From William S. Burroughs’s 1972 interview with Penthouse magazine.
From William S. Burroughs’s 1972 interview with Penthouse magazine.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, tells the story of the Frankels, a large Jewish American family who gather over the Fourth of July weekend to mourn the death of their son Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and then murdered in Iraq. The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel after Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson. Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. The World Without You is new in hardback from Pantheon. You can learn more about Henkin at his website. He was gracious enough to talk to me over a series of emails about writing, teaching, verb tense, sympathy, and his new novel.
Biblioklept: There’s a lot going on in The World Without You, but it seems to be essentially a novel about a family—what it means to be a family, what it means to be in a family, what it means to be in conflict with a family—where did the Frankels come from?
Josh Henkin: The most simple answer is, My imagination. The Frankels aren’t based on anyone I know, and like all characters in fiction (at least the kind of fiction I write), they developed slowly over time; I discovered them in the writing process over the course of quite a number of years. What I would say is that I think that in the same way that people speak of “rebound relationships,” I think of my novels as “rebound novels.” Matrimony took place over twenty years and focuses on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time. So, whether consciously or not, I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view). If you’re asking where the inspiration for the book came from, I’d say it came mostly from the following. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Biblioklept: You mention the compression of The World Without You, which here strikes me as form of realism. The book takes place over the July 4th holiday—why did you choose this setting? Was the Independence Day setting always part of your design?
JH: I knew I wanted a compressed period of time–mostly because Matrimony took place over twenty years and I think of books like relationships: one book is a rebound from the previous one. I also knew that I wanted the book to be told in many points of view; this, too, makes it different from Matrimony, which was told only in Julian and Mia’s points of view. In terms of Independence Day, I think that was a little more unconscious, though probably intentional as well. Part of the issue was a practical one: how do you get a large, disperse family together in one place? You need an occasion for the telling, and a holiday like July 4th provides one. Though of course the real occasion for the telling is Leo’s memorial. But I think even there Independence Day is relevant because although the book is obviously about the specific characters (I think all fiction worth its salt is always first and foremost about the particular, not the general), I do think this novel in its own indirect way is a novel about America more broadly, and certainly about a certain segment of America, of which I consider myself a part. The Frankels are a political family, with strong opinions about Bush and about the Iraq War, but they’re also privileged. They’ve really known no one who has fought in the war, have been insulated from it in their day-to-day lives–and then, with Leo’s death, it comes and touches them in the most horrific and personal way. And I wondered what that’s like–to be mourning while the rest of the country is celebrating, to be commemorating the independence of a country that has sent its young men and women to war, a country that’s responsible for their son and brother’s death.
Biblioklept: You mention the Frankels’s privileged background. They are, for the most part, liberal, secular, refined. Leo dies in Iraq, but, significantly, he’s a journalist, not a soldier. Do you worry that not all readers will connect to these characters? How do you make your characters sympathetic—or does sympathy even matter in fiction?
JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly. There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture (one can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics), and one sees it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature–the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction. But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery. And tell it, in any case, to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates. One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to. And (this is at least as important) it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page. Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed. In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable. The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.
Biblioklept: The World Without You is conveyed in the present tense. I’m curious what led you to compose in the present tense, or if you drafted parts of the novel in the past tense—what advantages can the present tense offer the writer and reader? What are its limitations?
JH: I think about tense a lot, probably because I teach fiction writing and, more specifically, because I direct Brooklyn College’s Fiction MFA program, and so I end up reading 500 application manuscripts a year, a good number of which are written in the present tense. It’s said that present tense makes the story feel more immediate, yet year after year I notice among our graduate applications that the present-tense stories are usually the least immediate, most inert stories in the bunch. Why is that? I think it’s because some writers use present tense as a substitute for narrative, as a way of hiding that nothing is happening in their stories. They think that if they write in present tense their stories will feel immediate.
I also think that present tense is deceptive because it’s easy in present tense to slip out of scene and into general/habitual time. In the past tense, you would write “She went to the store on Tuesday” to suggest that the character is going to the store at a specific time. If, on the other hand, you wanted to indicate repeated or habitual action, you would write, “She would go to the store on Tuesday.” But in the present tense there generally isn’t such a distinction between the specific and the habitual. “She goes to the store on Tuesday” can mean either that she’s going to the store right now on Tuesday or that she’s a habitual store-goer on Tuesdays. I think what happens in present tense is that a lot of writers end up slipping into the habitual, and so what seems immediate is actually not at all immediate.
The other thing I’d say is that it’s very hard to write a present-tense novel that takes place over ten years because it’s likely to feel artificial for all that time to be in present tense. Present tense works best, then, in novels and stories told in compressed time.
The World Without You simply came to me in present tense. That was the tense that felt right for the book. This may be true, in part, because I’d been influenced by Richard Ford’s Independence Day, another novel told over a single July 4th holiday that’s told in present tense. But I think it’s more than that. The World Without You takes place over 72 hours, so it’s ideally suited for present tense, and it’s also told in confined space; most of the book is situated in the Frankel family home and the streets that surround it in Lenox, Mass. One thing I was trying to do was balance the sprawling quality of the book (there are many characters and lots of different points of view) with the more focused time and space that I just mentioned, and I think present tense allowed me to do that. But all this is post-facto, a case of me looking back at what I did. I proceeded intuitively, which is what I always do, and present tense simply felt right (it was the right sound, the right voice) for this book.
Biblioklept: You bring up your position as Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program director—I’m curious if reading so many manuscripts affects your own writing.
JH: I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach some of the most talented young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent MFA graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room. Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about the work I love.
Biblioklept: Are there manuscripts that come in where you just kind of slap your forehead and go, “Not another story about ______ again!”
JH: Absolutely. Many of my graduate students are in their mid-twenties, and so they write about the concerns of people in their mid-twenties. How to find love in the big city, that kind of thing. That’s okay. If it’s done well, just about any subject matter can make for compelling fiction, and in any case, my students won’t be in their mid-twenties forever. That’s one of the nice things about being a writer. You mature; you get better over time. Writing is different from figure skating. It’s even different from playing the violin. You can be in your late forties and still be a young writer. At least that’s what I like to tell myself!
Often it’s less a similarity of subject matter that I see than a similarity of voice or sensibility. For a time I saw a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators. Then I saw a lot of George Saunders imitators. If you’re going to imitate someone, those are two pretty good choices, though in a lot of ways Moore and Saunders are inimitable. But that’s fine. Imitation is part of the maturing process. It’s how a writer achieves her own voice.
Biblioklept: Do you have any upcoming writing projects? What are you working on next?
JH: My most immediate project is a trip to Hawaii! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JH: Alas, I have not. But I’m working on it.
Stuart Kendall is the author of several books, including The Ends of Art and Design, a work that examines the role of experience-events in the post-subjective world, and Georges Bataille, a critical biography of that influential author. Stuart also edited and contributed to Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Stuart has produced and published numerous translations, including works by Bataille, Guy Debord, Paul Éluard, and Maurice Blanchot. His latest translation is a telling of Gilgamesh, one that casts the ancient epic poem in modernist poetry. Stuart has taught at several universities and colleges, including Boston University and the California College of the Arts, where he is currently Chair of Critical Studies. Stuart was kind enough to talk to me about Gilgamesh—and Malick—over a series of emails. You can read more about Stuart’s work at his website. Gilgamesh is available now from Contra Mundum Press.
Biblioklept: Why Gilgamesh?
Stuart Kendall: Gilgamesh is the oldest extended tale that has come down to us and it speaks to us from a pivotal moment in the history of human experience. It is also a particularly rich text, as rich in its depths, ranging back in time prior to its composition, as it is in its reach, remaining relevant to our own drama. Gilgamesh dates to the Bronze Age but the roots of the story, the bones of it, reflect notions about human experience that may stretch back beyond the Neolithic era to the Paleolithic. The text, to my understanding, contains layer upon layer of cultural renewal and reinterpretation. These layers of renewal are reflected in the extended life of the text beyond Gilgamesh into the related texts of the ancient world, like the Hebrew scriptures, and beyond those writings into the fundamental attitudes and ideas of Western civilization, many of which have been profoundly wrongheaded, to put the matter lightly.
From another angle, in part due to the age of the text, Gilgamesh reaches beyond relevance to Western civilization into world religious history through motifs related to shamanism, a practice that many historians of religion suggest may be at the origin of every religious tradition.
Finally, Gilgamesh is perhaps first and foremost a document of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. It is a text that can be traced into and through the fundamentally Judaic traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Our lifetimes have been scarred by the clash of these related worlds. An encounter with Gilgamesh cannot heal the breach caused by the tragic hubris and shortsightedness of some American politicians but it certainly can serve as one part of an on-going discussion about commonalities and differences in human experience bound as we are by time and place.
I hope it is clear that I don’t think that Gilgamesh contains a positive record of something that we share, some universally valid message. Rather I view it as a product of a specific time and place, a distinct product of the process of history. But as such we can see the deeper past through it, trace our traditions to it, and measure ourselves against it in, I think, valuable ways.
Biblioklept: What motivated the project?
ST: This project was conceived in the classroom. I had been teaching Gilgamesh for a number of years, always to great interest, but also without finding a translation that both accurately and accessibly represented the text. Though there are a number of translations of Gilgamesh, they generally fall into two categories that I refer to as scholarly and popular. The scholarly translations are awkward to read since they assiduously and accurately represent areas of the text which are uncertain, either through the material decay of cuneiform tablets or through our failure to fully understanding the meaning of ancient terms. These translations also typically segregate different versions of the story — Sumerian, Akkadian, etc. — in different sections of a book, forcing a reader to flip back and forth to compare the different versions. While this is obviously the most accurate way to present the material, it is not the most expressive way to do so and students and I think other general readers often struggle with it. On the other hand, the more accessible translations of the text, like those by Herbert Mason, David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell, are often misleading, particularly in regard to the theology of the text. These translations, or versions more rightly, are also often too fluid. They emphasize the narrative flow of the story over the poetic or expressive devices at work within it and thereby offer a satisfying, but false, sense of continuity to the materials, as if it were a novel. They are if anything too accessible.
Semester after semester, I saw students respond positively to the text but always only up to a certain limit, depending upon the specific translation I assigned. Eventually I decided that I should do my own version, following a middle path between the scholarly and popular translations. About four years ago I began working on it, testing my draft in the classroom along the way. I’ve also had some friends who have tested the translation in their classes. While I don’t think that the task of translation can ever be finished, I do think that this Gilgamesh is ready for readers.
Biblioklept: Translation seems like such a daunting task . . . how did you approach and execute it?
SK: The translation process for this project was of necessity very different from the process developed through my other translations. At this point I’ve translated ten or so books directly from French to English — rather diverse books by Bataille, Char, Blanchot, Eluard, Baudrillard, and Debord, among others — as well as a large number of articles and shorter pieces. By diverse I mean that these writings have included essays, poems, lectures, letters, notes, and aphorisms across a wide range of fields from belles lettres,broadly speaking, to visual studies, cultural criticism, philosophy, and theology, all generally rooted in an avant-garde orientation to cultural change. The diversity of these texts is thus disciplinary, formal, and stylistic, as well as presenting challenging thoughts. I emphasize this diversity because it is part of what attracted me to Gilgamesh, since Gilgamesh is a text which itself includes a wide range of contents: psychological, philosophical, and religious. One of my main goals was to reveal some of this diversity in the work: this is after all a book in which gods speak. We live in a time in which the gods are silent. Entering into an alternate theological imagination presents an enormous challenge for readers, and, as a translator, I hope that I have done what I could to be helpful toward this end.
In terms of actual process, since I am not an Assyriologist by training or profession, I have had to rely upon the rigorous scholarship of leaders in the field, Andrew George foremost among them, for the core content of the work. George’s two-volume The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (published by Oxford) is the current standard edition of the ancient Gilgamesh materials. But there are a number of other scholarly translations of the work, in whole and in part, in its various ancient versions, that have been instructive, particularly by marking points of contrast. Beyond those materials, specifically tied to Gilgamesh there are histories of the period, cultural, religious and otherwise. And beyond that, a number of far more wide-ranging works within what I would call the history of consciousness, often of psychoanalytical inspiration — Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse — books that frame human experience in the most intricate yet capacious way, have been helpful.
Comparing all of the available scholarly translations of Gilgamesh, across all of the ancient versions of the text, including the stories that migrated beyond Gilgamesh proper, like the flood story in the Hebrew Bible, allowed me to develop a basic ur-text from which to develop my version. As suggested above, the distinctions between the scholarly translations were often more instructive than the points of agreement between them. Where scholarly consensus exists, I tend to follow it. Where the scholars disagree, I fall back on my readings in history and the history of consciousness for guideposts in my interpretation.
Once I had developed the basic text, I worked with it, inspired by the formal language of twentieth century American poetry, particularly the modernist language of Pound and Williams and the postmodern projective and open verse of Olson, Duncan, Eshleman and others. The point was to carry the experience of Gilgamesh into the language of our century without compromising that experience or that language by making either one overly familiar.
I think it is important to emphasize the fact that my method was essentially the same as that of other translators who have produced popular versions of the text, like David Ferry and Stephen Mitchell, neither of whom are Assyriologists by training. I hope that readers find my Gilgamesh to be more rigorous than those versions and more imaginative than the scholarly translation.
Biblioklept: I’ve read various translations of Gilgamesh—all prose—at different times in my life, and I’ve always appreciated it as an adventure story with a mythological scope. I still remember the first time I read Gilgamesh; I was in the 10th grade and the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh struck me as fascinating and strange (and seemed overtly homoerotic too, of course).
One of my favorite moments in your new translation is the first meeting of the pair, when Enkidu interrupts Gilgamesh’s lord’s rights to ravish a new bride in Uruk. The scene is energetic, violent, and sexual; it’s almost figuratively a wedding, or a replacement for Gilgamesh’s taking of the bride—it even ends in a kiss.
The depiction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship is clearly important to how the narrative illustrates human consciousness. Why does their friendship (and rivalry, and love) continue to fascinate (and perhaps inform) readers?
SK: Undoubtedly some of the fascination follows from the enigmatic nature of the relationship, particularly for modern readers. The relationship is familiar, since we all have friends, but also ambiguous. Why are these two characters friends? What is the nature of their friendship? In the earliest extant versions of the tale, the two aren’t friends. Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s servant. In later versions of the story, and in the Standard Version, they are friends. The change can be explained in part as a means of lending additional drama to Enkidu’s death and also, thereafter, Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. It is one thing for your servant to die and another for your closest friend to die. The bond between the two is obscure. They are in many ways opposites. I see them as complementary characters, Enkidu being as close to the animals as Gilgamesh is to the gods, Enkidu from the wild, Gilgamesh from the city, etc. Together they form a kind of complete composite of human experience, like two sides of one character. William Blake’s notion, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that opposition is true friendship, certainly applies to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The larger symbolic affiliations – Enkidu with the animals, Gilgamesh with the gods – are significant in almost all of their encounters both with one another and with the other characters in the major episodes in the narrative, like Humbaba and Ishtar.
The potentially homoerotic element of their relationship is of course highly contentious. For some readers, such a notion is very appealing. For others, it is repellent. I myself am reluctant to project contemporary social or sexual norms into the ancient text. There are countries in the world today where men kiss men or women kiss women without sexual connotation. Something has been lost in our contemporary discourse of physical experience and human relationship if we must treat or imagine every physical relationship as being of one kind. On this point, characters do have sex in the book. Gilgamesh clearly has sex with the young brides of Uruk and Enkidu has sex with Shamhat. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh don’t have sex. I think we go too far if we speculate as to whether or not the authors of the ancient text what readers to imagine the relationship to be sexual. The two characters are however obviously very close friends whose bond makes us reflect on the proximity of opposites and the role of opposition in friendship as well as illustrating issues in the fundamental duality of human character.
Biblioklept: How might Gilgamesh challenge contemporary readers’ attitudes and beliefs about human consciousness?
SK: Gilgamesh challenges contemporary readers in a number of ways. It challenges Jewish and Christian readers with an alternate, and very different, version of the flood story from the Hebrew Bible. It also challenges Christian readers with an alternate version of life after death. The Christian notion of heaven is entirely absent from Gilgamesh. In its place, one finds a pagan notion of a barren world of shades, where priests and kings are powerless and food and drink are tasteless. This vision — conveyed in a dream, or rather a nightmare — is not a vision of Hell or of some other kind of eternal punishment. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it isn’t torture. It is more like non-life and that is the horror of it. The pleasures and the pains of earthly life are absent after death and that is a terrifying notion. Gilgamesh, in other words, gives us a worldview that fears death as the loss of this world and that vision goes against the dogma that this world is in some way fallen, that our true reward is to be found in some alternate reality called heaven. There are many similarly challenging themes and motifs throughout the book.
In part notions like these are so deeply disturbing because they cut to the core of our perspective on reality. As part of a thoroughly pagan text, Gilgamesh consistently encounters gods in the things and people around him. But he also fears some of those same things as much as he savors others. The text provides rich details about objects and animals. It shows people looking at and enjoying other people. It is a book of sensual celebration as much as it is a journey into despair and the two are related, as I suggested just now: death is to be feared because life is so very full.
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes. Here I am thinking in particular of the journey to kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. On each night of the journey, Enkidu performs a kind of shaman ritual, preparing a bed for Gilgamesh. And each night Gilgamesh has a new nightmare which Enkidu, again as a shaman, interprets for him. The immediate effect upon the reader is to elevate our foreboding about their journey to confront Humbaba. But in another way the repeated nightmares – and these aren’t the only ones in the book – testify to the porousness of consciousness within the world. The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos.
This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Pierre Klossowski once remarked that consciousness is never absolute. Our mind, in other words, isn’t like a light that is either on or off. It is more like a light on a dimmer switch subject to the fluctuations of an unexpected power surge. Gilgamesh is, in some ways, a guide to living with and through altered states of consciousness.
Biblioklept: I’ve read your essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a favorite film of mine. In the essay, you discuss the film’s disruptive, destabilizing properties. Aspects of your analysis seem equally applicable to Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, a film that deeply divided audiences.
In your previous answer, you discuss how Gilgamesh potentially threatens to destabilize the reader’s sense of a world anchored in fixed, absolute meaning. Do Malick’s films operate in the same way? Why was The Tree of Life such an affront to so many people’s sense of narrative propriety?
SK: I’m glad you brought this up. Malick’s films are deeply fascinating to me and, yes, I do see a certain continuity of concern, if not necessarily technique, between Malick’s films and Gilgamesh. The continuity of concern between these two types of cultural production is what attracts me to both of them, though obviously they are world’s apart.
In the essay on Malick’s Days of Heaven that you mention, “The Tragic Indiscernability of Days of Heaven,” I attempted to show that Malick’s film style, particularly in that film, might be compared to Greek tragedy in a formal way, since both Malick’s film and Greek tragedy overdetermine language and images with religious, political, and philosophical meaning. They do so not to integrate those different types of meaning but rather to demonstrate the extent to which these different types of meaning might be incompatible with one another. The viewer is put in the awkward position of having to choose between different registers of meaning, essentially different interpretations of the object, sometimes moment by moment, or viewing by viewing. There’s that remark from Kierkegaard, that what looks like politics and imagines itself to be political will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. But in the case of Days of Heaven and tragedy, what looks like politics one day, might look more like religion the next, since it is both simultaneously and therefore also unstable.
I don’t believe one can make the same kind of claims about The Tree of Life however. The Tree of Life is a very demanding film, in part because it asks theological questions in visual terms. In a way, the film might be the direct contrary of Days of Heaven. While Days of Heaven is saturated with meaning, overdetermined, The Tree of Life is underdetermined. The viewer must constantly ask whether its images are in fact evidence of the existence of god or not. Are they, in other words, meaningful, or not. For a believer, The Tree of Life is challenging because it does not correspond to common visions of faith, even though many believers do I think recognize self-organizing systems — like a flock of birds in flight — as evidence for the existence of their god.
But The Tree of Life is challenging at the most basic level as well. In the first part of the film, the viewer is given very little narrative information. We see the parents being told that their child has died but it is far from explicit: the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, reads a telegram to herself and reacts to it. The father, played by Brad Pitt, is told over the phone while standing near an airplane. He can barely hear the call; we certainly can’t. In order to construct the narrative, the viewer has to look very deeply into the film. And once the meaning is clear, it still isn’t clear, since the entire film explores the problem of meaning in this way. There is a lot more to say about this film, obviously, particularly about the final section of the film.
Returning to Gilgamesh, I think it is important to observe that Gilgamesh is very different from both of these films even though it does share many of the same concerns. For one thing, rather than being the work of a single author — or even cultural group — Gilgamesh, I think, is best understood as a palimpsest of materials aggregated by several ancient cultures over fifteen hundred to two thousand years. Roughly contemporary works with a similar ambition include Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Pound’s Cantos, and Olson’s Maximus Poems. In film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma offers some similarities; it is certainly a visual palimpsest, even though it only spans the 100 year history of cinema. All of these works as well are distinct from Gilgamesh because they are the products of individual authors, though Pound, Olson, and Godard all do incorporate many different types of “found” materials. As a palimpsest, Gilgamesh is far more heterogeneous than most readers, I think, give it credit for being. The tale offers several different responses to the problem of death, for example, at different points, each without referencing the others. Another example can be seen in the three different methods of obtaining immortality shoved together at the end, none of which reference the others or suggest that the series might not continue indefinitely.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Malick’s films are highly crafted, whether overdetermined or underdetermined. They are built in such a way as to give their viewer a fairly specific task. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is overdetermined in a completely different way, in part due to the historical circumstances of its collation, composition being perhaps too strong a word for it. The challenge for readers of Gilgamesh is to get into the perspective or perspectives that originated the narratives it contains. It is much closer to the perspective expressed by Kierkegaard in the quote I referenced above. A good example of this is the encounter with Ishtar. Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, love, and war, essentially a nature goddess, and she is the patroness of the city where Gilgamesh is king. In the story, she offers herself to Gilgamesh in marriage, promising fecundity for the city. In one ancient worldview, it is the function of the king to “marry” the goddess of nature and thereby ensure the abundance of the land and safety of the people. Gilgamesh however has different ideas. He does not trust Ishtar — and how can you trust nature? Instead, he forms a community with his male companion, Enkidu. The two of them fight Ishtar together and, successful in their conquest, have a feast. The story is clear as a story. The allegory is clear as an allegory (that has been catastrophic for our civilization). But the conflict between the two historical perspectives — sacred marriage vs. community of men — is masked by the successful integration of the text.
Where Malick uses instability and overdetermination to create an aesthetic object that raises questions or creates problems for his viewer, Gilgamesh, as an object, uses integration as a mask for heterogeneous cultural and historical materials. The reader of Gilgamesh has to do the work of peeling the layers of the text apart (without hope of finding a stable, original, core meaning). That in mind, the casual reader of Gilgamesh might not realize how very complex and multi-layered it really is, whereas the complexity of Malick’s films is self-evident. Put differently, it is easy to see why Gilgamesh is quite popular among casual readers and Malick off-putting to casual viewers.
Biblioklept: Do you have another translation project on the horizon? What are you writing now?
SK: I’ve been working on some translations of René Char’s later poetry, some of which is forthcoming in Plume among other places. I’m also finishing a short book on Andy Goldsworthy and another, on Georges Bataille, Gregory Bateson, sustainability and the sacred. Both of these later projects fall under the general heading of the ecological imagination.
Biblioklept: Can you elaborate on “the ecological imagination”?
SK: I’ve been using the phrase ecological imagination as a way of evoking the history of our human awareness of and interaction with our environment. Ecology is environment or habitat, but more generally also the situation or system that supports life. I emphasize imagination here rather than “thought” because the notion of thought too quickly enters into the history of rationality or even ideas, whereas imagination retains a strong connection with the imaginary, which can include the untrue. As Nietzsche insists, untruth is often a necessary part of life. Gilgamesh is part of this ecological imagination project as well, an early panel reflecting our disconnection from nature, whereas the more contemporary panels — on Goldsworthy, Bataille and Bateson — are concerned with recent attempts to reestablish some kind of physical connection to our world.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SK: I stole a copy of Shelley’s complete poetry, an Oxford edition paperback, from a public library when I was a teenager. At the time, the book seemed essential to me. The edition itself is undistinguished and, frankly, a minor annoyance to me now. I don’t enjoy reading it but I also don’t enjoy Shelley enough to replace it with a better edition. On a few other occasions I’ve walked away with a cheap paperback or two, though never from a bookstore. Books have nevertheless been my abiding passion in life, the only material possessions that really excite me.
You’ve said that you are “an old Calvinist pain-in-the-ass.” What do you mean?
I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us is unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned, without being able to do a thing about it. And I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.
Adam Novy’s debut novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a surreal dystopian magical romance set against the backdrop of political and cultural repression, violent rebellion, torture, family, and birds. Lots and lots of birds. (Read my review).
Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his work over a month-long series of email exchanges; the interview presented below reveals much of his generous, creative energy.
Adam currently teaches writing at Scripps College, Pasadena City College, Long Beach City College and Orange Coast College.
The Avian Gospels is available now from Hobart.
Biblioklept: I have a lot I want to ask you about what’s in your novel, but I have to start by asking about the physical book itself. The Avian Gospels is a lovely little two volume pocket-sized monograph—textured oxblood covers, gilded pages with line numbers, inset bookmarks. Visually, it recalls a Gideon bible, I guess, only not, I don’t know, chintzy. Where did the design idea come from?
Adam Novy: My editor at Hobart, Aaron Burch, had the idea of making the book look like a Bible. He’s an excellent designer and does a wonderful job with Hobart. Some boheemith press in New York City should really snap him up.
Biblioklept: How did the idea for The Avian Gospels come about? When did you start drafting the book? How long did it take to write?
AN: After 9/11, there was a moment where I felt like all Americans were on the same team. Now I wonder if we’ll ever feel that way again. Pardon me for living in the moment, but this country is just so completely fucked. This sensation of being American swiftly curdled into panic, but by then, the coordinates of my work had all been changed. I wanted to find a voice with room for both the historical and the intimate, which led me to a kind of first-person plural officialese. It ended up creating this echo-chamber effect where the personal and political identities of each character were different, and nobody could quite be who they were supposed to be, or wanted to be.
It took months of screwing around to figure this out, and most of it, of course, was accidental. The Lord of the Rings was on TV a lot at the time, and sometimes I thought I wanted to sound like Gandalf if Gandalf was full of shit and, like, a genocider who felt sorry for himself, but still was Gandalf, all mystical and officious, bossing everyone around. I understood the characters right away, except for Jane, who was always hard to deal with. She gets in arguments a lot and she’s usually right. I think I have hard time writing characters who are right. I myself am never right, so I had trouble relating to her. Of course, now she’s my second-favorite character in the book, after Mike.
I started the book in spring of 2002 and finished it in fall of 2005. In 2006, I found an agent and Hobart took the book in 2008. I went through five apartments, three different cities, three computers, one personal trainer and three therapists in that time. And nine adjunct faculty positions.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting that you mention the LOTR movies as a kind of ambient influence, because they were pretty ubiquitous in the last decade—and there’s so much of the last decade’s zeitgeist in your book: torture, despotism, political and cultural repression, the plight of a refugee class, the idea of “green zones,” etc. You foreground these themes by crafting Gospels as a kind of dystopian novel with elements of magical realism, but it’s also very much a novel about family, and even a love story. (By sheer coincidence I watched the restored edit of Metropolis in the same time frame that I was reading Gospels, and saw so many echoes there). How conscious were you of genre conventions? I’m curious because your book sometimes blends genre tropes, sometimes blurs them, and sometimes straight-up explodes them . . .
AN: The book is quite deliberately a mash-up. I think it’s normal in conversation to try out different ways of seeing things—a fussy way of saying this might be “experiment with different hermeneutics.” For example, one might reference the NBA, The Wire, Shakespeare and Dazed and Confused in a discussion about Obama. I wanted the book to enact this kind of embeddedness, this flailing for a context that makes sense, and I wanted the narrator to sound as though its vernacular was ornate and obsolete, like it trafficked in a pleasure that justified itself as satisfaction while remaining an inadequate moral lens. That’s why I write violence like I do: I want it to be horrifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, violence is cool. I’m not immune—I always watch Kill Bill and Scarface when they’re on cable. It’s disturbing. Everyone knows that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method, but our country did it anyway because it simply couldn’t stop. It was a kind of jacking off, the only kind that certain political parties seem to approve of.
Whenever we write about power, we should always defend the powerless, even if they’re just as bad as those in power. I think I saw that in Cioran, and did you know Cioran was a Nazi sympathizer? I just read that Gertrude Stein was, too. I don’t know what kind of paradigm can reckon with this world.
Biblioklept: I had no idea about Stein or Cioran’s Nazi sympathies, but I guess many artists and writers and intellectuals were attracted to the power of fascism, particularly in the modernists’ day (I suppose Ezra Pound and GB Shaw stand out as easy examples, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party). Although in our own age, I suppose we also see intellectuals and writers support terrible causes—I think of Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive support of the Iraq War and Bush administration’s policies, for, example.
I don’t want to drop spoilers, but your novel traces an arc that shows how those who are powerless might, given power, recapitulate the aggressive violence that they themselves were once subjected to. In turn, you also reveal how characters who seemed to occupy a clear power position (I’m thinking of Mike here, specifically) are perhaps doomed as well to a life without agency. I found my sympathies shift dramatically throughout the novel. How important are sympathetic characters?
AN: Every writer, including me, wants the reader to cathect to their book with their whole heart. I want my readers to utterly and helplessly engrossed. But sympathy is a means to an end and not the end itself. Technically speaking, it’s just not that hard to accomplish. It’s a skill, like dribbling in basketball is a skill, but it’s not the whole game.
In The Avian Gospels, the character named Mike Giggs is seen in only one scenario—exerting power in the manner of his father—for the first two hundred pages, so he comes off like a jerk until he encounters someone who actually loves him: Chico the band leader. Suddenly, Mike discovers a love of life, a sensitivity and a feeling of camaraderie for his fellows. Not only is he is capable of compassion, he is governed by it. This leaves him ruined in certain ways, but allows him to discover who he can be, and makes him (hopefully) sympathetic.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the book, the character named Zvominir, who was whimperingly sweet for longer than Mike was mean, is meaner than Mike. Novels are fantasies of powerlessness and power—among the zillion other things they are—and I feel like we should at least be conscious of what’s happening to our minds as we are reading. How we deal with power is a serious moral question; counting how many times that we go awwww is not. We have cats on the internet for that. Still, Chad Harbach was probably right when he said that the books that get the best reception are simply “affable.” In desperate times, a nation of New York critic types are turning to . . . Mitt Romney? Or like, Cheever without the psychosexual guilt?
I don’t mean to single out Chad Harbach, whose work I haven’t read, except for his piece on Grantland about the Brewers, which I liked. But what he said is accurate. These days, people seem to feel that art should be uplifting, like art owes it to them, in a customer-service type-way. Have you been to Kinko’s, or excuse me, FedEx Office, lately? It is not a happy place. Novels used to to give the reader the truth in ways no other social narratives would. I’m pretty sure I’m not just being sentimental. There used to be a social lie which said the world was making progress and ascending, but this reversed like fifteen years ago and now we all feel doomed. We need books to tell us how we got here, not to lie about how meaningful our journeys are or however we say it these days. Of course our lives are meaningful, but such a narrow focus on making folks feel better is superficial and disempowering. Our emptiness and dread are trying to tell us something.
Biblioklept: I think you point toward a distinction between art and entertainment here. We want entertainment to comfort us, to ease our worries. In contrast, art challenges us with what we don’t want to see, or can’t see, or can’t see that we can’t see. And yeah, there’s a kind of “literature of comfort” out there, books that simply reconfirm the tropes and tricks and forms of “literary fiction” — so that, even if the protagonists suffer, that suffering is is part and parcel of some greater telos — and not just in terms of the plot, but also in the structure of the novel itself. (Lee Siegel called this camp “Nice Writing” a decade ago, pointing to its “violent affability,” its “deadly sweetness”).
At the risk of asking one of those questions an interviewer is never supposed to ask (but, hey, I really want to know the answer and I think our readers would too), what books move you as a reader?
AN: I think I’m moved by pretty standard stuff. The Portrait of a Lady. Charlotte’s Web. To My Twenties, by Kenneth Koch. On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, by Keats. Places to Look For Your Mind, by Lorrie Moore. Testimony of Pilot and Return to Return by Barry Hannah. Antony and Cleopatra. Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which is the best new book I’ve read in 2011. Chopin in Winter by Stuart Dybek. The last paragraph of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The scene in American Tabloid where Ward steals the pension fund books. The Widow Aphrodissia by Marguerite Yourcenar. There must be fifty different scenes in Buffy that make me cry, and five in Battlestar Galactica. Certain scenes in Lost. This is such a conventional list, I feel like I need to start a fight. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SUCKS AND YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF SAPS. I should also say I’m moved by spectacles of massive human folly. The image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb and waving his hat in Dr. Strangelove and the scene where Kramer and his intern throw the ball of oil out the window are somehow very moving to me.
Biblioklept: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement—The Avian Gospels taps into and explores this idea of civil unrest, of disenfranchised voices, of a paramilitary state coping with a populist uprising. You’ve indicated that your novel is in some ways a response to 9/11, but it also seems predictive of the fallout we’re seeing a decade after the fact.
AN: A massive, indescribable injustice was inflicted on our world by the likes of Goldman Sachs and we seem to have no recourse. Law enforcement could not possibly care less, and seeing how they cleared Zucotti Park, they seem jealous of the impunity of Wall Street. In his review of Ron Suskind’s book, Ezra Klein suggests that Washington just did not have the will to pass a stimulus that was big enough. Slavoj Žižek is right when he says this moment is a challenge to our imagination. I think that what happened at Penn State may be a better lens for the recession than Occupy Wall Street. A massive patriarchal network mobilized their resources to preserve an ongoing atrocity. No one will admit that they were wrong, especially the figurehead, Joe Paterno. The community just does not seem to give a shit. They keep telling out-of-towners we don’t get it and rioted in self-pity. I guess this is just how power acts.
Biblioklept: What’s next? What are you working on now?
AN: I’m writing a novel about the life and times of Medusa. It’s called The Gore and the Splatter.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
AN: I think the only book I ever stole was an anthology of world literature, which had a really coherent definition of French symbolist poetry. I can’t find this book now, so someone probably stole it from me. Serves me right.
Camelia Elias is the founder and editor-in-chief of EyeCorner Press, an independent publisher devoted to printing a host of difficult-to-classify writings, including creative academic writing, and poetic fragments and aphorisms. EyeCorner publishes works in English, Danish, and Romanian, as well as bilingual editions. This multilingual approach gels with the publishing house’s fragmentary philosophy, as well as its origins as a collaborative venture between universities in three nations. In addition to her editorial duties, Elias is also one of EyeCorner’s authors; her latest work Pulverizing Portraits is a monograph on the poetry of Lynn Emanuel. Elias is Associate Professor of American Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and she blogs at FRAG/MENTS. Elias was kind enough to talk with me over a series of emails; in our discussion she defines creative criticism, discusses the value in being open to error, accounts for hostility against deconstruction and post-structuralism in academia, and explains why it doesn’t hurt to throw the word “fuck” into a textbook now and then.
Biblioklept: EyeCorner Press is somewhat unusual, even for an indie publisher — a joint venture between universities in Denmark, Finland, and the US that focuses on creative criticism. How did the press come into being?
Camelia Elias: The press came into being as an act of anarchism, if you like, a form of resistance against the idea that academic work must be measured not only against its own standard, but also against the standard that idiotic governments sets for measuring, and hence controlling, intelligence, creativity, and freedom. In 2007 I was editing new research papers written by colleagues and associates of the Institute of Language and Culture at Aalborg University with view to publication by the Faculty of Humanities at AU. A new change in leadership also brought about a new set of ideas. These were rigidly formulated along the newly established injunction passed down by the Danish government, which dictated that all Danish academics must now prioritize publishing with Oxford and Harvard. Without getting into the silly and imbecilic arguments produced for the sustainability of such a demand in reality, the fact remains that many heads of department throughout our Danish universities tried to implement the new regulations literally. The good publishing folks at Aalborg were told that Research News (the publishing venue) was going to close, and no, as the justification for it ran, this was not because the papers were not good enough, but 1) because publishing new research under the aegis of the department was likely to have the undesirable effect of preventing the researchers from expanding their range of publishing possibilities – and hence not consider Oxford and Harvard – and 2) there will be no money for it anymore. Few of us tried to make obvious the stupidity pertaining to the first argument – bad idea, as bosses generally don’t want to be told that they have limited visions – and as to the second argument, pertaining to the precarious, or rather by then non-existent financial support, a few of us also tried to suggest that we could go ‘on demand’ and even work ‘con amore’ for it, which would involve no expenses. The answer was still no. So, there we were, with a few manuscripts in the pipeline and no possibility of getting them out. As the editor of these papers, I felt a responsibility not only towards the writers but also towards the readers who had bothered to peer-review the works. I decided to start EyeCorner Press in my own name, but retain the ties we had in terms of publishing jointly with a few other partner universities. With Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, we had just finalized a volume on transatlantic relations (aesthetics and politics) within Cultural Text Studies Series published by Aalborg University Press. We are happy to call them our close allies. University of Georgia, Gwinnett, and Oulu University in Finland followed suit and so did Roskilde University, which became my new working place not long after the Aalborg ‘situation’.
Sam Lipsyte read live from his novel The Ask last year on HTML GIANT’s Ustream channel. The reading was cool but the best part was the q&a session afterward. We asked Lipsyte the one question all true biblioklepts are dying to know (and the one question we ask every person we interview): “Have you ever stolen a book?”
Here’s Lipsyte’s response, which you can hear/see at 31:25 in the video:
‘Have you ever stolen a book?’ There was one time when I stole a few books when I worked in a library; it was a university library and my job was to stick the metal strips into the spines of the books that would set off the alarm. And so if a particularly good book came through (and this only happened three or four times) I just wouldn’t–I don’t know if I’d call it stealing–but I wouldn’t put the strip in. And then once it was shelved I would take it.
That’s a pretty sophisticated operation. Kudos to Lipsyte for his candor.
From The Paris Review’s interview with Louis-Ferdinand Céline–
If you could have it all over again, would you pick your joys outside literature?
Oh, absolutely! I don’t ask for joy. I don’t feel joy. To enjoy life is a question of temperament, of diet. You have to eat well, drink well, then the days pass quickly, don’t they? Eat and drink well, go for a drive in the car, read a few papers, the day’s soon gone. Your paper, some guests, morning coffee, my God, it’s lunchtime when you’ve had your stroll, eh? See a few friends in the afternoon and the day’s gone. In the evening, bed as usual and shut-eye. And there you are. And the more so with age, things go faster, don’t they? A day’s endless when you’re young, whereas when you grow old it’s very soon over. When you’re retired, a day’s a flash; when you’re a kid it’s very slow.
Steve Hendricks is the author of two works of investigative journalism. 2006’s The Unquiet Grave is an examination of how the FBI aided and abetted the erosion of American Indian culture in the United States. Hendricks’s newest book is A Kidnapping in Milan, a nonfiction thriller that exposes the extraordinary rendition of radical imam Abu Omar by the CIA. In our review we noted that “Hendricks combines journalistic clarity with the structure of a detective novel in Kidnapping,” pointing out that what guides “the narrative is a refined sense of moral outrage against the idea that dark deeds done in the dark make our world somehow safer.” Hendricks was kind enough to talk with us via email about his book, torture, the Obama administration, and the rise of the apathetic liberal in America. You can read more at Hendricks’s site.
Biblioklept: Obviously a lot of work went into A Kidnapping in Milan — lots of research and interviews, not to mention the fact that you learned Italian. What made you want to tell this story?
Steve Hendricks: I came to the story somewhat sideways–less because of Abu Omar’s rendition itself than because I was frustrated that no one had written a compelling account of the horror of America’s torture-by-proxy; that is, the horror of the torture that our client states were inflicting on our captives in what amounted to our offshore dungeons. Reporters of course said that the torture was horrific, and sometimes they went into a bit of good detail, but there weren’t any narratives that went deep enough to make us feel that horror–to make us understand in our gut why political torture is not just a crime but a crime against humanity. So I was looking for a story that would allow me to try to write that narrative.
As I researched the renditions that we knew something about (so many renditions, of course, we know nothing or next to nothing about), I came across Abu Omar’s story and was immediately struck by the almost incredible amount of detail that the Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, had dug up on the CIA, by the ludicrousness of how the CIA went about the rendition, and by the possibility that Spataro might be a heroic figure. I wasn’t naive about heroes. They’re flawed like all the rest of us. But in America’s “war on terror” the villains–both terrorists and our own war criminals–have so often outnumbered the heroes that if there was a chance of writing a tale that could be somewhat uplifting while at the same time being wrenching (because of Abu Omar’s torment) and comic (because of the CIA’s Keystone Kommandos), that was great. So much the better, for the narrative anyway, that Abu Omar was a terrorist. It made the book more gray than black-and-white. In the end, the story of his torture, which had gotten me into the book, ended up being just one chapter, though to my mind it’s one of the most powerful chapters in the book.
Biblioklept: I think for most readers that chapter, “Torment,” will certainly stand out. I found it fascinating, particularly the historical overview of how various governments have used torture (and “ordeals”) to coerce information from captives. There’s a brutal episode in the chapter that describes how the torturers used a cattle-prod type device on Abu Omar. In narrative terms, we find ourselves sympathizing with this “bad guy,” this enemy-other who’s been locked up in a no-place. How important was it for you to elicit this kind of emotional identification on the reader’s part with Abu Omar? Were you concerned with alienating some potential readers?
Hendricks: It was very important to me that readers empathize with the atrocities visited on Abu Omar. It’s easy for anyone to say that lesser criminals shouldn’t be tortured. But for some people it’s much harder to say that torture shouldn’t be used against our greatest enemies. Yet that’s the test–one test anyway–of whether a deed like torture is evil: does it repulse and degrade us even when we use it against those who are themselves in some measure evil? Yes, I was sure, as you suggest, that my portrayal would alienate some pro-torture readers, but I was more interested in appealing to readers whose minds weren’t made up.
I did hear, shortly after the book’s publication, from one reader who said he was put off that I was advocating a moral view rather than giving a neutral “here’s this side of the story, here’s that side of story.” My response was that most of the supposedly “neutral” descriptions of torture-by-proxy haven’t in fact been neutral. For example, most American media refuse to refer to our use of waterboarding as torture, even though if you asked a hundred torture experts, ninety-nine would say it’s torture. I believed a corrective was needed–not an unfair and ludicrously biased corrective but one that reported the brutal facts unsparingly, which in turn would make plain that the mainstream media, by sins of omission and commission, had gotten things badly wrong.
I would add that there are some crimes so heinous that if you don’t call them heinous, you’re either dishonest, naïve, or a coward. Look at it this way: if an author told the story of the Holocaust as “well, Hitler had his take on it, and the Jews had theirs,” would you trust the author, or would you think him a lout? The torture of a few hundred men is not the same as the murder of millions, but international law deems systematic torture as so awful that it puts it in a class of crime similar to genocide–and it’s not just international law, but American law that does so. The United States has adopted both the Rome Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture as the law of the land, and both laws define political torture as a crime against humanity. The Convention Against Torture, as enacted here, provides jail time for people who send someone to another country to be tortured, and if the tortured person dies, the punishment can even be the death penalty. That’s not something you hear much in the media–that Clinton (who began extraordinary renditions), Bush junior, and now Obama (who continues the rendition program) could be subject to jail time or even death.
All that said, I strongly believe that a writer like me who advocates a moral position is obliged to present the facts in such a way (even if he’s presenting his opinions alongside them) that will allow readers to judge for themselves whether his advocacy is valid. I think I did that in the book, but, in the spirit of what I’m saying here, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.
Biblioklept: Your book ends in early 2009, where you point out that, from the outset, the Obama administration essentially followed the Bush administration’s policies; Obama has even authorized the assassination of American terror suspects. Over the past few years, the average American’s focus has shifted from US foreign relations to our sagging economy. It seems that there’s a sense among many progressives that our international reputation and morality have been restored simply by electing Obama. Do you worry that there’s too much complacency on the left? What’s at stake in continuing to ignore our government’s abuses?
Hendricks: Absolutely, there’s far too much complacency on the left. Most leftists simply packed up their bags and went home after the 2008 elections, then were utterly dismayed when Obama tacked way to the right on just about everything: on health care, on banking reform, on the stimulus package, on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on torture, and on and on. Some leftists have woken up, but most of them still think that with some pretty tepid nudging, they can bring out the good Obama that they “know” is inside him. Guess what, folks: As he has shown again and again, he’s a corporatist/defense-hawk Democrat, and he’s not going to change unless he has no choice–and at this late date, that’s not going to happen unless he’s threatened with a serious challenge to his renomination in 2012. But of course most progressives, demoralized and limp, are too scared to give him a run for his money and will stand by their man, even if he’s not their man.
I’m endlessly amazed (and depressed) at how little the left learns from the right. Right wingers build power by playing strongly to their base. They push and push their far-right policies, and the national discourse moves rightward with them. Contrast that with progressives, who plead rather than demand and who, when they get into the office, make a mad dash for the center-right. Don’t these people know that in poll after poll a majority of Americans support their (supposed) goals: an end to the illegal wars, a real ban on torture, health care with a public option, accountability for banks, etc.?
As for what’s at stake in continuing to ignore abuses like torture, to my mind the biggest danger is that torture becomes normalized. Ten years ago it would have been thought barbaric to advocate torture. But after the pro-torture drumbeat of the last decade, “leaders” like Bush and Cheney not only can advocate torture but can boast about having ordered it–and face only the smallest blip of public disapproval. If we don’t reckon with our past, ever more Americans will come to see torture as acceptable, and we will have become the barbarians we set out to fight.
Biblioklept: What’s your next project?
Hendricks: A Kidnapping in Milan and my first book, The Unquiet Grave (which was about how the FBI undermined the Indian rights movement of the 1970s), each took about four years–four long years–to complete. So I’m giving myself a break from book-length nonfiction and taking my time mulling the next book. It’s not the easiest part of the job to find a topic will excite both me and a publisher, but the search itself is fun. I get to read a lot of fascinating things, and the time just to think is a luxury. Meanwhile, I’m working on a few magazine articles. One is about some rather astounding health benefits that fasting can yield. Another is about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder but was executed nonetheless. Actually, though, what takes up most of my time these days is a novel for middle grade kids. The book is something like a mystery, it’s mildly futuristic, and it has some political overtones–evidently I can’t keep politics out of my writing. I’m writing it as a way of saying thanks to my eight-year-old for tolerating my many absences, physical and psychological, while I researched and wrote my two books.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
Hendricks: Yes–or rather, to qualify my crime, sort of yes. I once borrowed a book from friends whose house I was sitting, and, meaning to return it, didn’t tell them about their loan. But then I moved away, and the book stayed with me, still unannounced. The book was Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which so moved me and which left me with so many questions, that I wrote The Unquiet Grave as a way of following up on it. I like to think this redeemed my delinquency, and from to time I’ve thought about finding the book’s owners (with whom I’ve lost touch) and letting them know about their honor. But I’m too big a coward. Confronting a terrorist in his own home? Sure. Confessing I purloined a paperback? Too scary.
Vice interviews Sam Lipsyte–good stuff. From the interview, here’s Lipsyte on writing comedy–
The page is very different than what a stand-up comic does. A comedian has a physical body—gestures, vocal intonations, double takes—whatever they’re going to do to bring across the comedy. They can make a phrase funny just by the way they say it. Authors don’t have any of those tools at our disposal, so we have to find lingual ways to do it. So much of it is how you build to something, how wide you make a loop of description before you veer off and land somewhere totally unrelated. You have to learn how that rhythm works in prose. It has to be something you feel.
I don’t want it to be too jokey, I don’t want it to be making claims for itself as funny, but then you must laugh because it is a funny moment. I pursue… something strange, usually, in every paragraph. It may be funny, or it may be something I don’t think is that funny. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That was so funny!” and I think, “Dude, that’s the most devastating moment in the book.” I’ve realized that it’s both. In my work the funniest thing is usually the most devastating thing, and that’s where they play with each other.
The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson interviews comix legend Lynda Barry. In the (rather lengthy) interview, Barry discusses teaching her craft–
It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.
From Roberto Bolaño’s July, 2003 interview with Mexican Playboy, collected in The Last Interview and Other Conversations—
Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.
Tom Scocca interviewed David Foster Wallace in 1998. A short version of the interview ran in The Boston Phoenix in February of ’98; Slate published a transcript the entire interview this week. It begins with phones and beards–
Q: For basic reader orientation here, are you doing this from Bloomington?
DFW: Speaking to you? Yes, sir.
Q: What sort of phone?
DFW: What sort of phone? What kind of phone is this? This is a Panasonic Easa-Phone. E-A-S-A, hyphen, P-H-O-N-E. And I don’t see a model number on it. It’s got a little answering machine attached, although the answering machine doesn’t work as often as the average consumer probably would like it to.
Q: OK. Let’s see.
DFW: You’re really going to orient that reader, aren’t you?
Q: Yeah. You have to bring the color in somehow.
Q: Any particular configuration of beard or bandana or glasses? It seems to change over time.
DFW: So what, we’re going to pretend, we’re going to pretend that we’re sitting in the same room?
DFW: I’ve never had a beard. I’ve tried periodically to grow a beard, and when it resembles, you know, the armpit of a 15-year-old girl who hasn’t shaved her armpit, I shave it off. I do not have a head hanky on at this point, although I did recently, ’cause I just got back from running my dogs around the countryside.