Book of Changes

by Kristine McKenna

Published by Fantagraphics

264 pages, 2001 


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Mediating Celebrity

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

Kristine McKenna's Book of Changes, a collection of interviews released by comics publisher Fantagraphics, is a beautiful book. It's passionately intimate and totally lacking in that overvalued red herring, objectivity. Her subjects include musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, writers and (ironically, considering the publisher) one cartoonist, Robert Crumb. At first glance, then, Fantagraphics seems like an unlikely home for this book, until one considers that its flagship publication, the long-running The Comics Journal, is renowned for its lengthy -- and often controversial -- interviews.

It's commonly held that the best interviewers are those who know how to stay invisible, those who give up the stage entirely to their subjects -- much in the same way as it's often bandied about that journalists should be "objective." The objectivity of the press is, of course, a myth. I, for one, prefer to have the biases of reporters and the media upfront and explicit, rather than insidious and deceptive. Generally, those who cry loudest for objectivity are those who don't want journalism that risks undermining their political or economic power; they certainly don't mind when journalism upholds the status quo.

Similarly, interviews are not monologues, memoirs, or pre-scripted press conferences: they are dialogues between interviewer and interviewee, and to obscure the presence of the interviewer poses a risk similar to that of the myth of objectivity. Interviews do not offer a direct link between subject and audience: the subject is mediated by the interviewer. What emerges is, consequently, a portrait of the subject that is transformed by the expectations, desires, prejudices, passions and perceptions of the interviewer. I like to know the context of the interviewee's declarations instead of suffering the pretense that I am witnessing some ur-representation of the interviewee. Besides even the most self-confident among us aren't completely immune to the Zelig effect. We are always transformed in some way by our interaction with the people around us at any given time.

McKenna claims that her "intention was to get out of the way and present the subject in as unmediated a form as possible." While it is true that she never lets her ego steal the stage from her subject, I found that a large part of this book's charm was McKenna's indelible -- yet respectfully humble -- presence. It's an evolving presence which confers upon the collection an intimate stream-of-consciousness narrative. For example, McKenna is clearly preoccupied by questions such as "Is the human race evolving?" and "Do you believe in God?" -- variations of these two questions occur in most of the interviews, even when they have little or nothing to do with the subject. And, certainly, this type of question must have set a particular tone to her conversations with her subjects. Taken as a whole, this book is not then so much an "unmediated" window into the lives of 38 celebrities, but rather an account of McKenna interacting with these people on the topics that engage her imagination. And there's nothing wrong with that; this is what interviews always are. McKenna, despite her avowed self-effacement, simply made this more explicit than usual. The result is a warm, immediate and genuine reading experience.

Each chapter is devoted to one celebrity, but some incorporate elements from several interviews occurring several years apart. McKenna is always careful to indicate which comments come from which interview, just as she is always scrupulous in noting the exact circumstances of each interview. Where were they held? How were they obtained? What was McKenna's emotional state? What seemed to be her subject's mood? All of this affects the interview. McKenna is to be commended for being so meticulous in detailing the mediating factors of her interviews, in bringing to life for the reader not only her subjects, but the experience of meeting them.

And what about these 38 subjects? McKenna warns that "If it seems that I'm excessively fawning and laudatory in my introductions, please remember that I've selected the interview subjects who meant the most to me for inclusion here." Of course, what that means is that readers are treated to the interviews to which McKenna brought the most passion and knowledge. Despite her warning, McKenna does not shy away, for example, from relating that, after meeting Werner Herzog, she "wept the tears of a crushed fan."

Revealing my own biases (for, after all, this review cannot help but be an account of my own mediated reading of this book), I was most excited at seeing William Burroughs, Brian Eno, David Lynch, Nico, Iggy Pop, Patty Smith, Tom Waits and Neil Young on the contents page. Of these, Burroughs was, surprisingly, the warmest; Nico, the most touching; Smith, the chummiest; Waits and Young, both distant, alas; Lynch, the chattiest; Eno, the most articulate; and Iggy, of course, the most provocative.

All of the interviews have interesting aspects and are worth reading. Some of the most memorable include the ones with the bizarre author of Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger; with visual artist Howard Finster, whose work, he claims, is a mission from God; with legendary film critic Pauline Kael; with the ostracized American chanteuse Nina Simone; and with Don Van Vliet, the man better known as Captain Beefheart.

As an added bonus, and certainly a bonus resulting from this book being published by Fantagraphics, every interview is graced with a new portrait of the interviewee by one of a roster of 22 of today's most respected cartoonists. The most striking ones include Jim Woodring's surreal William Burroughs, Seth's faux-naïf Robert Crumb, Mary Fleener's near-Cubist Al Green, Ted Jouflas' macabre Werner Herzog, Ivan Brunetti's Pop Art Nico, and, my favorite, Charles Burns' Iggy Pop, tensely and mischievously astride the elfin and the devilish, bursting with Iggy's raw sexual power. (Burns, Iggy fans will remember, also painted the jacket to the Iggy Pop album Brick by Brick.)

McKenna called her volume Book of Changes "because change ... is a force that played a central role in shaping the lives under discussion here." Aptly, then, her questions tend to focus on the moments and incidents of transformation in her subjects' fascinating and near-mythical lives. Unwittingly, though, the most moving life she chronicles here is her own. She writes candidly about her own quest to gather these interviews and, by doing so, paints a poignant picture of her own evolution. | July 2001

 

Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.