Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?
A: Why shouldn’t they?
Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand.
I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich.
The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project?
Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book.
Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.”
But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.”
TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it?
SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed.
TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do?
SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.
TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories?
SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.
TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition?
SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe.
TM: Do you have a favorite joke?
SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle!
I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy.
Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear.
TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit.
SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have?
SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith.
SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days.
SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old.
SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow.
TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in?
SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief.
I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too.
James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose.
I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms.
TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble?
SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin.
When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.”
I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me.
If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written.
TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end.
SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.
According to a recent Washington Post article on so-called Twitter “cyborgs,” political activists are increasingly using automated “schedulers” to blast out wave after wave of pre-written posts, allowing a single user to tweet thousands of times a day. “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” one such “cyborg” said. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’” Hell is other people’s tweets.
The visionaries Mark O’Connell profiles in his latest book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, would not be satisfied with so modest a version of immortality. Adherents of a movement called transhumanism, they dream on a grander scale, marshaling technology in their “rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” an existence constrained by physical and intellectual limitations and needlessly curtailed by death.
O’Connell travels to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation facility in Arizona that houses Ted Williams’s head — take that, Cooperstown — where the CEO informs him that “cryonics…is really just an extension of emergency medicine.” He chats with Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, who argues that “biomedical cognitive enhancements would facilitate improved acquisition and retention of mental ability.” (Making the world a little less dumber one upload at a time!) A gerontologist seeking to radically extend lifespans describes aging as “a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale,” and a Buddhist transhumanist prepares for the Singularity by practicing “mind-filling…a daily techno-spiritual observance, whereby you upload some measure of data about yourself.” Finally, O’Connell views the scars of Tim Cannon, who implants technological devices into his body and espouses his deterministic views in a memorably paradoxical way: “The problem is, most people make the mistake of anthropomorphizing themselves.”
Fascinated, charmed, and occasionally repelled by these characters and ideas, O’Connell tries to make sense of a world in which humans are becoming more robotic and robotics more human. The Millions spoke with O’Connell, a Millions staff writer and Slate book critic, over Skype.
TM: What are the goals of the transhumanist movement?
MO: Their goals are blindingly simple, almost farcically simple. They want to never die. They want to be as powerful intellectually and physically as it’s possible to be within the limits of the technology of the future. They want the same thing that we, as humans, have always wanted, which is to find some kind of a release valve for our mortality, some idea for a way out, which is obviously what religion provided, and still does for most people.
They want it all, but the difference of course for them is there’s the distinct possibility that this might be achievable through technology. That’s the interesting thing to me. You can’t really dismiss it as complete nonsense, because there’s always the logical possibility that it could happen. I spent a lot of time when I was writing and reporting the book being really stuck on this idea that nothing that I was hearing was completely illogical. Everything seemed to satisfy basic demands of rationalism, and yet the end result was always completely insane.
TM: You call their philosophy the “event horizon” of the Enlightenment, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism.
MO: Well, you’re familiar with Beckett, so you know that rationalism is often the handmaiden of complete insanity, a tool of madness in its own way.
TM: Didn’t Hugh Kenner translate a Beckett passage [from Watt] into Pascal?
MO: I didn’t know that! I wish I had this conversation while I was writing the book.
TM: Then there’s Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot.
MO: Exactly, I kept thinking of that. I actually made several attempts to work Beckett and Flann O’Brien into the book, and I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity. But I could never quite figure out what that meant, or if I was merely being jingoistic.
TM: How does a mere user of technology evaluate these claims that technology can be used to direct human evolution, improve the “suboptimal system” of human existence, and achieve “longevity escape velocity,” that is, defeat death? As you point out, the claims are both perfectly logical and perfectly lunatic.
MO: That’s another thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, because, as made apparent early in the book, I don’t have a background in science. And I was tormented for a while that I didn’t really have grounds to judge the lunacy or otherwise of this stuff. I could approach it on a gut level — This can’t be true. What this man is telling me is insanity — but didn’t have the skill set to rationally pick apart these arguments. To use computer language, hopefully this is a feature of the book rather than a bug.
I was fascinated by the topic, but part of me felt that I was the last person who should be writing this book, that it needed someone more scientifically literate. It took me a little while to come around to the idea that, well, maybe actually I’m the best person to write the book because I don’t know anything about it. It sounds slightly self-serving, but perhaps a more literary sensibility is what that topic needs.
TM: If only to push back against the mechanistic or deterministic caricature of humans and human consciousness, which, as you point out, is generated partly by language, “a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasized into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.” To what extent does language shape how we conceive of the human?
MO: I think it’s always metaphors. All of language is metaphorical, and any way that we can conceive of ourselves and who we are is unavoidably going to be through metaphor. So in one sense, the idea that we are a machine or a computer is as good as any we have of thinking about ourselves. Even the “human spirit” is a kind of metaphor.
One of the ideas I touch on is that our latest or most pervasive technology is what serves as the metaphor for our minds. For example, in the Renaissance with clockwork, or the Victorian period with steam engines. Psychoanalysis was full of steam metaphors…
TH: Releasing pent-up pressures and all that.
MO: Exactly. And those might not make sense anymore, but even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking about ourselves, we do tend to accept certain notions of the brain as computational. I instinctively reject those ways of thinking about what the mind is, but at the same, time, I’m obsessed with notions of productivity and getting the most out of my time. Even though I’m a really inefficient mechanism, I can’t help thinking of myself in that way.
TM: You bring up [the Swedish philosopher] Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a computer tasked with producing paper clips most efficiently. The computer turns the entire universe into one giant manufacturing facility — a nightmarish vision of productivity.
MO: If we’re going to think of ourselves in that way, if we’re going to measure ourselves computationally, think of ourselves as having value in so far as we can compute info and figure things out and be “intelligent,” then we’re always going to lose to machines in the end. And I think that is part of why the logic of capitalism is so disturbing. That idea is not front and center in the book, but it’s running in the background. There’s another computational metaphor.
TM: I’m keeping a running tab.
MO: It’s a tab that’s open, I’m sure.
TM: While the transhumanists speak in utopian terms, there is this dystopian aspect to a ruthlessly efficient, techno-capitalist future.
MO: That is a dystopian idea, but I’m not a prognosticator of the future. The book’s message is not, We have to prepare for this. But it seems to me inevitable that the automation revolution is coming, and it’s going to be much bigger than the original Industrial Revolution where machines were obviously replacing a lot of workers. I think that artificial intelligence, when it comes — and it will come, I believe — is going to displace huge numbers of workers. And that’s a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s inherent in the logic of capitalism. That’s one of the contradictions of capitalism, that it’s striving for the replacement of labor with mechanization. The ownership of the labor force and the means of production seems to be what capital wants, to put it in a slightly mystical way.
I don’t see anyone trying to prevent that politically at the moment. Watching your election in the States, it’s apparent to me that the whole idea of bringing jobs back to America, industrial jobs — it’s so obvious that’s not going to happen. Or if does happen, production will come back from China eventually, but only when automation allows for cheaper labor.
TM: To pivot away from economics to aesthetics, in the book you describe some of the artistic efforts of computers. If poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased, can it (or other art forms) be coded?
MO: My instinct is that no computer can make art, but I don’t necessarily trust that instinct because there are so many suppositions. What do we mean by art? If we define art as something made by humans, then no. But have you heard any music or the Google AI art that came out a year ago? Google made this machine-run algorithm that was able to make pictures of dogs and various standard scenes, and they’re incredibly weird. They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen in terms of imagery. You’re obviously looking at a picture of a dog, but they’re deeply uncanny.
And the same is true of the music that’s been created by AI. There was a musical that came out in the West End in London, and the lyrics and the music were both written by a machine. And it wasn’t terrible, but it was just off. The same is true for any music I’ve heard composed by a machine. I would’ve expected music composed by computers to sound like Aphex Twin or something, but way more austere. But it doesn’t sound like that at all. It all sounds like ad jingles or radio stings. The music reflects some cheesy vision of ourselves back at us in a way that’s deeply unsettling.
But could a machine can ever make art? Who knows? Would you want that? I’d be interested, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book written by a machine.
TM: Or literary criticism generated by a machine? Franco Moretti has claimed that the only way to understand the novel is to stop reading them. We don’t have the computational power to get the full picture.
MO: Yes, stop wasting time reading novels!
TM: As a literary critic, which contemporary novels do you think fictionalize the human condition vis-à-vis technology most astutely?
MO: Most of what I read that fed into the book was genre stuff, sci-fi, which is not an area I was that familiar with. Weirdly the book that clicked that I read close to the end of writing the book is Zero K, which is amazing. Obviously, DeLillo’s a genius, but he’s 80 and not immersed in technology in the lived sense. But I think he gets this stuff in the way that so few contemporary writers of so-called literary fiction anyway do. And I also read White Noise while writing the book.
TM: Some of the transhumanists express lyrical visions of immortality in the Singularity. They want to exist as pure consciousness, “a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge that there was literally nothing outside…[part of] an interconnected system of interlocking nodes.”
MO: Such a weird thing to want. I could never get to the point where I could really emphasize with it, which was one of the challenges in writing the book. I didn’t want to just have my skepticism borne out. I wanted to be won over. And in some ways, these people seemed way more human to me than they were at the start, but I never got to the point where I could say, yeah, I could see why you would want to be data, disembodied information in the cloud. That seemed to me a fate literally worse than death.
TM: Especially if you don’t like your disembodied neighbors.
MO: Right. We’ll be dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with now.
TM: The characters do come across as human, especially a questing soul like Roen, a monkish rider on the “Immortality Bus,” [a coffin-shaped recreational vehicle touring the U.S. and spreading the transhumanist message]. He abstains from alcohol and sex to preserve his body for future bliss.
MO: Roen, yes. If I were writing a novel, and he were a character, I’d probably want to tone it down a bit. Too on the nose. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about as a nonfiction writer. Who cares if it’s too ridiculous? The more ridiculous the better.
TM: What did you make of this devotional aspect to the movement?
MO: That is a huge dimension to the book. And weirdly, when I was writing, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Catholic priests in Ireland for a different project that never saw the light of day. I guess because I was doing this other project at the same time, I saw the connections between the two.
TM: And then in contrast, you have the “practical transhumanists” at Grindhouse Wetware outside of Pittsburg, who implant devices into their flesh to livestream their vitals, open car doors, etc.
MO: Those guys are intense. And that’s why I think what they’re doing, as fascinating and grotesque as it is, is a gesture, a provocation about the future of ourselves and technology. What they’re doing is actually really low tech stuff. What it allows you to do is fairly minimal. I guess I can see the use value of not taking my keys out of my pocket [to open a car door] and having an implanted ID chip, but it’s minor stuff. In a way, it’s closer to screen body modification than actually becoming a cyborg.
But their endpoint is the Singularity. Becoming a cyborg is only a step along the way for them. I could never really figure out whether that is a viable future for humans. Most people would not want that or anything close to that, but there are ways in which tech is already very much under our skin already, metaphorically.
TM: It’s interesting how transhumanist goals are often framed in the broadest of humanitarian terms, that we all need fixing and thus are all in a sense “disabled;” that we are all trapped in the wrong bodies because all bodies are fundamentally wrong. One transhumanist even attempts to find common cause with the transgender movement using that logic.
MO: Yes, though transgender people would look at the claim differently.
TM: As would a disabled person.
MO: For sure.
TM: Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist presidential candidate whom you profile, suggested that the money allotted to make Los Angeles’ streets more wheelchair accessible would be better spent on robotic exoskeleton technology.
MO: And Zoltan got into pretty hot water over that. It was a slightly dumb thought experiment that I don’t think he thought through the implications of, but was happy enough with the backlash because it got people thinking through his ideas. And in a way, there’s a weird blinkered rationalism to it. Yeah, if you’re going to look at things in a completely, rigorously rational way, then maybe we should be improving all of our bodies and not spending money putting wheelchair ramps around L.A., but that’s not how the world works. That might be how a computer network system might approach it, but it’s not how humans work.
TM: There also seems to be a fascist element to this thinking, which reminds me of the slightly creepy spectacle of the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, “Woodstock for robots” as The New York Times called it. It’s the military industrial complex as family-friendly spectacle.
MO: That was one of the must fun things I did on the trips. I went with a friend from Ireland, and the experience itself wasn’t creepy. It was weird and interesting. But it was only thinking about it seriously after that it did seem to say something quite disturbing about America and American’s sense of itself in regards to power and violence and technology.
TM: You mentioned earlier that there might be something Irish about logical absurdity, but is there a distinctly American aspect to transhumanism and its audacious drive toward self-betterment.
MO: I can’t ignore the fact that so many of the prominent transhumanist are European or Russian, but I also can’t ignore the fact that so many end up in the Silicon Valley. In a way, then, there’s something uniquely American about it, but unique in the sense of America as welcoming of eccentrics and dreamers from all over the place. But there is also a connection culturally to American’s strange optimism about the possibility of technology and progress and individualism.
TM: And what about transhumanism’s politics or ideology?
MO: There are various strains politically within transhumanism — various liberal and socialist bents — but it seems to me that is a fundamentally individualistic, basically libertarian philosophy. And that maps very clearly onto America’s sense of itself, I think. It’s not coincidental that it’s taken hold so firmly in Silicon Valley.
It did feel to me when I was writing that I was writing a book about America as much as anything else. In a very oblique, quite idiosyncratic way, it was a way for me to come to grips with how strange I find America. I didn’t put my foot down about a lot of things, but when my American publisher was doing the audiobook, they had initially suggested a bunch of American actors to do the narration. I was very specific about not wanting an American voice to do my narrative voice, because I think a huge dimension of the reader’s experience is my bafflement [as an Irishman] about transhumanism specifically but also about American culture in general. And I think that would not come across in an American accent.
TM: I’m hearing Stephen Fry in my head.
MO: Perhaps too British, but there is a whole tradition of specifically British writers and being comically baffled by American stuff. And that is an element of the book, but I also wanted to avoid that, “Hey, look at that American. He’s fucking weird. Bunch of lunatics over here.”
TM: Like Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One in his satirical take on American death culture. Speaking of death culture, or death avoidance culture, when maverick multi-millionaires describe death as a humanitarian crisis, is this just a Silicon Valley spin on their own desire for immortality?
MO: The whole project grew out a kernel of identification with this idea. I started becoming interested in transhumanism 10 or 12 years ago when I wrote about it for a little magazine in Dublin called Mongrel after college. I talked to Steve Coll, who is a New Yorker staff writer, and he told me about this party he was at in Silicon Valley with a bunch of people who had been in on the ground floor of Google and were multi-gajillionaires in their early 30s. They had made all their money and were wondering what to do next. And they all said some version of, “Well, the thing we all want to do is to figure out how to stay alive long enough to spend all our money. So the next frontier for technology, as we see it, is immortality or radical life extension.”
That really got me interested in this, because, as I write in the beginning of the book, becoming a father made me start to think about the frailty and precariousness of life. They’re right, it sucks that we have to die! That’s what almost everything is about. Almost all of human culture and religion is a channeling or a sublimation of this fear of death, which we’re all thinking about in one way or another all the time. I know I am, anyway, not directly thinking about it all the time but…
TM: Oh, it’s usually in the back of my mind.
MO: So I totally identify with that. It’s bullshit that we have to die. Who designed this?
TM: Right, this a crisis!
MO: So I get it, but I also feel like it’s a really a strange way to approach death, to roll up your sleeves and say, we’re going to sort this. We throw enough man hours and intel units at this thing, and we’re gonna solve it.
TM: Or show up at Google HQ with a sign, “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH” as one transhumanist does.
MO: One of the things I didn’t go into in the book was all the potential problems that would arise from solving the central problem of death. Obvious things, like overpopulation, what do you do with your eternal life. I did think about that stuff, it just didn’t make it into the book because it wasn’t what I was most interested in.
TM: One of the things you were interested in was how transhumanism — with its instrumental view of the human — made you aware of your own body, your own flesh as a “dead format.”
MO: Jesus, that’s horrible.
MO: Yeah, all the reading and grappling with mechanistic ideas and talking with people who thought in that way definitely had an effect on how I experienced my fleshy humanity. I’m not sure how differently I feel about being a human now. I’m not sure I have an answer now about what it means to be a human, but I do think it has something to do with not being a machine. That’s not a great answer to arrive at after two or three years of writing a book on the topic, but I know I don’t want to be a machine.
TM: Not even a little?
MO: I may change my mind. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that younger people see the immortalism of transhumanism as an out-there, whacky idea, whereas older people find it fascinating. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, “Well, I think maybe they’re onto something.” He’s 73 now. Life extension doesn’t seem so crazy when you’re up against the limit of your own natural lifespan.
But I fundamentally don’t think Peter Thiel is going to save us.
First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of “Hillary lied!” and “Grab them by the pussy,” the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this — this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum — was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president.
Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.”
More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover.
All this has made reading nearly impossible. On November 7, I was reading, of all things, Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy. On November 9, I set it aside. I just could not read another goddamn word about Jack Kennedy facing down Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett, or Bobby Kennedy shaking off the agony of his brother’s murder to run first for the Senate and then for the presidency as a liberal firebrand. On November 7, all that was taking place in a country I knew and loved. On November 9, the book might as well have been set on Mars for all I could make sense of it.
After several days of staring dumbstruck at the news and my Facebook feed, I picked up Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, a fictionalized treatment of Samuel Beckett’s life in France during World War II. A book club I belong to was reading it, and my plan, honestly, was to fake it. I had read Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography, so I knew the outlines of the story and could talk knowledgeably about the central conceit of Baker’s novel, which is that Beckett’s desperate escape from the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Paris is the unstated plotline of his famously plotless play Waiting for Godot. I could barely read the newspaper, much less a whole novel, but in this case I figured I wouldn’t have to.
Then I read the book’s opening line: “The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was shh, shh, shh.” I was sitting on the living room sofa when I read this, surrounded by student papers, my laptop open to The New York Times website, which still, two days after election night, read “TRUMP TRIUMPHS” in all caps. All that fell away, and I was halfway up a tree in Ireland hearing the branches sway in the breeze. I didn’t know precisely where that tree was, or who was sitting in it with me, but I didn’t care. I was a grown man in despair invited, for an instant, to inhabit the mind of a boy hiding in a tree, listening, alert to the music of the world. “The boy swung a knee over the branch,” I read, “heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass.”
Do you know what a larch tree smells like? I don’t either, not really. But I smelled it then. For nearly a year, I had been stuffing my head with useless crap — turnout predictions of Hispanic voters in Florida, Bernie Sanders’s legislative record in Congress, federal law as it relates to the handling of classified government materials. Now I settled back into the sofa, smelling larch needles, and my head cleared just a little, just enough to keep on reading.
All the time I read A Country Road, a Tree, I shifted between two competing states of being, a pre-Trump reader and a post-Trump one. The pre-Trump reader in me had read enough Beckett to know that he would almost certainly regard Baker’s novel as so much sentimental bollocks. One of the more charming quirks of Beckett’s extraordinarily quirky personality was that he dismissed his work in the Paris Resistance, for which he later was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as mere “Boy Scout stuff.”
More importantly, by stripping plot from his postwar plays like Waiting for Godot and novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett called into question the very notion of the dramatic hero. In a conventional narrative, plot is driven by the hero’s desire to achieve some essential objective. The more consuming this desire is, the more absorbing the story. You can argue, as some do, that Vladimir and Estragon, the bickering central figures of Waiting for Godot, are heroic in their desire to wait for the elusive Godot, that for them inaction is a kind of heroic action, but as decades of baffled theatergoers can tell you, that’s hardly the kind of action most audiences expect.
The Samuel Beckett of A Country Tree, a Road is, by contrast, every inch a traditional dramatic hero. The book begins with Beckett in Ireland listening to the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in September 1939. He could easily wait out the war in safety at home, but he is in love with a Parisian woman, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, and just as importantly, he is creatively stymied and believes he can write only in Paris. When Beckett tells his mother that he plans to return to France, she asks witheringly: “And what possible use do you imagine you would be?”
This line functions like a witch’s curse that gives the hero his purpose: For the rest of the novel, Beckett struggles to be of use. Disgusted by his inaction as his friends are rounded up by the Germans, he joins the Resistance and, like magic, the very traits that made him useless — his introverted personality, his stubbornness, his savant-like gift for arranging random words and numbers into patterns — make him an ideal Nazi saboteur. Over and over, in crisis after crisis, others panic or give in to hunger and fear while Beckett calmly saves the day with a resourceful decision or a well-timed joke.
Once, on the run from the Gestapo, he and Suzanne get lost in a dark alleyway, and Beckett suggests they flip a coin to decide which direction to go. “What good would that do?” Suzanne asks.
He shrugs, takes the cigarette off her. “It’d be something. It’d be a start.”
“So, we’ll stay here, then.” He takes a drag and settles down against the wall.
“Shut up,” she says. “Idiot. You break my feet, you know?”
He shuffles his shoulders, chilly brick against his back. “You know, I like this alleyway. I think we could be happy here.”
“Oh, I’ve had enough. Come on!”
Surely, Beckett would hate all this. Surely, he would see that, in translating his life into fiction, Baker has turned him into an Ernest Hemingway war hero: laconic, mordantly funny, graceful under pressure. And just as surely, that would drive up him the wall. One of the hallmarks of the postwar European avant garde was an almost reflexive resistance to the bourgeois morality that drives most conventional narrative. In occupied Paris, in the concentration camps, in besieged Leningrad, it was who you were — Jew, Gypsy, enemy alien — not what was in your heart that saved your life or ended it. And when it wasn’t that, more often than not, it came down to dumb luck.
Had I read A Country Road, a Tree before the election, I would have said it was an enjoyable read, gorgeously written and historically fascinating, but also at a certain level a load of sentimental bollocks. But the election of Donald Trump on a wave of white aggrievement changed the way I read A Country Road, a Tree, as I suspect it will change the way I read and understand everything in the years to come. For one thing, I have felt so damn useless since Election Day, so gutless and impotent, and so I was primed for a good, old-fashioned bollocksy tale of a self-involved artist who, faced with the great evil of his time, finds within himself hidden reservoirs of courage and moral purpose.
More than that, though, what I found restorative in Baker’s novel, so deeply necessary, was its beauty. Ours is an ugly, angry age, and this ugliness is reflected in our politics. Once, America turned out leaders who inspired the world, but can you think of a single memorable line from either side in the 2016 presidential campaign that wasn’t an insult or a threat? We have gone from a public oratory that gave the world, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “I have a dream,” to one that has given the world, “I will build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.”
A Country Road, a Tree resists all this, not by arguing against it, but simply by being beautiful. Baker writes beautifully, but she also cares about beauty, sees the intrinsic value in it. It’s there in that first line about the boy in the tree listening to the swaying larch branches saying “shh, shh, shh,” and it’s there 279 pages later in book’s quietly moving final scene in which a war-weary Beckett returns to his Paris apartment and settles down to write:
In silence and in solitude, he folds open his new notebook. He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink, and fills it, and wipes the nib. The pen traces its way across the paper. Ink blues the page. Words form. This is where it begins.
There is no way to know what the next four years will bring, but whatever happens, it is safe to say it’s not going to be pretty. I, for one, plan to remain engaged politically, to write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions, and commit acts of civil disobedience, if none of those other things gets results. I continue to believe, Electoral College be damned, the America I know and love is still out there, strong as ever.
But in the meantime, amid all that struggle and rancor, we can’t forget to make a place for beauty. We’re going to need it, now more than ever.
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Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000.
Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present.
Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground.
John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected — correctly — that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field.
Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author.
Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books.
Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.”
Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times.
Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.”
In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.”
In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin — in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books.
On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”
In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: “She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane — it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.”
Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review.
Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books — rounded up by librarians — now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe.
Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: “Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”
Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent — and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
I recently traded music for podcasts as the soundtrack for my long commute to work. My favorite is novelist Brad Listi’s interview series, Other People, which has run nearly 400 episodes since late 2011. Listi’s interviews are somehow both more relaxed and more personal than the typical author conversation.
Listi regularly interviews writers who publish with independent or small presses. I soon noticed a trend: the writers were often Catholic. Granted, that designation could be parsed for eternity. Some writers were cradle Catholics; others converted. Some were lapsed Catholics who retained a nostalgic attachment to the faith, while others embraced atheism. Listi would include his own Catholic youth in the conversations. Some writers were forthright about their Catholic influences or beliefs, while others were more guarded. Readers of independent literature would find these names familiar: Joyelle McSweeney, Jamie Iredell, Roxane Gay, Aubrey Hirsch, Rick Barthelme, Alissa Nutting, Matthew Salesses, and more (Listi’s Catholic roster extends beyond the small presses, including George Saunders, William Giraldi, Tom Perotta, T.C. Boyle, and others).
Had I stumbled upon some Catholic literary subculture, the apex of which was a podcast based in southern California? I wrote Listi, who explained that the Catholic subtext was “purely incidental,” although he is “attracted to writing that comes from faith, writing that attempts to grapple, either directly or indirectly, with questions of why we’re here and how to be in this world and how to take care of suffering and what’s going to happen when we die, and so on.” Listi’s podcast is an unintentional incubator for a curious strand in contemporary independent and small press writing: God talk.
During a recent interview for The Believer, I asked Joyelle McSweeney to expand on the Marian devotion she’d teased during her Other People appearance. A professor at Notre Dame, McSweeney is the author of numerous experimental books, as well as the co-publisher of Action Books, a translation press. When I asked McSweeney how her Catholic faith has formed her identity as an artist, her response was illuminating: “My notion of art is very maximalist and souped-up: I love spectacle, overload, magic materials, magic words, incantation and litany, incarnation and possession, spilling and wounds. Art as a sacred event.”
McSweeney offered the 16th-century vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a metonym for Catholic narrative art: “Mary, here, is an artist who pushes her message through medium after medium: voice, breath, air, saint, rose, paint, cloak…her sacred image is a hemispheric symbol of resilience and resistance. The Virgin’s image has been reproduced in decals, spray paint, t-shirts, tattoos, you name it. It’s an image that moves. It uses every medium: high, low, who cares. Art doesn’t care.” In the present literary moment, earnest religious belief is a subversive, counter-cultural move. God is not absent, but God seems more ironic metaphor than serious matter.
Catholic literature is at a strange crossroads. Dana Gioia’s 2013 essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” diagnosed a paradox: “Although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts — not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.” Gioia’s essay requires a close reading; he qualifies these wide strokes. Catholic writing is not dead, but it is quiet and hidden. Most importantly for Gioia, Catholic literature is not as essential to the secular artistic conversation as it was before the Second Vatican Council. For Catholic writers, his essay was a difficult pill to swallow, but sometimes we need such medicine.
Gioia’s observation was not a matter of volume, but of cultural significance. In my book The Fine Delight, as well as an earlier essay for The Millions, I have attempted to document the notable diversity of contemporary American Catholic writing. Gioia would agree that Catholic writers are creating good work, but his contention is that work makes fewer waves outside Catholic readerships than it did during the days of Flannery O’Connor. Fair enough; we can save that discussion for another essay. What interests me now is this fascinating intersection between the independent and small press world — which often contains stylistically innovate writing and voices from the margins — and a resurgence of writing that directly grapples with faith. This is not entirely surprising. McSweeney and I discussed how two Catholics of a previous generation — Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol — offered both explicit and implicit frameworks for our electronic literary moment. Although we might be typing away in dark rooms at far distances, our electronic intersections might rekindle a sense of community that has been lost for a generation behind closed doors.
Edward Mullany’s newest book, The Three Sunrises, deepens the connection between independent writing and God. These three novellas are the final part of a trilogy that began with If I Falter At The Gallows. Speaking about that first book, Mullany said “If I was to say that Catholicism means one thing to me as a person, and another thing to me as an artist, I think I would be mistaken, though it isn’t easy for me to explain why. My art is often aberrant and unorthodox, but it is never (I hope) heretical. Art can be a weird synthesis of personality, technique, and belief.” Mullany grew up in Australia, where he received a Jesuit education, replete with the idea
that any work that is not evil, even one that is normally considered insignificant, can be spiritually meritorious if it is performed with a certain attitude of the soul. I mention this now because I think it reveals a ‘broadness’ in Catholic thought, even if it also suggests the development of faith via rote or repetition. Its willingness to find grace in mundane situations mirrors the willingness of art to consider anything as a subject.
Another contemporary Catholic writer, John Dermot Woods, explains “there are so many prejudices surrounding this faith, that people automatically misconstrue what that affirmation (of belief) means.” In conversation, Mullany and Woods return to the idea that Catholicism is a “non-fundamentalist” faith, a faith grounded in symbol, metaphor, and text. Mullany continues: “A writer, or an artist, has to be true to the reality of the world, in all of its profanity and its mundaneness. You don’t write what you want the world to be. But that doesn’t mean that your faith, if you’re a person of faith, has no value or effect on your technique. Faith shapes the context.”
Catholic context, in brief: sinners make better characters than saints, and great fiction is concerned with souls. The Three Sunrises is concerned with the fate of souls, but is also a dark, violent book. Mullany has addressed this contrast elsewhere:
The violence isn’t gratuitous as much as it is the consequence of some kind of indifferent cosmic force. This strikes me as strange because I’m actually Catholic; I don’t believe in an indifferent God. It’s this biblical tenor that’s more significant to me than what might be called an existential or even a depressive tenor…Blood in my work is usually an indication that a battle is being waged for a soul.
Mullany’s melancholic characters seek God less for comfort and more for confrontation. For answers. The book begins with the novella Legion, which is prefaced by a scene from the story of the Gerasene demoniac. The novella’s unnamed central character appears by turns nondescript, mysterious, and malevolent. His strangeness causes him to lose his office job. He only appears human when interacting with, or thinking about, his mother. His visits to her home are the few moments when the narrative is not focused on urban loneliness.
The usage of “legion” suggests the possibility of multiple characters, or a certain supernatural sense. Mullany delivers the novella in prose-poetic vignettes that sometimes only last a paragraph. In the first scene, the character slices a vein on his forearm with a razor, drips the blood into a coffee mug, and drinks it. Elsewhere, limbs and skulls are hidden in his apartment. Not quite Baltimore Catechism fare.
Mullany’s method, though, is to give metaphor flesh. In one scene, the narrator clamps pliers around “a tooth I was about to wrench out of my mouth.” He stops when his phone rings: “I needed silence in the apartment, no distractions.” When he finally does the dead, the tooth drops into the sink and “bounced around, making a tinkling sound.” His embrace of pain as a way to give shape to his body has saintly precedent.
Surreal events increase as the novella progresses. The narrator finds a horse in his apartment. Subway trains are empty. Yet the narrator shrugs. The only event that stirs his soul is the death of his mother. Legion offers the reader no comfort at the conclusion. The Book of Numbers, the second novella, does much the same. The story begins with an epigraph from Waiting for Godot, and then the line “Two men walked alone in the desert.” The second man soon disappears — “his very flesh seemed to disintegrate” — before the first man is carried away by eagles, “his head drooping, his chin on his chest, his legs and feet trailing in the wind.” His fantastical adventure brings him from swimming an underground river, sliding down a nearly eternal tunnel, and, finally, becoming an animated skeleton.
Halfway through this metamorphosis, one character makes a prescient point: “Maybe the place I’ve been trying to get to…I will never get to. Maybe this is all there is.” And later: “At best, the world is a compilation of atoms that amount to something about which I understand nothing.” At the risk of being reductive, one signifying element of independent literature is the embrace of such ambiguous narratives. One distinctive element of Mullany’s entry in this canon is his embrace of salvific language within that ambiguity. He replaces the catacombs of boredom with the ancient art of eternal contemplation. The book concludes with The Three Sunrises, a novella that dramatizes a man’s discovery of his doppelgänger. Unlike most tales of doubles, Mullany’s entry is less concerned with a battle between bodies, and more how the original man retreats from the loves and cares of his life and reconsiders what it means to be human: “I began to feel the way I imagined an amnesiac would feel, though I did not have amnesia of the memory but of the soul.”
A simultaneous turn inward and eternal is not exclusive to Catholic literature, but it is certainly endemic to it. When the main character says “There is a darkness that exists within the light; that is not an actual darkness, but is the absence of light and darkness both,” he is speaking an ancient language. The Three Sunrises feels like it were written by the hand of a 5th-century monk dropped in present-day Brooklyn, and asked to document what is present, and what is absent.
In one sun-soaked scene, the narrator stands “where State Street curved around past Battery Park,” and he sees four old women disappear into a church. “They were sightseeing,” he says, and “they likely felt obliged” to enter this place of worship. He waits for them to exit, and when they do, moving “slowly, smiling to themselves,” he waited “until I understood which direction they’d be going before deciding which direction I would go. Because I’d decided to follow them, regardless of what their destination would be.”
Mullany’s book reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Evening Hawk,” which begins on a grand note — a hawk’s geometric flight “above pines and the guttural gorge” signifying the passing of time. In a matter of lines, the poem ends with the opposite of time’s eternity: the ephemera of humanity, where history would “drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” Warren was surrounded by Catholics like Allen Tate, but was himself more of a seeker. Warren would appreciate Mullany’s religious sense. Something notable is happening within literature on the margins of publishing. Although its destination is unknown, its essence is ancient.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike have “Seven Millions Questions with Catie Disabato,” author of The Ghost Network, out now from Melville House.
Discussed in this episode: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Dublin, disputed pronunciations, self-hate, Tampa by Alissa Nutting, Anne Rice, Night Film by Marisha Pessl, Kesha, Janelle Monáe, Lady Gaga, ghosts.
Cut for time from this episode: Mike’s impromptu a cappella version of “We R Who We R,” which was beautiful but now you’ll never get to hear it, thanks a lot, JANET.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s English publication — Beckett’s self-translation of his original French play, En Attendant Godot, back into his native language. Godot was not Beckett’s first attempt at French composition; he had begun writing poetry in French as early as 1938 and translated Murphy into French in 1939. But Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s major foray into what would become his career-long routine of composing in French and self-translating into English. In the curious underworld of Beckettian translation studies, it’s a vexed topic. Some critics consider the doubled nature of Beckett’s oeuvre its distinguishing quality. Certainly, Beckett’s eccentric writing practice makes his bilingual corpus unique in the history of literature. But how do you classify self-translated texts? They eschew traditional categories, dwelling in some foggy realm between translation, revision, and authorial re-interpretation.
Then there’s the matter of priority: which text — French or English — emerges as the authoritative version? The English “translations,” written in Beckett’s native tongue, throw into question the “originality” of the original French texts. After all, don’t the French originals already imply the work of translation? Most scholars agree that the two versions of Godot should be studied side-by-side. In this way, any notion of priority is annulled, and the possibility of locating an “original” text, so central to our conceptions of artistic production, is all but swallowed by this black hole of textual duality.
The key concern, though, is the question of motivation: Why did Beckett, an Irishman, choose to write in French and why, after achieving considerable success in that language, did he insist time and again on returning his work to the language of his homeland? Beckett himself provided a string of reflections on the issue. In a 1937 letter to his friend Axel Kaun, he explained,
It is becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothing-ness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask…Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?
Here Beckett expresses a desire to rid himself of the baggage of traditional English. Only by divesting himself of the “irrelevancies” of grammar and style, he thought, could he approach something like the truth beneath the “mask.” Since Beckett held such excessiveness and irrelevance of language to be endemic to English, he began experimenting with French, a language in which he claimed, “It is easier to write without style…[French] had the right weakening effect.”
This rejection of style figures, in a letter dated later that same year, as a sort of violence against language: “From time to time I have the consolation, as now [Beckett is writing in German], of sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I should love to do with full knowledge and intent against my own — and as I shall do — Deo juvante.” What’s remarkable in these passages is the sense of desperation — indeed, of fervent compulsion — that drove Beckett to abandon his mother tongue. That English seemed to him “senseless” and “irrelevant,” a sort of falsity or façade that he felt compelled to “tear apart” and, finally, to “sin against,” throws Beckett’s bilingualism into a considerably darkened sphere. He wasn’t just playing around with language when he switched to French; the change marks neither an indulgence in the sport of interlingual word play, nor the disciplined resolve of a man fashioning himself a sort of writing exercise. Rather, the move from English to French was motivated by a fundamental necessity. It is as if Beckett required French for his very survival as a writer. Given the caliber of his early (English) work, it does not seem unreasonable, after all, to suggest that his status as literary genius is closely linked to his adoption of the French language.
But then, why was English unequal to Beckett’s aims? Part of the answer may lie in his relationship to James Joyce. Critics have cited their close friendship and Beckett’s perception of Joyce’s unparalleled achievements as the source of his need to escape English — to emerge from beneath Joyce’s shadow. There’s little doubt that Joyce’s legacy haunted; Beckett’s early work reveals an apish simulation of his mentor. A 1934 review of More Pricks than Kicks maintained, for instance, that Beckett “imitated everything in James Joyce — except the verbal magic and the inspiration…the whole book is a frank pastiche of the lighter, more satirical passages in Ulysses.” Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson, also noted that Beckett’s 1932 novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, was “very Joycean in its ambition and its accumulative technique.” During this period, Beckett even mimicked Joyce’s research style, using dictionaries and reference books and weaving into his novel hundreds of quotations from other works of literature, philosophy, and theology. That his early style so closely resembled Joyce’s is hardly surprising; Beckett called Joyce’s work a “heroic achievement…that’s what it was, epic, heroic, what he achieved.”
Still, this seems a somewhat simple assessment. Joyce’s elaborate use of language stands in opposition to the minimalism Beckett sought, but Joycean prose can hardly be considered the language of traditional, highly-stylized English. In fact, disparate as their styles seem, Beckett and Joyce might be said to unite, in a manner, on the level of their reworking of the English language. If Beckett reached English through French, Joyce introduced the mother tongue to French, German, Italian, Latin, and other languages besides. In short, if Beckett’s reworking of English contrives to escape Joyce, it is an escape that simultaneously mimics him, for Joyce had already endeavored a great escape of sorts.
The genteel “gentleman’s” English that Beckett despised was more closely embodied by someone like Samuel Johnson, a literary figure of special interest to Beckett. He made a pilgrimage to Dr. Johnson’s birthplace, scrupulously perused the pages of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and filled his journals with notes on Johnson from which to compose a play. Though Beckett was fascinated by the man, he probably received his work somewhat differently: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and reputation as the authority on English letters easily rendered his name synonymous with the brand of English Beckett struggled to shake off. Of course, if English in Beckett’s mind was the language of Johnson, it was also the language, however refashioned, of Joyce. Sitting down to write in English, Beckett inevitably composed a Joycean English.
Beckett’s relation to his literary forefathers and to the English language — his near-violent desperation to do away with English and simultaneous adoration for Joyce’s work — is a case study in the complexities of literary influence. Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) famously tried to de-idealize our notion of how one writer forms another — to refute the idea of literary creation as a carefree experience of muse-dappled inspiration and present it instead as an arduous, anxious, even diseased process: “Influence is influenza — an astral disease. If influence were health, who could write a poem? Health is stasis.” At once enraptured by his forefather’s work and nauseated by its effect on his own stunted writing, Beckett fled into a foreign tongue.
His is an unusual and extreme instance of poetic anxiety. Beckett didn’t just try to “get outside” his literary forefathers, which is how Bloom thinks most great writers produce original work. He tried to get outside even the language in which they wrote. In his adoption of French, Beckett may have recalled Joyce but he also rejected him. It wasn’t possible for him to innovate within the confines of the English tradition. He needed to rid himself of the language entirely — its echoes and associations — in order to open himself up to the potential for original artistic production. Beckett’s French texts — and, by extension, their English translations — are the result of this radical attempt to “get outside,” the anxiety of a writer infected not merely at the level of his forefather’s work, but at the level of the very language he employs.
Writing in French, Beckett adopted a new literary personality — a French life, a French set of texts, a French identity and reputation. It was his attempt to make a fresh start. But there is no clean slate on which to write, no mind wiped blank of history and influence — only the accumulation of voices, the last of which was his own. In En Attendant Godot and his other French texts, Beckett “sinned” (as he longed to do) against English and his literary forefathers. In Waiting for Godot and his English texts, he brought the sin home, facing down English — the language, the canon, Joyce, everything that had exiled him from his native tongue. Working through French, Beckett succeeded, finally, in writing himself into the English literary tradition.
He isn’t, in the end, strictly a writer or strictly a translator in any single work. Instead, Beckett’s texts collapse those identities, suggesting that authorship is always a matter of translation — the translation of experience into thought and thought into writing. His point in persistently translating his own work seems to have been to confuse us, to complicate the distinction between original and translation so that we are compelled to understand language generally as a kind of translation — and original texts as the consequence of texts that have come before: a vast lineage of influence and interpretation. Beckett just added a further leg to the journey, creating along the way twinned masterpieces in French and English.
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The Booker McConnell Prize was a belated arrival on the world lit scene. It was founded in 1969, sixty-six years after the first Prix Goncourt and fifty-two after the first Pulitzer. Booker McConnell, a U.K. food conglomerate, had a sideline interest in books. In the hopes that a prize might boost consumer interest, they ponied up the cash for the largest prize at the time. When The Guardian made the announcement, W.L. Webb (both The Guardian literary editor and the selection committee’s chairman) sent a telegram from Czechoslovakia in the throes of the Prague Spring: “Booker Prize is notable sign that Britain too is learning to value the writer and his work more hugely. With you soon Brezhnev willing.”
Since then, the Booker shortlist and the eventual winners have been decried for being too populist, too elitist, too imperialist, too predictable. The prize is announced on television each year, and each year, the closed-door politicking, arm-twisting, and neck-wringing leading up to the ceremony have been more indelible than most of the novels under consideration. Next year, the prize is expanding to consider any book published in English, dragging us all into the fracas.
Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Lost for Words, is a briskly readable satire on the annual circus. St. Aubyn has incorporated thinly veiled representations of past scandals, like Anthony Burgess demanding to know if his novel had won before he would commit to attending the event. The novel features a gallery of bumbling publishers, egomaniacal critics, emotionally-stunted authors. They are all angling for the Elysian Prize — the British literary world’s laurus nobilis, the evergreen plant associated with public validation — even if they don’t have much hope for literary immortality. In picking out the gossip from the freely invented, I found myself drawn further into the Booker’s long, ignoble history.
The first winner was P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, a Greene-influenced metafictional novel set during the Suez Crisis. The novel’s protagonist, Townrow, is hit on the head early in the novel. After being drawn into a web of international espionage, he has a difficult time grasping reality. “The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police,” the novel opens. “It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams.”
When Newby won, there was no televised ceremony. Newby received notification by mail. The book has fallen out of print, though Sam Jordison and other readers have suggested it’s an unjustly overlooked gem.
St. Aubyn is renowned for the Patrick Melrose books, a five-volume exploration of privilege and menace. In his new novel, we get a St. Aubyn avatar in Sam Black, a writer who has shelved his ambitious first novel to write a harrowing autobiographical novel, The Frozen Torrent, that is shortlisted for the prize. He hopes that success will vault him beyond mining his own personal trauma again and “win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.”
The other hapless candidates on the Elysian Prize shortlist are wot u starin at, a work of slumsploitation set in squalid public estates; The Greasy Pole, a political novel promoted by the chairman for his personal advantage; All The World’s A Stage, a historical novel set on the Elizabethan stage; and The Palace Cookbook. The last book is written by an unassuming Indian aristocrat who is baffled when her modest collection of traditional Indian recipes is mistaken for a post-modern novel. That plot point is one of the weakest in Lost for Words. It’s a move that belongs more to 1996 — the year Alan Sokal “punked” the post-modern academic journal Social Text with a nonsense article — than 2013.
St. Aubyn relishes writing pastiches of faux-literary trash. There are parodies of sub-Fleming thrillers, “risque” urban-dialect writing, and Continental philosophy. Possibly the funniest writing in the novel are the excerpts of All the World’s A Stage:
Before William [Shakespeare] could respond to this amazing tale of murder most foul, strange, and unnatural, John [Webster] rose up in his chair, in a state of great excitation, and pointed through the window.
“All eyes! All eyes! My lord of Essex comes hard upon us with a great retinue of men. How finely caparisoned they are, and point device in their accoutrement.”
The Booker McConnell Prize of 1972 was awarded to John Berger’s G., a novel of ideas about an Italian-American living on an English farm and lusting after a governess. “All generalizations are opposed to sex,” the narrator says. “Every feature that makes her desirable asserts its contingency — here, here, here, here, here, here. That is the only poem to be written about sex — here, here, here, here — now.”
When given the floor at the Booker ceremony, Berger critiqued the crass publicity stunts surrounding the prize, and then predictably praised the selection committee’s taste and good judgment, before finally excoriating its corporate sponsor.
“Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,” Berger said. “Booker-McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.”
Literary prizes ought to offer the kind of validation that alleviates a writer’s anxiety. There’s evidence laurus nobilis only gives those fears and insecurities a wider ambit. Even after winning the Booker Prize, and having a long career of brisk sales, Newby confessed that he worried that only old women read his books.
St. Aubyn’s insight into the writer’s psyche are well-deployed in Lost for Words. The novelist-character Sam Black wonders if writing is only an “ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the ‘Hephaestus complex,’ as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis.”
Another character, Sonny, is in London to pitch his tastelessly nostalgic novel about his family of Indian aristocrats. The novel is described as something like Downton Abbey in India — as a publisher-character suggests, it has “a wearisome emphasis on the insults dealt by modernity to the glory of the princely states, and without any hint of relief from his cloying self-regard.” He also is nephew to The Palace Cookbook author and has the second indignity of watching her absurd success from close proximity. Sonny’s grasping and unknowing talentlessness is a genuine fear stalking the writer’s psyche.
In 1981, John Banville published a public letter to the Booker foundation after being announced as a runner-up to the shortlist. “The five hard-pressed judges should forget about shortlists and secret conclaves and so on,” he wrote, “and instead forthwith award the prize to me.” Then, he claimed that he would spend the money on buying copies of all the novels on the longlist and donating them to libraries, ensuring wryly that they might be read, “surely a unique occurrence,” in his wording.
Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight’s Children, which would go on to win the oddly-named Booker of Bookers in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of the Booker, on the 40th anniversary of the prize.
When Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he said in his acceptance speech, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.”
In Lost for Words, the Elysian Prize committee is chaired by Malcolm Craig, a recently-disgraced MP, who takes a swipe at the “Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth” while accepting the position. The rest of the committee includes Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend, a popular writer named Penny Feathers, and a blogger, Jo Cross, who is “fiercely loyal” to her blog subscribers. The panel is filled out by the requisite Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, and Tobias Benedict, a vacuous actor featured in a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot.
Malcolm opens the first meeting by talking about the social responsibility involved in awarding the prize. “It’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it,” he says. To which, the blogger adds, “no pseuds and no aristos.”
The Oxbridge professor provokes him by name-dropping Nabokov and Proust, as talented aristocrats, but she sabotages herself by sinking into pedantic diatribes on “the true nature of literature.”
St. Aubyn gives the members conventional flaws: they are easily flattered and easily wounded, and animated by an unfocused belligerence. The blogger says, “The vested interests are certainly not going to thank us. And all I can say is that if they want a fight, we’re ready for them.”
The satire in these passages goes broad and lifeless, and the execution is predictable. St. Aubyn, it goes without saying, is said to have nursed a grudge about not winning for any of the Melrose novels, and his rancor is unfulfilled and directionless when he takes aim at the committee.
These passages also have the air of wish-fulfillment, as if the author were indulging is his most self-serving judgments of panelists. They are incapable of searching critique and indifferent to books generally. By setting up such easy targets, St. Aubyn is dragging his net in the shallows.
In 2002, the website of the Man Booker Prize (renamed that year) announced Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as the winner. The chair of the Booker committee, Lisa Jardine, claimed that the book “would make you believe in God.”
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy,” the novel begins, prompting me to ask: what kind of suffering leaves one happy and exuberant? The question goes unanswered.
Unfortunately, the prize announcement was posted a full week before the televised ceremony, while William Hill plc and other bookmakers were still taking bets on the winner.
St. Aubyn points out in Lost for Words something worth remembering: even in the middle of the frenzy, while the judges are weighing “relevance” and “readability” of the nominees, the serious authors are finding refuge in the writing of sentences.
After being shortlisted, Sam Black is working out whether he should be excited, or how excited he should be, or what his responsibility to the non-shortlisted are. He thinks:
Hubris was bad, but insincere anti-hubris was no better. In the middle of the day, a word like “humility” would present itself, like a sunlit colonnade in all its elegance and simplicity, but by the middle of the night it was transformed into a sinister ruin, with a murderer concealed behind every column.
He compulsively writes down the line for use in a future book. It is enough, we hope, to start him on a sequence of dreams.
For couples seeking a Valentine’s Day more astringent than saccharine, I suggest the following: settle down after dinner, light some candles, and read Dan Rhodes’s Marry Me aloud to each other. Start with “Fate,” the entirety of which runs as follows:
When it comes to matters of romance, my fiancée is a firm believer in destiny. “If fate has decreed that I end up married to you,” she’ll sigh, “then there’s not much I can do about it, is there?”
If there is some uncomfortable fidgeting, take a slug of red wine, perhaps something stronger. Then flip to “Worst” and read the opening line in your sultriest voice: “My wife told me that she and her friends had voted me the worst at sex out of all their husbands.”
Cough awkwardly and mop your sweating brow if you must. Now you’re primed for the opening story, “Ex,” about a woman who won’t stop talking about her former lover and the “sun-drenched and culturally enlightening holidays they had taken together.” Lying naked in the arms of her new husband on her wedding night, she tells him: “It’s funny — if things had turned out just a little bit differently, it would have been him I’d just done that with, not you.” The story breaks off before we learn whether or not the narrator laughs.
On second thought, what’s playing on TV? Perhaps it’s best to save Marry Me to read in solitude at a later date.
In his latest collection, Rhodes sends out 79 telegraphic dispatches from the land of generally mismatched lovers. (His debut, Anthropology, covered similar terrain while adhering to Oulipo-like constraints: each of the 101 stories had 101 words.) Like the heroine of “Fate,” Rhodes is a believer in destiny. His short tales — usually a paragraph or two — bear the seed of an impending tragedy in even the most innocent of opening clauses. As the love affairs between cloying obsessives, callous monsters, oblivious saps, and determined romantics are narrated one by one, the title Marry Me becomes increasingly ominous. A hint of menace creeps in; the title seems less and less like a question or plea and more like an imperative to submit to Eros and the attendant havoc.
Marry Me’s epigraph is an opaque quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Marriage is the only legal contract which abrogates as between the parties all the laws that safeguard the particular relation to which it refers.” I confess to reading that three or four times, increasingly frustrated at my obtuseness for missing what was obviously an invaluable nugget of truth, before scanning down to a small author’s note at page’s bottom: “I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure it’s very wise.” That earned my first chuckle, but my initial befuddlement could also be thought of as a little allegory of the cluelessness, willful or otherwise, afflicting many of the lovers I’d soon meet.
Marry Me generates its humor from the disconnect between a relationship’s form — its personal, sexual, and social expectations — and that relationship’s unexpected, and often grotesque, content. Reading the scores of first-person stories straight through is a little like watching a long standup act, the comic adopting various roles but maintaining a signature voice throughout. The trick is to condense all those roles into one narrating persona, which can register as boorish, naive, ironic, cloying, poetic, wistful, or blithely cruel. Rhodes’s flat affect stays consistent even as he plays the lovesick fool or the cool ironist; no humiliation or catastrophe ruffles the calm surface of the text, not even in “Fear,” in which a skydiving marriage ceremony goes terribly wrong. When the chutes fail to open and his new wife screams in terror, he realizes it’s never too late for passive aggression: “I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.”
One of the most impressive, bizarre tales is “News,” which in the space of a couple hundred words crams in a lot: a fiancé with cold feet, a tiger mauling, an elaborate mime by a man named Demetrio, and a clinically logical abdication of personal responsibility. To explain how they fit together would ruin the fun. It’s a small wonder of constantly shifting sympathies amidst mounting absurdity.
There are some duds, especially when Rhodes goes for the overtly jokey. In “Issues,” the narrator claims not have any body image issues, prompting his fiancée to tell him that that’s precisely the problem: “Just look at yourself. You’d better get some — and fast.” And in two uncharacteristically stale satires, “Her Old Self” and “Her Self,” Rhodes belabors the nagging harridan trope. However, the virtue of the form is that these misfires (unlike some bad relationships) quickly conclude. Before long, it’s on to the next new conceit.
The best stories, like “Dress,” skillfully build up to their punch lines. Honoring his wife’s final wish to be cremated in her wedding dress, an undertaker informs him with “impeccable politeness” that it won’t be possible. Maintaining his professionalism throughout, the undertaker explains how the deceased’s very short, black leather dress would clog the machine and fill the streets with an acrid odor. Decorum finally gives way in the last line’s perfectly timed eruption: “‘Perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘madam has something in her wardrobe which was comparably whorish, but rather more likely to conform to council regulations?’”
Male anxiety supplies Rhodes with plenty of material. His world is populated by good looking, funny, and virile suitors; they sometimes gather together en masse, perhaps on a parade float (“Champions”) or on the bride’s side of a wedding (“Commitment”). The narrator is repeatedly cuckolded, the betrayals made even worse by the brutal honesty of the confessions: “Do you remember that time you told me I was way out of your league, and how you were worried that one day I would find somebody a lot more handsome than you, and much, much better in bed? Well, now I have.” Others have more tact in breaking things off. In “Mistakes,” a woman asks her new husband to proofread a letter she has written on her honeymoon to a friend; he happily corrects her grammatical and orthographic infelicities: “the most biggest mistake I have ever made;” “it feels like a life sentance [sic];” “I dont [sic] know what I did to deserve this.”
Midway through the collection, a young woman quotes Goethe to her fiancé: “One should only celebrate a happy ending; celebrations at the outset exhaust the joy and energy needed to urge us forward and sustain us in the long struggle.” Though most of Rhodes’s stories focus on that long struggle, several of the strongest tales celebrate a happy ending, or at least his unique take on a happy ending. Particularly memorable is “Perfect,” about a couple whose pricy wedding eventually leads to their eviction and homelessness.
The story pushes past its initial comic conceit to arrive at a hard-fought poignancy reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. As Vladimir thinks back on the respectable days when he and Estragon stood “hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first,” so does Rhodes’s destitute pair turn their thoughts to happier days: “Now, years later, as we huddle together for warmth under whichever bridge happens to feel the safest, we reminisce about our special day.” Wishing for some boric acid to “keep the cockroaches away,” the smitten, laughing husband listens to his wife, “her eyes bright with memory,” rhapsodize about place settings, the exquisite calligraphy, the exact “shade of orchid” on the corsages and finally Uncle Desmond:
At the reception Uncle Desmond had done an amusing dance with his arms outstretched, as though he were an aeroplane, or a bird or something.
After the loving recall of every precise detail, there is something especially inspired about that concluding uncertainty over Uncle Desmond’s dance, a mystery to ponder until death do them part.
After Hugo Chávez’s death, it certainly didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to surface, or indeed resurface, about a United States plot to poison him. Then came Rand Paul’s epic filibuster, which fired up liberals, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists alike. The South American intrigue and vision of armed drones patrolling American skies almost managed to overshadow the upheaval at the Vatican, always good for a dose of real or imagined intrigue: Shocking Resignation! Papist plots! Female Popes! Borgias! Traitorous butlers! The past month has been particularly rich in conspiracy theories, though as Richard Hofstadter notes in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the conspiratorial worldview, “while it comes in waves of different intensity…appears to be ineradicable.”
Explaining humanity’s endemic paranoia, Hofstadter concedes that broadly speaking, conspiratorial thinkers have it right: “All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial.” The paranoid mind, however, sees conspiracy as “the motive force in historical events” and imagines a vast, shadowy network of unlimited power working around the clock to sabotage, infiltrate, obfuscate and corrupt. This worldview spawns a style that is “nothing if not coherent,” blends a “seemingly coherent application to detail” and “the most fantastic conclusions,” is flexible enough to adopt the voice of a Dryasdust pedant or a lurid visionary, and finally projects its author’s desires and limitations onto a beguiling villain, a “free, active, demonic agent.” Hofstadter’s paranoid, it turns out, possesses many of the elements of a good novelist (save, crucially, irony).
Several years ago — when some of the finest paranoid minds were at work on Barack Obama’s birth certificate — I used this connection between the paranoid and the novelist to design a composition class on conspiracy fiction. I figured the flashy topic would be a good way to smuggle in a short history of Western literature from the Book of Revelations to The Crying of Lot 49. The nineteen enrolled students, many of whom were reasonably expecting to be enlightened about Opus Dei or the suspiciously decorated Denver International Airport, found themselves snared in an elaborate plan designed to make them read Richard III. I still remember their gasps when they realized that the deception went all the way to the top (or rather, all the way to their graduate instructor). By the time the add/drop deadline had passed, we were proceeding line by line through Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, that two-act conspiratorial joke played on a hapless couple, and there was, to quote Beckett, “nothing to be done.” Unless I could somehow be stopped, my dastardly, 12-week plan would soon culminate in a research paper on a topic of their choice.
In one of the odd ways that syllabi mirror life, one day after class I found myself in a strange discussion with a student’s father. He worked in the defense industry and was concerned that his son’s enrollment in a conspiracy fiction class might raise red flags. I assured him that while I was guilty of numerous pedagogical crimes, I had no intention of subverting the government. The course, I explained, was about the importance of “plot” in both fiction and conspiracy theories. We were less concerned with loosening the tentacles of our military industrial complex than in teasing out the literary implications of Hofstadter’s essay on the paranoid style, which argues that the distinguishing feature of a conspiracy theory is not “the absence of verifiable facts,” but rather the “curious leap in imagination…from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” Conspiracy fiction, and here I smugly quoted from my course description, reverses this process, imaginatively leaping from the unbelievable to the undeniable.
Couldn’t he see, I breathlessly continued, that the paranoid’s ability to weave each new piece of information into a growing web of deceit mirrored the novelist’s seamless construction of a fictional world? That the paranoid’s perverse faith in the unremitting power of his antagonist was similar to the reader’s faith in the novelist’s diabolical control over every character, detail, scene and plot twist? (Did I mention that a tendency to longwindedness was one of my aforementioned teaching faults?) For my peroration, I urged him to grant that conspiracy fiction modeled an intensified version of the same “blessed rage for order” that motivates all of our reading, from modern poetry to a lease agreement.
In short, I told him that my course was in no way jeopardizing his security clearance.
Looking back on that little chat with the military contractor, I believe that episode, and its attendant eeriness, gave me the fanciful notion that my students were in fact conspiring against me. It speaks either to my classroom management skills or to my paranoid disposition that I began to see every note passed, whispered comment, or mute response to my questions as a sinister sign of collusion. Moreover, when they did speak, they seemed intent on asking questions for which I had no answer. I felt like The Third Man’s Holly Martins, the author of Breakfast at Double Egg Ranch who must give an impromptu lecture on the crisis of faith in the modern novel.
The often naïve heroes of conspiracy fiction must quickly learn to read the signs of an increasingly sinister world, and read I did. The students’ papers were a source of constant paranoid speculation. I became convinced that after having encountered Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a meerschaum-infused tale of royal blackmail, they were employing increasingly cunning ways to conceal their thesis statements — those necessary MacGuffins around which all English papers turn — from my “lynx eye.” Were they perhaps hiding in plain sight like the missing letter, “thrust carelessly and…contemptuously” somewhere in those 2.5-spaced paragraphs?
No sooner had I given up the search then we moved on to Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” that marvelous tale in which a conspiracy is set in motion in the most public of ways: a newspaper announcement putting out a call to “all red-headed men who are sound in body and mind.” Suspecting that the students had drawn inspiration from the redheaded man’s mysterious sinecure — copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica for 4 pounds a week — I soon began seeing plagiarists everywhere scheming to dupe their hardly Sherlockian instructor. When we got to Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” I convinced myself that the students were merely crafting their papers to read like plagiaries, thereby mimicking the villainous trick played on Lönnrot, a detective who is lured into a trap through his “reckless perspicacity.”
A switch from literature to Machiavelli’s political science gave me a strategy for heading off the class’s conspiratorial fever.
…in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should examine all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke, so as not to have to renew them every day and, by not renewing them, to secure men and gain them to himself with benefits.
Acting more the lion than the fox, I didn’t even tuck my shirt into my khakis before bursting into the classroom the following day. I doled out pop quizzes, checked their books for marginalia, confiscated their phones and forced them to spend the remaining twenty minutes reflecting on Joseph K.’s unenviable, impossible task in The Trial:
…to meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be recalled to mind, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and examined from every angle.
It didn’t work. When we reached Pynchon, I predictably began to find curious graffiti around campus. I had taught the students too well in the art of conspiracy making, and by the end of the semester I was as besieged as Oedipa Maas with the “malignant, deliberate replication” of muted horns: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Of my end-of-term evaluations, it suffices to quote the first line of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.”
As the recap of my semester demonstrates, the conspiratorial thinker is also a pitiable figure, which Hofstadter points out in the oddly moving conclusion to his essay: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” That is, the paranoid believes in his fiction (which never ends well), and thus he fails to derive pleasure from the meticulously constructed plots in the way that the reader of conspiracy fiction can. (If only a work like Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which brilliantly and amusingly depicts the melancholic aspect of a police chief who has “nothing but the mirage of a conspiracy to fill his loneliness,” had been on my syllabus, I might have seen the error of my ways earlier.)
And yet my paranoid pedagogy was ultimately more comitragic than tragic, more Beckettian than Shakespearian. I came into the class like the emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted characters we would encounter and came out in considerably better shape than most of them. I should focus on the upside of conspiracy fiction, the way it offers perverse, often painful opportunities for entertainment, growth, introspection, and enlightenment: to improvise or “canter” like Vladimir and Estragon wiling away the time, to lose one’s childish illusions like The Ministry of Fear’s Arthur Rowe, to ponder one’s guilt, if only futilely, like Joseph K., or like Oedipa Maas, to discover fleetingly the “high magic to low puns.” Such is the allure of conspiratorial narrative; it invites a clarity, however illusory, amidst the very real and supremely readable distortions of the paranoid style.
Image via Wikimedia Commons