Listener – December 10, 2006
The Man Who Loves to Hate
In the new Landfall, poet and critic John Dolan takes on New Zealand poetry. It’s a bloodbath: “Poets like Mark Pirie have a huge ‘kick me’ sign on their backs … I just wonder why a good poet like Eggleton would waste time on a bad dead one like Fairburn … By far the worst is C K Stead’s smirking gloss …” So who exactly is John Dolan?
I would love to be famous, and I’m not famous. And it rankles. I see unworthy people being famous, and I hate it.”
John Dolan gives that gut-spilling answer to my question, “Why do you invest so much energy writing about people you don’t rate?” His eyes seem to magnify through the thick lenses of his glasses. I see pain, or self-pity, perhaps, or compassion, possibly – not hate. But hang on to that word.
Dolan, who was trained in the Rhetoric Department of UC Berkeley, defies neat packaging. His PhD dissertation was a study of the manipulation of reader sympathy in late Enlightenment literature, based on a comparison of Sade and Richardson. He calls himself a “drug-using anarchist, who is also a very shy, polite middle-class person from a deeply Catholic background”. But he’s “not a Christian, and I’m not a pacifist. New Zealand is full of people who preach Christ without Christ. Nietzsche predicted that after Christian doctrine decayed, Christian ethics would become stronger. I can see that here. I don’t much believe in Christian ethics or Christian doctrine.”
His three books of poetry, People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes (2003), Stuck Up (1995) and Slave (1988), are soon to be published as a single volume entitled My Treaty with Dusk by Capricorn Publishing, the same small American outfit that published his autobiographical novel, Pleasant Hell, earlier this year. The dark comic story of self-loathing and loserdom, which I can imagine adapted into a Coen brothers-type movie, was reviewed favourably, but New Zealand publishers shied away from distributing it. “And I understand why,” Dolan says. “It’s a pretty gross book. I think it’s gross in the way that’s funny, and it only does harm to people who need to be harmed.”
Dolan sent a photograph of his dog to the publishers of one of his books to use for the author’s pic. They wrote back saying they really wanted a photograph of Dolan, so he sent them one, and the publishers replied saying they preferred the dog.
His friend Thierry Jutel tells me this story in his office in the media studies villa at Victoria University. Jutel had invited 50-year-old Dolan, who lives in Auckland with his 27-year-old New Zealand wife, to speak to his first-year students about Dolan’s association with the savagely satirical online magazine The eXile, which was “conceived in sin” in 1997 by two unemployed Americans. They based it in Moscow because there are no libel laws in Russia, and the magazine makes its money running adverts for Russian escort agencies.
Dolan resigned from his job as a senior lecturer in English at the University of Otago in 2002 to co-edit The eXile and lived in Moscow until last year. He is currently the magazine’s literary editor, which is an unsalaried position. Only the Moscow-based staff are paid, and Dolan is looking for a job that pays.
“The eXile is for a community of people who are not happy with the world,” he tells the fresh-faced students. That world is largely the US, but Dolan doesn’t despise all things American. “No, not Bugs Bunny or Little Richard or Philip K Dick or The Simpsons. There are many things in America that I worship. But there are a lot of things about America that I can’t stand. And I feel that’s a moral obligation. I feel it’s a moral obligation to hate one’s enemy. Who can you hate, if not your own compatriots?
“In Russia, for example, I could get real furious at the Russians, but I didn’t quite hate them, for a large part because I didn’t fully understand what was going on. In New Zealand I understand a little better, but I still miss a lot of nuances. That’s why I don’t hate here as much as in America. In America I understand the nuances.”
But Dolan’s reviews don’t respect borders. “If my writing could take revenge I would be very happy. If I’ve ever taken effectual revenge it’s by the book reviews that I do for The eXile. I know this because some of the targets write to me or put me on their websites to defend themselves against me, which implies there’s a palpable hit.”
In the first essay in his “Great Literary Frauds of Our Time” series, he spared no ammunition assailing Arundhati Roy, the first Indian citizen to win a Booker Prize for her book The God of Small Things. He calls Roy a “literary careerist who has parlayed an overwritten melodrama into unearned fame” and says that “her crude scolding warms the hearts of old British lefties who love it when their tame Indian slaves get up on their hind legs to denounce the bloody Americans, who oppress the world so much less skilfully than they used to …”
And in an article titled “Bad Hobbit”, he advised Tolkien loyalists to stay away from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. (“They will nuke your Middle-Earth.”)
In a second article in the new Landfall, he recounts a long night in Berkeley writing on speed (“If this was an account of P use in a New Zealand newspaper, I would have committed some gory crime under the baleful influence of the drug”). “I wrote my first book on speed,” he confesses. “Speed makes writing fun. On speed, writing is glorious, even if the results are not always happy ones. You might spend 10 hours working on one paragraph, and you read it the next day, and you’re appalled. And after having spent all the neuro-transmitters that you’d need for the next six months, it doesn’t make that comedown much easier. But sometimes the results are great. So I just want to thank the chemist who invented amphetamines. Someone should be grateful.”
He percolates when talking about things literary. He considers Janet Frame’s autobiographical writing is “way better than her novels where she gets fancy and Joycey”. He reckons Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to be one of the best books written in the second half of the 20th century, and he has “huge admiration” for Celine. He is also a big fan of Philip K Dick. “The best American novelists are science fiction writers.”
But his voice drops when talking about himself. “If I hadn’t wasted my life … I could have been a contender instead of a bum, which is what I am, a bum,” he moans.
But isn’t he happily married? “I am blissfully married, and my wife is a New Zealander. I don’t think I could have ever been happy with an American wife. My wife is much younger than me, and yet we have nearly every-thing that matters in common. I don’t know how that happened. It’s great, believe me. But it’s very confusing to me …
“Maybe I made a bad genre choice. If I started an apprenticeship as a science fiction novelist in my youth, instead of reading poetry and academic writing, I would be really happy now … I should be doing science fiction or video games or animation or a band. If only I had listened to this friend of mine, who wanted to start a band, which would have been the Californian equivalent of the Fall. That would have been glorious.”
Pleasant Hell takes its name from Pleasant Hill, California, where Dolan spent his formative years. The novel begins in Dunedin, but the bulk of the book is played out in California in the early 1970s. “When I went to Dunedin I didn’t know anybody. I started writing all these emails about ‘Oh poor me’, and I think that’s how I finally got this belated apprenticeship in writing prose narrative, and from that kind of email you can write a memoir pretty easily, like here are some other bad things that happened to me much earlier …”
In the novel, the young John Dolan is a sullen, socially inept nerd with an aversion to bathing. “It’s important to talk about how gross life really is,” Dolan says. “In movies nerds are relatively slim and decent looking. I’m a nerd pedant. I wanted to talk about a nerd who is much grosser …
“Irish Catholicism is not that fond of bodies, of life in general. I come from a very, very conservative Irish Catholic family. I had two Jesuit uncles. We were the real thing. Not one of these Christmas and Easter types – these people who say that their psychological woes come from their Catholic childhood. They only went to mass three times a year. We were the real thing, and it didn’t encourage you to feel well about your body.
“But what I was trying to write about is … growing up after the zenith of the hippie era where for once America was unequivocally in favour of sex, in favour of bodies, in favour of what it called free love.
“I was on the outside, but it sounded awfully good to me. I was acutely aware at the age of 14 that I would betray my family, my faith, my vague Irish nationalism – all that. I would betray it in a second, if Leah Akers, or one of the other hippie goddesses had let me in.”
His parents are not fleshed out in Pleasant Hell, and he doesn’t mention his siblings at all. Why is that? “I have two brothers and they’re not in it. They would never forgive me. My parents are dead. So forgiveness with them is not an issue. I remember this saying, ‘that even buzzards sometimes get hurt’. When I thought about doing our illustrious and doomed and ridiculous family, I just gagged. I’ll do myself, but I won’t do that.
“My parents were out of their time … They were saintly. My mother was beautiful and endearing and unhappy … in a large part thanks to her selfish, fat pig of an eldest son – me.
“My father could have been an Asian language professor or an MD, and he would have been great at either of these professions. But he founded the Dolan School of Memory. He was painfully shy. I was photographed at the age of 12 for a poster for the Dolan School of Memory, which taught adults to read rapidly.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do – to read rapidly, because reading was the only solace, the only consciousness extinguisher I had. And the last thing I wanted to do was speed it up.”
What’s with the hate trip? “Hate isn’t such a strange emotion. I think if people encountered it as it feels, they would be right at home with it. To go on violating is not because I hate, but because I use the word hate. And that is seen as an anti-social act. But I don’t really see why. I guess the model for being willing to say that comes from Celine.
“Celine talked about his work as the language of hatred. He exaggerates his own woes hysterically. He repeats himself. He would never dream of dealing with a subject that wasn’t his own life, and he thwarts it. He’s willing to go too far, and to be unreasonable but he’s just telling you the story the way you tell your friends your best stories – wildly exaggerating everything, repeating yourself, topping yourself, and imagining their interjections, and topping their interjections. I think that’s a really good way to write. It’s funny. It’s readable. It’s not this tedious display of pedantry in the Joycey way …
“That’s what I got from Celine, that you have to go right down to the grossness. The funny thing is if you go right down there you find everybody is with you. They are just as f—ed up themselves.”
How far would he go for fame? “How far would I go to get a tenured job? My friend and fellow academic failure Allan Tinker and I were bemoaning our inability to get professorships. I said, ‘I’d kill, literally kill, for a tenure-track job.’ Allan, who had a great world-weary set of gestures, swept his hand dismissively and said, ‘Oh, kill – that’d be easy!'”