Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer — and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists — he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.)
It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story — both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style — about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length — we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read.
My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows.
The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics.
Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am.
TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book.
DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part.
TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first.
DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books.
TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people?
DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel — of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point.
TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety.
DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy.
TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it?
DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form — people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself.
TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more?
DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led.
TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older?
DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there.
TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe — the reality of climate change, for instance — something that preoccupies you as you get older?
DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place.
TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work?
DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since.
TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure.
DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air.
TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book.
DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked.
[Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.
Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.
Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.
Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.
Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.
Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.
This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.
If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.
The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.
The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.
A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
In local parlance, a “free ride” means riding New Jersey Transit without buying a ticket. For years, that trick was easiest on the Morris-Essex line, with the double-decker trains going westbound from New York City. A free ride from Newark Broad Street to Dover was possible on the 8:19 pm train, using the following method. Step 1: enter the train in the midst of a crowd, far from a conductor. Step 2: move two cars forward. Don’t stop to peek at someone’s text, and don’t settle for an empty three-seater with a fresh copy of The New York Post. Step 3: choose a car with a clean-check: when the conductor brushes through upon boarding, collecting tickets but not clipping, giving receipts but sticking no slip in the flaps above seats. Step 4: Catch an open spot in a two-seater; pencil in hand with an open book is the best disguise. If an overzealous conductor somehow reaches your car, avoid eye contact. If I were caught, this would be my Step 5: show the conductor my monthly pass, apologize, and explain that I am a fiction writer.
I would never steal a free ride, but would gladly accept one if New Jersey Transit, or Amtrak, offered. I am not the only rider willing to accept that gift. Consider the social media frenzy that erupted when writers recently discovered Amtrak’s free writing residencies. The Wire’s coverage of the story’s background was the single-most shared literary link I’d ever seen. What writer, laptop on a folded-down food tray, or notebook on knee, doesn’t wish they could spend hours drafting on those rails? Dream evolved into reality because of a December 2013 PEN America interview with novelist Alexander Chee, where he says trains are his favorite place to write: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Jessica Gross read Chee’s interview and tweeted her own desire for such a residency. Amtrak offered her a free “test run.” She accepted, and took a round trip on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago: “thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four, with delays.” At The Paris Review, her romantic description of that residency’s spartan, utilitarian space would entice any writer interested in solitude: a 3’ 6” by 6’ 8” sleeper cabin with a window, “two plush seats,” a sliding, chessboard-topped table, a sink, cups, towels, soap, and curtains that can be drawn over two windows facing the corridor. As Gross notes, “I’m only here for the journey.” She was “ensconced” in order to write.
Gross shares how other writers love the schedule of train travel: “Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as ‘suspended impregnable time,’ combined with ‘dreamy’ forward motion: ‘like a mantra, it greases the brain.’” Even writing about writing on trains feels natural. Gross refers to Emily St. John Mandel’s fine essay here at The Millions, which describes a very different type of train: the New York City subway system. There she “scrawl[ed] fragments” of her third novel on “folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book” as her desk. Mandel notes that reading is ubiquitous on the subway, but writing is rare. That’s understandable. Subways are about connections and changes, quick closing doors and an absence of conductors roaming the cars. Trains are longer commitments, more conducive to settling into one’s seat, tuning out, and letting the steady ride transport the mind.
I have done my fair share of writing on trains, but prefer them as places to read. My train reading is associative: one book leads into another. Lately I’ve been riding the train most often in summers: hour-plus routes that begin in Netcong and Dover and end at the Broad Street, Newark station. I teach a sport literature course at Rutgers-Newark that runs July through August, so one such train-reading litany began with Don DeLillo’s End Zone. The refrain of “hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody” complimented the repetition of my ride: run, slow, stop, start. End Zone sent me to a more recent DeLillo, Point Omega, which is a thinner read, but more directly engages the evolutionary theories of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My edition of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man fell apart when I reached page 36, which ends with this sentence: “In such a vision man is seen not as a static centre of the world — as he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer.” I had to reach under the seat in front of me to grab the pages that broke from the bitter spine.
Teilhard’s thought is recursive, so I then chose to re-read On Being Blue, William Gass’s 1976 treatise on that color, emotion, and concept: “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects.” Gass sent me to The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Was there ever a writer more syntactically appropriate for the train? “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story” might be inscrutable, but it is still a literary ride. I admit to not finishing Stein’s collection, and other books, that I begin on the train. My relationships with books might last for an entire afternoon, one half of a round trip, or only between stops. Stein’s wordplay inspired me to revisit Patrick Madden’s excellent essay collection, Quotidiana. His short but packed essays are a perfect fit for trains. One essay, “Remember Death,” moves from the band Rush to Montaigne to Mr. Lamb (one of Madden’s high school English teachers that I also had — we are from the same hometown) to Sts. Jerome and Anthony. I moved from the breadth of an essay collection to the depth of a memoir: Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler, which now reads like an elegy for his late father. Butler’s labyrinthine prose made the train car feel comfortably claustrophobic.
After a helping of non-fiction, I longed for the escape of fiction again. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is never so romantic and heartbreaking as when it is read on a train. The longing in Paul Lisicky’s Lawnboy felt perfectly metered across multiple stops, and painfully final when the train pulled into the yard at Dover, out of service. I often return to the underappreciated James Alan McPherson when thinking writers, trains, and endings. McPherson worked as a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad in 1962. Then came Harvard Law School and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but a life on the rails never left him. He edited Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture with poet Miller Williams, and also wrote two train-related stories, “On Trains,” and my favorite, “A Solo Song: For Doc, ” an elder dining-car waiter’s advice to a new hire. These words might have been spoken to McPherson himself: “There’ll always be summer stuff like you, but the big men, the big trains, are dying every day and everybody can see it. And nobody but us who are dying with them gives a damn.”
I prefer prose to poetry on the train, but there’s a place for verse in transit. Tyehimba Jess’s development of persona in Leadbelly metaphorically matches the transformative aspect of travel, the possibility that we might be reborn in a new place. I’ve read and prepared reviews for Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker, Fables by Sarah Goldstein, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon, Copperhead by Rachel Richardson, and browsed poems in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and Poetry. My favorite single poem to discover on the train is, coincidentally, “Love Train” by Tomás Q. Morín. I first heard it discussed in a Poetry magazine podcast, but read the full poem on the actual page. A woman asks for “Earl Grey cookies / sandwiched around buttercream or marshmallows / made of chocolate,” but her husband returns from the dining car with his “bowl brimming with pretzels, / the snack you wanted least.” That’s not the only problem: “When I came bearing the salted and twisted news, / the room was empty but for a heel.” He’s forgotten their room number on the train, so he opens every door “marked with threes and eights,” waking strangers “like a beggar, no, an angel, / a begging angel who has written on his heart / WILL WORK FOR LOVE.” Frustrated, all he finds are “row upon row of couples asleep,” or riders “staring out the windows like zombies,” unsure what to do “once the newspaper is well-thumbed, / the tea has gone cold, and the conversation is dead.” He finally discovers his wife “in a cafe / in a city we didn’t know, where she is “slowly eat[ing] / a dish of whipped cream and bananas.” Hearts broken and healed, in transit.
At The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara wonders what will happen when the romantic excitement for Amtrak’s residencies subsides, and we get down to dollars and cents. She also makes a smart comparison with David Foster Wallace’s sideways glance at Frank Conroy’s “essaymercial,” “My Celebrity Cruise, or ‘All this and a Tan, Too,’” which Conroy was paid to write. Amtrak’s social-media director, Julia Quinn, told Vara these writer residences are “the most organic form of advertising for us — different people on our trains and exposing their audience to what long-distance travel is like.” The key word here is audience: “We are a for-profit organization, so we are definitely determining when the best time is to send these people. I’m not going to send all of the residents in May, June, and July during our peak system, when we could be selling those tickets.” No one expects Amtrak to offer these residences without any strings, and certainly writers are not the demographic that needs charity the most. But this might be a good time to dull the cynical blade and embrace optimism. I hope Amtrak develops these introductory residencies into a full program, and that these writers are inspired to create new work, breathe life into old drafts, and maybe even enjoy some good reading.
Image via p_x_g/Flickr
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
The only footnotes worth reading these days are the ones written by David Foster Wallace. Wallace made the marginalized fine print purr with energy. The typical Wallace footnote is something of a trick. It begins with what appear to be functional intentions before morphing into a linguistic stunt delivered with a sweet mixture of wit and tenderness. When it’s over (and that
can take a while — sometimes pages in 7-pt font), a single Wallace footnote creates shockwaves that reduce the dominant text, no matter how brilliant, to an afterthought.
I’m speculating here, but I’m fairly certain those footnotes probably got Wallace laid. A lot. D.T. Max’s recent (and wonderful) biography is littered with anecdotes documenting the writer’s opportunistic carnality. We learn, for one, that on a fall afternoon, making his way across the
quadrangle of Amherst College, Wallace turned to a friend and noted how “the smell of cunt was in the air.” Seriously. Cunt. Here was this off-the-charts brilliant man, a charming wordsmith who used words such as priapic and supperate as if they were the stuff of bathroom graffiti, reducing garden-variety lust to a word so juvenile in its offensiveness that most decent folk just refer to it, under duress, as “the c-word.”
Say what you will about propriety, but such language bespeaks drive. My introductory claim here is thus that Wallace’s success with women — however fleeting and detached and cold — had something to do with those footnotes. Again, I’m aware that this sounds sort of ridiculous. But think about, as a reader, how a truly good footnote can rivet you to the page and transport you to an exotic fantasyland. It’s the verbal equivalent of wink and a nod, a secret invitation to look under the hood. Wallace footnotes are an exclusive invitation to connect over something more exciting than whatever’s happening above, at that moment, in the conventional living room of common text where words make small talk. It is, alas, an aphrodisiac.
I’m a professional historian. I’m indoctrinated, not to mention professionally obligated, to wonk out on footnotes. But, after two years of studying Wallace’s trail of gems, I’ve stopped reading historical footnotes. Comparatively speaking, they’re beyond painful, about as sexy as grandma jeans, and — as a direct result — a collective foreshadowing of my profession’s slow demise. I don’t mean to sound dramatic here. But I do mean to be clear and confessional and might as well get to it:
I’ve not only stopped reading historical footnotes but, due to Wallace’s footnotes, I’ve stopped reading all academic history. Having been seduced by a real writer’s footnotes, I just can’t do it anymore. I’m well aware that there are very sensible and sober reasons for including historical footnotes, especially when you are writing about, as they are in the current issue of The American Historical Review, “the contingencies of postcolonial history-writing.” I get it. But the critical if reductive fact of the matter is that no historian in the history of writing history was writing history in order to get laid. And that’s ultimately why, I’m afraid, we’re history. Our time has come.
For me, an inveterate novel reader, this conclusion has been marinating for a while. Many novels that I’ve been reading over the past few years — Hilary Mantel notwithstanding — generally express a lingering hostility toward my profession, or at least hostility to what the profession
refuses to aspire to: telling accurate and relevant and entertaining stories about the past with such skill that readers want to sleep with you.
My reading journal alone brims with novelistic expressions of scorn for my trade. There’s Bud’s plea to Lit to cease talking about the past in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. He says, “Come on, fuck this shit. What do you care about history? I thought we were friends.” Or there’s Don DeLillo’s time-obsessed narrator in Point Omega, declaring, “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture.” Or consider Julian Barnes’s character Finn, the precocious kid in The Sense of an Ending who, to further stoke the awe of his peers, utters oracular portents such as, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (And then he gets laid.) Add to the mix Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, in which Macaulay, the great historian of England, is casually dismissed as a guy “who just made it up after the event.” Such is the novelistic respect for historical thought and writing.
The disparagement of my profession in the pages of modern fiction doesn’t bother me at all. It shouldn’t. It can’t. It’s pretty accurate, for one. For another, it’s ultimately a kids’ gloves treatment. It doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the remarkable depth of the historian’s unmatched capacity to ask questions that evoke drool and then answer them with coma-inducing prose. I’m not exaggerating here. A professional historian (not like those successful amateurs who we simply hate for actually getting people to read history) can drag you into verbal ennui faster than an instruction manual for an Ikea bunk bed. The sad thing is that we were trained to do this. Indeed, we’re creative people dulled by the arbitrary and pinheaded imperatives of professional achievement. The sexy stimulus of storytelling has been leached out of us by comp exams and dissertation writing and Turabian. Wallace, who was smart enough to drop out of a PhD program in philosophy to keep his literary voice untainted, can write a footnote that makes you want to have sex. The historian can write about sex in a way that makes you want to read the footnotes. Who are you banking on for the future?
Thing is, we’re all — historians and novelists and essayists and poets — just weaving yarns. This is our common quest. Still, there’s something about the radically different conventions of narration and permissible flexibility of voice between professional historical writing and other forms of storytelling that turns out to be fatal for the future of history. Good novels make you want to seduce and frolic and celebrate and indulge. Good works of academic history to make you want to drink a vial of hemlock. Which is another way of saying that if novelists wanted to really go after professional historians they could mock us even higher up the ivory tower than we’ve already situated ourselves. Frankly, they should. We’ve earned our marginalization. We’ve practically begged for it: mock us.
Chances are we’ll be too far up to hear you. In fact, it’s almost as if we’ve purposely gone against the grain of what works narratively, detaching ourselves from hoi polloi while posing as their champions. In the nineteenth-century you had historians like Frances Parkman telling heroic and tragic tales about explorers and adventures and nation building and Indian fighting. It was exceptional stuff (even if it was exceptionalism at its worst). If a professional historian wrote like Parkman today he’d be vilified for his attention to simple-minded storytelling and failure to analyze, to deconstruct, to complicate, to . . . ugh! . . .contextualize. Today, all the drive to be sexy has been neutralized by context. F. Scott wrote to win over Zelda. Historians write for tenure. It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” lamented how “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly.” He complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” He must have had historians in mind.
Here’s what I would suggest that every young PhD student in history currently begin doing (besides preparing yourself for not getting a job): a) skim works of history but study novels; b) never use the words complicate, contexualize, limn, framework, or rich (as in “The driving analytic motivation is to alternately complicate and contextualize the prevalent effort to limn the rich territory between fiction and fact.”); and c) read Wallace’s footnotes, paying attention to how beautifully he’s trying to seduce you. In essence, no matter what your topic is, no matter how obscure or geeky or peripheral, write as if you were telling a story to win over a romantic interest. To be blunt: write as if you were trying to get laid. You most likely won’t, but at least you will have left behind something useful.
Image via Nick Douglass/Flickr
It’s rare for a writer of only two novels to get the critical acclaim bestowed upon Rachel Kushner. In 2005, her debut novel Telex From Cuba, about the Cuban revolution, landed the cover of The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second novel The Flamethrowers, published earlier this year, tells a sweeping story about the New York art world during the Italian factory protests of the 1970s. Both her novels are stylish and rigorously intelligent, as she describes characters and nations alike on the brink of collapse. She spoke with me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where, she says, her neighbors think she’s “a housewife who doesn’t sweep her porch enough.”
The Millions: Both of your novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, deal explicitly with foreign politics. What is your relationship as an American novelist to political responsibility?
Rachel Kushner: I don’t see the artist as necessarily political. I think if a novel is polemical, it’s prevented from doing its transcendent work as art. If it’s successful, it transcends the political. That said, you’re correct in pointing out that both novels deal with political material, but I think there’s a deep tradition of this inside of storytelling. If you look at the novels of Balzac and Victor Hugo, and even the moderns — Proust, Céline, to name favorites — the characters are always people situated inside the processes and effects of history. I guess I’m a writer who is interested in the way that the world and historical events and processes pressure characters, and the way characters interrelate and situate themselves in their social milieu, political milieu, and so forth. And whether I’m writing something contemporary or in the past does not change this — it’s an outlook. A work of art can have a political emanation to it, but it cannot be the thrust or reducible point of the work.
TM: For the Italian factory workers in The Flamethrowers, political protest is always potential for imprisonment. Meanwhile in America, what’s most at stake for artists appears to be whether or not they’ll get represented by a gallery. What do you think is politically at stake (if anything) for American artists today? Is it the same for writers?
RK: The stakes in politics and art are obviously different. There is plenty at stake for writers and artists, politically, but as I said above, art, in my opinion, cannot be polemical. It can’t be reduced to political stakes. But by making art, the writer/poet/artist is choosing to do something special, which can possibly, I mean perhaps, speak outside the logical of the marketplace.
About the artist just, you know, wanting a good gallery, in a sense I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies, or about these kind of esoteric and febrile conceptual debates. But we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in a direct competition with each other, where one must be prioritized, and the other overshadowed or shamed for its insignificance. Anyhow, there may be many lines of connection between culture and questions of governance, of capitalism, violence, and so forth, that are worth exploring by putting those two different worlds of art and politics in play, side by side.
TM: Your novel feels very rooted in today’s world, largely because of the way the Italian protests hover over the lives of your American characters in the way that the Arab Spring does so for Americans today. How do you think the Italian protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s compare to the Arab Spring?
RK: When I was writing The Flamethrowers it wasn’t just the Arab Spring that loomed but Occupy, and aunt-austerity protests all over Europe and in Greece. Looting in London. There was a lot happening in the world, and the world is what I respond to, even if I am writing about Italy and New York in the 1970s. But those are really difficult things to compare, the Arab Spring, or so-called Spring, and the Autonomist movement in Italy in the 1970s. In Italy, there were various circles of philosophers who were writing political/theoretical texts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what they were writing, along a spectrum of militancy, streamed into and joined with a rejection of bourgeois values that occurred among very disparate groups of people, students, factory workers, and people from the south who were something like a sub-proletariat group. The movement had to do with, of course, history, and the economy, factory politics, a failed nationalism, and the culture of the time. I guess in merging various interest groups it does share something with what happened in Tahrir Square [in Egypt]. Some of the more striking arguments about why the revolution was successful — to the degree that it overthrew Mubarak — have been about the heterogeneity of the population that occupied the Square: all different kinds of people rejected the Egyptian state. In this sense something similar perhaps occurred in Italy, except it did not result in a revolution. The most significant gain from the Autonomist movement has probably been in the form of advances for women. Which might make it quite different from what ends up happening in Egypt.
TM: Reno, of the novel The Flamethrowers, is hyper aware of her surroundings in the immediate present, yet she continually falls in love with the people, cities, and art around her in a way that has nothing to do with her naiveté. What is it about Reno that makes her so trusting?
RK: I think that some people have no other choice than to be open; it’s just an instinctual manner of proceeding. Perhaps this is a fundamental division among people, a tendency to react to people and ideas and works of art without suspicion, a way of submitting oneself fully to other people’s codes, beliefs, modes of being, in order to understand them, and to have an experience. I think of it as a kind of enchantment with the world, rather than as naiveté, and to be honest, it’s an orientation that I relate to, personally.
TM: James Wood compared your novel to Flaubert, who’s sort of credited as the father of modern realism. Your prose is realistic in the sense that it’s grounded in physical detail, though what happens in the novel isn’t always “true.” Do you consider yourself as working in a realist tradition?
RK: I am still mulling the fact that Flaubert created a seminal mode of realism (emulated by most writers since), in order to skewer bourgeois values (a topic only taken up by some). I am also still grappling with the hallucinogenic effect of Salammbo. In any case, I probably do hew to certain key markers of realism. I don’t strive to create a sense of un-reality, and in that, I guess, I tend toward something that some people would call realism. But I don’t call it realism. I wonder, is Marguerite Duras a realist writer? In a way, yes? But what does that say about the category?
To satisfy my own instincts, I need to have a form that allows me to incorporate writing that runs the spectrum between detailed and accurate renderings of spaces, places, moments that seem “real,” and a kind of poetic density or oddity. I like to be able to shift tones, and densities. I see the narrative strands of my own novel — the opening sequence of with Valera, the sequences in which other characters speak, and the first person narrator as simply a recording witness — all as having different densities. I’m interested in having a narrative through-line, but also in finding mischievous ways of disrupting that through-line. But I don’t know if that’s realism, or not. The term doesn’t enter my mind as something I need to either adhere to or disobey.
TM: In addition to writing two acclaimed novels, you’ve also written for both BOMB Magazine and Artforum, which gave you an intimate understanding of both the contemporary worlds of art and literature. How do you think they compare with one another?
RK: The truth is I know the art world much better than I know the “literary world” — which, well, what is that? The publishing world? I don’t circulate in a social sphere of novelists, so much. But more importantly, I wish there were more intellectual crossover between the worlds of art and literature, which, historically, had been the case.
If I have to compare, well, the art world is obviously more self-referential, in that you can’t really participate in the conversation of contemporary art unless you’re inside the discourse. Literature is not self-referential in the same way at all. Which makes it more open, less exclusive, but is deriving from the fact that it’s a more conservative and rigid form. They’re almost completely different. The art world has a lively and dynamic social component to it, whereas the publishing world is, er, not that dynamic of a place, and it doesn’t have to be, it’s not motored the same way. There are no biennials, and there isn’t an obscene pile of money at stake. And finally, maybe writers are less open to the culture than artists for some reason. Artists truck in culture. I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case with writers. Some are following the culture, of course, and their work is in response. But there are also these quiet psychological insights that writers pursue, which are different.
TM: What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in American fiction right now?
RK: I hope for a lot of possibilities with American fiction. There are some writers I really love. I was just on a panel the other night with Rivka Galchen and Hari Kunzru (who is not American, but he lives in New York City), and those are two writers I admire. Also Salvatore Scibona, whose novel The End stands out for me as a rare work of beauty and complexity. I think Bret Easton Ellis is a great writer — a very different writer than myself — but one who will have been a really important stylist, a singular American writer. DeLillo continues to produce good work — I think Point Omega was a near-perfect novel. But in truth, I am not that knowledgeable about contemporary fiction. I read a lot of Europeans. Modernist ones. Among younger American writers, I read more poets. There are some smart and fearless and funny and insouciant poets out there. That’s maybe where the energy is for me right now.
For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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