In the Review’s April 20 issue, Negar Azimi reviews the irresistibly titled Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a collection of Cookie Mueller’s “by turns shocking and disarming, homespun yet wildly entertaining” short stories. It’s impossible to pin Mueller, an actress, writer, and indelible figure of New York’s counterculture in the 1980s, to any particular genre; not only did she write sly advice columns for downtown newspapers, she was also something between a collaborator and a muse for the likes of John Waters and Nan Goldin. Mueller called her stories “novels for people with short attention spans”; Azimi describes them as “a lucidly uproarious breed of storytelling, neither fiction nor nonfiction yet both.” Originally published in 1990, a year after Mueller’s death from AIDS-related complications, they were recently released in a new edition by Semiotext(e).
Azimi has also applied her talents widely, writing criticism, editing the magazine and curatorial project Bidoun, organizing exhibitions, and coediting Deadlines and Divine Distractions, an online publication of her friends’ and other artists’ correspondence. We e-mailed this week about topics ranging from Mueller’s life and prose style to that forever vexed designation, “downtown.”
Lauren Kane: How did you first come to Cookie Mueller’s work?
Negar Azimi: I knew her face before I knew her “work.” An unforgettable face, as it happens, glimpsed in the pages of Nan Goldin’s photo book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I vaguely knew Mueller had written this or that because I had seen her name on one of the Hanuman Books, the perfect pocket-sized editions that Francesco Clemente and Raymond Foye published in the 1980s, which also featured the illustrious likes of Eileen Myles, Gary Indiana, and William Burroughs. But I didn’t know anything about the extent or nature of her writing until I met the artist Chloé Griffin one summer in Beirut, probably around 2009. Chloé was deep into working on what would become Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller (2014), a glorious oral history. I’m an ardent fan of the genre—Edie: American Girl (1982), assembled by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, is one of my favorite books. Edgewise feels like a spiritual successor to Edie—I can’t overemphasize how wild and accomplished and unputdownable it is.
What might surprise a new reader who has only a cursory idea of Mueller’s biography?
Cookie is full of surprises. If you know her primarily for her scene-stealing parts in John Waters’s films or her reputation as a legendary countercultural party girl, you might never know that she was a writer of such humor, originality, and heart. I suggest in the essay that her stories read like alternative American folktales, full of horror, humor, wisdom, and guile. All of which is to say, she was a serious writer!
You attribute to her style a “talky quality that recalls Eve Babitz’s Hollywood chronicles.” I’d love to hear more about the texture of her writing—what are its strengths and weaknesses? Do you have any favorite moments in her writing that didn’t make it into your piece?
Like Babitz, Cookie’s stories have the quality of a late-night yarn. A little like After Hours (1985), the epic Scorsese film set over the course of one night in Manhattan. A lot of her tales have that kind of hallucinatory quality, a sort of urban picaresque, but crooked, in a good way. Her stories—and mind you, “story” is a capacious rubric—are mad, improbable, surreal, propulsive. The prose is simple and inviting, but when one steps back, it’s often more crafted than it might at first seem. Cookie can be philosophical, too. In one story, as a hitched ride begins to go horrifically off the rails, she zooms out to qualify a remark about the men who have effectively kidnapped her and her friends: “There comes a time when even the most optimistic people, like myself, realize that life among certain humans cannot be easy, that sometimes it is unmanageable and low-down, that all people are quixotic, and haunted, and burdened, and there’s just no way to lift their load for them…. These were those certain humans.” As for weaknesses, I suppose I could say that some of her stories feel unfinished. They trail off rather than end, or end when they feel like they’re just beginning. A little like her own life. Cookie was said to have been working on a novel when she died. What would that have been like? I can’t help but wonder.
Which writers do you think influenced her prose style? And are there writers who you think can credit her influence?
I wish I knew who Cookie read and looked up to—I’m dying to know. She didn’t write about other writers very often. Chris Kraus, who published the original edition of Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black in 1990, sees traces of Carson McCullers in Cookie’s writing—a light touch with dark materials—and I can see that, too. I mentioned Jane Bowles in my essay. Like Bowles, many of her characters seem to have been born at an odd angle to the universe. As for her influence, it’s hard to gauge. Her work has been so hard to find for so long. But maybe I can say that for many younger writers, and maybe especially women, Cookie is the ancestor we’ve been waiting for.
How would you define the “downtown scene” of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Do you think that it’s oversold or overreferenced? Can we call its members part of a movement?
One of the great commentaries on the deification of downtown, to my mind, is Tobi Haslett’s 2016 essay about Gary Indiana in n+1, which opens with a description of New York University’s Fales Library and its Downtown Collection: “It was, among other things, a tribute to the bohemia that NYU had happily destroyed.” He notes the irony of Gary’s papers finding a home at Fales, given his history of grousing about the idea of “downtown” itself, writing that “the word was a fetish, a slur—a ‘punitive construct’ dreamed up by the New Yorker to mark anyone who baffled the upper middle class.” Perhaps so. But damned if you deify, damned if you don’t. From where I sit, the New York of that era, for whatever reasons, cheap rent among them, seems to have been a haven for adventurous souls. There were promiscuous encounters between filmmakers, musicians, artists, and writers, often transpiring in nightclubs, impromptu galleries, and off-off-off-Broadway theaters. Whether it was a scene or a moment or a movement, it was real; and it came to an end amid AIDS and gentrification. I wasn’t there, but I admit to being more than a little romanced by it.
Not unrelatedly, my colleagues and I at Bidoun have been working on a project about the life and times of Nicolas Moufarrege, an extraordinary Lebanese artist/writer-philosopher/curator who arrived in New York in 1981 and for whom the East Village was, for a time, a utopia—in his own words “a pulsing heart within the metropolis,” where “different drummers unite in a Zeitgeist despite their varying and very personal rhythms.” Like Cookie, Moufarrege died of AIDS. Like Cookie’s, his work—mythomaniacal needlework “paintings” of rare humor and imagination—stands on its own, independent of the glamour, or stench, of “downtown.”
For several years, you and the curator Pati Hertling—deputy director of Performance Space New York—have been making a project called Deadlines and Divine Distractions. What is the organizing concept behind it, and how did it come about?
I love letters. Isn’t all of our best writing to be found in them? Pati and I have been working on projects together for ten years or more, and this particular one came out of an idea of hers to commission writerly dispatches from friends in various cities. It evolved into the notion of reaching out to people whose work we loved, and requesting a letter of any sort, shape, size. I suppose the archive we’re amassing will amount to a fractured and partial picture of a time and a place and some people. Maybe not much more. I’m only remembering now that the name hails from Cookie via Chloé Griffin—“Deadlines and Divine Distractions” is the title of the chapter devoted to Cookie’s adventures in New York in the 1980s. Our DDD is very occasional and done with no budget, but it has yielded so many gems. I think of these letters as psychic dispatches. The next iteration will feature, among other things, a perfect letter about expired but still tender love from a young poet named Aria Aber. It left me in tears.