Miami is a city in which the chaos and destruction imparted onto nature by mankind is made abundantly, painfully clear. When my fiancé and I arrived in the city last week, we made our way directly towards the ocean of South Beach. Escaping the dense heat, we immediately jumped in the crystal blue waters, basking in the warmth and embrace of tender nature. It was then I made note of a man on the sands videotaping beachgoers, specifically female beach goers, or so it appeared. I initially thought he must be acquiring B-roll for some low production something, but when my fiancé told me she felt nervous about him, I knew she was being serious. Naturally, I glanced towards the man, and that was when I was met with his bug-eyed sociopathic gaze, no less chilling than the expression of Dennis Hooper’s Frank in Blue Velvet. I asked if he had a problem, and the man immediately started cursing me out, face contorted into violence confirming my fears about the nature of his intentions. My body tensed, fight or flight throttled into ignition, before he decided to walk on. This is Miami. A sunny climate for shady people. A city totally at the mercy of a ruling class (composed of a holy triumvirate of mafiosos, drug runners, and corporate vacationers) with no investment in its community; while they luxuriate in powdered cocaine in the mansions on the harbor, the proletariat smokes crack in the bombed out, dilapidated housing projects that border the hideous street art gentrified neighborhood of Wynnwood. The tropics of Miami should be an idyllic location for reorienting the spirit and attaining some kind of fleeting clarity, but instead they have become a playground for human beings’ decadent, violent, and self-destructive impulses, and that contrast instills in me a truly uncanny dread. It was in this location, and this head space, that I read what I think was the only book of Gary Indiana’s that I hadn’t already read: 1993’s savagely funny and tragic rumination on friendship, loss, cinema, and the AIDS crisis Gone Tomorrow.
As with most of Indiana’s novels, Gone Tomorrow blurs the writer’s surface level enviable artistic lived experience with well-worn literary clichés put to powerful use (in this case: a looming serial killer, graphic sex sequences that would make the Marquis de Sade wince, intrigue and mystery). The unnamed narrator, a writer with a scarred face and at least partially based on Indiana himself, travels to Cartagena, Columbia to act in an arthouse film directed by the simultaneously manipulative and deeply humane director Paul Grosvenor. Grosvenor was the longtime producer of the recently deceased celebrated German auteur Rudolph Bauer, and the Bogota-set film is presented as an opportunity for Grosvenor to break out as an artist in his own right and get out of Bauer’s shadow and for the narrator to make some easy money, get a vacation, and perhaps get some other easy money acting gigs out of the film’s success.
Rudolph, who overdosed on Mandrax and is described by the narrator as a “tyrannical, crazily vicious person (but not consistently so),” is almost definitely based on Indiana’s once friend and iconic German New Wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with Paul most likely being an avatar for Dieter Schidor (an actor best known for starring in Fassbinder’s Genet adapation Querelle but who also directed Indiana in the 1985 film Cold in Columbia, which I can only believe is the actual film that this novel serves as fictionalized behind-the-scenes of).
By only thinly veiling the inspirations behind his fictional characters, Indiana is able to make profound observations on the noble intentions and beauty of art making corrupted by the humans making it. When Indiana wrote Fassbinder’s eulogy for Art Forum, he said: “What can you say about a fat, ugly sadomasochist who terrorized everyone around him, drove his lovers to suicide, drank two bottles of Rémy daily, popped innumerable pills while stuffing himself like a pig and died from an overdose at 37?” Indiana fully acknowledges that great art is often made by deeply flawed, arguably malignant humans. Indiana said that Fassbinder was a “faithful mirror of an uglier world that has grown uglier since his death.” The fact that Fassbinder is referenced in the book through the guise of the character Bauer reinforces the metaphor. in Gone Tomorrow, we find the lush natural landscape of Columbia, much like that of Miami, infected by human violence and sadism, and a noble, artistic film destroyed by the conniving and mysterious director Paul. Beauty, Indiana suggests, is always leveled by human society. That corrupted beauty is inescapable, or as Nietzsche said, “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will will gaze back into you.”
The structure of the novel leans experimental, with the narrator relaying the film shooting to a man who served as Paul’s other best friend (forming a superficial bond between the two), named Robert Scheib, after learning that Paul has mysteriously killed himself. The narrator flies south to Columbia, bewildered by his lack of expectations (and nervous about his facial scarring recently acquired in a surgical accident), and immediately the landscape is made foreboding when he lays witness to a brutal act of violence after having landed at the airport in Bogota. “A policeman whose moist pink lips and shiny teeth looked terrifying from seven feet away smashed his club against a prostrate, emaciated beggar’s medulla oblongata,” writes Indiana. “He pounded the man’s skull methodically, each blow crisply, audible and followed by howls of brain obliterating pain.”
The witnessed attack sets the mood for the entire novel. Gone Tomorrow is often described as apocalyptic. But this isn’t an imagined, future apocalypse, this is the apocalypse that we are in and have been in since at least 1984 (probably sooner though) when the events of the novel transpire: neoliberal austerity politics, late stage capitalism and the free movement of capital not people, AIDS, neo-fascism, crisis in healthcare, crisis in spirituality, global warfare. One could argue that society, or at least the just and fair society promised by democracy is over and perhaps never started to begin with. Gone Tomorrow reinforces that notion. “Freedom: the last great illusion of the twentieth century,” wrote JG Ballard. Indiana is under no such illusion.
When the narrator gets to the set location, he immediately feels jilted when Paul tells him they have no more room at the villa that grizzled, sociopathic actor and writer (this “budget Genet” as Indiana calls him is also said to be fucking his mother, the near intolerable Carlota who is also on the film’s location) Alex Gavros has secured for the cast, and that he will have to stay at the decrepit and poorly staffed Hotel Bolivar in Cartagena. Throughout the described filmmaking process, the script is muddled and incomprehensible. Paul appears more concerned with manipulating his cast into having sexual relations with each other and other entanglements than he does actually creating a cohesive piece of film art. Indiana hardly describes the nitty gritty filmmaking process, instead focusing on the speed, cocaine, alcohol and sexual frustration that drives the actors behind the scenes than he does on the actors acting.
Towards the beginning of the Cartagena section, the reader meets the assorted characters in the book/actors in the fictional film: Irma Irma is a seductive actress who isn’t beautiful but nonetheless makes men go wild, Maria is a local Columbian helping scout locations and whose optimism is met with both skepticism and admiration from the narrator, Ray is Paul’s collaborator and long-suffering boyfriend providing the plot world weary cynicism and hard rationale, and then there’s the nymph-like Michael Simard whose unparalleled physical beauty nearly paralyzes the narrator with overwhelming desire. “He was overpoweringly phallic, male, inhuman.”
Michael’s beauty, like that found in the artistic process or in the book’s South American setting, is picked at, prodded over, and eventually destroyed by the narrator as well as the other characters. Michael is a cypher. A gorgeous blank slate imbued with everyone’s specific desires. The narrator often watches Irma and Maria walk in and out of his hotel room at night, and jacks off at his idea of Michael, because Michael’s character is totally superfluous and left vacant.
An interesting contrast here can be made between Michael and the inhabitants of Columbia as described by the narrator. For example, at one point during the narrative the narrator asks Ray about his displeasure about being in Columbia. Ray then blames his bad experience on the locals, breaking out into a racist slur. Indiana writes at one point, from the perspective of the narrator, that the only difference between the locals and the crew is that the locals have “more of a life.” There is an idea here that the more distance between globalist society and the human, the better off the human is. Michael Simard is a first time actor. He is uncorrupted by show business you could say, with show business as an analogue for society. Nevertheless, his lack of a persona and inability to connect to the rest of the crew (especially the narrator) makes the others suspicious of him. When a cannibalistic serial killer starts murdering people at the edges of the narrative, many of the characters start to actively wonder and make jokes about whether or not Michael is the killer in question. It is only at the end of the Columbia narrative when Simard essentially comes out of the closet to the narrator, Paul and Ray (he had been fucking women throughout the story) and the four engage in an utterly debauched four way orgy that Michael’s character becomes part of “the crew,” a sleazy, manipulative hunk willing to use his looks to get what he wants. What Indiana suggests here is that those trapped in society will always be mistrustful of those who are able to keep distance from it. Until you debase yourself, in the pursuit of material wealth and the frivolous hedonism that goes hand in hand with wealth, you can’t be trusted.
AIDS exists on the periphery of the story throughout the novel, until it doesn’t. Once the film shoot section of the novel is complete, and we are brought back to the bar stool conversation between the narrator and Paul’s other best friend Robert, the reason these two men have thought to discuss their relationships with Paul is made clear when the narrative is brought towards the prolonged and excruciatingly painful death of Ray due to AIDS-related illness. Ray, being taken care of by Paul and Valentina Vogel (an actress who co-starred in the Cartagena production before seeming to leech her way into being Paul’s platonic paramour), has become so ill that his body became a “fearsome enemy making him crazy with pain.” He is taken by an overwhelmed Paul and Valentina to the grifter Dr. Zyrd, who promises to treat AIDS patients with both a welcome lack of moralistic attitude (concerning gay lifestyles) and an “advanced Penicillin therapy.” Zyrd burns Paul for his cash, and eventually accepts payment in the form of sex with Irma Irma (which Ray and Paul enjoy watching). Inevitably, Ray dies a miserable death. Paul is too diagnosed with HIV, and in his grief meets up for a truly torrid bout of sex with Michael Simard in the Dachau concentration camp grounds, before attempting suicide in his bathtub. In Indiana’s narrative, even suicide becomes a symbol for the failures of civilization when the drugs instead don’t kill Paul, but leave his body eroded in the bathtub before being found by Valentina three days later. Indiana would never be so simplistic as to view AIDS as a cruel irony, but one could be detected anyways, not so much in the disease but in the way those with the disease are treated by healthcare providers (though the Ray death sequence transpires in Germany, a country already under a single payer health care system, he still has no route towards recovery and turns to a con man for hope).
In Gone Tomorrow, no beauty is left pure. The beauty of nature is polluted by the inhabitants, with their corruption and violence and maliciousness, that form its civilization. The art making process, in all its noble intent, is ultimately made by narcissists and sociopaths more intent on having control of those around them than attaining the sublime. And, most cruelly, even those who seek to live outside of western normative civilization, through seeking transcendence in the form of sexual liberation or otherwise, are now cruelly faced with a plague and a healthcare industry that collectively thinks they deserve to die. But Indiana is not without tender humanity either, and ultimately believes that beauty is worth seeking even when degraded and corrupted. In many ways, Gone Tomorrow is in the classical tradition of vanitas: death and beauty exist side by side. “I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction,” once wrote Bataille. Gone Tomorrow is a masterful examination of that contradiction.