Enfants terribles, from Jean Cocteau to Roberto Bolaño, are famed for their incessant demanding of people’s attention. In this respect, Harmony Korine is no exception. He captivated a wide audience for the first time at age nineteen, writing the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids(1995), a grimly realistic portrayal of Manhattan teenagers on drugs, booze, and skateboards, set against the backdrop of the looming HIV/AIDS crisis. The film made Korine cinema’s youngest credited screenwriter; he was twenty-two at the time of its release. At age twenty-four he became an auteur, exploding a new space for himself in American independent cinema with 1997’s Gummo, a film as critically acclaimed as it was confusingly dismissed, leading Werner Herzog to exalt a piece of fried bacon affixed to a wall with Scotch tape in the background of a bathroom scene, saying, “This is the entertainment of the future.”1 A veritable polymath, Korine has since written and directed four additional feature films (casting Herzog prominently in two of them: 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy and 2007’s Mister Lonely), mounted exhibitions of his photographic work, and penned song lyrics with the likes of Björk. In 1998, Korine added “novelist” to his already impressive resume when a large New York publisher released A Crack-Up at the Race Riots.
And yet, upon its initial appearance, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots failed to demand people’s attention—as Korine’s films have so consistently excelled at doing—which is presumably why Drag City republished the book this year, timed to coincide with the release of Korine’s biggest box-office success to date, Spring Breakers. The timing is not inappropriate: the two works have much in common. In fact, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots illuminates an interesting kinship between the literary tradition of which it is a part and the genealogy of experimental cinema in which Korine’s films are firmly rooted: Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and of course, Herzog. As a work of literature, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots is only a novel in the sense that fragmentary books such as Bob Dylan’s Tarantula (1966/1971) and the writings of William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker are “novels.” Plot and character can only be pieced together with the most Evel Knievel-like critical leaps, and in overt defiance of authorial intention. Not to discount the “author is dead” proclamations of poststructuralist theory, which have made many such collagist works of literature possible, but Korine has said of Gummo (and one suspects, of his filmmaking methodology in general), “I just wanted you to see these things that no one else would show you. And if you get something emotional from one scene in the film—if there’s one image you can take away from the movie after you leave—then it’s a success,”2a point echoed in Herzog’s admiration of the bacon taped to the wall.
Herzog’s praise for Korine’s writing—on the book’s back cover, he vaguely blurbs, “I believe that [Korine] is a great talent as a writer”—seems somewhat less justifiable than his (and others’) championing of Korine’s films. One gets the sense reading A Crack-Up at the Race Riots that, formally at least, this has already been done before—perhaps not a valid criticism in its own right, but when Korine-the-filmmaker says such things as “When I look at the history of film—the early commercial narrative movies directed by D.W. Griffith, say—and then look at where films are now, I see so little progression in the way they are made and presented, and I’m bored with that,”3 it makes it difficult not to count novelty as central to his aesthetic. The book’s title evokes another fragmentary work of literature by another writer obsessed with the new, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (1945), which posthumously collects three essays Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire in 1936, as well as correspondence and various ephemera. Fitzgerald’s title essay consists of a personal narrative describing the author’s realization “ten years this side of forty-nine” that “it was his nervous reflexes that were giving way—too much anger and too many tears.”4 In The Logic of Sense (1969), French philosopher Gilles Deleuze uses Fitzgerald’s essay to elucidate the Freudian death instinct, citing its famous first line, “Of course, all life is a process of breaking down.”5
There is another sense to the phrase, though, and this is the one on which Korine seems to capitalize most heavily in his own Crack-Up: hilarity, uncontrollable laughter. The book is not without its morosity, morbidity, and entropic worldview (it is “set” against the backdrop of an ongoing Florida race war, after all), but it is the relationship between comedy and mental breakdown that is most prominently emphasized. If nothing else, A Crack-Up at the Race Riotsis funny. Whether it is the book’s attribution of the phrase “Incest is relative” to Fred Astaire, the “rumor” that “Jackson Pollack had a foot fetish,” or the inclusion of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation (1818/1844) and Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh: Suicide Through Society (1947) in a list of “Tupac Shakur’s Ten Favorite Novels,” Korine has succeeded in putting together a compendium of juvenile surrealist jokes, many of them without punch lines, presented through both (frequently misspelled) handwritten and typewritten text along with the occasional photograph: a portrait of MC Hammer at age eleven—an adolescently scribbled caption tells us, if we’re unable to recognize it on our own—introduces the volume.
Perhaps fittingly, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots reads something like a marketing campaign for Korine-the-auteur, as it is embroiled in the elaborate marketing campaign that filled so many seats in theatres screening Spring Breakers. With glossy hedonism, a Skrillex soundtrack, and a cast of Disney graduates, the film’s marketers have essentially tricked a bunch of teen- and college-age philistines into paying to see a richly enigmatic treatise on race, gender, and capitalism realized in poetic cinematography and editing. Spring Breakers brings fully to life a fantasy world in which humanity’s basest desires are taken to their utmost extremes, providing an implicit critique of what turns us on. Taken on its own, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots presents itself as a sort of postmodern The Waste Land—replacing T.S. Eliot’s Dante and Jessie Weston with Ice-T, Billie Jean King, and other 1990s personages—and is a minor but welcome addition to the shelf of exercises in literary madness. But amid the context of Korine’s films, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots serves as a clear indicator that his artistry is better suited to a more visual medium.
1 “Gummo’s Whammo.” Interview. Nov. 1999. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/whammo.html.
2 Gus Van Sant, “Forward.” 1997. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/forward.html.
3 “Gummo’s Whammo.” Interview. Nov. 1999. http://www.harmony-korine.com/paper/int/hk/whammo.html.
4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up.” 1936. http://www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up.
5 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense. Trans. Constantin V. Boundas. London: Continuum, 2004. 176.