In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships.
The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal.
I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers.
The Millions: Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way?
John Edgar Wideman: I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me.
TM: You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing.
JW: I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while.
TM: As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working.
JW: Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition.
TM: You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you.
JW: Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there.
I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories.
TM: That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms.
JW: I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history.
TM: You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way.
JW: Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books.
TM: American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches.
JW: One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself.
TM: Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that?
JW: I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before.
TM: As you were saying that, I thought of your story “Writing Teacher“where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things.
JW: Whatever voice is telling the story of “Writing Teacher”—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple.
TM: I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard.
JW: Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you!
TM: There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason?
JW: Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now.
TM: One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone.
JW: I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.
Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.
Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.
Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.
Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”
Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.
The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)
Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.
Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.
And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.
Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”
The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.
Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.
Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”
Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”
Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.
Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?
Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”
He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)
Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.
His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.
“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.
As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”
Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.
Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”
A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
“It was a silver knife.”
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.
Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.
For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.
Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”
Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.
And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.
Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.
Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.
Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.
Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.
This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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Constraints in writing have a way of helpfully containing possibilities. Speaking to the role of constraints in poetry, Anne Sexton once said, “You could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.” Take the sonnet, a strict poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter that has endured for more than seven centuries. Take Pale Fire, which presents itself as an explication of a single poem, yet digressively explicates an entire life. Or, take Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote after his editor challenged him to create a book using no more than 50 different words.
One of the major constraints of Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is a technical one. He wrote this book with a now discontinued stamp set called a Trodat 4253 that he found at an office supply sale. The device allows one to arrange characters on a stamp any way he likes, but limits the output to the size of the stamp. The result feels as much like an art exhibit, as it does a novel. Most of the 200 pages in the book are constrained to less than five lines of text, and fewer than 90 characters. This is a book that can be read as fast as the reader can turn the page, and that momentum elevates the unsettling effect of the nightmare.
The Subsidiary tells the story of a worker trapped in the offices of a Latin American corporation, who uses the materials at his desk to give testimony of his experience. The book begins with a loudspeaker announcement that the power supply will be interrupted between 8:30 and 20:00. The exits are closed off. The phone lines go down. There’s shouting outside.
The jailers treat the office captives — THE SUBSIDIARY, LAME MAN, ONE-EYED MAN, and ONE-ARMED MAN; THE MUTE GIRL, BLIND GIRL, and DEAF GIRL — with an attitude that alternates between indifferent and threatening. Sometimes they let them work. Sometimes they chase them with bloodthirsty dogs.
The Subsidiary is Bartleby the Scrivener meets Cujo as imagined by David Lynch (in Chile). The book contains banal reports, like “MY SKILLS ARE MANUAL,” and “I STAMP THE ORDERS, THE INSTRUCTIONS, THE MANDATES-.” Yet it also transports the reader to frightening places. Many pages have a snapshot-in-the-dark quality to them, and what we see during those flashes is scary. “IT’S THE HOWLING OF A PACK OF HOUNDS BEFORE THE VIOLENCE BEGINS,” Celedón stamps. “THE BLIND GIRL KEEPS STILL WHILE THE DOGS SNIFF AT HER,” and, “SHE’S IN HEAT.”
In the spirit of Franz Kafka, Matías Celedón evokes a bureaucratic nightmare that is terrifying in its banality and in its menace. The power remains off for 12 days, and nobody resists the instructions to remain at their stations. Despite its near pointlessness, the narrator maintains an unwavering commitment to his job.
Celedón’s dedication to his farcically technical method stabilizes this harrowing story. He wrote The Subsidiary by taking it on like a clerk — by showing up every day, and selecting and placing individual letters with tweezers. From its technical construction to its tormenting delivery, The Subsidiary enacts the tension between reason and futility in doing work.
You shouldn’t just read The Subsidiary for its eccentric context or its chilling story. You shouldn’t just read this book because of its painstaking commitment to forming words. All of these pieces — each spectacular on their own terms — fix together to create a remarkable reading experience. The Subsidiary releases an extraordinary beast.
I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me.
Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour.
The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time?
Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women — of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran.
But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran — the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners — that also remains the same.
One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies.
TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement?
AN: First of all, the Iranian people — and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them — they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people.
That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century.
What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support — there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries.
As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets.
TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here.
AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone — and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country — that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America.
The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity.
The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge.
TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen?
AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the ’80s and right into the ’90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think — I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that.
I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news — that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America.
Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new.
In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country.
TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box?
AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes.
As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran…let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them.
So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned.
So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology.
That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles.
TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be?
AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s.
The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville’s Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the ’60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick.
TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should!
AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love.
TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create?
AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you.
You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now.
The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing — to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being.
TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write?
AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated — since I wrote my first book in Iran — by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.