Sunday, April 13, 2014

Harmony Korine | A Crack Up At The Race Riots

Harmony Korine
A Crackup At The Race Riots
New York City, USA: Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1998
176 pp., 23.5 x 14 cm., paper
Edition size unknown

By calling his first bookwork a novel, filmmaker Harmony Korine pointedly plays with the reader's expectations. A Crack-Up at the Race Riots is a fragmentary book of lists, letters, jokes, and dialogue, many of them hand scrawled or doodled. But rather than an extended 'zine  - similar to the type he was making in collaboration with Mark Gonzales at the time (later to be collected and compiled by Drag City Books) - or an artists' book, the title was released as a first 'novel'.

Most early reviews took Korine at face value and reviewed it as such. One suggested it was work of "creative overreach" from a talent "thrust too soon into the limelight" and another felt that "Korine seems too much inside his own head to speak for anyone outside it." Chloe Sevigny, who appeared in three of Korine's film projects and was dating him at the time, said "I liked the suicide notes and the rumour stuff. It was a little too dirty for me, though." Her co-star in Korine's Julien Donkey Boy, actor Ewen Bremmer (SnowpiercerTrainspotting) called it "quite lazy as a novel".

When the reviews were good, they were effusive, with some praising the work as a 'reinvention of the novel', and comparing it favourably to the fragmented fiction of Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs.

At the time, Korine was reading Walter Benjamin, a book of jokes by Milton Berle, Henny Youngman's autobiography Take My Life Please and a history of molestation in the Boy Scouts. Much of this comes out in Crackup, but the also content seems oddly prescient to the contemporary youth pop culture conversation. Subjects like suicide, sex, celebrity worship, drug use, race and rape are Tumblr and Reddit staples today.

The book includes a page titled "Idea for a Late-Night Comedy" (below), which suggests an intervention into the stale format of the American late night talk show.  On April 3rd, 1998 Korine made his third and final appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman to promote the book. His first was as the wunderkind who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids in his teens, and the second was to promote his debut film Gummo. Korine was banned from the show after Letterman discovered him in the Green Room, rifling through Meryl Streep's purse.

Presumably high, Korine is even less coherent than his previous visits, but his best joke ("I wanted to write the Great American Novel, or a novel.  I just wanted it to be American.") confirms his liquid commitment to the format of long prose plot driven narrative. Letterman is stumped and incredulously asks how long it took him to write ("two or three years" is the reply) and flips to a page  he had clipped off in advance. He asks his guest: "...all I see on page 59 is the word hepburn......How much does this thing go for, Harmony?" Korine laughs and says "I think it's the regular book price."

Korine addressed the page in question in a recent interview with Vice Magazine:

"I’d write titles for books I wanted to write, then I would see that the titles were more interesting than the book, and I would say maybe the book would actually kill the title. Maybe the title is better than the full book. It’s like that page that just says hepburn. I’d spent like three years just trying to figure out what would be the perfect one word novel. And I finally thought of the word hepburn. It just made perfect sense. I felt like all the answers to the world were wrapped up in those letters—or actually not answers, but all the questions."

The book includes one such list of these titles, called "Titles of Books I Will Write", which includes "A Life Without Pigment", "Foster Homes and Gardens" (my favourite) and "Can't Touch This" (the book also opens with an image of MC Hammer). This approach always reminded me of the books Monty Python issued in the early seventies. They often played with the format of the book itself, and would typically include fictional dust jacket blurb endorsements and "further titles you may care to enjoy" such as "Toad Sexing for Married Couples" and "So You're Interested in Acne". Coincidentally, one of them, under Historiography, is "A History of the English Speaking Publishers by Kate Hepburn."

As Letterman is wrapping up his interview, he tries, but fails, to get the author to endorse his own book: "I don't know, I don't like to, I never even, I can't imagine why anyone would buy a book nowadays," says Korine.

A Crackup At The Race Riots was reissued by Drag City last year, following the renewed interest in Korine after the release of Spring Breakers. But if you, like Korine, you can't imagine actually buying it, you can download the PDF for free, here.

In February of this year Korine and actor James Franco told the New York Post that they were working together again, with Franco set to star in an adaptation of the 'novel'. The subsequent details suggest that the announcement was in jest, but it's hard to certain.

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