True Grit

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A Year in Reading: Namwali Serpell

I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.

Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.

For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.

And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.

The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?

As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:

James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.

Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.

I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.

After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.

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A Moment of Grace: The Millions Interviews Helen Garner

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She’s been a key figure in Australian letters since 1977, when she published Monkey Grip, a short novel that confronted readers with the grit and lyricism they’ve since accepted as Garner’s trademarks. It was an appropriately bold start — Garner had reaped a whirlwind of controversy in the early ‘70s when she gave frank answers to high school students she taught when they asked questions on matters of sexuality. She lost that job and launched herself as a writer, though she’s said that even with the publication of her first book, there wasn’t some grand shift in her identity. She wrote, then as now, to figure things out, to probe and test her ideas and preconceptions. She’s kept at it through four novels and half a dozen books of nonfiction, through awards — most recently the Nonfiction and Premier’s Awards at the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards — and controversy, as in the aftermath of The First Stone, which so aggrieved “the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people.”

She writes before we meet to say I will know her, “by [her] unfashionable appearance.” It’s charming if unnecessary, this bit of self-deprecation, not least because she’s standing front and center on the cover of her most recent book, Everywhere I Look. I’d recognize her anywhere, I think, and sure enough, she’s dressed much the way she is in that cover photo when I find her in the hotel lobby. She’s small and neat, with a direct gaze and soft-set, intelligent eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, her hair swept back from her face. There’s a moment just after I sit down across from her and introduce myself when she stiffens, as if to brace for the unpleasantness to come. I’ve maybe surprised her — she’s on a sofa, reading and doesn’t see me approach — and whether it’s for that reason or not, I can’t begrudge her the moment’s instinctive caution. I’ve read past interviews and profiles beforehand, as one does, and I’m prepared for the prospect that I’m entering the den of Helen Garner: Grouchy Literary Lioness. That prospect strikes me as vanishingly slim, based on her work. I think in particular of a moment’s reflection in “Suburbia,” when she writes of coming across a documentary about Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna Everage fame, on TV several years ago:
It showed black and white footage from the 1950s: a man in tightly rolled up shirtsleeves polishing his new FJ Holden with exaggeratedly vigorous arm movements; a bunch of unsmiling middle-aged women in horn-rimmed spectacles and hats like meringues. These people were offered to us viewers for our mockery. But in the 1950s I was a provincial Australian schoolgirl. I lived back then, in a suburb in Geelong. In that documentary footage I saw nothing to sneer at. What struck me was the man’s cheerful pride and energy. I saw the woman’s shyness, their anxiety about being no longer young, their uncertainty about whether they would be considered fashionable or attractive; and my heart cracked.
And so, I’m more expectant that I’ll meet Helen Garner from Geelong, a provincial girl who moved to the city, made a big name for herself, and has seen something of the world, all while searching for ways to afford the people she meets the same dignity she wants for herself. She doesn’t disappoint.

The Millions: I saw that someone called you “a counterculture Joan Didion.” There’s another comparison I like better: Colette.

Helen Garner: Colette! I’ve hardly ever read Colette, to tell the truth. I must’ve read some many, many years ago. I’ll try again.

TM: The reason I say this is, you read Colette’s things and you think, maybe it’s an occasional piece, maybe it’s a short story, and you really can’t tell the difference a lot of the time.

HG: That appeals to me greatly. It was funny, the other night in New Haven, we had a reading on the last night of the [Windham-Campbell] Festival. When I stood up to read, I read “The Insults of Age,” and I was the last one to read, and I stood up and I said, ‘I’m going to read an essay and it’s called–” and I thought, “Is this an essay?” And I had this moment of thinking, “Shouldn’t I have said ‘story?’” And I thought, ah, fuck it, I’ll just read it. And I read it, and everybody roared with laughter, so that was really nice.

TM: Aleksandar Hemon says there are no words for fiction or nonfiction in Bosnian, Croation, and Serbian. He had to call [The Book of My Lives] “true stories.” But the takeaway seemed to be that the line [between fiction and nonfiction] is porous and not all that important.

HG: It’s a strange thing to feel at ease in something that isn’t really a form and that you don’t know what it is. And so people say to me, ‘What do you write?’ People I haven’t met before, they say, ‘What sort of things do you write?’ And they just automatically assume that you write novels. And I say, ‘Oh, well, I used to write fiction, but now I write, um,’ and I go blank. If you say nonfiction to people who haven’t thought about all this, they don’t know what you’re talking about.

TM: It’s fascinating, because the novel has such great cultural power imaginatively, I think, and the writer is a romantic figure to people, but as far as people reading a novel and being invested in who the specific writer is, and the arc of an individual’s career, I’m not sure that’s so anymore on such a broad basis.

HG: I’m interested in this because I used to be married to a writer called Murray Bail. He was a kind of autodidact, and a very severe person, like autodidacts sometimes are. They apply strictures to things, and he thought that the novel was the absolutely preeminent form in literature, better than poetry, better than anything, and anything else was really kind of not worth doing. And so this caused difficulties between us, and it’s probably one reason why I shifted away from fiction, and I didn’t do this with conscious intent, but firstly I wrote The First Stone, which got me in a lot of trouble, but at that point I was thinking I was going to write a magazine article, but it kind of blew out into something bigger. And suddenly, bang, I was on the bestseller list week after week, and started making a lot of money, and people were coming up to me in the street, you know, some abusively and some favorably, but I think this wasn’t much fun for him, and there was some difficult stuff around there. But the thing was, I realized I was comfortable in that form, writing like that, and I’d always written between books, I’d always made a living by writing features, so it was just a matter of taking two extra steps and there I was. I sort of wish I didn’t have to argue, that I could just write a book, and say ‘This is a book by Helen Garner, and maybe you’ll enjoy it and this is what it’s about.’ But bookshops like to know if it’s fiction or not.

TM: I was thinking about The Spare Room, and the Helen character, how people found her unlikable a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that came to mind. You I’m sure saw Claire Messud had written The Woman Upstairs, and this interviewer asked her about the character being so unlikable, and she said she felt like it filled a void in the sense that there are probably a shortage of unlikable woman characters, and often we expect women not to show anger.

HG: That’s the exact point. That book, The Spare Room, it really interested me that a lot of men criticized the book for its anger. Not many women did. I think I know why, I mean here’s my guess, that women who are supposed to be looking after somebody, well obviously they just fall into a maternal archetype. And I think men, especially older men, younger men didn’t seem to have this problem with it, but for example, David Malouf reproached me for the amount of anger that was in the book. He said it was too angry. I do know him, I mean we’ve known each other for years, but he reproached me, and I was shocked. But I can’t help thinking there are men who still somewhere deep inside them have an unconscious fantasy that one day they’ll be helpless again. And they don’t want the person who’s going to be looking after them to be thinking, ‘Fuck you, I wish you’d die in the night.’ Nobody wants that, they don’t, but then, I was terribly taken aback by this. You know, the critics would say, this is great writing, it’s really wonderful, she’s at the peak of her powers and all that kind of shit, but there’s this awful anger and I hated it and it was ugly and how could she have been so cruel? But around this time, I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of an organization called Carers Australia, and I don’t do much of that sort of speaking, but I got this letter from them saying, would I address their general meeting, and I thought, hey, there’d be people there who know what it’s like to look after somebody long term.

I walked in and I thought, I don’t know what i’m going to say. I walked in and I just looked around, and in that room there were scores of people, most of them women but some men, who had the kind of look of weary endurance. And I’m talking about people who’d had, say, a [special needs child] who was now, like, 6’4”, and that was their life. And there were people there who had children in wheelchairs, anyway we’re talking long term care. People who’ve gone to hell and they haven’t come back. They’ve got to live there and they’ve got to make a life, and it’s terribly impressive. Anyway, so I thought in this company, I can talk about this. So I basically said that, and I said, I’ve been criticized for this book, for the anger in it, and they laughed. They didn’t laugh uproariously, but one of them came up to me at the end, and she said, ‘Helen, never be ashamed of the anger.’ She said, ‘We all feel it. We all feel it. Don’t ever be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty about it.’

TM: There seem to be a lot of women, readers and writers I mean, who are very invested in you. You’re someone’s Janet Malcolm, as it were.

HG: Yeah. Well, there are also lot of women who are invested in hating my guts forever, and that’s what came out of The First Stone, when I kind of crossed the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people. There were some people who never got over that, but that doesn’t worry me anymore, because I get quite a lot, well not a lot, but I have had letters from people who’ve said, I was a student when your book came out, and I put shit on you, and I refused to read the book because I knew what it was supposed to say, and now I’ve been out in the world, and I’m really sorry. They were really quite funny letters, saying, “What an idiot I was!” And one woman said, “We all ran around town blowing the shrill whistles of outrage.” And I thought, great, you just have to live a few more years for it to pan out.

TM: What about the people who are a bit overawed, a bit too fervent?

HG: That’s kind of embarrassing, but by the same token, every now and then people, especially this latest book, Everywhere I Look, I’ve had these really sweet letters from people. Not adoring, worshipping ones, but ones saying, “I’m sending you this little scarf that I knitted. I think you might like it.” This other woman sent me, after The Spare Room came out, I had a little parcel from this woman, and I open it up, and there’s a note in it that says, “Dear Helen, I read in The Spare Room that when your friend was sick, you gave her a hot water bottle and it was wrapped in a tea towel,” she said, “so I’m sending you two hot water bottle covers that I made,” and she said, “I made them out of old Japanese kimono material. These are things that I make.” She’s obviously an artist. These two glorious things, with little ribbons around their neck, but there was something kind of dry and funny about the way she did it. She didn’t say, “Aw, I adore you, and here, please use these.”

TM: What have you been reading where contemporary writing’s concerned? How about Australian writers?

HG: I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich. She’s fucking awesome. I spend a lot of time reading that kind of stuff, but I read novels from the ‘40s and ‘50s by English writers. I’ll tell you a terrific Australian novel that was published last year, by Joan London, it’s called The Golden Age. I loved it. It’s very, very good, but she’s a quiet person, she lives in Western Australia, which is a component of the story, and she’s a beautiful writer.

TM: You’d written that David Malouf writes a paragraph and keeps it as a tuning fork for the tone of a piece.

HG: That makes me think of a writer that I absolutely adore, Charles Portis. He was a journalist, and some of those novels of his, they’ve got this perfect voice. I’ve read True Grit about a hundred times. When he’s got that Mattie Ross talking, I read somewhere that he used to have to coordinate the stringers, people in the furthest flung parts of Arkansas or wherever they were, and a lot of them were women, and that’s where he must’ve gotten that voice from, that sort of rather strict voice but full of this kind of gutsy contempt for falseness.

TM: I did want to ask you about your diary because you’ve published parts of it, and obviously if you’re keeping a diary every single day, which is what you’ve said, there’s a lot more.

HG: Yeah, heaps. There’s crate after crate.

TM: I had talked to James Salter, who did the same thing [kept a daily journal], toward the end of his life, and I said, “Are you thinking about doing anything with these?” And he looked back at them, and he said he couldn’t publish them yet because there were so many people’s names in there who are still alive, and the things he’d written about them weren’t meant for public consumption. And he said, the big thing he came away with is thinking how much life he wrote down and just didn’t use in fiction.

HG: Same. There’s so much there that I don’t know what to do with it. But I’ll think about it. You know, it’s very tempting to do something super rational, like burning everything. I have had two big burnings.

TM: You’re making me think of the Writers’ Pyre, which came up in one of your diaries, where a group of writers got together and read a piece they’d written and wanted to do away with for one reason or another.

HG: They didn’t invite me to the Writers’ Pyre, but I wish they had. But I burnt all my diaries when I left home to go to university, when I was 18. I just burnt the lot, but there wasn’t very much, just a few exercise books, and I didn’t want my mother to read them. Then, about 10 years ago, I burnt a whole lot up to, well, what happened was,  I was thinking about this particular political [event], the Labour government in what must’ve been 1975, and it was quite radical, and it did all sorts of fantastic things, but it was economically hopeless, and the other side got organized and basically, there was a double dissolution and they fired them, and it was called “The Dismissal,” and it was a great wound in the modern political la-di-da. So, I was just thinking about it, and I said, “I wonder what I wrote about that at the time.” I thought, I’ll go and get it out, so I dived into the pack, I found the date, and I hadn’t even mentioned it. And I thought, ‘Oh. This is worse than I thought.” And again I started reading all around, and the whole thing was just so whiny and adolescent, and you know, I was 30 or something. So it was like the worst sort of diary keeping that women and girls do, which was “He did me wrong, and I’m sick of it, and he’s wounding me,” and all this crap, so I just kept reading slightly forward in time, and I got to a part where there was a switch, and suddenly it was like I opened a door and the world came in. So I burnt all the bits up to then. I just kept a few things that my daughter had, little drawings she’d done and little stories and things like that, I kept all that in a folder. Also, Monkey Grip came out of that period, so I have never regretted this act, not for a single second, but now I wouldn’t. But it was almost like [the change in tone] was from one day to the next, and I don’t know what made it change, but suddenly there were dialogues written out, or there were descriptions of places and strangers that I’d met.

TM: So suddenly it became sort of a writer’s diary.

HG: I guess, yeah, that’s what it was. So you’ve put your finger on it, because maybe that was the turning point. That was after I’d published a book.

TM: Well you’ve said that the first book happened and you still didn’t feel consciously like anything was different, or that it had set you on some path that you absolutely had to stick to.

HG: Not consciously, no, I didn’t. But I think perhaps it did. Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you something really shocking that happened the other day in New Haven. Do you know a woman called Amy Hungerford? Anyway, she was chairing this session, and there was me, Tessa Hadley and Hilton Als as part of this panel. We were talking about why you write certain books and how you don’t know why you’re writing them, and I said I don’t know why I chose to write a book about a man who chose to drive his kids into a dam and left them and ran away. And she said, but don’t you remember? In The Spare Room, she said, the narrator is driven so insane by her sick friend that she’s driving along the street and she has this fantasy that she’ll drive the car into a tree, the friend will die, and she’ll get out and run away? I was so shocked. But I kind of felt relieved, because strangely, when I look back on it, the two books kind of overlapped slightly in time, because I’d started going to the Farquharson trials when my friend came to stay. So anyway, there, that gave me a terrible shock, and there must be more of those traces that I’ve left behind.

TM: Do you read other writers’ diaries?

HG: The last one that I looked at was Witold Gombrowicz. Well I read about it, you know in the TLS, or, “What I Plan to Read This Summer.” I always like that better than the ones that say, “This is what I read this year.” This woman, whoever she was, said “I’m going to read Gombrowicz’s diary,” and she put a little quote from it, it said, “I felt hungry, so I went downstairs and I went to the shop and I bought myself a sandwich and I ate it,” and she said, “That’s why I’m going to read these diaries.” And I thought, “Yes!” and I rushed to the shop and I bought the book and of course it’s like a doorstopper of a thing, and I’d never read any of his work. I didn’t know anything about him, how he went to Argentina and lived there right during the war, and he was in torment all the time, but he’s very kind of like, The Angry Pole. I dip into them, but I don’t read straight through. And I’ve looked a million times over the years at Virginia Woolf’s diaries, of course. Who else have I read? Probably heaps but I can’t think of any right now. No, I don’t go looking for them, no.

TM: I’d go letters, then diaries.

HG: Oh, you read writers’ letters?

TM: Yeah. Actually, I wish people still wrote letters. 

HG: My diary’s all handwritten, and I like to write letters. I’ve always loved writing letters, and I know that the landscape is thickly coated with letters from me, up until about 10 years ago, when i started to do email. But I really miss it. I love to get a letter.

TM: There’s a different charge to that than an email.

HG: Yeah, totally. The only person I correspond with, in letters — no, there’s two — is Tim Winton, he lives in WA [Western Australia], so we write to each other. He’s the sort of guy, though, who can write a 14-page letter without turning a hair, and the other is a painter friend of mine who lives in Sydney, a guy called Tom Carment, and we write to each other, too. He writes in pencil on little scraps of paper when he’s out. He’s the sort of artist that goes out and draws and paints outdoors, and he does quite small, lovely works, beautiful painter. I love his work and I love his way of seeing things. He likes to tell what’s happened with his kids, or he tells who just walked past. He’s a lovely letter writer.

TM: Nobody does that anymore. It just doesn’t fit [emails] somehow.

HG: No, it’s a great loss. It’s just very intimate. I think people don’t want that sort of intimacy. I’m shocked by how, oddly in New York it’s not like this — people tend to greet you, strangers will give you eye contact and nod — this is something that seems to be dying out in Australia. You find that people just act as if you’re not there, quite often, and that’s part of the insults of age factor, I think, if you’re outside that erotic part of life, erotic in the broader sense, it’s not like they trample you. It’s just like they walk past without giving you eye contact.

TM: It seems a lot of people find those granular, day-to-day interactions are easier to skip over.

HG: I think old people, that’s a privilege of getting older, is that you can actually strike up conversations and people aren’t threatened by you. You know, there’s something I love about where I work. I just have an office in a little office building in a suburb of Melbourne, and it’s right opposite the big central hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in the basement, the ground floor of it, there’s a great big cafeteria, and I often go there at lunchtime just to get a sandwich.

TM: People watching in the cafeteria?

HG: Yeah, but not just watching them. You can strike up a conversation with anyone in a hospital, because everyone’s in extremis or they’re really worried or else they’ve got their arm in a sling, or they’ve got a drip in their arm and they’re sitting there.

TM: It takes you out of regular life.

HG: Yeah, and so you can say, Oh, what happened to your arm?’ ‘Ah, I come off my tractor,’ and then they tell you the whole story and I love it, I could spend hours in there. But I get the same feeling from that, being there, I recognize from being in the court. When I walk into a court, there’s this zing of adrenaline, because people around you are in a state. And when people talk to you, they don’t just bide the time.

TM: Well, there are stakes attached to what they’re talking about. It’s a world unto itself. I’m trying to think of what other situations would be similar.

HG: Those are the only two that I know. I must’ve experienced it, but restaurants, it’s not the same. It’s just that those are places of trauma, I suppose, where you can be a stranger there and not be in trauma yourself, and you can just be there.

TM: It’s acceptable to be vulnerable there.

HG: Maybe that’s what it is, yeah. I remember once having to go and get a mammogram, and there were a whole bunch of women, and we were all sitting around, and you’d go and get the mammogram, and then you’d wait for the results. So there was maybe six or seven women, and we’re all strangers to each other, and we’re sitting around this waiting room and we all got to, everyone was talking quite intimately. And I guess I was there for three quarters of an hour, and every now and then the nurse would come out and call your name, and you’d go and she’d say, ‘You’re okay, you’re clear,’ and you can go home. And so, when my name was called, I got up and she says to me, ‘All clear, you can go home.’ And I looked around to say goodbye to the women and they all looked and they all reached out and they all touched me. It was kind of like they wanted a piece of my luck? But it was so lovely, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s such good news.’

TM: That’s a gracious moment, what with you all also being so worried about yourselves.

HG: Yeah, it was a moment of grace, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.

A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.

This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.

Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?

John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.

RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.

JS: Just about, yeah.

RB: Is that fun?

JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.

RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?

JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.

RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?

JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.

RB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991].

JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.

RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.

JS: We like driving across the country.

RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?

JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.

RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.

JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.

RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?

JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.

RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is

Exiles of Historical Fiction

1.
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.

Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.

In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.

The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”

Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”

Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.

2.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.

Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.

Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:

“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.

In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”

3.
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?

These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.

One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.

Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.

Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.

In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.

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