"An old crappy dyke with half a brain leaking a book." That's how Eileen Myles describes herself in her autobiographical new novel, and it makes me think of Susan Sontag's journals, in which the late writer anguishes about a phenomenon she calls "leakage": "my mind is dribbling out through my mouth." Like that's a bad thing.
Loosely, Inferno tells the story of Myles, who left Arlington, Massachusetts, where everyone "lived in a roughly catholic world," to make her way as a writer in New York City. As the title suggests, the book owes something to Dante's Divine Comedy. Instead of a dark wood, though, we start out in a college lit class learning Pirandello from a woman with a beautiful ass, "perfect and full," and from there the tour—gossipy, funny, crass, earnest—continues.
Hell is scraping to pay the rent, working as a bouncer at a bar up by Columbia where you can still feel the aura of '68. It's being trained to give handjobs at a massage parlor. It's "inspecting lesbians because I was pretty sure I was going to be one. But I wanted to be a poet first." Purgatory is taking speed and working for James Schuyler. (See Myles's 1994 Chelsea Girls for more on both.) It's Deleuze's Masochism, grant applications, and a dog named Rosie. It's when "I didn't look like a woman or a man and didn't live here or anywhere." A clash with Amiri Baraka. A crush on Nan Goldin. St. Mark's Poetry Project. Touring Germany with Sylvère Lotringer and other Semiotext(e) writers, getting upstaged by Kathy Acker, peeing on Goethe's lawn. So literal sometimes, this leakage.
Heaven, though, is Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan's kitchen. It's roaming the city with flyers for poetry readings. It's sex in a tent in a loft. René Ricard buzzing your apartment in the middle of the day. But that's just a gloss, a thin, schematic breakdown. That doesn't tell you how good this book is at leaking—the allegorical seeping into the banal, the profane into the holy, sex into art, poetic into narrative, fiction into memoir and plenty of other genres. The prose often goes loose and raggedy, yet it always stays in focus. It's a novel in the way Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler's Speedboat are—that is to say, on its own terms.
With Inferno, Myles has written, among other things, a field guide to poetry readings—the "trembling voices," the crowd "laughing familiarly"—as well as a meditation on hatching a writing life. She offers theorems about relationships with the famous, the artist's responsibility "to get collected," and how rich people need poor friends. In charting her downtown travels, she has mapped a bygone New York: Club 57, the Pyramid, and the Duchess, the dyke bar where she drunkenly attempts to do the splits. The book, in other words, is packed. Throughout, Myles moves smoothly between her numerous themes: discovery, emergence, memory, and, most important, the lurching ambition to have a life of the mind and the body.