by Kevin Killian
Publication Studio, 2012
590 pages / $16 Buy from Publication Studio
There are moments when Evan Lysacek or whoever is figure skating on video. Where what you hear is the intense carving sound of the blade on the massive expanse of ice (that and tacky music); where what you see are limb size hocks of sparkling lycra (that and wisps of breath in the cold); where it’s about precision, carnival and also about risk, and where it feels like so much is at stake. There are moments like this when reading Kevin Killian’s new novel Spreadeagle: his wit as sharp as any Jackson Ultima Blade, his prose as sparkling as any Sharene and this novel as breathtaking, terrifying and exhilarating as a five rotation axe.
A figure skating move isn’t all that the title Spreadeagle might conjure up. It’s also a heraldic symbol, a ballroom dance move, a bondage restraint, a sexual position in which the legs are splayed akimbo, a method of a particular species of jumping spider swimming and the shape of the body adopted just prior to undertaking a sky dive. All of these seem like apt references, all in one way or another appropriate to the power play and textual and sexual politics that play out in this book.
The novel itself is spread spatchcock into two quite different – though linked- parts. The first is the very best sort of comic novel, with all the wit, humour and deliciously droll dialogue of “A Nest of Ninnies” or “What’s for Dinner?” It takes place in the grand San Francisco home (so grand it’s mistaken for an embassy or a museum) of novelist Danny Isham. Danny is the author of the successful Rick and Dick series of gay novels (so wildly successful that he’s perennially mistaken for Armistead Maupin- even by Francois Ozon!) and his partner is Kit, an activist, who, as we meet him, is returning from Cuba surrounded by a troupe of Kylie Minogue-obsessed holiday makers.
Their lives are somewhat sparkling on the outside- readings, dinner parties and expensive chairs in their rooftop garden- but mired in an at times grotesque (though perfectly likely) assortment of self-obsessions, hang-ups and impasses. They’ve previously adopted (or virtually kidnapped) a child, you suspect as a sort of a fashion accessory, whose mother has then asked for her back. Her memory lives on in the shape of an iMac that religiously doles out inspirational advice to whoever has the misfortune to sleep in the room planned out for her.
In addition, Danny is estranged from his father, the important Modernist poet Ralph Isham, and so neurotic that he won’t have any books in the house, other than those he wrote himself. Lurking in the shadows are Eric Avery, a young art student and devotee of Duchamp, Sam D’Allessandro, the celebrated experimental writer, who is terminally ill with AIDS, and Grace, Eric’s sister, who hooked up all the sound devices and speaker system in their home.
The second part is much darker, though the seeds are scattered by the first. Entitled “Silver Springs”, it takes place in the town of Gavit. It’s an unwieldy and uncomfortable noir in which the shady Radley brothers, who run a BDSM pornography company and a herbal AIDS ‘remedy’ business concurrently, each under the same haunting brand “Extreme Remedies.” Narrator Geoff, who runs a not-that-legitimate autograph business, falls for Gary and sinks into a relentless Meths-induced downward spiral, which is pinpointed in Killian’s expert prose, giddily rearing up the deeper Geoff’s attachment becomes, like that John Ashbery line: “upsurging/like a dog preparing to lie down.”
For a novel that is so pop, and so contemporary (it’s a world where Whitney Houston has died), it took a hell of a long time to write. Kevin has joked (though totally believably) that every year that went by, he had to lop some of the novel off to keep it current:
And while this is a necessity caused by specific circumstances of the publishing environment, it’s also a highly tangible and dramatic dynamic for the novel itself, gaps, things being cut short and things suddenly vanishing being devastatingly appropriate for a novel that is so much about AIDS.
Kevin’s skillfully drawn characters manage to be both recognizable archetypes and ravishingly unpredictable and out of control. There’s Geoff’s straight cop brother who sits down to watch Downton Abbey with his brother every week, including the very evening of a murder in the scene of the crime itself. There’s Grace, who is a canny self-employed business woman one minute, posing as a dumb student the next and Poirrot the next time you look, then there’s a wealthy gentleman friend of Geoff’s, who spends most of his time watching spanking porn and looking at copies of BUTT, until he falls for Eric Avery from his starring role in one of Adam Radley’s films. There’s a definite note of hysteria in the unexpected turns and connections between and within characters.
At the beginning of the documentary House of Harrington, about the cult Hollywood director, Curtis Harrington, the veteran filmmaker describes his first memory of watching a movie. He didn’t know what it was, seeing a screen with people (as he thought) behind it, getting bigger and bigger and closer and closer. Brothers Gary and Adam Radley undergo the same process, looming ever larger in the book from narrow, unpromising beginnings in a San Francisco alley to the enormous, consuming, vanished vacuums they’ve become by the end, like the reason Gary gives for the bullet-like holes in his trailer: ‘He hummed that music from Jaws and said: “Moths. Man-eating moths.”
So often in Kevin’s books, essays and articles, writing is an act of passing off, or passing into. Both the autograph forgery business and (a lot more sinister) the Herbal AIDS remedy, are, of course, cons, preying on the hopes and fears of desperate individuals. At a more basic textual level, though, the novel plays out a constant tidal sweep of artifice and reality. In his contribution to the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, Kevin writes:
And throughout Spreadeagle, things are borrowed or stolen. Sam D’Allesandro, for example, does refer to the real name of a San Francisco experimental writer, and Bakersfield is a real a place; Armistead Maupin is a real writer, but his inverse, grumpy Danny Isham, isn’t. Ralph Isham could be based on Allen Ginsberg, with elements of Jimmy Schuyler and Jack Spicer thrown in, but really he’s none entirely, but could be someone else I’m not familiar with. Kylie Minogue is real, or sort of.
The point is, reading Spreadeagle, you’re constantly unnerved and fascinated by the encroachment and vice versa of the real and the artificial, which pervades the novel like a virus. It’s a daring, consuming and compelling read.
Colin Herd was born in Stirling in 1985 and is the author of the chapbook “LIKE” (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2010) and the book “too ok” (BlazeVOX Books 2011). Poems are forthcoming in the anthology “Dear World and Everyone In It” (Bloodaxe, 2012).