Few of the books I read this year have touched me as deeply as Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Eventually, after blackening almost every sentence with underlines and every margin with exclamation marks, I had to give up highlighting the passages I found remarkable. This is an untamed, unlit, unforgiving book—which makes its relentless beauty all the more impressive.
This was the year when I finally read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I have always been interested in aesthetics, and Gaddis gives wonderfully diagonal and opaque answers to the eternal questions about representation, originality, and how personal expression struggles to make its way through historically sedimented forms and materials. Also, I love loners, and Wyatt Gwyon is Arctically alone. Then, there is the prose. A few chapters into the book, I found myself creating a document that collected Gaddis’s descriptions of skies. (Bonus: the Dalkey Archive edition features an intense introduction by William Gass.)
Being obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, and, to a lesser degree, other British parodists from that general era, I am surprised to have come to the Mitford sisters only this year. But more than with Nancy, my heart is with Jessica. I simply loved Hons and Rebels, and for a whole weekend I annoyed everyone around me by sharing passages made totally unintelligible by my fits of laughter. Many events in the book are genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching: two of her sisters’—Diana and Unity Valkyrie (yes, that’s right: Unity Valkyrie)—ties to Nazism, the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, the death of Jessica’s first baby… Still, when it comes to family dynamics and politics, Mitford keeps a Wodehousian stiff upper lip that exposes their ultimate absurdity.
I have been reading a lot of Theodore Dreiser, and I am almost done with the Trilogy of Desire, of which, I believe, only the first volume, The Financier, is still in print. I can’t say I am enjoying the writing or the general architecture of the novels, but I think they are helping me to understand American realism (and America) a little better.
About a year ago, Mandy Medley, Coffee House Press publicist and fanatical Scandophile, told me to read Elisabeth Rynell’s To Mervas. I did, although it took me a very long time. The novel—which narrates a recluse’s impossible journey to find the great love of her life, who sends her an enigmatic letter after decades of absence—is almost physically depressing: After a few pages, the weight would become too much, forcing me to put the book aside for days. The result was an extended read that, in a way, mimicked the protagonist’s trip. I know this doesn’t sound like a recommendation. But it is.
Briefly, in the 19th century, a strong taxonomical drive in science coincided with the diametrically opposed experience of the sublime the Romantics found in nature. I suppose both were, in their own way, totalizing impulses—the former was systematic and detached, the latter transcendental and rhapsodic. But these opposites came together in the short-lived figure of the naturalist. And yet, in the 20th century, Loren Eiseley brought to the cosmos the same sense of awe his predecessors had for far-away lands. I don’t ever want to finish the double volume of his Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos. These are texts by a true polymath and, above all, one of the greatest stylists I have read in a long time. It was fortunate that I was late to come to Eisley: earlier, his influence would have been paralyzing.
Eisley was one of our most eloquent environmentalists, and it was quite an experience to read his work almost in conjunction with Lauren Groff’s latest book. Florida addresses the urgent dangers posed by climate change but does so without falling into the didacticism that often characterizes “engaged” literature. Groff can create a reality, down to the last detail, only to shatter it in the most brutal, gorgeous ways, showing us that our world is a fragile construct besieged by forces over which we have no control—among them, increasingly, the rightful revenge of nature. The range of the prose is striking: from transcriptions of the barely audible murmurs of a conscience to the deafening roars of apocalyptic storms.
Describing one of Diane Williams’s stories inevitably takes more words than those in the story itself. And there is something equally wonderful about the dissonance between the sheer size of the megalithic Collected Stories of Diane Williams and the conciseness of the perplexing, beautiful texts within. I have always been drawn to books that can be opened at random and still provide a full reading experience. This volume is that and more. It reminds me of Borges’s book of sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end because its pages multiply infinitely as one turns them.
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Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment.
Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It’s a superb novel about unrest within and without.
Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States.
The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first?
Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I’d been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don’t think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché.
Now it’s 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it’s inarguably the work of a different person. I’m married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven’t lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so.
When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it.
As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That’s another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it’s like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that’s blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you’re asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It’s not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person’s time. That doesn’t mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good.
And when I talk about necessary books, I’ll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d’être, just burns on every page.
TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page?
IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator’s voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that’s never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma’s presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March’s voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn’t like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence.
I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country’s political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it’s important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions.
Emma’s voice is the main engine of the book. It’s a woman’s voice, of course, yet I’ve never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she’s direct. She doesn’t say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn’t say, occupy the book’s white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn’t use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She’s laconic and sensitive at once. That’s why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It’s a great poem, “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century.” It’s filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it’s told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that’s how Emma also thinks and talks.
TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off.
IM: I certainly won’t tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you’re right: it’s not what’s expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman’s voice, but I don’t. It was a voice—Emma’s voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I’m aware of recent controversy regarding writers’ appropriations of others’ cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn’t absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others’ lives for the sake of a text. There’s lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you’re going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it’s not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success.
As for my day job, I’m a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It’s ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer’s day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country’s culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I’m grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it’s a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can’t help but seem somewhat curious.
When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: “The future belongs to crowds.” You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It’s the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates.
TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not?
On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions?
IM: I like your alternative definition for “foreign service officer.” Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil’s national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat’s wife.
To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we’re not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don’t think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there’s more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco’s killing; perhaps it’s ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn’t. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas.
That’s all a way of saying that your questions aren’t naive at all, but they also aren’t straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo’s line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don’t mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma’s husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn’t something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they’re known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn’t feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma’s story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we’re only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It’s the background hum of the novel. I don’t need to say more about that here; there’s plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it.
TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere.
Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days?
IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can’t think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He’s named in the book, too. I suppose that’s to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve.
One of the finest recent novels I’ve read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending.
Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It’s a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I’m working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now.
Don’t you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can’t avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it’s fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love.
So I’ll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion.
TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace “out of fear…not devotion.” She judges this purported “happy ending” harshly: “their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult.” But there seems to me, in the book’s final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book?
IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn’t gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma’s, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.”
Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We’d both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism.
The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip.
Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips — from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue — in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall — on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?”
Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.”
Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere.
The 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis’s lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 — years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in — that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar’s sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately…”
Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “…unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet…”
I had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold. A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks.
There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else — where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-’50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self — the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him.
Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing:
Q In other words…it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?…Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you?
A Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play?
Q Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea?
A Well, yes. Yes of course.
Q Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear?
Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis’s unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back.
After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think?
We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are…the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people — the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.”
This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing.
The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.
Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement.
Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes:
Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit — Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions — make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.
The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas — the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s.
I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book.
The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand?
Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature.
I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could.
TM: Did you run into doubt?
MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship — you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not — my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me.
TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality?
MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of — first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say.
I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine — like I get why it’s in the magazine — I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength — your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature.
TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability?
MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents — who were nice enough to read, you know — just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.]
But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing — not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this.
TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics?
MDS: I think the book…Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple — without that distance that’s normally part of academia — to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society?
In a community that’s so fractured — the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world — is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost.
TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American.
MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, ’cause there are all these competing factions — and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy.
Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life.
TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you?
MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically — I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters.
They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party — from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially — that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive.
I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book.
TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read.
TM: You called these kinds of books — your kind of book — an “acquired taste.”
TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it?
MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night.
I like literature, and experiences in life, that — rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works — expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
Jonathan Raban intersperses biographical information about William Gaddis in order to give the correspondence collected in his recently published Letters greater context. There are ample details about the author’s travels in his young adulthood, his artistic frustrations over the publication of The Recognitions, and, of course, many details about the women in Gaddis’s life. “In letters to his mother,” Raban writes, “Gaddis liked to depict himself as someone repeatedly smitten by beautiful women.” (Bonus: “The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me.”
— Yes well there was just one more thing here I, that I think you might…
— That? My God, haven’t seen one in years.
— No this isn’t what I…what is it.
— Russian Imperial Bond.
— You mean it isn’t worth any, worth very…
— Mister Bast, anything is worth whatever some damn fool will pay for it, only reason somebody can make a market in Russian Imperials is because some damn, somebody like your associate will buy them.
This is the hapless Edward Bast, early in William Gaddis’s J R, trying to interest a stockbroker in the eponymous JR Vansant’s penny-stock portfolio. These Russian imperial bonds, issued in 1916 and repudiated by the Bolsheviks the following year, were real. There was a real market for them, even if it consisted of “damn fools.” I should know; I was the law clerk who drafted the 1987 opinion that extinguished all claims on them. And that is why The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me.
It’s a pity that Mr. Gaddis never met Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York — a large, rotund man with a fluffy walrus mustache and a bow tie, who never dropped character and who loved nothing better than to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s a pity, too, that Bast never visited Carl Marks & Co. This brokerage had cornered the market on Russian Imperials and had sued the Soviet Union to collect. Judge Brieant, who had the case, was vexed; a Son of the American Revolution with the paperweight to prove it, he would gladly have written against the USSR at length but had been warned by the State Department that this would cause an international incident. He was inclined to issue a simple opinion flatly denying Carl Marks’s claims.
But I had already decided that a case called Carl Marks v. USSR was too good to pass up. The clincher was my coming across the Russian Imperial Bonds passage in J R, which I was reading on my commute to the Judge’s White Plains courthouse. I worked surreptitiously, finally presenting the Judge with a 68-page fait accompli that used the Bast quote as a headnote. After he signed off on the opinion, I sent it to Mr. Gaddis. Why go to all that effort and not tell him? I never expected his response: the first letter reproduced in the book (January 10, 1988), inviting me to lunch and telling me of his “novel in the form of a network of lawsuits of every variety” — the book that would become A Frolic of His Own.
I don’t remember much from that visit, apart from Mr. Gaddis’s graciousness and his indignation at what he considered the vulgar display of a Francis Bacon triptych by “the evil Saul Steinberg” (the corporate raider, not Mr. Gaddis’s friend the cartoonist). But he had a request for me. Would I be so kind as to review a mock judicial opinion meant to form part of that “network of lawsuits”? You bet I would!
I took home a draft of the opinion that appears in A Frolic of His Own, pages 399-416. The draft made essential use of an opinion entitled Murray v. National Broadcasting Corporation, in which the plaintiff claimed that NBC had plagiarized his idea when it created The Bill Cosby Show. I found that Mr. Gaddis had misunderstood the case and that this vitiated the whole fictional opinion, literary tour de force though it otherwise was.
I pointed this out, among other things, as tactfully as I could. Mr. Gaddis’s January 5, 1990 reply, beginning “Dear Jim: Do not panic!” accompanied an outline of the maze of lawsuits as revised in response to my letter. After reading my “meticulous informed & delightful dissection,” he wrote, “I went into a blue funk, from which my struggles to emerge have now got me as far as the brown study down the hall.” I don’t have any record of a written reply to the four-and-a-half-page outline, so we may have discussed it in person as he suggests in the letter — mortified as I was by the thought that I might have had something to do with making the writing even more difficult.
Other letters in the collection confirm that Mr. Gaddis was having serious problems with the book and his life, but the one he wrote me on September 22, 1990 remains almost unbearably moving: “Unproductive months, a bleak and grey winter spent out here [in Wainscott, Long Island] alone largely, each day starting Now I shall get to it, ending Perhaps tomorrow, then.” Mr. Gaddis always professed not to appreciate or even understand Beckett, but this little passage sounds Beckett’s register.
In November, Mr. Gaddis was back at work, sending me the opinion that appeared in A Frolic, pages 285-293. There was then a long gap in our correspondence. The loss of my Wall Street law firm job and attendant personal disasters plunged me into depression; as other letters reveal, Mr. Gaddis also had to struggle with wrenching emotional issues while he continued to work on the book. It’s a relief to turn to his last letter to me, from May 21, 1993, announcing that A Frolic of His Own was finished. (He got me the set of galleys he promised, though it is the hardcover, inscribed “you will recognize your own contributions for which I am eternally grateful,” that I treasure).
“What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Mr. Gaddis would ask, quoting his character Wyatt Gwyon from The Recognitions. I wanted Mr. Gaddis to know how grateful I was for the work. Thanks to him, I have a (very) small place in legal and literary history. Only later did I fully understand what an extraordinary privilege he had offered me. I can but hope that I proved worthy of it in his eyes.
It’s safe to say that Tumblr saved my reading life. By the time I began using police composite sketch software to create images of literary characters suggested by Tumblr users I had really stopped reading fiction. Between sorting short stories every month at Joyland and switching from writing unsold novels to working on film and television scripts, my relationship to fiction had trailed off to a sluggish pulse. When The Composites took off, I started reading what thousands of complete strangers told me to read and, in the process, I rid myself of a lifetime of habits, biases, and poorly formed opinions on what literature should be. I killed my inner pundit.
Answering the hive mind of Tumblr, I was sent rummaging through my books in storage. I searched Project Gutenberg. I skulked the aisles of The Strand bookstore with pen and notebook, hoping to not get caught. While I thought I probably looked thoroughly insane, I’m confident the staff had seen worse. Hell, I even bought a few books.
This accelerated thesis-style surveying of 400 random novels over eight months allowed me to revisit books from my past and to see their forgotten influence on me now. Stephen King may have unknowingly swiped the title Joyland, but I still think Misery is a bitter, hilarious, and brilliant novel. Not before or since has such a popular author figuratively punished his fans with effortless postmodernism — a nuance I may have missed when I first read it at age 13.
I re-read The Recognitions, William Gaddis’s messy, vital book about the impossibility of living authentically. His consciousness-altering writing merged with The Composites, from the definite article title to the heady brew of ideas about representation and originality. Even the resulting composite image of the protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, felt like a mystery solved. Gaddis had described a face much like his own.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s perfect novel The Master and Margarita was something I boldly lied about having read before and once you lie about having read a book it’s very difficult to undo deceptions you’ve built your life on. Jonathan Lethem’s funny and affecting The Fortress of Solitude was a novel that sat on our shelf for years (it’s one of my wife’s favorite books). Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the story I now most want to see as a TV show adaptation.
The default of the hive mind is to reiterate the popular. A composite drawn from Gaiman’s novel created waves of nerdgasms throughout Tumblr while something like the composite from The Recognitions brought a smattering of applause from five men in cardigans. I tried to keep the balance of popular and unpopular in phase during my nine months of social reading but what most changed my understanding of literature was being asked to look at staggeringly popular books.
Women who write popular books are given a raw deal out of the critical gates, judged on criteria that similarly popular male authors never face. How much had I unconsciously absorbed that bias? Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is not a book I would have read without hundreds of requests for me to do so, but I’m glad I did. It is a damn good book. Collins’s writing is economical and elegant and the novel’s allegories about class and entertainment are sharper than literary attempts to explore the same subjects.
Having spent a year speed-reading and skimming 400 books, I think I deserve another few years off. When I do start again, though, I know it will be as a freer, more open reader.
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Hello and thanks to The Millions for having me back.
The most engrossing book I read this year was Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. It’s the story of the financial collapse of the 1920’s, which precipitated the Great Depression. It focuses on four central bankers whose collective efforts pretty much wrecked the global economy. These guys were incredibly smart, and incredibly powerful, and it’s fascinating how things went wrong, and the ways in which their financial policies dictated all major global events from World War I to World War II. Also, it resonates pretty well with all of today’s financial problems, and gave me a much better understanding of what these guys are capable of doing.
The Recognitions by William Gaddis. I had heard for years that this was great, so I went into it expecting a lot, and it delivered. It’s a huge undertaking…it’s about 1,000 pages, but it requires such strict attention that often you find yourself reading a page several times. Somewhere about 500 pages in I realized I just had absolutely no idea what was going on, so I started consulting an online guide, which was very helpful in understanding the plot, but I guess may have disrupted the original rhythm, and messed up some important surprises. So I guess I’d advise reading without a guide…or at least trying…
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I was surprised how funny this book was. I only bought it because it was the single English-Language book in an entire store in Utrecht, and didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a sprawling 19th-century saga (a-la Charles Dickens) with a huge cast. Everyone owes everyone else money, and no one’s paying up. There’s a lot of cowering behind a mask of dignity. If you were to change a few details it really could all be happening right now.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. I thought it was funny the whole time. It’s a very quick read. I read it on tour with my band, where there is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” which is a major theme.
Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump. Wow what an asshole Ty Cobb was! A very entertaining read. Sharpening his spikes was nothing…”The Georgia Peach” was a violent and notorious racist and murderer, who once beat up a disabled heckler.
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HTMLGiant is running a cool series of interviews with readers who recently finished long or difficult books. Check out their takes on Lee Child’s Echo Burning, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions over here, here, and here, respectively. Also, while on the topic of difficult books, check out Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg’s round-up of their ten top picks.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
Two hotly anticipated collections of stories are out this week: Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake. Also new this week are Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us, which she wrote about here recently, Dalkey’s new edition of The Recognitions by William Gaddis, and a new volume of William S. Burroughs’ letters.