This coming April, Semiotext(e) will publish the most comprehensive collection of Cookie Mueller's writing to date, an updated and expanded version of Walking Through Clear Water in A Pool Painted Black. The original Walking ... was the first book in Chris Kraus's Native Agents series, published in 1990. The book came to be because Chris went to a reading of Cookie's, met her, and asked to publish her writing. Though other publishers had been interested in publishing Cookie, they had wanted changes to her manuscript that she wasn't capable of making because she was too sick. She died before the book was published. These details, along with everything else I know about Cookie that isn't from her own writing, are from Chloé Griffin's invaluable oral history/biography "Edgewise," which was published in 2014.
Whenever it was that I first encountered Cookie, probably in my late teens/early twenties, I was wide-open to experience and reading a lot of books, and I probably thought something along the lines of: everything about this writer and her whole spirit resonates with me so deeply that it has changed me forever. Ok! Well, on to the next thing, there are probably TONS of writers out there I haven't read yet that who will have this effect on me, and I must continue to find them. But while I would go on to read other books that would expand and change my brain and life, there will never be anyone else like Cookie. Her ghost haunts my life, and surely the lives of many others. If you know where to look, there are traces of her everywhere, in the physical world she left in 1989 but also in the mainstream "literary" world that, during her lifetime, never properly knew she existed.
Cookie's primary talent was in way she wrote about her life, but her other main talent was in the way she lived. She was one of those Zelig-like figures who showed up at the perfect places in the perfect times to both absorb and help create the culture around them. This kind of person is often little-known except to the people in their immediate orbit, especially pre-Internet. If Chris had not seen that reading and intervened in 1989, Cookie would probably still be a footnote in the careers of the better-known people she hung out with and wrote about and was filmed and photographed by, like John Waters and Nan Goldin. And if Chloé hadn't undertaken the years-long, arduous process of creating Edgewise, Cookie's writings would still be cult artifacts. But the publication of the new expanded collection in April is what will finally give us the kind of mainstream Cookie fever I have both dreaded and wanted since I first read her. Today's 20somethings will meet her and become obsessed. They will change forever, too. And I will in some sense need to cede her to them, I'll let them have my friend I've never met who writes as though she is speaking directly to me. They won't know her like I do, though! And they'll know her exactly like I do: not at all.
It's so boring to read a synopsis of Cookie's life that's NOT by Cookie but I feel like I should put one one in!
"The year I was born, 1949, the North American Treaty was signed, the Dutch were ousted from Indonesia, and the first Russian nuclear bomb was exploded. So what. It didn't happen in America so who cared? Not me. I was too small.
I cared about the flannel blanket which I sat on naked under a Norway maple tree in my Baltimore backyard. I cared about the kitchen sink that I was small enough to take a bath in, and I cared about my right thumb, which I sucked.")
Cookie grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore. She wrote a 321 page book as a kid and when it was finished she shelved it in the appropriate spot in her local public library, then never saw it again. She went to San Francisco as a teenager and, by her own account, survived primarily on LSD, was briefly institutionalized, then returned to Baltimore and started starring in John Waters films like Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos. His whole crew of actors lived and worked together in Bohemian squalor, in then-gross (now gentrified) Fell's Point and Provincetown. Cookie spent her early 20s living year-round in Provincetown. At 22, she gave birth to her son, Max, and by all reports (hers included) didn't change her lifestyle one iota (She does repeatedly assure the reader that she gave up drugs and drinking during her pregnancy, with the exception of red wine.) After one punishing Provincetown winter too many, she and Max and her then-girlfriend Sharon Niesp and many of their other friends moved to New York, tempted with the promise of cheap rent in the then-crumbling city. The milieu she entered then is more often depicted in fiction and film: the late-70s and early 80's in the East Village. Cookie started writing columns about art and specious but loving medical advice in addition to her biographical essays. She wrote about go-go dancing in Times Square (and meeting a serial killer), watching people eat caviar as Jean-Paul Basquiat snuck out of his own fancy party, and most crucially (to me), she wrote about her day to day life, her apartment, standing in line at the bank and going to visit a magazine editor who owed her money, everything that entered her field of vision, distilled via her inimitable point of view.
The end of her story is so poignant and tragic and she wrote it herself so much better than I could that I won't even try, here. But over the weekend, as I read Cookie and my kids watched many millions of hours of Bluey and the InBESTigators, I remembered suddenly that I had written about Cookie before. In what context had I ... oh, wait, oh no, had I written about her in my first book? I have a copy on my shelf, and I pulled it down and read that essay, which begins with me getting my contact lens stuck behind my eyelid.
Have you had the experience of reading something you wrote so long ago that you were basically a completely different person when you wrote it? But also somehow you are both the person who wrote it and the person who is reading it, via the ongoing miracle of time passing and your continued existence?
I have to say, though, I ended up feeling defensive of young me who was so shattered by her first serious heartbreak that she had to write a whole book about it. I recognized a kind of purity that for better or worse I have lost. And I think it's ok for me to say this because I am not claiming to still have this ability, but that is the same quality that I prize in Cookie's writing. She is inhabiting a pose, a point of view, but not dishonestly. She was telling the truth, and that part of her still lives. It always will.