says the writer Travis Jeppesen, in an email I receive from him one rainy Monday morning last September. He’s a million miles away in China, and is clearly getting fashion paranoia regarding some of his portraits for this piece. I don’t blame him… as you can see at the bottom of the page, Travis is wearing an atrocious brown wig (his idea), whilst roaming around the back-street dustbins of Berlin (I think that was my idea) in an old wheelchair
(joint effort). It seemed like a good idea at the time and they are beautiful pictures, taken by Luigi Vi, who you may know as the editor of DUST Magazine.
I try to reassure him a few weeks later when he’s back in London, over drinks in Dalston Superstore. He’d just discreetly revealed to me that he’d be participating in this year’s upcoming Whitney Biennial, the first ever writer to have been included. “Trust me Travis, everyone will want to sleep with you now”, I say, “and then there’s your new novel about to come out… you’ve got everything going for you - you just need to brag about it more". Allow me...
Travis’ new novel is called The Suiciders and is published by Semiotext(e). Gee Whiz: how do I sum it up to you? Travis says it’s about 7 or 8 friends, who may or may not be the same person, and they declare war against their own minds and go on a journey to overthrow reality, all the while accompanied by an adorable pet parrot named Jesus H. Christ. It’s the ultimate friendship adventure story, like an apocalyptic Enid Blyton novel, except none of the characters are called Dick or Fanny, but rest assured there’s plenty of dick and fanny inside.
One of my favourite parts is when a witch uses her magic powers to turn
the gang into hairs (and no, that isn’t a typo: she literally turns them into hairs, as in the hair on your head or under your armpits or in the crevice of your ass): “Zach was a curly red hair; Lukas was a black pube, thin as a wire; Adam was a sparkle hair; Matthew was an afro hair; Jesus was a brown hair. Even though Zach was a hair, he could still drive the car.” If a witch were to turn me into a hair, I’d hope to God she’d turn me into one of Travis’ luscious golden locks. We’ve known each other for a while now: we’ve drank together, laughed together, moaned about London together, jacuzzied together, snorted sherbet together, but I’d never formally interviewed him about his work. It was therefore my esteemed pleasure to visit him in Berlin last summer, where we lounged around his neighbourhood in Kreuzberg, with no clear goal other than to shoot the shit and talk about his life.
OSKAR OPREY: I just finished reading The Suiciders on the way to the airport: what a talented young man you are. How old are you now exactly, if you don’t mind me asking?
OO: You’ve always looked so young though…
OO: Even when you’re working?
OO: Is this why the book took so long to write? Didn’t you work on it for ten years?
TRAVIS JEPPESEN: Thank you.
I’m as old as Jesus when he died: thirty-three, and I’m still waiting to be crucified.
Maybe today will be my lucky day.
TJ: Yeah, I think the key is lots of sleep. I’m kinda always asleep, even when I’m awake.
TJ: Yes, especially when I’m working.
TJ: Yeah, it was a long process of trial and failure… failure after failure. I guess part of the fun and adventure of writing is not having any real idea of what you’re doing and where you’re going.
OO: The Suiciders is such a great title. I read that ‘Suiciders’ wasn’t even a real word until George W. Bush used it in a war speech – the correct term in that context would have been ‘Homicide Bombers’. Is that where you got the idea?
OO: Incredible. I was thinking of using suicide as the theme for your portraits: Travis gassed in the oven, Travis slitting his wrists in the bath... Then VICE magazine beat me to it and did something similar, but it really backfired on them…. I didn’t realize suicide was such a no-go area.
TJ: Actually, George W. Bush got the word from me! A lot of people don’t realize that Bush is a big fan of so-called ‘transgressive literature’. Allow me to explain. A miniaturized version of The Suiciders originally appeared in my first ever publication, a chapbook of short stories called Terminal Illusion, which appeared in 1999. (It’s incredibly rare now, though every once in a while a copy will pop up on eBay.) Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was director of the CIA before he became the 41st President of the United States. Among other things, the CIA has been tasked with monitoring so-called subversive literature. This has been going on at least since the McCarthy era. As such, the Bushes have amassed a massive library of these supposed threatening writers. That included my first chapbook, and probably everything I have published since then. So the younger Bush became an avid reader of this type of material. Apparently they have a big library of it in one of their houses in Texas. I only know this because for a while, I was being vetted for a job as speechwriter in the early years of Bush’s first presidency. Of course it never went anywhere. But the people I was in contact with at the White House informed me of all this, and then a few months after 9/11 happens, voila – Bush starts talking about “suiciders” in one of his “impromptu” ramblings.
TJ: Yeah I heard about this. I don’t know if the characters in my novel – or figures as I prefer to think of them – are really trying to kill themselves though; it’s more like they’re trying to go beyond the state of death in order to live forever. It’s a bit tricky to explain. In a way you can look at my three novels as an unofficial trilogy. So the first, Victims, was about transcendence, followed by Wolf at the Door, which was about immanence, and in this third book I’m trying to open up a third category: they’re constantly suiciding but then they come back to life again afterwards.
OO: And they change names.
OO: Half way through reading the book I didn’t even know who was who, and I didn’t recognize any of the characters. But that didn’t matter because it was hilarious.
OO: You’ve mentioned to me before that you’re interested in the idea of language being used as a drug?
OO: Do you think a lot of people will actually take it in though? It’s not the easiest book to digest.
OO: But would you agree that the main audience will be a very specific, intellectual and in a sense elite readership?
OO: Speaking of which, shall we head out to this bar and meet some elite art world people, and maybe a few criminals?
TJ: And they change identities too. It’s kinda like trying to go completely beyond the permanency of both death and infinite life at the same time.
TJ: The publisher said the same thing; it’s non-linear, a book that doesn’t have a plot, but to me it does and there’s an eternal recurrence. It exists somewhere between the constant movement of a road trip novel, juxtaposed against the stasis of being trapped in the suburban normality of the house. That’s the situation I felt trapped in growing up in North Carolina and I think this is the reality for a lot of Americans.
TJ: Yeah and what I’m trying to do is restore some revolutionary valor to language as an instrument for altering the perceptual currents of anyone who takes it in.
TJ: I don’t think it matters because historically a lot of influential art is rejected at the outset. Any changes that art causes are always on a microcosmic level, so you can’t really think that anything will ever be better than that. It’s like the ocean: you have these tiny little waves, but the tiny little waves can build up and eventually cause a fucking tsunami.
TJ: No, and I don’t think The Suiciders is elitist; I wanted it to be a book that anyone can read. The humor in it is very base and very carnivalesque: fart jokes, dick jokes – everyone can pick up the book and get something out of it, and that’s the opposite of elitist. It’s not even for the working class: it’s for something much lower, a book for the criminal class - that’s who I’m writing for.
TJ: This could be interesting - we could get struck by lightning as we’re doing the interview.
TJ: Well, in London in October I’m going to read the entire novel at the ICA from start to finish. I dunno if it’s going to last ten hours for sure, we think somewhere between eight and ten. So it’s gonna be a sort of performative, endurance-based reading.
TJ: No. This is why I’m doing it in this format because I don’t think that this book excerpts very well. I think it’s good to totally impose it on people. When I visited Pyongyang in North Korea, I was very impressed by the sound system they have installed in all the subway trains, with these speakers that constantly pump out news and propaganda.
TJ: Yep, non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. I thought to myself, God, it would be wonderful if my novels could be read like that. Imagine my novels being read out on the tube of London all day long, just think how much better the world would be.
TJ: Why, is the novel that bad? I think it would do the opposite and cause people to go bat-shit crazy; they’d tear up the structures, fuck on the street and kill the Prime Minister - a total fucking revolution!
TJ: It should be on the bus, also! So that’s the idea; Fidel Castro inspired it as well - he used to give speeches that lasted eight hours.
TJ: There’s also Bela Tarr and his film Satantango, which is like seven hours long. He says the film wasn’t made to be watched in fragments – you should sit and watch the whole thing from start to finish.
OO: Wow that would be great! Our friends could retrieve the Dictaphone from my charred corpse and publish this posthumously. Seeing as we’re gonna be stuck under here for the next ten hours you should tell me about your ten hour reading.
OO: Do you enjoy doing readings?
OO: Non-stop propaganda?
OO: It would drive people insane though, and London Underground passengers are already uptight. They might start throwing themselves in front of the trains.
OO: Or maybe they’d just take the bus.
OO: Reminds me of Wendy Davis: she’s the American politician who spoke non-stop for eleven hours; she was attempting to stop an anti-abortion bill passing through in Texas.
OO: Do you think the ICA is the right location though? Shouldn’t you just hire a bus and blast it out on speakers?
TJ: Unfortunately that’s not within anyone’s budget
But I do believe literature should be enforced upon people, like a rape, and that’s partly in response to the diminishing attention spans of people in our culture that technology and other nefarious forces are affecting.
TJ: Yes, like Facebook.
TJ: I don’t.
TJ: Yeah last year was a lot of travel. Eighteen different cities and eight different countries. It’s like what Deleuze and Guattari say, ‘you can stay in the same place and travel all the time too’. That’s what the nomad does. These guys are texting and asking where we are, let’s just run to the bar.
OO: Like Facebook?
OO: Which the two of us spend quite a large amount of time on.
OO: You’re on it enough! It’s how I keep up with you because you’re literally all over the place. I remember last New Year’s Eve you listed on Facebook all the places you’d been to over the past twelve months: Berlin, London, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Frankfurt am Main, Krakow, Malmo, Beijing, Shanghai, Xitang, Xingcheng, Tianjin, Dandong, Dalian, Yantai, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Pyongyang, Wonsan, Hamhung, Panmunjom, Kaesong, Long Beach and Lisbon. I remember reading that post at the time and thinking, Wow, I can’t wait to hear all the latest gossip from Berlin, London, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Frankfurt am Main, Krakow, Malmo, Beijing, Shanghai, Xitang, Xingcheng, Tianjin, Dandong, Dalian, Yantai, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Pyongyang, Wonsan, Hamhung, Panmunjom, Kaesong, Long Beach and Lisbon
OO: … But who exactly was this Bob?
OO: Was she a tranny?
OO: You ended up studying in New York when you were like seventeen. Did you have much of a nightlife, what with you being under 21?
OO: You must have looked twelve! Then you later worked in a bar?
OO: Were you ever a GoGo boy?
OO: Is that why you ended up modeling for Dior Homme?
OO: He’s the creative director of Saint Laurent Paris.
TJ: Bob! The world famous Bob is a New York City performer and she has massive tits! She would just get on stage and play with her big fat porno titties and juggle them around.
TJ: No, she was a full-on woman.
TJ: There were some Mexican restaurants downtown where they would serve college kids without ID. Actually, Ryan McGinley made me my first fake ID. This was in the early days of photoshop; I gave him my North Carolina drivers’ license – nobody in New York knows what a North Carolina drivers’ license should look like – and he just changed the date and I crudely laminated it together. It looked so fake but they didn’t even care…
TJ: I did, I worked in a bar called I.C. Guys. It was the size of a broom closet. We couldn’t get a liquor license so we only sold beer and wine; we would have a little box for bottles that we’d put in the corner and then guys who would get up and gogo dance.
TJ: Yeah I GoGo danced for a while; I had bad acne and blue hair - I was completely ugly. But I guess my ugliness was my charm. It still is.
TJ: Well I walked a little, but I wasn’t in any of the magazine ads. This was when I was 21 and was in a relationship with the musician Philip Guichard; he was into networking and going to parties and would drag me along. We were introduced to Hedi Slimane at some opening and I guess we sort of became friends very briefly, but I haven’t spoken to him in years. I don’t know what happened to him or even what he’s up to nowadays.
TJ: Good for him.
BILL JACOBSON: So I was at JFK airport and I was waiting on my bags from Los Angeles, they didn’t come, they didn’t come, they didn’t come. The baggage carousel was spinning around for the longest time with no sign of our luggage. Then, all of a sudden, this massive dildo emerged from the back - the only thing to appear- and it’s slowly working its way around the conveyer belt for the next twenty minutes… And it was big, we’re talking about ten fucking inches with testicles! Everybody is looking…kids are kinda freakin, Moms are getting excited, and this security guy strolls by and I say to him ‘yknow, maybe you should take that off.’ He looks at it and then he looks at me and he says ‘I aint touching that thing!” And he keeps walking… and then all of a sudden it disappears from behind the conveyer belt and the bags finally start appearing. But if you go on You Tube and type in ‘dildo: JFK conveyer belt’ it should still come up because somebody filmed it. So anyway, that’s my story of the night.
BRIAN CLAFLIN: I used to live with this tranny - she was always telling me to cut my dick off: ‘Come on gurl - you’re a gurl so just cut it off!’ This was when I was nineteen, so I was like ‘nah I think I’ll hold off on that decision’. She was always using my computer to escort and I would see that she’d make sooo much money - trannies are a specialty. Anyway, she got flown to this mansion outside St Petersburg by someone from the Russian Mafia, someone shady, to do cocaine and have sex for five days. She was with some other tranny, there was a whole group of them and they had to meet up at the airport, but didn’t know each other. She said when they were going through customs they were asked to open all of their luggage and empty the contents out in front of the security staff - and it was all just whips and chains and dildos and double dongers.
OO: Putin’s gonna have us all assasinated when he reads this.
OO: Hey Travis, you’ve talked a lot about how you want revolution through writing, so what do you think of the whole Occupy Movement – were you ever involved in any sort of grassroots activism?
OO: What attracts you to North Korea by the way?
BC: I think what Putin’s doing in Russia is just desperate measures, he realizes that his political power is diminishing, so he’s trying to rile up the vote of the conservative, Russian Orthodox people – that’s the way the public opinion sways just now in Russia, and he’s exploiting that.
BC: He’s gonna end up in prison for corrupting the North Korean people!
TJ: No, I was never involved in anything like that because I’ve always had a distrust of any sort of collective arrangement - I’m always the guy who gets kicked out. But in one sense I support it and it’s great, but I just feel that I could never be a part of it, not because I’m so special or great but because there’s something wrong with me. I’m still looking for ways of spawning revolution, but of course I have to be careful because that’s linked to the notion of the alienated bourgeois urban individual.
TJ: They’ve evolved a very particular systematic way of being-in-the-world. It is really a world-within-a-world, yet contains no clear or recognizable reflection of the larger world that contains it. How could this model not be interesting for a novelist?
OO: You’ve mentioned that you set out to write the ultimate bad novel, but what does that mean? Are you just posing as a bad writer and pretending to be what you’re not?
OO: He chucked in some narrative.
TJ: In a way I’m being somewhat facetious because I don’t think it is a bad novel. It’s probably the best novel that’s ever been written actually, which makes it the worst. Anis Shivani wrote a piece against bad writing for the Huffington Post. He takes this very Conservative stance and defines what good writing is: good writing is prose that is clear, no obfuscation of ideas and no showboating of the author, no narcissism – basically what he’s arguing for is this really dull, Hemingway-esque prose. I don’t find that good writing and it’s interesting how Hemingway is held up as a classic model of a great writer because he actually stole a lot from Gertrude Stein – his mentor - who stylistically was very much an extremist. Stein was the mother of what we now call ‘art writing’ and her work was - and still is - despised by critics who consider it unreadable, but what she was doing was just extreme minimalism, and Hemingway just capitalized on that but made it more…
TJ: Yeah, and made it readable. What we have to get away from in the novel is this sort of dictatorship of psychological realism, it’s this very middle-class thing: oh we’re all just instances of normality, aren’t we? Who wants fucking normality? Why can’t the novel be an explosion? And so what it really comes down to I think is a primitive gesturality – I’m interested in style above all else. Saying that it’s bad writing is a way of articulating a stylistic stance. There’s also another way of looking at bad writing, and that’s from a very traditional and classical stance, I’m looking to the Rabelaisian model of writing, you know Rabelais who wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel.
OO: Which I noticed you’re currently reading.
OO: I want to talk about the technique of actually trying to write a bad novel. Many contemporary artists commission skilled craftsmen to produce their work, so couldn’t you have outsourced the production of The Suiciders to someone completely unsuited, like an imbecile or a baboon?
TJ: Yeah, re-reading actually - it’s one of my favourite books, and it was written five hundred years ago. What he was doing was trying to pose this model of the carnivalesque that I mentioned last night: historically the carnival used to be this secular place where people could go and revolt against all the religious ideologies of culture. It was the one place where free speech and free expression were allowed, where you could go and get drunk and fuck and have orgies. So I’m trying to revive this idea of the Rabelaisian stance of literature, a place where we could go and be free of standard conventional narrative.
TJ: No, because I don’t believe in that. If you wanna talk in terms of art history, my models are the Expressionists and so I’m really into the scrawl, the gesture. So no, I would never outsource my work because then it’s not me. I find that to be just a sort of cynical, elitist gesture and as someone who follows art I really don’t like the work of very many artists who do that. I think Jeff Koons is a total fucking fraud;
I don’t even consider him a bad artist because I don’t even consider him an artist, period.
OO: Yeah but artists have been doing this for hundreds of years – even the great masters, because you physically can’t make some things by yourself.
OO: If it’s ‘bad-bad art’ then it must be good, because there’s that whole double-negation idea.
OO: What’s the worst novel you’ve ever read? Something you really didn’t like – there was nothing good about it and you hated it!
OO: This was her first novel wasn’t it?
TJ: Yeah they have, but there’s a difference between the two. I’m trying to evolve this theory of bad art, and this bad art I’m referring to is actually art that I like a lot. I define bad art as something that takes an oppositional stance against norms of not only good taste but also proper middle class morality and political correctness. I write about Gertrude Stein, the German artist Dieter Roth and the American filmmaker George Kuchar. The idea that I’m formulating is that they were all automaticists, which means that you program yourself to work all of the time, causing a reversal of mind and body so that the body’s processes play a big role in the realization of the works. They’re body-mind vehicles and their work is like the exhaust fumes that are produced as the vehicle drives across the landscape. So this is a model of an artist that’s more concerned with the process of making art rather than the product, which is really just a byproduct. I’m very drawn to this idea, but it poses very interesting questions for the art critical enterprise: how are we supposed to judge this bad art? Is it bad-good art, is it bad-bad art, what do these categories mean?
TJ: Yeah sure.
TJ: Probably White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
TJ: Yeah. I remember that I was on holiday one summer in Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. I had ran out of things to read and bought this book because it was one of the few English language titles I could find. I thought it was very clunky and very cliché; ‘this is the multi-culti novel, please buy the Hollywood rights’. It was so terrible that when I finished reading it I ended up tossing it off a cliff into the Black Sea – so White Teeth went into Black Sea. Maybe somebody should make a bad painting of that.