I’m beginning to hate the phrase “chosen family.” Conducting an interview recently for a well-known “queer” publication, I felt myself physically recoil when an interviewee used that term. Why? Because like queer itself, the phrase, to me at least, feels increasingly hollow—emptied of all meaning—especially as queer becomes a brand identity and chosen families, the ones we’ve gathered around us for networking.
I know, I know. Chosen family is the chosen term. It attempts to explain a close kinship built by particularly those who, for reasons of identity or circumstances, have been alienated from their families of origin. But, it also replaces and diminishes friendship, inadvertently revealing that even for those apparently rethinking all structures in society, friendship still just isn’t that respected. How many novels, films, or artworks are specifically about friendship, without the twist of those friends deciding that they were, in fact, in love the whole time? Not many. Even Hanya Yanagihara’s My Little Life, while at the heart a lengthy novel about four friends, bolsters its overwrought trauma tale with some good old-fashioned soap opera romantic love story theatrics.
The last novel about the affecting love of friendship I can really think of is Dennis Cooper’s stunningly vulnerable I Wished, a career achievement that I wanted to review but then realized I had nothing better to add. I Wished attempts to articulate, through surrealistic twists and turns from Santa’s favorite child to James Turrell’s Roden Crater installation, his love of his late childhood friend and longtime muse, George Miles. The depth of the love in I Wished transcends even romantic love to a lifelong, haunting fixation, ending with the profession: “I worship the flowing lava and whatever else a billion years ago that eventually formed the ground he walks on.” However, I Wished is certainly an exception.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who has noticed the lack of appreciation for friendship. In an interview with Southwest Review, writer Nate Lippens reflects, “People like to lean on the concept of chosen family, but for me and a lot of gay people I know, our families didn’t want us. I didn’t want to recreate a facsimile of those dynamics. I wanted friends. Friendships have been the most important relationships in my life. Friendship is the highest order to me. You’re not bound by blood or sex. You’re creating and sustaining it out of shared interests and a different kind of love than what’s celebrated and rewarded by society.”
Me too, Nate.
It’s friendship, then, that drives Lippens’s novel My Dead Book, which was published last year in the U.S. by Publication Studio and was just released this month in the U.K. by Pilot Press. For those in NYC, Lippens is holding a conversation on his novel, with poet Eileen Myles, who climbed down from a tree in East River Park for the occasion, at Printed Matter on May 12. In fact, Lippens may have penned my favorite description of friendship: “I know the sound of your engine,” in reference to a biker who pulls up to a café and whose roaring motorcycle is recognized by his friend.
As the title should indicate, many of the friends that appear intermittently through Lippens’s fractured novel are dead. The novel opens, “My dead friends are back. I lie in bed at night and see them.” For much of the novel, Lippens’s protagonist, a gay man living in Wisconsin on the cusp of turning 50, sits or lies awake with insomnia, haunted by his late friends rather than getting Botox, buying a Cybertruck, becoming a Dogecoin whale, or whatever else people do when they see that middle-aged landmark birthday looming.
Like the presence and equally rapid disappearance of these ghostly memories, as well as the maddening yet excruciatingly boring experience of insomnia itself, My Dead Book’s protagonist hovers somewhere between life and death—a dream-state purgatory without dreams or sleep. As he considers, “I lie in bed tabulating my crimes and regrets on some imagined yet powerful abacus. I number the dead friends and the living friends and think where I should be filed. Where I fit. Neither column.” The dead column seems startlingly longer if the first chapter is to be believed, which details in rapid succession a selection of his dead friends, including Marshall who “followed Oscar Wilde’s dictum that moderation is a fatal thing, and nothing succeeds like excess,” KC, a dyke on a bike whose “squint and glare game made Clint Eastwood look like the pantywaist actor he was,” and Frank, whose “suicide talk pissed me off. Not because I thought my life was precious or held great promise but because he couldn’t do anything alone.”
This isn’t to say that all the protagonist’s friends are deceased. There’s Rudy, a photographer from an older generation who documented that nostalgia-riddled era of Downtown NYC from the 1980s like an amalgamation of Mark Morrisroe (if he had lived), Jimmy DeSana (if he had lived), and Nan Goldin (if she was a tired queen with a biting wit). Throughout the novel, Rudy holds Warholian marathon telephone calls with the protagonist. Likewise, there’s Brandon, a man from a younger generation who asks the protagonist to explain “what is wrong with older men.” The protagonist answers with a “mini-festo”:
“We were told we had a death wish by people who wished us dead. The generation before mine was wiped out and my generation all thought we would die too. Sex was scary. Intimacy impossible. And now we’re older and there’s this daddy culture. Everyone’s a dad. I’m a fucking daddy. Me. It’s stupid. And it’s all accelerated by apps. We’re all living like sex tourists through our phones.”
That mini-festo precisely locates the narrator within a very specific generational experience—between the generation lost to AIDS and the one unfamiliar with Kaposi sarcoma. The generation, as Thomas Moore similarly explored in his book Alone, specifically when the public terror and moralizing of HIV/AIDS rendered sex integrally linked with death. As Lippens’s narrator reflects, “I think constantly about how my desire was tied to death and how much I believed I wouldn’t live to be forty. I don’t talk about it. No one wants to fuck that story.”
My Dead Book also reveals that it wasn’t just the looming fear of AIDS that marked a generation, but also the very real threat of homophobic violence. Danger lurks in the lives of the men (and few women) who traverse the narrator’s memory in My Dead Book, whether having stones thrown at them at Pride marches at Dubuque, Iowa in 1988 or watching the Hotel Washington burn. There’s no mistake that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s name appears on the first page, before the romantic precarity of life on the edge is quickly dismissed (“Another Wisconsin serial killer”). It’s similarly significant that the narrator’s dead friends died mainly from the traumatic impact of living in the wake of the intersection of a pandemic and homophobia. Suicide. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. And well, sometimes just freak accidents.
My Dead Book isn’t just a litany of causes of death, however. Structured in short bursts of passages—some a sentence or two, others paragraphs long, the novel accurately mimics the effect of memories, thoughts, half-dreams, and barely awake quips drifting in and out of consciousness in the late night and early morning hours. In this sense of meandering, I couldn’t help but think of Tennessee Williams’s description of “the drift” in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which given Lippens’s protagonist’s propensity for watching old movies late at night seems apropos here. As Williams, “There was no sound. Everybody had left. There was nothing to do but drift about the emptiness of the rooms.” This same drifting through emptiness is what Lippens’s protagonist enacts. Despite the plethora of people that populate his memory, he is essentially alone for most of the novel in his “tiny barren apartment with its poverty queen minimalism,” with exception of the very end when, after stepping outside, a passing neighbor in the fog reminds him of his existence.
Yet, the movement and drive forward in the narrative is almost entirely through the protagonist’s memory, which ebbs and flows. Lippens too described his novel in terms of drifting in an interview with Southwest Review: “I wanted to be at sea, to be drifting on loss and memory, and to say remembering doesn’t have to be just nostalgia or melancholy. Remembering is also defiant. I won’t forget no matter how the stories are erased, the dead are buried twice, or the historical record is twisted.”
Many of these memories relate to the protagonist’s prior career as a teenage hustler—or as we’d respectfully say nowadays sex worker—with some of his late friends after leaving school at 15. Many of these old stories are amusing (“Another night, another room. Naked and mad at God because the guy kept saying, ‘Oh, God, oh God.’ Rapture already and get off me”). Others reflect on what being a hustler meant for an effeminate boy in a world that largely disavows male effeminacy (“To be an effeminate boy despised and mocked and at sea in his body, then to be adored and paid to bare that body had been powerful. I believed the words as I said them but I knew I wouldn’t later”).
It’s difficult to read these sections of the novel and not think about other famous hustler writers. Namely, David Wojnarowicz, whose teenage hustling years in Times Square make up just a part of his now near-mythic persona. Wojnarowicz, unsurprisingly, comes up within My Dead Book in a particularly bitingly accurate passage:
“Last summer I asked Rudy, ‘Where do you think all the people who called us bitter in the ’90s are now?’
‘At the Whitney’s David Wojnarowicz exhibit,’ he said.”
Whew. Is that right or what?
Wojnarowicz, in recent years, has developed from being an unceasingly difficult niche artist and writer that some of us who still harbor deep rage held dear to an increasingly institutional, mass-marketed, and manipulated figure, whose artwork appears on clothing lines that he would have hated. Wojnarowicz was never meant to be a popular culture touchstone for the *gag* community. He was for loners, misfits, poors, and weirdos, you know, the minorities who didn’t fit into their own minorities. NOT people going to the Met Gala or buying art at Frieze Art Fair. Perhaps Lippens’s protagonist said it best: “I had no idea anyone would use the term upstanding member and not be talking about a hard-on. ‘As an upstanding member of the LGBTQ community…’ makes me miss a lot of dead and terrible people. Where are my monsters?”
There are monsters, but not OUR monsters, if you know the difference.
Wojnarowicz isn’t the only artist and writer from that Downtown NYC era whose name appears in My Dead Book. Penny Arcade, Jack Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gary Indiana, Ethyl Eichelberger. Yet despite the presence of these distinct New Yorkers, My Dead Book is an unmistakably Midwestern novel, from the snowy terrain that allows the protagonist to cover up his agoraphobia to the admiration of those who managed to make it out (“When I discovered Gena Rowlands was from Madison and Milwaukee it gave me hope. A genius of performance came from my place. She escaped. She washed the Wisconsin out of her speech and carriage. She lived”).
As poignant and as moving as much of the protagonist’s musings and remembrances are, they’re also frequently funny—a deadpan, dry, sardonic word-twisting humor that only comes from someone well-versed in camp wit. Two of my favorites:
“I usually say self-taught or that I dropped out after eighth grade and left home. The last time I used autodidact, someone said, ‘You can suck your own dick?’
‘No, but my life provides ample evidence that I know how to fuck myself.’”
“As a kid in church, I sat and listened to the sermon. The minister said, ‘Jesus suffered and so should we. It’s for our perfecting.’ I looked around. The congregation nodded. These people are nuts, I thought.”
Other times, the humor comes in subtle short observations. For instance, I chuckled at the narrator’s description of eating a “ridiculously large sandwich that marks me as some lunch size queen…” Been there. But, it’s not only the narrator who clearly has a good sense of humor. In particular, his late friend Paul hovers in the narrator’s semi-consciousness with a few one-liner zingers that snarky queer legends like Fran Lebowitz and Oscar Wilde could approve of. This includes, “Bitter is what stupid people call you when you won’t tolerate their bullshit,” “Opinions are not like assholes. I rarely find opinions pleasurable,” and my personal favorite, “Are you getting a case of the sinceres, dear?”
Let’s face it, that sickness is spreading. Humor, at least these days, feels like a rare commodity. Just take a quick gander at Twitter and whatever unimportant argument is happening today. Not a whole lot of laughs to be found. But it’s not just tech platforms, the queer community (blech! As Lippens writes, “When I hear the word community, I think of the stoning scene in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.”) has seemingly abandoned its sense of humor, trading in bile-drenched satire for exhausting moral righteousness. Perhaps even more grating is the authority many seem to take in declaring what is and is not funny, as well as what can and cannot be transformed into humor. Tired. Turns out that along with our monsters, we lost our humor too (these things are likely related).
What the community (ugh!) loses in finding itself on the humorless side of this divide is that humor has always been a survival strategy for queer people and really anyone else marginalized. This is clearly how the wit is wielded in My Dead Book–not as a way to undermine the novel’s seriousness or trauma, but to endure it. As Lippens told 48 Hills, “I also wanted to capture the particular sardonic humor of my generation of gay men. Wit had social currency. If you weren’t rich or beautiful, you had to be funny. It was a way to express a lot of rage and marginalization with style.” With this articulation, Lippens makes a similar distinction to the one David M. Halperin explains in How to Be Gay between the beauty and the camp (which itself mirrors the one made by Warhol, referenced in My Dead Book, between beauties and talkers). As much as we need and lust after beauty, the camp plays a role in, as Halperin writes, “cutting everyone down to size.” He continues, “Camp is about deflating pretension, dismantling hierarchy, and remembering that all queers are stigmatized and no one deserves the kind of dignity that comes at the expense of someone else’s shame. That is also why camp, as we have seen, is inclusive and democratic, why it implies a world of horizontal rather than vertical social relationships.”
The humor that traverses My Dead Book feels like a welcome, comforting release—not only in the context of a novel that spends a lot of time mulling over the deceased and the unattainable past, but also in terms of a contemporary society that finds humor largely something that should be silenced, especially if about something supposedly serious. Why shouldn’t we, in the wake of these losses, dead friends, and a homophobic society, make a little fun? Certainly, the protagonist’s friends understood. And trust me, some of this humor is dark. Take, the passage about the protagonist’s friend Frank’s suicide: “After Frank died, a friend of his said, ‘Tragic—all the misspellings in his suicide note.’” Is that a horrible thing to say? Maybe, or maybe it’s a way to usurp power away from something unthinkably tragic.
All of which reminds me of the spectacular closing bit (which I’ll steal for my closer here) from my favorite thrift store suit-wearing, boozebag comic Doug Stanhope’s most recent standup special, The Dying of a Last Breed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot both in relation to My Dead Book and the proliferating cases of the sinceres I see around me. In this bit, Stanhope tackles the pearl-clutching and finger-wagging at “making fun.” He says, “I’m sorry…Did I take some subjects that are ugly and dark and soul-lacerating, painful, shitty, maybe unavoidable-in-life-kind-of-stuff and I made it FUN? What a dick I must be! Just for attempting that Herculean feat of making awful shit fun. That’s what you have to do in life is try to make fun if you know how life works.”