I’m going to speculate about some of the issues raised and some of the ideas I found compelling and daunting in a: A Novel. a: A Novel is a narrative based on 24 audiotaped hours in the life of Warhol superstar Ondine, an articulate, funny, volatile man. When Pope Ondine acted in Chelsea Girls, his performance exceeded, crossed—even violated—the supposed boundary between life and art, a line Warhol wanted crossed. It’s blurred, if not effaced, in his only novel, a.
I’ve written this essay as a list, a shopping list in paragraphs. Warhol liked to shop. I don’t, but I like lists.
- “A” is for Art, Andy, and Amphetamine—Ondine lived on speed, and the story is speed driven.
- Reading a: A Novel, I sometimes felt like one of its participants: “Nine more hours to go,” said the Sugar Plum Fairy. Time was of the essence—actually it’s the essential element in the book. There are just so many tapes to fill, hours to stay awake, and so time’s on everyone’s mind. The tape recorder’s going, a book is being made. The Book is being made. In fact, the last words in the novel, spoken by Billy Name, are: “Out of the garbage, into THE BOOK.”
In a way, Warhol through Name is claiming garbage—the minutiae and tedium of daily life, the unedited flow—for literature.
- a: A Novel is a project of—and an exercise in—consciousness and self-consciousness. Ondine and most of the others recorded are not unwitting characters or subjects. They’re self-conscious even when they’re nearly unconscious.
- Ondine, the protagonist, sometimes fought against the chains of the tape recorder, a new master, asking Warhol many times to stop it. But Ondine continued to let himself be recorded, as did all the others who questioned Drella’s demands in making this novel-book. Maybe they knew they were participating in something new, or interesting, maybe even worthwhile, simply because it was Warhol. Though they struggled with him, they complied. Others may now be horrified by this compliance, believe that everyone in the Factory was manipulated, taken advantage of. They used and were used, perhaps, in every possible sense. But another view is that, given the problems in their lives at the time and their insecurities, which A documents, Warhol offered them something—work or a feeling of significance for that moment or a way to fill time. The tape recorder is on. You are being recorded. Your voice is being heard, and this is history.
- What about authorship in a: A Novel? In Part 2, there’s talk about the typists who are transcribing the tapes, and who, in a way, through errors, mis-hearings, and incorrect spellings, contribute to or create the book with the speakers. It’s the typists’ book. It’s the tape recorder’s book; it could not exist without it, just as the novel could not have been born without Gutenberg’s press. Or, it’s Ondine’s book, he’s the author of himself, and the protagonist, it’s his 24 hours. Or, and I think it is, it’s Warhol’s artwork, a conceptual and experimental book. Part of Warhol’s work was to regularly produce a blur around authorship.
- Warhol dropped the mirror, let it crack into pieces, and instead held a tape recorder up to life. He saw a god in the machine and used as many as he could—a notes the arrival of video, a new toy, to the Factory—and Warhol didn’t fear the loss of authorship to machines, when his hand, literally, wasn’t in or on it; he constructed another kind of artist, who directs machines, people, uses technology, whose imprint was virtual.
- a reveals realism as a form of writing, a type of fiction, a genre, not an unmediated, exact replica of life, not a mirror image. Books are not mirrors, and life doesn’t go onto the page like life, but like writing. Warhol’s novel is closer to life, reality, than a realist novel. It’s mediated by the elements I just mentioned—the apparatus, the speakers, the typists, and Warhol’s idea for it—and by the continuous 24-hour frame he wanted to use.
But Warhol was flummoxed by Ondine, who became exhausted or bored after just 12, so the book is not 24-hours straight. At the end of those 12 hours, Warhol asked Ondine for his last words, and he said, “My last words are Andy Warhol.” There’s a lot of reality in that—and self-consciousness and consciousness. In a, reality is gotten at differently, without any of the codes of realism.
- If Warhol had recorded a continuous 24 hours, a: A Novel would have adhered to the classical idea of unity necessary for tragedy, compared with Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps, which may have been on his mind, since it stands as the 20th century’s representative or exemplary modernist novel. (Bob Colacello says Truman Capote’s singular, brilliant novel, In Cold Blood, was on Warhol’s mind.)
The second half of a, instead of being continuous time, is a series of fragments, more out of joint, more out of time—more timeless or against time—than Warhol originally planned, and what started as a modernist novel became a postmodernist one. Warhol taped Ondine’s life, whenever he could get it, in all its discontinuous and disjointed glory, or gory, as the wit Dorothy Dean—DoDo in the book—might have put it. He abandoned his original idea, a’s purity. But the words “pure” and “purity” appear often.
- One of the typists was said to have said of the book, “It’s worse than Henry Miller.” Dirtier, she meant. It’s certainly more complex and difficult to read in all senses than Miller. a sometimes falls into unintelligibility, into illegibility. When Warhol held a tape recorder up to life, the result was streams of consciousness, many narratives intruding upon and interrupting one another, phrases and anecdotes, wordplay (there’s none in Miller), incoherence, coherence, poetry, puns, witticisms (I love Ondine’s remark that “charity begins alone”), documentary, bits of all of these. It’s not an easy read. None of his work is.
- a challenges reading. How do you read it? Sometimes I heard it, sometimes I thought it was radio, not TV or movies, I didn’t see it. Though I checked Victor Bockris’ geographical notes at the back of the book, I couldn’t find “place.” I tried to stay with Ondine, but when he became very high, what happened to me, the reader? It was a relentlessly strange reading event. a felt cerebral and became claustrophobic, airless. It’s a book with no space and in which space is a context, an area of contest, in which space is psychological territory that’s fought over. The space at the Factory, for instance, was fraught: there were territorial skirmishes, fights for primacy— over who Ondine wants in or out, what the Factory rules were and should be—and all of this is discussed in a. In one part, there were so many voices in one taxi at one time and so many interruptions, I began to think about the book as music, as a score. When I did that, I relaxed some, and reading it became less stressful.
- a: A Novel challenges writers because Warhol’s idea of what should be on the page allows for the chaos that writers are meant to control, to turn into art. a underlines how unlifelike most written dialogue and conversation is. Its most peculiar challenge is to the writerly conceit that writing just pours out of us, from our guts or our heads, without an enormous number of de facto deci- sions made even before what we’re writing came to consciousness or to desire. In other words, we receive language for the page, because other pages have been written. a: A Novel wasn’t written or conceived for the page in that sense.
The novel follows its protagonist, and in its way, and within Ondine’s limits, remains faithful to its structural idea: time. Time’s a constitutive element of narrative; it’s material. Novelists use time the way filmmakers use cuts, or long shots, close-ups,etc. In a the reader is in real time, whatever that is, and every moment is precious or boring. Time and art in a sense are collapsed: Moments are precious or boring both to the reader and the story. Ondine could ask himself: What am I looking for tonight (and he does), what do I want, where do I want to go? (all narratives are journeys). The reader could ask: What am I reading for? What do I want to find?
Boredom tells us something about life’s relentless movement toward entropy and death. (Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once commented that he knew when to take someone into therapy— when they bored him.)
- Warhol wanted Ondine to say everything, to keep talking, to say whatever came into his mind. It’s a psychoanalytic idea, and if that’s the case, Warhol’s the analyst, Ondine the analysand. Robert Polito suggested to me it’s also about confessing and confession. Confession mixes with the psychoanalytic, and one reads a expecting revelation, which is common to both forms of talking. I read expecting or hoping for discoveries—and found some. Warhol reveals a few secrets, Ondine many, and all kinds of vulnerabilities and fears are displayed—eventually. It’s the material that writers would have headed toward more quickly; writers would have ed- ited away most of the other material. But it’s not cut out in a, it is a—the unedited relates powerfully to confession, to psychoanalysis, to not leaving anything out, accepting everything. To me, Warhol’s lust for the unedited is the most resonant and mysterious aspect of his work.
- In another way of looking at a, along the lines of Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Warhol’s the queer-listening priest, Ondine the queer-talking Pope. An unexpected, moving moment occurred when Ondine said to the Sugar Plum Fairy, Joe Campbell: “You may think I’m not searching, and He—Drella— may think I’m not searching, but I’m searching. Which one of us, who isn’t searching, for God?” Joe Campbell was a formidable interloctutor—no wonder Dorothy Dean was in love with him—and induced Warhol and Ondine into making some of their most revelatory statements.
Pope Ondine was searching for God. With this revelation, suddenly his desire to get high shifted into a different gear. In a he spoke over and again about beauty and the beautiful, and so, in a way, his quest, his journey, was for the illusory sublime—some kind of state of grace. Taking drugs and listening to opera—especially to Maria Callas—were his ticket to God.
- Since reason is retrospective, it makes sense that reading a as a score, as music, loosened me to its idiosyncratic rhythms. Opera is the soundtrack, the background music, to this book. The opera might be Tosca, because of its aria, “Vissi D’Arte.” “I lived for art, I lived for love,” Callas sings. a: A Novel is a record of a life living for art, being recorded for the love of art.
- Superstars like Edie or Ondine transformed themselves into what they thought was sublime. They were antiheroes performing a mostly unscripted high-wire act. Warhol believed in them, as self-creations, believed in their fictiveness; his belief acknowledged their desires and the power of fiction itself, the reality of fantasy and illusion—and also contradiction, one of fiction’s difficult truths.
Another is verisimilitude, likelihood, a similarity to reality. A likely story resembles reality. It may use make-believe to arrive there. His superstars are likely stories, resemblances close enough or odd enough to question stars and stardom, actors and acting. They live inside a narrative that doesn’t stop when the film does. Serial, cinematic images, they perform their antiheroics again and again. Their will to be matters, their will to be there matters, and on Warhol’s screen, their psychic realities matter most.
- a) In a Warholian world, authenticity is ironic, even a joke, and essences are funnier. Actual histories, biographies, and sometimes bodies were left behind and new ones manufactured in the Factory. Warhol’s superstars could march in a parade for those who want to be switched at birth.
b) The authority or authenticity of any fiction resides in the ability to make others suspend disbelief.
- Warhol’s art questioned what art was, what was expected to hang on a wall, and the same is true of a: A Novel. It asks: What do we expect in novels, how should they be written, why do we expect them to conform to certain rules? Whose rules? Factory rules? Recently back in print, a: A Novel may be responded to, less vehemently now, the way everything Warhol did in the 60s was— as garbage or genius. Or it will be ignored and its perplexing, vital questions never considered seriously. This novel—and Warhol’s work generally—doesn’t provide a walkway down the middle. It’s unorthodox, a walk on the wild side.
- “The last words are Andy Warhol”—he was the last word, maybe, on the 20th century. Though think what he would have done on the Internet. (Is a: A Novel the precursor to the Internet novel?)
But are words important to Warhol? I don’t know. Talk was. Is talk cheap? He was both a spendthrift and thrifty, even cheap. He surrounded himself with articulate, talkative people—with wits like Fred Hughes, Ondine, Viva—but he was stingy with his words. He often pretended to do a dumb show and often had others speak for him.
- The last words are Andy Warhol unedited. Warhol started Interview magazine and insisted upon publishing unedited transcripts. He wrote an unedited novel. He didn’t want to edit his films in the usual sense. Unedited versions came closer to what he wanted, but I’m not sure what that was. He wanted to keep his hands off, or to hide behind the density, opaqueness, of the material, or to let the idea do its work. He wanted to be inclusive, democratic. (After all, he wanted to name Pop Art Common Art.) He wanted something he could never imagine to happen, something he couldn’t fathom to occur, and he wanted to be there when it did, to see it or hear it.
Or he wanted the unedited in the way—sort of the inverse way—that John Cage wanted silence. How do we know what to pay attention to; how do we know for ourselves what’s important; how do we choose; how do we know if it’s art; how do we decide what to see and to read, how can we tell unless everything is there to see and to read.