Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jerk
In Eric Bogosian’s new novel, he conjures a young writer who seems oddly like the author of Talk Radio. Bogosian talked to The Daily Beast about his dark Rothian doppelganger.
An acclaimed actor, playwright, and novelist, Eric Bogosian is best known for starring in the film adaptation of his play Talk Radio and in NBC’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent. His third novel, Perforated Heart, follows a washed-up writer and misanthrope, Richard Morris, through his metaphorically convenient heart surgery via a series of journal entries. When the aging Morris discovers the journals he kept when he first came to New York 30 years earlier, he begins to revisit his past in an effort to understand his own loneliness.
“Richard, like many men I know, is specifically looking to have relationships with women who he can overpower [so] he doesn’t have to meet them halfway.”
The book hinges on the resonance between the embittered older Richard and the naïve and drug-addled younger Richard through a series of failed relationships and empty trysts. Perforated Heart is a meditation on memory, identity, and the fleeting nature of fame. Bogosian talked to The Daily Beast about his pitiless new book, and how great artists can also be big jerks.
You have some surface similarities to Richard Morris, the misanthrope at the center of Perforated Heart. Both of you are from Massachusetts, both of you write, both of you came to the New York in the 1970s and worked at experimental art collectives. How do you relate to Richard?
[The book asks] “What would happen to me had I not, in 1980 met my wife and married her six weeks later, ten weeks later?” I married her and began a road toward a level of discipline and organization that wasn’t my lifestyle. What happens if the guy becomes sort of single his whole life?
When my kids were small and they took up so much time and I wasn’t doing drugs anymore or anything I thought, man, this is like having a drug habit and it’s taking up a lot of my time and maybe it’s slowing me down as an artist. I wasn’t sure. You worry about things like that, I mean you see that your colleagues, their only priority is their work and I wanted to think about that.
On stage, you’ve said you depict characters who aren’t “nice people” and who represent parts of you that you find problematic, parts of you “don’t write pieces on.” Has that changed?
For me, this book is an X-ray of an artist. [Artists present] themselves to the world as being thoughtful and involved in life in such a way as to digest it and understand it and then present it to everybody out there via their writing or their directing or their painting or whatever and saying, here, “I’ve gone off and lived and I’ve grabbed up all this stuff and I’ve brought the best attention I can do it.” We don’t sit around and think that this artist hero of ours is actually a petty shit and [that] their whole point of view is corrupted by the fact that they are so petty and self-involved to a level that is breathtaking.
My favorite moment in the book is a moment when [Richard’s] reading about his ex-girlfriend in the newspaper and she doesn’t even mention him and she’s dating somebody [else], and it’s upsetting him, and he ends up writing all day. That’s his solution when he’s in pain—he writes. That’s how come you write, you write because you have to write, not because you need to write. Really, writers write because they have to write.
In the book, one character says that great writers write the same story over and over, the story of “one more guy mesmerized by his own dick, wandering around the wreckage of his life.” Is this what this book is really about?
Well it is that. There’s a lot of connection in this book to Bellow and Roth and particularly Humboldt’s Gift. Humboldt’s Gift is about an ambitious writer, and a guy who’s kind of a spiritual master of the writing world, Humboldt, and the whole point in that book is that the Humboldt guy falls completely apart and dies and the more ambitious guy doesn’t. Well that’s what [Richard’s] doing, but I’m hoping that the book is entertaining and at the same time a fun kind of puzzle where you can keep thinking back and forth of how he ended up in this particular situation.
This book is so bleak about the relationship between men and women.
Yeah, I think some women don’t like that…Women buy books. Too bad there aren’t more sexes so we could have more variety in what people want or don’t want from writers.
Why does Richard have this bleak view?
Richard’s a writer, but Richard’s also a guy with a great degree of power in society and because of that he can do whatever he wants to do a lot of the time and he does. In fact he’s surprised when he can’t do what he wants to do. That intrigues me, men’s power in the world and how they move through it to get what they want. Is this a relationship between all men and women? No. I think this is a relationship where this guy really loses. One of the reasons why he’s so unhappy all of the time is that he lacks any capacity for a transcendent relationship with any of the people in his life. Richard, like many men I know, is specifically looking to have relationships with women who he can overpower [so] he doesn’t have to meet them halfway. He’s pathetic and he doesn’t even know that he’s being pathetic, which for me was kind of like the minor saving grace for the character.
His saving grace is also that he tells the truth—he’s aware of how alone he is.
Well, you do that as a writer. I mean, why do people start writing in the first place? You start writing cause you’re a geek and you go, “Yes, yes world, I totally suck at living. I have no girlfriends and I’m a jerk and everybody hates me, however, I write great books, so fuck you.” I mean, we are not jocks. Every once in a while there is a jock, there is that guy who wrote about the perfect storm there, he’s a big jock, but not everybody is that way. Probably Hemingway was just trying to overcompensate.
Is writing fiction different from writing plays, TV scripts, and screenplays?
You write the book, you write the page, you write the words, and the words on that page are the words that somebody’s going to read. And it’s from my mouth into your ear, and I love that. If I’m going to be expressive, I really want to do that in a way that really feels like it’s coming from in me to you. You write the screenplay, [and] people don’t go up to screenplay writers and go “my god, your screenplay, that so spoke to me.” If I write a screenplay and you never see really what I wrote and then the movie comes out and I go “that’s not what I had in mind at all, he completely missed my idea.” Then I can run away, but you can’t run away from a book. You’re completely stuck with it.
Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast. She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play, or LARP.