A Conversation with Curtis White By Chad Post

Chad Post: How would you describe Requiem?

Curtis White: Like any requiem, my requiem is a meditation on death. It is a meditation in the old-fashioned sense of a consideration of human impermanence and mutability, but it’s also a meditation on modern death. What does it mean to be dead when we’re all “post-human”? Where is the pathos in this?

So, I chose my materials very deliberately to reflect this long history of becoming “post human.” The Bible (pre-human), classical music (the invention of the human), and digital life, especially cyber-mediated sex (the post-human). My theme, like Joyce’s in Dubliners, is “death in life.”

CP: Your novels seem to follow a dialectic that alternates between a personal focus and a more societal focus. Where does Requiem fit in to this equation?

CW: I’ve always felt that my fiction was strongest when it was, at the same moment, both an utterly personal confession and a very public critique. So all of my work seeks to be both public and private. Nonetheless, the balance between the two shifts from book to book. The Idea of Home is a more public book, and Memories of My Father Watching TV is a more private book. Requiem is perhaps the most public book I’ve written. The only conspicuously private thing in it is probably my not-very-well-concealed misanthropy which seems to gallop ahead of me as I grow older.

CP: The deterioration of the distinction between public and private life comes up several times in Requiem. How do you think this deterioration has impacted modern culture? For instance, I’m thinking of the novel’s fictional interview with Terri Gross about her “secret website,” or more generally about the influence of technology as a whole. How does modern technology (especially the Internet) play into your conception of humanity in our “post-human” culture?

CW: First, and very importantly, I am not nostalgic about a time when we were authentically human. Our “privacy” has always been dependent on “publicity.” Our humanity has always been mediated, whether by the Bible, the Enlightenment working through Chopin’s fingers, or by digital-life. The question is always: what is mediating our humanity? The strictures of the Bible were long ago relegated to the scrap heap, even though they maintain a curiously strong background force in our culture. The appeal of the Enlightenment to individuation, creativity, art, personal voice, passion as a field of play is not so dead but is nonetheless very threatened. The mediations of a cynical and manipulable commercial culture bent on achieving hyper-life, pure simulation—as Baudrillard put it—is the strongest force at present. It seems inevitable to most folk. But we don’t ask ourselves: what are the consequences of embracing a thoroughly engineered world? What does human sex look like in that context? What do primary human relationships look like? (Memories of My Father Watching TV is an attempt to imagine this.)

My Requiem is about damage. I try to find a means to let the damaged speak while suggesting in a variety of ways that there are other more desirable worlds available to them. The sweet spot in this novel, for me, is music. Music suggests to us: remember what it is like to be human. Don’t be a mere social function. Join us here in art and be human.

CP: Despite focusing on the “damaged” elements of society and some very dark moments, many of the sections in Requiem are quite funny. Do you see Requiem as a comic novel?

CW: My way of seeing things is organically comic. It is a Rabelaisian humor, by which I mean it is two-fold. I laugh because it feels good right down to the bum-gut, as Rabelais might say. And I laugh because we’re mostly such fools, always working avidly against our own interests, an innately funny spectacle. In short, I write an ornate sort of social satire with the occasional poetic pretension.

In Requiem, even the darkest moments are comic. For instance, in the bestiality sections in which we meet Michelle and Chad, dog abusers for profit and fun, the dog—Murphy—emerges as the only conscious moral agent. What’s depicted is grim, but the idea is funny. I’m hoping that a few readers out there will have s sufficiently developed sense of ironic distance to see that the scenario is comic.

CP: What made you want to write about bestiality and cyberporn?

CW: Just dumb artistic intuition. One of the great joys of fiction writing for me is looking for materials. I rarely know why something is appropriate. I have to develop the material to begin to see why it works. Joyce once said about materials, “What I need will come to me.” Artists proceed with that faith.

The bestiality sections are a critical part of Requiem’s design. They provide a floor for the book. It is the moral nadir. It also rhymes well with Biblical materials in the book, especially Old Testament prohibitions on certain kinds of conduct, including “don’t do that with the livestock!”

But what most fascinated me about the cyberporn I discovered was just how banal and sad it all was. Here’s a silicon-boobed housewife in the suburbs outside Austin or wherever, posed amid her K-mart furnishings, revealing her tawdry wares just for lonely you, hunched over your computer. Welcome to pleasure in the twenty-first century.

CP: Switching from bestiality to music, how is the structure of Requiem related to a classical requiem?

CW: My Requiem is a very loose adaptation of the “Missa pro difunctis,” the mass for the dead. Most musical requiems are also loose formal adaptations. I was listening to a lot of requiems, and I was deeply moved by them, so it seemed like a good structural device for a fiction. My work is always very architectural, and I saw something interesting in the architectural drama of the mass. I especially liked the contrast between wrath and redemption. The self conviction of sin and the need to be forgiven. I make a lot of comedy out of the Bible, but what my novel preserves of the Judeo-Christian ethos is the certainty of having acted badly—against other humans, against dogs, against the world—and needing to say, “I’m sorry,” and be forgiven. In this case, literally forgiven by the dogs! (I’m obviously employing the old God-Dog pun.) I think the need to confess and be forgiven is the surviving heart of Christianity. It may sound grandiose to say so, but for me making art is a kind of confession and finding the work of art at the end of the process is a form of grace. I’m starting to sound like Graham Greene. Or Bishop Sheen!

CP: This is less of a question than a comment, but I found the biographies on classical musicians to be some of the most moving sections of Requiem. How do you see these parts fitting into the whole of your novel?

CW: My idea was to write sections about musicians who had written requiems, so I started listening to a lot of requiems and then reading about the lives of the musicians. What I found was that their lives were incredibly moving and frequently tragic. I also discovered some truly unexpected parallels, like the fact that Mozart and Haydn had both proposed marriage to one woman, been rejected, and then offered marriage to that woman’s sister. Saint-Saëns had a very similar experience. Schumann, Puccini and Chopin got exactly the women they most desired but with crushing results. For me, the lives of these artists remind the reader of old-fashioned human verities of the heart. It’s interesting to compare those lives to the mad and sterile lives depicted in the sections about life online. Tragic though they may have been, the musicians are the novel’s heroes.

CP: In many ways, Chris (a.k.a. “The Modern Prophet”) functions as the protagonist and focal point of Requiem. During his interview with the Murderer, he says that “Prophets are basically poets.” Does this represent your view of authors and their influence on society?

CW: Chris has been a presence in two of my earlier books. He is an alter-ego for me, my inner-child, I suppose. He is innocent and easily crushed by what he discovers. A sensitive boy. But he is also pompous and infinitely lacking in a kind of knowledge that he very much needs. As he conducts his prophetic interviews, he keeps breaking into tears over the details of certain stories. The writer as prophet simply speaks truth to the world, even if the world doesn’t want to hear it. There aren’t many of this type of writer left. Writing is 95% show biz in these late days of the world.

CP: Recently you’ve written a number of essays for CONTEXT magazine. Do you think your critical writing has had an impact on your fiction?

CW: Actually, I do think my essays and fiction work in very similar terrain but in very different rhetorics. My overarching concern is “what does it mean to be a full human being and what realities and ideas stand between us and that full humanity?” The essays have sharpened my thinking about the purpose of the fiction.

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