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Woe to the bookstore clerk who has to figure out where to shelve I Am Not Jackson Pollock, John Haskell’s debut work of prose. Though billed as fiction, Haskell’s “stories” have few such hallmarks of fiction as plot, character, or voice. Instead, they aim to create a genre all their own, describing bits of famous movies and artists’ lives, then layering these depictions on top of one another in a kind of montage. Orson Welles looms over one story like an overbearing director; Janet Leigh, William Holden, and Barbara Stanwyck all get walk-on parts.
If a film-studies degree would help readers appreciate this book’s obscure references, it’s not entirely necessary. Each one of Haskell’s tales begins by describing some well-known scene, such as a moment in Psycho or The Exorcist, and then expands outward in ripples, sometimes fictionalizing, more often simply recycling another scene from the same movie, or perhaps introducing a scene from a well-known work of literature. In “The Judgment of Psycho,” for example, Haskell analyzes Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh’s sexual relationship alongside that of Hector and Helen of Troy.
For all its opaque weirdness, one thing that keeps you reading here is that as soon as Haskell writes the words “Janet Leigh,” a picture of the woman taking a shower pops into your mind. Say “Alfred Hitchcock” and it’s hard not to imagine the man’s bulbous profile. This instant retrieval we have for movie stars’ images makes Haskell’s job much easier. Unlike other writers, who have to invent their characters, or, better yet, describe them, Haskell merely has to put their name onto the page and he’s halfway there.
When not borrowing from the wattage of film stars, Haskell puts celebrities of other sorts in his tales. In the first story, “Dream of a Clean Slate,” Jackson Pollock walks into the Cedar Tavern did the guy ever go anywhere else?and sits down to have a drink. In one corner sits his neglected wife, Lee, and in another there is a comely young woman. Over the course of the night, Pollock snubs his wife and attempts to seduce the young woman.
Haskell, who is also a performance artist, narrates these events with a headlong rush of talky prose. Each sentence overlaps and snakes back to the former, so there is much repeating and correcting. Here is Haskell writing about Pollock at the bar:
He staggered back into the Cedar Tavern, and there was Ruth, not at the bar anymore, now she was sitting at her table and he wanted to go to her. And he did. He stopped at the bar and had a couple of quick drinks, but he did in fact go to her table. He sat with her and yes, he was nervous. He felt the thing in his chest that was bigger than his chest, expanding under the ribs of his chest, and he felt that he could easily explode. He began arranging the salt and pepper and ketchup on the table. He was hoping she would do something or say something or want some thing so that he could give it to her and get the feeling over with.
It’s hard not to see something of Ed Harris’ Pollock in Haskell’s further description, be it the nervous fluttering of the hands or the manic drink pounding. To his credit, Haskell begins to pry Pollock away from Harris when he imagines the artist’s pressing anxiety, how measuring himself against the greatest painters of all timeespecially Picassocaused him to break down. By the end of this story, Haskell’s practically sputtering out his sentences, as if he had become Pollock: intoxicated by his own talent, but so afraid of it that he spends most of his time seeking oblivion.
And yet, as Haskell so pointedly announces in the first sentence of the story, he is not Jackson Pollock. He is merely pretending to be Pollock. Many currently hot writers, from Rick Moody to Dave Eggers, have relied on similar techniques of self-exposure. When done well, such strategies are compelling; calling attention to the fictionalizing impulse can create an intimacy between reader and writer, a kind of knowing wink. Devotees of language don’t need the veil of fiction to enjoy narrative; all they need is a good story.
Haskell, however, never manages to create the requisite intimacy. Reading his book is like watching a magician constantly pause his act to reveal his sleight of hand. At a certain point, you want him to just allow you the unfettered pleasure of being shammed.
Surprisingly, this problem does not become fatal until midway into the book, after Haskell has steamrolled through a juxtaposition of two historic “performers”an elephant and the Hottentot Venusa minibiography of Glenn Gould, and “Capucine,” a meditation on suicide. Then, in the collection’s longest and worst piece, “Crimes at Midnight,” Haskell assembles a series of riffs on Orson Welles movies.
That readers are supposed to treat this goulash of criticism and film appreciation as fiction says a lot about the bankrupt state of fiction writing today. Haskell’s choice to play with film imagery is perfectly reasonable, given that novels have ceded much of their power to films in the past century. You could almost argue that many books are simply trying to be movies. (If so, it’s a battle they can never win; movies, with their visual immediacy and cultural saturation, will always have one up on books.)
I Am Not Jackson Pollock critiques this trend by making it transparent: There are no original narratives here, just film or other derivative scenes. And it’s a particularly cynical form of criticism, for it forces readers to sit by and watch as alternative art forms continuously triumph over the literary. Each time Haskell seems about to stray from the prescribed narrative, an image pulls him back. All he can do is comment, rather than invent.
Art that is merely commentary is scarcely art. John D’Agata attempted a similar trick in his highly touted debut work, Halls of Fame, a series of “lyric essays” that consisted of transcripts of interviews, lists of objects, and poems jotted down while the author was riding a bus. Each page was littered with names of such cult favorites as outsider artist Henry Darger and essayist Joan Didion. Like Haskell’s work, this assemblage of high-powered names never amounted to a narrative.
To his credit, Haskell’s book is better organized than D’Agata’s, but it operates on the same principlethat simply meditating on great artists makes one’s own work great, too. This was an endearing strategy of the Beats, who found a way to extend their innocence into middle age, but there’s nothing innocent about I Am Not Jackson Pollock. It feels cold and calculating. The only true thing about it is its title. CP