WORDS BY PHILIPPA SNOW
Late last year, around three weeks be- fore the U.S. election, I went to the Southern States of America with my partner and his disabled father. I had not known, before this, just how impossible travelling internationally is with a wheelchair; I had not known, either, just how much hard work this trip would require of my partner, who is an exemplary son. I believe this is the kind of “not knowing” that might be called “privilege.” I was thinking of privilege then anyway, as – leading the idiot life of a pop-culture journalist, whether I’m travelling or otherwise – I spent about half of the trip on a deadline writing something, from motel to motel, about the pop star Lana Del Rey.
Shortly before I left, she had leaked an ancient song about sending a sext on a Blackberry, which I had found both amusing and apposite. “Impact,” I had written, “has a greater value than intent, which is why it’s never really mattered whether Lana was ‘real,’ or whether her lips were injected, so long as she kept on singing about an America too old for her to remember and too segregated for us to take seriously. Historically, it takes twenty years for a decade to be cool; in Lana’s universe, it’s superficially forty or fifty years, with the caveat that the decade in question be set in Los Angles, and that its players be rich, white, attractive and bored.” Looking back, I wish I had taken her interest in old, segregated and white America rather more seriously, since it appears to be making a comeback. Lana’s America is, whether she would admit it or not, not so different from Trump’s – in the sense that the red, white and blue of it’s terribly white, and its gender divisions are terribly retrograde.
It was a memorable trip, for good reasons and bad. The piece itself got written, and was neither especially memorable nor a disgrace: it was fine. The holiday was, I would tell anybody who asked me, just fine. I did not rave about it, nor was I unhappy except for the jetlag. What did make me unhappy was knowing in retrospect, as I had started to realise a little in real-time, exactly what happened in U.S. politics late last year; that some shift in American thinking had begun to accelerate, and what had seemed like a funny, impossible outcome became, somehow, sick, inescapable truth. That November, I rolled over and heard first thing in the morning that, somehow, Donald Trump was the President, and I couldn’t help but think back to the time that we’d spent everywhere that he’d actually won. It felt – insanely – a little like having colluded. What could I have done? I could have done nothing, I knew. I also knew that what I did was less than nothing.
Something else that I might call the trip in retrospect was “queasy.” I read Money by Martin Amis, lurched internally at the way it described jet-lags, hangovers, drinking; then went out and drank in a New Orleans bar and lurched out for real, up on my feet and then off them, the road-names marked in blue tiles rushing upwards. I did not care to remember. I did not care to know. The radio was usually quick to remind me. I have never before heard religious radio broadcasting; most of it told us we’d go straight to hell. Perhaps we were already going. “The future could go this way, that way,” I read while feeling ill in the car. “The future’s futures have never looked so rocky. Don’t put money on it. Take my advice and stick to the present. It’s the real stuff, the only stuff, it’s all there is, the present, the panting present.”
Another thing I underlined in the novel that week was: “Points of a journey do not matter when the journey has no destination, only an end.” Our destination at the time was New Orleans, because this was the destination that my partner’s father decided was best, or was most like the culmination of a long-held dream. Billboards advertised Viagra, Jesus, guns, as if nobody cared about clichés. In a gas station, I found a porno mag exclusively documenting celebrity sex tapes and nipple-slips. I didn’t buy it because I’m a feminist; though I wanted to buy it because I’m a pop-culture ambulance chaser (modern life is confusing, I know). I went to Dallas and looked at the grassy knoll, and imagined the inside of a President’s head being outside its casing. I wondered what kind of souvenirs they might possibly sell in the gift-shop. Driving through Waco, it’s hard not to notice that everything is a “memorial.” You can feel the pale reverberations of a tragedy long after everything settles.
I thought often, during the election’s televised debates, about the fact that people say: “drinking the Kool Aid” to mean: “buying into a lame thing,” when really it means being actually poisoned.
There comes a moment when it becomes clear to a person – by which I mean me, and I maybe mean you – that the temporal isn’t desirable. Viable. That’s a new kind of fear: the fear of wanting to keep something more than you wanted it even at first, to begin with – the fear, I guess, that people with money have, or that people with children have, or the fear that drives Lana Del Rey to apparently ask will you still love me when I am no longer young and beautiful, or whatever. In a cab, I watched the conversation turn to all of the good things that candidate Trump had said and believed, and all of the good things that candidate Trump had assured everyone he would do, and felt the air achieve a chill that no air conditioning on earth could achieve. Interactions were pregnant with terror. I dreaded even hearing the word “election.” Things I did not know existed were slipping away. Signs on front-lawns screamed that “blue lives” mattered; other signs promoted the right to bear arms. I saw a progun baby-grow in Austin. In Dallas, a candy store was distributing anti-Obama stickers, for free, with its peanut butter cups and tootsie rolls and midnight Milky Ways and Milk Duds (“THIS MAN IS A SOCIALIST” one exclaimed, and I took it because I did not see the problem), as if they were bubblegum stickers.
Here are some of the things that I had previously considered to matter about an America I’ve never actually seen: the palm-leaf Martinique wallpaper at the Beverley Hills Hotel (“accept no substitutes. As seen on Mariah Carey’s album cover.”) Mariah Carey’s album covers. Paris Hilton nicknaming Britney Spears, who is reckless, “The Animal.” Lindsay Lohan threatening to run for President; Lindsay Lohan allegedly working as an escort; Area 51; the presence of actual cowboys. The Dallas Cowboys, Jenny Holzer designing merchandise for the Dallas Cowboys, and Jenny Holzer. Palm Springs. Jerry Springer. The ghost of Lupe Vélez with her head in the toilet. The Chelsea Hotel. The Chateau Marmont. The list of sexual partners that Lindsay left on the bar in the Chateau Marmont, on a napkin. Eve Babitz’s breasts and Eve Babitz’s burns; Linda Kasabian’s perfume being, per Didion, “Blue Grass” by Elizabeth Arden. Carolyn Besset-Kennedy wearing Egyptian Musk. The whole country’s sweet, corny, deeply enduring love of Marilyn Monroe.
Kim Kardashian calling George W. Bush “a cute little President.” Everything Rihanna does on Instagram, on stage, in life, and even in private where we can’t actually see her. The fact that “24-hours after allegedly throwing up on an airplane, Lamar Odom spent some time at a Queens strip club.” Bad waxworks. Bad surgery. Dr.Miami. Hollywood Babylon, Hollywood Boulevard; Access Hollywood. An anecdote I once read in an online comments section about Jeff Koons, which reads, in its entirety: “I met Jeff Koons in a bar in New York when I was in my late 20s and very naive and very low self-esteemed. Not knowing who he was, I asked if he could give me a man’s opinion on whether or not I should pursue a guy who had dumped me and now wouldn’t answer my calls. (I also was an idiot, not grounded or in touch with emotions, and relying on TV shows such as Three’s Company to provide me with basic information about dating.) Jeff Koons told me he couldn’t answer his phone because he was famous, but other men who didn’t answer their phones were weak.
Then he lectured me about how love is all about sacrifice. He had vomit down the front of his shirt, but I somehow missed this. My friend pointed it out afterward.”
None of these, as it turned out, were real things that mattered. Knowing that one’s Martinique palm-leaf wallpaper was the official, non-substitute version was never enough; an ironic interest in old-school wealth, like Lana’s and sometimes like mine, is just tasteless. Being on reality TV is now enough to turn you into a fascist President, rather than simply an icon of camp. Being on reality TV can also get you assaulted in your hotel room, but only provided you’re female. “Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by,” the big, rich and terrible oaf in Money says, and isn’t wrong. “Not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who’s doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.” Last year, a little too much of what actually mattered in life had been passing me by – all that power and terror. I was neither the train, nor the station, but some scrap of meaningless trash on the concourse.
Here is the very last thing I underlined in Amis’ book, in the taxi home from the airport: “Oh Christ, the exhaustion of not knowing anything. It’s so tiring and hard on the nerves. It really takes it out of you, not knowing anything. You’re given comedy and miss all the jokes. Every hour you get weaker. Sometimes, as I sit alone in my flat in London and stare at the window, I think how dismal it is, how heavy, to watch the rain and not know why it falls.” Back in London, I felt that I knew why the rain fell. I did not know, however, how to make it stop.