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Iris Owens

Iris Owens (1929–2008) is the author of After Claude, which came out in 1973. A second novel, Hope Diamond Refuses, loosely based on her marriage to an Iranian prince, was published in 1984.

Blurbs

"One of the earliest portraits of the female antihero, a sort of distaff Notes From Underground. It was very funny."

– Anatole Broyard, The New York Times

"Barbed, bitchy and hilariously sour."

– Kenneth Tynan

"Harriet tells her story like a female Lenny Bruce. I was laughing too hard to see the page."

– John Lahr

"Spiky with mockery, carbon steel wit and mature observation."

– The Village Voice

"Novels like Fear of Flying and After Claude created a fresh voice that made us want to laugh out loud, pass the book around, read funny bits to our friends."

– Morris Dickstein, The New York Times

Reviews

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After Claude

After Claude by Iris Owens and Zipper Mouth by Laurie Weeks

02/15/12

I’m going to cheat and recommend two books, even though I was asked to recommend only one. I’m cheating in part because I can’t decide, and in part because I think these two books are interesting when read together, or remembered together, or placed side by side. Or so they have sat on my mental bookshelf for the past several months. The first is After Claude by Iris Owens, which was first published in 1973, and which was republished by the New York Review of Books in 2010; the second is Zipper Mouth by Laurie Weeks, published in 2011 by the Feminist Press, under the excellent editorial direction of Amy Scholder.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know anything about Iris Owens until I read a 2011 review of After Claude in Bookforum, in which Gerald Howard describes the book as a masterpiece of female abasement, “a foulmouthed comic tour de force, still capable of offending the offendable and casting a blue-streaked spell of hilarity over everyone else.” I bought it right away to see if I agreed; I did. Weeks, on the other hand, I’ve known for years -- I was in fact one of the many anxiously awaiting the publication of any tidbit that could be excised from the obviously brilliant fog of writing that has hovered around her, albeit without any book-length publication, for decades.

Both of these books are drug-addled, downtown New York City abjection narratives with utterly fierce and hilarious first-person narrators, one hailing from the 70s (Owens), the other from the Now (Weeks). Both books are as memorable and caustic as they are slender and rare. By “slender” I mean they both clock in around or under 200 pages, and are compulsively readable in a single sitting; by “rare” I mean that both Owens (who died in 2008) and Weeks (who is alive) have published very little in light of the largesse of their reputations and talents. (This isn’t entirely true in Owens’s case, as she wrote quite a bit of porn as “Harriet Daimler,” but as Howard puts it in Bookforum, “As Harriet Daimler, [Owens] was alarmingly prolific; as Iris Owens she was a dry well. [Stephen] Koch cited to me her ‘capacity for procrastination, indolence, and inaction beyond anything I’ve ever seen in someone so gifted.’” I don’t know enough to say the same of Weeks exactly, and I can’t presume, but it seems that something of the sort is also at hand, which makes the publication of Zipper Mouth a cause for celebration.

So those are the similarities. Beyond that, the books are very different. Owens’s narrator (who is named Harriet, of all things) is utterly awful -- self-loathing and loathing of all others -- and does horrible things, like surprising a friend by planting a strange, naked man she’s found in a single’s ad in her friend’s bed to “liberate” her, or changing the locks on the apartment of the titular Claude, whose apartment she has refused to leave. Owens gives us keen, often riotous metaphors for how shitty all the drugs, alcohol, rejection, and abjection make Harriet feel, but beyond that invention, After Claude is decidedly sublunary, rooted in the endless, despicable present. Zipper Mouth, on the other hand, is hallucinatory and roving, allowing for dreams, specters, epistolary interludes, lyric and temporal vaulting. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Weeks’s narrator is a romantic rather than a cynic, and remains completely enthralled to desire -- most notably, for beautiful, taunting, straight girl Jane, and when Jane can’t be had, for dope. Weeks’s narrator is essentially defined -- like the subject of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse -- as the one who loves. As a result, there’s a kaleidoscopic longing and poetic range in Zipper Mouth -- not to mention a welcome queerness -- that After Claude decidedly does not have.

That said, I find both books quite moving, albeit in distinct ways. As some have disapprovingly noted, After Claude reads like two different books—first, the story of Harriet and Claude; then of Harriet’s post-Claude trip to the Chelsea Hotel, where she has a nightmarish run-in with a 70s guru / hippie / creep / cult-y guy who wheedles her into masturbating on (audio) tape, which he then plans to bring back some gross archive he keeps at his harem-cum-Waco outpost. The conclusion of the book finds Harriet totally distraught, as she really did relax and come in the guy’s presence with an unusual vulnerability. The novel’s last line, “I opened a fresh pack of Marlboros and stared at the brown and white circles. I had no thoughts, only a dim awareness of myself listening and waiting,” is haunting. Weeks’s book also has a defiantly non-happy (though beautiful, rushing) ending: “The sun she is gorgeous but the golden tresses of her rays are tumbling into the abyss and are lost.” As witty, likeable, and compelling as Weeks’s narrator is, she isn’t ever going to get the girl, and dope will keep winning its mean game. The past (which involves wincing flashbacks of an alcoholic father) will keep pulsing with trauma; the present will stay alive with a crackling but cyclical pathos (as in the scene in which the narrator ends up bringing home a paranoid homeless junkie she once gave $5 to at the ATM; an interminable night of drugs, vomiting, showering, and insane conversation follows, making for one of the best scenes in the book).

The triumph of both books lies in their language, their sentences, their figures of speech, their unrivaled humor, and their anarchic and wild sound of women taking no prisoners—a still underheard and underrated sound in fiction, as in life. As far as drug memoirs go, either of these two books holds more interest for me than all the On the Roads and Cain’s Books out there. For instead of producing a weary fatigue, that here-we-go-again feeling I get when faced with an existentially burdened, drug addicted, misogynist male character or writer being made heroic by literary sleight of hand, or by the still rabidly (if unconsciously) sexist forces that create and perpetuate literary history, these two heroines and their creators make me feel endless interest, radical discomfort, a profound sense of accompaniment and recognition, and a totally necessary sense of artistic permission and possibility. Maybe you will feel the same, I don’t know. Read them tonight.

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1 Comment

  1. Jordan Blum said on 02/19/12 at 12:21 pm Reply

    I suppose I’m equally embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of either of these authors until this post, so don’t feel too bad about that. I love how you end with “Read them tonight.” What if I don’t! But I am quite interested now to read them at some point. I was reminded of Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” while reading this post. I’m not completely sure why, but maybe there is a connection amongst the three books. In any case, I love abject subjects and not-so-nice protagonists, so I’ll look into these books.

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