Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement.
Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes:
Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit — Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions — make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.
The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas — the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s.
I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book.
The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand?
Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature.
I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could.
TM: Did you run into doubt?
MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship — you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not — my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me.
TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality?
MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of — first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say.
I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine — like I get why it’s in the magazine — I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength — your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature.
TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability?
MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents — who were nice enough to read, you know — just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.]
But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing — not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this.
TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics?
MDS: I think the book…Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple — without that distance that’s normally part of academia — to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society?
In a community that’s so fractured — the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world — is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost.
TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American.
MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, ’cause there are all these competing factions — and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy.
Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life.
TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you?
MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically — I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters.
They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party — from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially — that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive.
I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book.
TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read.
TM: You called these kinds of books — your kind of book — an “acquired taste.”
TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it?
MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night.
I like literature, and experiences in life, that — rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works — expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
There is nothing positive about the dictionary definition of “obsession” – it haunts, is abnormal and persistent, like a bad rash. Tossing the word into a conversation typically indicates some form of criticism about a person and that person’s particular pursuit. Obsessions can lead to stalkers, delusion and great creations (the last two are not mutually exclusive); they can limit and restrict you to minutia or endow a unique vision that changes how you and others view the world at large. People indulge obsession in different ways – live it like a lifestyle or stir it into a creation like a minor but crucial recipe ingredient where it doesn’t overpower anything and complements everything.
Ideas of obsession had been needling me after reading James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven Tenths and Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. Both books obsess over their loosely shared theme – the natural world’s mystifying grandeur – and after reading them back-to-back it was impossible not to link them. While thinking about these two titles I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a feature-length film directed by stencil-art maverick Banksy. The film’s real lynchpin is Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, the ultimate knock-off artist. But before he became an overnight art world sensation his obsession was filming everything he did. The cousin of French street artist Space Invader, during a vacation to France Guetta got his first exhilarating taste for joining, and filming, street artists on their illicit missions. Over time, Guetta infiltrated the graffiti and street art scene in Los Angeles, befriending Shepard Fairey and other prominent figures. He and his camera became fixtures and his desire to document the scene, in his own words, became more of an obsession than just filming the boring details of everyday life. He met everyone and went everywhere, but like Captain Ahab chasing his White Whale, Guetta would not be satisfied until he achieved his ultimate goal: filming the notoriously anonymous Banksy.
Of course, no greater tale of obsession exists in American letters than Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick. Ahab’s epic ego-driven quest to recover the impossible has inspired and influenced countless artists who tap into as many ideas as the ones explored in the novel: myth, America, commerce, astronomy, conquest, sexuality. As part of a series of multimedia responses to American novels, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco assembled “Moby-Dick,” a show and accompanying catalogue. Designed as homage to the vaunted 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated Lakeside Press three-volume deluxe edition (later released as a Modern Library edition), this lovely book glosses Melville’s novel and features the thirty-two artists whose works was on view from September 22, 2009, until last December.
Interestingly, it was Kent’s black ink illustrations, reproduced here in a dark, brooding sea-blue, that helped resurrect the novel from obscurity (the edition did not even include Melville’s name on the cover). In this catalogue, pieces like Richard Serra’s lithograph study for his sculpture “Call Me Ishmael” or Brian Jungen’s iPod scrimshaw, connect directly to the narrative; the inclusion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale ocean view photographic prints, which a book of this size cannot do justice, is fitting since they express boundless uncertainty. But many of the pieces strike more abstract poses, like Angela Bulloch’s algorithm-simulated celestial views that use “technology to expand our perception of space and the possibilities of perception.”
At first blush, connecting contemporary art to the heyday of seafaring might seem incongruous, but sailors were the eyes of the world for landlubbers, returning home with tales of what mystical, depraved and wondrous sites and cultures existed just beyond the horizon. Of course, for all of the spoils these men brought back with them, their stories were filled by imagination and hearsay, changing like the seas. “Melville’s book,” writes the catalogue’s editor Jens Hoffman, “is like the living ocean: vast, potent, and hugely indifferent to human troubles and ambitions.”
James Hamilton-Paterson has a very similar view about the ocean, and with good reason. He has lived on desolate islands in the Philippines; accompanied deep-sea salvage missions, scientific expeditions, commercial fishers and sea scavenging locals; encountered murderous pirates; gone for many a solitary midnight swims; and read countless historic oceanic travelogues and scientific treatises. When it comes down to channeling philosophy, economics, politics, history, ecology and art through salt water, Hamilton-Paterson gives Melville a run for his money.
The updated Europa Editions release of Seven Tenths, a collection of Hamilton-Paterson’s writings about the sea, is the passionate result of a poet’s eye making sense of rigorous research and humanity’s impossibility. Running through the essays divided into thematic chapters is the tale of a free diver who has lost his boat, the cord he had tied around his ankle loosed from the tiny vessel’s prow. Resurfacing, the boat is nowhere to be found, and the swimmer considers being stranded in a “conspiracy of waves.” The umbilical connection between salt water and our lives is literal and figurative. But when the ocean claims a ship or a person or even disproves earlier scientific findings it does so by shutting off that object from what Paterson-Hamilton calls the “continuity of vision.” For him this is a sublime quality.
The author’s obsessing over oceans and seas is fueled by the fact that we know so little about them, especially beneath the surface. Of course, throughout time the curious have ventured. Alexander the Great had a special glass cage made so he could be lowered into the Mediterranean; salvage missions attempted to resurrect sunken valuables; and Scandinavians tried to correlate fish supplies with tidal currents. But, according to Hamilton-Paterson, “until the late eighteenth century the average European’s mental image of the sea was literally superficial, of a navigable surface above an abyss.”
Today we have a sense of the depth but very little experience of it. Seven Tenths is not so concerned with reasons and answers, but a greater more profound unity that resides in the unknown depths, and not even sonar, electrically belching through cold, lightless water, can give us a real sense of what is down there, and this has been realized for time immemorial: “The Greeks’ idealisation of a static universe full of fixed entities, faithfully reflected in their mathematics, underpinned all that could be thought. The sea was a positive insult to this metaphysics, a naked opposition to it… How did one represent an absence of topography?”
One solution was to name these places with colonial and imperial pageantry, and familiar names like Mount Mozart and Beethoven Ridge in the Musicians Seamounts north of Hawaii. They exist on a map, and in theories of science, surveyed down to the centimeter. What we know is something we have hardly explored, hardly experienced. This wanting for the impossible is why it compels obsession, at least as Hamilton-Paterson sees it: “[B]ut the seething waters of the middle distance have something wordless and unpitying to say to the dullest minds. It is as if the ocean, in certain lights and weathers, were the lair not of monsters or malevolent downward-dragging spirits, but of the fat blank which squats beneath all happiness, flicking out its tongue.”
Nature’s taunting evasiveness is the conundrum at the heart of Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. The novel consists of three parts, a middle section in which Handke interjects a first-person rhapsody about his process bookended by third-person narratives of wandering and wondering. All three parts obsess over what I think of as the intimate pattern, the visual echoes that reverberate and ping between our whorling fingerprints, the way light playfully daubs a riparian setting and the brittle and broken elements of decay.
Here again, the natural world prompts all of the questions and holds all of the answers but reveals nothing, which propels the obsession. Hamilton-Paterson offers a primer for how to look at the ocean, how to appreciate and cherish it for how it resolutely resists humanity. But Handke’s characters are like a collective Captain Ahab afloat in the world, searching. Their focus is singular, all others – wives, lovers, children – seem to exist only by virtue of these men determining how these others exist in proximity to them.
Benjamin Kunkel, in his introduction to Slow Homecoming, informs us that in German the surname of the first part’s subject, Sorger, means “one who takes care or has cares.” In an Alaskan-like wilderness, Sorger, a foreigner and outsider, studies the landscape and its inhabitants at such detail that everything becomes a likeness of his creation. There is not much naming, but that’s because Sorger’s dedication, certainly the book’s dedication, is to the propensity for naming because all such names are a function of these intimate patterns: “They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself . . . and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space – delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision.”
The novel’s final section reunites an unnamed father with his young daughter, raising her for periods of time in different countries, separated from her at times when the daughter stays with her mother. He sees her as a component, a piece of the puzzle that when completed will symbolize truth, something he chases: “Still the wayfarer makes his way across the high plateau toward the blue-veiled mountain chain, still busy with the thought that can never be carried to a conclusion: I am working on the secret of the world.”
All of these obsession-driven projects blur fiction and nonfiction. Melville’s pedantic descriptions of whaling can remove readers from the plot, making the novel feel like a manual. Hamilton-Paterson concedes that certain of his details might only be true to him and Handke’s narrative conceit intentionally calls into question where to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. In a statement, Banksy declared that everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is true, except that parts that aren’t.
Like Ahab, Thierry Guetta indeed found his White Whale, and while not fatal it was significant. Guetta and Banksy became friends. But the obsessive filming, it turns out, was not part of any great vision. Banksy ends up making the movie everyone had assumed Guetta was working on; Guetta begins to focus on art, churning out painfully derivative work, its boring qualities enhanced by his delusional ego and the fact that he sold a million dollars worth in a few days. In this transition, Guetta’s obsession comes into question – he simply does what people expect him to do, as if by rote. The actual extent of his obsessions is what makes for a biting portrait of the consumer environment that turns Guetta into a hot-shot artist, as opposed to a documentary about street artists and their critical and commercial success. It’s this sly self-awareness – Banksy, Shepard Fairey, et al are in on the joke – that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop brilliant, calling into question what validates certain obsessions. Whether a forever linking double helix of associations and patterns, a tidal ebb and flow or the marketplace, obsessive activities strive to unlock an answer or bring closure to the issue that has caused the obsession, or in the case of Guetta provide an illusion that the activity serves a purpose. This might be the greatest message of them all: obsessions are illusions.
Hamilton-Paterson appreciates the ocean’s indifference as its greatest virtue, the reality check that human ego needs and should pay heed. Handke’s characters want to find a place within the indifference, but only because they think it their duty to do so. The daughter in Slow Homecoming, simply by being in the right place at the right time, at last drives home to her father that the ultimate secret is perhaps one kept forever, that these obsessions make us human and we should be happy to leave it at that. Or as Ishmael says: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”