Love and Hate
Throwing muses and true bromance
Published: December 15, 2010
Rat Girl: A Memoir
Penguin Books. $15, 336 pp.
Coming up in the 1980s and into a certain level of success in the '90s, the Rhode Island band Throwing Muses has always been a tribe. And if this tribe had a queen, it would be singer-songwriter-guitarist Kristin Hersh, who started TM in high school. Rat Girl is her memoir, based on journals she kept and song lyrics that she wrote the year she was 18, bipolar, and, turns out, pregnant.
The book is impassioned with visual cues to her songwriting. Music has color to Hersh; her drive to play guitar started when she was learning the instrument at 9 but she heard her first song, which she describes as, "a metallic whining, like industrial noise, and a wash of ocean waves, layered with humming tones and wind chimes" when she was lying in a hospital bed with a double concussion after getting hit by a car early in her teens. Songs would come to her this same way forever after.
Raised by intellectual hippie parents in Providence, R.I., Hersh had trouble staying still. A wanderer by nature, her restlessness and insomnia were only slightly healed by an addiction to swimming and moving around. One of her hangouts was called the Doghouse, and being there gave an evilness and charge to her music, not an altogether bad thing: "The Doghouse was the last place I played music on purpose, of my own volition," she writes. Throwing Muses' 1985 demo, in fact, is titled The Doghouse Cassette.
From then on, music wasn't just inside her but out of her control. You could call Hersh overly sensitive, but she goes from loving snakes to seeing them just out of the corner of her eyes. And it's the subtle changes in her perception of things — of thinking music is stuck inside her until she cuts it out, of needing to be rained upon suddenly — that cause her to see she's displaying manic behavior. She writes, "How embarrassing. So what's left? What's 'me'? Anything? I'm gonna find out by doing these drugs." Pharmaceuticals. They numb her but she can still produce music, a baby even.
Which is surprising — not because she got pregnant at 18 and kept the baby but because she doesn't talk about boys. This is the sole quote on the subject of them post pregnancy test: "Some boys like little rat girls. Not many, but a few. I've always been grateful for the ones that did. Now I'm not so sure." Rat Girl ends up a fascinating look at the mind of an artist filtered through her own eyes, and translated into writing almost as abstract as her music. —Wendy Ward
Hate: A Romance
Faber and Faber, $14, 288 pp.
A fair warning to contemporary novelists: Reading Tristan Garcia's debut novel may cause you to hate the 29-year-old French author. It'll be a hate born of sincere admiration and maybe a little jealousy, but you just might feel it all the same. Some of it might stem from the economical way he covers a large chunk of time in the lives of his four protagonists — an intellectual, a queer activist, a comet of a party boy, and the culture journalist who knows them all. Some of it might come from his nimble control of tone, which can swerve from heady discussion of the intersection between contemporary politics and moral philosophy to the intentionally glib name-dropping of Foucault. More than anything else, though, that feeling may brew in your belly because Hate: A Romance is one of the more movingly recognizable accounts of the fickle ways that love and sex and joy and friendship can so easily decompose into their opposites.
Published in France in 2008 and translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein for this American paperback, Hate stretches from the '80s — a "cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality"— to the 2000s, as experienced-qua-endured by two interconnected couples. Occasional journalist Dominque Rossi, whom everybody calls Doumé, is a gay Corsican who comes from a line of political outsiders and emerges as the de facto spokesperson for the queer activist organization Stand as AIDS meanders through the gay community. He falls in love with the younger William Miller, the son of an Ashkenazi Jew, from a small town north of Paris, who slowly becomes an underground gay celebrity during his relationship with Doumé — who met Jean-Michel Leibowitz through some political organization, before his study of Eastern European dissidents, The Hydra of Power, made him a public leftist intellectual. Journalist Elizabeth Lavellois, the novel's narrator, works with Doumé, introduces him to her friend William, and carries on an affair with the married Jean-Michel, whom she calls Leibo, about 10 years her elder.
And for 300 pages spanning nearly 20 years, Garcia follows Doumé and William, Liz and Leibo as they fall in and out of bed, talk about and organize around the rise of AIDS, fret over the changes in Paris and France, worry about how the Left is becoming the Right, split hairs over anti-Semitism and homophobia. There are plenty of ebullient, ribald moments, to be sure — a section detailing the unemployed William's trips to the employment placement office are laugh-out-loud hilarious — but Hate is a document of relationships and romances becoming torn and frayed.
What gives the novel such force is Garcia's recognition that both love and hate are intensely powerful emotions, fires that demand constant kindling. And Garcia is unabashedly willing to present the ways in which his characters supply fuel for love/hate's roaring inferno. William even provides a formula for the feeling — "hate = (love + death) - lies" — and reveals himself as a man who has spent considerable time on the subject:
Because hate is important. It's the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It's everything. Real hate — like Spinoza said, hate is where it's at.
And Garcia lets his characters act petty, malicious, and hurtful to one another. By the mid-'90s when a different generation of queer men are making the party scene and the dangerous thrill of bug chasing and barebacking has entered the discussion, the Internet is also this new thing. And William, with some old photos and the single-minded focus of the castoff, hurts Doumé in a way that only somebody who has shared a life with him can. It's brutal, and it's entirely believable.
This empathy is what makes Hate so impressive. Born in 1981, Garcia was a child during the decade he re-creates with such a vivid understanding. But his talent for re-creating this period culturally and intellectually and imagining characters, their histories and personalities, and their unsavory weaknesses and impulses, turns his fictional world into something recognizably flesh and blood. —Bret McCabe
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