John Haskell’s fiction is like little else. Or is it non-fiction? Or is it just magic and not something to be too greatly dissected? In one collection and three novels, he explores the mind’s torsions in an uncommon, questioning manner within a first-person sense of orality, like being around a campfire with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At times, the wending way of Haskell’s narrators—who include a Steve Martin impersonator, a ghost, and those disembodied voices who talk about films and artists in I Am Not Jackson Pollack—are incredible chess-like gambits and logic-chopping suppositions both pre- and post- to frustrate (in a good way), embolden, and prod the reader. In his new book, The Complete Ballet, Haskell again presents a first-person speaker who is trapped by a real-life threat, based on a John Cassavetes film, but muses on the great figures of ballet in an effort to right his present trouble and past grief. We talked about the book, his process, and the Internet, through the Internet, this summer.
The Millions: As in American Purgatorio, death lurks in this new novel, the death of a child. Since you have a young daughter, I imagine there was more than a little mining of your day-to-day life. Something along the lines of Julia Kristeva’s “The speaking subject gives herself away.” I felt an inkling of that in this book, like the earlier one. Your narrators approach death and grieving obliquely, almost erasing themselves in the process of grieving. The subtitle of this book is A Fictional Essay in Five Acts. Which leads me to ask a naive question, Who is who? Or better, How close are you to your main characters? Do you feel you give yourself away when writing? And if you do, which self do you give away?
John Haskell: The whole idea of identity is slippery. It’s not a slope because there is no actual place where a person might slip, or if there is, it’s the place of having no identity, which to me seems similar to inhabiting multitudinous identities, and so, getting around to your question, yes, everything is real because once I’ve pictured it and once I’ve lived inside whatever event might be happening, it feels as real as so-called reality, so that who is who, meaning who am I, becomes a different question. Who I am is everyone. I’m both Haskell the ballet critic and Nureyev the dancer. I’m Cosmo, the character in the Cassavetes movie who kills the Chinese bookie, but I’m also me, the writer and character, and having said all that, the character of me in the story isn’t me.
TM: I noticed in this book a breaking up of narration within the sentence, a unique and fast way of pushing across action and scene, as in this sentence, “Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I’ll have one too.” That last clause, a brush of dialogue, of which there is barely any in the book, adds a sort of grace note to the details before it. How did you go about writing this way? Was it a conscious choice?
JH: Ah, the idea of conscious choice, or unconscious choice. Again, not to seem opaque, I’d have to say that conscious and unconscious, although they’re obviously not the same, seem the same when I’m writing. And maybe that happens because of rewriting. Going over and over, smoothing and simplifying and clarifying, and if I’m not listening to Bach then I’m listening to the continuity of thought that gets sucked into the language, creating a language that, I hope, makes sense of what I’m thinking.
TM: Do you mean you listen to Bach when you write?
JH: I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote The Complete Ballet but lately I’ve been listening to Bach. At the moment I have a flute concerto playing. When I say Bach I’m talking about what is almost a metaphorical music, with phrases that expand and collapse, which join and separate, not beginning because there was no ending to begin with, just flowing, an overused word but like a river flows the words of a sentence or thought can get carried along, sucked into the larger river that comprises the language itself.
TM: This book is made up of some plot points of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976. I know you have a love of film (and certainly Cassavetes) and have plumbed other great works from Psycho to Pickpocket to the film noir Detour. What made you take this film as template? Is there a special affinity for Cassavetes’s take on an old film noir standby, the gambler who loses and has to make up the mark for the mob? The film itself isn’t even a neo-noir really, with its examining the life of the striptease club Cosmo runs. Its cult reputation has grown, with many saying it was Ben Gazzara’s best performance.
JH: I’d been thinking of working with that movie, partly because of the mood of the movie and partly because of the narrative. And partly because of the way the movie disrupts that narrative. But I had trouble making it work for me. I kept writing and rewriting it, altering my version and getting farther away from the Cassavetes version, my character becoming less and less like Ben Gazarra and more like Cassavetes himself, and when I still couldn’t get it to work for me I thought it was because of the color, the sharp, saturated, contrasty reds and blues, that the color was messing with my plan. So I set it aside. But it didn’t go away, and eventually, after many transformations, I found myself inside the story in a way that started to make sense. And the milieu of ’70s Los Angeles started to make sense. Of course it made no sense to juxtapose that story with essays on Romantic ballet, but as I kept revising all the various incompatible elements the more it did make sense, or seemed to, and that’s why I called it Complete, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek because it would never be complete.
TM: I cling to what you say about the contrasty reds and blues in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Maybe because there is no color Cassavetes film that seems so memorable in terms of color, which may have to do with the nightclub scenes, but also those eerie daylight scenes. Did the ballet crossover come out of the nightclub act? What is your history with ballet?
JH: Not much history with ballet, but it started, I think, with some research I did, many years ago, on Joseph Cornell, an artist and balletomane who worshipped ballerinas with a perverse kind of nostalgia. Then, a few years ago, an ex-ballet dancer started telling me some of the stories of the ballets. That got me thinking, as did conversations I had with a choreographer friend about George Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers. Then, when I was rewriting the book, my daughter, who was about three years old, became a ballet fanatic. Together we watched the videos on YouTube and I began to see the stories of the ballets, including the stories of the people who made them and danced in them, as mythic. And I’m interested in how a story, especially a personal story, becomes mythic.
TM: Tooling around the Internet the other day, I found a Goodreads review of your novel, Out of My Skin. “I am not sure about this book. The language isn’t offensive-the writing isn’t bad-but it just made me feel really awkward. The weirdest part for me was when the main character goes into the impersonator’s house to meet his parents and gives them a tour of the neighborhood. It just seemed like too many boundaries were crossed.” The “it just made me feel really awkward” piqued. Are you adverse to writing in a way that would not make people feel awkward? Often we hear about people who avoid a book or movie because they think it will “depress” them. Do you think art can make one feel a certain way?
JH: Well, it often makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t have a design for what a person should feel. Only that something happens, a thought or emotion or…and speaking of Cassavetes, I remember the first time I saw Faces, or possibly it was Shadows, another early movie, and afterwards I walked out of Lincoln Center into Central Park, feeling a sense of excitement in my body, and it wasn’t directly about the movie but more about the art that had been revealed in the movie. I could call it beauty or honesty, and as my daughter said when she took her first swimming lesson, I feel excited and nervous, and I certainly don’t mean to make anyone feel awkward, but maybe being awkward is a kind of excitement and nervousness and maybe it was what the person needed. Or maybe that person preferred a different kind of book.