DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?
JHF: I agree with Michel Foucault's 1963 essay "Preface to Transgression" that transgressive art doesn't so much oppose societal values as illuminate the limits of human subjectivity.
Whereas satire primarily operates within the structure of rational thought and suggests that we, as discrete individuals, should act differently from how we act now, transgression opens us up to the void that rational thought is unable to comprehend and language is unable to describe—the Real. But the Real isn't negative or malevolent; it's just what it's like to not be. Part of accessing the Real is becoming continuous with everything else, like when you have sex with someone and forget what belongs to whom and even who you are. Transgressive fiction is so focused on sex and trauma because those are on-ramps to the Real.
That said, while some close-minded people respond to transgressive art by shutting it out, rejecting it, the reaction the less puritanical of us have is laughter. Transgressive art bypasses rational thought, grabs ahold of your emotions, and makes your chest spasm.
In other words, transgression rubs your face in the Real and tells you that you don't know shit about shit, including what "I" means, and all you can do is laugh, not necessarily because you find it funny, but because laughter is the only appropriate physiological reaction to total chaos—to disorder.
DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?
JHF: I'm not sure I remember the first text that did that, to be honest, but the first text that made me realize that transgressive writing had a unique force, even if I couldn't articulate what exactly it was doing, was the short story "Lorraine Goes to Livingston" by Irvine Welsh, which appears in his 1996 book Ecstasy.
"Lorraine Goes to Livingston" concerns Rebecca, a romance writer who, bedridden after suffering a stroke, learns that her philandering husband has been stealing her money, and by way of revenge, turns her next regency romance, the success of which her husband is depending on to pay back his gambling debts, into an utterly depraved tale of bestiality, among other unpleasant activities.
I read it fairly early in high school. I'm not sure I'd think the story was any good if I reread it now, but it was the first time I can remember thinking, "what Rebecca is doing by twisting a mass-market romance into an erotic nightmare isn't just gross or 'gratuitous' (which was how my mother described when movies got too sexy); it has power on a visceral level."
DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.
JHF: Roberto Bolaño's encyclopedic novel 2666 is organized around its punishingly dark central section, "The Part About the Crimes," which details the police discoveries of 108 female murder and rape-murder victims, all maquiladora workers, discarded in landfills in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa (based on Ciúdad Juárez, which had an even more extreme violent crime spree in the 1990s and early 2000s).
“The Part About the Crimes” is driven by the bureaucratic repetition of hundreds of pages of forensic, anatomically-detailed crime scene reports, interspersed with the narratives of detectives searching for the culprit or culprits (and some brief departures as the detectives try to locate a man who is serially urinating in churches around town) and never coming to anything approaching a conclusion. "The Part About the Crimes" is a parade of transgression that reveal the limits of what it is to be a person. For the impoverished factory workers of Santa Teresa (and Ciúdad Juárez), the border between person and not-person is the thinnest of membranes, so the book manages to be both a great Marxist critique and a viscerally real—I mean, shit, in his other great novel, The Savage Detectives, Bolaño focuses on a fictional poetry movement called the Visceral Realists—a viscerally real journey through the universal terror of human existence.
DHP: Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.
JHF: I don't think I consider him a role model in that I want to live my life like him, but Georges Bataille was pretty much the top of the heap when it comes to historically transgressive people who didn't, you know, commit a bunch of terrible crimes (I'm looking at you, Marquis de Sade), and instead just a had a bunch of really interesting thoughts and feelings. Foucault's essay I mentioned earlier goes on to talk about Bataille and his Story of the Eye, but what I'm thinking of right now is just Bataille as a person—with his friends, he formed a secret society, Acéphale, the symbol of which was a headless man, and in which, supposedly, all the members agreed to be sacrificed for the inauguration but nobody would agree to be the executioner.
DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.
JHF: Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon
Geek Love - Katherine Dunn
We So Seldom Look on Love - Barbara Gowdy
2666 - Roberto Bolaño
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
Guignol's Band - Louis-Ferdinand Céline
DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?
JHF: The themes that seem to come up over and over again in my work are the heat death of the universe—eventually, as heat is work and work is heat, and heat only moves from a hotter body to a cooler body, everything will be the same temperature and no work, and therefore no organization, can be done, and the universe will be a cold dead place made up of spread out atoms—and how people define themselves, often through trauma, which definitely checks the boxes next to "horrifying void" and "human subjectivity."
I also try to strike a balance between darkness and humour; to me, darkness isn't as powerful without humour, and humour isn't as powerful without darkness. In fact, I think darkness without humour merely accesses the "sadness" part of your brain and leaves a lot of other synapses that need to fire in order to truly feel a connection with a work untouched.
I'm very much inspired by David Foster Wallace's comment that good fiction is about "what it is to be a fucking human being"—and part of what it is to be a fucking human being, from birth onwards, is to explore where you end and the rest of the universe begins. David Foster Wallace also said that the purpose of fiction was to make you feel less alone, so I think I really try to focus on exploring emotions I've felt that I think other people probably feel as well.
Some of my earlier work is just trying to capture that primal fear of confronting the Real. My writing process at that time was to drink too much coffee and listen to psychedelic noise music and try to think of situations where I felt a horror that was beyond fear, out of proportion to the situation, try to unpack what was going on, and then extrapolate from there to build stories that are universally relatable.
I think now, however, I'm starting to write more about people finding some sort of compromise solution between embracing the void like Bataille and his pals, and being a functional member of society, which is probably not only a more relatable experience for most people but also a step forward in terms of readability.
After all, the thing that it's easy to forget as a writer of transgressive fiction or poetry is that people have still got to be able to actually read your work.