Faust: Parts I & II

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Snapshots of Grit: The Millions Interviews Elle Nash

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The stories of Elle Nash’s second book, Nudes—following the deliciously titled debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other—emerge from the dark side of life, as though they have been written by a femme fatale turned narrator, in the way that echoes how vampires have slowly evolved from villains to protagonists. Nash has an impeccable eye, and the language to capture the perfect simile.
It’s been suggested that our literary era is an anodyne one. Elle Nash is anything but anodyne. I was introduced to her through a friend, read her novel, and—halfway through this new, notably diverse collection of pieces that I’ll agree to call “stories” simply because there’s no better term for them—wrote her a one-line email: “Your book is a wild fucking ride.” Admittedly, wine may have had something to do with that. But the sentiment was true.
I was thinking of the subject matter—about which I intended to pose a question or two—but more important is that Nash’s stories often hinge on a moment of crystalline reflection. In a sense, they are like Joyce stories, without the epiphanies. These are people for whom epiphanies are part of another world, one in which they appear to have little interest.
The Millions: So I want to start with a question that was once asked of me in an interview—albeit under slightly different circumstances. Nudes has a lot of suicide, bulimia, hospital stays, borderline disorder, Satanism, thigh gap, guns, snuff films, pregnancy, drugs, a lot of alcohol, anal beads, and porn. My question is this—are you okay?
Elle Nash: I mean, are any of us okay ever? Life is hard. This past year has been especially brutal. I enjoy that you describe Nudes has having a lot of thigh gap.
TM: That’s almost exactly the answer I gave! Well, mostly. Could I ask you to unpack the first part, a bit? Is it literature’s job, do you think, to give us a place to explore our okayness, or lack thereof, as it were?
 EN: Oh god—that word, unpack! Of course, I say it with my students all the time. That is a good question, though. I don’t know if literature really has a job overall. I couldn’t assume that it even serves a specific purpose. I’m sure some would say it does…like preserving canon or whatever. But it’s like the big overarching question about art: Why art? Why write? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is when I read a novel and feel completely entrenched in the story, it fills me with something, and I enjoy that. I enjoy the escape, I enjoy experiencing the pain and pleasure of another life, even if it’s a made up one. There’s not ever another time, for example, I’d be transported to early 2000s Paris to be an actress, explore new edges of the heart, or to, for example, process pain in a way that feels poetic rather than miserable, or to experience birth and death. It’s like a song…words can pull at you, the way an arrangement of sounds make a melody. I don’t know why it does, but it does, so I go to books, searching for work like that.
TM: Close to the end of the first story, “Ideation,” the main character thinks, “Death was a reminder that choice was a luxury.” It feels like this could have been the prompt for the whole story. And there is a lot of this kind of thing in the book. Sometimes, it seems like entire stories have grown out of axioms that appear late in them, usually at the climactic moment. That’s probably not what happened at all, but can you talk a little about the genesis of a story for you?
EN: It’s funny you say that, because it was actually the last line I added to the story. In fact, I had written it, finished it, or thought I finished it, and then when I was about to perform it at a reading, I felt the pacing wasn’t quite right at the end. It was just missing something. I have this document in my Notes app just filled with random one-off lines I think of, things I might save, as you said, for building stories around. This line had been there for a while, I wasn’t sure where to put it. So I took it and fit it into the story. Sometimes, though, stories do grow from these one-off lines. Most of the time a story for me starts with a series of images that run through my head, that I end up copying down and expanding on, trying to turn them into scenes, and then into narratives.
TM: You’re a little like Henry James in that you seem wholly uninterested in creating a sense of place, a sense of atmosphere. It’s all about the interiority—we listen in on characters’ lives rather than really participating with them. Is this intentional? Are you as suspicious of plot at James was? If not, what do you think really drives your work?
 EN: Fascinating you mention this—I feel like interiority is my atmosphere. Maybe that’s because I spend so much time living inside my head. It is intentional that I want readers to observe. A lot of times I work to remove judgment from my narrators, or from third person narrators. I want the moments to stand on their own, for readers to come to their own conclusions about how to feel about something. In that way, I think it invites deeper emotional connection.
I am not necessarily suspicious of plot. Quite the opposite—I actually think even in plotless work, plot exists. Which I think the plotless crowd would hate to hear me say. Plot is simply the collection of moments strung together. Humans naturally attempt to derive pattern from events in order to create meaning. I don’t know why we do that—maybe pattern recognition was how we began to form memory and learn to trust and form communities, or something. Plot is just pattern, I think. But I do think heavy plot-driven works, which focus more on events than the observation of character, kind of lose something—they feel more like they’re written for entertainment, in a way. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. I just like to learn and be more involved with characters in a work.
TM: Some stories more like prose poems, some actually play around typographically on the page. Some stories are suspiciously essay-like, and some are more like vignettes or fragments. What constitutes a “story” for you? Or do you even care?
EN: Interesting question…I mean, a story really can be any arrangement of words on a page. It can be a long sentence, even. I guess I just think: is there movement? Does something reveal itself to me? Is it going to encourage me to reflect? A story is how we share, and how we go other places we might not otherwise go. If it does that, then it’s a story.
TM: Can I push back a bit? Because I can imagine the head of a poet or essayist exploding at the suggestion that only stories move, reveal, share, or go other places. I know it’s an impossible task to define story, but I think it can be useful to at least attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. So, again, what is a story? Or is such a definition only useful for libraries and bookstores?

EN: Why would they explode? Stories are basically how we share, and humans are driven to share because we are social; our brains are wired to find pattern and contract meaning out of it. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles says, “As long as man keeps hearing words / He’s sure that there’s a meaning somewhere.” So in terms of what it is…A story is just a means by which we pass information, whether it’s real, made-up, emotional, terrifying, euphoric, or banal. It’s evidence of our desire to connect.
TM: Sometimes it feels like the world of traditional values and concerns lingers in the background of your work—as something the characters sometimes want, but for some reason can’t get, or live by. How do you see your stories addressing values or morality, because it doesn’t seem like it’s just nihilism to me. 
EN: Fiction can be a place to change and examine society’s morals and values. It can be a place where we can examine whether or not said values are suffocating, where we can debate what morality actually is, we can play with it, we can break and bend social mores. Literature is a place outside of real life, which makes it a place where we can experiment. Nihilism posits that life has no intrinsic value (this is debatable, though)…or that there are no morals at all because morals differ so much between groups of people…but in a way, that argument is kind of moot. A social construct—an illusion—removes autonomy, causes the self to suffer. I like to examine desire, especially as the root of suffering. I’m really into the idea of how suffering can end, into examining the origination of suffering in the human mind, on an individual level. The place of the self in society constructed via culture, economics, individual will, physics…it’s kind of a miraculous act, all of these systems—tradition—that both benefit and harm the person. It kind of strings the person up in a way, especially the person who struggles to enjoy or benefit from life in said system.
TM: Are you a reboot of Kerouac or Bukowski for millennials? How is our time different?
EN: I don’t know if I would say that. When I was a teen I really loved Bukowski for his crassness, what felt like raw candor I didn’t experience in my high school reading list. It was a snapshot of grit I think at the time I was too young to really “get.” I certainly feel as though millennials are struggling a lot—especially financially—right now, which seems similar to Bukowski’s experience through both the Great Depression and WWII, just with more useless mass-produced decadence. There is a lot less freedom to just get up and go. You can’t just show up somewhere and find a job, for example, without having an ID or a place to live; everything is monitored; healthcare costs are prohibitive as hell and dependent on having a job; mental healthcare, especially in this country, is not accessible at all. It is similar, really—Bukowski wasn’t a boomer, he was older than that. He was working class all his life. On top of the hegemony of the 24-hour news cycle, I think it’s really tough to just be a person today. We’re exposed to so much information, much less insulated. It has its benefits, but burnout is widespread—especially from tragedy. I don’t think anyone would care about what Bukowski had to say if he were to be publishing today—admittedly, it was the same when he was alive, anyway. We see so much suffering, are much more aware of it. I do fear the millennial generation will be the first to have more deaths from suicide and overdose than any other before it—in that way, it’s a little different.
TM: Talk about the organization of the book. A lot of thought goes into story orders, but I actually rarely read them in order. I did yours. What were you trying to achieve in organizing these into subcategories of stories?
EN: Admittedly, I knew I wanted to start with “Ideation” and end with “Room Service”—that was really all I had in mind. For the rest, I created the subcategories as a nod to “nudes” as a concept—an argument about what makes art obscene or pornographic—and tried to fit the stories into them based on their themes. As an example, “Moneyshot” takes the pop shot in porn as metaphor—the whole point of the pop shot scene is that it’s the reason all the money’s been spent, it’s the cinematic climax; the whole point of the characters’ arc in the stories in that section is getting the paycheck, the climax of their struggle.
TM: Last, kind of coming back around to the start, how would you feel about a reader viewing this book as a stand-in for autobiography, rather than a put-yourself-in-their-shoes kind of project?
EN: Readers can take whatever they’d like from my writing, or experience however it feels best. If something feels authentic enough that it’s assumed to be real, then I suppose I’ve done my job. But at the end of the day, it is fiction. If I wanted to write solely about myself, I’d be writing essays.

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