From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 2000, Vol. 20.1
PATRICK MCGRATH: Before the novels, there was Conjunctions. How did that come to be? Let’s start there and move wherever we need to move to.
BRADFORD MORROW: Conjunctions originally was to be simply one volume, a Festschrift for James Laughlin, whom I admired very much for having published such a pantheon of modernist writers I’d read and learned from. Ezra Pound, H. D., Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller, John Hawkes, Denise Levertov, Dylan Thomas—not to mention the great series of New Directions anthologies, which introduced me to innovative writers from around the world. The list is well known, and Laughlin was clearly, along with Alfred A. Knopf, as we look back on the century, one of the great literary publishers. So I just had the idea of doing a single volume in appreciation for having taught me, through his editorial vision, about the century’s literature. I felt appreciative.
PM: Appreciative of Laughlin?
BM: Yes, because Laughlin offered me a curriculum, a syllabus I couldn’t find anywhere else. I was mostly autodidactic and learned by approaching things with certain combined energies of suspicion and openness. I read and read in my late teens and continue the habit. I wasn’t brought up as a reader, didn’t as a boy particularly want to read, didn’t know how to read, and so was a late bloomer. Once I did discover the ecstasies of reading, my life changed forever.
PM: You were a fiction writer at this point?
BM: Not really. I wanted to be an artist but didn’t know where my strengths might lie. I studied music from very early on. I painted ambitious, atrocious canvases. I wrote short stories, lots of poetry. I learned Italian and French. I traveled to Central America and lived in Europe. When I went to Yale in the mid-seventies, what they offered was not coincident with what interested me. At that time, the English department seemed deeply divided between prevailing classicists and the ascending semioticians. For instance, I read Middlemarch under J. Hillis Miller and Shakespeare with Eugene Waith, who edited Macbeth for the Yale Shakespeare series. Their approaches to texts were radically different, but rather than sensing the possibility of opportunity, as maybe I should have, instead I felt increasingly schizoid and doubtful. Paul de Man and Harold Bloom were there at the time, too.
PM: You worked with these guys?
BM: No. I sat in on Bloom’s classes. But, as I say, brilliant as those professors were, my response was to feel claustrophobic and anti-academy. So I left. I’ve been, in years past, something of a runaway. Kip, in Trinity Fields, is one of my more autobiographical characters. I’m also a person who during different periods of my life has been very ill. It was easier to read a book than play piano when convalescing on my back. So these dichotomies of travel punctuated by enforced stasis probably forged this characteristic of loving reading and writing—I could journey anywhere in my head. As time went on, I realized that to survive I had to commit myself somehow to an imaginative procedure. Painting, music, design fell by the wayside one by one, and words became the paper grail. I look back now and see I was an explosion in the process. A slow explosion.
PM: Your father was a geologist?
BM: He worked for Martin Marietta as a recruiter. He was a gatherer of physicists, chemists, and mathematicians who were primarily involved in early aerospace projects, but also—as I came to understand—in weapons delivery systems. I didn’t want to know what he did. He didn’t particularly want me to know what he was doing. We had a very iffy, although loving, I must say at the same time, relationship during the late sixties and into Nixon’s presidency. What he embraced, I needed to consider as wrong. Vietnam was in full swing, and I accused him of complicity, I suppose. In college, I took to the streets as an antiwar activist—my nose was broken in Paris riots, and I was teargassed more than once in Boulder and elsewhere. My father and I barely spoke through those years.
PM: I wonder how that relationship changed over the course of writing Trinity Fields. You must have talked to your father and involved him in the research you were doing.
BM: Well, the book is dedicated to my parents, and those wounds are no longer visible. I’m sure that the process of writing about Los Alamos, the Second World War, about Vietnam and Laos, about reconciliation, contributed to our personal healing. Addressing mortality in Trinity and then experiencing it myself figures in here, too. You’ll remember when I had peritonitis, my sigmoid colon breached, and I was alone upstate, far from medical attention, and had to be ambulanced to New York for emergency surgery. I went through five surgeries and then two full months in the hospital to recover. It was a crucial time for me, during which the somewhat abstract idea of mortality became increasingly concrete. I saw myself, and everyone around me, for the very fragile, transient beings we are—and once you’ve witnessed this firsthand, it’s impossible not to experience fundamental changes in how you regard the world and your possible place in it.
PM: Can I quote something to you in this regard? One of the characters in your first novel, Come Sunday, has been in an accident, a car accident, and this is what you wrote: ” ‘She’s in one hell of a mess,’ someone else contradicted, but of all the silly things, how could it be that the overriding feeling which followed her into the emergency room was neither fear nor the pain of her injuries—which proved to be more dramatic than dangerous—but the knowledge that she, the same woman who just a few hours before was reveling in her solitude, never felt so lonely? No, that wasn’t so hot to feel that lonely. It’s the kind of thing that can push a person into plights like this, just the kind of thing. That was a shame, wasn’t it. How far down someone can get.” I remember you telling me about the ambulance and that hellish drive down to the city, and I thought there was almost a premonition of it there in Hannah’s sense of utter isolation as she’s taken away from the scene of her accident.
BM: Maybe an artist deserves to experience what he or she expects characters—at least sympathetic ones like Hannah Burden—to go through. Like a kind of skewed revision of Delmore Schwartz’s “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
PM: It may be premature to grope toward those sorts of connections about what fuels our imaginations, what obsesses our imaginations, and what actually occurs to us. But what we produce in our fiction, and what happens to us later
on . . .
BM: And yet I do think that the dog knows the day it’s going to die.
PM: Do you really?
BM: Reality bears the burden of its own weight, and so do the many things we cannot know. The universe is not our fault, yet it’s not our accomplishment, either. As writers, we are small recorders, imaginative instruments trying to relate the proximate to the larger idea, the greatest of which we likely cannot and won’t be able to understand, because there are so many probable cosmoses passing through us, even as we talk in this space that we recognize, because we can’t see around the corner, at least not without mirrors and simulacra. And thus, fiction. I think fiction was my choice because it was the last lot left to me in terms of the idea of a pursuit of how I could know anything that experience and imagination have funneled down, or up, to me, and then revisit it in words. Conjunctions seems to me also like a bit of a collective imaginative work. In some essential way, I don’t consider myself “the editor” of Conjunctions.
PM: Who is?
BM: All the writers who have participated in its pages. I like to think of Conjunctions as a living notebook. The journal is the product of many visions. It’s been an enormous collaboration, really. My participation, aside from the obvious, is to assemble work by writers who are so strong with their ideas that they give us an opportunity to employ them against our own. Of course, the other half of the equation is form, the language itself, its construction, timbres, multitudes of meaning, like those intersecting cosmoses. When I read your novel Asylum, it gave me an opportunity not only to experience your imagined Stella, Edgar, and their world, but also to consider in its many ramifications the word asylum. What a complicated word! As someone who attempts to understand the world through its words, I was struck by how you drew out asylum as a safe haven and concurrently as a madhouse or prison. Language is process and the dictionary a beautiful brocade of paradox. Asylum is the kind of word that reminds us of this. And so, while language is our greatest gift, it is also our gravest. We can speak with one another, but insofar as we are successful, we can only approximate ideas, intentions of significance.
PM: Your books are often peopled with ghosts, or ghostlike entities, who seem to be in some sense supernatural, in some sense the projection of those whom they visit, but they’re sort of outside of language or hovering on the periphery of language. I’m thinking of The Almanac Branch most specifically. I think of Kip, in Trinity Fields. He has a not quite corporeal feel to him. He’s a fleeting thing. He’s somebody from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, somehow.
BM: I see him as from The Tempest. A denizen of an alchemical island where things are and aren’t what they appear to be—although I obviously relate Ariel with Shakespeare’s sprite. I think you’re absolutely right in seeing Kip as somehow incorporeal and therefore his daughter’s father. Language can only come so close, and we can’t know beyond that. Ultimately, I think it’s in Come Sunday, in the impossible loft-ranch of Hannah’s in Chelsea, and on through Giovanni’s Gift, in which a cigar box filled with a bunch of seemingly useless, meaningless junk transforms into Pandora’s box through the linked imagination of a murdered man and a living boy. It’s Emersonian. “There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning . . . there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” The original circle was an eye.
PM: The great eye. The great eyeball. E-y-e.
BM: The homonym counts. The eye, e-y-e, equals the I with the capital I, and presupposes both a-e-i-o-u and e-i-e-i-o.
PM: And teaches Old McDonald how to farm, hence the agricultural imagery in many of your novels. That’s interesting about Emerson. There’s a minihomage to Hawthorne in Giovanni’s Gift. We hear the echo of The Marble Faun there; we have the Roman associations. One of my questions to you is how do you see your personal canon? Who are the giants who formed you as a writer? Are we talking Emerson and Hawthorne? Nineteenth-century Yankee School? I see Melville echoes in the larger books.
BM: The problematic relationship that I have with that question, which I know I’ve asked other writers—and it’s always easier to be on the handle end of the sword, as opposed to the blade end—is that for every writer I can name as influential, there will be many others left out of the catalog who’ve had maybe even more impact, but I’m not able to see the connection. But here goes. Homer, especially the Odyssey. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Catullus. Lucretius. I never used to like Virgil, but I’m coming around. Chaucer, Thomas Nashe, Guido Cavalcanti, Shakespeare. John Donne’s poems mean the world to me. “The Extasie” is, along with Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega,” one of my favorite poems. Then come the eighteenth-century rowdies like Swift—Tale of a Tub in particular—and Sterne, Tristram Shandy. And moving forward: the Brontës, Austen, Melville, as you mention. I was a Comparative Religion major as an undergraduate, so Milarepa, The Upanishads, the King James Bible, and even strange “extraterrestrial” texts like The Urantia Book—quoted in Come Sunday. Too, Chogyham Trungpa Rimpoche—who founded the Naropa Institute, and under whom I studied for a year—affected me deeply with Meditation in Action. Among twentieth-century novelists, Virginia Woolf initially influenced me the most. I started with Mrs. Dalloway, then thought, I have to read everything of hers immediately. The Voyage Out and The Years somewhat disappointed me. They were arduous, clotted, actually. Then I read Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Orlando, and was her devotee again. Whenever I encountered a writer who told me something that I could not possibly have known otherwise or wrote in a way I hadn’t before seen, I read the work. Probably that’s why Conjunctions came to be. I wanted to read everything. Nabokov was crucial. Willa Cather. There are so many: Kafka, Bulgakov, Mishima, Dorothy Richardson, García Márquez. I found Wyndham Lewis very exciting when I first encountered his work. Ezra Pound compared his Tarr to Dostoyevsky. The Revenge for Love, 1937, is a great novel. When I read The Recognitions, William Gaddis, I knew definitely that I wanted to be a novelist. I thought: yes, that’s worth sacrificing for. The novel, then declared dead, was very much alive.
PM: Now I’d like to circle around to those writers who have most consistently been in Conjunctions and your relationships with them, and their relationship to your own work. I’m fascinated that Gaddis was such a source of inspiration at the beginning of your writing life. We know that Hawkes is another, Gass, Paul West. But let me just digress slightly, and put this question to you. We’ve talked about ghosts, ghostliness, and I bring up another common thread that I find in your books, the way in which the past inhabits the present, the way in which the past condemns the present, haunts and tortures, the sense of a looming and often malignant influence that the past exerts on the present, and you were responsible with some other guy who’s slipped into obscurity, for an anthology called The New Gothic. Do you bring life to these sorts of ideas that we’re talking about? Do you consider yourself a Gothic novelist?
BM: A critic asked me, when Giovanni’s Gift was published, “Will you write another mystery novel in the future?” and I said, “All my novels are mysteries.” I’m sure I was trying to avoid his question, as I’m trying to avoid yours. Your question, fairly answered, is yes, of course—at least within the framework and definition you and I proposed in The New Gothic. But I attempted to bring in other genres, other elements, too, of myth and appropriation (as you suggest, Hawthorne’s version of the Pandora tale is hidden in the text image-by-image, as if they were demons in a box), of “romance” in the Hawthornean sense, and even of memoir, given that the “plot” is impurely but basically autobiographical. Above all, Giovanni’s Gift is as political a novel as I’ve ever written. The perplexities and nuances and generational curses that can come with ownership of ideas, or the commodification of a patch of earth and those who live there: this is at the heart of Giovanni’s Gift for me. In that regard, it’s no different from the other novels—just a different route to the same place. I’m reminded of Angela Carter’s story “The Snow-Child.” The king is granted his wish—a virgin girl. The queen makes hers, and the virgin dies, metamorphosing into a crimson flower on the snow. The queen picks up the flower then drops it, shouting “It bites!” They both got what they wanted, but couldn’t imagine that their wishes would bring them such real and painful results. Speaking for myself, this has never been a lesson easily learned. Sartre warned us, and Thoreau before him—but still one must learn to be wary of wishes. Again, we cannot see around the corner. Or better, let’s say we can. What do we see? Most probably yet another corner. There will always be another corner we can never see around, and that’s my best rationale for employing my fiction as a means of examining how the past engages the present, the present the future. Fiction, like that flower, has bite.
PM: Now you’re not talking here about the child of a dream biting in reality. You’re talking about unfolding possibilities.
BM: I try to embrace what I feel is somewhat paradoxical and self-contradictory. In a work of art I look for the ineffable, to be so completely combined with the utterly understandable in a way that you don’t even notice that they’re infiltrating one another, that the organism is dead and very alive at the same time. In The Grotesque you wrote, “The living, I think, are larvae of the dead—dead bodies at an early stage of development.” But we could invert it. We could say that we’re the deadly alive.
PM: Do you want to develop that idea? I mean, on the face of it we’ve got a young man who gets a cry for help from his aunt while he’s living in Rome. He comes, and there are these desperate, appalling, horrifying sounds that come in the night. Meant to terrify, these are terrorist sounds that plague uncle and aunt, living in a very remote part of Colorado.
BM: The text never specifies where this occurs, beyond “western mountains.” It’s meant to be anywhere.
PM: And so we have a mystery to be solved. What is the source of these sounds? What do they mean? Why is this particular family being subjected to it? And so the past begins to reveal its secrets, and a rational explanation is found for these apparently irrational and certainly very terrifying events. That’s our surface. What’s our depth?
BM: Depth and surface connect. One of the things the novel tries to address most is that in hiddenness there is surface at play and vice versa. Our depth is meant to address the politics of the idea of any town, any family, any individual, and the encounters and conflicts which arise. Toward the end of the novel, Grant “understood for just a fleeting moment the profundity of the notion that history is merely the saga of small jealousies and struggles, individual conflicts in these brief existences of ours, writ large on the canvas of life.” A river ran down the middle of this ranch. North of this creek was rationality, and on the south was its opposite—you’ll recall that Uncle Henry’s little studio is on the other side of the creek, and in there he was building intellectual utopias. The book was never meant to be a whodunit—though I wanted to work that genre into its texture, too. It was a parable, a fairy tale, based on Pandora’s box and the interesting, at least to me, metaphoric link of Pandora—which means all-giving in Greek—whose curiosity led to humanity’s expulsion from paradise. We became mortal because Pandora—much like her Christian counterpart, Eve, whose disobedience toward a male god also caused humankind’s fall—was bored by perfection (in Hawthorne’s retelling, anyhow) and driven by transgressive will to knowledge. And as you and I both know, the dichotomist world is an interesting world in that it’s not black or white; everything exists between, in that little instantaneous place where a synaptic process occurs, a little electrical explosion between nerve ending and nerve ending. We open the box, explore its contents, and begin to understand that the jumble of trinkets that appears to be meaningless is anything but. In the novel, these everyday things allow Grant (also a “giver”) a glimpse into his past and future—this is what interested me in Giovanni’s Gift. Process, the acts that occur in between. The fictional moment. The imaginative moment. The moment that is life-giving. These moments are always about the synaptic.
PM: There are certainly literary motifs that express that, certainly twilight, as that which is neither the day nor the night. Look at the first paragraph of Come Sunday. “There was a crackle, like air tearing. It issued from the long, low valley where an orchid-shaped burst rose away into twilight. . . . ”
BM: After a reading at the Naropa Institute, a student asked me why all my books start at twilight. I said, “That can’t be true.” But she was right. Twilight proposes possibilities, I guess. Twilight contains still the remembrance of day, rationality, the Apollonian, and promises the night of the intuitive, the sexual. It may be that twilight is more light than no light at all.
PM: It’s more light than no light, and less light than daylight.
BM: Your novels address the in between, madness appearing to be sanity, sanity metamorphosing toward its opposite.
PM: I couldn’t begin to think of writing a novel set exclusively at night. I would think that such a book would emerge as a vampire novel, Dracula, a novel in which darkness was the predominant form. But to work in daylight, you would imagine yourself in the realm of Updike, on solid, realist ground. Which is perhaps more the preserve of the English novel, the Jane Austen novel, the novel in social light; the pursuit of love and wealth are the predominant engines. I think the American novel is much more interested in darkness, in twilight.
BM: Well, Stephen Dedalus and Bloom do piss together out under the stars, but it’s also true that Ulysses begins with an Introibo ad Altare Dei and a morning shave. I think you’re right. Gaddis, Coover, Gass, Barth, West, Cormac McCarthy’s earlier novels, Steve Erickson, Kathy Acker, Mary Caponegro, Vollmann—the list of American twilighters would be long. But contemporary British writers, such as yourself, Amis, Ishiguro, McEwan, Winterson, Banville of Ireland, Janice Galloway of Scotland—many others—work that twilight zone, too. Salman Rushdie’s new novel reprises the Orpheus myth in a phenomenally exuberant way. It’s full of life and death, but also the complexities of being rooted in neither. And this midway space that Orpheus understood so well seems to require a maximalist, counterintuitive approach. You want less, here’s more.
PM: More in what sense?
BM: It could be a monosyllable. A musician friend of mine likes to come down to my apartment and read the O.E.D. He lies there on the floor, saying nothing for hours, and then asks me, “Where do you think that word farm comes from?” I said it probably has to do with a subdivision of land. I wasn’t right, but came close. He read me the whole, complex etymology.
PM: That’s interesting, because that’s another one of your in between words. Farm, it’s not nature, but it’s not civilization either. It’s an in between thing. It’s nature with the hand of man upon it, but still behaving. It’s neither in nature, nor is it in society. It’s very clear in Come Sunday, and I’ll just read you something off the jacket: “Come Sunday whisks us across decades and centuries, over a seemingly inevitable repetition in miniature of Europe’s conquest of America.” I’m thinking about what you’ve done in this book and what you’ve done in Trinity Fields to interrogate what I would call American imperial power. I would imagine that your own experiences as a medical assistant in Honduras gave you the seeds of this particular perspective of what the U.S. looks like in the deployment of its power. It’s there in the other novels, too. I just want to tap into your thinking. Am I right to say that you were politically awakened in Honduras?
BM: No question. Honduras changed my life. I wanted to be a doctor, or so I thought. When I came back, even though still in high school, everything was politicized for me, immediately. There were the politics of my parents, the politics of Vietnam, the politics of ideas, the politics of a girlfriend, the politics of a car, the politics of trees. I was hyperpoliticized by the experience of seeing and experiencing Honduras’s abject poverty. I’d only seen two worlds. One was Littleton, Colorado, its suburban middle-class, and the other was Honduras, between Comayagua and the border of Nicaragua. I saw Honduras as one of our imperialist orphans, after Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.
PM: What made you believe that this was America’s fault?
BM: United Fruit and jefes in our pocket would be the easiest answer, but I internalized the problem, maybe more than was healthy or even rational. I felt that it was, in some way, my fault. I had the audacity, or maybe it was a kind of perspicacity, to inhabit the idea that they were suffering because everybody I knew back home was prospering. Even before I understood Vietnam, I knew I had to get out of Littleton—now infinitely more complicated a hometown in the wake of the Columbine High murders—but I didn’t know where to go. I ran straight up against the political ramifications of what we do, with the idea of commodifying our ideas. When I wrote Come Sunday, I had the idea that Europe somehow dead-ended in America. The idea remains true, through Trinity Fields, The Almanac Branch, Giovanni’s Gift—the commodification of nature by man and its apocalyptic results obsess me. And interestingly, I’ve encountered it throughout my life. Trinity Fields is obviously political. Come Sunday as well. Perhaps less obviously the other novels, but the purchase and sale of people, culture, ideas is a tragic touchstone in all the work. Don’t forget that the branch in The Almanac Branch is both the ailanthus branch where Grace Brush’s migrainous “light people” dance, but also the nefarious branch of her father’s corporation. Nature and commerce link in that word. I remember talking with Chinua Achebe the day that the Soviet Union collapsed. I tend to remember personal events in the context of political ones. One of the reasons we write novels is that we’re fascinated by the idea of good and evil. They are dichotomous, but inform one another, and what occurs between them is life—morality, good or evil, light or dark, entropy or health, life, death, ethics, up, down, in, out, choice—these distinctions make it inevitable for someone who wants to make narratives which address the extremes and what flows between. Narrative, even antinarrative, is about diastolic/systolic motion.
PM: I wonder if that distinction is between powerful and powerless. I’ve noticed you often have power personalized; that is, there’s usually a shadowy older man, Geiger, the father in The Almanac Branch, shadowy figures who seem to be agents of forms of power which then victimize, and your characters tend to struggle within that gap, between the powerful and the effects of their activities.
BM: You’re right. A psychiatrist friend of mine once told me a story that may be apropos. He was defining the difference between a friend and an enemy. When someone comes knocking at your door in the middle of the night and says, “I’m being chased, please let me in and hide me,” a friend, no matter what the risks, will let you in and hide you. An enemy will slam the door in your face. But then, there’s the third kind of person who, before letting you inside or leaving you out in the cold, will ask, “Who’s chasing you?” This third person is the most dangerous. But maybe I’m not answering your question.
PM: Oh, you are. If one door is slammed in your face, and the other is opened without questions, and there’s a third door where the question is who’s chasing you, that’s where the novel lives: it’s in the experience of those who are being chased. Is that the reader who opens the door, who opens the book, and the novelist is the guy standing on the doorstop saying, “You’ve got to let me in. Here’s my story. Here’s why you should let me in,” and then takes two or three or four hundred pages to say this is why you’ve got to let me in?
BM: That’s a great analogy. Giovanni’s Gift was written with the idea that a book is a box. You open it, like Pandora, at your own risk. But also, you open it at the author’s risk. An opened book is alive. A closed book is not dead, really, it’s just asleep.
PM: The door is closed. The person on the inside says, “You’re not coming in.”
BM: I don’t think a book closes itself to the reader. The reader owns the possibility of opening the door, and once inside, wandering that mansion of language, it’s anybody’s guess what will result. The text-reader relationship is one of mutual impact. The reader and writer are in mutual incursion. I don’t want to write the kind of fiction that leads the reader by the nose, deprivational fiction that withholds some rich excesses of language, unseen deep metaphor, layerings of possible meanings, narrative sleights and overtones, and so forth. By the same token, I do hope my novels find readers who go into them thinking, “I’m going to reinvent this narrative for myself, word-by-word, idea-by-idea. I’ll be faithful to the signifiers and crises, a close and thoughtful reader, but I’m here to participate.” Then the writer’s got a collaborator. Ultimately, all art is collaborative. I believe it was Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, who nicely developed the argument that every reader is ultimately a co-producer, and a novel is projected like an internalized film in your head. I’ve witnessed, through my work as a novelist and in the pages of Conjunctions, many aesthetically realized ideas. The thing is, I won’t stand in the way of any artist who honestly has an idea and produces a work of value.
PM: If you had been at the Academy Awards, when Elia Kazan was introduced, would you have stood up or sat on your hands?
BM: One hand clapping.
PM: That’s witty enough for an escape.
BM: I probably would have applauded him for what he did as an artist.
PM: Do you separate the artist from the art?
BM: Kazan’s art outlives his weaknesses or cowardice as a man, I suppose. Villon was a murderer, Rimbaud left his calling as a poet to become a gunrunner, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife. And yet all three—there are many other examples—produced magnificent art that will always be read. Rexroth deplored that I was friendly with Burroughs and that I deeply admired Naked Lunch.
PM: You must have encountered this dilemma when auditing a Paul de Man lecture.
BM: I, like most, didn’t know de Man’s politics at the time. What I did sense was an imbalance of power: that criticism was becoming more important than the art itself, and that harmony of collaboration was breaking down. Oddly enough, I didn’t like the way texts were being read by him, so for aesthetic reasons I went the other direction. I remember reading Thackeray under the auspices of J. Hillis Miller and writing an essay in which I deconstructed the first paragraph of Henry Esmond. The first sentence—rhetorically, syntactically, harmonically, in every conceivable linguistic manner—was indicative of the entire novel. All was schematized in the first paragraph. My thesis was, then, that the balance of the novel was mere elaboration. This remains disturbing in its combined accuracy and total wrongheadedness. True, in any atomic and individual components exist the idea of a whole. But at the same time, to truly understand, say, a novel, you do need to read the second paragraph, and the third. When you read the last sentence, chances are you won’t fully know what the author meant. But you’ll have a better idea. I’m cautious of this.
PM: I think many of us are, who absorbed deconstructive thinking, poststructuralism in the eighties and began to take ourselves very seriously as the weaning producers in the experience of writing a novel, and abandoned authorial intent as any sort of critical position to go at it with. It taught us critical reading habits that I don’t think serve us well as novelists, about which I know I’ve deliberately forgotten. Although it’s important to read Roland Barthes, it’s actually not at all of use when you are writing. My position would be that the ancient verities of the novel, of plot, character, and theme, which is quite enough for any novelist to have to deal with, is as much critical baggage as we need. I know that if I feel that I have, in the most traditional way, plot right, character right, and I’m satisfied with my theme, then I shan’t be worrying about deconstructive elements and the circularity of my text and my text’s reference to other texts, its intertextuality, it’s not going to touch me. I may use reference. I may use allusion, I may wink at the reader, but it is, as those people claimed at the time, not about literature; it’s about criticism.
BM: A text is ultimately an artificial construction, as we all know. But here’s my thought, that gains on the idea of realism: tell me what else is not a so-called fabrication, even in the moment. At the moment someone is reading this interview, tell me they’re not inventing, not fabricating, intertextualizing. The whole notion of dividing so-called realism or naturalism from so-called metafiction or nonrealism is more and more, to my mind, reductivist. Where bogusness enters in here is that the “real” is really “real” in the arts, whereas we know it is artifice by definition. We don’t have to write a manifesto to understand this small idea. When you write a novel, you construct a universe that does and does not exist. An ideational hardness informs every mental picture, but it remains—if you’ll pardon the word—”virtual,” a mindscape. Paradoxically, a reader’s life can be utterly changed by this string of linguistic particles that comprise sentences, paragraphs, narratives. Every single person who reads it brings the entirety of their knowledge of language, their system of prejudices, their totality of geographic experience, ethnographic experience . . . they make a new novel when they read your book. We, as writers, can do our best managing words and images so that they satisfy us. After that, the reader is fully in control. Gaddis made a great comment in this regard, that once the book is published, that’s it. The writer can’t go chasing after readers saying, I meant this, I meant that!
PM: Well, this is the quality of resonance that we’re after, such that the book means one thing to ourselves, and one thing to the next person, and continuing communities of readers are able to project their own meanings onto it, and if you’re really lucky, or really good, continuing generations of readers. Staying in print is really about the ability to continue resonating long after the historical moment in which you made your novel. Heart of Darkness is created out of a situation in which the Belgians are in the imperial activities, in the Congo, creating barbarities unthinkable. That’s what Conrad speaks to, and yet why should that be of interest to us a hundred years later?
BM: If only to prompt Achebe to make yet another interesting, complicating, reading of it. The book continues to metamorphose and provoke. The whole notion of echoing down the generation line. Ovid comes to mind again. Shakespeare revisited and “reread” so many stories in the brief time of writing that he had. North’s translation of Plutarch might be forgotten but for Shakespeare’s inspired appropriations. He heard primarily universal echoes, and disturbed those echo patterns, made them stronger, clearer. He understood contradictory fundamentals of human behavior, of nature, of spirit—the totalities!—then heightened the possible consequences of those ordinary histories and comedies and tragedies to unmatched significance. He really ruptured the language in the most extraordinary ways. I adore, like anyone, I suppose, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Lear, but maybe The Tempest above all. It’s such a personal work and filled with paradox. Shakespeare brought everything in him to that play.
PM: Now here’s a distinction that might be interesting to make. We understand that realism is a genre like any another, with no more privileged access to whatever real is than any other. I’m thinking of Shakespeare and the way Hamlet was regarded until Coleridge. It was seen to be, I understand, a failed revenger’s tragedy. It was seen to be a Jacobean story of the son of the family who’s been done a wrong and therefore has to avenge the memory of his father, but he can’t do it. So what sort of a story is that? So Hamlet had a very lowly role in the canon until Coleridge comes along and says, this is actually the greatest of them, and you know why, because what he is doing here is showing us a certain sort of personality in which the ability to act effectively has been stunted, clamped. What is the psychological relationship to the practical man of action? From that moment, Hamlet rises to the top of the list, and a new form of criticism, a new form of poetry, a new movement, we’re talking about the birth of romanticism in the English language, with its stress on the psychological, particularly the psychology in extreme situations, the mind in crisis, and what I’m revving up to here—and this goes back to our Jane Austen moment—can we distinguish between novels that are essentially about how people live in society and organize their lives in terms of their goals, their aspirations, marriage, wealth, and those novels which are much more concerned with how the world is impacting on the mind of the protagonist?
BM: Probably not, if the microcosm mirrors its particular macrocosm and vice versa. Lucretius, who’s the patron saint of Come Sunday, developed an early idea of atomism—that every sheep, say, is made up of numerous minuscule sheep. The concept seems absurdly clumsy now, but I don’t think his deeper premise is altogether wrong. The individual protagonist reflects his or her society, just as the culture can only be the sum of its component protagonists. Kip and Brice in Trinity Fields constitute parts of both a subatomic metaphor structure and at the same time two possible paths that were presented to their generation. I do think that overt, didactic political fiction, though, has a very different texture from, say, a work by Eudora Welty or Faulkner where the moral, thus political, purpose is there but sculpted by the local. There’s an ugly music that occurs in didactic art. Upton Sinclair might have had some interesting political ideas, but the music necessary to novelistic language escaped him. Everything comes back to ideas harnessed within sounds, utterance. Words are the oldest fossils. Primordial, primeval.
PM: Images. Scraps. Vignettes of narrative.
BM: Down near Alamagordo, New Mexico, at a place called Three Rivers, there’s a petroglyph site ten thousand years old. It’s a narrative chipped into scree. A hand, a foot, a bird, a constellation, a concentric circle flowing outward, a snake, a man. It’s unbelievably wonderful, and not far from the Trinity Site where we tested the first atomic bomb. The ancient and the apocalypse, side by side. God, how many times do you have to bomb people before you figure out that it’s far easier to aim words at them.
PM: Dictators are immune.
BM: They prefer to be bombed—by proxy, that is.
PM: I remember reading an autobiography of John Kenneth Galbraith, who in the years immediately after World War II had the job of going through Germany in its rubbled state, its destroyed condition, and trying to evaluate the effect of Allied bombing. He came back with a report that the Pentagon did not want to hear. He said the same thing happened in Germany as happened in London during the Blitz: the more you bomb them, the more the morale of the citizenry being bombed increases.
BM: The same seems to be occurring right now in the former Yugoslavia. To return to the personal, I think one exceptional blessing in being a novelist is that every failure of your life can work to your labor’s benefit. You understand your defeats as narrative possibilities. When you’re defeated you’re defeated, but as a novelist you may learn through exposure to deprivation, failures, sadnesses, emptinesses even, to build from the rubble. You lost, therefore you get to write a sentence.
PM: Tell me about work in progress.
BM: Well, I’ve been working on two novels, The Prague Sonatas and one tentatively called Ariel. The Ariel book, which I’m finishing this year, is related to Trinity Fields, sharing some of the same concerns and populated by some of the same people.
PM: Ariel is based on the character Ariel in Trinity?
BM: Yes. I’m obsessed with Ariel, but also with Kip’s inevitable death. Beyond that, silence may be best. As you well know, a work in progress is just that, in progress. I build family trees far beyond the parameters of whatever novel I’m working on, and from them come other novels. Until any novel is finished, I don’t finally know who survives whom. New novels come from just beyond the boundaries of other novels.
PM: I think we need to prep our imaginations.
BM: There’s always something more than can ever be realized textually. I know that beyond the peripheries, out in the darknesses beyond the text proper, of Come Sunday, for instance, is a richer universe yet. I like to think there’s another narrative hovering just at the extremities of all novels. This, again, is where the reader comes into the mix. It’s as if all text is hypertext. All is subject to interpretive interaction. When Shakespeare’s Fool announces in Lear, unexpectedly, “And I’ll to bed at noon,” there exists this crucial player who, without stage direction, disappears. They—both Shakespeare and his Fool—leave the door open to hundreds of years of directors, actors, and readers, to puzzle out how to accommodate his abrupt departure in any way they can imagine.
PM: Iris Murdoch said that there comes a point in the book before which the book could be anything, but after that, the book is the book, it’s committed itself. But within that point, the fulcrum between what still has infinite possibility and the fixed thing that will play itself out, if you can open up that point, in between those two things, and live inside that as your work, then you’re a genius.
BM: The synaptic point once more. Interstices. Books have sedimentary qualities, difficult moments of expertise or resonances, overtones. Every word we use has been trampled on so much. Emerson was right when he said that every word was once a poem. Each word is so completely evolved, evolving, used, overused, that for a writer to assemble them in a way that is somehow innovative, audacious, fulfilling, suggestive, represents an enormously dynamic event. The whole idea borders on hubris—but we enter the fray because for all the weaknesses and failed moments in any text, there are those incidents of epiphany and unexpected insight. That’s the reason I remain interested in words, and novels. It’s why I do what I do.