The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.
Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.
TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?
KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.
TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?
KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.
TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?
KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.
TM: My father’s hometown!
KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.
TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.
TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?
KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”
TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.
KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.
TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.
KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.
TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.
KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.
TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.
KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.
TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?
KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.
TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?
KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.
TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.
KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.
TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.
KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.
TM: How old are you now?
KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.
It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.
TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?
KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.
Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.
Corporate entities and media conglomerates have historically tended to take me for their target demographic. Representation? I’m a straight white man: I could be Walter White one day, Louis C.K. the next, and any Avenger I wanted (Tony Stark, obviously). “Everyone listens to me!” I could declaim, like Homer Simpson opening a can of Nuts and Gum.
Then my wife and I became parents, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Suddenly popular culture wasn’t an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting most superficial aspects of my life and circumstances back at me.
I had better luck when I turned to books. A number of writers were dwelling on parenthood and the seemingly impossible demands it made of artistic practice. But all of these writers were women. (There was one major exception, of course, which I’ll get to later.) Their subject wasn’t parenthood in a gender-neutral sense, but rather motherhood, an all-encompassing identity if ever there was one.
The wisdom in these books and related commentary seems to be that the roles of mother and writer are inherently in conflict. Give attention to your child and your writing suffers; give attention to your writing and your child pounds on the door of your office like the SWAT team. A feature article in New York magazine’s The Cut examined this conflict at length; Kim Brooks surveyed these books while detailing her own struggles to finish her manuscript while cutting up apple slices. She dubbed this subgenre “the literature of domestic ambivalence,” and its paradigmatic example was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Brooks comes across this book, appropriately enough, in the bedroom. She writes:
I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.” The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice.
She goes on to read many more works in this vein—sister books, you could say—including Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Elisa Albert’s After Birth. You’ll notice that Brooks collects both fiction and nonfiction under this heading; Dept of Speculation is a novel related in aphoristic bursts, On Immunity is a book-length essay about vaccination and the demands of modern society. A body of literature about individual women performing multiple, even contradictory roles has the happy result of producing books that pick and choose from a wide breadth of styles and techniques, genre boundaries be damned.
I read these books and thrilled to the descriptions of quotidian tasks. Lyrical paragraphs about changing diapers! Ethnographic studies of playground moms! But there was a running theme in nearly all of these books that didn’t quite translate into my own experience. And no, it wasn’t breastfeeding. I used a bottle to feed my kids, sure, but I still recognized the semi-conscious state one falls into during that 3 a.m. feeding. What I didn’t experience was precisely that sense of domestic ambivalence, the conflict between the roles of artist and caregiver. This isn’t to say that writing while parenting is all paychecks and playdates. Far from it! I have two children under the age of five, and on a not-infrequent basis will I retreat to the kitchen, closing the childproof gate behind me, to get a few minutes’ peace and check Twitter while they watch Peppa Pig.
But for me, this struggle is an issue of resources more than identity. If only my kids napped more like when they were younger, or if only we had more money to afford a babysitter or daycare, then I could write more pages per day and feed my kids something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Rather then being two states in opposition, I’ve found that domestic and artistic life have many parallels. Both involve shuffling around the house in sweatpants while accomplishing minor tasks: write a paragraph here, read Curious George there. Unlike Offill’s conception of the “art monster,” I discovered that the transcendent and the mundane make good partners.
Is my male privilege showing yet? “Wow, sir, congratulations on navigating the demands of art and life! You must be the first person in recorded history ever to accomplish such an apparently insurmountable task!” Yes, I get it. Women have been maintaining this balance for centuries before I came along. I think that this disconnect of mine says something about the nature of contemporary parenthood, and how expectations differ depending on who does it.
Back when my oldest child was first born, I experienced a burst of creative energy. I finished work that had stalled before I was a father; I did research for future projects. I wrote a complete rough draft of a novel in a couple months, then I went back and rewrote it again in a couple more months, and again, and again. In my first year as a father, I wrote more than I had in the previous five. I chalked this up to what I called the American Idol effect. Every season on the show, there was at least one contestant, if not multiple ones, who claimed that they were competing on their children’s behalf, to demonstrate that anything was possible, they should always follow their dreams, #staypositive. Supremely corny, yes, but if that’s where my motivation was coming from, I wasn’t going to question it.
After a while, I grew convinced that I was able to experience that creative burst because I had chosen, consciously and deliberately, to be a stay-at-home father. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make. My wife earned more than I did, and had health insurance to boot. Still, it didn’t feel like I was backed into a corner. Conversely, my wife feels that the decision to continue working has been, in some sense, made for her, as she has to provide for our family. There’s a structural conflict to her side of our domestic arrangement, sometimes making her feel that she’s doing what she has to do while I, more or less, am doing what I chose to do. Not to say that she’s unhappy with the arrangement; raising a family together has shown us that she’s more comfortable going to work and earning an income, while I’m more comfortable staying home. But the mere fact that I’ve assumed an unconventional domestic role further demonstrates that it’s a choice I made for myself. It’s one that seems to work, too. Once my daughter started sleeping through the night (at six weeks—yes, I did win the lottery on that one), I was able to establish a routine that allowed me to write for a few hours every day while still keeping her alive. Work, family, a reasonable balance between the two: it’s what I want out of life, honestly.
My experience ran directly counter to much of Domestic Ambivalence Lit. The mothers writing these books often felt like the choice to care for their children wasn’t a choice at all, but an imposition foisted on them by the one-two punch of society and biology. This is, of course, one of the central struggles of modern feminism. Even if you can manage to assert yourself in a patriarchal culture and make an actual choice, is it the right one?
Related, and perhaps even more salient, is the fact that it’s easier to be a stay-at-home dad than it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Not in the terms of the workload, mind you. I change as many diapers and weather as many tantrums as any mother. The biggest difference, to put it bluntly, is guilt. On a day-to-day basis, I would imagine that I experience significantly less guilt about my abilities as a caregiver than my female counterparts. Are the kids alive? Yes? Then I’m doing fine. And I’m not the only one grading myself on a curve. When I go the library, when I go to the grocery store, I am greeted with beatific smiles and congratulatory nods. Behold the stay-at-home dad, savior of civilized society!
This asymmetry often means that I’m reading about the same mundane events that make up my life at the moment without sharing some of the underlying emotions. It’s an unusual experience, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a movie without ever watching the movie itself. Probably this contributed to the fact that my favorite entry in this subgenre is Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, a short book of short entries, some no longer than a sentence, whose central emotion isn’t guilt, but wonder. Staying home with my kids, in my experience, consists of long stretches of tedium and stress, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendence and general oneness of the universe. Galchen somehow resides in those moments while letting the stresses recede into the background, a trait that would make me resentful if her book weren’t so good.
Still, Galchen’s book touches on the theme of the role of caregiver being imposed on those who practice it, rather than choosing it. Nor is this ambivalence new; writers of various commitments to feminist ideals have been examining it for years, from Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen in the 1970s, all the way back to Virginia Woolf, the godmother of Domestic Ambivalence. There’s a history to this sensibility, and I never considered myself a part of it.
This is why I haven’t written about stay-at-home fatherhood until this essay. All those drafts I wrote when I first became a father had nothing to do with being a father. Even trying to write this short piece is difficult, and it’s because there are few models for how to depict these experiences.
“But Adam,” I hear you think. “What about celebrated Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard? He writes about the quotidian nature of fatherhood at great, some would say unreadable, length!” Indeed he does! I confess to you that, after multiple attempts, I simply haven’t been able to find my footing in My Struggle. I suspect it’s a structural issue. Part of what I enjoy about the Domestic Ambivalence works is their fragmentary nature. They are, almost without exception, short books made up of small parts. For me, the chamber music approach gets closer at depicting the realities of staying home with kids than Knausgaard’s opera-cycle tactic. Plus, reading about his reliance on Norway’s free, state-mandated childcare simply makes me jealous.
So where do I look for models? I’ve found one in an unusual place.
Don DeLillo is one of my favorite writers. The gnomic pronouncements on technology, the pervasive paranoia, the verbose yet affectless dialogue: I love all of it. But there’s an aspect to his work that receives less attention than the postmodern pyrotechnics, and it is that he is a poet of the domestic sphere. For all the schemata of late capitalist information networks in his work, the characters themselves are frequently confined to isolated, cramped spaces. “Men in small rooms,” goes the refrain from Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. History is made by men sitting in small rooms, waiting for the opportunity to assert themselves on the public consciousness. A number of his works feature little more than a few characters in a confined domestic setting. Great Jones Street finds rock star Bucky Wunderlick holed up in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at an unplugged phone and meditating on fame. The Body Artist tracks performance artist Lauren Hartke as she wanders around her home following the death of her husband. Perhaps most germane, Mao II gives us Bill Gray, a blocked writer who sits at his desk all day, blowing his nose and accumulating drafts. Much like a parent, you could say.
This thread running through DeLillo’s work testifies to his belief that a small, single room can function as a node where one can plug into the larger forces of economics, history, and technology. Where did this computer come from? How does it change the room in which it sits, and how does it change me? These are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind during the lulls that sometimes occur during the course of the day, when my kids are thankfully quiet for a few moments and I can let myself think. If there’s a model for how to write about the experience of a stay-at-home father, I could do worse than choosing this one.
But maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m a man performing a role that gets coded as feminine, and I might be assuaging my insecurities about occupying such a marginalized position by spinning elaborate fantasies of masculine intellect and profundity. Housewives in the 1950s had soap operas and sleeping pills; I have my college reading list.
But maybe doubting the validity of my own perspective is the quintessential problem of the stay-at-home parent, one that mothers have struggled with for ages—precisely the sort of trap that I shouldn’t fall into. Trust your instincts: good advice for writers and caregivers both.
Image Credit: Jin.Dongjun.
Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer — and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists — he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.)
It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story — both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style — about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length — we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read.
My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows.
The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics.
Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am.
TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book.
DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part.
TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first.
DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books.
TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people?
DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel — of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point.
TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety.
DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy.
TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it?
DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form — people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself.
TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more?
DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led.
TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older?
DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there.
TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe — the reality of climate change, for instance — something that preoccupies you as you get older?
DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place.
TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work?
DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since.
TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure.
DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air.
TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book.
DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked.
[Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.
Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.
Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.
Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.
Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.
Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.
This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.
If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.
The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.
The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.
A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Hari Kunzru was anointed one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, just as his first book, The Impressionist, hit U.S. soil. In the nine years since, Kunzru’s four novels have more than justified this title. His only deviation from it, in fact, is that four years ago he picked up and moved across the Atlantic to New York. The American landscape, its culture, its myths and belief systems figure prominently in Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, whose name comes from Balzac: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men.” And it’s the Mojave desert that acts as the geographic center for this sprawling series of narratives that unfold over a duration of more than two hundred years.
In the two weeks since Gods Without Men’s release, it’s already been praised by Siddhartha Deb as “one of the best novels about globalisation.” Douglas Coupland, too, sang praises in his New York Times review and coined a new genre to classify it: Translit. Coupland writes, “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and spaces as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” And according to Jacob Silverman, Kunzru’s latest novel is “the fulfillment of the type of ‘networked novel’ that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.” Last week when Hari Kunzru and I spoke, our conversation touched on the systems that inform the novel’s content and structure, the American West, and UFO mythology born from the convergence of spiritual tradition and technology. Befitting twenty-first century networks, noise, and disembodiment, we spoke via cell phone, he in Seattle and I in Chicago, connected via two New York numbers.
On Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm, Hari Kunzru will visit WORD bookstore at 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY for an event co-hosted by The Millions. Visit the WORD website for further details and RSVP. See you there!
The Millions: In your novel Transmission, you write: “As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” The noise occurs here when a laid off immigrant programmer deploys a computer virus that has international ramifications. Signal corruption (or interference) also factors in to Gods Without Men, for example, where a mathematical model used in derivatives trading appears to have the power to interfere with and collapse national economies. And on a structural level in the novel, there are gaps in narrative time and in lives, there are a number of unexplained disappearances and returns. Would you talk more about the way that signals, noise, and systems in general inform and organize your novels?
Hari Kunzru: Yes, I can do that. I have a sort of dark past as a technology journalist and I’ve always been interested in communication systems, both as technological artifacts and as the building blocks of social life. In my book I’ve become very interested in the ways that we’re enmeshed in these systems, whether they’re technological strictly, or not. The dream of perfect information is an old one, and Transmission is organized around this technical notion of information and thought. [Claude] Shannon’s famous information theory pretty much summarizes this: there’s a sender, there’s a receiver, there’s a transmission medium, and the mathematical idea is for the signal to go from the sender to the receiver with no corruption and no loss of data. In any real world situation there is always noise. And the ways that our attempts to make meaning and transmit meaning to each other fall away into noise in that sense, are an enduring interest of mine. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with linking that to the gaps and the silences and the ways that Gods Without Men is organized. I mean, Gods Without Men has become a more explicitly metaphysical, spiritual notion. The way I usually approach talking about the book is to say that it’s about people dealing with the unknown, and beyond just the simply unknown, it’s the idea that some things might be potentially unknowable. I mean, to go back to kind of pointy-headed stuff, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that in a mathematical system there are things that are true within that system that can’t be proved by that system so that you can never predict absolutely. And these mathematical systems are the most-nailed down, supposedly predictive tools that we have — they’re kind of incomplete, their meaning kind of bleeds out into nothingness. And all sorts of weird stuff can come into those gaps, and all these ideas are really good for the novelist in particular. The exploration of these areas is the sort of thing that the novelist should be doing.
TM: I really enjoyed how the structure resonated with those ideas. In a BBC interview with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home…
HK: Oh, you heard that? That was a funny interview.
TM: …you say that because of the Internet, we live in a “relentlessly subcultural world,” that there are many co-existent subcultures, and that this has changed the way that culture is perpetuated. I’m wondering, how has this altered our idea and perception of narrative? And are linear narratives outdated?
HK: I think there are two thing things here. When I was talking about subcultures there I was basically — I don’t know if you know Tom and Stewart’s work. I mean, we were set up in this interview to be supposedly coming from three separate places and the poor BBC people, we all knew each other from ages ago and actually had far more in common in our interests that might first meet the eye.
TM: I’m aware of your former membership in the INS.
HK: Ah, yeah, in the first iteration of the INS. Yeah, so you know about the INS — Tom’s into avant-gardes, I think he’s a very retro figure in that way. And there’s the notion that there is a kind of modernist probe heading out into the future and dragging the rest of culture behind it. I think that’s not how it works anymore. There might have been a moment in the middle of the twentieth century where that was actually happening and this kind of modernist project was functioning in that straightforward way. But now, to skip to the way we actually receive information and the way we make culture, it’s very, very difficult to work out where an avant-garde might be if you were looking for such a thing. If there is an avant-garde, you know, it’s some ten guys in Nigeria. It’s very unlikely to be a bunch of university types in a cafe who want to make formally experimental literature. You know, it may be that that kind of world is one way, one place that new culture is happening, but it’s very difficult to make it this kind of one’s-at-the-fore, everyone-else-behind thing.
That’s one thing. The second thing you asked me was about form and linear narrative. And I’m certainly interested in the ways that traditional narrative doesn’t function properly at the moment. I like traditional narratives, I take pleasure in stories, I watch multi-part HBO dramas, and I go to Hollywood movies. But I appreciate them because of a formal thing, because we all know really instinctively now about how plots are supposed to work. You know when there’s supposed to be a reversal, you know when it’s supposed to tie up. Most films, and books to be quite honest, in the first few pages you know what kind of thing you’re reading and you know how it’s going to go. I mean, certainly in movies — you know you’re watching a comedy, so you know the guy and the girl, they’re going to get together in the end. You know the shape of it. And it’s a sort of banal thing to say on one level, but that’s not how experience is actually shaped in the world. That’s how stuff happens in books; and characters in these kinds of stories behave like characters, they don’t behave like people. If you do try the more complex, in kind of fleeting ways, that experience actually happens to us, then you’ve got to screw with plot in some way.
You know, you can still make books where stuff happens. I don’t think you necessarily have to be some kind of high postmodernist and refuse any kind of stability of meaning. One way I’ve found is through the use of silence and the use of incompleteness, because that demands a kind of active reading. It demands something from the reader — a kind of collusion with the writer. You’ve got to decide what you think might have happened, you’ve got to decide why you think certain things are being placed side by side. Because, you know, in our Internet world, we’ve got a constant flux of stuff. You’re clicking on one thing and then one thing leads to another and leads to another. And yet, the kind of interesting thing about the novel is almost the most old-fashioned thing about the novel: you’re putting a boundary around a bunch of stuff. You’re taking some stuff out of the flow and saying, Look at this — this is the reason all these things are between these covers, are within this boundary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go and tie it all up in the end in a neat way, but there’s still an interesting specific set of decisions made about putting it all together. So there are a number of ways that you can approach this, and various people have quite different approaches, but certainly in Gods Without Men I was interested in making something that was organized almost through rhyme rather than through plot. The different stories in the book echo each other, and hopefully start to work together to grow elements that are repetitious, and there are elements that are different.
TM: Right, the book almost asks a reader to read meaning into the work.
HK: Right, exactly. That’s exactly it.
TM: I’d like to talk more about the fragmentation and the vitiation of culture throughout the novel. Neither Jaz nor Lisa closely identify with their heritage but still wield it when making personal decisions. And in spite of Jaz possessing the trappings of a culture, he never escapes an awareness that he’s faking it, he forgets his immigrant roots. Or, there’s the military base where the Iraqi immigrants role-play in a model Iraqi town in order to train troops before they’re deployed. What role does culture play in these American lives? Is it a costume to try on, to wear on special occasions? Is there an integrity to this fragmentation?
HK: That’s a question I’ve always had to deal with in a very personal way because of my own background. I’ve got an Indian dad and an English mom and I grew up a second-generation kid in London, and so the kind of way you position yourself in relation to culture is a kind of live question at all times. Since the ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, people were being taught that culture is basically, the world is basically a floating collection of signifiers and that you can pick and choose, and you can completely create yourself. And there’s some element of truth to that, in that there’s definitely an element of performance in the cultural identity that you end up with. I mean, it’s what you do and what things you choose to adopt. But at the same time you can’t. There are bodies at the basis of this. You know, there are things that you can’t get free of. I live in a body with quite brown skin compared to my brother and I have an Indian name and my brother was given an English name. My brother’s called Richard and no one would really think he was Indian from looking at him, and yet I’ve always been quite clearly identifiable as somebody who is half Asian. And so in between the idea that there is only one culture and that you inherit it and you live within the tradition and there’s no wiggle room, and the sort of PoMo idea that we’re all busy trying on new stuff, you know, new cultures like hats — we’re floating in between that.
And the business of fragmentation when it comes to culture, that’s a slightly different question again. I grew up being called mixed race and people would say things like, “Oh, it must be nice to have two cultures,” or, “It must be bad not to have one culture.” You’re existing in a split way, and yet that was never how I was experiencing it. It’s normal inside your head. You’re not flipping between one mode and another mode in some sort of troubled way. Even though there’s a lot of people who think of themselves as securely belonging to one culture who imagine that’s what it must be like. I mean, usually that’s only as a kind of complicated or mixie person, by the people who imagine that you must’ve lost something, or you must be a bit rootless and homeless, and you must be yearning for some sort of Little House on the Prairie-type origin. So culture is in play. You take traditions on and then you change the traditions by what you do with them. I mean, Jaz in this book is having quite extreme trouble because he’s made a quite extreme leap. His parents are from a village background in north India and he’s invented himself as a sort of wealthy Wall Street dude, and the gap he’s having to bridge is quite extreme. He has, maybe more than I ever had, a sense of strain from that.
TM: That’s obvious. And it’s interesting to use the U.S. as the landscape for that to play out.
HK: Yeah, it is different from how it is in the UK, for example. I’m really aware of how the whole race and identity stuff plays very differently here. It’s been quite fascinating for me to come from one context — I’ve been living in New York for four years now — and to look at how it goes here in the States. Because the founding myth of America is the melting pot. You know, you come from wherever and then by taking the Pledge of Allegiance you transform yourself into an American. The way you become an American is by assenting to this list of baseline values, or propositions. And beyond that, you don’t have to eat some food or dress a certain way or behave a certain way in order to say you’re American. You stand up and you salute the flag, and then off you go — you’re an American.
It doesn’t work that way in Britain because Britain started off as this colonial, imperial country with the belief that there’s only one way of being British. And then it had a massive influx of immigrants, mainly after the second World War. And people like me turn up, who are clearly British, but at the same time don’t have the kind of… you know, it’s a place where you didn’t have a set, I mean we don’t have a Britain Constitution, there’s not a set of things you have to assent to in order to be a British citizen. It’s all culture and precedent and how it’s always been done. If a bunch of people turn up who do stuff differently, that’s much more threatening to the identity of the country. And the multicultural story of Britain in the last five years has been remaking the whole identity of the country to fit all the new kinds of ways of being British that have turned up. It’s a totally different history from America.
TM: The American landscape figures prominently in the novel. Although the chapters jump across time, from 1778 to 2009, and lives are lived across a multitude of locations, most of the novel unfolds in one geographic area, near the Pinnacles in the Mojave desert – -a landmark described as, where “three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers prob[e] the sky.” What is the significance of geography to the novel, and also, in its relation to the American dream and myths of UFOs, higher energies, and the supernatural?
HK: I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s kind of doubled with New York City, and you know, New York is a place of verticals and the place of finance. I’m trying to say it has much more in common with the desert, the place of horizontals and spiritual questions. All of the Walter financial modeling kind of stuff is a way of talking about the idea of credit credos and markets based on faith, in that way when everybody decides to believe the value exists. But the main action of the book is in the desert. The desert has a kind of incredible hold on me as a person. I mean, I first ended up out there just after 9/11 and in the week after 9/11, when I got stuck in the U.S. I’d been on the West Coast for about six weeks and I was supposed to fly out on the 12th of September. And at one o’clock at a motel in West Hollywood I watched the second tower go down. I was supposed to bring this rental car back to LAX and I had this scary experience — all the freeways were closed and the airport was closed and yet the rental car company wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted their car. I ended up getting a bit lost, and would kind of hang there on the far side of the street, and was driving around the perimeter. I had a beard at the time and I got pulled over by the cops. They were incredibly jumpy, got their guns out, and I think it was only my English accent at the time that sort of saved me. They just realized when I said, “Hello what seems to be the trouble?” that I was an idiot, and didn’t shoot me. But at that point I just didn’t want to be in LA anymore and I didn’t get to fly out, and so I went to Death Valley and drove around the Mojave for several days, actually ending up in Vegas, which is a whole other story and a very weird time to be in Vegas. But I was out in this moment filled with dash and worry, out in this place. And I went back years later, when I first came to live here, and that kind of got doubled up again. When I’ve been on my own out there, which I have quite a lot — I think I’ve spent around three months in the last two or three years, just driving around different routes and hiking and just being out in this space — it’s a very intense physical experience, just being out in this space. It has to do with light, with thin air, with light bouncing off the white. Midday in summer the contrast is less and the world is bleached out, the light is so intense. And you have that feeling that the gap between the land and the sky has gotten narrower.
Also, of course, the desert in the imagination of America — that great basin is the last barrier where if you’re heading West and you’re trying to get to California, that is the great obstacle that you have to cross. And there are all sorts of slight traces of westward pioneers. You find them in the name Joshua tree. The Mormons named those big yucca plants Joshua trees because they looked like somebody holding their hand up to heaven, imploring God. So the tradition of an intense spiritual striving is there. And on to that you get air space. It’s the place where you can head out to the desert and fence off a big area of land and make it into a bombing range or an aircraft testing range, or you can do your military maneuvers with the Marines. It’s land that gets very intimately bound up with the secret state. There’s Yucca Mountain, which is earmarked as a place where they’re going to store radioactive waste, there’s Area 51, you know the famous secret place that houses UFOs. When you drive around there you’re constantly coming across places you can’t go into. These huge areas of land look exactly like the land on the other side of the road, but are actually military, you know, Air Force or Naval land. I was driving in northern Nevada one time and you couldn’t drive straight through, and suddenly there’s a big sign that said Navy Seal Undersea Training Area. And I’m like, What the fuck? We are so far from water. There’s no doubt that this place had a lake in it, but for a while I was thinking I just don’t even understand what is going on anymore. Like, how is this place being used?
And the UFO thing really comes out of the convergence of those two things. It’s the spiritual tradition meeting technology, meeting specifically airspace technology. And at the moment of the Cold War, you can track the history of UFO sightings very closely to how people were feeling about the Cold War and their worries about nuclear destruction. Initially all the aliens that people were meeting were described as being these peaceful humans who had come to save us from our technological destruction. And then later, once the big security state had built up in response to the Cold War, when everything was getting fenced off and people were becoming aware that there was this massive secret budget within the government that was perhaps not fully under control, that’s when all the alien encounters turned dark as well. It all becomes very paranoid and all the Greys turn up, you know, the classic E.T. types, Aliens, The X-Files. They’re like a projection of paranoia about the government. The UFO story eventually turns into a story about the people’s relationship to government when the government is keeping something secret from us.
TM: When you were talking about the relationship of technology and spirituality, it made me think of a line in the novel about Schmidt that stood out to me: “The shape of his project became clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.”
HK: That’s absolutely the center of what UFOS… I think you can call it a religion almost. I mean, UFO mythology is actually a kind of tech version of something that was already there. The one thing I found out when I was researching that completely fascinated me was that there was this spate of airship sightings across the West in the 1880s and 1890s, from west Texas all through the Prairie States and into the Southwest. People would report airships and this was a time before they were in use. There were occasionally even sightings of encounters with airmen who seemed human but not all together human, including one report of a crash where there was supposed to be a body that the local pastor had buried somewhere, I think in Texas. When a new technology comes along, it kind of turns up in this sort of spiritualized way in the imagination. I mean, you could almost say the same thing was happening in the early days of the Internet in the late ‘80s when William Gibson was writing about these kind of ghostly AIs becoming conscious. And at that point we were just realizing that the global network was becoming bigger than we could comprehend and understand and what would happen if it actually took on a life of its own. You know, with each new wave of tech that comes along, there’s an early stage where our ideas about the beyond and transcendence get really wrapped up with that.
TM: What contemporary novels (besides your own, of course) do you think best speak to the times and the fragmentation of twenty-first century life?
HK: There’s an Icelandic novelist called Sjón and he wrote a book called From the Mouth of a Whale, that’s actually set in sixteenth-century Iceland but it’s about the lone man of reason in this age of superstition. He’s a sort of proto-scientist. He’s been collecting natural specimens and trying to think through this stuff, and he’s stuck out there on the edge of the world and in this kind of crazy… it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary novel that came out a few years ago. It’s dull almost to say because everybody thinks it but Bolaño’s 2666 is very important in the use of gaps and the kind of active reading stuff that we were talking about before. Quite a lot of the work of Don DeLillo actually was the first stab at this stuff — some of his 1980s work. I’m really interested in Libra, the book about the Kennedy assassination, that’s about how this plot takes on its own life, this conspiracy takes on its own life and without anybody really setting something in motion. The network takes over and things take the course and that’s a really important insight that he had in that book. And in a funny way, there’s a Chinese novel I’d like to recommend as well, by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. There’s a kind of genre to these Chinese books that are almost like Beat books in a funny way — they’re about people getting the hell out of the city and going to find themselves through road trips. Soul Mountain is essentially about a guy who’s traveling in very rural, traditional parts of China and he retells lots of folk tales and meets various people, but it’s fragments, and sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third person, sometimes it’s second person, so there’s a destabilization there. His way of using stories and his way of splitting up the self really interests me.
For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge.
From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece.
Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city — an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms…?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish.
They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work.
All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert.
In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling…it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars…the neural pulse of some wilder awareness…whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings — lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space — all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations.
In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work…[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this…lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies…her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill.
In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church…it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character…a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from…the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic…”
These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production — a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it.
These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “…what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth…or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces…stand against your doubts?”
In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb.
All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist.
This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface.
As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts.
The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists — as DeLillo imagines them — have become. In Mao II, he writes, “…isn’t it the novelist…above all people, above all writers…who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.”
This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned.
What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him.
It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the ’80s and ’90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind.
For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes — at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation — human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones.
This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace.
DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
As Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit… in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.Frank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I’m joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book’s major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.Nixon’s belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I’ve been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, “historical fantasia.” (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth’s Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.Straddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly’s O. Henry Award-winning story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” was said to explore the life of…an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with “Lyndon,” (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.But the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon’s strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America’s writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld’s arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you’ll forgive the plug, published a monologue called “The Love Song of Ari Fleischer” in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt – preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who’s reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. We get “Stuff Happens” and “Guantanamo” – bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration’s moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I’m not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I’m not holding my breath.See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy’s favorite fiction, Clinton’s favorite books.
I was in search of something light after Libra and turned to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. Miller wrote this piece for spare money after his return from Paris by submitting 5-10 pages at a time. He got paid $1 for each page and submitted them to a Mr. xxxx who ran a bookstore in LA. One day he dropped off 10 pages and let Mr. xxxx know that this was it, the novel was complete. The catch is that Mr. xxxx also carried nude pictures and pornographic literature at the back of his store. I don’t know if you already guessed but Miller was writing for the illicit part of the store, hence Under The Roofs of Paris is pure pornography, and well, it is sick. I enjoyed the book immensely, mostly because it left me gaping at the obscenity Miller put into words: incest relationships, black masses at the French countryside, tricking prudent American women into orgies, and teenager whores are just the beginning in this 126 page book. There is a very loose plot that revolves around sex and I would suggest that you do not approach Under The Roofs of Paris unless you are already perverted or have a desire to be.To snap out of the ludicrous state of mind Miller put me in, I turned to Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, which I had been meaning to read for a second time since November ’03. [Emre’s piece on Maqroll previously appeared here.]After Maqroll I could not bring myself to start a new novel and turned to Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions. I had kept my brother John Leahy’s present at my bedside table for most of the year but the period immediately after Maqroll is when I turned my full attention to Borges’ labyrinths and tried to decipher them. I must admit that I feel very illiterate while reading Borges and have quite a difficult time connecting certain dots in his stories, mostly because of all the literary references that I cannot catch. Still, I enjoy Borges’ stories a lot and value his old-school language, use of fairy/folk tale language, and matter-of-fact style. He drops gems such as “One man’s dream is part of all men’s memory” in each story, which I believe Maqroll would value greatly and inscribe on the walls of the restroom corridor at The Snow of the Admiral. Collected Fictions is best read in a coffee shop, Lucy’s, or in bed, accompanied by black coffee, vodka, or water.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo’s Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting’s suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone’s JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President’s assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK’s assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous “fictional” read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone’s JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.