Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which marks Martin Riker’s first book-length foray into fiction, is a book that I imagine has been simmering for a long time, and one that likely has taken a back seat to Marty’s many other pursuits. As one of our most perceptive critics—I’ve made it a rule to read books he reviews favorably—and publishing do-it-alls (at Dalkey Archive and now, with his wife, novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton, at Dorothy, a Publishing Project), Marty has been one of the great champions of daring, innovative fiction. This, of course, leaves little time for other things.
And so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which is characteristically subtle, funny, and well-seasoned. To say it’s a novel about identity or parenthood or our collective fixation on television may be partially true, but as with all significant works of fiction, those descriptors may be in the ballpark but miss the game entirely. For the game, you’ve got to read the book.
The Millions: As I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I couldn’t help thinking of the television show Quantum Leap. The differences between the time-traveling, body-jumping hero of that show and the eponymous character of your novel are vast and in that gulf is a world of possibilities, which you mine to great effect. What is it about the trope of inhabiting another body or consciousness that appeals to you?
Martin Riker: I actually don’t know that show! In fact I’ll admit right out of the gate that even though the novel contains a whole narrative history of television programming, I don’t own a TV. Growing up I was a TV kid, not a book kid. In the eighties I loved network television with all my heart. But I stopped watching in the early nineties and didn’t look at screens at all for 10 or 15 years. Having a kid of my own brought TV back into my life, but our son doesn’t watch much. I mean, we Netflix. We’re not hermits.
Anyway, the trope: The logistical answer (there are two answers) is that this novel was originally conceived as a modern retelling of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, which is a picaresque novel narrated by a man who’s died and whose soul travels from body to body, uncovering the reality of lives across the socioeconomic spectrum of early America. I loved the playfulness of that premise, its expansiveness, but beyond that I loved its democratic ambitions, the Whitman-like project of trying to sing America from the inside out. My own version took some pretty radical digressions from Bird’s original; for example, I abandoned very early any attempt to be “representative” of the diversity of modern America, which is just too broad, and instead focused on points of commonality and difference, themes that define life for all of us (media, family, solitude).
The more general answer is that I am a lifelong admirer of the Menippean satire, a 2,000-year-old literary genre the particulars of which I won’t go into here except to say that one of its 13 attributes (according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics) is the transgression of boundaries between this world, heaven, and the underworld. Starting around the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic, there’s a long line of writers playing with these boundaries, and specifically with the idea of metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through bodies. The point, from an art perspective, is that it allows the writer (and reader) to step back from everyday life and look at our human experiences from a distance. The pettiness of human endeavor is revealed for what it is, etc. The oddity of my narrator is that, despite how separated he (mostly) is from the world he witnesses, he can’t seem to attain anything like a comforting objectivity. Death gives him “perspective,” but that’s almost all it gives him. It doesn’t free him from human concerns. He’s still as frustrated and petty as anybody.
TM: I suspect rendering one of those consciousnesses almost helplessly passive was a great challenge. Did you set yourself any formal limitations in the composition of the plot?
MR: Yeah, that was what made me want to write the book in the first place, that challenge. For years I had been thinking about how to write an adventure novel in an age when modern transportation and telecommunications have left us with pitifully few unexplored places and when a life of “action” feels like a movie cliche. You could set it in space, or inside the earth, I guess. Cyberspace feels more Kafkaesque than adventurous to me. So what I saw in the premise of Sheppard Lee was the possibility of an adventure story in which the protagonist lacks agency—a passive action novel! And then immediately I realized it would be a book about media culture as well.
As for plot composition, I have an almost embarrassingly specific answer for this. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Sheppard Lee when it first came out. He liked it, but cited among its problems that Bird couldn’t seem to decide when or to what extent his protagonist (Sheppard Lee) should control the bodies he inhabits. My interest in writing about media sort of solved this problem for me—my protagonist would have as much control over what he sees as you or I have over a television program—but it raised a different problem, which was how to make that into an interesting book. I wasn’t excited to write something boring and hopeless. My Samuel Johnson had to be able to (and forced to) make decisions with moral consequences, even if he tended to make very bad ones. So I had to have a narrative device by which my protagonist might gain control of his existence (under certain circumstances), and the invention of that device is another reason my novel took a very different direction from Bird’s. The device itself, and the emotional possibilities it opened up, took me to unexpected places, and that element of adventure (compositional adventure) was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Fortunately, sticking to the plan was never part of the plan.
TM: There is perhaps no way of answering this, but I’m going to ask to see where an answer might lead: Could you have written this novel before becoming a father?
MR: I don’t think I could have, but not for the obvious reason (that I now know what being a father is like). The actual reason is much more personal, and I doubt I can articulate it very well. It has to do with how having a kid changes what you care about, where you invest your emotions and your aspirations. I’ve written fiction for many years but not much of it was very sharable, because I was constantly getting in the way of myself (don’t ask me what I mean by that). One of the biggest changes for me, in becoming a dad, was that I stopped caring very much about myself. I like myself just fine, but my emotional attention is now directed elsewhere, toward my son and my wife but also outward more generally. And for some reason that change in myself had a tangible impact on my ability to craft sentences and paragraphs. It’s not the only change that mattered for writing this book, but it’s maybe the most interesting.
TM: Am I correct in reading SJER as a satire?
MR: Not in the conventional sense. I’m not out to attack anyone. There’s no target. I mentioned Menippean satire earlier, and one of the funny things about that genre is that despite the name, it isn’t really satire as we think of it. Where satire attacks one point of view from the perspective of a different point of view, the Menippean satire is all about copia, plentitude, the diversity of ways of seeing the world. The only thing it attacks is the presumption that any single worldview might constitute “truth,” and this it often attacks viciously, if comically. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin admires menippea (as he calls it) because he’s all about polyphony and the idea that a novel is not a political statement but rather a space in which many different voices and ideas and ways of seeing are constantly mixing and contending with one another. This is what I like about it as well.
TM: When we met, you were still at Dalkey Archive Press, and you are now the publisher, with Danielle, of Dorothy, so I must ask the question of influence. Which writers and/or schools influenced this novel? Who are you reading or what excites you in contemporary fiction?
MR: I don’t know about influence, but I start to salivate at the opportunity to make book recommendations. But first I’ll try to answer about influence.
Aside from Bird’s novel, it’s hard to say precisely what influenced SJER. I was rereading Dickens when I started writing it, and I’m sure he’s in there somehow—the voice, maybe. Georges Perec is probably the most important, and in some ways that influence is clear: the mixing of an adventure story with other genres, the almost schematic breadth of subjects, Perec’s passion for telling tales. There’s a lot of linguistic parody in SJER, and some of that might be coming from Fran Ross’s Oreo, which is in my all-time top five. Ross’s parody has more satirical punch, though. I’m just interested in all the cool things language can do (so was she, of course). More generally, I think my ideas about art and literature were shaped from a very early age by the Beastie Boys, whose work I see as fundamentally about friendship, first, and, second, about the endlessly various ways a bunch of stuff can be thrown together to make something wonderful. That’s the quality William Gass meant when he called Donald Barthelme—quoting Barthelme himself—“the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” It was a compliment.
Lately I’ve been rereading a lot—for my classes and for fun—and it’s been a great joy to revisit Flann O’Brien and Nikolai Gogol and people like that. After the fact, I saw a lot of Dead Souls in SJER, even though it wasn’t in my mind while writing. In fact, I find that writing a book causes you to see your own book in every other book you read, or at least in a lot of them. Other books I’ve been loving but that have nothing to do with SJER include everything Dorothy is publishing (!) and quite a number of the books I’ve been reviewing. Best in Show goes to Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, which I think you and I both liked a great deal. McCormack’s novel made me feel loose and ready, like a boxer. It made the question of “the novel” feel suddenly up for grabs again, which for me is the best thing a book can do.
TM: You mention that when writing a book you start to see your book in every other book. This is such a simple but revelatory statement! It also speaks to something apparent in the novel: a current trend (that’s too light a term for it, but it’ll stay for now) that is all about the… if not the dissolution, then at least the fragmentation or break-up of the idea of a concrete individual who is bound by gender, age, demographics. I love how SJER’s shifting forms reflect this pivotal moment in Western culture. All of which is to ask: What good is the individual in fiction? Does he/she have a future in literature?
MR: I’m not sure he/she even has much of a past! Or at least that past is admirably patchy. It seems to me literature’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to complicating or fragmenting or subverting received ideas about the cleanly coherent self for at least a couple hundred years. Maybe not so much in the outwardly visible ways we’re seeing now in the culture, not until books like Orlando, or Brigid Brophy’s 1969 In Transit, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—but those books seem to me natural extensions of the novel’s essential polyphony. Once the menippean values I mentioned earlier got mixed up with the idea of character, which was happening at least by the time of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in the mid-18th century, the instability and multiplicity of identity became what novels—some novels—were all about. Dostoevsky, whole swaths of modernism, etc.
In comparison to that stuff, my Samuel Johnson is pretty simple. He starts off without much self to speak of, so he’s relatively unpresumptuous, and comfortable in the role of sponge. What interests me most is that even though he inhabits all these other lives, and forgets himself and “becomes” these others, still he doesn’t often feel that he knows these people very well. He knows them as well as you could possibly know someone, but that turns out to be: not that well! In part because they don’t know themselves, or are too human-messy to be easily defined, but mostly because he doesn’t have access to their thoughts, and so there’s this invisible wall, consciousness.
I do get put off (this is a different way of answering your question) by writing that doesn’t allow room, formally, for experiences of instability, possibility, surprise, change. A lot of commercially successful fiction makes me feel constricted in that way. It takes itself too seriously, or doesn’t take me (reader) seriously enough. But maybe that’s just a way of saying that uninteresting books aren’t interesting. Whereas identity as a site of possibility or contention, the individual as an ongoing dialogue—those ideas I hope have a future, because literature would be pretty dull without them.
TM: Your reference points for the book are, for the most part, 19th century and earlier, though of course there are more modern influences. What is it about these forms that allows them the plasticity to be continually reinvented and to feel so fresh?
MR: You are my dream interviewer. I think all literary forms have the plasticity you’re talking about. Forms come with some basic characteristics (e.g., a “list” contains “items”), but they don’t come with any prescribed values or freshness potential—that’s all in what you do with them.
If I were going to really do this question justice I would go on a longish rant about friendship. I would talk about the sense I have in reading certain 18th-century works—for example, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist—that they were written long before the idea of the “professionalized author” was even conceived. I would then attempt to describe the pleasure I get—with Diderot—from feeling that what I am reading is written not by a “professional” but by an incredibly smart and interesting friend. Wayne Booth makes the argument, in his The Company We Keep, that the idea of friendship as a literary value falls off somewhere in the 19th century. In fact, he says the idea of friendship as a subject worthy of critical attention falls out of intellectual life entirely, even though for the longest time the notion that books were like friends was the primary way of seeing them. He doesn’t mean we’ve lost friendship itself, even in books; he just means we don’t really think or talk about books in those terms.
I’ve noticed that the books I feel the greatest friendship toward tend to resist the veneer of professionalization in one way or another. I mentioned earlier Fran Ross and Georges Perec. Alasdair Gray is another. Also Joanna Ruocco, whom I publish, though I don’t know her personally very well. Not long ago I interviewed her, primarily because I wanted to confirm for myself that she was actually as cool as I thought she was (she is). There are others, but not very many. It’s a specific feeling, not a common thing, more a recognition of shared values than “liking” or admiring or even loving the work. For example, I don’t feel this way about David Foster Wallace’s work, even though David was my real-life friend, someone I cared about quite a lot. I love his writing, too (well, I love about half of his writing), but I don’t have that “friendship” feeling toward it.
All I mean to say is that I’ve always wanted my own writing to be friendly, approachable. Meaningful, but in a manner completely in step with everyday life. My favorite writers read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things. And maybe 18th- and 19th-century storytelling devices appeal to me—to try to loop this back to your question—because things like conversational narrators and tale-telling and “then fate took an unexpected turn!” are very approachable and are as likely as anything else to produce interesting art.
TM: I really like your take on the question about fatherhood. That fatherhood provides an out from yourself that opens up a whole set of possibilities that open up whole avenues previously untraveled or at least infrequently visited is a refreshing take—especially for a writer, since so many male writers have been aloof or absent from the lives of their children. I wonder if the passivity of the narrator is a reflection of what must feel like occasional helplessness in viewing the life of a child.
MR: That’s a really ideal way to read it. The book thinks a lot about feelings of helplessness, both with regard to parenting and more generally to life. The idea that we are stuck in our own heads and there’s little we can do for one another has been a staple of existential comedy since Beckett at least, in addition to being a painfully obvious fact of every parent’s daily reality, and I like seeing those two seemingly distinct anxieties—one existential, the other mundane—as not so different.
As far as my narrator goes, I would stop short of saying his passivity is caused by his helpless-parent feelings. He is modern man! He’s passive from way, way back.
TM: I don’t want to talk about the ending, but I do want to ask, in a general way, one of those craft questions about the structure of the novel and how it came to you. Were you writing toward that ending? At a certain point, the narrative picks up momentum and you can see where it’s going, and my hunch is that it was lurking there all along, but I’m curious to know if that’s accurate.
MR: When I first conceived of the book and had written the opening two chapters, I had a particular ending in mind. Danielle wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell her, and she said “Well, I just hope that…” and then said the thing she hoped would happen, which was not the ending I had in mind. I wanted my wife to be happy with my book—it was quite possible she would be the only one reading it—so I thought, maybe I can have both endings? It took me a while to figure out how to make that work, but the result is that the book really has two endings, and this is essential, I think, to how and what the story “means.” We talk of stories having happy endings or sad endings and I very much dislike those being the options. I’ve always loved the start of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, where the narrator says a good book ought to be allowed to have three entirely different openings. I didn’t want entirely different endings, though; I just wanted the ending to “mean” in several directions at once. I can’t say more without saying too much. But if there’s anything I’m particularly proud of in this book, it’s those last two chapters.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.