Female Trouble: Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black

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In 1969, Cookie Mueller suffered a fallopian tube infection she mistook to be her period. When she woke up in an unknown hospital bed, she felt disoriented but otherwise “great, clean, and very neat.” A nurse had done her hair up in tight braided pigtails, each one ending in a white surgical rubber band to prevent her hair from snapping off amid fever-induced agitation. As the narrator of her autobiographical story points out, no white girl or woman over the age of twelve can pull off pigtails or ponytails, so it is to be understood that Mueller looked “dumb.” On cue, film director John Waters walked in, accompanied by actress Mink Stole.

“So it didn’t turn out to be appendicitis, so what is it?”

Waters’ cool, collected manner, as well as his taste in depravity and melodrama, come into focus in his brief exchange with a bed-bound Mueller.

“Female trouble,” she responds, a catch-all phrase which she admits the film director finds “so funny it became the title for his next movie.”

1969 was the year Mueller had accidentally “walked into showbiz” after a raffle ticket had won her a hamburger at a local fast-food chain and a screen test with Waters. In Baltimore, she had been at work on a novel—“long since lost in the shuffle”—and paying rent by selling LSD with her lesbian flatmate Babette. Waters cast her in Multiple Maniacs, where she got to dance topless and boast to her mother, drag queen superstar Divine, of getting tear-gassed at anti-war rallies and finding it fun. In many of his subsequent films featuring Mueller, Stole, and Divine, the actors playing female parts sport such preposterously tight hairdos as to make them look like they’ve just had a facelift. This became one of the signature features of Waters’ baroque parody of white-trash American femalehood.

Mueller excels in the short form, and her autobiographical stories, published here in chronological order across the first three sections of Semiotext(e)’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a new edition of Mueller’s posthumous 1990 collection, cover the Baltimore, Provincetown, and New York years respectively. These are paced as tightly as works of short fiction, favoring the memorable, often ironic detail over br0ader context, i.e. the fact that Cookie lived in a basement flat when she broke into “underground” entertainment, or that the “trouble” she was alluding to, far from being a euphemism for an unwanted pregnancy, had led her doctors to predict she would be unable to have children. She is the kind of writer takes pleasure in withholding a twist until the punchline of the very last sentence: “Two years later I was back in the same hospital, but this time I was in the maternity ward.”

From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, bright, concise anecdotes are punctuated with the raw, often abrupt wording of remembered conversations with illustrious friends, from Jackie Curtis (the Jackie of Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” lyrics) to the photographer Nan Goldin. The beauty of the stories relayed is that Cookie’s influence on people who, for the most part, became more famous than she ever was in her lifetime, is just as significant as the fact that they may or may not have made her career. “I discovered Waters,” she writes. “And he discovered me.”

“Female Trouble,” alongside eight other texts from Mueller’s Waters era, was initially published in her posthumous 1990 collection Garden of Ashes. The stories are compiled in this new, expanded edition of the 1989 collection Clear Water, along with the stories of another existing posthumous collection and a scrapbook. They are rearranged in chronological order across five sections, each showcasing its fair share of gendered misadventures—PID, birth, motherhood, the pitfalls of hitchhiking—not to mention a streak of unpredictable relationships with men. And, also, women.

Trouble, as it befalls women and queers, is one of the great motifs of Mueller’s stories. There are thematic echoes across her own misadventures: travel offers respite from a broken heart; people assume (wrongly) that lesbian relationships are trouble-free; access to a motorized vehicle, in 1970s Sicily or in the backwoods of Maryland, offers temporary safety from unwanted sexual attention. When the latter cannot be avoided, Cookie and the main characters of her life (Max, her five-year-old son, and Sharon, her partner) are caught wondering: Is it because of your hair? The way you dress? The heavy makeup? Cookie’s answer is always to shrug off any moral judgement, and, with as much panache as an East Village heroin user running home butt-naked after being robbed by his dealer (another friend’s anecdote, repurposed in “Narcotics,” one of four original stories published in the present volume), never hold a grudge.

The collection exposes the life of the struggling artist, the one who waits tables (“a horrible job”) and dances in topless joints (safer in Jersey than Manhattan). But Mueller’s tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humor invariably lingers on her failures rather than on her successes for heightened comedy. “What’d I see you in,” a taxi driver asks her, in “Another Boring Day.” By that point, she has been in more than eighteen films and has toured international festivals. When she signs him an autograph, the driver is satisfied that she is who he thinks she is (“Luck, Laughs, Lust, Love, Cookie Mueller”), but remarks, “I always thought you were a drag queen.”

Mueller is a compulsive chronicler of her times and a fond observer of whatever curved balls get sent her way. Not unlike the autobiographical stories of Hollywood raconteur Eve Babitz, hers put a whimsical spin on experiences that are no laughing matter (addiction, rape, the AIDS crisis). Mueller rarely focuses on her internalized experience of challenging or traumatic situations, and when she does, it’s parodic: “I was so wildly miserable I was projectile-vomiting at the very thought of facing another morning,” she writes of a fresh breakup in “The Stone of New Orleans.” In this story, which features a spontaneous trip to Louisiana with Nan Goldin, the pain of heartbreak becomes an excuse to try something new, in this case Haitian witchcraft (“some gris-gris stuff,” Goldin clarifies, as they enquire about love spells to Creole street dancers in the French Quarter of New Orleans). “Why not?” Mueller concludes. “I’d tried everything else.”

Piecing her stories together, readers will be hard-pressed to solve the riddle of her character, when most of her time, from Baltimore to Berlin, is spent in conducting “socio-behavioral studies,” a pastime she shared with Waters. Among the many things she has seen are Vogue cover models queueing in line with the down-and-low for a heroin fix, the night crowds that make the Berlin Film Festival “much more fun” than Cannes, the fuss that one anonymous but incredibly well-connected MFA graduate will make by OD’ing at his own birthday party. Her stories exemplify what creative writing lecturers may be at pains to teach about the link between point of view and characterization: If you want to evoke the idea of who someone really is, start by showing us what they see.

In a two-page autobiography titled “Cookie Mueller,” the author confesses: “I started writing at the age of six and never stopped completely.” During her lifetime, only two slim collections appeared, as well as an illustrated scrapbook titled How to Get Rid of Pimples (1984): twelve stories about individual East Village friends presented as “Case Studies,” four of which appear in this edited collection under the section “Fables.” Written in the third person, the fables read, ostensibly, like fiction, but if the collected stories make anything evident, it is the openness of the term “story” itself, which accommodates truth just as well as artifice. The fables, often formally more creative than the autobiographical stories, ultimately lack a certain quality which permeates the rest of the collection: a characteristic, opinionated point of view. The best character in Cookie Mueller’s stories is Cookie Mueller.

A last section offers an unlikely compilation of health advice and art “Columns,” the latter more concerned with dispensing philosophical musings than critique. There is no doubt that Cookie is the common narrative voice shared by all of these wacky, iconoclastic nonfiction pieces, and readers may well be tempted to scan the collection for the details of the author’s life and times, or for a recipe on how to live one’s life uncompromisingly. Yet the shortness of the form, across fiction and nonfiction, suggests we really should be paying attention to Mueller’s craft: the seemingly unruly logic of her narratives have a way of making a clear point right in the opening, and sustaining it throughout. She once wrote that her stories are “novels for people with short attention spans,” but this wry remark belies her command of both linguistic exuberance and narrative intention.

If Mueller’s name was already significant to aficionados of New York’s early alternative subculture, the collected stories make it clear that her writing should be read alongside those of her most talented contemporaries. Certainly Babitz, who infiltrated super-privilege in LA so she could write its chronicles, but also Joan Didion, who, like Mueller, used specific details of her circumstance (architectural descriptions of the houses and neighborhoods inhabited, excerpts from psychiatric reports on the panic attacks she suffered) as props, the better to engage in painfully acute portraits of her society. The self is merely a distraction. You could say, after the often-quoted Didion phrase, that Mueller was telling stories in order to live. Or did she perhaps live her—short, unique, uncompromising—life in order to tell stories?

Elsa Court is a writer based in London. Her work has featured in Granta, American Short Fiction, The Financial Times, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. She is currently at work on a short story collection. More from this author →