So, This Is America
by Philippa Snow
I I’m not sure I agree with Didion’s claim that Vegas is ‘the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements,’ mainly because I believe this is actually truer of Florida, Florida being a place where one can buy a local paper whose cover describes a cannibal murder (‘CAUSEWAY CANNIBAL HAD BIBLE WHEN HE ATTACKED’), but also the place they built Disneyland. That the Miami Convention Centre is a four-hour drive from The Happiest Place On Earth suggests a place that, while not ‘happy,’ is at the very least ‘happy-adjacent’ — and that the city’s freeways and palm trees and Absolut billboards assemble a very particular theme park, designed for excess. You see them and want to believe in it, which is the dangerous thing of America. I don’t know: maybe the cannibals know something we don’t.
In 2012, in early December, I went for the first and only time to Art Basel in Miami to cover the fair for what I’d call, loosely, ‘professional reasons’. It has not occurred to me to go back since. This is not because the city did not have its own specific beauty, or because I do not care for the heat, but because the experience of attending a big-ticket art fair is a little like attending either a cattle call or a very rich enemy’s wedding. The bar is, in some places, not even complimentary and the art in many places is not even good. I remember using a disposable camera to desultorily snap a number of things in, at, or otherwise outside the fair, including i) a pink silk-satin curtain, ii) a statue of the pieta enrobed in a tanning bed, and iii) a street-mime dressed like a white marble statue of Elvis. Taken cumulatively, these formed a more or less accurate picture of everything; as did the fact that I then lost the camera somewhere in the airport. But I did return home with a half-full box of water retention tablets, so I must have been menstruating, which perhaps explains the gloom.
For some arcane and mysterious reason, almost everything I encountered that week made me anxious. It unnerved me that Starbucks opened twenty-four hours: I don’t know why anyone up at 3am would drink coffee. Out in front, someone had parked a red convertible with an honest-to-God confederate flag sticker right on the bumper, and then, just above it, a sticker of Tom Cruise. A full house of deeply misguided allegiances; the kind of person, in other words, who would buy a Berry Blaster when people were still out in nightclubs. ‘Soylent Green,’ I wrote in a notebook while waiting in line at a Walgreens, ‘is People.’ One morning, I left the small Art Deco apartment I was staying in to find a kitten, dead and totally perfect except for the fact its eye-sockets were empty, outside on the pavement; later that night, my good friend called me and told me our cat had died. This felt cosmic and awful. The heat and the dead strays and all of the tiny, green lizards on every possible surface made things feel like hell, though I didn’t entirely hate it. I walked through a basketball court at night wearing black on black on black, as pale as is humanly possible — I was in this huge dark sunhat, made of straw, that somehow looked like something you’d wear to the beach and like something you’d wear to a funeral — and a group of kids who were shooting hoops stopped dead in their tracks, and one of them yelled: ‘Yo, man, are you a ghost?’ I had to think about it for a minute. I said: ‘Maybe.’
Outside the conference centre, I saw a woman give her ticket away because she thought ‘this’ was all too disappointing. I saw Pharrell, on a quad bike, purr by. I saw P Diddy wearing a black fur coat; at Christmas, yes, but in Miami, where everyone else is in glorified swimwear and where the heat feels like damp plastic. Lindsay Lohan was reportedly out in the Wynwood district until 2:30am, either drinking or not drinking, though I did not get to see her. ‘Despite only staying at the party for an hour,’ E! Entertainment reported, ‘an eyewitness described her as “looking pretty rough.”’ I found this relatable (when, three years later, Lindsay announced her intention of running for President via her Instagram account, it did not seem especially strange to me). Baby blue and peach and rose-coloured stucco houses, wreathed in decorations, tried their best not to look incongruous as they blasted carols from boom boxes. Dentists’ offices tried their best to look like Jay Gatsby’s pool house. Women with 50-year tans tried their best to look 25. Whole Foods tried their best to make two-dollar slices a health food. Richard Prince was launching, I think, either some kind of hard lemonade, or a range of bespoke limoncello. Fendi were showing some screen-prints by Warhol. In a corner bodega, I ended up being approached by this guy who looked like Woody Harrelson; he was bleeding profusely from his mouth as, swigging a 40, he asked for my hand in marriage. I was newly single, and idly wondered whether this might be the only proposal I ever got. Still, I declined. ‘Sorry, man,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s my birthday today, and I ain’t been takin’ it too good.’
I don’t know if he has a wife yet, but he looked like a man who could use one. Maybe he’s the Florida Man that the Twitter account is about; in which case he has Florida Woman. Maybe, it struck me later, I could’ve been Florida Woman. I guess
I’ll always think: what if?
At the end of last year, I wrote in a magazine essay that: ‘London, always hostile, has begun to manifest what Didion called in California “a demented and seductive vortical tension.”’ Everything since then has only gone further downhill. I left the house a matter of days ago to buy a beer and a carton of soup, and a man was swinging a large machete in the general direction of another man in front of the house; a woman, who presumably knew them, had parked her car across a lane of traffic. Everybody just honked. Does anyone really live in London now, or are all of us technically ghosts? I feel as though I awoke one morning at some time within the last few weeks and found that I’d died. Nobody else I know is alive to attend the funeral. We are contributing very little to the world’s stage except an impression of chaos, though Quatari businessmen driving their loud, white Maseratis around the streets of Chelsea and Kennington are still finding the time to say things like ‘I don’t know why people are angry; we are here because this is a luxurious city’ to journalists at the Evening Standard. I don’t know why people are angry, either. Hell is rarely, if ever, described as being ‘quiet.’ The advertising is hardly false.
Most artists and writers with good sense have already left for Los Angeles, chasing good weather and fleeing a no-good economy. Never mind that there is no American dream if you’re poor, not male or, God forbid, not white. Never mind that if you are black and American, living itself is more or less an American nightmare, in which you’re a second or tenth or a hundredth-class citizen. A study by — yes, I am serious— MTV suggests that those born in the 1980s and 1990s remain ‘as loyal to America as any previous generation.’ ‘They are redefining patriotism as an active commitment, rather than an unquestioned obligation,’ says Stephen Friedman, who is MTV’s President and, as such, possesses more power and influence than even future US President Lindsay Lohan. ‘In our global era where young people have witnessed peers around the world face oppression for speaking out, American Millennials are asserting their beliefs through the fundamentally American acts of questioning, challenging and, ultimately, trying to make this country better.’
‘92 percent of the generation,’ the study by MTV continues, ‘shows unwavering support for the American value “to freely express yourself and your opinion,” empowering them to exercise their right to simultaneously applaud and critique America's government, institutions and standing in the world.’ The idea of being so much in love with one’s own environmental paranoia — not unlike somebody stuck in an awful relationship, or like a drug addict; or, worse, a writer — is crazy, but interesting (‘crazy but interesting’ being the best modes for lovers and writers de facto). America’s dangerous kookiness is the thing that keeps everyone interested. It’s a little like national sex appeal: if you were going to fuck a continent, I guess you’d pick the one Marilyn came from. There are around eight thousand wildfires in California each year, so you figure it out.
A little less than a year ago I sat in my bedroom in London and tried to connect with Kenneth Anger over a bad line, first from a gas station just outside LA, and then, later, from a Los Angeles coffee shop that had free WiFi. That Kenneth Anger would ever set foot in a coffee shop offering WiFi had never occurred to me; there is a possibility that it might have been a Starbucks, and that it might have been open for 24 hours a day. I only know that the call itself never materialised, and that each person I told blamed the bad line on something satanic. Of all of the growing evil that I had observed in the world, I had not once suspected the iPhone as conduit — evil had always seemed, to me, more likely to emanate from the Apple Watch: a status symbol for people whose status would, in a just world, be ‘perpetually single.’
‘English zombies!’ says Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, in Pynchon’s stoner fantasia, Inherent Vice. ‘Look at them, man, American zombies are at least out-front about it, tend to stagger when they walk anywhere, usually in third ballet position, and they go like “Uunnhh…uunnhh,” with that rising and falling tone, whereas English zombies are for the most part quite well-spoken, they use long words and they glide everywhere, like, sometimes you don’t even see them take steps, it’s like they’re on ice-skates…’ In my experience, English zombies are different from American zombies mostly because of their weapons; leaving my house to see a man swinging around a machete, I only thanked God that it wasn’t an AK15.
One of only two people I know who has ever lived in America — other than real, authentic Americans — is my partner, T, whom I love for many reasons, but definitely partly because he shares my passion for country and western clothing (‘did I ever tell you,’ he asked me once, ‘about the time I went to Heaven dressed as a cowboy?’ Heaven being a gay club where nobody gets in unless they look gay enough; so, I mean, try to imagine it). He lived in Los Angeles 10 or so years before everyone lived in Los Angeles, and wore white kaftans, and ‘got fat’ from eating burritos and only burritos. Like Sylvia Plath, he is one of those rare morbid writers who hates morbid weather, and thrives in the sun like a fruit or a houseplant; he has the soul of an artist, but thankfully also the bones of somebody whom everyone thinks is good-looking.
It’s impossible not to be envious when you’ve only ever lived in a place where it’s always raining. Miami may have made me anxious, but it offered a certain freedom of expression (‘harsh winters,’ Holly Brubach writes in the introduction to Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz, ‘instil a Calvinist rigor in those obliged to withstand them… perpetual summer would inevitably corrode morals and the will to work.’ My laziness and my degeneracy are miracles, both). Naturally, he relishes my envy, because this is how relationships work — you root for each other, but every once in a while, you are forced to say fuck it and savour your own win. It keeps things more interesting. Hardly a good, graceful loser, I choose the purely American tactic of friendly fire: I impersonate him speaking with emphatic pride about the three months that he lived in ‘The States — the United States. Of America’, though I can scarcely remember whether I do it because it was something he actually said, or because I decided he might have done. Fact and fiction blur when you love somebody for long enough, and your idiosyncrasies merge.
I think the line between ‘mean’ and ‘accurate’ may yet prove to be porous or, worse, nonexistent. It’s possible that I believe this because I am unhinged, and don’t see a therapist. Everybody in New York, I assume, has a therapist; everybody in Los Angeles — again, I assume — has at least three. A specialist for every neurosis: one for Daddy issues, and one for impostor's syndrome, and one for the terrible inability to keep your houseplants alive. My parents sent me, once, to some holistic shrink when I was 15 or 16, and at the end of the session he told me I had an eating disorder and low self-esteem. All I could think was: I'm...a teenage girl? So yes. I never went back, though I did get tired of killing myself in increments eventually, and took up writing instead: an ideal replacement, as then the rejections are from other people instead of yourself, which is — healthier? Saner? ‘Please do continue submitting’ is basically what you are telling yourself with an eating disorder, anyway. Now I just get it by email.
(Per a comment on the Guardian’s website: ‘Not even the shrinks are sane in New York. So why should their patients be?’)
Years ago he, T, bought me a modernist crucifix made of glass, and took it somewhere to get the chain on it fixed; and it dropped on the floor, and the whole thing shattered, and he looked up and said to me, balefully: this feels like a bad omen. This was revealing to me. Up until then, I had always assumed that men only believed in the things they could see, or belittle, or fuck. It's interesting to be the subject of somebody's gaze when they actually look at things. I consider him far too poetic to be a real cowboy, which suits me just fine: I'm the rough-skinned, mule-riding mute in this partnership — or else, the mule. This September, we’ll go to New Orleans and to San Francisco, and he will either refer to it or not refer to it as ‘The States — the United States. Of America,’ and I will find myself totally charmed by the whole thing regardless. It will be heaven, if heaven had motels, which maybe it does: and I will finally see America not as the site of a trade-show, or as the primary residence of Mickey Mouse, or as one nation under both God and Lindsay Lohan, but as the undisputed site of some indefinable icon-magic. In the interests of maintaining my froideur, I’ll say very little about it to anyone; minus a shrink, you are left with no choice but to minimise. People who are open and excited are the same, in my opinion, as strangers who offer to marry you in any place that sells hot-dogs. It’s simply too much.
Photograph by Golded Dusk Photography / Miami Herald