I met Feroz Rather one verdant summer in Kashmir, almost a decade ago. We got talking on a bumpy bus ride while passing neon green paddy fields and had a far-reaching conversation about Michel Foucault, poetry, and our approaches to writing. At the time, Feroz was an MFA student at Fresno State, and I was an anthropology Ph.D. student doing my fieldwork on trauma and violence in Kashmir. Since then, we have both remained engaged—from adjacently appointed genres, fiction and ethnography—in questions of violence, writing and the politics of representation, ethics, and justice.
Our conversation that day, one of many, was always refracted from the contextual specificity of Kashmir: a place that has been under military occupation by the Indian state since 1990 and is currently the most militarized place on earth, but which also has a much longer history of colonization that stretches back to 1586, when the last Kashmiri king was deposed by a Mughal invader. Despite facing brutal military and counterinsurgency repression in the last few decades, including the loss of approximately 70,000 people, the disappearance of 8,000, and countless other violations registered and unregistered through human rights documentation, Kashmiri demands for national independence and political self-determination have not ceased; in many ways, they have crystallized and deepened. Across the built landscape, overwriting the ugly infrastructures of occupation are scrawled stinging phrases designed to unsettle the occupiers: “Go India Go Back” and “We Want Freedom,” written in big, bold, unequivocal letters.
Earlier this summer, Feroz published his first book, a collection of short stories called The Night of Broken Glass (Harper Collins, India). The book arrived in my mailbox with a short note from Feroz, and I began reading, soon, feverishly, as if the book might explode in my hands. The short stories are compact, but they bleed into each other, much like the “tentacular” nature of state and military violence Feroz describes. The narrative spillover—a mirror vessel for the subject matter of violence itself—also shows how grievous forms of vulnerability and harm ripple through the social topography of one village in Kashmir.
I am still working on my ethnography on violence, subjectivity, and trauma, and the questions below reflect some of my pending concerns and questions. The following conversation, which we had over Skype one August afternoon, pivots on themes of import to writers interested in political violence, oppression, and existential struggles of all kinds. Feroz reminded me that stories are not meant to be redemptive but reflective.
The Millions: I want to start by asking about the nature of the violence you describe in the book. The violence seems multidirectional—it is rhizomatic, on many different scales and registers. The village and its social topography become really important to this project. Was that something you intentionally wanted to convey?
Feroz Rather: I think that if you really inhabit a zone that is occupied, then it is not just the physical violence but the violence of the language of the order that has been imposed, so violating and violent, that one wants to register. There is a semiology of violence so pervasive that one can escape it only with an extraordinary intellectual or artistic effort. In my own small way, I was interested in rupturing this pervasive semiology. This proliferated in writing about the violence comprehensively: not just the violence inflicted by the state or military—though that remains the dominant theme of the book—but the violence of caste, and violence against women.
Early in the book there is a scene where the ghost of Ilham looks at Inspector Masoodi and the former feels that Sarnath lions would jump out of the metal buckle of the belt and gnaw at his bones. That is a perfect example, now that I think about it, of the pervasiveness of the violent semiology of occupation. Later, in “Rosy,” the radar shifts toward caste and gender. When Jamshid steals figs for Rosy, her father and grandfather take Jamshid out into the yard and beat him with a willow switch until there is blood on his forehead. Earlier, in the same story, a girl gets groped in an overcrowded bus, something that happens quite often in Kashmir. I suppose it’s the willingness to write about violence comprehensively—not just the institution of state but other forms of institutionalized violence, and what happens to the body when the forms of violence converge and intersect.
But you’re asking me a different question: How is it that the village becomes a territory of violence?
TM: Yes, state violence, but also intimate violence, gendered, and caste-based violence. Women’s bodies are violated in different ways. The social relations in the village sometimes register state violence but they also transmit it, sometimes unintentionally. You seemed to be showing violence as a social phenomenon, as a form of sociality.
FR: I didn’t do that consciously. I just wrote the stories from different points of view. There is Rosy’s point of view in “Rosy,” but then we get Jamshid’s point of view in “Robin Polish.” So if you do that, it fleshes out the different interactions that happen in the social. You narrate something from the point of view of the father, who is a cobbler, and you narrate something that comes closer to the point of view of the son, who is a charismatic preacher. Then the school-going girl. I think when you string together all these different narratives, they create the social whole.
In terms of technique, William Faulkner does this masterfully; he delves so deeply into his characters by probing them through their own point of view. It brings a restlessness to the overall structure. It proliferates into different directions like in The Sound and the Fury. When you put all these different chapters together, the reader is the one who makes them whole. Or perhaps the structure is reflective of the writer’s quest for unity or his failure to achieve it. But one is not really conscious of all this when one writes.
TM: In what ways did you reach into your own experiences to write these stories, and how did your own experiences subconsciously inform your technique?
FR: Well that’s what it is—somehow letting your unconscious come out! But I have one peculiar memory, as far as the Bijbehara massacre [in which “at least 37” people were killed on October 22, 1993, on the way home from mosque] is concerned. The day after it happened, my brother happened to pass through the town. When he came home, I asked him, “What did you see?” He said, “Nothing but the shoes.” That’s what I had. That’s all I had.
TM: The shoes—
FR: The shoes. So I had to weave a narrative around that and how, for Gulam [the cobbler], his relationship with shoes is so intimate. For him, the shoes are the person. So after the massacre, he hangs the shoes on the walls of his room, making a gallery of the shoes. It’s his way of memorializing what happened.
TM: What is the relationship between writing and violence for you?
FR: I think that the act of writing in a way involves wreaking creative violence. When I think of James Baldwin, I think of a fearless progenitor who, with a fierce mastery and out of some deep necessity, bulldozes the pre-existing edifices of language to create his own. That is what writing is for me. Every writer who is original, who is at the head of a tradition, what they do is that they represent a rupture, an experience through language when the magnitude of the experience exceeds language. Violence, in the case of Kashmir, exceeds the limits of language. Occupation has choked us inside and none of us can breathe freely; none of us can be happy. And that’s what I felt while writing The Night of Broken Glass, as the violence could not be contained in the narrative. That is also reflected in the writing itself, which becomes jagged and, at times, deformed, raw, unprocessed. Although editing helps, I know it is not smooth.
Toward the end of the book, I—or the figure of the writer—go into Gulam’s room and ask him to narrate the story of the Bijbehara massacre, and Gulam says that what he saw was like being inside the mouth, the fangs, of death. I felt like using this violence in the book to bulldoze the semiology of occupation. I felt like rebelling, sometimes through digressing, sometimes through poetry, sometimes by being messy with the narrative; it can take different forms. I want to use language in a way that feels dislocated, to use adjectives in a way that feels improper but also creative …
While writing, I was very close to the scenes of violence. I had some physical distance from it, but not really [all the short stories were written in Tallahassee]. I feel like a successful piece of fiction, as they define it in America, is the one that measures the impact of violence, which happens in a very short time, as it spreads throughout the narrative. I think that in my book that happens sometimes, but at other times, we are colliding with it.
TM: The other thing I thought you did so beautifully was the temporal attention you gave to showing violence and trauma as intergenerational and sedimented through history. There were moments when you talked about the longue durée of colonization in Kashmir and the traces of violence, the way the Sikhs [who ruled Kashmir till from 1819 to 1845] used to hang bodies off the bridges, for example. It’s a subtle background hum that’s always there …
FR: Yeah, I don’t see the present as something unrelated to what has happened before. I think that whether it was the Dogras, Sikhs, or Mughals—who are also talked about in one of the stories—I see that we have been constantly occupied. It’s an occupation in continuity and violence in perpetuity. I won’t say that history is repeating itself, but I feel like outsiders are inflicting violence on us. But you know, in a structuralist view, I don’t believe in circular notions of history, as if today’s violence will give way to a peaceful tomorrow. History has been perpetually unmerciful towards us. History is perpetually cruel. The powerlessness of the powerless constitutes the power of the powerful.
TM: There’s no progression necessarily.
FR: Yeah. And that’s why it was important to find out … we have been here before. We have been occupied for many centuries now. But I’m glad you picked up on that; no one has talked about it in relation to the book yet.
TM: I found it really interesting that you were also probing the subjectivity of the colonizer. Of course, there’s such a rich history of this—from Frantz Fanon to Baldwin to V.S. Naipaul. In “The Pheran,” you have a line where you describe a soldier as living between “the fear of getting exterminated and the terrible duty of exterminating.” Those who are perpetrating violence in this book are also haunted, literally …
FR: I would like to have the chance to write a novel which meditates on this question, a book that is dedicated to exploring the grooved psyche of the colonized in its variegated complexity.
In the story “The Boss,” we see the protagonist has achieved a position of power but is reluctant to recognize that he’s colonized. That tension within, that reluctance, that I’m not subjugated—that should be the subject of a novel about Kashmir. That will be a ruthless but an astute and honest observation of our society. Here is a society that has been colonized for centuries; what has it done to us? How has it made us capable of being brutal to our own? The character of “The Boss” was not always brutal; he had an idealistic youth. He’s deeply traumatized as well. I think that’s a very healthy tension to explore …
That’s what Naipaul did very successfully. Reading A Bend in the River helped me greatly, but also, “The Lagoon” by Joseph Conrad. Both shed light on the ambivalence of the colonizer and colonized in a zone of occupation … Naipaul is the most brutally honest writer, and what he does is what you were talking about: explore the scars in the psychology of the oppressed. The worst kind of violence was inflicted by our own, by the renegades or the former rebels who were coopted by the state [known in Kashmir as ikhwaen]. How is it possible?
Naipaul himself became a bit of a renegade—he was wounded, because of poverty, because of the lack of institutions and a vibrant literary tradition—but he crossed over to the side of the oppressor and looked at the oppressed from that perspective. In “The Boss,” I have just begun to explore that.
TM: What you just said reminds of a recent New York Times article about Kashmir by Jeffrey Gettleman. One of the things he’s talking about in that article is that the scale of violence has changed in Kashmir—that it is much more intimate and closer and has turned in on itself. Is that something that you were consciously or unconsciously trying to write about?
FR: Gettleman’s framework is rather inaccurate. Kashmir is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a people that predates the existence of these two nations. And as long as Kashmiris are not allowed to exercise their political choice, there won’t be any peace. This war is about the agency of the people of Kashmir.
I am conscious of what is happening now. The decision to be violent—to be immediately violent—has strengthened. I know there’s a feeling of implosion of violence that you are talking about. We can describe it like that: We’re in a zone where violence is imploding, because what does it mean that there are 200 or 300 rebels in Kashmir in total and there are more than 600,000 troops? Or let’s think about what happens during an encounter between Indian forces and rebels. There are maybe two rebels hiding in a house, but there will be 1,000 people throwing stones at the same time trying to protect the rebels from the soldiers. Many young people have been shot this way and killed.
In terms of the book, what does it mean that Kashmir is imploding? I think my pursuit was to save the narrative from completely imploding! At times it felt like the entire book would fall apart. My pursuit was to somehow contain myself, not be swayed by it. I somehow managed to do it. Initially, when I started writing the last stories, I felt, This is not going to work. It will lose all its structure.
TM: Was there a particular scene that you felt would cause it to implode?
FR: The implosion happens in the mind of Tariq when he goes on a rant [in “The Miscreant”]. Tariq is a young man who has gone out in the world. He has had the ambition of being a historian but is rejected by the universities in New Delhi and Islamabad. When he returns home to Kashmir, he rants about what it means to live in the besieged city of Srinagar.
I tried to distance myself from the violence. I didn’t tell the story of massacre directly. It is told through the character of Gulam … Similarly, the most brutal incident of violence in the book—I did not approach it directly but through Rosy’s mother’s elegy, which was an allusive way of storytelling. Later in the writing process, I wanted distance [from the scene of violence] … but there are points where it seems to implode. I didn’t want to control myself always.
TM: I don’t like the word redemption because it has a salvation logic to it. But what about the moments of tenderness and care in the book? Those felt extremely important to the texture of the stories.
FR: There’s a moment when Ilham is about to strangle Inspector Masoodi’s grandson, but when he puts his hands on his throat, the boy giggles. He is so close to committing an act of violence, but he doesn’t. Or the nameless narrator in the first story. Instead of killing Inspector Masoodi, he wipes his spit and takes care of him while the man dies.
These moments tell us that violence pierces the terrain. It can subvert and disrupt the rhythms of personal and civilian life. It can desecrate the body, but the humanity of the subjugated is not completely lost. In war, one encounters extraordinary courage, love, endurance … You’re making me think more about those moments now.
TM: Endurance is really important—and those small acts of kindness are what allow people to endure. Even the nameless narrator enduring this killer, Inspector Masoodi, and allowing him to die a natural death—that is a remarkable act.
FR: That’s the role of an artist, to alter reality through language. It is the artist’s stubbornness—to be just, to not let go, even if violence and darkness are pervasive, at least in the fictive realm … and it can swing both ways. On the one hand, it is about preserving the humanity of the characters, but it is also about exposing their vulnerabilities.
When Major S. is fortifying the camp, he’s imposing an order of harsh solidity. He cuts all the grass and replaces it with sandstones, sandstones so close together that not a blade of grass can grow—cannot even intend to grow. Writing is about subverting that order, that solidity, and preserving the idea of justice in whatever rudimentary or minuscule form.
TM: Now that you’ve shown the pervasiveness of violence, what’s the remainder? What’s left?
FR: I guess the whole idea of this book is reflection. At some level, there’s reflection on moments, individuals, institutions, societies. I do not think … there’s enough reflection. I don’t think there’s enough reflection on the part of the society about what they’ve done, for instance, to the life of a soldier who is posted in Kashmir. While imprisoning, the soldier himself is in the prison. What kind of life has been given to him? Do you think you’ve done a favor to someone who is so indoctrinated with the idea of the unity of the nation and upholding that?
Writing is a deeply personal thing. But the humbler objective is to produce some space for reflection in my own society. I think with the way technology is penetrating societies, we have become less reflective in general. I was reading an essay by Milan Kundera about what mass media will do to society—it will desensitize them and make them less reflective. It will destroy individuality and human capacity to be unique and creative. It will create a whole new sensibility that will be unthinking and consequently oblivious and violent.
You can see how there are mobs of people on Twitter and Facebook who are baying for our blood. Do you remember, some time ago, a couple of former Indian cricket players called for another massacre in Kashmir? That message was sent out and distributed, entertained and consumed, in the world through mass media. There’s more darkness in the offing if there’s no reflection. A novel for me is a space to introspect and inquire: This book is a messy meditation on violence.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
Among the many quotable and occasionally perplexing lines in this interview with V. S. Naipual is this one, which the Bend In The River author drops upon hearing that his interviewer, Isaac Chotiner, is a fan of P. G. Wodehouse: “I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say, facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me with horror.”
I don’t tend to condemn books solely because the writer was some variety of wretch. But I have done so if I think it will create a smoke-screen for the fact that I did not understand the book. For example, the poems of Ezra Pound mystify me, so I make sure to remind people quite needlessly that he was an anti-semitic, Grade A Best Quality fuckwad. On the other hand, I recently learned that Eric Gill, famous book arts figure, sexually abused members of his family. Since this revelation, I have scrapped my plans for an Eric Gill tattoo, but I still think his art is beautiful and I look at it from time to time, with a furrowed brow. It is a very troublesome thing, the space we make in our hearts for the horrible–if they make something we like, that is. About the creator of a beloved work it is easier for people to be more relaxed, to make hand gestures and say things like “What a man, but what an artist” (cf Of Human Bondage, I think, for the quotation). I’m not looking to sign a Free Polanski petition, but I think I understand the motivation behind (some) of his apologists.
Moving on, several years ago I remember reading Naipaul’s A Way in the World and finding it very boring and hard to understand. Although, having just this minute skimmed a few reviews, it seems that either I was actually reading a different book altogether, possibly a math textbook, or that I am an incurable philistine. In fairness, this may have been during one of the still frequent and inexplicable periods in my life when the only things I want to read are A Girl of the Limberlost or Betsy In Spite of Herself (’bout that time now, actually), and should attempt nothing else. (Although I have since this writing completed A Bend in the River, my tepid reaction to which I’ve shared here before.)
Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard. So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin. It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you. My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk. By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel’s quiet charms. By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad. It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart.
The novel is about the shortish life of a singular man named Mohun Biswas. The narrative opens with a prologue, which explains the whole story in a nutshell, and tells us that Mr. Biswas is ill and not long for this world. Chapter one begins with his birth in a village hut on the island of Trinidad, and the story takes us through the whole circus of his life. Mr. Biswas is born, he gets hustled into marriage, and for 500 pages he laments his life, has nervous breakdowns of varying degrees of magnitude, and schemes to acquire a house. He gets the house, it’s miserable and then magical, he gets sick, and dies. He has four children, lots of jobs, little money, a shitload of inlaws, and the most ornery, pathetic, foolish, cruel and marginally lovable disposition you could imagine. And I don’t mean he is simply the third-world equivalent to the protagonist of a My Dick novel. He is something special. This is not a bildungsroman; it is a Biswasroman.
Although, like I said, I started the novel with an ill will and was disinclined to like anybody in it, I think Naipaul very carefully forged the narrative so that the reader goes through a variety of stages with regard to Mr. Biswas. You are angry that he is such a pain in the ass and mean to his wife. You are depressed about his living conditions, even though he is living better than many. You admit that his life has become unmanageable. You deny that you are enjoying the book. You accept that you kind of like Mr. Biswas. You write V. S. Naipaul a letter apologizing. Or something like that. He also lulls you, that V. S. Naipaul, referring to Mr. Biswas as “Mr. Biswas” from page one. The use of the honorific for someone to whom so little honor is given, but who takes himself so seriously, it tugs at the heart. There are lots of things that tug at the heart, especially toward the end. Their son Anand, a clever, touchy bastard like his father, gets third in the school exhibition exams, and I felt so relieved, like I, too, had put all my happiness eggs in his brain basket. I just wish he had written more letters home once he went off to abroad.
There is something distant, almost cold, about the writing; it doesn’t feel like Naipaul is holding everybody in his hand, rather at arm’s length. But he must have had some affection for this family to write about them so; maybe it’s a case of being very stern and grumpy with everyone so that you don’t collapse into sniffles.
What a man but what an artist, and all that.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.