‘Laika’s Dream’ by John Haskell

I tried so hard to be into the zombified-carnage-apathy vibe of the Brat Pack, Ellis and narcotic wastelands and all that, before I fell in love with the ‘McSweeneyites’. It’s a funny term for those in and around the orbit of Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s in the early Oughts, and their now-nostalgic brand of tender lucidity, especially because John Haskell’s debut collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock was not actually published by McSweeney’s. And yet it feels like a crowning jewel to that scene and that oeuvre, and ‘Laika’s Dream’, included in the collection, allows us into the mind of the real Soviet dog who went into space in 1957 and, as anyone with access to Wikipedia might know, never came back. 

When I think of this story I think of awe and homecoming, and the vastness of space as a very warm blanket. It’s generous and heartbreaking and course-correcting for a young writer like I was then, who was looking for a way into emotion and could never quite reach lift-off. (Get it?)

Listen to Laika’s Dream on Studio 360, New York Public Radio. First published in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Pan Macmillan, 2003

‘The Judgment of Psycho’ by John Haskell

“Janet Leigh was never completely naked during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but she did have breasts. They’re hinted at and alluded to, never revealed exactly, but she did have them, and in a way it’s why she was killed. The movie begins with her, with a long shot of Phoenix, Arizona. The camera pans across the city to a building, to a window in the building, then under the venetian blinds of the window and into the room where Janet Leigh is lying half-naked on a bed. She’s wearing a white bra and a white slip, and the bra, sitting on top of her chest like two white pyramids, looks as if it ought to be enough protection.” 

If ‘The Judgment of Psycho’ had not been published in Haskell’s collection of short stories, it could have been published as a piece of film criticism in some cinema magazine. The story braids together scenes (both real and imagined) from Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark horror film with retellings of the mythology surrounding the Trojan War and descriptions of a figure in the underpainting of a Jan Vermeer. There’s a lot going on here, but the story never feels overburdened, for Haskell’s sleight of hand is masterful. He willfully confuses Psycho’s actors with the characters they play—for example, attributing the desires of Norman Bates to Tony Perkins—which is, of course, exactly what the viewer does while watching a film, losing a sense of the separation between the real and the fantasy. We—like Tony Perkins, like John Haskell—wrestle with ghosts. 

First published in Haskell’s collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock, 2003, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. You can hear an excerpt of it in audio form, read by the author himself, at WNYC’s Studio 360

‘I am not Jackson Pollock’ by John Haskell

In John Haskell’s story, an unnamed narrator inhabits the persona of Jackson Pollock, who himself did not feel like the Jackson Pollock. We’re suspicious of the narrator’s pop psychologising, even as we’re compelled by his depiction of the internal struggle of being Jackson Pollock (which is analogous to the narrator’s struggle of pretending to be Jackson Pollock). On re-reading, I’m struck by the boldness of Haskell’s attempt to enter the mind of such a famously inarticulate icon. The artful imprecision of the writing captures a kind of yearning:

Two opposing impulses dominated [Pollock’s] life: the desire to reach out into the world and touch some thing, and the desire to keep that thing away.

We’re retold seemingly formative episodes, such as the loss of the tip of his index finger and his first meeting with Rita Kligman, but none of them explain this schism. And it doesn’t matter in the end. In 2006, Peter Schejedahl wrote of Pollock: ‘Sometimes a new, renegade sensibility really takes hold only when somebody is seen to have died for it’. The story captures the gap between his violent death and its abstraction:

The tree didn’t move so he died. And that was the end. It wasn’t the beginning. You could see that he was dead, and the girl in the backseat was also dead. That was the end. You’d have to be looking from some very great distance to see that was the beginning.

First published in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Canongate, 2006