I think Jill Rapaport’s new collection of short stories, Duchamp et Moi, has been praised for the wrong reasons, talk of “individual sentences shimmering,” and so on. This has been said in the mistaken impression that Rapaport is first and foremost a brilliant, insightful writer of literature. To speak a bit illogically, I would say these qualities and this designation are second and foremost. Primarily, she is a social historian, documenting the psychic cost that has accrued to New York’s inhabitants over the last few decades as the powers that be have conducted an all-out war against artists, free spirits, and, in truth, anyone who even dreams of freedom.
When Mayor Bloomberg first got elected — obviously prodded in this by the financial establishment, for which, with his perennially rumpled suit, he was something of a down-market puppet – he had one big question: Can we create a society that is totally mindless? Of course, as he worked toward this goal, he was only treading a path, as ably documented by Clayton Patterson, that former mayors had already traveled, doing everything they could to empty Manhattan of the poor and artists, who, craven as many of them were, could still not be trusted, on rare occasions, not to bite the hand that feeds them … crumbs.
However, worse than that, in the elites’ eyes, artists can create a bohemia where experiments with a non-commodified life flourish; and in some ways this, the ability to live according to different rhythms than those of the business cycle, is more threatening to the reigning elite than the creation of art.
So, astutely enough, the heroine of Rapaport’s tales is never shown making art, but rather, chaotically and faux-awkwardly, living her private life in close communion with her desires, come what may. In one of the most humorous tales in the book, what Carol Wierzbicki calls “scorchingly funny,” she re-meets an old acquaintance of her ex’s at a deli, invites him to her place, and, without much ado, jumps his bones. Then, as if thinking of an unimportant matter, she mentions, as they pause, half undressed:
I told him we didn’t have too long before my boyfriend got back.
Rick [the pickup] jerked his head up with a look of astonishment. “He’s coming here?” he asked.
“He lives here,” I replied; I think I laughed.
In another, even more startling example of winging it, the heroine is accosted by a possibly homeless (though not homely) street waif, who asks if he can walk with her. After trudging around a while, they sit on a stoop and begin necking. Next, they stumble into a vacant courtyard. “He started kissing me hard, driving his tongue way inside my mouth. He started twisting this body and grinding his hips against mine.” She suddenly flashes what a dangerous and volatile situation she has gotten herself into, noting, “I had only been going along with things.” Then, “We were in a deserted courtyard: he was somebody I did not know; and there’d be nobody to hear it if I screamed.”
I’m giving something of a false impression here by mentioning examples that have an erotic component, suggesting these are the only deviations from normality our heroine indulges in. However, she engages in equally daring/foolhardy actions on all social fronts. When, for instance, a belligerent, large, maybe drunken man is cursing out the Chinese cashier at her local taco place, she steps up to him and says, more or less, “Pipe down.” Again, not the safest behavior option in those circumstances.
But, to correct another false impression, the bulk of the book doesn’t recount such exciting episodes, but ones that are in a way even more threatening since any untoward actions can have even more adverse (in the long term) consequences, namely, those associated with getting and keeping a job in one of the corporate nautiluses so as to earn enough part time cash to eke by.
It’s never easy to get by as a temp, however, the underlying message of Duchamp is that, over the decades, part-time gigs have gotten harder to come by and less user-friendly. In the early years, the bohemian crews assembled for these off-kilter, off hours (weekends or lobster shifts) gigs were given a lot of leeway. You could still, as it were, at least fly your freak flag at half mast at your day job. At one place described, the night shift supervisor is more ignored than obeyed. He was hardly running a tight ship in that “everyone took too long on their breaks, came in late, refused requests that they work overtime in a crunch, and got away with as little work, done as slowly, and with as many interruptions, to take or make long phone calls, as they could.”
Still, time passes, and the corporate mandate to increase productivity as well as the drying up of easy-to-find jobs makes it more dangerous to lose your paying employment. So, in another funny story, one of the funniest you’ll find this side of Lenny Bruce, the heroine tries to fit in with her mainstream co-workers by joining them for lunch. But how fit in when they are so annoyingly one track? “The menus had been opened merely, it seemed, to verify the page of the standing order. Katthie, Sharrie and Vickkie went first, all three of them ordering fruit salad with cottage cheese.”
In one of the last stories, as he on-the-job autonomy is slipping by the second, she has to beg her way back into employment with a company she left with a sneer five or six years earlier. In her first time at the firm, then located in the South Street Seaport area, she could spend her lunch hours, “marking with small bits of muffins that storefronts of merchants of whom, using the crumbs as flags, she would avail herself of later.” Now, the firm has moved to upper Park Avenue. Getting the job is a trial in itself as this passage, so sharp it seems etched in diamond, where she meets her new boss.
“Welcome home,” the man in the room had said. …
He had beamed, and used his quiet, creeping voice on her, but when she mentioned rates, he smiled less and said that he thought ten would do. Didn’t she?
She had been planning on asking fifteen. Barbie had told her they all got around fifteen.
“Ten?” she repeated, trying to avoid too great a look of agreeability.
“I think ten is fair, don’t you,” he pressed.
I should mention that along with her skill as a social historian and stylist, she introduces a new literary device, the imploding aside. She begins with a casual mention of something that seems very peripheral to the narrative, like the color of corporate wall paper, then, unexpectedly, begins to rant as if storming the heavens. Take this passage, which begins with a description of an innocuous landscape painting on an office wall. “There was a blue, white and green portrait of a house in a bucolic … setting—another of the increasingly frequent allusions made by the ruling titans of corporate business to the supposed dearness to them of the very world which by their depredations they had caused to sicken and die, and to vanish forever, as they loomed over it, grinding their boot heels in its face.”
Perhaps you’ve already gotten the idea that, like recent works by Alan Kaufman (Drunken Angel) Bonny Finberg (Kali’s Day), Carl Watson (Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming) and Ron Kolm (Plastic Factory), this is not a book for everyone. Only those who have intelligence to see that our current system has placed unrelenting, undermining pressures on creativity and free spiritedness will have the courage to read this book and be rewarded with coruscating wit, rib-tickling situations, gem-like introspection, and an unnerving tour of Manhattan’s recent history, all of this rendered with a very trenchant fire.
Duchamp et Moi by Jill Rapaport, (New York: Fly by Night Press, 2014)
reviewed by Jim Feast