Blessedly, we are speakers of languages not of our own invention, and as such none of us are cursed in only a private tongue. Words are our common property; it would be a brave iconoclast to write entirely in some Adamic dialect of her own invention, her dictionary locked away (though from the Voynich Manuscript to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, some have tried). Almost every word you or I speak was first uttered by somebody else – the key is entirely in the rearrangement. Sublime to remember that every possible poem, every potential play, ever single novel that could ever be written is hidden within the Oxford English Dictionary. The answer to every single question too, for that matter. The French philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot enthuse in their 1660 Port-Royal Grammar that language is a “marvelous invention of composing out of 25 or 30 sounds that infinite variety of expressions which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to… [make known] all the various stirrings of our soul.” Dictionaries are oracles. It’s simply an issue of putting those words in the correct order. Language is often spoken of in terms of inheritance, where regardless of our own origins speakers of English are the descendants of Walt Whitman’s languid ecstasies, Emily Dickinson’s psalmic utterances, the stately plain style of the King James bible, the witty innovations of William Shakespeare, and the earthy vulgarities of Geoffrey Chaucer; not to forget the creative infusions of foreign tongues, from Norman French and Latin, to Ibo, Algonquin, Yiddish, Spanish, and Punjabi, among others. Linguist John McWhorter puts it succinctly in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writing that “We speak a miscegenated grammar.”
There is a glory to this, our words indicating people and places different from ourselves, our diction an echo of a potter in a Bronze Age East Anglian village, a canting rogue in London during the golden era of Jacobean Theater, or a Five Points Bowery Boy in antebellum New York. Nicholas Oster, with an eye towards its diversity of influence, its spread, and its seeming omnipresence, writes in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World that “English deserves a special position among world languages” as it is a “language with a remarkably varied history.” Such history perhaps gives the tongue a universal quality, making it a common inheritance of humanity. True with any language, but when you speak it would be a fallacy to assume that your phrases, your idioms, your sentences, especially your words are your own. They’ve passed down to you. Metaphors of inheritance can either be financial or genetic; the former has it that our lexicon is some treasure collectively willed to us, the later posits that in the DNA of language, our nouns are adenine, verbs are as if cytosine, adjectives like guanine, and adverbs are thymine. Either sense of inheritance has its uses as a metaphor, and yet they’re both lacking to me in some fundamental way – too crassly materialist, too eugenic. The proper metaphor isn’t inheritance, but consciousness. I hold that a language is as if a living thing, or to be more specific, as if a thinking thing. Maybe this isn’t a metaphor at all, perhapswe’re simply conduits for the thoughts of something bigger than ourselves, the contemplations of the language which we speak.
Philosopher George Steiner, forever underrated, writes in his immaculate After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation that “Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of those assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means.” We’re neurons in the mind of language, and our communications are individual synapses in that massive brain that’s spread across the Earth’s eight billion inhabitants, and back generations innumerable. When that mind becomes self-aware of itself, when language knows that it’s language, we call those particular thoughts poetry. Argentinean critic (and confidant of Jorge Luis Borges) Alberto Manguel writes in A Reader on Reading that poetry is “proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay;” it is that which demonstrates the eerie significance of language itself. Poetry is when language consciously thinks.
More than rhyme and meter, or any other formal aspect, what defines poetry is its self-awareness. Poetry is the language which knows that it’s language, and that there is something strange about being such. Certainly, part of the purpose of all the rhetorical accoutrement which we associate with verse, from rhythm to rhyme scheme, exists to make the artifice of language explicit. Guy Deutscher writes in The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention that the “wheels of language run so smoothly” that we rarely bother to “stop and think about all the resourcefulness that must have gone into making it tick.” Language is pragmatic, most communication doesn’t need to self-reflect on, well, how weird the very idea of language is. How strange it is that we can construct entire realities from variations in the breath that comes out of our mouths, or the manipulation of ink stains on dead trees (or of liquid crystals on a screen). “Language conceals its art,” Deutscher writes, and he’s correct. When language decides to stop concealing, that’s when we call it poetry.
Verse accomplishes that unveiling in several different ways, chief among them the use of the rhetorical and prosodic tricks, from alliteration to Terza rima, which we associate with poetry. One of the most elemental and beautiful aspects of language which poetry draws attention towards are the axioms implied earlier in this essay – that the phrases and words we speak are never our own – and that truth is found not in the invention, but in the rearrangement. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that we receive “the word from another’s voice and filled with that other voice.” Our language is not our own, nor is our literature. We communicate in a tongue not of our own creation; we don’t have conversations, we are the conversation. Bakhtin reasons that our “own thought finds the world already inhabited.” Just as the organization of words into enjambed lines and those lines into stanzas demonstrates the beautiful unnaturalness of language, so to do allusion, bricolage, and what theorists call intertextuality make clear to us that we’re not individual speakers of words, but that words are speakers of us. Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation that “the poet says: ‘I never invent.’” This is true, the poet never invents, none of us do. We only rearrange – and that is beautiful.
True of all language, but few poetic forms are as honest about this as a forgotten Latin genre from late antiquity known as the cento. Rather than inheritance and consciousness, the originators of the cento preferred the metaphor of textiles. For them, all of poetry is like a massive patchwork garment, squares of fabric borrowed from disparate places and sewn together to create a new whole. Such a metaphor is an apt explanation of what exactly a cento is – a novel poem that is assembled entirely from rearranged lines written by other poets. Centos were written perhaps as early as the first-century, but the fourth-century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the first to theorize about their significance and to give rules for their composition. In the prologue to Cento Nuptialias, where he composed a poem about marital consummation from fragments of Virgil derived from The Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, Ausonius explained that he has “but out of a variety of passages and different meanings,” created something new which is “like a puzzle.”
The editors of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explain that while forgotten today, the cento was “common in later antiquity.” Anthologizer and poet David Lehman writes in The American Scholar that “Historically, the intent was often homage, but it could and can be lampoon,” with critic Edward Hirsch writing in A Poet’s Glossary that they “may have begun as school exercises.” Though it’s true that they were written for educational reasons, to honor or mock other poets, or as showy performance of lyrical erudition (the author exhibiting their intimacy with Homer and Virgil), none of these explanations does service to the cento’s significance. To return to my admittedly inchoate axioms of earlier, one function of poetry is to plunge “us into a network of textual relations,” as the theorist Graham Allen writes in Intertextuality. Language is not the provenance of any of us, but rather a common treasury; with its other purpose being what Steiner describes as the “rec-compositions of reality, of articulate dreams, which are known to us as myths, as poetry, as metaphysical conjecture.” That’s to say that the cento remixes poetry, it recombines reality, so as to illuminate some fundamental truth hitherto hidden. Steiner claims that a “language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery,” and the cento is a reminder that fertile are the recombination’s of poetry that have existed before, that literature is a rich, many-varied compost from which beautiful new specimens can grow towards the sun.
Among authors of centos, this is particularly true of the fourth-century Roman poet Faltonia Betitia Proba. Hirsch explains that one of the purposes of the cento, beyond the pedagogical or the parodic, was to “create Christian narratives out of pagan text,” as was the case with Proba’s Cento virgilianus, the first major Christian epic by a woman poet. Allen explains that “Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature;” what Proba’s cento did was a more literal expression of that fundamental fact. The classical past posed a difficulty for proud Roman Christians, for how were the faithful to grapple with the paganism of Plato, the Sibyls, and Virgil? One solution was typological, that is the assumption that if Christianity was true, and yet pagan poets like Virgil still spoke the truth, that such must be encoded within his verse itself, part of the process of Interpretatio Christiana whereby pagan culture was reinterpreted along Christian lines.
Daughter of Rome that she was, Proba would not abandon Virgil, but Christian convert that she also was, it became her task to internalize that which she loved about her forerunner and to repurpose him, to place old wine into new skins. Steiner writes that an aspect of authorship is that the “poet’s consciousness strives to achieve perfect union with that of the predecessor,” and though those lyrics are “historically autonomous,” as reimagined by the younger poet they are “reborn from within.” This is perhaps true of how all influence works, but the cento literalizes that process in the clearest manner. And so Proba’s solution was to rearrange, remix, and recombine the poetry of Virgil so that the Christianity could emerge, like a sculptor chipping away all of the excess marble in a slab to reveal the statue hidden within.
Inverting the traditional pagan invocation of the muse, Proba begins her epic (the proem being the only original portion) with both conversion narrative and poetic exhortation, writing that she is “baptized, like the blest, in the Castalian font – / I, who in my thirst have drunk libations of the Light – / now being my song: be at my side, Lord, set my thoughts/straight, as I tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.” Thus, she imagines the prophetic Augustan poet of Roman Republicanism who died two decades before the Nazarene was born. Drawing from a tradition which claimed Virgil’s Eclogue predicted Christ’s birth, Proba rearranged 694 lines of the poet to retell stories from Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, the lack of Hebrew names in the Roman original forcing her to use general terms which appear in Virgil, like “son” and “mother,” when writing of Jesus and Mary. Proba’s paradoxically unoriginal originality (or is its original unoriginality?) made her popular in the fourth and fifth-centuries, the Cento virgilianus taught to catechists alongside Augustin, and often surpassing Confessions and City of God in popularity. Yet criticism of Proba’s aesthetic quality from figures like Jerome and Pope Gelasius I ensured a millennium-long eclipse of her poem, forgotten until its rediscovery with the Renaissance.
Rearranging the pastoral Eclogues, Proba envisions Genesis in another poet’s Latin words, writing that there is a “tree in full view with fruitful branches;/divine law forbids you to level with fire or iron,/by holy religious scruple it is never allowed to be disturbed./And whoever steals the holy fruit from this tree,/will pay the penalty of death deservedly;/no argument has changed my mind.” Something uncanny about the way that such a familiar myth is reimagined in the arrangement of a different myth; the way in which Proba is a redactor of Virgil’s words, shaping them (or pulling out from) this other, different, unintended narrative. Scholars have derided her poem as juvenilia since Jerome (jealously) castigated her talent by calling her “old chatterbox,” but to be able to organize, shift, and shape another poet’s corpus into orthodox scripture is an unassailable accomplishment. Writers of the Renaissance certainly thought so, for a millennium after Proba’s disparagement, a new generation of humanists resuscitated her.
Cento virgilianus was possibly the first work by a woman to be printed, in 1474; a century before that, and the father of Renaissance poetry Petrarch extolled her virtues in a letter to the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, and she was one of the subjects of Giovani Boccaccio’s 1374 On Famous Women, his 106 entry consideration of female genius from Eve to Joanna, the crusader Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily. Boccaccio explains that Proba collected lines of Virgil with such “great skill, aptly placing the entire lines, joining the fragments, observing the metrical rules, and preserving the dignity of the verses, that no one except an expert could detect the connections.” As a result of her genius, a reader might think that “Virgil had been a prophet as well as an apostle,” the cento suturing together the classic and the Hebraic, Athens and Jerusalem.
Ever the product of his time, Boccaccio could still only appreciate Proba’s accomplishment through the lens of his own misogyny, writing that the “distaff, the needle, and weaving would have been sufficient for her had she wanted to lead a sluggish life like the majority of women.” Boccaccio’s myopia prevented him from seeing that that was the precise nature of Proba’s genius – she was a weaver. The miniatures which illustrate a fifteenth-century edition of Boccaccio give truth to this, for despite the chauvinism of the text, Proba is depicted in gold-threaded red with white habit upon her head, a wand holding aloft a beautiful, blue expanding sphere studded with stars, a strangely scientifically accurate account of the universe as the poet sings song of Genesis in the tongue of Virgil. Whatever anonymous artist saw fit to depict Proba as a mage understood her well; for that matter they understood creation well, for perhaps God can generate ex nihilo, but artists must always gather their material from fragments shored against their ruin.
In our own era of allusion, reference, quotation, pastiche, parody, and sampling, you’d think that the cento would have new practitioners and new readers. Something of the disk jockeys Danger Mouse, Fatboy Slim, and Girl Talk in the idea of remixing a tremendous amount of independent lines into some synthesized newness; something oddly of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in the very form of the thing. But centos proper are actually fairly rare in contemporary verse, despite T.S. Eliot’s admission that “mature poets steal.” Perhaps with more charity, Allen argues that reading is a “process of moving between texts. Meaning because something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates.” But while theorists have an awareness of the ways in which allusion dominates the modernist and post-modernist sensibility – what theorists who use the word “text” too often call “intertextuality” – the cento remains as obscure as other abandoned poetic forms from the Anacreontic to the Zajal (look them up). Lehman argues that modern instances of the form are “based on the idea that in some sense all poems are collages made up of other people’s words; that the collage is a valid method of composition, and an eloquent one.”
Contemporary poets who’ve tried their hand include John Ashbery, who weaved together Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Byron, and Elliot; as well as Peter Gizzi who in “Ode: Salute to the New York School” made a cento from poets like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Ashbery. Lehman has tried his own hand at the form, to great success. In commemoration of his Oxford Book of American Poetry, he wrote a cento for The New York Times that’s a fabulous chimera whose anatomy is drawn from a diversity that is indicative of the sweep and complexity of four-centuries of verse, including among others Robert Frost, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Taylor, Jean Toomer, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Robert Pinsky, Marianne Moore, and this being a stolidly American poem, our grandparents Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Lehman contributed an ingenious cento sonnet in The New Yorker assembled from various Romantic and modernist poets, his final stanza reading “And whom I love, I love indeed,/And all I loved, I loved alone,/Ignorant and wanton as the dawn,” the lines so beautifully and seamlessly flowing into one another that you’d never notice that they’re respectively from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Butler Yeats. Equally moving was a cento written by editors at the Academy of American Poets, which in its entirety reads:
In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden.
Take this rather remarkable little poem on its own accord. Its ambiguity is remarkable, and the lyric is all the more powerful for it. To whom is the narrator speaking, who has been trusted and apparently violated that loyalty? Note how the implied narrative of the poem breaks after the dash that end-stops the third line. In the first part of the poem, we have declarations of betrayal, somebody is impugned as “Brute. Spy.” But from that betrayal, that “great pain,” there is some sort of transformation of feeling; neither acceptance nor forgiveness, but almost a tacit defeat, the “vulturous boredom.” The narrator psychologically, possibly physically, withers. They become less present to themselves, “of less use to myself.” And yet there is something to be said for the complexity of emotions we often have towards people, for though it seems that this poem expresses the heartbreak of betrayal, the absence of its subject is still that which affects the narrators so that the “hours… are so leaden.” Does the meaning of the poem change when I tell you that it was stitched together by those editors, drawn from a diversity of different poets in different countries living at different times? That the “true” authors are Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett?
Steiner claims that “There is, stricto sensu, no finished poem. The poem made available to us contains preliminary versions of itself. Drafts [and] cancelled versions.” I’d go further than Steiner even, and state that there is no individual poet. Just as all drafts are ultimately abandoned rather than completed, so is the task of completion ever deferred to subsequent generations. All poems, all writing, and all language for that matter, are related to something else written or said by someone else at some point in time, a great chain of being going back to the beginnings immemorial. We are, in the most profound sense, always finishing each other’s’ sentences. Far from something to despair at, this truth is something that binds us together in an untearable patchwork garment, where our lines and words have been loaned from somewhere else, given with the solemn promise that we must pay it forward. We’re all just lines in a conversation that began long ago, and thankfully shall never end. If you listen carefully, even if it requires a bit of decipherment or decoding, you’ll discover the answer to any query you may have. Since all literature is a conversation, all poems are centos. And all poems are prophecies whose meanings have yet to be interpreted.
Image credit: Unsplash/Alexandra.
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’s a testament to the meticulous brilliance of Jorge Luis Borges that a summary of his story “The Garden of Forking Paths” might run longer than the story itself, and only fitting, given the narrative’s central question: How do you build an infinite labyrinth? It’s an even greater testament to Borges’s brilliance that the story, with deadpan audacity, provides an answer. One of the story’s characters writes a vast novel the irreconcilable narrative contradictions of which lead another character to conclude that “unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, [the novel’s author] did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite forking series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” Any attempts to navigate this web will set the reader wandering an endless maze of temporal possibilities.
This endless maze could also describe the novels of Tana French, whose Dublin Murder Squad series charts labyrinthine paths as it navigates, not forking timelines, but interconnected webs of people. Her books find tension, terror, joy, and beauty in the conflicts and resonances that arise from the disparate voices and worldviews embodied by the novels’ police detective protagonists.
Each novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series follows a different detective, each of whom has been featured as a secondary character in a previous novel in the series (with the exception of the protagonist of the first novel). Fully capitalizing on the possibilities contained in this premise, French endows the protagonist with their own distinct voices, their own unique personal philosophies. Over the course of the series, these perspectives come into dynamic conversation with one another, building to an intriguing and ever-increasing clamor.
The series begins with In the Woods, which finds detective Rob Ryan investigating a gory murder at a controversial archaeological site. What Ryan conceals from his boss and the majority of his squad is that the murder may be linked to an unsolved crime from his own childhood. In on the secret is Ryan’s partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the novel is as interested in the relationships between its characters as it is in the sensational crime under investigation. Much of the story’s tension arises from the toll the case takes on the once-seemingly unbreakable friendship between Ryan and Maddox, the consequences of which reverberate into French’s next novel, The Likeness.
The second entry in the series features an entirely new mystery. (Although major payoffs exist for reading the series sequentially, each book also succeeds as a stand-alone novel.) The protagonist this time is Cassie Maddox, still reeling from the events of In the Woods, which are alluded to only vaguely. This time, in a premise that’s both improbable and delightful, Maddox investigates the murder of a woman who not only resembles her exactly, but has been living under a false identity that Maddox herself created when she was a detective in the undercover police unit. Maddox takes on the dead woman’s identity, embedding herself in the mini-commune of eccentric English grad students with whom the victim had been living. The uncanny doubling of the premise models a hallmark of the series: even though characters recur from one novel to the next, each new depiction presents minor variations as the first-person narrators present us with their distinctive take on both themselves and their colleagues. The first-person Cassie Maddox of The Likeness, then, reads as a slightly different character than the Cassie Maddox of In the Woods — more clever, more vulnerable, more complex.
Supervising Maddox on her investigation in The Likeness is her former boss from the undercover unit, Frank Mackey, a manipulative risk-taker who’s featured as the protagonist in the next entry in the series, Faithful Place. One advantage of the series’s premise is the way it allows French to (mostly) sidestep the implausibility endemic to other mystery series, where a single protagonist, in volume after volume, faces sensational mystery after sensational mystery, devastating personal crisis after devastating personal crisis. Although the characters of the Dublin Murder Squad series may be tangentially involved in many large crises, they only directly handle a once-in-a-lifetime case once in their fictional lifetime, when they are featured as a protagonist.
Frank Mackey’s great crisis comes when a badly decaying corpse discovered in the neighborhood where he grew up turns out to be the body of Rosie Daly, a young woman he had dated decades earlier. The two had planned to elope to England, but when Rosie didn’t show up for their rendezvous, Mackey assumed she had stood him up, an assumption that, in the ensuing years, shapes his fundamental philosophies. As the investigation of her murder unfolds, Mackey must also interrogate his deeply held views about his family and ultimately himself.
By this point in the series, a pattern emerges. Although the material circumstances of each mystery differ quite a bit, each novel features at its core a profound epistemological crisis. As detectives, the novels’ protagonists constantly face questions about what knowledge is and how to find it, and in response they’ve each developed a specific epistemological priority, whether it’s confidence in the power of memory, or in embodied experience, or in a knee-jerk distrust of the motives of others. And without fail, by the end of each book, the inadequacies of those beliefs have been laid bare by the troubling mysteries that they fail to fully resolve.
For the reader, that instability is multiplied over the course of the novels. The series, rather than supplying a unifying theory of knowledge to replace the discredited individual epistemologies, focuses instead on replicating for the reader the experience of uncertainty that arises when varied experiences and philosophies come into conversation and conflict with each other. As the characters and their accompanying worldviews interact throughout the series, they create a complex labyrinth of infinite possibilities.
Of course, such dizzying explorations of varied human experience are not unique to the Dublin Murder Squad novels. In his early 20th-century treatise Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin identified polyphony — the unresolved juxtaposition of diverse voices and perspectives — as a defining characteristic in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and others. It’s a compelling aesthetic model, one that encompasses a wide range of novels, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. These novels, and others in the same mold, generate vertiginous thrills as they dramatize the difficulties of understanding ourselves, other people, and the world at large.
Over the past few years, several authors have riffed on that effect by incorporating elements of popular genre fiction into their works. Novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird alternately embrace and subvert a whole host of popular genres, from family saga to airport thriller to ghost story to fairy tale to bildungsroman. As the novels veer from one type of narrative to the next, they create a polyphony of genre that constantly challenges the reader’s expectations and interpretive strategies.
Peter Rabinowitz, a narrative theorist, has an anecdote that nicely illustrates the relationship between genre and interpretation. In his Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Rabinowitz writes about an experience he had teaching Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train in one of his classes. The solution to the book’s mystery pleasantly surprised the majority of the class. Two students, though, said they had figured out the ending fairly early on. When Rabinowitz asked them how they had solved the mystery so quickly, they explained that in romance novels, two rivals usually compete for the protagonist’s affections, and most of the time, one rival turns out to be a scoundrel. Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train features a romantic plot at the center in which two different men woo the protagonist. The two students said that, based on the interpretive expectations they had developed reading romance novels, they were quickly able to figure out which romantic rival was the scoundrel and in this case the perpetrator of the crime. The other students, lacking the same reading experience, were unable to make the connection. Rabinowitz goes on to argue that a reader’s understanding of any given narrative grows out of a combination of previous reading experiences and signals from the text itself. Genre, then, provides a bundle of interpretive strategies, created between the author, the text, and the reader.
French utilizes this dynamic to great effect throughout her series. While the novels’ detective protagonists pick their way with varying success through a maze of vexing people and circumstances, readers navigates their own tangled maze of contradictory conventions as the narratives hop from genre to genre, toying with readers’ expectations.
Broken Harbor, the fourth entry in the series, is an ideal case in point. As with the other entries in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Broken Harbor initially presents itself as a mystery novel, more specifically, a police procedural. In this instance, Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (previously encountered in Faithful Place in which he butts heads with Frank Mackey) investigates the murder of a young family in a nearly abandoned housing development.
At first, readers may feel secure reading the book as a straightforward police procedural, but soon elements of a haunted house novel emerge, as Kennedy finds the murdered husband’s account of a mysterious beast tormenting the family in the months leading up to their death. The evidence baffles Kennedy, who began the novel believing that good detection happens when “suspects and witnesses…believe you’re omniscient,” in other words, that even feigned possession of knowledge ultimately leads to valid knowledge. By the novel’s end, though, Kennedy has been rattled to the point that he warns his rookie partner that the human “mind is garbage…that will let you down at every worst moment there is.”
As Kennedy tries to make sense of the case, the reader tries to make sense of the novel itself — what kind of book will it turn out to be, and which interpretive genre strategies should be used? And of course, even when the mystery is solved, it feels like none of the genres at play quite explain what happened. This reader/detective parallel calls attention to the ways genre works as an epistemological model: it offers up specific strategies (both valid and not) for finding and processing the knowledge contained within a narrative.
The genre (and epistemological) play continues in The Secret Place, the fifth and latest entry in the series, which combines a boarding school drama with a cold-case mystery with a telekinetic coming-of-age story with a novel of manners. And the novel complicates things further by relying more heavily than previous entries on the series’s growing network of interconnected characters and their accompanying narrative baggage.
In that way, The Secret Place functions as a model of the whole series: read together on a macro level, all five books place the first-person protagonists and their accompanying worldviews into a polyphonic conversation with each other. The Secret Place recreates that dynamic on a micro level when, in a climactic interrogation scene, it places in the same room multiple characters whose wildly diverse minds the reader has been granted intimate access to: Frank Mackey (of Faithful Place), Holly Mackey (who features as secondary character in Faithful Place, and a main character in an alternating third-person omniscient narrative in The Secret Place), and Stephen Moran (also a minor character in Faithful Place, and the protagonist of The Secret Place), as well as Detective Antoinette Conway, the unknown quantity in the room. The drama arises less from what is revealed over the course of the interrogation, and more from the dynamic interplay of four savvy characters attempting to out-read and outsmart each other. Their epistemological models are put into urgent conversation with each other in a more frantic microcosm of the series as a whole.
For these purposes, Stephen Moran is the ideal protagonist. He places great stock in his ability to read other characters, describing his methods in great detail, which creates a narrative in which the reader spends a significant amount of time reading Moran reading the other characters. The climactic interrogation scene only enhances the effect: when an antagonistic Frank Mackey arrives, we have moments, for instance, in which the reader reads Moran reading Mackey reading Moran, with Moran then silently critiquing Mackey’s readings (as Moran imagines them). Here, for example, Moran resists the idea that Mackey understands him, noticing “him [Mackey] watching me, amused, the way he used to seven years back, big dog watching feisty puppy. Seven years is a long time.” In pointing out the time that’s passed since his first interactions with Mackey, Moran underscores yet another confounding factor in the epistemological maze that runs through French’s novels — that other people are moving targets, and in the time we take to try and comprehend them, they’ve already changed.
As Borges reminds us, not only in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but, fittingly, again and again throughout his work, an endless pursuit is not necessarily a futile one; there’s beauty be found in the infinite. Tana French taps into such wonders in her perpetually challenging, perpetually engaging Dublin Murder Squad series.