Poisoned Pen: New Book By Lydia Lunch

In So Real It Hurts, the new book from Lydia Lunch, the no wave icon exorcises some demons

Photo credit: Anders Thessing

As writer and performer, No Wave icon Lydia Lunch has built a 40 year career on themes of abjection and transgression. Her stock in trade has been a challenging and unwavering, nostalgie de la boue; an obsessive, almost militant outpouring of body horror and female rage. But what is left for an artist with a starting point of shock and repugnance to say when a genre like ‘torture porn’ is a mainstream concern and Sadean levels of degradation can be found on a laptop within a couple of mouse clicks? So Real It Hurts is a collection of essays that consolidates Lunch’s reputation as an exhausting chronicler of debasement, but amongst the grinding harangues there are also illuminative moments of insight on a life of damage and pain that show a path to restoration and liberation.

When Lunch began her career in the late seventies raw, confessional art was marginal and defiantly anti-commercial, essentially the preserve of the avant-garde. Today, every bookshop has a ‘misery lit’ section. However Lunch endures outside of and distant from this sea change, her excoriating, confrontational writing and spoken word performances remain determinedly counter-cultural, never straying far from the anti-lineage of Céline, Burroughs, Bukowski and Selby Jr. Her work belongs to this alternative cannon of dispatches from the lowlife, material way beyond any two dimensional épater les bourgeois, or rock’n’roll ‘rebellion’ and speaks of an alienation and otherness so complete as to be heartbreaking.

The book opens with a series of wearying and wearisome diatribes on how “life is a sexually transmitted incurable disease”, but this initial onslaught needs to be seen within the context of the book as a whole. On one hand the opening charnel house broadcasts and death trip rants are Lunch’s own (per)version of crowd pleasers. Nihilistic tirades are what fans expect. However, confrontation is also the survivor’s strategy of trial by endurance, of pushing the world away and seeing who has the resolve to stay. It says (as does a lot of Lunch’s work) ‘I defy you to love me’.

“Spread the misery around. Louse up someone’s life. Even the score. Find an unsuspecting – but no less deserving – mark and dump a truckload of shit on their head. Because some perverse mean streak needs exorcising before it contaminates the whole of your being and you, in turn, do something horribly ruthless to a public building , a strip mall, a shopping center…” – ‘The Spirit of Philosophical Vitriol’

The book becomes a more interesting proposition when Lunch begins to explore and dissect her key themes of poisoning, purgation and escape. In ‘The Spirit of Philosophical Vitriol’ her need to disappear, to physically remove herself from urban overload and her own inner turmoil takes Lunch to the badlands of Eastern Europe, where she gains succour from the dereliction and emptiness of ruined Tarkovsky landscapes. There is a Beat sensibility to this aspect of Lunch, a shared, common motif of restlessness and flight – but whereas Burroughs, Kerouac et al were running away from maternalism and domesticity Lunch’s getaway is from herself, an endless, near impossible attempt to gain distance from “the original sin, the origin of [her] sickness”.

Despite displaying her psychic wounds Lunch never plays the victim but she tends to labour this with tales of revenge and retribution and the essay closes with an overheated scatological fantasy. On the trip Lunch meets a pair of all American misogynists, sexual braggarts symbolizing everything she hates. She doses them with a powerful emetic and the story ends with an excremental Burroughs-ian splurge of bodily waste and humiliation. It all stays true to the opening lines about her need to inflict but the impact of the poetry of the intense, forensic examination of the poisoned self is lessened with the inclusion of the obvious figure of ‘the jock’ as a repository for her revulsion. Overused tropes of outrage lapse into schlock, and the outward projection of anger constantly finds the same targets.

Lunch devotes a number of chapters to her proto-Beat literacy heroes and No Wave peers and in these moments, freed from exploring her own unrest or taking it out on others, Lunch displays a real, philanthropic warmth. An essay on Herbert Hunke is particularly moving. Junkie, thief, con artist, Hunke was an inspiration to Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and source material of their fascination with life on the margins. For Lunch, Hunke is a touchstone for his voice of “gentle desperation and compassionate understanding on the complexity and fragility of the human condition, generously revealing the stamina of his tortured soul”. Lunch shares with Hunke an antagonistic front that challenges the reader: find the beauty in the savagery of life at the raw end of addiction, damage and despair. The point is to show the humanity in a brutal life, that the possibly of redemption exists in the mire of ugliness.

In ‘1967’ Lunch describes a pivotal moment that defined her adult self. She conflates the disintegration of society with the disharmony of her family home. At the age of eight she watches the film The Haunting while the family car is set on fire during a riot outside their house and from this moment never feels fear ever again. After suffering sexual abuse by her father, the home is no longer a hearth of nurture or security and this moment (the riot, the horror film, the retreat to her bedroom to listen to music) is the crucible where her character is formed. It is a profound piece of writing, more vivid and moving than the hectoring invective elsewhere because it is meditative and doesn’t elicit a response through provocation or affront.

“A battlefield where I am pitted against myself, against my memories and their recriminations, my brutality and its empty other. From this siege, there is no fitful sleep, no relief, only unholy rest in which I tremble, hostaged by futility, treachery, and aggression” – ‘Sandpit’

Towards the end of the book Lunch extemporizes on her earlier riff on her quest for escape and the annihilation of the self. In another dark inversion of the Beats, their indulgent search for satori becomes her urge “to escape the perimeter of his fleshy prison, to disappear into milky nimbus, blurry-eyed, light headed… [a] Longed for a permanent amnesia, a catatonia that forgoes responsibility, the enemy of freedom”. She creates a vivid summoning of her own dissociation; a compartmentalization so complete that “a single word could trigger a chain reaction in the right brain, which would catapult my opponent, partner, lover, fucker, into a contrary conversation with a distant relative of whoever it was they perceived me to be”. Promiscuity and sexual excess was Lunch’s response to her personal fracture – “I was looking in vain for myself as I willingly disappeared inside others”.

“I am forced to repeat even the most repellant occurrence. My sanity insists upon it. Insists I wring from every cell the poisoned thoughts, polluted deeds, and malicious intentions that would, if not puked forth, riddle me with disease” – ‘Drunk on Fuck’

Lunch remains a ‘Teenage Jesus’ even though she has now reached 60 and her rage is essentially Old Testament. There is a sense of arrested development, of being stuck in an uncompromising zealot mode of disgust and outrage. So Real It Hurts doesn’t stray too far from Lunch’s original template, transcendence through a logorrheic outpouring of righteous rage and fury, lashing out and staring down a hostile, senseless world with her own theatre of cruelty. But in its quieter moments another voice emerges, not quite of harmony and inner peace but nascent acceptance. Life is still a killer but the hurt becomes manageable as we get older.

So Real It Hurts by Lydia Lunch is available now from Seven Stories Press

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