Atticus Lish’s “Life Is With People”: A Discussion

You might not expect a book abounding with illustrations of grotesque, sometimes terrifying, figures to open with a warm personal statement explaining the artist’s search for friendship. And yet that’s how Atticus Lish’s Life Is With People begins — which in turn provided Vol.1 Brooklyn editors Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll a fine starting point for their own discussion of Lish’s book, just released by Tyrant Books.

Tobias Carroll: So, in getting this discussion of Life Is With People off the ground, I figured I’d start with the book’s opening — specifically, Lish’s introduction, which an anachronistic figure hovers above bearing pen and ink. He writes, “My primary goal in producing this book is to meet people with similar interests.” It’s a warm, even idealistic statement — and then that cheeriness is dispelled entirely by the grotesques that populate Lish’s work. (I’m not sure of exactly how I’d characterize it: drawings? Cartoons?) I was curious to learn what you made of the introduction, and where you think that Lish’s work can be categorized. I remember you mentioning Raymond Pettibon, who I agree makes for a good point of reference. Then work of the late John Callahan also comes to mind; in some of the pieces here, Lish shares Callahan’s fondness for a punchline with a raised middle finger behind it. If you had to file Life Is With People, where would you end up placing it?

Jason Diamond: I found the introduction so interesting as well as necessary to looking at the entire collection. Lish mentions that his work is the product of a romantic inspiration and that it’s a bildungsroman.  When something is sold to me as a coming-of-age story, which Lish says the book is (along with a cautionary tale), I mentally begin to reference the old standbys: Great Expectations, Duddy, Catcher, etc.  That setup really made me look at the illustrations in a different way than I may have if he hadn’t included an introduction.  I did mention Pettibon, but flipping through the pages again, I see some Shel Silverstein and something that brings to mind the Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark books.

TC: And now that you bring that up, I’m going to have to look back through the book with a different focus. Viewed within the context of a coming-of-age narrative, certain things take on a new significance: the constant state of menace that certain characters undergo throughout; the grotesque authority figures that populate the book; and even the somewhat irreverent take on Judaism — I’m thinking specifically of the scene of the Almighty washing his hands “just like it says in the Torah.”

Also: you’re spot-on with the Scary Stories reference. Much like those, some of those images are going to be lodged into my subconscious for years to come, occasionally popping up to give me the shivers as I try to fall asleep.

Where do you think some of Lish’s other fixations come from? I’m thinking of the specificity with which he cites certain things: “International Flavors Coffee” in one bit, or the guy brandishing a gun who hates “HBO’s Deadwood.”

JD: It’s an interesting question, and I really couldn’t tell you.  Maybe they aren’t fixations, but possibly composites of people and situations?

Something I liked was the randomness of the captions.  They made me think of the British electro group Underworld.  A friend in high school told me that the lyrics to the music came from snippets of things one of the guys heard while riding on the busses in London, which is sort of funny of you think about it.  You have a song like “Born Slippy,” that is essentially the theme song for doing heroin in the 1990s (thanks to Trainspotting) and the lyrics really don’t mean anything at all. I was wondering to myself if maybe Lish took a similar approach — not necessarily by making his drawing or words lack meaning, but by taking things he saw, heard and felt and turning them into the pictures that only he truly understands the deeper meanings to.

Did you notice any sort of theme to the drawings?

TC: I saw certain grotesque figures pop up again and again — musclebound men, terrifyingly emaciated women. And there are also variations on the theme of couples whose relationship is decaying — of horrible arguments rendered in a capsule. I was reminded, at times, of Nick Antosca’s recent novella The Obese — both it and Lish’s book seemed to me to possess a sort of scorched-earth satire, where everyone involved is somehow monstrous…

JD: Did any of the images make you uncomfortable at all?  Any specific reactions in general?

TC: A lot of the images left me with some discomfort: the aging naked women, for one, which seemed to be (for me) the closest Lish’s images came to a familiar caricature. But there are also figures where the grotesque aspects give way to outright horror — a figure lurking behind a door seeking food, for one. There’s something very tactile about these drawings, and I think that lends them a skin-crawling quality that some of the same basic forms might not have had they been rendered differently.

What about you? And — do you think Lish’s aim here is more satirical, or more provocation?

JD: I thought provocation the first time, but then I looked it over again and realized that wasn’t at all the case.  I imagined that it’s instinctual to feel that way with drawings like Lish’s.  At first they pop out and seem to work on a totally visceral level, but then you find yourself going back to look at them again and again, searching for meaning.  I think that’s the sign of a great piece of art, and that’s what Lish has created.

TC: As I tried to put together my closing thoughts on Life Is With People, I found myself looking back at a number of the pieces in the book, and agreeing with you. There is, I think, more meaning to Lish’s work than just the punchlines that (admittedly) do appear on more than a few of them. I do think that it’s significant that, for all that some of the moments in here do horrify, Lish ends with a pair of (more or less) domestic scenes, and uses a punchline to bring the whole thing to a close. Looking at the book’s title sitting across my desk from me, I also find myself thinking about that, and how so few of the drawings involve solitary characters. (Even when a character is alone on the page, they’re often addressing someone else.) It’s an odd sort of socialization that Lish is describing here — and oftentimes, it’s far from peaceful — but sometimes there’s a comfort there. Maybe, like the last words of the collection, we should “be happy with that.”

JD: He seems like an interesting guy. I think at the end of the day when you can come away thinking that, you’ve experienced something worthwhile.

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