(A review of A Common Pornography in the style of A Common Pornography, by Kevin Sampsell)
This friend of mine, Justin, loaned a book to me. It was titled A Common Pornography, by this guy Kevin Sampsell. I got the book on the condition that I had to finish it before this party he’d be at that Thursday, because I’d be leaving New York on Saturday, heading back home to Birmingham. We were having dinner at his apartment on what could loosely be called a winter’s Monday night. It really felt like fall outside, with only the slightest trace of a chill. I left, rode the L a few stops home, and tried not to think about how I was here in the same city as my recent ex-girlfriend, but she was quite likely asleep next to this other guy, Mark, her new boyfriend–who hasn’t had a Mark at one time or another?–at that very moment.
Most of my three weeks in New York had consisted of a constant agitation and a (not to dramatize) crippling sadness in reaction to what would later turn out to be an essential turning point in my life, a place from which to grow up a little, I guess. That’s how I see it now, after all of these years. It was one of the first times I had experienced true, full-bodied loss. Because of it, I was staying up till five or six every night and waking up at four or five. I would go to sleep and it would be one color outside, and when I woke up, it would be the exact same color. I was checking my phone obsessively, to the point of sleeping with it wrapped in my hand, but there was nothing there that I didn’t expect, that I didn’t foresee, feel in advance. During that brief trip to New York, while awake, I would mostly just sit in the same spot on the couch and refresh stuff on my laptop: HTMLGIANT, my email, my other email, my blog. I thought maybe something would happen in one of those venues, something which demanded my attention, and I would suddenly stabilize.
Nothing ever happened. I was staying with my friend Ryan, a good friend and an even better humor writer. Ryan was a couple of inches taller than me, possibly paler, wore a beard that didn’t really fit him, and emanated the most endearing Jewish self-loathing since Woody Allen stopped starring in his own movies. He was just as lonely, just as yearning as me. Maybe more. Every night we’d go to the deli up the street at about 3 AM (he lived in this tear between Brooklyn and Queens), put down three dollars each for a Ginger Ale and a black-and-white cookie. Then we’d walk back to the apartment and argue feminist theory or which half was better, black or white. Then we’d watch TV shows on the Internet for a long, long time, until one or both of us suffered the illusion that we were tired, at which point we’d retire to our respective rooms–but always we’d be staying up for one, two hours more, solitary, me checking my phone, looking at myself in the mirror to compare myself to what I remembered of Mark, reading a couple pages of this book or that and then crawling back to the laptop, even though I knew the Internet was devoid of normal (or non-Australian) people at such a slight hour.
The night I was handed A Common Pornography, I decided to scramble the formula a little. I came home and read some Alain Badiou, sinking into the divot I’d worked into the couch. But I was being drawn out of my skin. This is the point at which something foreign settled in, converged in me–I felt more than ill at ease. I felt like I could have stopped moving altogether if given the decision. Like to do so, to cease, to self-efface, would not be my decision, but that of some specter, some ghost soldering me to that burdensome sense of loss–of something which had moved beyond retrievability. I asked Ryan’s roommate if he had any Vivance. (He had a prescription.) Vivance is a derivative of Adderall. An amphetamine. He riffled through his room briefly and emerged proffering two 20 milligram capsules. I didn’t really care whether I was putting him out or draining his supply. I needed that boost, those two whitest pick-me-ups, even if it wasn’t really my thing. Though it increasingly was.
At about 5 AM I swallowed them both. Ryan was confused that I wouldn’t just wait till the morning, but I couldn’t explain to him how difficult sleep was for me, how deadening those dreams. He went to bed while I went to work on Badiou, reread a chapter. Then I unfolded Kevin Sampsell’s memoir. I had no idea what to think at first. It reminded me of Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody at first–short segments, a complex character coping with a father who embodies modernity’s evil. But Sampsell’s book almost immediately took a different route than Kimball’s, which novel, sitting at my gate in La Guardia last summer–when, after spending the summer with this now-Marked ex-girlfriend, I was waiting to board my flight back home from the City, that goddamn City–caused me to bawl hysterically, to the visible confusion of most people in propinquity to me, seventeen times. I counted. My entire life, not just that wasted summer of love held at a distance, took place, absolutely singular, in each one of those seventeen cries. Moment by moment, a whole history of regret washed out of me and onto my hands, onto my sleeve–past regrets, present, future. An infinite mourning.
In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell’s father is at first established as a walking contradiction (as a father who at once practices Catholicism, attends confessional, the rigmarole, and (spoiler alert!) impregnates his seemingly enfeebled or at least unhinged stepdaughter), a specter of, like I said, unmistakable evil. As the text progresses, however, “Dad” gradually fades in presence, at first contracting into a relatively normal, if hard-edged and immoral, father for Kevin. At a certain point he begins to haunt the text, less a presence at all than a shadow on the wall, a presence as the unnamed, infiltrating, as a law of foreclosure, of corrosive alienation, each one of Kevin’s adult relationships and friendships. But only appearing under the guise of an apparition, of that which has passed, but which nevertheless remains situated, constituted, at the site of any possible event, of any thinkable decision.
140 pages into the book, I decided to take a quick Internet break. Justin, who had loaned me the book, was on Gchat–busy, but that’s never meant anything to me. We talked for a little, first about Kevin’s book, and eventually about the benefits of using amphetamines to focus one’s attention to the point of obsession. “I just need some direction, I’m just sort of drifting around in my filth here,” I told Justin. It’s true. The loss, the onus of mourning, was snaking its way back into my brain. To tell the truth, though, it was only ever absent–and amazingly, it was–when I was reading A Common Pornography. “Shit, I don’t know,” Justin said, “write something about Kevin’s book, or write something in the style of Kevin’s book. A little rapid-fire autobiography.” “Okay, doing that now,” I replied. He warned me not to let my heart explode. I began the project Justin had suggested. After an hour or so of typing, I figured I had more or less finished the piece. I stood up from my pocket in the couch to go to the bathroom, to pee and then to look at myself in the mirror. I had such trouble standing up, then, that I almost fell down.