By Jeff Bursey
The prolific US writer Harold Jaffe (b. 1944) has, in recent years, published fiction, non-fiction and docufictions that are compact in nature and exploratory of fiction’s forms. Recent works include Paris 60 and Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories (both from 2010), Terror-Dot-Gov (2005), and 15 Serial Killers (2003), most published by Raw Dog Screaming Press (also home of the under-read, and excellent, Larry Fondation). He is critical of his country, systems, the media, and just about everything others might let go by unexamined. On a website devoted to Jaffe’s work he explains, under Docufictions, what he’s trying to do.
Thirty years ago or so, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and some other “journalists” set about deliberately melding journalistic “fact” with fiction; the suggestion was that this is what mainstream journalism was doing without acknowledgment, so they (Wolfe and Thompson) would foreground the melding. (It’s unknown if those quote marks indicate skepticism about Wolfe and Thompson as well as journalism.)
Additionally, Jaffe says his docufiction mirrors how the warping of facts in a relativistic world, governed by “the techno-cult,” clouds the real world from view. His “use of docufiction attempts to ape the mainstream culture while deconstructing it; the deconstruction is what puzzles less discerning readers, who don’t see the pastiche element, don’t see the deliberate exaggeration and ‘hyper-reality.’” He achieves more than that in OD: Docufictions, which I’ll return to.
His newest book is a collection of 13 skewed summations of the lives and deaths of seventeen well-known artists and writers who died from taking too much alcohol or drugs: at their own hand, either accidentally or suicidally (Bela Lugosi, Billie Holiday, Abbie Hoffman, Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Benjamin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Diane Arbus, Mark Rothko, Jean Seberg), methodically (Aldous Huxley and Sigmund Freud receiving morphine doses), and perhaps something more sinister (Marilyn Monroe, Sonny Liston). Also included are Lead Belly (twinned with Liston), whose end came due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Jim Jones, who died of a (perhaps) self-inflicted gunshot after engineering the deaths of over 900 followers.
A high-spirited re-imagination of the death of Lugosi, intertwined with the life and career of Lon Chaney, begins the book and provides examples of the approaches found throughout:
The story is that Lon Chaney died of throat cancer at the age of 47 in 1930, in good part because of the toxic makeup he had devised and painstakingly applied for his hundreds of freakish roles.
But did he actually die?
After his first wife, the singer Cleva Creighton, who birthed “wolf-man” Lon Chaney Jr, attempted suicide in 1913 by swallowing mercury bi-chloride, Chaney made a fateful decision.
He would take a busman’s holiday by “becoming” Bela Lugosi.
Not immediately, but as soon as circumstances complied.
This exploration into the tangled fates of Lugosi and Chaney is aimed only a bit higher than a tabloid report (or journalism, as it’s represented most visibly), with a literary turn (what reporter today would use the expression “busman’s holiday”?) that spins what we’re reading away from any number of daily newspapers into fiction. It looks effortless, as does the descent into muckraking, but requires control of tone and a spirit of irreverence.
The biography “Norma Jeane” opens by listing her lovers and husbands, with sharp comments on Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller and Dean Martin. Jaffe describes Monroe tartly and concisely: “That simulacrum of a forever vulnerable, unattainable golden-haired sex goddess, who, like Circe (irresistible), transforms men into swine.” The entries on Hoffman and Jones allow Jaffe to expand his view and look at the hold both social structures and blind belief have on the mass of people, while with Benjamin and Arbus he harshly evaluates critical and creative types. Regarded as a seer in many circles, Benjamin is shown little reverence (which would likely be his preference), and the biography veers away from the ostensible subject to take a slash at T.S. Eliot and to speak of Kafka’s writing. Instead of the usual encomiums, Jaffe offers this evaluation:
…Benjamin, wishing to be lustful but incapable, becoming syphilitic on his first deviation, which itself would be less than successful.
Lacked the thrusting power of his hero Brecht.
Lacked the courage (if that’s what it is) to enact his deviations as his hero Baudelaire enacted his.
He rarely completed what he set about.
What little he did complete was to him unsatisfactory.
As for Arbus, her dispassionate aesthetics provoke censure: “None of the human suffering context is suggested in Arbus’s photo [of a man called the “Jewish Giant”], which is set apart, isolated, alienated, freakified.” An imaginary dialogue between Arbus and “Freak Child” illustrates her trouble with human contact. When Freak Child tells her that he was blown apart by a land mine near Saigon the same day she killed herself, the reply Arbus makes comes across as clueless and cold: “I don’t understand.”
The musicians considered are a less intriguing set. In part because of her 1939 recording “Strange Fruit” (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…”), Holiday is situated in a political context. Her producer, John Hammond, didn’t support her recording this song, believing it to be “the worst thing that ever happened to Billie Holiday.” The record and the constant performances of “Strange Fruit” were political acts in the face of racism, and Jaffe speculates that Hammond thought “the song’s sentiment enforced in Billie Holiday a sense of doom, even martyrdom, which presumably suppressed her more lively musical tendencies.” Here there is some meat for Jaffe, whereas Hendrix “had no politics,” and this may be a reason why the entry on him is dull. Joplin arouses somewhat more sympathy in Jaffe, but also fails to ignite his imagination, unlike Morrison, of whom he’s scathing. In contrast, the prose comes alive in “Jean Seberg,” which tells the unhappy story of an actress whose life is ruined by political activism, involving the Black Panthers, and two autocrats: Otto Preminger and J. Edgar Hoover. A committed actress is completely helpless against the Establishment (Washington and Hollywood) when she takes up causes that are inimical to those in power. “Was Jean a saint or merely an infected child of the Sixties transformed by the movies?” (italics in original) an imagined interlocutor asks the narrator. We’re left to figure that out ourselves.
OD: Docufictions brings two things to mind. The first is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), particularly its sharp-tongued biographies of historical figures that merge facts with poetic speculation, social commentary and political criticism. He and Jaffe take what we know from newspapers and historical accounts and then run with certain conceits. Whereas Dos Passos depicted occasional heroes (the economist Thorstein Veblen, and various union leaders) in counterpoint to industrialists and plutocrats (Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan), Jaffe is more interested in what we can learn from damaged individuals and their cause of death, at times delighting in hints of conspiracy around their end, which is consistent with his stated purpose to “ape” our culture’s love of sensationalism. Heroes can’t exist, he might say, since everyone is “infected” by the State or susceptible to hubris.
That leads into the second matter. As one reads OD an awareness sinks in as to how these figures, even acknowledging their differences and chronologies, either anticipate or collectively embody what we might call the spirit of the 1960s: individualism, brilliance, contrariness, cult of personality, flamboyance, a presumed radicalism; further, that they expended the better part of their energy in that decade, often barely struggling to live on into the early years of the 1970s.
Jones created an inhospitable culture that he destroyed in 1978; in 1989, Hoffman expired “in an inhospitable culture.” In the biographies of Monroe and Huxley we see the conformism that surrounded an actress whose intelligence and appeal were then and still are matters of debate, as well as the worth of a “caste” writer who, in Jaffe’s opinion, “functioned much better as a discursive source of wayward data than as a novelist who integrates form and matter.” (Though Poe, Freud and Benjamin stand outside the rough arc of this work, which spans the end of WWII to the mid-eighties, their influence continues.) Jaffe sums up that conflicted spirit when writing on Hoffman:
Simplifying, the late-Sixties-early-Seventies counter-culture split into two factions: those young people who wanted to explore the inner “landscape,” often with the aid of psychotropic agents; and those who felt their first obligation was to the outer landscape, on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
Earlier I mentioned that Harold Jaffe did more than mimic regular media. It may be that he’s not only worrying about how facts, or truths, became much less clear with the advent of New Journalism, but also implicitly saying that there’s been a compounded overdose, culturally, politically, sexually, psychologically and socially, of what happened in the 1960s; that it has left a complex heritage Western society needs to make better sense of before it can recover. OD: Docufictions, more formidable as a whole than in its parts, sounds like an elegy for what the selected people covered in the book contained and what, to some, the complex spirit of the 1960s promised, or threatened, but could not completely deliver on.
OD: Docufictions, Harold Jaffe | JEF Books | 132 pages | $15.00 | paper | ISBN #978-1884097454