A Talent for the Low & High

Dominique Nabokov
Gary Indiana, New York City, 2000

In an epilogue to I Can Give You Anything But Love, the writer, actor, and artist Gary Indiana explains his decision to avoid the familiar form of the conventional memoir:

At some point I began to prune away anything suggesting the sort of “triumph over adversity” theme that gongs through so much of the so-called memoir genre, paring away most evidence of my eventual career as a writer and artist—which has not, in any case, been an unmitigated triumph over adversity…. Eventually I let go of any pretense of documentary reality, and kept instead the evocation of things happening to a person for the first time, of being young and completely unprepared for life.

Indiana need not have worried about anyone mistaking his book for one of those heartening narratives that charts its author’s voyage through a stormy youth into the bright harbor of a glorious career. Unlike the memoirs that suggest we too can survive childhood trauma and live to tell the tale that, with luck, will become a best seller, I Can Give You Anything But Love is discursive, impressionistic, punctuated by incisive reflections on history and culture, witty evocations of period and place, mystifying forays into character assassination, and frank descriptions of sex.

Indiana, who has written novels, criticism, and plays, who has acted in films and in the theater, and whose video, shot mostly in a dilapidated prison on an island off the coast of Cuba, appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, has created something like a collage composed of discrete events extracted from his past to illustrate what it’s like to be young and clueless. He never suggests we are getting a complete account of his life so far, or a work of trenchant self-analysis. Instead, we may feel that he has turned himself into a literary character: the Gary Indiana who was once young and a mess and is now older and steadier though by no means out of the woods. The voice we hear in these pages is intelligent, obsessive, amusing, self-mocking, extreme, and, on occasion, unpleasant. The author wants to tell us what has happened to him but also to show us the person those experiences produced: a proudly eccentric guy with a wide range of impressive, admirable, and less appealing traits.

The book’s structure more closely resembles the scattershot associations of memory and consciousness than an orderly chronology of personal history. Characters we meet early on return, pages later, greatly changed and diminished, the way the towering figures of our youth can seem, when we encounter them years afterward, to have shrunk to the size of ordinary beings. A chapter may begin in one location—New Hampshire, Boston, San Francisco—and end up in Los Angeles or Manhattan. Interspersed throughout are sections set in Havana, where Indiana has lived, intermittently, for more than…

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