June 8, 2009

Book review: "Perforated Heart," by Eric Bogosian

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Perforated Heart, by Eric Bogosian
Perforated Heart
By Eric Bogosian
Simon & Schuster / ISBN: 978-1-41653-409-9

As regular readers know, I'm a particularly big fan of a type of literary trope I call the "anti-villain," which like it sounds means nearly the opposite of the more well-known term "anti-hero;" that is, instead of the main character being someone who seems fairly despicable at first but who we come to root for more and more, an anti-villain is someone who seems pretty decent at first, but who we come to realize more and more is actually an assh-le. But such a thing begs a big question -- where do anti-villains come from, and what makes them be that way in the first place? That's a fascinating question, because it taps into basic philosophical issues that are universal to us all -- of whether humans are born inherently good or inherently bad, of whether it's our environment that most influences our behavior or our conscious choices, or perhaps something uncontrollable like our DNA. Are charming sociopaths destined from a young age to be charming sociopaths, or is it possible for such a person to recognize these tendencies in themselves, and purposely put a stop to them? And perhaps most importantly to readers of this website, is it that anti-villains are just naturally attracted to the arts, which is why it seems that so many artists are such complete d-ckheads? Or is it something about the arts that focuses and enhances the latent assh-lic tendencies of anyone who gets involved, like a bug being slowly burnt to a crisp under a magnifying glass on a sunny day?

These are all subjects addressed by veteran underground artist Eric Bogosian in his brilliant new novel, Perforated Heart; and he does it in a brilliant way too, by examining one of these anti-villains both at middle-age and in his earnest early twenties simultaneously, looking at where it all went right and where it all went wrong in this particular monster's case. And not only this, but Bogosian filters this story through a brilliant timeframe on top of everything else, a timeframe that has recently been begging for a great story; our particular anti-villain happened to have come of age in the proto-punk scene of lower Manhattan in the late 1970s, the New York of CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, a pre-gentrified Soho and an abandoned, squatter-filled Williamsburg. It's not exactly an autobiographical tale, but rather what Bogosian has called in interviews an "alternate universe" one -- a story where he examines how his own life might have turned out, if only a few important events from his past had transpired differently than they did -- which is the key to the book being so great; because a true anti-villain author wouldn't be able to write a novel like this, despite the main character being an anti-villain author, in that an author that clueless himself wouldn't be able to so gently layer in a whole series of hard realizations like Bogosian does, through the behavior not of the main character but rather all the "normals" surrounding him, wouldn't be able to so smartly get across what makes this sociopath tick without the sociopath himself having even a clue. It's a masterful feat of subtle storytelling, one that could never be pulled off by a writer like this one examining their own actual life, but rather by a writer like Bogosian who applies a laser-precise look at the potentials of an edgy life, a future that could've been but ultimately never was.

Because make no mistake, it's impossible to read Perforated Heart and think of anyone else but Bogosian himself; because for those who don't know, Bogosian actually was one of this wave of "performance artists" who were running around lower Manhattan at the same time as all the punk musicians in the late '70s, people like Karen Finley and Lydia Lunch who were creating back then a kind of "theatre that isn't theatre," the forerunner not only of such modern monologuists as Eve Ensler but such tourist-friendly spectacles as Blue Man Group, not to mention the entire phenomenon known as "slam poetry." Bogosian first made a name for himself by creating a series of on-stage character sketches regarding the people surrounding their group at that time in history -- the prostitutes and junkies of pre-'80s lower Manhattan, that is, the losers and criminals who besides the punks were the only ones to inhabit back then the New York south of Houston -- and it was the growing success of such one-man shows that transitioned Bogosian into a more traditional writing career, artistically culminating (one could argue) with his unforgettable Pulitzer-nominated 1987 play Talk Radio, eventually made into a popular movie starring Bogosian himself. And that led Bogosian into more and more of a mainstream career, and more and more traditional acting roles (you may remember him as the cackling heavy in the dreadful action pic Under Siege 2: Dark Territory); and thus it is that Bogosian is now in his mid-fifties, fairly rich and fairly successful, happily married for decades now, not exactly a household name but certainly a writer who has sold untold thousands of books by now, and whose work is regularly studied and staged worldwide.

So like I said, it's no surprise that in Perforated Heart, our main character Richard Morris has led a nearly identical life, only with a few important differences -- for example, instead of ending up with the legitimately good-for-him failed-painter character Katie (clearly a stand-in for Bogosian's real wife), he coldly dumps her for a crazed, dysfunctional marriage with a Sigourney-Weaver-type famous brainy actress from the period, a terrible relationship that sputters along for years and eventually ends in disaster. And it's this plus other factors I'll let remain a surprise that leads Richard to the place in 2006 where we find him at the beginning of the book -- a dumpy-looking has-been whose glory years are long behind him, angrily pissing on the world from the safety of his upper-class converted farmhouse in rural Connecticut, still constantly in and out of a whole series of empty sexual relationships with good-looking girls in their twenties (only now with them thinking of him as a daddy figure to be "tended to" rather than desired), alienated from nearly every single person who used to be part of his life, reduced to curse-filled rants against the "godd-mned litbloggers who just don't get" his latest forgettable navel-gazing crap, a widely derided book called A Gentle Death which weeks after its release has still only sold a few hundred copies nationwide. And thus it is that in the midst of such a milieu, Richard ends up having emergency heart surgery, which keeps him laid up for weeks in his isolated Martha Stewart fortress with no diversions; and thus it is that on a lark, Richard digs out of the attic all his old journals from his artistic start in New York in the late '70s, entries from which make up every other chapter of the novel you and I are reading about it all.

It's a simple yet effective framing device, and Bogosian makes great use of it here; because as we read more and more of the novel, it comes to appear that "Twenties Richard" and "Fifties Richard" are in fact two completely different people, and one of the main pleasures of the book is in examining both the told and untold history that makes these two personas seem so fractured in the first place. That seems to be one of Bogosian's main points, in fact, that the actual behavior of Richard doesn't actually change that much from his twenties to his fifties, but rather the way that the people around him react to this behavior; because let's face it, the young Richard as portrayed in this novel is actually quite a charmer, despite being just as clueless and dicklike as he is later in life, because in his youth these things are balanced by his optimism and naivety about the world, his eagerness to embrace life as fully as he can. As anyone's who's spent time with a dicklike 25-year-old artist (or has actually been a dicklike 25-year-old artist) can tell you, it's these very traits that can many times make these people irresistible, these traits that help such artists become big successes in the first place; because when such traits are tempered by youth and humor and good looks, such arrogance and narcissism can often come across as smart and sexy, and is often what attracts that artist's first big audience to begin with (along with that artist's first set of lovers, first set of patrons, etc).

But as any middle-ager can tell you, this rosy optimism of youth never lasts; as our thirties progress into our forties and then fifties, we experience the kind of truly traumatic pain we can only guess at in our twenties, divorces and deaths and profound betrayals, a growing complexity over our understanding of the world and the evil that exists within it, and what a true miracle it is that we humans have anything even approaching a "civilized society" in the first place. And as Bogosian so wonderfully shows us through the fates of all the other characters in the book (who Richard ends up hunting down one by one as the manuscript continues), most grown-ups learn how to successfully enfold this kind of darkness into their adult day-to-day lives, learn how to balance the failed dreams and crushed optimism of youth with the kinds of deeper, more profound, more satisfying successes that come with age and maturity -- children, love, a better understanding of what makes them truly happy, a better understanding of what they were truly meant to do with their life (just to cite one excellent example, how the aforementioned failed painter Katie ends up by her own fifties becoming not only a happy wife and mom but an award-winning "outdoor lighting sculptor," now hired on a regular basis for such high-profile commissions as corporate headquarters and sports stadiums).

It's not so much that we change our fundamental personality as we get older, Bogosian seems to be arguing, but rather that most of us learn to understand it better, learn to channel its real-world manifestations more and more into activities that are ultimately good for us, learn to drop more and more of the things that we come to understand are bad for us. And this is the ultimate curse that Richard is saddled with, a fatal combination of two very basic problems -- of never coming to these understandings himself, combined with the riches and fame he received as a youth precisely for this infant-terrible behavior. Since he never bothered creating long-lasting friendships or a more meaningful life when younger, he now has nothing to fall back on in his fifties besides his usual misogynistic six-week relationships and abyss-teetering self-absorption; and since it was these precise things that used to net him bestselling novels and Oscar-winning girlfriends, he now has the perfect justification for continuing this behavior ("This is what an artist does; an artist is supposed to be an uncomfortably truthful agent of chaos"), and to easily avoid even the tiniest bit of honest self-reflection over what a trainwreck his life has actually become. And in the meanwhile, as mentioned, no analysis of Perforated Heart is complete without a look at the pitch-perfect, instantly nostalgic setting Bogosian uses for these youthful reminisces; because the fact is that Bogosian utterly transports us here to punk-era New York within these old journal entries (apparently based on his actual journals from this period, again according to interviews he's given), and utterly makes us understand why all these formerly suburban white kids would want to hang out in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of '70s lower Manhattan in the first place, amidst all the pimps and pushers and post-traumatic Vietnam vets that used to populate the area.

Ultimately I can give this novel no higher a compliment than this: that reading it made me understand my own life better, and helped me come to a resolution regarding elements of my own past as a former assh-lic artist who has paid a certain price for that in middle age. This is the entire point of professional storytelling, after all, is to help us as readers understand the world a little better than we did before, to help us navigate the infinitely complex thing we call a human life; and anytime an artist can do this successfully, especially in the nuanced way Bogosian does here, that's another reason to celebrate. It's not what Richard himself says in Perforated Heart that makes the book so revelatory, but rather what all the people around him say, and more importantly what they often don't say, a hard thing for a writer to pull off without making the main character under examination seem either too clueless or too falsely self-aware; it's what makes this novel in my opinion the first true masterpiece of Bogosian's career*, even more noteworthy when you consider that he already has a handful of bestsellers and a Pulitzer nomination under his belt, and is now at an age when most artists start either coasting on their laurels or retiring from new work altogether. It's one of the best strictly character-oriented dramas I've read in years, and it comes today highly recommended to all parts of CCLaP's audience, whether or not you're a middle-aged sociopathic assh-le yourself.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about Perforated Heart: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And to make it clear, I've been a close follower of Bogosian's career since the '80s myself, and have read nearly everything he's ever written (including, yes, his notoriously awful middle-aged-crisis play subUrbia, itself made into a notorious Hollywood flop), which is why I'm comfortable judging this particular title against the rest of his ouevre. In fact, it was such "performance artists" of the '80s that mainly inspired me to get involved with the arts myself, as an undergraduate in Missouri in those same years; and it was the fact that they all used to perform at the infamous "Club Lower Links" in Chicago back then that helped convince me to move here myself in the early '90s, and to get involved with the poetry slam back then too. Ah, Sweet Dumb Youth, how I adore your glorious stench when sniffed from a safe distance!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:20 PM, June 8, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |