Is the life of a writer just as important as the writing itself? More and more, the answer to that question seems to be yes. Memoir sales have boomed since the 1990s. Many of literature’s stars, such as Philip Roth, Junot Díaz, Sandra Cisneros and, most recently, Karl Ove Knausgård, have blurred the distinction between autobiography and fiction. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks hypothesizes that fiction is, itself, artifice borne of censorship and propriety, a cloak to mask the author’s inner desires. As privacy diminishes, so will the cloak. “Everybody’s posting photographs on Facebook,” he writes, “everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter… With or without the NSA, the kind of collective reticence and sense of privacy… is a thing of the past.” If the NSA can read our e-mails, if hackers can access our private photos, and if family members can unwittingly broadcast our secrets on social media, why should authors make up stories? What service is the artifice of fiction in a world of over-sharing?
Writing about the history of the novel for The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz takes this argument one step further. The novel’s cultural preeminence, he claims, has long passed. But it’s not just the novel that is dead, but private consciousness itself. “Privacy, solitude, the slow accumulation of the soul, the extended encounter with others—the modern self may be passing away, but for those who still have one, its loss is not a little thing.”
Well… maybe. Or perhaps today’s reader simply wants a different type of story. Perhaps we are no longer curious about the color and texture of JK Huysmans’ curtains, about marzipan or Proust. Maybe we simply want our writers to live a little, to submerge themselves in life’s social trenches and do a little reporting. We aren’t looking for introspection or flights of fancy, we’re looking for heroes. Audiences are more demanding and harder to fool. More and more, we must believe in the writer, and we must be tricked into thinking that she is the hero that she portrays.
Enter: Cookie Mueller. A junkie, go-go dancer, B-list movie star, art critic, socialite and John Waters muse. If this isn’t your idea of a hero, well, go fuck yourself. You probably won’t like Cookie.
Chloé Griffen’s new oral history Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller is a stunning portrait of both Cookie and the worlds that she inhabited: John Waters’ Baltimore (1966–1969), hippie commune Provincetown (1969-1976), and downtown New York City (1976-1988). Together, they create a powerful, dynamic and contradictory depiction of one of Downtown Writing’s most intriguing voices. Edgewise is a definitive archive of Cookie’s life, a life that informed her autobiographical short stories. Read together, Edgewise and her collection of short stories Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black cement Mueller’s status as one of subculture’s most powerful literary figures.
“At that time,” Paper editor Carlo McCormick says in Edgewise, “there was a sense that you lived your art and your art was your life, and the separation was quite opaque… The way you were socially at nightclubs, the way you dressed, all these things were part and parcel of this whole invention of persona, and Cookie was one of the really good ones from that time who had the whole package.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to separate the persona of Cookie Mueller from the autobiographical character portrayed in her short stories. It’s almost as if she jumped out of the page and into real life. And, yet, the Cookie Mueller that we come to know in Edgewise almost seems too risky, too unconventional to have truly existed. We discover a coke-dealing mother who left her baby son Max in a dresser drawer at John Waters’ Christmas party, an outlaw who scaled the Berlin wall in a blue leather skirt to evade the German police, an actress who had a sex scene with chickens in Pink Flamingos, an art critic who fabricated reviews, and a young teenager who accidently hopped into Charles Manson’s van to smoke a joint. This Cookie was, in fact, a myth, a character, and many of these anecdotes only seem to dabble in the truth. And that’s beautiful. Why should fiction be limited to the page, why shouldn’t it be actualized?
“Cookie was very good at mythmaking,” her high school friend Dolores Deluxe says. “She knew that was a part of what she did. To recreate and reinvent yourself… So whatever you did, you put out your legend, because you knew people wouldn’t pick you for you, they would pick you for this image you could create. It was branding.” Cookie’s life and writing intertwine to form one actualized subcultural hero-myth, a trash-glamor diva with a middle finger pointed prominently at conventional social values.
Cookie had many lives: actress, writer, socialite, art critic, fashonista and club personality. “She was a health critic, she made her own clothes,” artist Billy Sullivan says, “she did everything. She was a walking renaissance.” And, indeed, Cookie is an early trailblazer in the burgeoning synthesis of club, fashion and art; a movement that continues to pick up steam, as evidenced by fashion label Hood By Air’s recent takeover of the Museum of Modern Art. But her real gift is for writing. “Looking back on the whole thing,” John Waters says, “I wish Cookie had been a writer from the very beginning… Her books are brilliant… Not as a critic… but when she wrote about herself and her life. It was incredibly moving, incredibly sweet, true, and funny.” The stories in Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black are written in a loose conversational tone that contrasts with the grisly scenarios and tales. This narrative tension highlights Cookie’s dark humor.
Consider the opening lines of her story Abduction & Rape —Highway 31 —1969:
“They were just three sluts looking for sex on the highway,” the two abductors and rapists said later when asked to describe us.
This wasn’t the way we saw it.
A lot of other people didn’t see it this way either, but these were women. Most men who knew the facts say we were asking for it.
Obviously you can’t trust every man’s opinion when it comes to topics like rape. A lot of honest men admit that they fantasize about it and that’s healthy but the ones that do it to strangers, unasked, ought to have hot pokers rammed up their wee wees.
Mueller’s fiction constantly strives to find the unexpected angle, the distanced witticism that both exonerates and condemns. Her prose is spare and polished, and when she lands a line, it lands hard. Her real strength is aphorism. It’s startling how cleanly, how effortlessly she creates subtext and irony. In the opening to Abduction & Rape, the words fact, opinion, honest and healthy circulate menacingly around the word rape, but Cookie refuses to neatly tie the concepts together. Instead, she brings the section to a crescendo with the infantile word wee wee, neatly emasculating male sexual desire.
My favorite sections of Edgewise retell Cookie’s stories, such as Rape & Abduction. Mink Stole and Susan Lowe, the other “sluts” in question, recount their version of the event and editor Chloé Griffin gracefully interweaves their voices with sections from Mueller’s short story. A slightly different version of the story emerges. Not only does Mueller tell this story better, but she rearranges details to transform anecdote into fiction.
“It was such an effortless segue between [Cookie’s] life and her presence as a writer,” Semiotext(e) editor Chris Kraus says. “A manifesto for a life.” But what type of hero is Cookie? Like any dynamic character, questions emerge: Was Cookie, as Mink Stole says, the ‘worst mother’? Was she an effortless ingénue or a social climber? A bohemian or an aspiring elite? A heterosexual in love with a woman or a heterosexual posing as a lesbian for effect? A fount of natural expression or a calculating self-invention? These are questions that readers will grapple with. And, certainly, Cookie Mueller isn’t a hero for everyone. Her manifesto is, most pointedly, a writer’s manifesto, a siren call to live the life that you write, and report the life that you live.