pulphead, part one

I’ve just finished John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book of essays, Pulphead, devouring it in two days. I hope that when, eventually, I die (due to a tragic accident involving a custodian forgetting to change the fluids in my brain-vat) I will have re-read it four or five times. A terrific book, in other words.

Generally speaking, the collection is a secret history of the United States; many of the essays walk a line between what can be known, and what cannot, in our American past. For example, Sullivan spends an hour, in one of the essays, trying to decipher the lyrics to a haunting, mostly-forgotten blues song. In another, he imagines an encounter between a cave painter, thousands of years ago, and a cave painting made thousands of years before that. The painting is an object of wonder and mystery to this historical would-be artist, just as his paintings will eventually be for us.

Specifically, though, I want to reflect on a couple of the strangest moments in this strange collection. The final essay, “Peyton’s Place,” is about what it was like to have a character from One Tree Hill living in the real house Sullivan inhabited with his family. One could, I suppose, emphasize Sullivan’s neat, restrained postmodern gestures, such as his witty description of the fake wallpaper on the staircase, which suddenly ends at the exact boundary of the frame. However, the most fascinating part for me was the damage the house sustained. Because the character who lives there is a somewhat alienated orphan, she attracts bad karma. At first, this just means emo paintings in the hallway. Later, there’s a messy food fight in the kitchen. At the climax of the essay, the house has been invaded by her obsessive stalker, “psycho Derek,” who turns the basement into a torture chamber and (in the form of a stunt double) permanently fractures a bannister. Sullivan finally orders the film crews out of his house; he is especially concerned about his toddler daughter growing up atop the now permanently nightmarish basement.

The whole chain of events is almost impossibly rich with meanings. To begin with, there is the phenomenon of watching the most damaged, vulnerable characters on a show (particularly troubled girls or women) attract even greater misfortunes. Watching the house take collateral damage from Peyton’s misery, without any of the storylines that would explain the sadism away, is melancholy and stark. One thinks of Marisa Cooper, Lyla Garrity. More comically, because this is Sullivan’s real house, the reader is suddenly aware and ashamed of his own secret desire to take revenge on the hyperreal worlds of film sets by smashing them to bits. After all, part of the fun of watching a destructive struggle on television is watching from a safe distance, but part of the fun is also watching the reified, desirable objects surrounding the actors getting broken, and taking the whole simulated world down with them. But the ripples from this anarchic impulse carry back into the real world, leaving a family’s house shaken, and us to wonder why we ever let our frustration and exhaustion with fantasy build up so much in the first place.

Sullivan never “answers” the question of how his daughter feels about their altered house. It may not even be reading against the grain to say that he makes his peace with it, because it’s something he hopes he’ll be able to explain to her; in other words, that it will just be part of her education about the world. In the final paragraph, as the two of them walk cautiously from room to room, I was aware of feeling disgusted with Sullivan, as though he’d let an actual psycho Derek into the house and ruined its quiet assurances of safety. But then I considered that this is exactly what I do all the time, whenever I watch shows or films, even bad ones (and yesterday’s film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was absolutely terrible). You invite in the unnecessary calamities of people who never existed, in order to break the ice webbing over what is closer, and equally tragic, and real. There is a sense that if Sullivan can help his daughter live in a house with that basement, then when it’s time for him to explain why he disappears in search of more raw material for words, she will be able to understand.

More soon.