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Gary Indiana Takes the Glamour Out of Serial Murder

A novelist of the counterculture finally has his moment

Keystone / Hulton Archive

In Gary Indiana’s fiction people die often and unceremoniously. They have their throats slashed with razor blades or get brained by a ball-peen hammer. They are shot, or stabbed, or throw themselves from sixth-story windows—and hardly anyone seems to care. Indiana records the carnage dryly. In Rent Boy (1994) the narrator describes a killing spree at his college as if it were schoolyard gossip: “This afternoon an exchange student from Singapore who didn’t get a design prize they were giving out took an Uzi and blew away, like, my architecture professor ... and four graduate students, including the one who got the prize this guy wanted. So I guess nobody gets the design prize this year.”

Indiana’s first novel, Horse Crazy, was published in 1989. He’d spent the previous four years as something of a counterculture celebrity in New York, where, as art critic for the Village Voice since 1985, he enjoyed the kind of underground cachet traditionally reserved for punk rock musicians and avant-garde artists. Since then he’s remained a fixture of the scene, if an obscure one, steadily producing new work to minor but enthusiastic praise, never quite gaining the velocity to penetrate the mainstream. He came close, he says, in 2002, when a book about Cuba was “informally commissioned” for a fee of half a million dollars, cruelly wrenched away when the relevant editor left the company.

Though perhaps this will at last be Gary Indiana’s year. A number of his out-of-print novels are set to be republished this fall, happily. Exhibitions of his visual art—mainly photographs and collages in which pornography has been cut up and uncannily reassembled—have been shimmering into view across New York of late. A video installation projected on “a semicircular LED curtain” was featured, to great acclaim, at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. And this month arrives a blazing blue streak of a literary memoir, “I Can Give You Anything But Love”—an invigorating a glimpse of life as a hip queer punk in the 80s. An audience unfamiliar with the author could hardly want for a better introduction.

The 80s were a rather storied time for Indiana. And this period duly became the well of life experience from which many of his novels draw. It’s also the source of his fascination with death. The early days of Indiana’s New York were an idyllic bacchanalian: Everyone was beautiful and concupiscent and available, poised as though a spontaneous orgy might break out at any time. Then came “the plague,” the “gay cancer”—AIDS, lurking dormant until suddenly it wasn’t. It seemed everyone either had it or would. The scene’s long-unfettered sex was all at once “like skydiving with a parachute that maybe isn’t going to open, only you won’t know if it did or not for five or ten years.”

AIDS emerged as the defining force of Indiana’s fiction for the simple reason that AIDS, for a young gay man in New York in the 1980s, was impossible to ignore. Horse Crazy, Gone Tomorrow (1993), Rent Boy, Do Everything in the Dark (2003) and I Can Give You Anything But Love are each to some extent a chronicle of the illness. Their shared theme is loss—a kind of loss so common that one becomes almost inured to it. “The trouble with death is,” Indiana writes in Do Everything in the Dark, “there’s so much of it all the time that unless a particular extinction cuts very deep it turns numb inside you and disappears.” We tend to think, counterintuitively, of death as a somewhat rarefied phenomenon, inevitable though it may be: Our sense that it shouldn’t happen to anyone we know makes it shocking when it eventually does. But in Indiana’s world friends and acquaintances passed so regularly that it began to seem banal.

Indiana’s AIDS novels document a time when “what had been a nebulous and ill-understood menace became practically the main thing on every person’s mind.” It’s a distinctly quotidian horror. And he is attuned, boldly, to the ghoulish comedy of the new routine. This is from Horse Crazy:

You would hear, for example, that X had died over the weekend, but no one could definitively confirm or deny the rumor. You would not ask anyone truly close to X because if it were true you would be intruding on their grief, and if it weren’t they might go into a panic imagining that it was true and they somehow hadn’t heard about it. Then you might mention it to someone who believed that X had died months before. And just when you concluded that the whole thing was a rumor, X turned out really to be dead. Or, just when you’d received absolutely certain confirmation, you’d walk into a party and find X standing there.

That dark irony pervades Indiana’s writings on death. It accounts, I think, for the major theme of his so-called “crime trilogy,” which is stupidity. Resentment (1997), Three Month Fever (1999), and Depraved Indifference (2001)—long out of print, like virtually all of Indiana’s work, but due to be republished by Semiotexte this fall—each offer a slightly fictionalized account of a well-known murder case, though their literary effects make them less like In Cold Blood than Don Delillo’s Libra. (Three Month Fever was released, confusingly, as a work of nonfiction, despite Indiana’s claim in the preface that it is not a work of true crime. The crimes are real, but all three books are resolutely novels.)

The object of Indiana’s crime trilogy is to undermine the sensationalism that invariably clings to murder, and to serial murder in particular. His killers are interesting precisely because, as people, they aren’t: Instead of the debonair butchers of Thomas Harris we get charmless milquetoasts with boring lives. Indiana drains their murders of the customary excitement and romance, rendering even their brutality drab. This is how he imagines the “assassination” of Gianni Versace by Andrew Cunanan, the subject of Three Month Fever:

Andrew got the gun out and followed, he looked at Versace, Versace looked at him, What if I’m completely crazy flashed in Andrew’s head as he fired the gun, fired again, looked at what he’d done ...

With that the spectacle wrung from the event by tabloids and TV news is dispelled, returning one man’s death to an appropriate scale. I suspect it took Indiana’s familiarity with death—with its ordinary truth—to see an overdramatized murder from this perspective. His fiction is a reality check: People die everywhere all the time, and none glamorously. The ease in his books with which people “go in a second from being alive to being dead” restores a certain urgency to living while you can. The philosophy is articulated in Do Everything in the Dark:

You think: I can live another day like this. So you go on living like you’ll live forever, and time goes, and then you’re dead. 

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Andrew Cunanan’s last name.