The Making of (New) Americans: On Kevin Killian’s “Fascination”

December 22, 2018   •   By Corley Miller


Kevin Killian

ONE THING ABOUT the New Narrative writer Kevin Killian is that everyone who knows him, even a little, seems to love him unreservedly. Mention to people in your MFA program that you’re reviewing a Kevin Killian book and you’ll get a half-octave rise in any number of professorial voices, plus deep expressions of care, as though for a distant, beloved relative. Finally — since it’s a review — a gleam of vigilant concern, as though you were considering harming the beloved cousins.

The other thing you’ll hear, especially if you talk to MFA-student rather than MFA-professor types, is that people have heard the name Kevin Killian, like they have heard of New Narrative, but don’t know that much about him. They’d like to, of course — how is the book? — in a similar distant-cousin register, as an antecedent they know they really ought to get acquainted with one day.

Fertile ground, then, for a new Killian edition like Semiotext(e)’s triptych of memoirs, Fascination. The headliner is Bedrooms Have Windows, published 1989 alongside Killian’s debut novel Shy, but Fascination also includes Triangles in the Sand, a brief recollection of Killian’s affair with composer Arthur Russell, and Bachelors Get Lonely, a quilt of brief personal reflections often originally published in magazines. Together, Fascination is sometimes scattered, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately reads as historically important and textually delightful. It’s easy to see why people love Kevin Killian so much.

Appropriate, too, because the relationship between knowing and loving is so core to the New Narrative project. For those unfamiliar, “New Narrative” — originally a group of mostly queer mostly poets experimenting with mostly prose in the back of San Francisco’s Small Press Traffic bookstore around the Carter-Reagan transition, eventually one of the last capital-M Movements in anglophone letters — is notable partly for the stunning humility of its name. The idea that anyone was just doing technical experiments hides an enormous political payload.

Of course, it’s true that a lot of the work was precisely a search for New ways of writing Narrative, but from 2018 it seems clear that this work was important precisely because of the ways that conventional narrative structures in the Austen-Flaubert-Updike genealogy lent themselves to telling only certain kinds of stories. “Straight” narration, the New Narrators saw, was for straight stories about straight characters; bringing new queer selves and queer stories onto the page required disruptions to the ways readers and writers navigated stories and their telling. Not just a new narrative, but a new self to narrate.

On the page, this pulled in two directions. Narrative itself, after all, pulls in two directions: it’s something a paragraph does, in which each sentence shares some kind of intelligible propulsive action toward a character or scene. It’s also something a book or story does — in which all of those propulsive actions attempt to resolve toward something like a “story.” Among the New Narrators, some work (like much of Killian’s wife Dodie Bellamy’s) attempted to bother narrative between or within individual sentences: the new self was synesthetic, an overflow of associative experience and language. Other work, like Bob Gluck’s seminal short “Sanchez and Day,” fits mostly conventional sentence relationships into surprisingly reflexive or complicated structures. “Sanchez & Day”’s narrator is pursued by homophobes whose truck satisfyingly crashes into a telephone pole — but the narrator reveals that the crash is a fantasy, and therefore that the narrative impulse to gratifying closure conceals an actually existing violence. The new self here is teleologically disruptive, a self whose life can’t be stuffed into the tidy beats and pat teleology of the old narrative. What’s requested from the reader, in both cases, is a broader empathy than previously existed — an admission that more humanity exists than was previously known. What makes this a movement is the idea that writing differently can change the world.

Early in Bedrooms Have Windows, after remembering a tense conversation between his teenage self and his adult lover Carey, Kevin Killian starts a math problem that transports him several decades away from the dramatized memoir, into the memorializing present:

I liked the dangerous aspects of our affair, I liked even the fact that he did not. I thought that otherwise he would long since have tired of me and sought out someone else, someone younger, someone 12 or 13. He seemed old to me then, but working out our birth dates I realized sometime later that he must have been 35 when we met, and since that’s my age now I get goosebumps. Here in San Francisco in October the sky is a pale and delicate blue, like a robin’s egg in a child’s picture book.

Killian’s is a considerable associative impulse: the fight occurs sometime around 1970, in Smithtown, Long Island (“so invidious that still I speak of it in Proustian terms”), and the robin’s egg sky prevails over a late-’80s San Francisco, but here they are together in the same paragraph. Following this passage, Killian looks out the San Francisco window at a pair of workmen pushing a stalled car — he fantasizes that it will escape downhill, tip over a cliff into the sea, that a pair of lovers will die kissing in the backseat. “I watch and smoke a cigarette, humming a little tune and acting very debonair. I am reminded of a misspent youth — someone’s misspent youth, not necessarily mine.”

It’s an ingenious, unsettling passage. The narrator encounters a troubling truth about a former relationship, and responds with narrative displacement and fantasy. There’s a grim reading here, in which the New Narrative disjunctions look like avoidance — a way of never reckoning with what we’d now read as Carey’s outright predation. But the text refuses this victimhood. Bedrooms Have Windows is a memoir about Kevin, not about Carey — and Killian’s passage through the lapidary present into fantasy and finally self-apperception offers the reader something deeper than mere ex-indictment. It’s a mimesis of the process of recovery: after the goosebumps comes a great deal of imaginative labor and an ultimate arrival at a more-or-less functional adulthood, one cognizant of (“reminded of a misspent youth”) but not defined by (“not necessarily mine”) the pains of the past.

There’s also a sly action on the epiphanic — a queering of the old-narrative approach to self-discovery. Compare Killian smoking his cigarette, acting very debonair, with Joyce’s “Araby” protagonist. “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity.” Nothing’s straighter than this model of epiphany, in which worldly events around the character prompt a rearrangement of their assumed self-image. It’s a delicious trick, but to the degree that the canonical epiphanies in “Araby” or “The Dead” are destabilizations of cishet sexual desire, they’re always stories from privilege. In order to have an epiphany, one must first have a towering safety. For Killian — escaping from the suburbs into Proust, into Carey, finally into a writerly life in San Francisco — such a safety has been in short supply. And so the epiphany arrives not in a single unitary story but over the course of decades, continents; the finally realized self isn’t an alarming instability but a scarred and laborious serenity.

In many ways, it’s a characteristic scene: Bedrooms Have Windows organizes around the two great affairs of Killian’s youth, with Carey and a Catholic school classmate named George Grey. Chapters tend to alternate between scenes with these lovers, spaced by episodes featuring other Long Island friends. In both romances, the Killian character pursues something like self-discovery — to be known or seen by the partners is to be loved. But it’s more oppositional with Carey, where the vast differences in age and power (Carey also has a wife and a son near Kevin’s age; Kevin sometimes poses as Carey’s son in public) mean that Kevin’s self-discovery often takes the form of antagonism. These scenes tend to be the most overtly New Narrative in the book — as though relating to the heady mix of cruelty, insecurity, and plain horniness that characterized the relationship required a sundering of conventional technique.

Characteristic, too, is the sudden change of tone in the prose. Killian’s sentences lope along in flat descriptives for whole paragraphs, whole pages, before tightening into arresting verbal images. “I licked my lips and spat,” he writes after a hookup with Carey, but immediately a black car is “filled with motive power,” and by the end of the next paragraph he’s seeing “[a]bove the dead wires […] a hundred kinds of constellations, patterns, motives, reasons.” A friend has a conventional “shock of light brown hair” but “slow, frozen eyes like a dead cow’s.” Another friend’s pubic hair is “rustled, entreated with the greenish-brown of the rose’s stem.”

Sometimes these images miss: the “viscous sweat of my fear” at a doctor’s appointment feels a little overworked, as does “the grim earthen miasma of beer” in Kevin and George’s apartment. But “noun-phrase of noun” is treacherous territory for a lot of writers, and in Bedrooms Have Windows it feels easy to forgive. That’s because one of the great pleasures here, and in the best New Narrative nonfiction, is that the work of self-discovery hasn’t been left entirely in the past. “Kevin Killian” as both a human being and a set of textual strategies is still visibly under construction in these pages, partly assembled by the dramatized dalliances but also continuing to assemble himself in the process of writing.

This assembly is the heart of BHW’s most rewarding shape, the relationship with George Grey. If the Carey scenes model an anxious, adversarial becoming, Kevin and George are becoming something together. It’s after touching George’s erection for the first time — “like a redwood tree” — that Kevin tears the baseball cards out of the spokes of his bicycle and vows to grow up. “His arousal made me long for a paradigm, a construction around which I could wrap my life.” A Künstlerroman has commenced: years later, Kevin visits George at Eisenhower College, and after a blizzard traps him there for five weeks George proposes that everyone pass the time by writing novels. They churn out a great number, and Kevin seems to have found his paradigm: “[E]ver since then I’ve been the same person, no growth, no development, just an aging body falling faster and faster towards death.” When he gets back to New York, Carey’s wife (!) picks him up at Port Authority.

The book’s broken heart, and the occasion for its most moving action, is that Kevin loses George shortly after. They move in together on Long Island, but George abruptly marries a woman named Karoll and moves to Hawaii, and Kevin never sees him again. There’s more Carey after this, and Kevin’s own marriage to a woman named Michelle (“a real oddball who belonged to a local witches’ coven”), and some strange Brazilians, and a chance airport meeting with Carey’s son Nicky, all done in Killian’s elegant slack-then-taut paragraphing.

Mostly, however, there’s the fragmentary making of Kevin Killian, as in the beginning of the last chapter: “Since 1980 I’ve lived in San Francisco. Again and again I’ve tried, without success, to relate my experience of the sensual world to the facts that surround me.” Fantastical efforts follow, exquisitely imagined futures for Carey and George Grey, among others. Carey’s “body has thickened over the years […] but he’s still a well-built man,” living with a boy he met via an advertisement. And George? He’s “HIV-negative too. His philosophy: if you don’t think there’s AIDS, you won’t get AIDS.”

There’s more than sentimentality in this closing dream, and in the text’s increasingly open pleas for George to get back in touch — there’s an arresting faith in the power of memoir, a text that cannot bear to be mere recollection but insists on being part of a changed present world. Here’s Killian reflecting on Bedrooms in Narrativity, years later:

I wrote it in part as a shipwreck victim sends out a message in a bottle; in particular to my dear friend Terry Black, with whom I'd lost touch a few years before. […] I longed to see it in print, feeling that he would pick it up and call me. But after it was published a mutual friend sent me Terry's obituary, he had died in Richmond, Virginia, of AIDS, the same month the memoir came out. This was not the answer I had hoped for. Part of me felt that Bedrooms have Windows killed Terry Black.

And so, for Killian, the book itself seems to have become part of the long heartbreak of living, but also an essential labor against that heartbreak, the labor of writing selves into being. Here there are two, and that they are flawed — they have been liars and vanishers, cruel or alcoholic, queer and extraordinary — enriches the urgency of the writing. It is probably difficult for us to imagine, nearly 30 years after the first publication of Bedrooms Have Windows, just how difficult and unexpected this labor may have been at the time.

In the following works, Bachelors Get Lonely and Triangles in the Sand, much of the same intelligence and honesty persists, often pinned to clearer narrative structures. The later Killian is a more stable and confident architect than in Bedrooms Have Windows, which makes the chapters — often introspective magazine pieces — more focused. There’s also a more direct confrontation with some of the questions of ’70s abuse and ’80s epidemic that are mostly kept offstage in BHW. Highlights are “Chain of Fools,” on Killian’s carnal encounters with teachers at his Catholic high school, the harrowing hook-up in “Spurt,” and the tender recollections of “Ghost Parade.” But the confident, sophisticated fragments here don’t quite match BHW’s messy urgency.

Nor, perhaps, is there anything as sharp here as the currently vogue memoir writing of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which makes it feel possible that the Fascination reissue may not make as great a splash as it deserves. Both Kraus and Nelson, along with Renee Gladman and many others, are working identifiably in the New Narrative genealogy. So, too, are writers as irretrievably straight as Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard — much of the Obama-period high autofiction feels indebted to New Narrative. As does regular old fiction — Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a book of which people’s actual relatives have heard, turns on the exact closure-collapsing plot device of Bob Gluck’s “Sanchez & Day.” Whether McEwan has read Gluck is immaterial — the more important point is that the risk of this reissue’s being ignored has to do precisely with the degree to which, in the nearly 30 years since its original publication, more or less all kinds of narrative have become inflected with Newness.

The case for Fascination, then, is a case for a kind of communal or generational Künstlerroman— a story, to borrow from the Gertrude Stein everyone was reading, about how Americans are made. Reading Killian reminds us there’s no parthenogenesis here, nothing bursting fully formed from any statuary brow. Only the slow hard labor of becoming, and of recognizing what there is to love, in one another and ourselves.

Like Bedrooms Have Windows, this is an unfinished story — a story whose end has come into a late, plaintive doubt. Not least because of San Francisco’s next literary movement, smaller-hearted than the New Narrative if maybe more impactful — the revolutionaries of the status update, the 140-or-280-character self-statement tweet. A historical oddity that two genuinely new ideas about the textual self should have been born in the same place in such a brief interval, and a sad coincidence that the crueler and more corrosive one came later. Still, reason to read Killian: to be reminded of how much there is to love behind or among the bombardment of verbal selves.


Corley Miller is a writer based in Los Angeles and an MFA candidate at CalArts.