Performance Artist Karen Finley Does Sociopolitical Slash Fiction
Two lovers meet in an economy motel for their secret tryst. He’s married, she’s divorced. It could be their last meeting for a while, as one heads to prison soon. Although both are successful, they come from different sides of the proverbial tracks. Once alone in their room, though, he starts hitting the drinks, she disrobes, and both excitedly warm into an affair’s danger and its understood roles.
This setup could be the beginning to any trashy romance novel, chick-lit page-turner, soft-core melodrama, or pulpy soap series. It gets much more complicated when the author is performance artist and writer Karen Finley telling the story from the woman’s point of view—especially when the adulterers are George W. Bush and Martha Stewart. Reading Finley’s Stewart write, “‘Fuck mommy between her breasts and give mommy a pearl necklace,’ I say while I pull at his tree,” causes many wheels to turn in the brain, but one labeled erotic isn’t one of them. With George and Martha (Verso), Finley navigates one evening with her inspired pairing, moving from parody to pained honesty with a scarring psychological depth, all in a brisk 100 pages sprinkled with drawings. And in this economical package she achieves one of her tightest and most accessible marriages of disruptive symbolism and psychological probity.
The book itself is an outgrowth of a two-character theater piece that Finley debuted at New York’s Collective Unconscious theater in September 2004. “The performance was much, much more cartoonish,” Finley says over the phone from New York. Eminently friendly, borderline girly, and razor sharp at 9 a.m., Finley—a mild-mannered artist made infamous via her 1990s performance pieces and battles with the Supreme Court over the National Endowment of the Arts denying her funding application (she lost)—sounds like perfect company for an afternoon of shoe shopping broken up with intense discussions about Georges Bataille and Hannah Arendt over a slice of pizza. She recounts her novella’s nexus with an almost maternal fondness, as if remembering a naive child that has since grown up.
“I was nude and painted with prison stripes,” she continues. “The actor [Neal Medlyn] who played George was nude expect for cowboy boots and body-painted with an American flag. Almost all of the dialogue is as it appears in the book, but it was definitely more a performance piece and had a more cartoon sensibility.”
Reading through the book you can suspect what played out as inflated parody. The opening chapters—in which George and Martha try, with varying degrees of success, to satisfy their peculiar sexual proclivities—are fraught with overblown puns and wordplay (“Is my CUNTOLeezZa good enough for you, George?”), broadly drawn jokes that conflate and confuse pop culture and politics (“Did you ever fuck Clinton?” George asks of Martha), Bizarro World personality sketches (including one that culminates with Martha shining a flashlight up George’s asshole looking for Osama bin Laden), and even pot-shot metatextual one-liners that wink at the novella’s allusions:
“Who’s the real George? George Washington? Then I am Martha Washington. I am the first lady after all, George. George and Martha Washington. Hahahaha. Like in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ You probably don’t even know who Edward Albee is!”
I turn on the blow dryer and tousle my hair with a little product.
George is relieved the subject is changing. “Wasn’t he in ‘Green Acres’? I loved that show.”
These over-the-top scenarios serve a very cohesive purpose: They offer absurd comic relief between moments of a mutually abusive relationship at its most uncomfortably intimate. Finley chose to use the New Yorker font for her typeface and include drawings for a similar reason. “What I love about the New Yorker is that you can be reading something horrible, like those reports from Seymour Hersh, and then come across one of those comical little drawings,” she says. “They’re like these little psychotic breaks from the trauma of what you’re reading within the page.”
The book delves further into Martha’s interior world than a theater piece ever could, and in the process both she and George shed their celebrity skins to reveal fragile, damaged adults involved in something bad for them but without which they can’t function. George and Martha outlines an anatomy of codependency that is belly-laugh funny in its quotidian moments and all too familiar to anybody who has gripped tightly to the wrong person. For all its barbed skewering of both figures, the novella is profoundly empathetic.
“We have a tendency to project onto our celebrities reflections of ourselves,” Finley says. “We overburden them and then we like to watch them fall. Martha Stewart was the woman on the pedestal of American dream. And George, I just see him as this, in some ways, this sort of tragic figure. So I wanted peel back the image and get into, not too much, the Freudian psychology of each of them.”
In the process the book becomes less a parody and more a study in emotional wreckage. As their arguments and word games continue—as with Albee’s play—they each circle closer to something resembling honesty, until Martha voices her bile for George’s momma’s boy WASP-y propriety and George dismisses Martha as, basically, an immigrant caterer.
“Even though Martha is successful, she doesn’t have the class power that he does,” Finley says. “And she never will. I don’t think Martha Stewart is ever going to talk about class, and George is very definitely never going to talk about it.”
As with her performance pieces, though, what is sure to stand out is not Finley’s narrative’s complexity but the calculated outlandishness. George and Martha probably isn’t going to win Finley new fans or wholly satisfy the art-thrill gawkers, but it displays a mirthful mastery of short-form comic writing invested with the distressing emotional honesty that Finley injected into performance art.
Of course, that’s not to say that she doesn’t appreciate what she’s done here. “I was trying to think if there was anything in here that might be my contribution to American arts and letters,” she says, and you can almost hear he smile over the line. “And I started wondering, What is radical? What am I contributing to the art of this age? And I think it might be, ‘Mommy’s a ball buster.’”
At one point George and Martha’s back-and-forth pillow talk of “baby” becomes an infantilized mother-son “babying,” and at one point Martha grabs George’s genitals, grits her teeth, and says, “Mommy’s a ball buster.” The accompanying image features a hand gripping a penis and testicles floating in the middle of the page.
“The penis isn’t attached to the body during this scene of baby talk,” Finley continues. “It’s like The Simple Life meeting the castration complex, and I’m just happy that the book is going to be sitting on the shelf of Barnes and Nobles.”
Laura Whitehorn (2/24/2010)
The social-justice activist talks about the Weather Underground, Black Panthers and the double standard of violent action in the U.S.
Remembering Donald Goines (10/22/2009)
Q & A: Jessica Hopper (8/19/2009)
A conversation with the music writer, This American Life consultant and author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking
Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions
That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201