"The fucking roaches have no king! You're welcome!"
It was a book he found that week in his travels by a man named Daniel Evan Weiss called "The Roaches Have No King," and it was his gift to me.
The Roaches Have No King
I have been a fan of cockroaches my whole life. My first book of poetry was Don Marquis' "Archy and Mehitabel," a picaresque about a free verse poet who gets reincarnated as a cockroach and who continues to write anyway (see picture above). I saw that movie "Joe's Apartment" with at least two different girlfriends who picked it out independently to make me happy. I like roaches; they always seem to be having a good time. I moved to New York hoping for more roaches, but the truth is, I haven't seen a single one so far in my apartment. I think they have Manhattan tastes.
"They are born pregnant," says Dr. Future. "Think about that."
Anyway, already excited, I turned the glossy little tome over and scanned the reviews. This was not a book that trafficked in unsatisfying metaphor or deliberate misdirection for art purposes. This was a serious high-art novel that was ACTUALLY about cockroaches and their lives among people; their conflicts, hopes, and hates.
"Yes," I said. "I shall be happy for a little while."
The book is good. Actually, that is a lie. The book is the sort of thing I like to read. The book follows the lives and careers of a generation of roaches who are accidentally "imprinted" by the book collection of a liberal, Jewish, New York lawyer. Each roach takes the personality of a different text whose glue nourishes him through "childhood." The protagonist is a roach named "Numbers," so named due to being imprinted by the Old Testament. Other notables include Bismarck, Julia Childs, and Sufur -- a roach imprinted by the silk shirt of the local cocaine dealer Rufus. He reads the tag in Rufus's shirt backwards, you see.
"TRHNOK" is an incredibly racist, incredibly repellent, seething, angry, indefensible text. Highlights include: the roaches gathering in the toilet to examine human defecations in order to determine human moods and problems, a roach beating up an aborted fetus in the sewers because it is finally a fair fight, and a roach "making love" to two different human women in one night in order to determine which of them is genetically "stronger."
Okay, so this book will never, ever be on a syllabus, anywhere, ever. It is probably a problem that I own it. But then again, I am glad there is a place where such things can get published.
Or there used to be, anyway.
The company that put this book out was called "High Risk Books," and they were the American division of the British publishing company "Serpent's Tail." They WERE a division, because now they are goddamn nothing.
Serpent's Tail - Independent Publishers
Serpent's Tail seems like it has a good heart. Their fiction section features titles such as "Acid Casuals," which has this description:
"Estela, who used to be Paul but has just had the operation, returns to Manchester on a business trip. The business - to kill her ex-boss, a club owner and money launderer - entails encounters with a whole posse of Mancunian lowlifes, dodgy bouncers, bent coppers, Moss Side gangsters, DJs and all kinds of drugs and sex."
Yes! I am there. But I am also an American. What happened to your American operation? How come I can't go visit your office in MY city with MY own AMERICAN filth in my hands, my knees jostling under my paint-stained pants in anticipation of a publishing house who does not mind the problems of my work, and who understands that to make a profit on my evil thoughts, you've got to find evil readers?
Were you destroyed in a magic battle between your a-list authors, who squared off in a pit-fight in the subway, tearing each other apart with teeth, protractors, and fingernails, throwing the losing body to the rats to carry away into the darkness? Was your company sued into oblivion by the NAACP, the AARP, the WWF, the RIAA? Did High Risk make too many enemies in the wrong places, do business with the wrong underworld criminals, not pay their protection money to the wrong government agency, piss off a porn king somewhere whose daughter had the wrong tastes?
A bit of researching turned up this bit of grim reality, from www.artcommotion.com:
"High Risk Books is no more! A press release from the parent company, Serpent's Tail, announced the end. High Risk's head honcho, Ira Silverberg, said, "While the High Risk imprint [HA!] brought both visibility and prestige to Serpent's Tail, these benefits were not enough to outweigh the demand of increased returns and lower advances from the stores. Thus, our UK publisher has chosen a path which is geared to decreasing overhead in an effort to create better economics for the house."
"Serpent's Tail publisher Pete Ayrton said, "Due to difficult trading conditions and excessive and unpredictable returns, Serpent's Tail will close its U. S. office on December 20, 1996." Silverberg will stay on through the end of the year to see the spring list into production. Those titles include books by the visionary performance artist/playwright/poet/writer Jack Smith and a collection of essays by Lynne Tillman and Kathy Acker."
"High Risk editors Amy Scholder and Ira Silverberg gave us books by Benjamin Weissman, William S. Burroughs, Renaud Camus, David Trinidad, and Lynn Tillman, to name a few. For anyone who loves edgy, nervy writing the end of High Risk is very sad news."
Too many returns? That's what did it? You gave up because you got too many unpredictable returns? What did you expect? Why did you try to sell your books in respectable stores? Why were you shilling in conventional media outlets, where "risk-takers" are people who drink spoiled milk and see how long it takes before they vomit? Why did you set yourselves up for inevitable failure?
Yes, Americans are stupid and scared and don't actually enjoy having their opinions rattled: but those are just American READERS. The illiterate masses would love to read "The Roaches Have No King," if they could read. Its paleolithic race-baiting would clean up in the South, for instance! Every truck stop on I-10 should have ten crisp copies. Who cares if the readers don't understand irony? They understand dollar bills! How do you get these books in the hands of the horrible? Horrible people need horrible books, and now they will only have horrible movies, and horrible comics, and horrible lives.
Fine, fine: High Risk is gone forever. I understand; I accept; I move on. It has been more than a decade, and I have no right to be angry. I am just now coming to the party.
But where to go from here? I must find someone to cheer for.
There must be others out there who dive to the bottom of letters, and I will find them or die trying.
I will follow the roaches.
Posted by miracle on Wed, 05 Mar 2008 21:30:21 -0500 -- permanent link