ITHACA, NY -- For more than 30 years, the novelist Jon Frankel has been writing the kind of expansive, high-concept, transgressive work which has only recently come to dominate contemporary American Literature. His fiction is so meticulously written—the rhythm of each sentence is its own delight—and so inventive, vulgar, comic, and apocalyptic, you don’t want it to end.
It’s Shakespeare as a B movie, it’s the alienation of Chandler’s Philip Marlow, it’s the crisp metaphysics of John Donne. And it’s no surprise the work has achieved a cult status.
Frankel recently published his fourth novel, the 1,000 page “Isle of Dogs,”which will be released in four parts. The bookbelongs to his DRIFT series — a multivolume saga set in New York and Los Angeles in a future devastated by climate change and the political, technological, and social responses to that disaster. The scope and consistency of the worlds Frankel has built began with Specimen Tank, which was published under the pseudonym Buzz Callaway in 1993. The novel deals with drugs, sex work, medical experimentation and political torture. And it has absurdist elements; a character turns into a rabbit.
“I’ve been more at home writing crime and futuristic dystopian fiction,” Frankel says. “You’re freer as a writer to express ideas that literary fiction shuns. In American fiction there’s a weird optimism at work, but noir is where the real American society exists — the system isn’t fair, the fates are stacked against the little guy; it’s a glimpse of power from the perspective of one who suffers it—violence and crime are a part of American culture, it’s the foundation of the capitalist enterprise.”
Philip Shelley, founding member and principal songwriter of the influential NYC punk-era band The Student Teachers,describes Frankel as “a poet who happens to write novels.” And indeed, Frankel’s first work was poetry. “His ear is so unfailingly musical,” Shelley says, “and there is always a certain level of pure sonority and abstraction in his prose—you know, it’s just beautiful.”
Frankel inhabits the same universe as Kathy Acker, Pynchon and Dennis Cooper; but he says, “It all goes back to Joyce. He did the formal experiments that went on to spawn all of their—all of our work. But I’m happy to engage the reader on the vulgar level—the daily nonsense of the novel, all the things that intellectuals get frustrated with. I like shocks and suspense. I like the safe falling out of a window and landing on someone’s head. The ideas are there to entertain, but it doesn’t mean you have a vacuum of ideas. You can explore the inner consciousness of multiple characters. Even if that character is a giant cockroach walking across a desert, worrying about his marriage.”
Frankel grew up in Larchmont, a suburb of New York City, graduating high school at the height of Cold War paranoia with an exuberant punk-driven sense of possibility and a terror of dying in a nuclear blast. He haunted CBGBs and Max’s, and he read obsessively. In 1978 he was arrested with five others for breaking into a nuclear facility in Seabrook, New Hampshire. He refused to post bail, cooperate, or plead, and spent six weeks in jail. “It was,” he says, “an education.”
As it would turn out, it was the kind of education to which Frankel was constitutionally suited. Within the next five years he would be accepted to Oberlin, drop out, move to the Lower East Side, work waiting tables and bartending, travel the world with his wife — an artist he met during his fleeting college days — have two children, write a novel, and take full part in the bohemian scene of ‘80s Manhattan — creating a family of queer, activist, artist friends living on the top of a tenement and publishing his poetry in journals alongside luminaries like John Ashbury.
“I can’t even imagine what it must be like in his brain,” says Shelley. “He is, by a mile, the best-read and most widely read person I have ever known, a genuine 19th-century style autodidact, only with 21st century synapses — constant sparks flying and everything lightning fast. It’s kind of scary how smart he is.”
From 1984 on, the city began to change. “AIDS consumed our life,” Frankel said. “We lost so many friends.” He took part in political funerals, marching up first avenue with ACTUP, carrying the body of a close friend in a lavender coffin, his young daughters in tow.
In 1988, during the trifecta of crack, AIDS and gentrification in Manhattan, Frankel moved to Ithaca, New York, working first as a bartender and then later at Cornell’s Olin Library as a book shelver. He was often seen hunched over a notebook in a quiet study carrel, writing. In the next decade, Frankel would marry, have three more children, write a hundred or so poems, and create one of the most compelling and prescient science fiction landscapes since Philip K. Dick.
In 2017, he would discover his birth parents, and would go on to learn he was the grandson of Edgar Hoffman Price—a pulp horror and sci-fi writer and contemporary of Lovecraft from the 1930s — reinforcing the sense, among his fans anyway, that Frankel’s talents were born in the blood. But he would argue that his talents are born in community.
“Writing is something we learn from each other,” Frankel said. “It’s a vocation learned through reading, through talking with other writers. My relationship with other writers is a relationship of love.”
The poet Bridget Meeds met Jon Frankel in 1993 at an open mic poetry reading at the State of the Art Gallery. “He was an intriguing punk guy in a ripped white t-shirt and purple converse sneakers who also happened to be a single father of two toddler girls,” she said.
Meeds, who then worked as a secretary at Cornell, and Frankel fell into the habit of walking home together and, as she says, “talking frantically about what we were writing and reading.”
“Frankel is an autodidact,” says Meeds, “better read than many PhDs, with an incredible wit, cogent political analysis and deep personal generosity. We haven’t stopped talking since then. I trust his thoughts on my writing more than anyone else. We work for the academy, but we are not academics — we’re our own particular breed of writer.”
Frankel has taken on the role of mentor, reader and trusted editor to many writers — whether they are established, long-suffering, or up-and-coming — and he has fully immersed himself in the world of radical, small-press publishing.
Amidst the quiet epiphanies of literary fiction and the glib, knowing pose of the academy, Jon Frankel is dedicated ultimately to language alone.
“Language is a root system,” Frankel says. “As an artist, I do believe we have a receptivity to the unconscious of the world. I think artists retain a childlike connection to this. And artists will exploit everyone, including themselves. The practice is about being sensitive to the way language works, whether it’s a conversation in the laundromat or puzzling through a Middle English text. You are always absorbing more than you are aware.”
Cara Hoffman is the author of three novels each named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. A MacDowell Fellow and an Edward Albee Fellow, she has been a visiting writer at Oxford University. She currently lives in Athens, Greece, where she is at work on a book about the occupation of Exarchia.