When The New York Times T Magazine recently published a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, reactions ran from bafflement to hostility at what seemed a particularly precious bit of high-level marketing (both had projects to promote). But as it turns out, Foer isn’t the only novelist with whom Portman pen-pals. Below are excerpts from a long-running email exchange the actress and director has enjoyed with Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and Cities of the Plain.
>> On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 3:44 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Let me begin by saying how incredibly gratifying our correspondence has been. In recent years, as I worked on translating Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into my first film as a director, I constantly thought of artists whose work I aspire to, and — I say this with a fan’s self-consciousness — you were one of them. I thought if I could suffuse my film with the visceral nature of, say, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, then I will have succeeded. Thematically, Oz’s book couldn’t be more different from your novels — but that propulsive feeling, that razor’s-edge sense: that’s the important thing.
I’d love to keep writing but it appears that my son is trying to jam his SpongeBob underwear down the garbage disposal. Such is the artist’s life, is it not?
>> On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 8:12 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
The boy is wise. Pressing the remains of a dying world into the steely void. Did the boy succeed? Did he shred them? Send them tattered through the murk, the sludgewaters below. The refuse of our age. Flowing to brownclotted rivers where corpses of things drift at brackish shores. Bloated and grinning. The grief of the empty sun. An idiot’s reckoning.
>> On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Luckily I got the underwear out of his hands before he could do any real damage, and he gave me the sweetest hug in apology. Being a mother is a great gift, a blessing, and there’s nothing I can say on the subject that hasn’t been said before. But, in part, I think that’s what’s so amazing about having a child: we can each experience this thing that feels so unique and special — and nobody else will ever be able to understand the depth of our feeling. It’s something that we all can do, yet when it happens, it feels exceedingly rare. Does that make sense? Or is motherhood just turning me into one of those unbearable, sentimental types?
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Children with sharp small teeth, grasping fingers. Sucking life from all, as an inferno takes its oxygen from the blackening treefringe. As apt to evil as men, simply not grown to it. Their evil a pair of trousers too large yet to fit. But there will come an hour when the boy will know what he is capable of and he will weigh it and know that it is there. He will attire the trousers and they will fit him handsomely. His evil will emerge as a snake from its trembling nest.
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 10:47 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
My son and I were at a café in Paris last year — the Boulangerie Poilâne, on the Boulevard de Grenelle; if you’re ever there, you must try the chaussons aux pommes — and I caught him trying to pour salt in my café au lait! So, yes, I certainly know what you mean about children’s capacity for “evil”!
It’s funny — although I’ve been working in film since I was 11, it’s only now, working as a director, that I’m thinking of my own life in terms of “scenes” — I’m visualizing my boy’s attempt at ruining my coffee as a director, not as a mother, or as the person who the event actually happened to. As I think about it, I’m working out camera angles, lighting, everything. There’s so much more to directing a movie than there is to everyday life. In everyday life, you don’t have to think about what type of saltshaker will look best on-camera — it’s already there.
>> On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 5:20 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Salt. Scattered across the fields by marauding deathcults, necklaces of severed ears. Destroying all in their bleakening fury. Crops stunted and gray, harvest of locustshells. Farmers leaving their wrackened steads, moving through bluffnotches towards full nothingness. Asking an absent god what they endeavor to. Yearning for surrender, to offer bloodscabbed necks to the rusty scythe.
>> On Mon, May 9, 2016 at 2:11 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
In a very small way, I feel like one of those exhausted farmers. On the one hand, I’m extremely tired from a long day of shooting. But on the other, I’m energized by my colleagues. I’m working with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and other wonderful actresses, and the end of each day is a little bit sad, because we know we’re that much closer to the end of our camaraderie. I want to get through this project — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, professionally — but at the same time, I want it to last forever. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own work?
>> On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
What is forever. The blasted plains. Low scarps of rock. Nothing upon them but carcasses and things to become carcasses. Bones and yellowed teeth, scattered bits of fur. Chronicles of nothing. A vulture lighting upon illfestered carrion. To tear at flesh, rancid spoors green in the fading day. Murders of crows massing in the branches beyond. Black night sky. A void where nothing breathes. Mute to the hoarse sufferings of an extincting race. Howls unheeded. Lodestars of pain. These things are forever.
There is nothing else, Natalie.
More from Cormac McCarthy: The Road (A Comedic Translation)
1. Kyiv – 18-20 February 2015
Mikhail Bulgakov opens White Guard — his semi-autobiographical novel about the Turbin family and their experiences in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) — with a brief description of the winter night sky: “…highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.” The first time I read it, perhaps 20 years ago, I groaned at the labored Prince of Peace vs. God of War metaphor. Written in the stars, no less. Ugh. Another Russian drama queen.
It happens less often nowadays, but it turns out that in the right circumstances I can still be an ass — Prince of Peace vs. God of War is about damn right. It was last year over these three days that 105 Ukrainians died when a political protest taking place about a half-mile from Bulgakov’s Kyiv home went medieval — that is, if you’re comfortable with broadening the received definition of ‘medieval’ to include turning fire-hoses on crowds in -10˚C temperatures, family-packs of Molotov cocktails, and sniper fire. This is the first time I’ve been in a hot war zone, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’m too old for this shit.
Bulgakov volunteered for it, and then watched as the Chekhovian gentility his family enjoyed was crushed between strident Bolshevism and myopic Nationalism. For that, I can forgive him his bathetic imagery. I can also see (better late than never) how the picture works well as a fulcrum for this novel of war and its horrors, of loyalty and its limits. I can forgive him because history seems to be repeating itself here in Kyiv, and he called it in White Guard. Desperate for peace, yet no end of war.
He’s tricky about it. Tricky like Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, which, for about 200 pages, has you thinking you’re reading a standard detective thriller, and then suddenly you’re not, at all. That level of tricky. That species of tricky.
Bulgakov teases with some noirish Kyiv urbanscapes, irritates with some tedious description of military equipment, and charms with samovars and Orthodoxy and tea on the veranda. And all the while he’s sneaking up behind you with a two-by-four, because what he’s really been talking about this whole time is collapse. Outlining the inevitable failure of those who resist conscious engagement of the world; prophesying the certainty that men will make war, sometimes assembling randomly on the same ground twice in a century; and above all, offering a nuanced critique of the tendency to cloister ourselves when confronted with an unexpectedly complex world. The novel conveys his sense of loss, of befuddlement, while managing to issue a clear challenge to the smug imperturbability — and culpability — borne by privilege in times of cultural collapse. Where The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog subvert with satire, you see it coming, but with the guileless White Guard you don’t. Joseph Stalin, sentimental fool, and perhaps grasping the value of a writer who could express so beautifully the futility of resistance, let Bulgakov live.
Traveling to Kyiv? White Guard is an indispensible vade mecum for the lit-minded tourist moving through streets and yards once again soaked in blood, and hoping for a glimpse into the city’s ancient heart.
2. November 1, 2013
An old soviet joke. Guy goes to a fortune teller: “For ten years you won’t have enough to eat, your friends will betray you, and your life will be a web of lies,” she says.
“Ten years?” he groans. “Then what?”
“You get used to it.”
Post-Soviet life is badly lit but you get used to it. I’m in a second floor interior room of a publicly-funded medical facility near the center of Kyiv. There’s just enough light in here to reveal some hulking thing in the shadows that swallow the opposite wall. I’m not alone. A woman is issuing clipped instructions in a voice more smoke than sound, like something out of a Soviet film from the “let’s-all-slit-our-wrists-but-let’s-get-blind-drunk-first” school. The whisperer alternates as clinic radiologist and apparent doppelganger of Margarita Terekhova, the actress who illuminates Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo. She’s also probably too young to have seen the film.
Will this generation be the one? Or will they emerge from this as jaded as their elders? In his (1993) debut novel The Year of the Frog, Slovak writer Martin Šimečka depicts the airless existence of a young man in communist Czechoslovakia. A dissident father’s political essays have left his son, a long-distance runner, blacklisted from university. His prospects truncated, the boy endures soul-numbing humiliation as he searches for a response to his censure preferable to that of simple resignation. If dignity in identity exists, then the question is not whether to resist a tyrant, but how and for how long. What impresses most about the people who undergird Ukraine’s “Revolution in Dignity” is that they, like Šimečka’s protagonist, are in this for the long run.
She extends a tiny birdboned hand and I surrender my overcoat and belt. She hangs them on a hook that she can see but I cannot. Then my shirt, which she drapes across the back of a chair. It shimmers in the soft focus of the half-light. She takes me by the elbow and leads me toward the shadows. Shirtless and out of options except to follow. I’m breathing through a straw. We stop near the hulking thing — some kind of metal booth on a six-inch platform. She helps me step up and inside and tells me to cross my arms above my head. Her cool hand on my back, she urges me to lean forward onto a metal sheet, which I — freed of any thoughts of resistance — do. She’s off toward her booth, closing a door, punching a button. An analog of her voice pulses over an ancient speaker in an invitation to corruption — “breathe deep, hold, do not move” — followed by an electric hiss and a thud. The voice comes back on to tell me we are done here. I take comfort in “we,” somewhat less in “here.” She thumbs one switch in a bank of four and the room goes dark.
3. February 18, 2014
I live on Podil, a thousand-year-old Kyiv neighborhood squeezed between low hills and the right bank of the Dnieper River. In 1811, a fire rid the quarter of its wooden structures, and the place was rebuilt in brick and stone by Russian Empire architects with a thing for proscenium arches, fluted pilasters, and mascarons. It is robust and residential, a mix of significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and flush with small business. The bug-eyed shock of Western European news reports on “Ukraine’s Fascist Problem” strike us as particularly unreflective — tendentious, and not at all helpful. The area is proving largely impervious to gentrification: no doubt the result of our fascist problem. It takes a brisk 20 minutes from my flat, uphill and down, to reach the fighting on Maidan.
It’s late, after 11, and I am walking in a silent drizzle down an otherwise deserted Pritisko-Mykilska Street, trying hard to recall the century. I stop in front of the Florivska Convent, named for Florus and Laurus – saints and stonemasons. The sisters ran a hospital here for the better part of three centuries, and busloads of health pilgrims from Moscow still arrive each week. In summer the rose gardens dazzle. Eyeballing the distances, from this spot a right fielder with a good arm could hit the abbey, swivel left to pick off St. Nicholas Church at one end of the street, and then back right to target Our Lady of Pirogoscha bookending the other. Around another corner curves St. Andrew’s Descent – Andreyevsky Spusk to locals – and the home of White Guard, where Mikhail Bulgakov spent half his life.
4. November 1, 2013
The radiologist takes me to her cabinet and offers me tea. While we wait for the electric kettle she holds up my film to the desk lamp and stares. She wags a finger at a smudge she sees there and sits to write out her diagnosis in duplicate, longhand. It’s something you notice — the immaculate penmanship. No heart-topped i’s or schoolgirl loops: this is Klingon cursive. That and the near sacral insistence on handwritten documentation.
It starts early, this insistence. Arts or sciences, crisp classroom dictation and flawless transcription are tried and true staples of (post-)Soviet pedagogy. In Ukraine’s education system — so utterly shattered and for so long — flawless calligraphy provides cheap validation that some standards are immutable. On some days there is more solace than despair in the thought that Kyiv of 2015 is not so far removed from Kiev of 1918. Not that long ago, and with computers on every desk, the tellers at the branch where I do my banking still also wrote out each transaction by hand. “Handwritten is more reliable” they tell me. So near the Bulgakov home, who can argue.
In his engrossing Love and Garbage, Czech writer Ivan Klima writes about the inevitable cultural stagnation that follows the sanguinity of an uprising. His is the story of a Prague writer-cum-street sweeper discredited by the totalitarian regime, yet determined to pursue that which most engages him — life itself. The loneliness and alienation are palpable as Klima guides us on a lover’s tour of Prague, urging us to consider: “When does a person become what he otherwise only pretends to be?” What are the limits of a disengaged conscience? What is the true nature — and genesis — of coercion?
An older woman in a lab coat knocks and enters as we sip our tea. She’s carrying a tray of large, white onions, cut in half. She sets a half-onion on the desk and leaves, closing the door behind herself.
5. February 20, 2015
Andreyevsky Spusk is a cobblestoned switchback rising along the contours of the hill – witness to the truth that beauty in ancient cities is not a consequence of design, but of resistance to it. Stones come loose, yards overgrown, random, tumbling watercourses following a heavy rain, and light from a streetlamp curving through fog in a way that quantum physics rejects but the 19-century insists on. The street is beautiful in the way that a thing can be only at advanced age — after history has weighed in and done its worst.
Noises carry surprisingly well down its length. An arguing couple walking downhill on an otherwise quiet night are sound long before they’re light. I follow the curve up, and just past the Bulgakov home on the sweep of the wind comes the sound of drums, atavistic, insistent, from Maidan.
6. December 18, 2014
We learn that Oleh Lysheha died last night. One of the good ones — a sculptor, playwright, and the nation’s finest lyric poet. He enjoyed going barefoot in the city. James Brasfield’s translation in The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha with its spare Ukrainian–English antiphony is something of a minor miracle.
7. November 1, 2013
She clips one copy of her report about my slushy left lung to the enormous x-ray and slides it over to me. The other she drops onto a pile on the corner of her desk. She is 25 — probably — freckled, almond-eyed, with a Slavic jawline evolved for a Paris runway. Inside a bulky sweater and lab coat she is also tiny. I’m two of her.
8. January-February 2014
Protestors erecting Mad Max barricades control Kyiv’s Independence and European Squares: Maidan. Mounds of burning car tires endlessly replenished provide a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus, Mars, and now Vulcan. Small squads of priests vested in penitential black approach the riot lines at regular intervals to pray. Regular orchestrated volleys of gunfire come through the smoke from the police side. Casualties begin to mount. The American Embassy issues its advisory to stay clear.
I’m back at the clinic for an all-clear. Kyivites by the hundreds, including my radiologist, tend to the wounded in field hospitals on Maidan.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that when I found out Richard Matheson was dead, I was watching television; there are few writers, after all, with a more intimate, lengthy relationship with both that living room medium and its bombastic cousin, the feature film. The storyteller in me wishes I’d had one of the many Matheson-penned episodes of The Twilight Zone on in the background at the moment I learned of his passing, if only because it feels like a modicum of disquieting coincidence in keeping with the sort of urgent, vital fiction he seemed to pump out effortlessly for decades. Imagine it: a fan learns of a famous writer’s death as the very words he wrote drift from the television, and cut to the fan’s face and cue the spooky score as he senses invisible, supernatural hands at work.
Alas, there was no such luck, as my fiancée and I were approximately chest-deep in an evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and I had to make do with the melodious sound of Detective Elliot Stabler slamming a perpetrator’s head into the reflective glass of the police interview room. Of course, Matheson, of all people, likely wouldn’t have begrudged me a brief indulgence in what you could (charitably) call campy, disposable entertainment (if you’ve seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, you know what I mean).
“Richard Matheson died today,” I said.
“Hm?” My fiancée said. I pressed mute so we wouldn’t have to talk over Stabler cartoonishly brutalizing a suspect.
“This writer, Richard Matheson, he died today. He was 87, but still, you know. Terrible.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. We were very nearly through half a moment of reflective, respectful silence when she returned to playing Sudoku on her iPad. Stabler gritted his teeth and sneered something into the perpetrator’s ear.
“So, you don’t have the slightest clue who that is.”
“Nope,” she said politely. “Should I?”
I opened my mouth to begin what would, knowing me, be an exhaustively detailed, near-insufferable process of explanation, complete with video clips, historical context regarding his influence on other important contemporary writers, and breathlessly quoted vital passages, but after a moment, I found nothing would come out. Matheson’s long been a favorite, and someone whose career and influence I find inspiring, but here I was, unable to speak about him.
My fiancée looked at me. “You know who he is, right?”
It’s hard for me to talk about writers.
Don’t get me wrong. I can talk about books and writers for-goddamn-ever, and love to; we can spread some sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and have an impromptu sleepover and talk about stories all night if you’d like. That being said, I believe the lens through which I view such things is a little odd. It’s not just that I love literature and books — it’s that my mind is built with an obsessive proclivity for recalling lists of titles, and influences, and passages, and on and on. Like I said, this is odd, but more importantly in regards to interacting with others, it’s boring.
Inciting yawns, you see, is precisely the opposite of my intention, particularly if it means shutting someone’s mind down about an author with whom they might someday fall in love. I want to be a participant in the literary community, and an envoy for short stories and novels and any other means of delivering some of the cream of the printed crop; I don’t want to screw someone out of discovering something great because they got bored after I started rattling off James Baldwin’s bibliography like I’ve got literary tourettes.
So if someone hasn’t heard of Cormac McCarthy (and I’ve avoided impulsively bludgeoning them with something), I don’t say: “Here’s Child of God and The Crossing and Blood Meridian and the script for The Sunset Limited, take a quick gander and you’ll have a good idea of his importance to the western canon and HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Instead, I simplify for the sake of continuing the proverbial conversation by relying on a perhaps more easily accessible cultural reference: feature films. Let’s be honest. Films are easier and quicker to consume than novels or short stories, for the most part, and that fact alone makes them an easier experiential mountain to climb for the majority of busy people and their shorter and shorter attention spans.
“He’s the dude who wrote No Country. You remember. The one where Javier Bardem had the bowl cut and fucked up like thirty people.”
“Oh, rad. Yeah, he housed that guy with the air gun. That was fucking sweet,” they say, nodding.
Does this constitute participation in the long, slow dumbing-down of culture? Maybe. However, what I’m also saying, what I consider the more salient ultimate point is that my strategy at least continues a conversation about an artist instead of ending it; having seen a film they liked, a friend may pick up the novel that inspired it.
I can bask in a momentary thrill when a friend nods in recognition, because hey, maybe I’ve just played a small part in someone discovering something cool. Of course, my endorsement or quick distillation of an author’s identity through film adaptations may not lead to a friend mowing through an extensive list of works, but it might.
I’ve used film as a successful means to introduce people to writers before. It works for Annie Proulx. It works for Toni Morrison. If you’re willing to be disqualify anything from the ’80s (or anything, like the legendarily bad television adaptation of The Stand, that involves Gary Sinise), it sort of works for Stephen King. You’d think that given his extensive list of adapted works and his own involvement in the television and film industries, it’d work for Matheson, too.
You would be wrong.
You would be breathtakingly wrong, in fact. You would be so wrong as to necessitate a bracing shot of something almost incalculably strong before looking at the man’s IMDB page. In fact, instead of reviewing his filmography, content yourself with this miserable spoiler alert: Matheson’s work has been adapted into a stunning litany of shitty movies.
Other authors you might fairly categorize as important are at least the occasional beneficiary of good film adaptations — or at least they trend much less toward the sad, dark wasteland of whoops, does anyone remember why we cast Paul Walker? With Matheson, that’s not the case. A number of his works — each considered at least addicting, pulpy-fun page turners, and at best as profoundly influential to a generation of writers — have been adapted in recent years, and, well, they are all really, really bad. Even though the written work is good, the adaptation — despite widely varying directors, screenwriters, and casts — ends up bafflingly terrible.
Is there something inherent in Matheson’s writing that makes for bad adaptations? Such a premise doesn’t seem to make sense, because the works vary enough — stylistically and thematically — to rule out a single fundamental flaw. What Dreams May Come is a novel incredibly different from I Am Legend. “Steel”is a short story with no readily apparent similarities to “Button, Button.” And yet all four have produced adaptations (What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box, respectively) in the last few decades that have been (deservedly) panned by critics and fans.
Frankly, it seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to arrive…in The Twilight Zone.
Let’s look at the evidence.
“Button, Button” is without question a classic example of the short story form. It’s a work of stunning power that flashes by with equally breathtaking brevity. You know the plot; a cash-strapped couple are offered the opportunity to make $50,000, simply provided they push the button on a small, innocent-looking contraption delivered unexpectedly to their doorstep. The only catch? As a result of their button-pushing, someone they’ve never met, somewhere, will be killed.
The story’s few, intense, spare pages are spent exploring the couple’s conflicts over the morality of a utilizing a device they agree cannot possibly do what its mysterious proprietor claims it does. It’s a bad joke, Norma and Arthur are certain, but, as they wonder over tense dinnertime disagreements, what if it isn’t? It’s a question Norma especially wrestles with, and after her resolve crumbles, the story climaxes with an eminently re-readable denouement that seems a forerunner of the now-ubiquitous twist ending:
She felt unreal as the voice informed her of the subway accident, the shoving crowd. Arthur pushed from the platform in front of the train. She was conscious of shaking her head but couldn’t stop.
As she hung up, she remembered Arthur’s life insurance policy for $25,000, with double indemnity for-
“No.” She couldn’t seem to breathe. She struggled to her feet and walked into the kitchen numbly. Something cold pressed at her skull as she removed the button unit from the wastebasket. There were no nails or screws visible. She couldn’t see how it was put together.
Abruptly, she began to smash it on the sink edge, pounding it harder and harder, until the wood split. She pulled the sides apart, cutting her fingers without noticing. There were no transistors in the box, no wires or tubes. The box was empty.
She whirled with a gasp as the telephone rang. Stumbling into the living room, she picked up the receiver.
“Mrs. Lewis?” Mr. Steward asked.
It wasn’t her voice shrieking so; it couldn’t be. “You said I wouldn’t know the one that died!”
“My dear lady,” Mr. Steward said, “do you really think you knew your husband?”
It’s a strikingly memorable story, and perhaps its best quality is also, in regards to film adaptation, its biggest problem: the restraint with which Matheson writes. Consider what he doesn’t tell us; we don’t learn the intent of the organization behind the contraption or the button; we’re never given much in the way of background or description of the story’s closest thing to an antagonist, Mr. Steward; and we’re certainly not provided any explanation as to how Arthur’s death is orchestrated or what nefarious, possibly supernatural forces are at work. All Matheson gives us is a mirror of the same troubling awareness his characters are grappling with — that forces they cannot possibly understand are at work in the background of their lives. “Button, Button” does what all the great works of the short form do: it gives the reader a sense of a larger world.
The larger, imagined world can be used, figuratively speaking, for both good and evil, though. I’d argue the good is to be found in the sometimes nameless, occasionally sleep-depriving consideration that results from reading a story like this, while the proverbial bad comes from people who decide there’s money to be made in committing to film their answers to questions Matheson probably meant to be rhetorical.
Which brings us to The Box, the 2009 adaptation of “Button, Button.” I won’t harp opportunistically on the casting missteps (though I could, because did you realize Cameron Diaz is in this movie dear God), but there’s a mistaken approach at work here — one that illuminates the precise problem in modern filmmakers adapting Richard Matheson’s writing.
They want to tell us everything.
Whereas the source material short story derives much of its power from the sense it creates of normal people rendered pawns in a mysterious, inexplicable game, The Box explains, helpfully, that the machine delivered to Arthur and Norma’s doorstep is a means of testing the morality of humans.
“Okay, we knew that,” you’re saying. “That’s pretty much what the short story is implying.”
Yes, but DID YOU KNOW IT’S A TEST CONCOCTED BY ALIENS THAT CONTROL LIGHTNING?
“…oh,” you’re murmuring.
It’s not sufficient, you see, for the creators of The Box to hint at dark forces beyond our understanding up to no good. For the purposes of a movie, they implicitly argue, implication and suggestion are not good enough. Our villains need a big, scary plan, and an origin story, and they need a larger plot, and you better goddamn believe they need some CGI to be the whipped cream on top. Here you go.
Let’s not waste time cataloging how few of those things are even close to included in the source material (another spoiler: NONE). Adaptations are precisely that — reimaginings of preexisting material, often shaped and expanded for the purposes of a particular project. The problem here, though, isn’t that someone dared to alter Matheson’s material; it’s that they approached a narrative that works in large part because of suspenseful atmosphere and implication, and then totally abandoned both. The end result, as you can see, is somehow at once hokey and painfully dour.
It’s not just something dark at work, it’s aliens. It’s not just a suggested moral conflict, it’s actually a scientific test of morality conducted by aliens to determine if a species should be exterminated. It’s a distinctly Hollywood sort of affliction, one born of the ill-conceived notion that movies are better if they have something bigger, something cooler, something more impressive, something just a little bit more.
Now, of course, you can argue these ideas (aliens, lightning, CGI water coffins, CGI face scars, whatever CGI is used to make James Marsden so supernaturally attractive) are ones Matheson held in his head when he wrote the original story, but I’d have to argue pretty strongly that A) no and B) if he did, at least he had the artistic decency and good sense to let his evil lurk in the shadows instead of dragging it embarrassingly out into the bright light.
And therein is the problem. Matheson had the good sense, the near-unteachable instinct that told him when a story’s construction necessitated the appearance of a shadowy, foul terror — but also the courage to do the opposite, to leave us with unanswered questions. That degree of artistic discipline and restraint, though, isn’t particularly common in contemporary filmmaking. In fact, if popular genre fiction in this day and age creates lingering uncertainties instead of neatly concluded narratives with tidy endings, you almost have to expect a clumsy director to render it into some unintended horror show of green-screen hackery. To use a phrase that’d get me a flying elbow to the throat from Detective Stabler, you’re pretty much asking for it.
In The Box as well as the other Matheson adaptations I’ve mentioned that fall short of the mark, source material that artfully leaves work up to the reader’s imagination is abandoned in favor of whiz-bang film wizardry or action that is not actually particularly magical. It’s not intended to be magical, either, for magic baffles and confounds the brain, and leads it to try and make sense of the fantastic, the mysterious, the impossible. It’s not a special effect intended to supplement and expand a story — it’s a gimmick that does the imagining for you.
Can you blame Matheson for employing uncertainty and letting readers formulate their own shapeless boogeymen, whether moral or supernatural or otherwise? Of course not. His deep relationship with campy entertainment aside, even an imagination as vivid as Matheson’s couldn’t have possibly anticipated the nature of the myriad adaptations of his work to come both during his life and after; no author or artist can. It’s not their job to, either, because stories and movies and everything else they commit to paper or film or whatever medium is next aren’t static, finished things. Once they’re published or released, your art is no longer your own. Like it or not, the work belongs to everyone.
Which is, come to think of it, how reputations function, too. They’re not fixed, they’re fluid — from book to book, from film to film, from generation to generation, and most gallingly to me, from person to person, too. The truth is that I was struggling to speak about Matheson not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because the adaptations of his work are so bad I worried my fiancée, in this case, would never check him out again. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit for great writers — I was trying to decide what someone thought for them, before they experienced any of a particular writer’s work. I was, in other words, committing roughly the same sin as all those unmitigated trainwrecks of film adaptations, the lackadaisical imaginations at which I rolled my eyes and scoffed.
How about that for a twist?
Of course, I’d love for everyone to experience and understand the artists I find rewarding and enthralling the same way as me, but such a thing is impossible — not just because of Will Smith and CGI zombies, or Cameron Diaz and lightning aliens, or Hugh Jackman and silly jumping robots, but simply because we’ve all got different relationships with art, and varying ideas of what it should do and the role it should play. Who am I to act as the arbiter for people’s taste, or decide how anyone else should experience a writer? My job isn’t to make anyone’s mind up for them.
My fiancée was still staring at me expectantly. I thought about some of my favorite Matheson stories. Some scenes from adaptations flashed through my mind.
“Let me tell you about some amazingly bad lightning aliens, dear,” I said. “You are going to love this.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Florida is America’s Orient, meaning that it is a repository for the appetites and fantasies of people north and west, who colonize it every year, pine from afar for its sultry vistas, and/or pass judgement on its backwardness and savagery. It is a borderland, land of exotic flavors and sounds, Miami and Disney its Baghdad and Samarkand. In our fevered imaginings, it is both a seat of culture and a lawless zone. This characterization will sound tastelessly glib in light of the weekend’s events, but on Sunday I saw so many pixels spilled in some variation of “Well, Florida,” and “What do you expect?” When a terrible thing happens in Florida, whether it has to do with guns or voting or mangled faces, there is a broad Internet consensus that Florida is fucked up in some unique way at odds with the rest of our highly civilized nation — that Florida is somehow Other.
The latter aspect of our Florida fantasies are wrought in the newspaper and immortalized in fiction; in The New Yorker of June 10, Adam Gopnik diagrammed the noble chain of the Florida crime novel, a lineage from John D. MacDonald, to Elmore Leonard, to Dave Barry, and finally to the extraordinarily popular Carl Hiaasen. Gopnik calls this kind of novel “Florida glare,” a corollary of the noir novel and one representing America’s spiritual and aesthetic evolution, Gopnik concludes, from “night cities of sinister conspiracies to a sunlit country of grotesque coincidences.”
I read Gopnik’s essay while I was making my way through and struggling to understand the style of Charlie Smith’s new novel, Men in Miami Hotels. Charlie Smith is patently not in the tradition of Florida glare, but, as the novelist Steve Glassman points out in a quotation in Gopnik’s piece: “There are few first-rate writers in Florida who aren’t crime writers.” Although Smith is not from Florida (he’s from Georgia, which hardly makes him Ingres in my Orientalist theory but is worth noting nonetheless), he seems to write an awful lot about Florida, and Men in Miami Hotels is certainly a novel about crime.
At the start of Smith’s novel, you’re in hometown territory, which is obligated by the laws of life and literature to be full of jus’ folks and their foibles. A man named Cot Sims comes back to Key West to see his mother. The reason for Cot’s homecoming might be taken from a Floridian vignette of Lake Woebegone Days: his mama’s house was knocked off its pins during a hurricane and declared uninhabitable by the civic notables; to protect her turf she takes up residence beneath it.
Within a page he meets Jackie Bivins, “a local itinerant who’s sitting on the front steps,” and declines the invitation of Mrs. Coldwell for a slice of butterfly cake. The mayor, a man named Smushy, offers Cot a “perfunctory hello,” as they both arrive to talk with Marcella, the town lawyer. When some unknown assailant, page three, careens into the story only long enough to punch Marcella in the face and knock her off her pins, I felt a deep twitch in my inner ear, as the kind of book I thought I was reading, with butterfly cake and homecomings and folks, became something I didn’t quite recognize.
Within a few more pages, a face-punch to a woman who takes it in stride seems a minimal disruption in the general scheme of things, a low-key introduction to the Criminal Element that will quickly proliferate in the text. Cot works for a mafioso svengali back in sinister Miami; despite his long tenure as a working gangster in this man Albertson’s employ, Cot seems to have a hard time holding on to money. To fix the problem of his mother’s house, Cot steals his master’s emeralds and passes them off to his best friend, a beloved local transgender lounge singer who lasts less than a chapter with the emeralds in hand. The revelation of Cot’s theft sets in motion a strict automatic justice; men begin coming from Miami, and coming and coming and coming, to mete out retribution for Cot’s wrongs.
Men in Miami Hotels is a crime novel, but one in which the criminal “wishes he was sitting in the Caribe Diner in south Miami eating eggs scrambled with shrimp and reading Virgil.” His boss Albertson has “a wide, slightly pock-marked face…that seems just barely to conceal a figuration of the spirit, a domesticity and warmth, that has never been known to come fully to the surface.” Cot is the spiritual husband of Marcella, a beautiful hard case who smells like lemons and tastes like mango and who is married to Ordell, he of “hair like the mournful pelt of a just extinguished species.” All of these people have murder in their hearts.
I have come to hate the word “lyrical,” because people use it about books the way people use “stunning” about a woman in her wedding dress, to the extent that it similarly feels obligatory (and misapplied in enough cases that when it’s true it rings false). Unfortunately, excising the word makes me feel bereft in some circumstances. Men in Miami Hotels is lyrical in that it is beautiful and that it is composed by a person with high poetic sensibilities. Charlie Smith is a prolific poet; not only is his writing poetic, his characters are all poets in spirit if not occupation.
I was so taken with the exuberant word-drunk style of this novel that I read an earlier one by the author, Three Delays, which also has crime, but is more about people whose lives are in disarray. Smith’s style is stylish enough that I was prepared initially to square myself against it. In the end I was too interested in the unexpected plot, too surprised by his characters, to taken with his turns of phrase, to reject him. I was also too seduced by the island sounds and scent of the coastal foliage, the softer, lovelier side of the Orientalist gaze.
In Gopnik’s article, the aforementioned Steve Glassman is quoted a second time: “When you have two characters in a Florida novel you really have three: a man, a woman, and the weather.” In Smith’s novel, there’s weather, but there are also trees and food. My Lord, does Smith write a seductive travelogue. The coral dust roads are lined with Casuarina, ficus, poinciana, Egyptian date palms, hibiscus, bahia grass. There are pounds of pink, sweet-smelling shrimp and dorado filets and snapper salad. Smith’s characters drink salted coffee and peel little guavas and squeeze lemon in their mouths; they buy cold cans of tea and fix trays of gin and tonics and make sandwiches with peanut butter and papaya. When Cot arrives in Cuba for the denouement, it smells like raw coriander and peppers.
For the Orientalist gazing from clammy San Francisco, Smith makes it feel almost as though it would be worth risking his coterie of gangsters to go and drink rum drinks on galleries constructed as if specifically for people to enjoy rum drinks on them. Shit is sensual.
Shit is sensual, but inexorable. Men in Miami Hotels depicts a world of consequences, not coincidences, and the plot reminded me of nothing so much as No Country for Old Men, which I hesitate to mention for fear of really fundamental spoilers. Smith’s writing style couldn’t be further from McCarthy’s (what the inimitable James Wood calls “Blood Fustian”), but the plot runs on very similar lines. Fateful choice, love, betrayal, death, death, death.
Gopnik faces Florida full-on; he finds the terror and chaos of America at large in the branch of crime writing represented by Florida Glare. Men in Miami Hotels has very little in common with the output of Carl Hiaasen; it’s a slightly old-fashioned work that never bothered to evolve along with its beefcake Florida peers. Its murders don’t seem to have much to do with the newspaper, at least not this week — for all its death and disaster, this novel is mercifully shaded from Florida glare by some kind of attractive scented tree.
Reading Three Delays, I kept trying to put a finger on Charlie Smith’s general tenor and I kept coming back to “Disordered Lives of the Poets.” Men in Miami Hotels wants a pigeonhole, but its name eludes me. Lapsarian Lyric? Casuarina Crime? Key Noir? Florientalism? (James Wood would think of something good.)
I don’t know it is, exactly, but I know that I like it.
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.
As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life.
Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss’ tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers’ responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary.
Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died.
RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this?
DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it’s linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence.
RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue.
DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly.
RB: What is the benefit?
DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It’s funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic.
RB: Isn’t that the point?
DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person’s flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if —
RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter.
DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great.
RB: Even handling it well —
DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it’s prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s —
DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it’s still a short book.
RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles?
DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way.
RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward?
DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it’s not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that.
RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction?
DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up.
RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters —
DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties.
RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs]
DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it’s not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know.
RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations —
DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book.
RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention.
DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it’s easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care.
RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin.
DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book.
RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing.
DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation.
RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it.
RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach.
DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny.
RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it.
DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf.
RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things —
DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.”
RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student.
DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else.
RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs].
DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest.
RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details?
DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing.
RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial —
DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country.
RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?”
DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government?
RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain.
DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing —
RB: — once in his life.
DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me.” Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power.
RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics.
DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank.
RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience.
DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about.
RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book.
DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond.
RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say?
DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It’s exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me —
RB: He has his own story.
DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it’s better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate.
RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise.
DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist.
RB: The world’s foremost authority —
DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily.
RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure.
DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something.
RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again.
DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t.
RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know?
DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning?
RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain.
DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active.
RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this?
DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction.
RB: Have you started the next novel?
DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with.
RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke?
DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying.
DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act.
RB: You use novels in your courses.
DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best.
RB: Glorious failures?
DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots.
RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it?
DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like.
RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited.
DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better.
RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake.
DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise.
RB: How well-read are your students?
DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much.
RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer?
DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it.
RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers?
DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs.
RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so?
DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is.
RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book?
DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish.
RB: And what are the rest doing?
DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader.
RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers.
DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck.
RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit.
DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted.
RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop.
DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough.
RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?”
RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007.
DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter.
RB: That’s an interesting place. They have —
DS: — Peter Carey —
RB: — Colum McCann.
DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good.
RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant.
DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes.
RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic.
DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while.
RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off.
DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you.
RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain.
DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent.
RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance.
DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week —
RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different.
DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad.
RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it.
DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft.
RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel.
DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success.
RB: Don’t try this at home, kids.
RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy?
RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs]
DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it’s because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is.
RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one.
DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back.
DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse.
RB: Do you write reviews?
DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun.
RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise.
DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, “I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer?
RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted?
DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist.
RB: And you know this, how?
DS: I took a class from him and he said so.
RB: But was it on the dust jacket?
RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows?
DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it’s okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel.
RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality.
DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with.
RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out?
DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer —
RB: — and then you were sued —
DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk.
DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say.
RB: Sold insurance?
DS: I could have done something like that.
RB: A trader or speculator?
DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss —
RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up.
DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5.
RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad?
DS: A lot. The book is short —
DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck.
RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit.
DS: Thank you so much for having me back.
RB: My pleasure.
Image credit: Robert Birnbaum