GAME OVER: On Sunday afternoon, July 12, soon after he’d been released from the hospital, I met Attanasio at the Half King, Table 16. He was wearing an ordinary white shirt, the same kind he’d often worn in college, decorated with a safety pin. As we drank beer and ate fried calamari, he motioned for me to lean across the table. I did so. He reached down, pulled up his pants leg, and, pointing to a lump on his calf, said, “Touch my tumor.” “I don’t want to touch your tumor. Listen to me: A friend of mine had breast cancer a few years ago and she’s completely recovered. She’s an artist, too—has a studio in Long Island City, as a matter of fact. I told her about you and she said to tell you two things: Get a second opinion and look into alternative treatments.” He repeated what I said. Then we left the Half King and took the E train to Long Island City.
It was summer 1991, I think, when sharing a joint on a brick fire escape after a night of acid-tapped cartoon lunacy, my friend Steve exhaled smoke into the Manchester morning and casually asked if I’d heard of a writer called William Burroughs. I hadn’t, but that moment has stayed with me as the dawn of what was to become a deep and unremitting love for the man J.G. Ballard called 'True genius and first mythographer of the mid-twentieth century'. Steve passed the joint and disappeared indoors – momentarily leaving me staring, rabbit-eyed, into the headlights of reality – before returning with a tatty, nicotine-thumbed paperback. “Read this,” he said, thrusting the book at me. “You’ll love it.” Naked Lunch: odd title, I thought, flipping the book from cover to blurb to cover again. What is this, some kind of naturists’ cookbook? I turned to the introduction and read...
On the evening of May 6, as Attanasio and I wandered down 10th Avenue in Chelsea, he stopped in front of a small gallery that had an innocuous landscape painting displayed in the window. Taking a black marker from his inside pocket, he discreetly scrawled on the window, in about one second, 'This Art Sux Go to Another Gallery.' I burst out laughing and said, “I know one other artist who’s almost as crazy as you are.” “What do you mean?” He sounded suspicious, as if such a thing were impossible. “I mean she’s pushing 80 but still parties like she’s 19 and smokes weed like a Rastafarian. She was my art director when I was doing the porn mags. Now she does porno paintings… and a lot of other stuff, too. You should meet her.” He thought that was a good idea, so I called my former colleague and she said, “C’mon over.”
I found out Attanasio was dead on December 16, 2015, from a review of one of his movies on the New Yorker website. Sound Camera Rotation, made in 1977 but now being shown at an art gallery on the Lower East Side, was “witty” and “a slapstick gem,” the critic said. What a great review, I thought as I began reading, amazed that the film was suddenly getting so much attention. I also wondered why my old friend hadn’t invited me to the opening—until I read the last sentence: “The show turned unexpectedly elegiac: Attanasio died last month, after a brief illness, at the age of sixty-three.” I’d known his cancer was terminal but hadn’t realized—or wanted to realize—how aggressive it was. The last time Attanasio and I had communicated, by text in mid-October, he said that he didn’t feel strong enough to have me visit or even to talk on the phone, and that it was impossible to make plans. The effects of his medication were too unpredictable. He’d died on Friday, November 13, a day I remembered well—it was the day terrorists massacred 130 people in Paris. I hadn’t heard the news about Robert Attanasio because we no longer had any mutual friends; nobody I knew from City College was still in touch with him. When he first e-mailed me, in early February 2015, nearly 30 years had passed since we’d last seen each other. We hadn’t had a falling out. We’d just drifted apart.
Diversity is something that sexually explicit media have broadly failed at for centuries. While we all have our preferences, the ‘norm’ from which erotic media deviate to a greater or lesser extent is still defined by youth, whiteness, heterosexuality, and framed by the male gaze. For every civil rights victory and ‘equality and diversity away day’ the world has seen, too many contemporary representations of sex are still limited to fit, able-bodied white people fucking in a penthouse.
The Marquis de Sade tells us that his epic catalogue of perversions, The 120 Days of Sodom, should be treated like a vast banquet. Enjoy the breadth of what’s on offer, pick what you enjoy, and leave what you don’t. Criticise neither the host for giving you such wealth of choice, nor your fellow diners for picking what you find unappetising. Appreciate that dishes which might seem the same to you are, in fact, delicately nuanced. In short, don’t be prudish at the table: be philosophical. Admittedly, advice from Sade should usually be taken with a large pinch of salt (I’m no advocate for abduction, cannibalism, and baroque torture machines myself). Yet we could do worse than adopt his approach to explicit literature. Sex, like eating, is invariably a question of taste. So while Eimear McBride’s critique of Desire: 100 of literature’s sexiest stories is undoubtedly well intentioned, I can’t help but think she would make a judgemental dinner guest.
It’s a funny time of year. Somehow the absence of visitors makes the landscape quieter. In the season it is as if the hum of their activities transmits even at night to the moors. Down at the Old Doom Bar we regulars retreat to the snug in small numbers and the landlord or his wife sometimes join us, though willing to knock out scampi and chips if we fancy them. The women are less in evidence. This is because they are busy with seasonal preparations. As well as list-making, baking and provision planning these include two day excursions to favoured shopping centres such as Bath which is a smart city with spas and high end hairdressers.
There’s something rotten in the West. In the UK, the rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexit campaign translated into a vote to leave the EU. In the US, a lunatic sociopath won the presidency on the back of a racialised political programme, Biblical levels of misogyny and a constant, almost cult-like worship of aggression and rudeness.