the show, a police lieutenant named Catherine, says something like, “I can’t understand, you know, why a woman of your intelligence would fall for this kind of monster. Let me ask you, if he looked like Ian Brady, or Peter Sutcliffe, or some other twisted fuck like that, would you believe a word he says?” And Frances just looks at her, and Frances says, “But he doesn’t look like that.” I think that’s wonderful.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult. A condensed version of this conversation appears in the summer issue of Bookforum.