At Artforum, underground comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb discusses the relationship between story and art in her work. “My comics are more story-driven than art-driven: The art has to bow to the writing,” she says.”When you have to coordinate the images with the writing, it’s complicated. When I get sick of doing comics, I paint, because it’s direct. Comics people read books, and the art is sometimes secondary. Which is fine—that’s how we meant to do it! We didn’t mean for it to go on walls. But when I see people appreciate the art, and they’re looking at it in a different way, how can I complain?”
Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts was published by Tin House Books in early May. The seemingly inauspicious timing of the book’s release, in the midst of our present moment of chaos and uncertainty, was in its way perfect—Beha’s novel is set in New York during our last great moment of political crisis, a decade ago, following the economic collapse. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big, rich, complex novel of ideas, and I found it to be enormously soothing to spend time with a serious intellect working through not only a story but through the philosophical problems of our moment. How do we produce real knowledge in an era of overwhelming, infinite information? And how, if at all, might a person live decently in our troubled world? As The Millions’ own Nick Ripatrazone writes, “Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction―even down to the probing dialogue of his characters.”
The Millions: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big book, and unlike many big books I’ve encountered lately, it deserves to be a big book—that is, you could not adequately tell this story, which encompasses the lives of seven principle characters as well as the socio-cultural landscape of New York in the late-aughts, in 250 pages. I wonder if you could talk about the expansiveness of this novel, if it began as something smaller, and when it was that you realized the scope of the project.
Christopher Beha: I take that as a real compliment, coming from a known long-book skeptic. The first thing I’d say in response is that my previous books are all sub-300 pages, so I am not someone whose first impulse is always to go big. In this case, however, I did know before I started that the book would be longish, because I knew I wanted to do certain things that you can’t do adequately in a short number of pages. And I might as well just say candidly that I have always had the ambition of writing a big, thick, doorstopper novel. (This book actually wound up being a few hundred pages short of that; but there were drafts that certainly would have qualified.)
That is probably not a very fashionable thing to say. We are in a moment where slim works of auto-fiction are the standard of “seriousness.” Setting out to write a “big” book feels like a very male—or maybe Mailer-ite—ambition, in the worst possible way. “Have you got what it takes to step into the ring with Tolstoy?” and all that bullshit. I get that. But for me the ambition came from what I hope is a purer place: I love long novels. I love a lot of short novels, too, but a disproportionate number of the novels that have had truly lasting significance for me have been notably long: Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; In Search of Lost Time; Kristen Lavransdatter; Dr. Faustus; JR; Underworld; Little, Big; just in the last few years, My Struggle and Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: these are the books that have most nourished me. (And, yes, I might as well just be honest and include Infinite Jest on this list, since so many people have come to view it as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the straight white male obsession with length.) To me, there is no better feeling than being three or four hundred pages—a normal novel’s length—into a truly great seven- or eight-hundred-page book, walking around with it in your head, letting it interact with the world outside the page. This thing that happens when you spend a week or two, rather than a couple of days, reading a book, the way it takes over your life, that is to me one of the pinnacles of what literature can do. My ambition was to write a book that might have a shot at doing that for a reader.
Of course, it doesn’t work at all if it’s a bad long book, particularly if its badness consists in its being long for no good reason, or long because the writer felt the need to prove—to himself or anyone else—that he could do it. So I was excited to hit upon material that I thought could sustain a good long book, and I appreciate hearing that you think it did.
TM: I couldn’t imagine it being otherwise. Remaining on the subject of pulling together a large project like this: I think novels tend to be about a problem or subject that nags you, that won’t let you not write it, or create the imaginative space that allows you to explore it. Did you find this to be the case with this novel? The book covers so much ground—probability, destiny, politics, media, race, and baseball, among others—but was there a central issue or problem that insisted the book get written?
CB: I suppose the nagging problem here had to do with the nature of knowledge about the world and how that knowledge ought to be put into action. One of the main characters, Sam Waxworth, believes very strongly in empiricism, formulating a theory and putting it to the test. Another, Frank Doyle, believes in following your instincts, acting with commitment despite the fact that we never have all of the information. In Frank’s view, we are all, in a sense, 1 of 1, and thus no amount of data can make our choices for us. This is the view expressed most elegantly by Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. I was interested in bringing these worldviews into contact with each other. To your point, though, if I’d thought that one of these characters was absolutely right and the other wrong, I would not have been interested in writing a novel about them. It is easy to satirize the mania for quantification that Waxworth exhibits, but its opposite is on its way down the road to the dismissal of experts, the refusal to learn from experience—Trumpism, basically. There is something both appealing and repulsing in both views, which is what makes them novel material.
But I hasten to add that novels—at least of the more or less realist sort I’m trying to write—are built out of people, not ideas. At a certain point, you want your characters to behave as human beings and not just as embodiments of your own preoccupations, which means giving them the freedom to act inconsistently. Then this becomes the nagging problem: figuring out how this particular person (as opposed to a stock character with these particular beliefs) would act in this particular circumstance. This is the hardest part of writing a realist novel, I think, and when otherwise well-made realist novels feel fake and “made up” in the way that realism’s critics complain about, it is usually because this work hasn’t been done.
TM: You are the editor of Harper’s Magazine and were previously the fiction editor. I’m really curious how you think this might impact your writing. I mean, in one sense, all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, creator and critic, so to some extent, I’m sure you work the same way most people do. But I do wonder how the specialized skills you’ve developed might affect process.
CB: My career as an editor has mostly reinforced for me one of the things that aspiring writers are constantly being told by workshop professors and other more established writers, which is that the real work begins once you’ve got a first draft. That recognition, in turn, has freed me up to write looser first (and second) drafts. I used to the kind of writer who really labored over sentences before I had any idea how they were fitting into a larger scheme. I still care a lot about my sentences, of course, but I’ve learned to get something down on the page first and then worry about it making it shapely or beautiful or whatever you want it to be.
You say the all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, but for me the big lesson was to be first one, then the other. Try to turn the inner editor’s voice off while writing, trusting that he will have his say in due course. I think working as an editor, developing a strong editorial sense while working on other people’s writing, has had the perhaps paradoxical effect of making it easier to turn my inner editor off at certain points in the process.
TM: Elaborating on the last question, when you edited a story of mine that ran in Harper’s, you suggested cutting off four pages from the beginning—I was horrified at first, but quickly realized you were dead right. Are you able to bring that kind of editorial mercilessness to your own fiction, or do you have as much trouble killing your darlings as anyone else?
CB: I try to be pretty ruthless with my own stuff. I cut hundreds of pages from this book. This is the flip side to what I wrote above. If you’re going to turn the editor off while writing your first drafts, you have to really give him license once it’s his turn. Once you are in edit mode, you are no longer the person who wrote these words—now that person has been shut off. You don’t even know which ones are the darlings. You’re not thinking about the amount of blood and sweat that went into any particular sentence or scene, you’re just thinking about what’s there on the page. You get to a point where the excitement of cutting stuff is almost as great as the excitement of creation. Because cutting involves a kind of faith that you can do something better. That’s a question I really try to ask myself while reading my own work—almost in a taunting way: Is this the best you can do? To refuse to cut is implicitly to say, Yes, I am incapable of making this any better than it is right now. Which sometimes is the truth! But it is a kind of defeat.
TM: Related, I think the importance of having good readers through the drafting process cannot be understated. Do you have any strategy with this, certain moments when you find reads are most helpful, and certain readers who are best for a particular stage?
CB: I show everything to my wife—who is both a great reader and a great writer—pretty early in the process, and I have a handful of trusted readers I turn to once I’ve got a presentable draft of the whole thing, which usually means after my third or fourth go through. But without exactly disagreeing with you on the importance of readers, I’d like to offer a counterpoint. I’m one of those people who started taking writing workshops the moment I stepped on to campus as an undergrad. I went straight from college to my MFA. I had some really amazing teachers, and I learned a lot, and I don’t regret that time, but I think there was ultimately something a bit damaging to me about it. I developed the habit of writing ten or twenty pages, bringing those pages to a roomful of readers, taking in all their opinions, and going back to rewrite those ten or twenty pages, and that is not, in my opinion, a good habit for a writer to have. Part of it is related to what I wrote above. If you’re trying to write a novel, and you’ve got twenty pages done, you should not be spending a lot of time thinking about what is and isn’t working in those twenty pages, getting them into presentable shape, assimilating fifteen different people’s opinions into a revision. At that point, you should just be piling up more pages.
But there is something more than this. I was a teenager when I started writing fiction seriously, with a real single-mindedness, and I was in my thirties before I published any fiction at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first decent thing I wrote was the first thing I wrote entirely outside of the workshop context. I worked for six years on the novel that began as my MFA thesis, a novel that got workshopped to death, and it was very painful to admit that it wasn’t good enough, that it would never get published and didn’t deserve to be published. Once I did admit this, I spent about a year and half writing a draft of a new novel without showing it or even really talking about it to anyone, and there were moments when I thought I might be nuts and wasting time. To do this—to keep showing up at the desk every day, without any real encouragement from anyone else, without knowing whether you’re good enough to do this—you must develop a particular kind of faith in yourself. I came to think that this faith was actually an essential part of being a writer and that, for me at least, the workshop culture was holding me back from developing it. I think often of a line from John Gardner: “A writer must take infinite pains, and finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.”
I should add that of course there does come a time when you have taken things as far as you can on you own, and trusted readers become indispensable. But it’s important to learn how to take your own pains.
TM: I completely agree with this. I remember being so conditioned by year after year of workshop—I also went right from undergrad to MFA, though in my thirties—that it was almost strange to finally graduate my MFA program and suddenly have to answer to no one. Which, of course, is the reality of writing, not the artificial, though often useful, situation of workshop. As you say, developing faith in yourself and your instincts is a skill you must hone, every bit as much as narrative craft.
Changing subjects: the main character in Index, Sam Waxworth, a statistics nerd who created a predictive baseball model and then successfully turned his abilities to politics forecasting, seems to be inspired at least in part by Nate Silver. I can’t help but ask about this the genesis of this character, as I find Silver to be one of the more continually interesting and amusing figures in public life (going back to my days on a poker forum that he frequented).
CB: A quick caveat: I do not know Nate Silver personally, and I only borrowed the broadest elements of his public-facing life. Indeed, Silver is actually among the more thoughtful of the data journalist—far more thoughtful than Sam Waxworth, I’d say. He is at least as interested in what numbers can’t tell us as in what they can. And he has grown into a fairly high degree of humility about a lot of this stuff, which I admire. So I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Sam is “based” on him. But it would be silly to deny that he was a major inspiration for the broad swathes of Sam’s story.
As far as how that came to be so, there’s a long and a short answer. I’m a lifelong baseball fan, one who has always prized both the romantic, narrative power of the game and the way it allows for a particular kind of precision. And so I was very interested in, to use the common shorthand, the Moneyball revolution. It’s worth noting that numbers have always been important to the game. Indeed, certain numbers—300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, 500 homeruns—have had an almost magical power to them. Now you had a new crop of people saying we were using the wrong numbers. Plus they were saying that the point of the numbers was not to create this mystical aura, but to cut through all that and arrive at a clearer picture of reality. And that term “Moneyball” is really telling, because the whole point in Lewis’s book was a that small market team that was at a resource disadvantage was using these new-fangled numbers to exploit inefficiencies in the market. There’s so much rich stuff here—metaphysics and epistemology, but also something really elemental about the way capitalism works. So I’d wanted to write about it for a very long time. Then Nate Silver comes on the scene, and he’s such an interesting figure, because he’s come out of this sabermetric baseball culture, but he’s taking those lessons into politics, just as we see the rise of this amazing political figure, Barack Obama, who styles himself as a non-ideologue, a technocrat coming from the legal-academic world, who is going to move us past a lot of the magical thinking about America and its role in the world that had dominated the Bush years, but who at the same time is capable of truly soaring rhetoric and ultimately gets himself elected on the basis of a very powerful story he’s telling about himself and the country. And then in the midst of all that, we’ve got this catastrophic financial collapse that is on a superficial level about the collapse of the American Dream of homeownership and upward mobility, but is really about the evolution of capitalism, and the in retrospect facially absurd idea that you can eliminate risk from the world by way of financial engineering, which is really magical thinking disguised as quantification. So, yeah, a Silver-like character seemed to give me right of the bat so much to play with, which is part of the reason I knew this book would be long.
TM: Finally, I like to end these Q+As with an inane question. So: are you a write every day type that hews to a schedule, or more catch-as-catch-can?
CB: Whenever I’m asked this kind of process question, I think of William Gaddis, who said he didn’t like doing interviews because he didn’t want to be asked which side of the page he wrote on.
I very much aim to be an every day writer, and when things are going well
on a project, I am pretty disciplined about it. For me this is a matter of
necessity: it’s too easy to lose the thread if I go more than a day or two
without writing. So I think of myself as an every day writer. I tend to tell
people that’s what I am when they ask, and I tend to encourage younger writers
to be every day writers. I do believe there is something—something almost
mystical—about the commitment itself.
At the same time, life is life. I’ve got a three-month-old and a three-year-old and a full-time job I’m doing from home and a wife who’s trying to get through copy edits on her own novel—Who is Maud Dixon?, coming in Spring 2021 to your local bookstore! A daily writing routine is so far from my present reality that I would be too embarrassed even to lie about it. At the moment, catch-as-catch-can is definitely the order of the day.
If things go on at this pace,” Lefferts thundered, looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, and who had not yet been stoned, “we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindler’s houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastard.
This memorable comic sentence comes in the penultimate chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Lawrence Lefferts is a scoundrelly scion of the old guard of New York society, a society that is perfectly drawn—and quartered—in the novel; our protagonist, the passive skeptic Newland Archer, looks on in mute disgust as the hypocritical Lefferts rails against the downfall of their bogus little Eden. In the final chapter, set 25 years in the future, we will find Lefferts’s dire prediction to be more or less accurate: the rules of their world will have irrevocably changed, and the disgraced Beaufort clan will have indeed been forgiven; one of their daughters, in fact, will be engaged to Newland Archer’s son Dallas.
Dallas represents the ultimate victory of Newland’s ineffectual rebellion—the son lives in the “new land” of social laxity and freedom to which the “archer,” his father, has fired his arrow. In this new age, Wharton tells us, young men (still only young men, of course) “were emancipating themselves from the law and business and taking up all sorts of new things…they were going in for Central American archaeology, for architecture or landscape engineering; taking a keen and learned interest in the prerevolutionary buildings of their own country…” If it sounds as though there’s an ironic lilt to this, that’s because there is, and while Wharton paints Dallas and the new generation in a mostly positive light, it is a light shaded with uncertainty. The accuracy of Lefferts’ prediction is a cause for both celebration and consternation, and although Wharton does, ultimately, find the Lawrence Leffertses of the world to be in the moral and historical wrong, it is a wrongness she has great affinity with and sympathy for, a wrongness the book does not so easily dismiss.
Therein lies her power: Edith Wharton would not be a great social satirist if she had not loved the society she was satirizing, if she had not so intimately been of it. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones, into one of the wealthiest families of nineteenth-century New York. The Rensselaers were cousins, and the Joneses were the original, proverbial family that people try to keep up with. In her lifetime, she was not only a great novelist, but a great designer and interior decorator, and a great entertainer—a pillar of the upper crust of New York society. Aesthetics and social order are the two pillars of Wharton’s old world sympathies, and it is against these pillars that her two great free-thinking protagonists, Newland Archer and Lily Bart, are chained and struggle to break free.
Bart, in House of Mirth, is predominately conflicted on the basis of aesthetics. Lily Bart is a society girl, a beauty raised by her indolent mother to love beautiful things. More than anything, she despises and fears dinginess, and nowhere is her downfall more legibly read than in the charmless, tacky, wallpapered lobby of the boarding house where she finds herself toward the end of the book. Even Lily’s less severe slippage, into the still-wealthy social realm of the bohemian Gormers, is aesthetically intolerable:
The Gormer milieu represented a social out-skirt which Lily had always fastidiously avoided; but it struck her, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world, a caricature approximating the real thing as the “society play” approaches the manners of the drawing room.
The Gormer milieu should be more congenial to the mercurial,
rebellious, and increasingly penniless Lily, than the straitening, expensive,
and judgmental world of old New York society, but it lacks the latter’s weight
and authenticity, however authentically bad it may also be. Lily is like an
addict who has had a taste of the pure version of a drug and can never go back
to a street knock-off. Much of the authenticity she craves comes in the guise
of aesthetic pleasures. Old stately houses well decorated, free of Victorian
chintz and chinoiserie; women wearing appropriate evening attire; a table
properly set: these things matter to Lily, just as they mattered to Lily’s
Likewise does the more general established hierarchy and stability of Fifth Avenue society matter to Wharton. This is the stasis that Archer, for all of his discernment and moral intelligence, cannot quite bring himself to upset. Archer’s predicament is both more intelligible and relatable to a modern reader than Lily’s, and also less excusable. Lily cannot break from society because she is a woman with no earning power or agency; Archer cannot break from society because he is a man who would be leaving a world of power and agency behind. Despite his feints in the direction of eloping with the free-spirited Countess Olenska, he is ultimately mired in the intense reality, however small-minded and constricting, of Fifth Avenue drawing rooms and Broadway opera boxes. As it does for Lily on an aesthetic plane, the dense social reality of this world exerts a gravitational pull on Newland Archer, a pull ultimately dramatizing Wharton’s sensibilities. It may be corrupt, hypocritical, provincial, and boring, but it is, above all, orderly, and something will be lost in turning this order over to the new guard. Wharton feels this on a personal, instinctive level yet knows it’s wrong, and the greatness of her novels resides in this tension, between her natural affinities as a social being and her intellectual affinities as an artistic being.
This is axiomatic. The greatest social satirists are the ones most conflicted about the target of their satire, and the greatest satire is written from a position level with its subject rather than from above looking down. Charles Dickens provides a useful example: as a comic writer he is arguably peerless; as a social satirist, at least in the realm of the political/economic, he’s average, precisely because he has no affection (and who really could?) for the inhuman tutelage of Thomas Gradgrind, the pure greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, the poverty and filth of industrial London. Dickens is ultimately a moralist, and moralism is the consommé to satire’s complex soup.
For a genre-wide example of the perils of writing down, look toward the postmodernists. America, broadly speaking, is the postmodernists’ project, and the postmodernists do not especially love America (unlike the Beats, whose work was likewise fixated on the American project, but for whom the country is a locus of both madness and possibility). The famous opening line of Thomas Pynchon’s second novel The Crying of Lot 49 sets the tone for a good deal of the postmodern project:
One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
At the time of its publication, Tupperware parties and fondue (with kirsch, no less) were already lazy shorthand for a kind of middle-American kitsch and Pynchon’s work, as linguistically and structurally complex as it can be, at times bogs down in easy caricatures of post-war American types. This streak of placid satirical condescension runs through the postmodern project, from Pynchon’s Tupperware parties all the way to Jonathan Franzen’s portrait of gentrification in Freedom. Too often, postmodernism offers the dull spectacle of a writer being smarter than the thing they’re writing about, nowhere more so than in the work of Don DeLillo.
Don DeLillo is regarded as perhaps the preeminent postmodern satirist, and White Noise is often regarded as his purest satire. White Noise is posited as a campus and suburban satire, but it has absolutely no feeling for either of these locales. Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator is a Professor of Hitler Studies which, from the outset, signals the millimeter-deep comic engagement DeLillo has with his subject. Gladney possesses a litter of half-imagined children that the novel is wholly uninterested in, other than son Heinrich, a neuroatypical egghead who plays chess with murderers and who speaks in much the same way Don DeLillo writes. Any time the novel is not focused on the justly famous Airborne Toxic Event, it falters into a kind of somnolent haze—universities and the suburbs are beneath contempt and therefore beyond satire.
Conversely, in Underworld, DeLillo writes stirringly and brilliantly about baseball, and by extension, America. Baseball metaphorizes America’s history—its actual moments of glory, and its faulty, nostalgic self-perception. DeLillo seems to genuinely love baseball, and baseball provides him a lens through which he can view institutions he has no special love for or interest in. Baseball tends to pop up in many of the postmodernists’ better work, not surprising given their makeup as almost exclusively male, children of the thirties and forties, and system-obsessed nerds. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor both anticipates fantasy sports, and satirizes a brand of male obsessiveness that it is central to the postmodern project.
Where postmodern satire most often succeeds is in the way that it satirizes language itself. This is one reason why Donald Barthelme has proven to be the most durable and continuingly timely of the postmodernists. Barthelme’s focus is sociological, and his work investigates the perversion and failure of real, moral communication as practiced in the bureaucratic, governmental, journalistic, and academic institutions of late twentieth century America. Crucially, he never seems to be writing down at his subject—he is as stuck in the morass as his characters and narrators and readers, and even beyond that, there’s a wistful, indulgent appreciation of human frailty as writ large in the society he critiques.
One of the things that makes successful modern social satire rare is, as has been remarked ad nauseum, the already satirical nature of the world. Donald J. Trump is an enormously broad and not particularly convincing version of a tinpot despot—no serious reader could abide a faithfully reproduced fictional version, with the hamberders, the joke ties, the caramel sundae hair chapeau. But the larger problem with Trump is less the ridiculousness than it is the awfulness—he is a person for whom it is impossible to experience anything approaching human feeling, let alone fondness. Even the wretched George W. Bush had a couple of vaguely sympathetic human qualities that could be satirized, however ineptly and fleetingly, in Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush; no such show is imaginable with Trump.
Likewise, so much of our modern moment. What are the aspects of our society for which we feel some kind of affection? Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End manages a fondly scathing depiction of American office culture and its soul-crushing pleasures, though it’s an office culture already vanishing over an unknowable horizon of Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout delivers half of a great satire about slavery, though it’s not actually the section about slavery but the first half of the book, an acidly loving portrait of black Los Angeles in the 1990s. Could there be a great satire about police brutality and the rise of fascism? About devastating income inequality, or dying from lack of health care, or climate change? It’s difficult to see the way into the litany of emergencies that comprise our present cultural moment, the empathetic situation that would allow a writer horizontal rather than vertical perspective on it, but maybe. Hopefully, because to truly do our present moment justice will require a writer with a Whartonian satirical instinct. Familiarity may breed contempt, but in fiction it is a productive contempt, the contempt only possible when you write about what you know and hate, but also love.
Character names are a strange aspect of the novel, one E.M. Forster neglected to cover. They are so important, so central to a reader’s experience with a book, and yet so often attended to at the last moment, if at all. From personal experience, character names often adhere early on in a draft, and it is only with an immense conscious effort that an author is able to pry the original handle away from its jealous owner. They run the gamut from the naturalistic and seemingly inconsequential (Patrick Melrose, Joseph Marlowe) to artificial and significant (Oedipa Maas, Thomas Gradgrind); from the subtle (India Bridge) to the obvious (Stephen Dedalus, Becky Sharp, Mr. Merdle); from the very good (Atticus Finch, Veruca Salt) to the very bad (Purity Tyler).
Good names often don’t matter all that much to the reading experience, but bad ones can be not only annoying but counterproductive and unilluminating. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox is one of my favorite novels, but the surname “Bentwood” for Otto and Sophie—as Jonathan Franzen touches on in his thoughtful foreword—is awkward and doesn’t land. It doesn’t speak to Sophie’s preternatural, almost neurasthenic sensitivity—the last thing you imagine her as is anything as solid as a piece of wood—nor does it seem to suggest anything true about the Bentwood’s strained marriage, which is in addled disarray, but is not bent. More importantly, it feels forced. You can hear the author coming up with it, and this precious quality does not serve the book, although Desperate Characters is great enough to weather this minor storm.
An ideal name, to me, conveys as much as possible about the character, while landing on this side of formulaic or self-conscious. It sounds plausible and real, but somehow resonates at a frequency that, at every appearance of the name, alerts the reader to important things about the character that it may take the entire novel to fully reveal. There are many examples of this, but the novel I’ll examine here, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, offers a masterclass in the art of character naming.
Let’s start with the protagonist, Lily Bart. Consider this name as compared to the aforementioned Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. “Becky” doesn’t tell us much about the character, other than perhaps in its lower class frisson. “Sharp” tells us everything we need to know about the character: the novel’s heroine is dangerous, a scheming cheat, and smarter than the procession of vain, dopey aristocrats and society wannabes who populate this teeming novel. In a sense, it’s the perfect name for her, as she is a fairly one-dimensional character, if still wonderful and exciting. She changes a bit through the book, becomes more forgiving by the end, but Sharp more or less sums it up.
Lily Bart, on the other hand, is a subtly great name that grows on you, and her, for the duration of the novel. The two names counterpoise each other and stand in the same opposition as the forces in Lily’s character. The leading edge, the face, Lily: a rare flower, beautiful and fragrant, feminine. The tailing, hidden edge, Bart: abrupt and awkward, and, if not ugly, unlovely and masculine. These are the competing qualities inside Lily, a love of beauty and comfort and a deep appreciation of aesthetics, arrayed against a tough, unsparing honesty. This honesty manifests both in her determination to attain the opulent lifestyle that befits her, and in her submerged doubt about the worthiness of this lifestyle as an all-consuming end. The Lily and the Bart aspects of her personality are always in contention, bringing her close to this or that marriage of convenience, but not allowing her to ever consummate the proceedings. As “Becky Sharp” captures the dominant note of a relatively uncomplicated character, “Lily Bart” speaks to the depth and complexity of Wharton’s heroine.
There are also the symbolic resonances: lilies are Christ’s flower, and by the end of the book, Lily has become something of a Christ figure. The final third of the novel finds her increasingly reduced in finances and social stature, living in shabby boarding houses and refusing to avail herself of the means by which she might regain her former place. This sudden morality, somewhat contrived in a character sense, positions her as a scapegoat who in the book’s schema dies for the sins of the materialistic New York upper crust. Christ is not the only martyr she evokes: St. Bartholomew was flayed alive for converting the king’s brother to Christianity. In art, he has historically been depicted as skinless—most famously, Michelangelo painted him in “The Last Judgment” holding his own skin and the knife of his martyrdom. In a novel obsessed with beauty, in which the 29-year-old heroine obsessively scans her face for any signs of incipient aging, and in which she eventually pays the ultimate cost for being too desirable, this could hardly be read as an accidental reference.
Lily’s paramour is Lawrence Selden. Lawrence is a lawyer, and the name reminds the reader of this in concert with his role as the probing moral intelligence of the book, the attorney who cross-examines New York’s dangerously unserious high society, and who questions Lily’s plan to marry a rich dullard. “Selden” is less obvious, but a great last name for this vexing hero. It summons the word seldom, descriptive of the way he dips into and out of society at his will, and of his related habit of appearing and disappearing from Lily’s life. His interactions with her in the beginning of the novel exert a tremendous influence on her thinking and moral development, but he is never quite there when she needs him most.
The name of Lily’s bête noire, Bertha Dorset, seemed strange to me at first, probably because of that “Bertha,” comically dowdy at this point, but likely fashionable 100 years ago. In any case, the name conveys Bertha’s signal quality, and the structural reason that she serves as a nemesis or counter-image of Lily—namely, that she has secured a berth in society by way of her miserable husband, George, a berth she does not intend to lose. Lily’s inability to, finally, pull the trigger and marry for money is reflected in Bertha’s amoral and remorseless maneuvering, a maneuvering that points her toward the last name, Dorset, with its posh British resonance. (Dorset was, additionally, Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the setting for most of his books, and in a certain light, Lily recalls Tess, the lovely maiden reduced and ruined by the world.)
Perhaps the best name in this book full of great names belongs to the main villain, Gus Trenor, an enormous brute of a man who bullies and harasses Lily throughout. “Gus” is the diminutive of Augustus, which perfectly sums up this petty tyrant. He is rich and important among a small group of similarly awful people, but a speck in the grand scheme—a Caesar, or better yet, Caligula, in microscopic miniature. The surname, Trenor, is to my mind, a minor stroke of genius. It manages to connote so many words without quite landing on any of them. Tremor: his presence instills fear in Lily whenever he’s around. Trainer: he would like to train Lily and fit her into the slatternly place he imagines she belongs. Tenor: despite being a huge, gruff man, there is something waveringly high-pitched and desperate about all of Gus’s appearances. Finally, there is the simple oddness of the name. It looks like a name you might have encountered before, but have you? How, for instance, do you pronounce it? I wavered between subvocalizing it as “trainer” and “trih-nor” and never felt confident about either. This uncertainty mimics the uncertain dread that he and his wife Judy, a society doyenne who wields terrible judgmental power, produce in Lily.
A constellation of wonderfully named minor characters sketches out the firmament. Gerty Farish, Ned Silverton, the ubiquitous Van Osburghs. Though these may possess less rich resonance than the leads, there is not a boring name in the whole novel. But at last, let us turn to the famous Mrs. Peniston. What a name, what grandeur. Look at it: Peniston. I do not accept the idea that Wharton, given the attention she clearly paid to the novel’s aforementioned naming schema, somehow missed the joke, and I will not pronounce it “pin-es-ton,” as people with taste superior to mine tend to do. Julia Peniston is a matronly widow possessed of such an exceptional dullness (or dulness, in Wharton’s regrettably preferred spelling) of imagination that it shocks her into illness (ilness?) to hear a rumor of Lily being linked with Gus Trenor. The irony of this woman being named Peniston is obvious and crude, yet somehow the crudeness works, is perfect. The House of Mirth is, on a certain level, all about the crudeness behind society’s thin façade, the mercenary nature of relationships and marriage, and the way society castigates any deviation from these set strictures as a kind of scapegoating for what is plainly a sexual economy. The sexless Aunt Peniston still plays her role in upholding the patriarchal strictures of this world, disinheriting Lily based on false and vicious rumors of an affair. In no other novel would this crude sex pun be less appropriate and more perfect.
It also supports an already legible feminist reading of The House of Mirth, namely that if some of these women, Lily especially, had penises, they wouldn’t face the problems they do. Lily’s worst crime is being a woman—if she were a man, with a man’s career opportunities, she could live her life as she pleased. She could live like Lawrence Selden, who remains infuriatingly obtuse throughout the novel on this key difference in their respective options. She could work as a lawyer, go to parties when she felt like it, have her own place. She could grow the beard denoted by her surname’s German translation, and she could live in peace.
Image credit: Flickr/Jack Dorsey.
Five years ago, when my first novel was published, I had the experience that I suspect many young, would-be novelists dream about, which is I got to give a reading at my alma mater. When the book launched, I was feted as the big-deal visiting writer on campus and gave my first reading to a room full of creative writing students and my former professors.
I read a chapter from the book, and then in the signing line, I gamely answered questions about how to get from there to here, what to do if you want to become a novelist. You know, read a lot, write a lot, don’t give up, yadda, yadda, yadda. I was absurdly dazzled by the whole experience of being a debut novelist, and was sure my career was on an upward trajectory.
You can guess what happened next: the sophomore slump. After the book tour winded down, I had five years of mostly failures: two books with two agents didn’t sell, and meanwhile a new crop of dazzling debut novelists took the literary stage. Now, my second novel is about to launch on a press I founded, and I’m dreading the inevitable question of what to do to get from young scribbler with an idea to a capital-w Writer on Book Tour.
Maybe, don’t do it.
I’m 36 years old now and have been writing seriously for half my life. In that time, the publishing world is a different game from the one I started playing in college. None of the old rules apply, and I suspect any advice I might offer a student will be irrelevant by the time they find their own way.
Novel writing is such a personal profession that the only timeless lesson might be that you’re on your own. The only “advice,” then, that I can offer is a recounting of my own experience in getting from there to here:
1. Know Thyself. Every day you walk by these words inscribed in Greek on an arch on your college campus. You know you love to read, and you believe you are a good writer, so you decide to become a novelist. Understand you are never going to make money in this occupation, and you probably will never find a tenure-track teaching job. Take a hard look at law school. Fork over the money to take the LSAT, just in case. Don’t be afraid of a career in real estate. Consider an internship.
2. Go to Graduate School. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter where you go. All that matters is what you do there—namely, read a lot and write a lot. Maybe take advantage of staying on your parents’ health insurance plan and spend your early 20s doing some mind-numbing job. Wash dishes, perhaps. Or serve coffee. Just don’t take on debt. Commit to reading 100 pages and writing 1,000 words a day, at least five days a week. Write a novel. Revise it. Revise it. Revise it. If you can swing it, consider paying a good editor a goodly sum to give you a professional critique. That’ll save you some time.
3. Watch Your Dreams Disintegrate. Send the book out to 50 agents. Don’t get heartbroken when they tell you they can’t sell it because it’s too “quiet.” No one asked you to write a novel, and no one wants to read it, and anyway this first one’s not any good. Don’t take up smoking. Try not to drink too much. Remember Beckett’s quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Read and reread Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold.” Write another novel.
4. Double Down. Revise the new novel. Make it scream! Send it out to 100 agents. Try not to get discouraged when no one wants this one either. Bite your tongue when a famous agent tells you it’s too “depressing.” Have faith: A few years later, someone on Goodreads will say the same thing in a review. It’s okay to get married, get a real job, and buy a house in the suburbs. Remember Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Maybe take another look at law school, or write three more novels.
5. Enjoy Your First Taste of Success. Publish your screaming second novel with a reputable small press. Go on book tour. Spend all your earnings on gas and drinks for your true friends who come out to your readings. Try not to get discouraged when it seems like every other novelist is getting more money, making more sales, getting calls from Hollywood. You’re on your way. Dream big when a fancy agent emails you to say he wants to rep your next book. Keep working on those next three novels. It’s okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn.
6. Take a Clear-Eyed Look at New York Publishing. It’s not okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn. It’s also not okay that you already have a published novel. The big New York publishers are seemingly only interested in debut novels, preferably from authors who schmooze in Brooklyn. If you write “southern” fiction and want success in New York, it better be in the “methalachia” vein—the great Appalachian meth novel. Realize you are not going to find success in New York.
7. Consider Having Children. Maybe read Bill McKibben’s Falter first. Children are absolutely wonderful, but it’s irresponsible to bring one into this world if you don’t understand the concepts of “wet bulb temperatures,” “carbon parts per million,” and the “singularity.” Your children have some tough skating in front of them. Your generation does, too, by the way.
8. Take Up Powerlifting. You’re getting older, and your body doesn’t spring back like it used to. You need to exercise regularly. Maybe you always rolled your eyes at the bodybuilders in the gym, but there is wisdom in the body as well as the mind. You can achieve that wisdom five reps at a time. Also, the abstract problems of publishing don’t mean as much when you have a 200-pound bar on your back. Find a new agent. Find a friend in real estate.
9. Hit Rock Bottom. Read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Understand the truth of your situation. You have spent the first half of your life building a vessel for your identity, and now the task before you is to fill the vessel up, which is a very different job than the one you were doing. You’re 36 years old. Half your friends are on the rocket ship of success, and the other half are struggling mightily. Nothing is how you thought it would be.
10. Throw a Hail Mary. You’ve committed this far. Take your savings and get ready to push the rock up the hill one more time. Start a small publishing house. Put out your own book. Virginia Woolf did it. Dave Eggers. Kelly Link. You might make it. If not, you’re too old for law school, but there’s always a career in real estate. (You did make friends with a realtor, right?) Remember: Know thyself. You’ll be fine.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Pennington.
Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.
The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.
The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.
But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).
The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.
I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.
To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:
[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.
Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.
What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.
The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:
The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.
The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.
All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.
Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.
This piece is the first in a series of author interviews about the craft of writing conducted by Chigozie Obioma for The Millions.
Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love is a beautiful novel. The writing is so lovely that, at times, it seems the author is observing the world through a peephole that foregrounds and magnifies every minute object. A tired person is described as being unable to make “my fist,” and a woman’s love interest is described as “the song inside her body.” The characters are eccentric, unforgettable, and nuanced. Pearl, especially, is a wonder: so finely shaped and created.
For the first in a series of interviews focused on the craft of writing, I asked Clement a few questions about her process and technique. If you’ve read Gun Love and have questions for Clement, please post them in the comments section before May 22. We’ll send the first three to the author, making this an ongoing conversation.
Chigozie Obioma: Did you do any research for this novel? I’m curious to know how prior knowledge shaped the lives of the characters in this novel since—as I understand—you have not even been living in the U.S. for a while now.
Jennifer Clement: Yes, I did a lot of research for this novel. I think of some of my books as an iceberg and what the reader reads is the surface of something much deeper. However, the research did not shape my characters. The investigation was into people who live in cars, gun violence, guns, and I did interview survivors of gun massacres. I’m on the advisory board of an organization called SHOT: We the People headed by Kathy Shorr, who photographs survivors of gun shots and how their bodies have been devastated. The truth is I’ve hardly ever lived in the United States. I grew up in Mexico City, where I live today. I lived in New York City from 1978 to 1987. My memoir Widow Basquiat is about this time in New York.
Because I live in Mexico, Gun Love is also about how U.S. guns get to Mexico. This has also been a part of my research and the numbers are chilling. As a low count, 20,000 guns cross the border into Mexico every day. There are more than 8,000 gun shops on the U.S. side of the border. This means that both poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America is fueled by U.S. guns.
CO: The characters are eccentric, and this is why they are also so compelling. This, of course, makes them very memorable. Margot, for instance, is able to live in her father’s house for two months with a baby without anyone knowing a child was there. What was the inspiration for such a woman?
JC: I’ve actually read about women who were able to hide their newborn babies for quite some time and I’ve always found this fascinating. It’s not hard to do especially if you’re a lonely girl living in a big house. There is no character in Gun Love who is based on any real person. At a certain point of my writing, I begin to feel a strong tenderness for my characters, which is a kind of love, and then I know the characters have come alive. What you point out reminds me of what Flannery O’Connor said when asked why her characters were so eccentric, “Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
CO: For me, this is also in many ways a philosophical novel. There is wisdom, quiet wisdom I’d say, scattered throughout the page in form of aphorisms that Margot passes on to her daughter and therefore the reader (e.g., “If you don’t dream at night then only this life matters.”). Were you thinking specifically in these lines?
JC: I’m glad to hear you think this, as I do also. Part of developing a character is finding out their credo, what they live by. I would never want to write a didactic novel, but a philosophical one, yes. I’m interested in the fact that we spend half our day sleeping in a completely different world. One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “Elegy X, The Dream” where he says, “If I dream I have you then I have you for all our joys are but fantastical.” I also know it’s in dreams and in the imagination where the muses live.
CO: Again, on a craft level, your language is breathtaking throughout this book. But I also noticed that it seems you save the bulk of the novel’s lyricisms for the end of each chapter. What is important about the end of chapters?
JC: This has to do with my love of poetry. I like to be going someplace and I do see the end of each chapter as a destination, as I do with each stanza of a poem.
CO: The story is extremely conversational in tone. What do you bring to writing dialogue?
JC: When writing dialogue, I think like a playwright. Every conversation has this kind of care. I like to read plays and scripts as a study of craft. This may be the reason that so many of my novels have been staged.
CO: Also, to that question, there seems to be a McCarthyian thrust in your technical attitude towards punctuation, in that you use it sparingly. Thus, much of the dialogue is unmarked while many sentences contain few commas. What’s your rationale for this?
JC: I’ve done this in my last two novels—Prayers for the Stolen and Gun Love. This was deliberate and made me have to be careful so that the reader can easily follow. Since both books are a long monologue, it felt right that the language would appear as a long cascade. I’m an admirer of Cormac McCarthy’s work so, of course, I’ve read him and am interested in what he does with punctuation. The poet W.S. Merwin also experimented with this and eliminated all punctuation.
CO: Imagery is viscerally rendered in most places to such an extent that one begins to almost see oneself living in the filth described, even “breathing in garbage,” as Pearl and her mother do. What is it about poverty that you find compelling?
JC: I don’t think it’s poverty exactly. I am always interested in how language can bring beauty to ugliness and despair. Language can enlighten the divine within the profane. I wanted to do this with gun violence. This was my challenge. In Gun Love, Pearl has empathy for people but also for objects. She discovers this when she senses that the pearls in a necklace are lamenting the sea. This also allowed me to give the guns a voice and history.
CO: It is almost uncanny to say this, but despite the violence and filth, this is a very, very funny book. How do you manage humor in such a dark atmosphere?
JC: Charles Dickens wrote tragedy mixed with comedy and he called this technique, “streaky bacon.” I do the same. I’m from Mexico where we have quite a subversive sense of humor. I think this comes from the fact that if you can laugh at something it doesn’t hurt as much.
CO: Can you talk about the title? There is something mystical yet familiar about the juxtaposition of two words which operationally seem diametrically opposed to each other, and consequentially are light and day. Operationally, “gun” is used to wreak violence often motivated by hate and the consequences are often dark. But “love” operates to bring comfort, consolation, peace, even joy, and consequentially it is always pleasurable. What is the import of the title?
JC: As sometimes happens, the title came to me very early on in the writing of the book and it felt perfect immediately. It has the complexity of describing love for guns but also speaks to a contradiction. The book is about guns, but it also is about the redeeming force of love. I remember Elie Wiesel once said that the people who survived Auschwitz were full of their mother’s love.
CO: In the novel there are different kinds of love—“Sunday love,” “gun love,” “mother love,” etc. Can you speak about your philosophy of love?
JC: Since I see Gun Love as a mixture between a ballad and a blues song, themes of love and music are present throughout the book. One character, Margot, has a philosophy of love, which is based on all the music she’s listened to and calls a “university for love.” At one point she says she has a Ph.D in love at first sight, which I also have!