Reading Matthew Stokoe’s High Life
I finished reading Matthew Stokoe’s High Life (Little House on the Bowery, 2002) last night, after spending the past three or four days with it. I read it in bed, in the bathtub, on both the couch and the big chair in our living room, on the beach at St. George Island, and in my car sitting at various locations in Tallahassee. It put me through an experience, which I consider proof of artistic excellence. But beware, excessive brutality of sex and violence permeates this text. Prepare to be unsettled…
In his introduction, Dennis Cooper writes, “The fact that High Life isn’t regularly mentioned in the same breath with classic, transgressive social satires like American Psycho and Fight Club is a mystery and an injustice.” I would add the following titles to the list of books I’ve read and enjoyed that I believe share an affinity with High Life: Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Pauline Reage’s Story of O, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. The common denominator between them all is a conjunction of sex and violence. What sets High Life apart from all of these other books, though, would be the beautiful attention paid to Los Angeles as a location, the noir aspect, the Hollywood dream factory thematic, and the obsession with fame; but perhaps most interesting of all, Stokoe exposes the newest iteration of “The American Dream” in all of its ugliness. For this, I think he should have won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, rather than Jeffrey Eugenides, although I know that’s out of the question since Stokoe is British. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in American Literature, High Life is a powerfully important book that deserves more critical attention.
I didn’t begin reading it thinking it would be a “Great American Novel.” I bought it after reading the first few pages because of the way Stokoe rendered Los Angeles, a city that I love. It opens with the narrator, Jack, describing in detail the drive from Santa Monica to Hollywood, a drive I’ve made countless times. Through his description I was able to relive my experience of making that drive and recall how much I enjoyed it. See, when I lived in Los Angeles I was terribly lonely. It was the late 90s/early 00s, I had dropped out of film school because film school was getting in the way of making movies and working on movies, and I was lucky enough to make a living in the industry without earning the degree. (I would eventually go back and get the degree, but that’s a whole other story.) When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my time alone. My cat, Basquiat, loved to ride in the car and I loved to explore the city, so he and I would drive around Los Angeles together for hours. Thinking back on it now, I was equal parts sad and happy in those moments. I was seriously depressed, but as curious as it may sound I was also simultaneously very excited to be alive. It was a weird time for me. So, any chance I get to relive those car rides, I take it.
The book, however, tells the tale of a Los Angeles I never experienced. A dark parallel universe of extremes. In many ways, this book showed me how mainstream I am. How bourgeois my sensibilities tend. On either side of the bourgeoisie there exists the abject poor and the filthy rich. Interestingly, High Life made me think about the relationship between those two groups, the way they share more in common with one another than they do with the middle class or the so-called “normal” people. Since the mainstream middle class defines depravity, it makes sense that either extreme can be labeled as depraved. Stokoe shows us this depravity over and over again, to the point where I said to my wife, “It’s like, just when I think he couldn’t possibly disturb me any more than he already has, he goes and one ups himself.”
A mutilated body, cut open, organs extracted, filled with semen. That’s the image given to us in the opening chapter. From there we are put through a panoply of paraphilias, from Coprophilia to Emetophilia to Piquerism to Urolagnia to Necrophilia. There’s a scene where the narrator accompanies a crooked cop to a live murder show in Silverlake, where a woman is sexually abused with a jackhammer. There’s a bunch of incest. There’s also a bunch of murder. In one scene a guy pays the narrator to let him pee in his butthole. In another scene a woman pays the narrator to burn her clitoris with a lit cigarette. I won’t go on listing, lest this become one of Sade’s books, but suffice to say Justine and Juliette easily rank as counterparts to High Life.
For me, one of the more unnerving transgressions in the book is the necrophilia. The first time I encountered a scene of necrophilia was when I was in high school. I bought Barbara Gowdy’s short story collection We So Seldom Look on Love at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, because it was on the bargain floor and at the time I was trying to learn what made a short story collection work so I was reading any I could find. If I’m remembering correctly, the titular story is the one about the lady who is in love with a dead body. Gowdy’s version of necrophilia, in my memory at least — I haven’t looked back at that story in fifteen years, was romantic and loving and didn’t strike me as disturbing at all. Stokoe’s necrophilia, on the other hand, is brutal and difficult. Where Gowdy made sex with a dead body something sentimental, Stokoe makes it repugnant.
The desire to be famous seems intricately linked to the desire to have sex with dead bodies. To bring life and death together in an intimate embrace. To transcend certain restrictions. Fame makes one immortal. But more simple than immortality, Stokoe’s narrator believes that one is only truly alive if one is rich and famous. If people don’t recognize you, if paparazzi don’t hound you, if tabloids don’t write stories about you, if you don’t have enough money to not care about money, then you do not really exist. All that matters to Jack the narrator is money and fame. People are only objects that can either get him closer to fame and wealth or obstruct him from those goals. It is a horrific novel because it reveals this desire, which seems to simmer under so many human surfaces, and forces us to confront it.
Sex with dead bodies also exemplifies transgression from normalcy. Indeed, Jack comments throughout the book about his willful transformation away from the mainstream. He desires to be outside the realm of social convention, and so he does anything he possibly can to push himself out of society’s zone of acceptability. Fame was once something rare, something related to fantasy for the majority of people. Of course, reality television and You Tube has changed that, since now everyone gets their Warholian allotment. But when fame was restricted to the upper echelon of society, its acquisition could easily have been described as marginal. Even today, very few people are truly famous, and I would venture to guess that an equal number are having sex with corpses. High Life tries to make that connection, and for the most part I think it succeeds.
The thing I haven’t broached, and won’t really, is the noir aspect of the book. I went through a phase in my mid-twenties when I read a lot of hard boiled fiction. Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Brett Halliday were my favorites. But I also loved Hammett and Chandler, too. So I’m totally down with noir literature, and certainly found that aspect of the book appealing. But it wasn’t what made me turn the pages. I turned the pages because I wanted to test myself. Can I take another scene like the last one? Can I handle it? In much the same way I approach films by Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noé, Pascal Laugier, Philippe Grandrieux, et. al., High Life forces me to examine myself in a way that those noir writers never could. Where are your limits, these texts encourage me to ask. Where are your boundaries?
From a writing perspective, Stokoe excels on nearly every level. His sentences are strong, but he doesn’t foreground language. He writes to convey, not to confuse. He writes to show, not to showoff. Personally, I tend to enjoy reading the opposite of Stokoe. For the most part, I like books that confuse and showoff. High Life has a clear (beginning, middle, end) structure, which is also something I typically dislike. In many ways, I should have disliked High Life. It builds character. It moves from scene to scene. It resolves everything in a tidy conclusion. There’s even a happy ending! All things that tend to bore me. But I’ll be damned if this book didn’t grab my eyes and force me to finish every single word.
I’m thinking about picking up Stokoe’s first book, Cows, also published by Little House on the Bowery under the editorship of Dennis Cooper. Here’s the description of it: “Mother’s corpse in bits, dead dog on the roof, girlfriend in a coma, baby nailed to the wall, and a hundred tons of homicidal beef stampeding through the subway system. And Steven thought the slaughterhouse was bad . . .” Sounds equally as visceral as High Life, so maybe I’ll wait a little bit before tackling it. I think I need a breather. I’ve got some Philip K. Dick I want to read next. And then Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, and Brandon Graham’s King City. I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting, but I’ll stop here.
Let me leave you with a quote from the Urban Dictionary definition of Matthew Stokoe:
“An underground phenomenon of the literary world, Stokoe’s name has become synonymous with some of the most graphic imagery and poetically offensive writing since the French surrealism movement.”
If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.