Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Taking It All In

Andy Warhol's 30-year-old novel is the ultimate Pop achievement: an utterly unfiltered, utterly meaningless slice of life.

By Jonathan Veitch

MAY 4, 1998: 

A: A NOVEL, by Andy Warhol. Grove Press, 458 pages, $14.

Now that I think back on it, I guess it was all the mechanical action that was the big thing for me at the Factory at the end of the sixties. . . . Everyone, absolutely everyone, was tape-recording everyone else. Machinery had already taken over people's sex lives -- dildos and all kinds of vibrators -- and now it was taking over their social lives too, with tape recorders and Polaroids.

-- Andy Warhol, Popism
For Those Who think that everything worth knowing about Andy Warhol can be found in his paintings, his films and books come as something of a surprise. Amateurish, muddled, boring, and just plain dumb, Warhol's cinematic and literary output would appear to be an embarrassing digression from the elegance and wit of his highly polished canvases. In fact, they are their necessary complement, complicating his aesthetic in ways that even his most ardent admirers have not yet begun to fathom. Consider Warhol's a: a novel, originally published in 1968 and recently reissued by Grove Press. The book is essentially a transcription of 24 one-hour tapes that purport to chronicle a day in the life of Ondine, one of Warhol's early "superstars." To produce his novel, Warhol followed Ondine around New York City with a tape recorder (which he affectionately called "my wife, Sony") as he engaged in a series of wild conversations that riff on everything from opera to amphetamines to Judy Garland to (what else?) cocks and assholes. Warhol's "reproductive" drive is insatiable: "I'd provoke any kind of hysteria I could think of," he says elsewhere, "just to get myself a good tape." At one point, he even follows Ondine into the bathroom while he is defecating -- or trying to. (As Ondine remembers it, they had a conversation that went something like this: " 'Andy, please, I've got to go to the bathroom!' He said to me, 'Ah-ah.' He said . . . he said, 'If you have to go to the bathroom, I have to go with you and the microphone has to be right there.' I said, 'Oh, please, Andy! I can never do that with anybody in the room!' He said, 'You're going to have to.' So, I did.")

Ondine was a self-described "A-head," an amphetamine freak, who was so high during much of the taping that listening to him is like putting your ear up to a radio and scanning the stations with the volume cranked up full blast. The confusion is compounded by misspellings, missing words, and mistaken attributions that make a nearly impossible to read -- the fruit of teenage typists (some of whom were barely literate) hired by Warhol to transcribe the tapes. As if this were not enough, Warhol "edited" the manuscript during a succession of performances by the Velvet Underground. (According to Ondine, it was a "madhouse with a trampoline and the Velvets and people dancing off balconies and going absolutely be-zoo. Andy would sit way up in the back where some of the spotlights were . . . reading proof-sheets to the book in the dark with a flashlight . . . saying 'Oh! This is good! This is the best book ever! This is really going to do it!'") Warhol loved the mistakes. He thought it made the book better -- which is to say worse, and hence more Pop, and he insisted that all the errata be left in the final draft.

The generous have been inclined to describe a as a "work of genius," a Pop Finnegans Wake. But there is really no justification for such accolades. The book is pure nonsense. Utterly without literary value. A waste of time. And I mean that as the highest form of praise. As Warhol himself says of a in Popism (perhaps his most illuminating and underread book), "I wanted to do a 'bad book' just the way I'd done 'bad movies' and 'bad art,' because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something." But what is it exactly that Warhol has turned up? The novel's particular form of badness can be found in, among other things, its refusal to filter out the background noise, which prevents the reader from following (or even imagining) a narrative thread. This leaves the reader in an awkward position. Or (to be more accurate), after 458 pages, it leaves the reader downright bored. Boredom is, of course, one of Warhol's favorite words, and it is central to his aesthetic. "I like boring things," Warhol observes in Popism.

Of course what I think is boring must not be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they're essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I'm just the opposite: if I'm going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don't want it to be essentially the same -- I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.

The reason Warhol cannot stand to watch the most popular shows on TV is that they do not confront their own boring plot lines directly. Instead, they swaddle them in a mirage of details that give the illusion of novelty. Warhol wants his boredom straight: six hours of a man sleeping; eight hours of the Empire State Building; the same exact TV show night after night. He cultivates boredom because it is, as he understands so well, an essential feature of a commodity culture, the inevitable result of the consumer's headlong pursuit of pleasure -- once novelty has been exhausted. By dwelling in boredom -- indeed, by insisting on it -- Warhol teaches us about the limitations of the pleasures that are offered to us under the sign of capitalism. And sometimes those lessons are painful. They are more painful, in their way, than the analogous lessons found in Warhol's paintings, where substance and depth are negated. That is because although we have become spellbound by a world of dazzling surfaces, boredom is still anathema in consumer culture. It is an oddly liminal space -- perhaps the only such space left to us -- where the limitations of the system are exposed and everything in it seems to be up for grabs.

Warhol used to say that talking about his movies was more interesting than watching them. Something similar might be said of a. The experience of reading it is finally less illuminating than what it represents. And, like so much of his work, what it represents is a wholesale attack on art. By making a novel out of tape recordings, Warhol challenges the novel itself and the pride that is traditionally taken in its capacity to report reality accurately (much the way photography usurped painting's privileged position in the 19th century). But that triumph is more apparent than actual. Although the tape recorder's technology holds out the promise that it will capture everything (teenage errata notwithstanding), the results, paradoxically enough, do not enhance our access to reality; they cast that access into doubt. The cacophony of voices, street noise, music, and jangling telephones on Warhol's tapes is so overwhelming that the world we thought we knew becomes incomprehensible and, hence, unavailable to us. Warhol refused to edit the tapes not just because he preferred to take the easy way out (a strategy he frequently recommends), but because the logic of Pop eschews discrimination altogether. As Pope John Paul II once said in response to questions by reporters who asked him what he liked best about New York, "Tutto buoni" -- everything is good. That, an enamored Warhol insisted, "is the Pop philosophy exactly." If everything is good, then why choose? Why not remain passive -- like the tape recorder -- and let it all in?

Eventually, after he was shot by Valerie Solanis, Warhol would come to see the limits of that "philosophy":

The shooting put a whole new perspective on my memories of all the nutty people I'd spent so much time with. I thought about when the girl came up to the 47th St. Factory and shot through the Marilyn canvases, and about the guy doing Russian roulette there. . . . But I'd always thought it was unreal -- or else that it was just a joke. . . . I realized that it was just timing that nothing terrible had ever happened to any of us before now. Crazy people had always fascinated me because they were so creative -- they were incapable of doing things normally. Usually they would never hurt anybody, they were just disturbed themselves; but how would I ever know again which was which? (Popism)

"How would I ever know again which was which?" That is the operative question. If that frightening episode taught Warhol the limits of spectacle, it did not necessarily teach him to abandon the passivity of the spectator. A voyeur to the end, he simply retreated into greater and greater isolation. The rich and famous -- the objects of sly and subtle derision in his early work -- now became a refuge for him. Meanwhile, "nutty people" like Ondine, Billy Name, and Rotten Rita were consigned to the past.

a is a look back at a world that Warhol disowned because it finally proved too dangerous for him. It carried Pop to its logical extreme -- much further than his paintings did. The result was not the air-conditioned Pop culture that most of us, who are honest enough to admit it, have learned to love. a is, if you will forgive the expression, the B side of Pop: its manic, destructive side. Indeed, one might say that in the drug-addled world of a, the transparency of Pop culture -- its ease and accessibility, its promise of the good life -- turns out to be far more dark and discomforting than one might have imagined from looking at Warhol's Marilyns and Jackies, his cow wallpaper and his glorious silver clouds.

Jonathan Veitch is chairman of the humanities program at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

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