Robert W. Bingham
One Christmas, aged seven, Bingham recited "Casey at Bat" to his family; his grandmother disapproved of the chosen text but at the next year's recitation contest he won $350 with "Once more unto the breach . . ." Later it became a tradition for him to recite from memory the entirety of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales every Christmas Eve for his family.
Bingham was educated at Groton School and at Brown, an Ivy League university known for its ferociously high entry standards. He graduated in 1988 and followed this by an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University in 1994....
Bingham was generous with his money. Most notably he supported the New York literary and arts journal Open City. His title may have been "publisher" but he was just as involved in the selection of poems, rejection of art projects or consideration of potential covers. This interest in literary administration, even reading random unsolicited manuscripts after a long lunch at the Racquet Club on Park Avenue, was an example of the diligent, hard-working and perfectionist side of his persona. This was all the more evident in the long hours and hard labour he put into his own fiction, not least his forthcoming novel, which he re-wrote and refined through numerous drafts.
Bingham spent much time travelling, and formed a particular attachment to Cambodia, where he worked for two years on the English-language Cambodia Daily and was involved in the country's politics at many levels, even lingering with Prince Sihanouk in Parisian exile. Bingham continued to visit Cambodia on a regular basis, blessed as he was with the ability and temperament to travel as he wished, whisking someone he'd just met, say, from Chicago to Europe, or following his favourite band, Pavement, on tour. Bingham was passionate about Pavement, and spent much time with the band, including attending their most recent recording sessions in London, where he featured in several press interviews as a mysterious Southern gentleman with hip-flask.
Pavement played at Bingham's wedding in Princeton this May. His bride was Vanessa Chase, a Harvard graduate art historian. Chase provided all the support and domestic stability Bingham lacked, as well as an intellectual and moral core for an otherwise somewhat haphazard life style. He visited Venice frequently with Chase, where he bought and maintained a boat just for the sake of it, and was looking forward to seeing in the Millennium with his new wife on the beaches of Cambodia...
Somehow Bingham always maintained a redeeming charm. Even at his most murderously cruel, if not physically violent, one still sensed a child- like innocence below it all. He wrote in a story, "That malicious bastard I can be flowered in my heart", yet also wrote, "But we are none of us the great murderers of our mind, just simple fools stumbling toward what is expected of us."
From the Independent:
Appropriately for someone who was so clearly, albeit entirely unselfconsciously, a fictional character, it is Bingham's fiction that stands as most fitting memorial to his manifold talents. His short stories were published in The New Yorker, the first when he was 26, and then as a collection, Pure Slaughter Value, in 1997. With titles like "This Is How a Woman Gets Hit" and "Marriage is Murder", they are hilarious precisely because so genuinely shocking in their raw honesty and brutal realism.
Though compared to John Cheever's, Bingham's characters are considerably more upper-class and considerably wilder, resembling some freak breeding of Hunter S. Thompson and Louis Auchincloss. However, the comparison to Cheever stands with respect to the quality of the prose, for Bingham wrote with that magical excellence which sometimes finds one running a finger under the words in disbelief at how the author brought it off. There is also a noticeable subtext of early death -
A lot of his friends were doing it. They were dying or getting married. A few were doing neither, but the margin was narrowing. Max did not want to die, but he viewed marriage as a kind of death. He was twenty-nine. . .
One character pops his girlfriend's birth-control pills when he can't find any valium, then assuages his hangover by renting a porno film and ordering out Indian food, falling asleep to his favourite war film, The Guns of Navarone.
Pure Slaughter Value is more revelatory than any autobiography and phrases can be found that suggest Bingham's long love of the edge: "He still wanted to alter his life, see what would happen to it if he tried to throw it away" or "that thrilling corner of his heart that still wanted to destroy himself, to make himself an early grave". Yet these ideas are also universal, for who has not felt, "He wished not for death but to be absent from his life"?
Pure Slaughter Value will without doubt slowly establish itself as a minor classic of American literature. And by all accounts Bingham's first novel, Lightning on the Sun, to be published next year, is even more impressive. A Graham Greene-style "entertainment" set in Cambodia, it should establish Bingham as a major writer, one whose career may have gained as much in media mythology as it has lost in potential production. As his agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh remarked, "We thought we were at the beginning of something so palpable and tremendous. And how did we know we were at the end as well?"
Reviews for Pure Slaughter Value: Stories
"The new Lost Generation finds an accomplished mouthpiece in Bingham...an agile, savagely funny writer...it's fun to watch his brainy, abject characters tie themselves in knots."
"Robert Bingham writes like the bastard nephew of John Cheever. His masterfully crafted portraits of the American ruling class are at once casually intimate and coruscating. A spy in the dorm rooms and the boardrooms of privilege, he stalks where hacks have rushed in before him, and brings back stories we have never quite heard before--stories that are difficult to forget."
"Robert Bingham's Pure Slaughter Value is a very fine thing--eerie and precise, deadpan but full of wicked subcurrents, sexual, psychological, and otherwise--a real marvel of wild, heavy thinking disguised as stories so quiet and even-keeled that you literally don't know what hit you."
"Pure Slaughter Value is a fine debut for a writer who is loaded with talent."
"Like their author, these characters are ferociously wised up. Think of social, fiduciary, and erotic affiliations between the children of John Cheever's characters and Robert Stone's. Think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan's offspring, but with more than two wits to rub together. Why the long faces? Asked and answered by Bingham's drug- and booze-fuzzed (but agonizingly alert), precociously tapped-out protagonists. The narrators of the first-person tales are ferally unforgiving of themselves, feeling corruptions surging through their privileged genes like viral time-bombs. Bingham's voices--truly one collective voice, with relentless consistency of moral vision--are immediate: a Bingham character lives bang in this New York minute, morally vigilant, nobody's fool but his own fool. These stories hurt; they're meant to hurt, one hundred percent felt."
"You take some fascinatingly unlikable characters, mash them up with chillingly despicable ones, incorporate them in surprising and funny stories, and you get a convincing mÚlange called Pure Slaughter Value that you wish wasn't so convincing. You then try to comfort yourself with the thought that your creations remind you of no more than 50% of the people you know."
"[Bingham] writes with elegance and economy and a wicked sense of humor."
--Los Angeles Times
Amazon Customer Reviews:
A thousand times better than most navel staring collections.
By A Customer on August 23, 1998
"When I read in New York magazine that Bingham was "probably the best writer about New York living in New York," I had my doubts but after finishing this gloriously disturbing debut I left those doubts in the trash. This is the best collection I've read since The Puglalist at Rest"
The Best of Rob Bingham Is This Book
By M. E. Dungo on September 1, 2010
"I remember Rob Bingham giving me a pre-print corner-store bound copy with a cheap plastic cover for me to preview in 1997. I rolled my eyes and thought: here goes another Salinger wannabe. I read it and it turned out to be unpretentious. I liked Bad Stars a lot. It spoke to me with a bit of John Irving in it for flavor. It wasn't bad. In fact it was good for a first try.
He had misadventures in Cambodia enough to be a small time Tim Page and semi-real William Burroughs but he was just too young and too privilaged to know true desperation. I miss the guy and this is his best work. Can't say the same for what followed."
Reviews for Lightning on the Sun
“[A] smart, stinging literary thriller reminiscent of Graham Greene and Robert Stone.”
--San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] gripping literary thriller…. Bingham effortlessly builds suspense.”
--Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A powerful story about desire, greed, and the hope for redemption in a fallen world.”
From Publishers Weekly:
"An American expat in Cambodia with a burgeoning drug problem--and deepening debts to a murderous Phnom Penh loan shark--tries to smuggle three kilos of heroin to his ex-girlfriend, a "lapsed Harvard graduate" and stripper in New York City, by enlisting the unwitting help of a preppy newspaper journalist in this engrossing, posthumous debut. Asher has come to Phnom Penh with UNESCO, hoping to put as much distance as possible between himself and Julie, the love of his life. Now she's the only one who has both the connections and the desire to save him. But after Asher tricks Reese, a respectable tennis club acquaintance (he "looked like the drunk American in La Dolce Vita") into taking the drugs through U.S. customs, the plan starts to unravel, thanks to a series of suspenseful, stylishly written double crosses that take the action from Gramercy Park to Harlem and from smalltown New England back to Cambodia, where Bingham delivers an equally stylish ending. As in his story collection (Pure Slaughter Value), Bingham stands out here as a hip traditionalist, elegantly updating the conventions of Graham Greene and Robert Stone, and as a knowing chronicler of high-WASP misbehavior. For all its wit and verve, though, the novel is impossible to read outside the shadow of Bingham's own death, last November, from a heroin overdose. It's not just that substance abuse looms so large in the lives of all his main characters, but that underneath their jaundiced dialogue and flippant derring-do--"Friends of friends had been found dead in their beds. Julie got the bill, rolled, and snorted it up"--they seem frightened of, and trapped in, their own recklessness. This is a melancholy triumph from a writer who might have become one of the strongest of his generation. (May) FYI: Bingham worked as a reporter for the Cambodian Daily and was a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City."
From Library Journal:
"Asher is an expatriate American living in Cambodia in this first novel by Bingham, who died last year. A former UNESCO employee who stayed after the UNESCO monument preservation work ended, Asher is at the end of his rope financially and spiritually. Looking to finance his way back to America, he masterminds a heroin deal with the help of Julie, his ex-girlfriend in New York, and enlists Reese, a straight-arrow journalist, to carry the package from Cambodia. Things go wrong from the start, however, when soldiers rob him on his way to buy the drug, forcing him to borrow money from a loan shark. Then Julie double-crosses her boss, the person for whom the package is intended, putting Reese's life in danger. Whether writing of exotic Phnom Penh or the streets of New York, Bingham portrays a world of absolute corruption where moral compromise is the key to survival. Recommended for larger public libraries."
-Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
"After three-and-a-half years in Phnom Penh, Asher fears that if he doesn't get out very soon, he never will. Once a UNESCO monument restoration specialist, he's become just another Westerner morally eroded in the fierce heat, tragedy, and violence of Southeast Asia. To get out, he buys five kilos of world-class heroin and arranges to make an American journalist an unwitting mule. In New York, his former girlfriend, sexy, willful Julie, will sell it to her boss, and she and Asher will resume their destructive affair. But Julie ad-libs a new plan--putting herself, Asher, and the journalist into final jeopardy. What is it about Asia that morally erodes Westerners? Bingham doesn't break any new ground, but he joins some outstanding literary forebears: Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and Robert Stone, were all inspired by dissolution in the Asian tropics. Tragically, Bingham died in 1999, at age 33. This skillfully written and gripping tale is a worthy legacy. Thomas Gaughan"
Amazon Customer Reviews:
By Bozeman March 18, 2005
"I just read this and I loved this book. And I have also read all of the other writers to whom Bingham has been unfavorably compared. I have to say that the ability to recognize crushingly simple bits of convergence -- oh hey look, this is about an expatriate in Southeast Asia and that was too! -- is no substitute for actual cleverness or critical faculty. The problem with treading anywhere near the emotional or physical territory of cult figures (and they are that, more than they are Greats) like Hemingway and Greene, is that cult-devotees are very vicious about defending the tribal pooh-baa at the center of their dimestore religions.
If this book suffers in any way, it actually suffers from the same disease that afflicts Robert Stone's recent books: idiot publicists determined to sell the books as thrillers, because the publicists -- or whoever makes the decision -- think that this will make men buy them. But these books are not thrillers, and readers aren't stupid. Unfortunately, too many readers also aren't quite bright or compassionate enough to see that the unfair sale is not the author's fault -- no way did the author have any intention of writing a thriller. Lightning on the Sun is a literary novel that happens to be about a heroin deal and set mostly in Cambodia. Read it as a literary novel and be amazed. I also wholeheartedly recommend Bingham's short-stories, which are nasty, dark, profane, and uplifting."
Lightning on the Sun
By Chris MB, October 18, 2002
"Lightning on the Sun delivers a fairly standard drug-deal-gone-bad story but its unique in that it takes place largely in Cambodia. Because of this unique setting, Lightning on the Sun becomes a highly-charged thriller. What truly separates this novel from others in the same genre is the fact that Bingham is obviously familiar with the historical, political and social intricacies of daily life in Cambodia. Add to that well developed characters and you're left with a powerful, fascinating story."
ByAmazon Customer, August 27, 2000
"richly atmospheric tale set in the shifting lawlessness and treachery of contemporary cambodia. a new,nearly nihilistic generation of americans seaching for meaning in a haze of alcohol and drugs. tragically dissipated young lives. masterful combination of classic and psychedelic narration and deft pacing make this a winner."
THIS IS A WONDERFUL FIRST NOVEL
By William T. Vogt Jr., April 26, 2000
"Having read the review in the New York Times that compared this book to the work of Robert Stone, I was waiting for its release anxiously. When I saw the blurb on the cover that mentioned Conrad, I couldn't make it home fast enough. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Although not as edgy or quite as well written as Stone, it was up to all my expectations. It is very impressive for a first novel. In fact, I literally couldn't put it down and read it in one day.The author has a great style and was able to describe a number of different locations very well. His plotting and people in Phnom Penh were very vivid and colorful. His descriptions of the New York Racquet Club were so good they made me laugh out loud. I didn't think his characters were quite as edgy or manic as Stone's. He was able to create alot of suspense in the plot because you knew that something bad was about to happen at any minute. This kept me turning those pages. The obvious comparision is to Stone's Dog Soldiers, but I saw some of his A Flag For Sunrise in it as well. If you like this book and haven't read those two, please do so immediately. I'm not sure what happened to Mr. Bingham, but it is a real shame that we will not have more from him."
The movie in my mind ...
By Casey Lytleon, April 13, 2000
"It's grit with a brain. Action with a soul. Your bookmark will fly through its pages and you'll FEEL the characters as they become caught up in the web they've trapped themselves in.
It's a terrific read, an "experience" and a tragedy that there won't be more."
The Binghams have always been a liberal, philanthropic family, and Rob didn't break from tradition. His generosity was legendary, and he helped many people over the years, often anonymously. He quietly bankrolled endeavors such as the Thread Waxing Space gallery, a photographic archive of Cambodian civil-war victims, the Southern lit-zine The Minus Times. He funded indie movies by promising young directors and collected work by painters just launching their careers. "Rob never asked to look at proposals or budgets or outlines," says conceptual artist Alix Lambert, for whom Bingham funded a documentary about the tattooing practices of Russian prisoners. "One day, he decided to call in a limit order on a stock he had been holding. If the stock hit the order, he said he would sell it all and give the money to my film company. It did, and he did."
Brash, fun-loving, and magnanimous, Bingham was often the life of the party, surrounded by friends, acolytes, and hangers-on who listened attentively as he regaled them with outrageous stories and smiled gratefully when he picked up the tab at Odeon dinners for ten. When friends needed money, he lent them large sums and didn't embarrass them by asking for it back.
About working in Cambodia (from New York):
That summer, he took a self-exploratory trek through Southeast Asia. A year later, he went back again and ended up in Phnom Penh. It was 1991, and the Cambodian capital had been opened for the first time in a peace agreement that brought $2 billion in aid to the region -- and with it, U.N. aid workers and eager young reporters. "It was a journalistic 'golden age' for Cambodia, with foreign correspondents converging on a country the way ambitious sportsmen had flocked to the Alps nearly a century and a half earlier," wrote journalist Barton Biggs.
Bingham first camped out at the crumbling Renakse (Khmer for "justice") Hotel on the Boulevard de Lenin, just opposite the Royal Palace, and began work on an article about the Khmer Rouge for The New Yorker. When he wasn't working, he played tennis with friends at the International Athletic Club, on courts that he excitedly noted had been the site of beheadings of government officials during the Khmer regime. One day, while exploring the penthouse of the hotel, he stumbled into Biggs, who was working on an English-language paper called the Cambodia Daily. Bingham enthusiastically pitched in.
He would work intermittently at the Daily without pay for six years, enlisting friends from the States and befriending the Cambodian staff. "Robert is the reason I am a journalist," says Ek Madra, a high-strung ex-Daily reporter whom "Mr. Rob" hired as his personal assistant on the condition that he take Valium.
New literary magazines are always about a circle of friends as much as an expression of any literary aesthetic, though the two can be hard to distinguish sometimes.
If a magazine exists long enough, it comes to be seen as a kind of public utility and one’s slowness in responding to the slush pile is greeted with the same irritation as a blackout or lack of hot water. As an aside, where did the phrase slush pile come from, and what does it mean? Bingham, with his typical knack for ingenious mispronunciation, always called it the sludge pile, which in many ways seemed accurate. We would launch occasional attacks on it, but it always seemed to grow larger, like primordial ooze which threatened to overtake the whole operation.
But we have always been focused on new writers. This was even more true in the second decade than the first. Inevitably, our early years involved a lot of hero worship — Bingham and I staking out Robert Stone at the 92nd street Y. Daniel summoned an Allen Ginsberg photograph of Paul Bowles lying on his deathbed to illustrate Alfred Chester’s letters to Bowles in Tangier. We landed a David Foster Wallace story and non-fiction from Denis Johnson; I reached out to Mary Gaitskill, who published short stories in issues number 1 and 7.
The second decade’s energies tended more towards discovery. We published ten issues in our first decade, and twenty in our second. A list of writers who had their debuts in Open City could fill it’s own volume: Lara Vapnyar, Amina Wefali, Sam Brumbaugh, Vestal McIntyre, Martha McPhee, Nico Baumbach, Sam Lipsyte.
The last decade of editing Open City has felt in some ways like I have custody of a child. The other parents are either dead, their absence both total and impossible to grasp, or I am on such bad terms with them that we never, ever speak, until we’re not even on bad terms, just no terms. But I have the kid. And the kid, one way or another, always brings me back to that lost world, the happier days, but also the disturbing time when everything exploded. But, to persist with the custody thing, the kid is also a very cheering thing. Like children do, Open City, by sheer force of the life, the energy and good feeling it generated, lifted my spirits, lifted me into a state of pleasure and curiosity and life. It’s a magazine, it’s over, life will go on. But there was a lot of life in it. A lot of death, too. Thirty issues in twenty years. A lot of life pressed into those pages
The Robert W. Worth / PEN Prize
"The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose work—a first novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise of a second work of literary fiction. The award is accompanied by a $25,000 cash prize intended to permit the winner significant time and resources with which to pursue a subsequent work of fiction.
One PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize winner will be selected by a panel of three to four writers or editors who are PEN Members. The recipient is also encouraged to become an active participant in the PEN community and its programs advancing literature, free expression, and the worldwide PEN community of writers.
The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize was established in memory of Robert W. Bingham, who died in 1999 at the age of 33, to commemorate his support of young writers, his love of literature, and his contribution to literary fiction."
- 2002: Manil Suri, The Death of Vishnu, Carolyn Cooke, The Bostons, and Matthew Klam, Sam the Cat and Other Stories (co-winners)
- 2004: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated, Monique Truong, The Book of Salt and Will Heinrich, The King's Evil (co-winners)
- 2006: Christopher Coake, We're in Trouble
- 2007: Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines
- 2008: Dalia Sofer, The Septembers of Shiraz
- 2009: Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff
- 2010: Paul Harding, Tinkers
- 2011: Susanna Daniel, Stiltsville and Danielle Valore Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (co-winners)
- 2012: Vanessa Veselka, Zazen
- 2013: Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity
- 2014: Shawn Vestal, Godforsaken Idaho
- 2015: Jack Livings, The Dog: Stories