Poetics of Work

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The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

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In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point. Suddenly, driving furiously away from it all—from her kids, from her husband, from her so-called quaint life outside the city—debut novelist Makenna Goodman gives us glimpses of Alma’s frustrations in a series of remembered vignettes: Her stress in attending collegiate dinner parties, her struggle to pursue a creative career in the face of monetary risk, and her solitude in living apart from society. It is a novel that bears witness to a blearing spiral of self-doubt.

Further complicating the matter, Alma has taken to obsessing over the social media posts of the a woman named Celeste. Celeste is a single-mother of three living in Brooklyn. She is a potter. She bakes. She cooks. She does yoga and meditation. She has impeccable taste, beautiful yet understated fashion sense, and a seemingly limitless well of patience for her children. Initially, Alma revels in the parallels she sees between herself and Celeste. But when she realizes that Celeste has somehow managed to avoid the darkness, Alma’s loneliness, solitude, the ever-evolving bouts of anxiety increase and her obsession intensifies. If only she could meet Celeste, talk with her, become a part of her life, then maybe she could find the key to righting her own existence.

The Shame is a sharp, poetic debut. It touches on motherhood, marriage, creative careers, and social media obsessions in a unique and thoroughly engaging way. We are in the car with Alma, speeding away from her former life. But Goodman also puts us in Alma’s head, as she grapples with each reminiscence and memory, and in her heart, as she works to sort everything out that is haunting and hurting her, everything riddling her with apprehension and doubt. Shame and self-loathing have found an honest, witty, and absolutely relatable ride in The Shame.

The Millions: Let’s start with the idea of shame. What does that word mean to you, what does it mean to Alma, and how did it come to be the title?

Makenna Goodman: It’s hard to pinpoint what one word means to me, because words hold within them such big concepts, and it depends on the context in which it’s being used. Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing. For Alma, I suppose it means the moment of realizing she is inextricable from a system that she thought she was morally above, that her ethical choices had liberated her from being complicit in. But I suppose I could have called the book many things, and I had a hard time titling it. One afternoon, I was on the phone with my friend, the writer Sheila Heti, and we were talking about the embarrassing truths about what we were looking at on the Internet at that moment. I said, it’s just “the shame, the shame, the shame” and she was like, you should just call the book that. It felt right. But titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.

TM: I love that. Speaking of Sheila Heti, can I assume that her book Motherhood is one that resonates with you?

MG: Definitely, everything she’s written. I find her fiction and nonfiction to veer so beautifully into philosophy; she constantly is transgressing both formally and stylistically. Even though Motherhood was a book about, ultimately, not having children, it could easily be seen as a treatise on art and ethics, if the critical media could see past the word “mother” or its well-trod categorical biases.

TM: What started you writing this novel? What was its genesis?

MG: I had just had my second child and was on leave from work. There was a lot of time to think, but my thinking was blurred by lack of sleep. I would take these long walks up our dirt road with my daughter asleep against my chest. It was around that time I read a book of Jungian psychoanalytic theory from the 1980s that deconstructed the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche; it suggested that each character in the myth was, in fact, a different aspect of an “archetypal” woman—whatever that means. But when I started to consider that Eros could be characterized as something other than the god of love, as, say, a woman’s animas, I began to see that it was possible to interpret everything in life as some kind of projection of the “main character,” and that stories can be re-characterized by those who interpret them based on their own projections. It allowed me to have this kind of narrative distance on social structures I found myself either entrenched in or critical of, and I came up with a loose storyline as a kind of container. And from that story, I began to play with how theory and narrative can allow for a rendition of “truth.”

TM: That notion of a “rendition of truth” is really interesting, especially considering Alma’s contention both with her own truth and with that of her high-brow doppelgänger, Celeste. In terms of our outside influences, do you think we all have that kind of level-up influencer who wreaks havoc with our sense of self?

MG: I think we all engage with projection, which manifests differently depending on the person. It’s easy to say something is a cultural phenomenon and try to come up with a valid theory of why. For example, the Internet is obviously a space that has affected the way our brain works, and, as a result, our subconscious. But to say “we all have our influencer” assumes everyone uses the Internet in the same way. I do think when humans search for meaning, the search in and of itself is telling. When you go into the abyss of the Internet to find a sense of truth or comfort, for example, answers seem to instantly appear. But we are curating the space just as it is being curated by algorithms on what we view, which calculate our desires based on where our eyes rest for any significant amount of time. Our sense of self is being made and remade with our permission, and as such our projections are manifested, because they multiply, and then the whole “Internet” seems to be speaking directly to our individual quests. What is “real” and what is “self” might be changing rapidly, yet how can we determine what is true about either?

TM: When Alma does finally reach out to Celeste, in search of her own sense of self, she phrases it as a chance to “fuck with fate a little.” Between fate and free will, where does Alma exist?

MG: I’d say she exists between fate and free will to the same degree anyone does—waffling between the two. Free will is entirely subjective, though, obviously. Who has the right to it? Who is granted it and at what rate compared to others? And fate also holds a mythology of inevitability, the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” which could be interpreted in various ways. Either as a kind of critical systems analysis—‘it’s a game and it’s rigged’—or something more spiritual. For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life. She’s given Celeste power over her story—even though Alma’s creating the story, creating Celeste to a degree, she’s projected the idea of free will or fate onto something other than herself. And once she reclaims the narrative from the spiraling path it’s on, what will she do with it? What comes next? In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.

TM: In the end, would you say the novel concludes with a resonating sense of freedom, escape, or something else entirely?

MG: I think there is a palpable sense of awareness. An acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life? There’s no neat bow, no solution, just new perspectives on patterns. My hope is that the book asserts itself as a cautionary tale, less a moralistic assertion, although there is a moral question central to it all. It is less about the choice Alma makes at the end, and more how she’ll interpret it in the context of her larger beliefs about the world. Ultimately, the book lays out an exercise for her, a mental and emotional exercise, the kind of thing that could happen in the course of one day in anyone’s life, in various ways. How we choose to reprogram our perspectives. How we might rewrite them. I like the idea of control, giving the tools back to readers, to see engaging in literature as a practice in interpretation of our own consciousness. If books can offer that freedom from the algorithmic status quo, then perhaps there’s hope for art yet.

TM: Absolutely. Well said. And speaking of books and hope, what recent releases have stirred or inspired you?

MG: Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, is an unbelievable book. Her writing feels so fresh and different, and I have loved everything that’s been translated into English thus far. Another book I loved recently was Noemi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work. And this isn’t a new release, but I recently read and loved Cristina Rivera Garxa’s The Iliac Crest. There are many others!

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