Uncovering ‘A Crack Up at the Race Riots’ With Harmony Korine
If you ever feel like you’re losing your mind, like you’re hanging by your toenails on the brink of insanity, watch some videos of Harmony Korine from the late 1990s. Not only will you realize, okay yes, I am probably selling my lucidity short, but also, if there’s anyone who can turn manic energy and a deranged psyche into something brilliant, it’s Korine. And in 1998, the absurd realist filmmaker, writer, photographer, and artist sat down with David Letterman for one of many strange and hilarious appearances on his show to promote his new novel, A Crack Up at the Race Riots.
In his previous visits to the show, Korine had been dressed like a well-mannered schoolboy in sweaters and khakis, the words coming out his young mouth standing in sharp in contrast to the pleasant looking fellow sitting in front of you. But when he appeared this time, Korine came clad in a ratty yellow sweatshirt, scruffy-faced, and very twitchy. It was his final time on the show before being banned after Letterman caught him snooping through Meryl Streep’s purse in her dressing room. But he did love having Korine on there, shining a light on this odd specimen, a sample of youth culture to show the world before telling the very jittery Korine to “go back the hotel and take a long shower.” But the book he was there to promote was not only his debut work of fiction, but would go on to be a cult classic that perfectly encapsulated Korine’s geniusly crazed and frenetic mind, but would however fall out of print until this month, sixteen years later.
And after more than a decade and a half off the shelf, A Crack Up at the Race Riots is available again—just in time for all those sixteen year old kids who went to see Spring Breakers and walked out of the theater clutching their smartphones, faces permanently frozen in an expression of, “What the hell, man, that wasn’t like The Hangover but with chicks?!” And what you’ll get from A Crack Up is an unhinged and fragmented multimedia portrait told through slices of conversations, frantic drawings, news clippings, hypothetical lists, suicide notes, letters from Tupac, and much more, giving you a glimpse inside the mind of one of our generations most radical and bizarre voices. “It’s about a race war and it happens in Florida. And the Jewish people sit in trees. And the black people are run by M.C. Hammer. And the whites are run by Vanilla Ice,” said Korine on Letterman and well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what that all means.
With the reissue out now from Drag City, I got the chance to chat with Korine for the second time this year about letters from Tupac, schizophrenic cohesion, and replacing Barbra Streisand with John Holmes.
So why did you choose to reissue the novel now, after sixteen years?
It’s been out of print now for more than a decade and I know that people were selling it for a lot of money, and I didn’t really like that. I thought enough time had gone by that it would be good to republish it and let people see it again.
So you said recently in an interview with Little White Lies that you haven’t read a book since the 7th grade. Now how does that fit into here?
Well, I’d read a lot of joke books, I’d read the beginning of a lot of books, or certain like middle parts of certain books but just on principle I never finished the book. So technically, I probably haven’t finished a book since That Was Then This is Now. I had also read a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure books in the early ’90s.
And you originally said that you wanted this book to be a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.
I wanted it to be the Great American Choose Your Own Adventure novel with pages missing in all the right places.
So how did A Crack Up at the Race Riots become your version of that? Where did all these fragmented bits and pieces come from?
It’s hard for me to remember exactly how it happened because it was a long time ago and I was tripping out really, and some of the pages are even just like hallucinating or something. I just had all these ideas and I was seeing all these connections in things—micro-movements and ideas about authorship and anti-authorship. So I was trying to write a novel that existed in the margins that had as much to do with what was undefined as what was written, that had as much to do with the whiteness around the ink, you know? And so I’d walk around and hear someone like on a bus talking to themselves or ranting to themselves or hitting themselves in the head or singing some type of opera or something and I would just write what I saw. And then I would imagine like, what if Woody Harrelson said that? Or what if that conversation those two gay vagrants on the corner were having was between John Ford and his wife? And I liked how it would transform it and turn it into something so hilarious that so much of it was about context and the shifting humor and the re-contextualizing of things. I love those Sherrie Levine photos of all the Walker Evans pictures that she re-photgraphs and I remember wanting to do that but in words, in a way that was not just an experiment or just an exercise in craft but had a heartbeat and told a story. So I did that and the process was more abstract and I started writing a lot of that stuff in my early 20s and it took place over a couple years. I would just write notes and ideas and fragments on paper and crayon on the side of my wall. And then after I felt like there was enough of that stuff around me, I tried to make sense of it and re-collage it and re-contexualize it and give it some narrative in its own way to tell a story.
And like you said about how it’s about the white space just as much as the words, or about the context of what’s on the page, for the person reading it, it’s about their own experience with it and how they see it and how they interact with it. The pages of suicide notes with blank spaces from signatures that you have. Those pages are some of my favorites, but for the reader, it’s a participatory element.
Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah. Back then I thought that would be insane if you could write a suicide note that was like a form letter. So for someone who wasn’t creative enough, it had a blank signature space at the bottom. It’s horrifying but also, it’s funny.
A lot of the book is horrifying but also very funny. You mix dark humor with the banal, casualness of offensive things like homophobia or racism, but it seems natural because in the voice that they’re written in, you can imagine someone saying it on the street in passing to another person who felt the same way.
Which is like the way I remember things growing up.
And there are themes that run throughout that make it not a schizophrenic but a cohesive story.
Yeah, I was trying to deal with all the great philosophical strands of the American psyche. [laughs]
Back in 1997 when you went on Letterman to talk about the book, you seemed pretty passive about promoting it. When you see that now do you feel differently?
I thought it made sense of the book—like when I went on Letterman I thought I should just promote someone else’s book.
Yeah, you said that you didn’t know why someone would buy this and not an older book.
I didn’t understand why you would buy a new book, there’s so many older books that you haven’t read before. So I didn’t want to go out there and tell people to buy this book, I wanted to go out there and tell them to buy some other book. I love the idea of promoting other people’s shit for no reason.
The book originally came out just after Gummo and mainstream people seeing you on a show like that still didn’t really know what to make of you. Do you think the public perception of you has changed in recent years or do you not care?
All I wanted to do was just be great. But I never really think about it too much or spend too much time on it. I think it’s all perfect just the way it was meant to be.
And in your early interviews you talked a lot about wanting to create a new type of film. So with this book were you looking to rework the classic confines of a novel and create a new writing style?
No, because even the thing with film, what I was trying to do was develop a language and an idea that was very specific to the way I was thinking and the things I was feeling, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate it. And so it was more of a unified aesthetic, this idea that everything’s connected and that I wouldn’t try to differentiate between any of it—between the writings or the films or the actions or even like the demonstrative behavior—it was all connected. In some way it was all part of a single vision or an idea or an energy. It was like Vaudeville.
Do you a favorite section of the book?
I like all the letters from Tupac a lot, I like some of the jokes, and I like the list of rumors.
I like the list of imagined movies. Did you ever actually think about making any of those?
They were all ideas for films and I thought just the idea would be better than the film. Or like, I was writing the titles of books I wanted to write, but then when I would look at the titles, I just liked the way they functioned on their own. There’s even one page where all it says is the word “hepburn.” And that took me like four or five years to write that one page because I was trying to come up with what you’d think if the greatest novel consisted entirety of one word, what would that word be? And so I struggled with that for years and years and one day I saw the word “hepburn” and thought that word said so much, there was so much, the entire history of the world was just tangled up in those letters.
And some pages just have one word like that or something like “Robert Frost Bite,” some pages are handwritten notes, and some are more formal notes. Were you trying to create a sort of collage of different mind sets and different tones?
Yeah, yeah I was making a lot of fanzines at the time and was writing a lot of jokes and obsessed with joke books. I had all the dirty joke compilations and knock knock jokes; I would cut up the joke books. I liked the long set ups like “the guy walks into a bar and blah blah blah” or I had these books that were just lists of Hollywood mythology and specific horrible attributes of dead celebrities, and I thought those were hilarious so I would use those and add things or take them away. Like, what if I read an interview with Barbra Streisand but then you just change Barbra Streisand’s name to John Holmes or something? It becomes so much greater.
I feel like a lot of your work is taking something apart and re-appropriating it or changing people’s perception of something very set in their minds. Do you find that there’s a crossover for that in your films too?
I’d say there’s definitely a connection.
So do you think you could write something like this now, or was it specific to being really young and whatever insanity was going on in your world then?
I’d like to think that book is just so juvenile and base that it’s something I could only do back then. But I probably haven’t really grown all that much and my humor hasn’t really evolved, so it probably wouldn’t be too far off from something I’d come up with now. I’m writing another one right now though, it’s maybe a bit more centralized or something.
In the same cut-up style though?
Yeah, it’s something that someone with a head wound would write.
I can be very into that. But you did write this at a time when you were first getting to make films and produce work and it seemed like you were just sort of bursting with a million ideas. What was that time in your life like?
It was great. I used to sit in my room and think like, what if someone had a gun to your head and you had no fingers, and they said to write a book about the history of, I don’t know, prostitution, and you have three hours to push away on that keyboard—what would that look like? And then I would just try to do it. Or let’s say someone duct-taped a tree branch to your hand and then gave you a huge bowl of ink to dip it in and said that you had thirty five minutes to render your version of the Mona Lisa on this canvas. A lot of it was just playing games with myself to see where it would go.
And do you still do that?
Yeah but it’s different. I don’t really do it in that way. Now I understand things differently. There are certain things that … I don’t want to use the word refined…
How about evolve?
Well, to a certain extent there’s still some of that going on.