In 1998, shortly after his feature-length directorial debut, Gummo, Harmony Korine published a novel called A Crackup at the Race Riots. The book is built from an insane collage of images and thoughts, including lists of ideas for movies, titles for novels, suicide notes, joke routines, celebrity rumors, and strange short scenes and dialogues involving rapists, amputees, dogs, vaudeville performers, and manic-depressives. Like all of Korine’s work, it is a rare collision of fun, fucked, funny, sad, and bizarre—the kind of thing you pick up every so often just to buzz your brain. For years the book has been out of print, fetching prices upward of $300 used online, until recently when it was repackaged and rereleased by Drag City. Harmony was kind enough to get on the phone with me and talk about the making of the book.
VICE: The first thing the reader sees when they open A Crackup at the Race Riots is a picture of MC Hammer at age 11. Why did you decide to start the book that way?
Harmony Korine: At the time I was doing a lot of narcotics. I remember basically the process was that I would hear things, or I would see things… I would hear somebody walking down the street, and maybe they’d say something interesting, and I’d put it on a piece of paper. Or I would see a pair of socks hanging from a telephone pole with a Star of David on the ankle, and I would just write that. Or whatever… I’d see someone juggling some toilet paper, and I would describe that. And then I would see a picture of MC Hammer at age 11, and I would just think maybe it all kind of came from his imagination.
The book is a thought in MC Hammer’s mind?
Well, it could be. Like most things in life, it could be. [laughs]
So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you basically started acquiring bits and pieces and then just let them fall as they may on the paper, in the order you found them?
Not exactly. What happened was I would just write everything down. I’d write things in crayon or on the side of the wall in my apartment, or on a typewriter or whatever. You would just see things, you know… cut them out of books. I might hear something really crazy that somebody said on a city bus, like somebody might be spewing some kind of crazy racial rant, and then I’d go back home and write that down, and then I would just look at it for a while, and I would imagine, like, What if it wasn’t that guy on the bus? What if Harrison Ford said that? What if I was actually riding a horse or something, and Harrison Ford was riding a horse, and we were riding somewhere, we could even be racing, and what if he just turned to me, and he said that same exact thing that I just heard? And I was like, Whoa! The context completely changed the humor. That’s basically what the book is. I started thinking about it like that, and there started to be these thematic connections in that way, and after I had amassed all of these fragments, these tripped-out, micro narco blurts, I went back and recontextualized them into something that was closer to a novel, or closer to a novel idea.
You gathered things from reality and imagination and pop culture and shit on the bus and grew it until you were finally at a point that seemed complete.
And also thinking of the idea of authorship, and anti-authorship, and appropriating certain types of writing, taking credit for that writing, maybe manipulating it, or writing something and giving someone else credit for it, or fake quotations, or a kind of mixture of real quotations and manipulated quotations, trying to blend them in such a way that even I didn’t know where one began and the other ended. I remember seeing all those Sherrie Levine photographs, those re-photographed Walker Evans photos, and wondering if there was a way to make a book that worked like that. Something that still had a soul but at the same time was kind of inexplicable. A kind of anti-authorship. Or I wanted to write a book with pages missing in all the right places.
I’ve heard you say something before like, “Not perfect sense, but perfect nonsense.”
Yeah. You know, like I’d write titles for books I wanted to write, then I would see that the titles were more interesting than the book, and I would say maybe the book would actually kill the title. Maybe the title is better than the full book. It’s like that page [in A Crackup at the Race Riots] that just says “hepburn.” I’d spent like three years just trying to figure out what would be the perfect one word novel. And I finally thought of the word “hepburn.” And it was the last page in the book. It just made perfect sense. I felt like all the answers to the world were wrapped up in those letters—or actually not answers, but all the questions.
The fact that you don’t limit or qualify it allows it to be that much bigger.
For sure. And at the same time I wanted it to tell a story too. It’s the unspoken story that’s the real story. It’s the blankness around the word.
What is plot, to you?
The idea of a plot is unattractive, because I never liked people who plotted out their lives. I don’t like people who plot too much. I try to stay away from people who plot. But a story can be more liquid. It can be without a point. It can be more impressionistic. So the book is a story, but I don’t think the book is a plot.
So there’s a gap between what plot and story are?
A story is like we’re walking down the street and I see a guy and he leaves his shoes in front of a tanning salon. So I go and I pick up his shoes, and inside his shoes there’s a note, and the note says, “If you call this number, I’ll give you three gold bars and a blowjob.” So you call that number, and you go to that person’s house, and actually… uh, it’s your, uh, guidance counselor, and it was just a ploy to get you to take your MMP personality test to figure out which school you should go to. So you go in there, and you take the test, he grades it right in front of you, says you should become a bricklayer. You don’t listen to him, you go back home, your mom cooks you dinner, and you go to sleep. And that’s a great story, right? But I can’t tell you what the plot is.
I always thought plot was a prop word Americans were taught to eat the shit that most of our entertainment is. There’s a plot in that story you just told, but it’s not a redemptive plot, or any of those things that people are trained to look for.
Maybe it’s more anti-American.
I think not plotting would be considered a terrorist act to some people.
I agree with you.
I was reading the Amazon reviews that people wrote of your book in, like, 1999, when it first came out. I really like one-star Amazon reviews because it often seems like the person got the book totally wrong, and somehow then their perspective becomes interesting—like how did you get it so wrong that it’s almost like you read a different book?
Or what’s great is when that type of description makes you want to read it more than anything. Like sometimes you read those things, and you’re like, Man, if that same person had just written that and changed it to a five-star review, it could be the greatest endorsement of all time. Everything that they railed against, everything that they hated, was exactly what you loved.
This one reviewer said your novel reminded him of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. He was trying to be rude, but I thought that was kind of a beautiful accidental parallel, both somewhat in style and how your book is in some ways a Rolodex of atrocities and hate speech and so on.
I never read The 120 Days of Sodom, but I will say at the time I was reading lots of joke books, like the Milton Berle joke books, or the biography of Henny Youngman. I also read this book someone had written about the history of molestation in the Boy Scouts. This was obviously pre-internet days, so there were certain books that just explored the mythology of celebrities. And books of lists. I had a book that was just a compilation of things that were written on bathroom walls: profanities, slogans, platitudes. And I had also liked the idea of Walter Benjamin, when he talked about how the great novel would be a book consisting entirely of other people’s quotations. I was interested in that and seeing if there was a way to do that in words. To deconstruct authorship. To recontextualize it in some way and at the same time, make it funny like a joke book.
Were there different freedoms in writing a book of ideas as opposed to making a film of ideas?
It was more immediate, obviously. It was something I could just think up and it existed on its own, and I didn’t have to deal with other people. More singular and aggressive and immediate. It was just fun, there wasn’t so much at stake. A lot of it was a reflection of the way I was thinking about things at that time. It felt more like I was a strange conduit to all these ideas, and I didn’t really know how to buffer there, or where they were coming from, or why I was attracted to whatever it was I was attracted to. It was kind of trying to make sense of that, or to create my own logic. To entertain myself, really.
There’s a moment early on in the book where it says, “He thought to himself, this scene would probably cost around $200,000 to replicate on film.” That made the book feel really funny after that, like if you started thinking about how difficult and time consuming and expensive it would be to film all of the ideas in this book. It’s like the book is a film that would cost an impossible amount.
Exactly. You could just have some scene where two people are dancing in a room, and they’re just dancing in, like, a bare room, and there’s nothing there except a window. But then they go and put the radio on, and it’s a Rolling Stones song, and then all of a sudden that fucking scene costs 2 million dollars. It’s enough to make you hate the Rolling Stones.
Do you think it's important to feel alone as an artist?
I guess I just always accepted that that’s the way it’s going to be. I never really knew anything else. I wasn’t really looking for acceptance. It was more like just trying to do something beautiful. Make a body of work that was beautiful. And so I just always thought that you can only ever really be alone. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Or what’s the point? There are things obviously beyond money and pussy. Not many things, but…
Previously by Blake Butler - The Unrelenting Novels of Thomas Bernhard