Interviewed by Gary Percesepe
George Saunders is the author of the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone, the short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, the children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. A new collection, Tenth of December, will be published in January 2013. In 2006 he was the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches Creative Writing at Syracuse University.
George Saunders is what used to be called “a writer’s writer.” James Salter is another of my favorite writers, about whom this is often said, but there is a trace of the romantic in Salter, a persistent lyrical wistfulness that at times tips into sentimentality (do a catalogue of “light” in Salter and Cheever and you’ll soon see what I mean). It’s hard to accuse Saunders of excessive lyricism; his work captures the spirit of an age tipping happily toward dystopia. Saunders writes fiction for postmoderns who don’t want to be caught hoping but catch themselves trying; charting his cultural targets is a syllabus of stupidity. His writing is so tight it cuts the flesh, his humor so demented it deserves its own show, his ear for techno-talk and psychobabble so keen it turns at times on the placement of a sly pronoun or participle.
Saunders renders and skews an absurdist national circus where sentences like this are possible:
“Listen to me carefully, Brad,” says Doris. “Go up on the roof, install the roof platform, duct-tape the AIDS baby to the roof platform, then come directly down, borrow your butter, and go home.”
And this: “A giant can of Raid gave me a snuggie,” said Voltaire.
That he succeeds in making you care about these sentences and the addled denizens of the “persuasion nation” who utter them, is the miracle of fiction.
Jean Baudrillard employed the concept of the simulacrum (the copy without an original) to address the concept of mass reproduction and reproducibility that characterizes electronic media culture, philosophizing about history in retreat, a great trauma brought on by the decline of strong referentials, a culture traversed by currents but emptied of references—but could he have imagined the narrator of “CommComm” (perhaps Saunders’ greatest short story) fielding a call from Jillian in Disasters about the Air Force poisoning a shitload of beavers, or Mr. Rimney’s immediate response: “We may want to PIDS this?” Or the narrator’s task: admit, concede, explain, and pledge. I’ll never read this story again without thinking of Mitt Romney’s Irish Setter, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car for the trip to Toronto.
Saunders’ work has been compared to Vonnegut, Orwell, Huxley, Pynchon, Beckett, Bradbury, Atwood, Swift, Twain, with a dash of Dr. Seuss. We caught up to him in Syracuse just before he set out overseas. He graciously consented to this interview.
Mary Gaitskill once told me that for satire to work, the satirist has to have some sort of secret love or empathy for the thing she’s satirizing. Do you see yourself as a satirist? Are you a moralist? How do you understand these terms?
I think she’s absolutely right. Otherwise it’s just the writer using his unfair advantage as the creator to go ahead and create a world in which the target he has in mind can be easily kicked, out of spite. Satire as I understand it is all about simultaneous love/hate. Or attraction/revulsion. It’s about, I think, the miracle of love (or the miracle of the potential for love) existing in the face of aversion. We start out to blame, but praise instead, like what’s his name in the Bible. Something like: if we are satirizing or mocking or calling out the defects of something via the method of paying very close attention to it, then that’s an act of faith: we are conceding the possibility that we might be able to convert our (first-level) aversion into something else – or even if we can’t do it, it still might, theoretically, be possible.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a satirist. My goals are pretty much the goals of the serious literary fiction writer. But I found out early on that for me to do that work, I had to use humor. I think this is because the world feels comic to me – not funny, necessarily, but comic, i.e., weirdly designed, given our basic human desires for love, dignity, continuity, order.
Your work is filled with irony and humor, which I have always understood as distance techniques, keeping something at bay, operating at a “remove.” Donald Barthelme was sometimes criticized for this by those who thought his characters suffered for it, as they were so removed we couldn’t possibly care about them. Ann Beattie, another ironist, was tagged with this. In my introduction, I mentioned “Brad Carrigan, American,” and “CommComm” because these stories, while uproariously funny, never feel manipulative, and the characters, while sketched incompletely, nevertheless elicit compassion. But in the arc of your work and the construction of your personal aesthetic, has this been a problem for you?
Actually, for me, it was the opposite: as mentioned above, I was never able to get any real feeling into my work until I gave myself permission to – well, I wouldn’t have said “to use irony and humor,” exactly, at the time. What happened was, I finally admitted into my writing certain things that were always in me personally, and were in me in abundance, especially when I was feeling the world intensely: humor, yes, but also velocity, a more vernacular approach, compression, flippancy, etc., etc.
These were all natural parts of me, especially when I was feeling moved or anxious or excited or engaged – but I was badly read as a young person and so always equated “literary” with “serious,” i.e., tightassed. So omitted these things from my work, at that time.
There’s a kind of humor that is distancing, yes – but there’s also a kind of seriousness that’s distancing. If we imagine a guy who is never really present to what’s actually happening because he’s always cracking a joke – well, not great. But likewise: his alter ego, the guy who is never really present to what’s actually happening because he is so insistent on a serious or tragic view of things, or is so fixated on being in control of his circumstances, or viewing himself as a serious person, or using high diction, or not admitting, in his fiction, that he sometimes goes to WalMart, and actually likes it, sort of, while feeling unclean: also not great.
What these guys have in common is inattention to the actual. They have their method and they’re sticking to it. That is, distancing stems from a failure to engage, or some sort of root dishonesty: rigid humor and rigid seriousness are two sides of the same coin. I think what a reader wants is genuine engagement from a writer: that is, he wants the writer to tell the truth as she sees it, and for the form of the telling to somehow be authentic to that which is being told. The reader wants the writer to be brave enough to step away from pre-digested forms or modes, as necessary, in pursuit of beauty.
What is beauty?
Beauty is truth, packaged efficiently. Pithy, right? (I can almost hear you, Gary, standing there in your toga, saying: “Ah, yes, but what is truth?”) Well, okay: I think truth, for artistic purposes, is that set of things that we feel deeply, or have felt deeply, but can’t quite articulate, and can’t quite “prove,” and, the direct statement of which feels deficient. “The Overcoat” is beautiful in part, because it says, pretty bluntly: cruelty is real and sucks. But that’s only part of it. Anyone can say that. It’s beautiful because of the way it says it – the line-by-line progress of the story, the resistance to a too-easy illustration of the precept, the delight it takes along the way. And also, maybe, because Gogol didn’t “know” that he was saying that cruelty is real and sucks – it certainly wasn’t his “intention” at the outset, I don’t think. That insight – and the hundreds of insights that could come from reading that story – was more like a blossom, a blossom that came out of Gogol’s imagining of that world, in real-time, for fun. And that is where, I think, rationality has to back politely out of the room and let Gogol do his thing.
So art – I think one reason we value art so highly is because it really is, and has to remain mysterious – in its intentions and procedures, everything. We can’t talk the life out of it. Well, I mean we can, and often do. But we can’t get at the life of it via talking.
We humans tend to reduce. We live through a great day, full of literally millions of perceptual instants (a beach, a love affair, a really weird old couple who mysteriously keep saying incredibly insightful things while picking off of one another bugs that aren’t there; a stream, a snake under a faded sail, etc, etc.), and at the end that day, we go: “Wow, that was awesome.” Art is the inversion of that process: paying hyper-attention to the things that make reality what it is, resisting reduction, trusting that the truest (and most beautiful) thing that can be said has something to do with the accretion of those small instants.
Like that famous definition of pornography: we know beauty when we see it. And this is even true as we’re making it, I think, and the pisser is, we have to trust that. There will never be a definition of beauty that helps anybody make some. (And certainly not this one.)
Oh, what the hell, as long as we’ve donned togas we may as well complete the Platonic trinity: you’ve spoken of the beautiful and the true, but what of “the good?” Your work clearly engages with all three, in a way that’s philosophically interesting to me. And I agree that these terms, especially now, need to be approached indirectly, from the “slant side,” as Emily Dickinson put it. But I notice you’ve not published a novel, preferring shorter forms. Is this because you’re not interested, or suspicious of “the big social novel,” e.g. Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom, The Corrections, Updike of the Rabbits, Roth’s American Pastoral, DeLillo’s Underworld (to name just a few) where (mostly male) authors deliver themselves of chesty opinions, or you don’t prefer that big a canvas, or you just haven’t gotten around to writing a novel, your agent is insufficiently brutish, or some other reason?
No, I’m not at all leery of the “big social novel.” I love those novels you named (plus a bunch of other big novels) and love the idea of the big novel in general. But I just haven’t found a way in yet. Flannery O’Connor said (paraphrasing), “A man can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.” And I guess to date I haven’t found a way of thinking about a big novel (or for that matter even a small one) that gets me fired up. I’m working on it though.
Speaking of philosophy, did I read somewhere that you were once interested in Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” of “Objectivism?”
Yes, I loved that book, Atlas Shrugged. It basically was the reason I went to college. These two high school teachers I adored gave the book to me and I fell hard for it. I think it was for two reasons. First, it really helped me out of an identity crisis – I loved the authority of it, the us vs. them aspect, the way it turned the world upside down and made selfishness a virtue and simplified life into a sort of “power is all” ethos. I liked the way all of the Good characters were also Good-Looking: it made ethics easier to parse. I liked all of that then, I think, because – well, I was a teenaged dude, who was just starting to realize he wasn’t as smart as he’d always thought he was, and that he maybe should have been working a little harder at school, and was, actually, outgunned, even at the local intellectual level. The second reason was just that it was the first novel I’d read in a long time and certainly the longest and most “intellectual” one I’d ever read. So that immersion experience was powerful. All of the usual novelistic charms kicked in: I felt I was there, I wanted to be there, the world presented in 3‑D etc., etc.
So then I went to engineering school and met a lot of other people who loved that book, also for weird reasons (mostly something like: “Ugh, those environmentalists are just like (NAME ANY REPREHENSIBLE SNIVELING CHARACTER FROM RAND BOOK).” For me, the last straw was going to work in Asia after college and seeing firsthand that there were good people who were working much harder than anyone I’d ever met and yet still living in abject poverty, and their teeth were rotten and their kids were dying, and it had nothing, apparently, to do with any sort of moral failing on their parts or any desire to rob the rich of their fairly-gotten gains or anything like that. It just seemed like luck – that they were born there and I was born where I was born. And at that time all of my childhood Catholic teachings came back, and I saw that these people, these Asian people (who were unfailingly nice to me, while struggling against a system they’d never made, while I was walking around in my pocket with twenty times what they would earn over the next ten years) were the meek that the Bible said were blessed – and I left Ayn behind.
How did you develop your ear as a writer, and your distinctive voice? What were your reading and viewing habits growing up?
I read a lot of books about baseball and World War II fighter pilots and so on, and watched a lot of TV. I especially loved comics like Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Monty Python – intelligent, language-based, joyful.
Also, my humor has a lot to do with having grown up in Chicago – there’s a certain South Side style of discourse, which is satirical and abrupt and insulting but also overflowing with tenderness and feeling.
“Civilwarland in Bad Decline,” the title story of your first collection, puts me in mind of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, where he writes, of another amusement park: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real…[T]he imaginary of Disneyland is neither true or false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.”
Well, I don’t know. This quote feels a little over-conceptual to me. Did Disney, when he was designing Disneyland, do so “in order to make us believe that the rest is real etc. etc.?” I don’t think so. I think he was having fun and trying to make some money and do something that was, by his lights, great. Now, his definition of “great” was a very American definition: clean, supersized, hygienic, divested of the naughty bits, safe for all, mad idealized, let’s say. But my guess is, he was just thinking: God, this will be so cool. Likewise: “Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real.” Ha. Try walking across them.
What interests me is this: when Disney, a great American genius, decided to make a simulacrum of America, what did he do? He edited it. In what direction? In the direction of nostalgia. In the direction of perfection. In his French Quarter, there are no washed-up junkie jazz musicians panhandling. Why not? That’s interesting to me – that his fantasy erred on the side of the clean/perfect/tidy. I’ve sometimes had the thought that, for someone like Disney, who grew up (I believe) rural and poorish – and maybe for his whole generation, just removed from the farm, and hardscrabble paucity, with WWI still in memory – a world free of sweat and labor and dirt and grime must have seemed like heaven.
I mean – this is what Baudrillard is getting at, I think: our American desire to eliminate the nasty or “actual” (which is a form of retreating from poverty(?)) has become a national obsession, and has had the effect of negating the personal, or the intimate. Maybe. But I don’t know. Maybe what’s required here is a wider version of what’s “real.” L.A. not “real”? I have to say I don’t buy the hankering after so-called authenticity evident in the Baudrillard quote. What is, is real. When were things “realer” than they are now, and how could that be? Whatever L.A. is, it’s real. I mean, even if something is hyper-stylized, cosmetically enhanced, all glass, fake, fake, fake: there it is, evidence of some human tendency or aspiration or desire. It’s real.
I think there’s something deep and interesting about this theming impulse – which is not just American and not just contemporary (think, for example, of the elaborate spectacles in the Coliseum – mock naval battles and Gardens of Edens with real lions, etc etc). It seems to me this theming is sort of a celebration – a celebration of the original on which the themed thing is based. The American twist, I think, as mentioned above, is that our theme parks don’t really try to be “real.” They try to be cleaner, less complicated versions of the things they represent. Why? I think this may have something to do with the American tendency towards (what we call) “optimism” – the idea that all is well, and that any indication that things might not be well equals negativity/cynicism –a tendency which sometimes presents as radical re-writings of history (“and civilization was thus spread across the Great Plains, replacing the savagery that had previously reigned”) and also radical re-writings of now (“a concerted effort against terrorism is going to unfortunately from time to time involve losses and damages, in terms of non-enlisted entities and or liberties, that will be, in the end, seen as regrettable but necessary”) and sometimes presents as, you know, the “Great Mining Train Adventure!!” or what-not.
Speaking of L.A., not long ago I visited the Getty Villa in Malibu, where various statutory “muses” from antiquity are on display. And it set me to wondering, again, about modern artists and muses. Do you have (a) muse(es)?
Hmm. Well, in a very literal way, yes: my wife. I’ve always, since the first moment I met her, really wanted to impress her. And she has very high standards and great taste, especially in writing, and especially in the way that she will not tolerate bullshit, and very much values a piece of writing that is really trying to say something important – she has little patience with the merely literary. So when I’m writing she is always in my mind. I am always hoping that what I write will move her.
In a larger sense, I think people write better when they’re happy. (Allowing for a broad definition of “happy.”) Maybe “feeling exultant” would be a better way of saying it. So for someone to have some idea, or person, in mind that makes them feel exultant: helpful. Or that feeling we get when someone is making us feel exultant – that feeling of anticipation of wonderful things and places in our future? – that’s a good feeling to work from, I think. I sometimes get a feeling, when I’m working, that what I’m working on will somehow expand my life, expand my circle of influence and influences, break me out of myself – all good, I think.
Do you watch a lot of TV? Mad Men? Reading Persuasion Nation I wondered what your thoughts were about the Don Draper character, who is given to such pronouncements as, “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” And, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
Draper operates on the assumption that people want to be led, they want to be persuaded. Someone might as well do it, and be paid handsomely. Which is why he says, “Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.”
To me, advertising is just a slight corruption or utilization of our human desire for beauty (or sex/glamour/adventure, whatever). People want to be charmed and want to be involved in beautiful things. I’m not, maybe, as against advertising as some of my work might suggest. I just see it as this thing that humans do – a form of creation. It’s false at its heart and will stop at nothing, true. But it’s also sort of like one set of birds calling out to another: Come see my nest! (If, that is, the other birds had to pay to see the nest. Hmm.)
The thing is – I know advertising, from the hours of TV I’ve watched. It’s something I can “do.” Unlike, say, nature description. So that’s one reason there’s so much of it in my work: I can do it. I can make a surface out of the stuff of advertising.
As far as Don Draper— he’s a great character. But if we want to think about actual advertising people, I don’t know…I always like to move my gaze to the way things might work in the real world. Who does advertising? I think they’re generally talented, creative people who decided, at some point, that it’s better to do something you’re good at than to be a mediocrity. And I get that. (You can make a case that fiction is a force for good in the world, but if somebody could prove otherwise, would I quit? Hope so. Doubt it.) And then they say: Well, let’s do this job as honestly and well as we can. And they put all of their urge-to-create and their sense of beauty and their wit into their work, and hence ads get more and more astonishing and convincing all the time, and encroach upon (or encompass) areas that are harder and harder for us viewers to wiggle out of or dismiss. So we get ads that sell products AND funnel money to AIDs research. Or ads that use amazing cinematic techniques and so you find yourself crying during a frigging Hefty Bag ad.
At this stage of life, I just find it all kind of wonderful: a crazy-ass display that I’m happy to alternately despise/satirize/expose and then enjoy/celebrate/wallow in.
Please tell me that Rimney in “CommComm” is not Romney. Or Rumsfeld.
He’s not. Just liked the sound of the name.
MFA programs have been known to teach students not to employ brand names in fiction. You obviously don’t agree with that advice. What other “writerly advice” don’t you agree with, and, more positively, how would you describe your philosophy of teaching, particularly when “workshopping” stories? And how do you respond when someone asks you, in a skeptical voice, “Can writing be taught?”
I don’t agree with that advice, no. Whenever says “never do that,” someone should try it right away. The game is: know rules, flout same.
There’s this wonderful book I just read in galleys (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) that directly flies in the face of this “no product name” advice – Google is in there, the actual campus, and all kinds of other companies and products, some real, some invented. I had a great time reading it, flew through it in one sitting, in fact. The book has a wonderful undeniability: the reader gets that deeply satisfying feeling of entering a wholly created world, and looking on in wonder as that world gets created by the author’s fearlessness and disregard for convention. It’s a beautiful fable that is given legs by the author’s bravado use of the real to sell us on a shadow world of the unreal/speculative. The writer (Robin Sloan) comes across as so big-hearted, so in love with the world – the ancient world, the contemporary world, the hi-tech world, the world of yellowing scrolls, in love with love, in love with friendship, you name it – and the reader is swept along by his positive enthusiasm, by his authorial courage, and feels the inclusion of this real stuff to be essential to the velocity and the emotional content of the book, in other words. It’s a lot of fun, a real tour de force, and what’s particularly amazing about it is the absence of cynicism. Sloan likes technology, he thinks Google is amazing, and then he shows how and why Google is amazing; he thinks our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty, and shows this – but also shows the flip-side, i.e., how these superpowers, like all superpowers, have the potential for getting too big for their britches and going awry.
Now – could he have done it without using Google? Probably. But there was something ballsy and insiderish and convincing about using the real thing instead of a stand-in that definitely made for a more powerful reading experience.
So in other words, rules/shmules.
One of the things I was enjoying about the book was the way Sloan set this almost Harry Potteresque adventure against a very real and contemporary backdrop (techie San Francisco) without batting an eye. I was enjoying his boldness and his unself-conscious immersion in his story, in other words.
Can writing be taught? I don’t know, but the thing is, at the MFA level, in a place like Syracuse, you don’t have to teach it. This year we got 520 applications for six spots, so the people we accepted are way past the point of needing to “learn to write.” We can mentor people, and give them time and money, and the occasional encouraging or focusing word – and that’s all it takes.
The thing about teaching/mentoring writing is, you just have to refuse to coast. Never lean back on your accrued dogma. See this new group (so much younger than you!) as valid, explosive, wonderful – and honor them accordingly.
Meg Wolitzer wrote a piece for the New York Times recently, titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” where she laments the fact that many first rate books by and about women go directly to “the women’s shelf” and never make it to the top shelf where certain books, most of them written by men, are prominently displayed and admired. Meg cites statistics compiled by VIDA, a women’s literary organization, showing that women get shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications (e.g. of all the authors reviewed in the publications VIDA tracked, nearly three-fourths were men). She concludes that women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and accorded as much coverage as men’s. The unfairness of this “system” is striking, especially when one considers that the vast majority of people reading literary fiction—and of writers applying to MFA programs and attending writing conferences– are women. What are your thoughts on this, generally? And specifically, in regard to your own work, I am wondering about how you approach writing characters who are women, and the role(s) of women in your work?
I hadn’t read that article but I’m glad I did, just now.
Well, the former scientist in me gets all jangly. Like: let’s do a study! Why are ¾ of the reviewers men? Is this a defect in the process of approaching potential reviewers, i.e., are mostly men approached? Are there fewer women interested in writing reviews? If so, why is this? And so on. Suffice it to say there is clearly a problem and I, like everyone else, apparently, can’t quite put my finger on the cause. But this kind of shot-across-the-bow article is a great thing to do, a vital kind of activism (or a great thing to keep doing: sadly, I’ve been reading pieces in this spirit for as long as I’ve been writing, i.e., since the mid-1980s).
As far as women in my work – honestly, I find that production happens in a zone where I am not thinking quite rationally. If I go into a piece thinking: Hey, let’s make sure and be fair to the women (or the men, or the kids, or the Bolivians, whatever), that skews the whole thing. That is, my goal is never accurate representation anyway. I try to go in thinking: Be fair to everyone, in the final analysis. Or: Make the moral compass here such that it would be acceptable to a just and loving God, who is also pretty patient with naughtiness. So there are crummy women in my stories and crummy men, caricatures abounding, assholes of both genders, cliché male and female archetypes etc., etc. – I really don’t care. I don’t like any constraint, self- or otherwise, when I’m working, and so I just trust that, if I write and rewrite like crazy, any surficial bias or cheap humor will either vanish or, in the end, be doing good work. I think you have to keep your eye on the work the story does as a whole – the fairness work that results at the end, if I could say it that way.
I’ve often thought that all of the horrible systemic injustices mankind has invented—sexism, racism of all sorts, homophobia, regional genocides, you name it—are best understood and diagnosed and fought as manifestations of a greater spiritual glitch – a design flaw, maybe. Take three people, let there be even the slightest difference between them, and soon two of them are going to be kicking around the third. Why is this? I’d say – and to really get at this would require another thousand pages of typing, and it’s a beautiful summer day up here in the Catskills, and we have a new puppy – but I’d say it’s because each of those three individuals is too convinced he/she is real and central to the universe. As soon as we think that, we start finding differences between us and others and preferring whatever it is we have that they don’t. And we start grouping and generalizing and conceptualizing in order to maintain our advantage – to uphold that initial delusion of self-eminence.
You’ve been compared to so many writers–Vonnegut, Orwell, Huxley, Pynchon, Beckett, Swift, Twain, Bradbury, Atwood, David Foster Wallace. Which comparison seems most apt, which least persuasive?
Ah, I don’t know. I’d take any of the above. I feel a little like the Steve Martin character in “The Jerk,” where he says, with respect to the possibility of watching the Bernadette Peters character make love to her boyfriend, “I just want to be in there somewhere.”
Was Donald Barthelme an influence for you?
He was, although early on I wasn’t reading him correctly. I was admitted to Houston when he was there but didn’t go. I think, at that time, I felt about his work a little like you described it above – I was misreading him, being young and stupid and sentimental, and wasn’t able to feel how full of emotion and longing all that crazed language is. I feel it now, though.
But you know, if I was going to be honest about literary influences, they were and are mostly realists. I’m just genuinely down with the realist agenda: making emotional power via the invocation of the real. The problem is, when I try to do it, it doesn’t work. So to generate emotional power I have to use a different bag of tricks. Or another way of saying it: I have to abandon the so-called consensus view of reality in order to get at the emotional reality underneath it, maybe? I believe that fiction is about real human experience, and about emotion, but have found that I can only get at any sort of power if I let go of the idea that the fictive surface should resemble “the real.” To get at the deep stuff I have to make a strange surface.
Which, I suppose, makes sense: life, as it is lived and as we feel it, is strange, deeply strange, and the only reason we don’t feel it that way is because we habitually normalize it. That’s necessary, that’s sane – but it’s also only partially “representative” of what actually is.
Who is your ideal reader, or is there such a thing?
Someone who has just gotten some really good news and is in the middle of an orgasm.
What frightens you most in America today, and what brings you the greatest pleasure?
What frightens me is that we are becoming a very materialist, literal group of people: always taking the straight, logical line between points. We feel that mystery, difficulty, the inarticulable are for babies, etc etc.
What brings me the greatest pleasure is the way that, corny as it sounds, people tend to be pretty kind to one another, or at least try to be. Obviously, they aren’t, always. But I’ve enjoyed finding out that, if you proceed as if most people you meet are generally like you, in their desire to be and do good, you won’t be disappointed all that often. Well, unless you’re in a war zone, I guess. Or it’s a depression or the apocalypse or something. Or it’s Germany in 1933. Or you’re gay and it’s 1971 and you’re in Kansas.
What is the most important thing for a writer?
Hmm. I guess it would depend which one we’re discussing. I mean, in general, I think a tank- like refusal to quit is pretty useful. Or a perennial hope that current difficulties will lead to beauty down the line. Engagement? A willingness to step into any reality and go: Ah, so this is how it is, right here and right now: excellent.
Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whom Paul Ricoeur called the modern “masters of suspicion,” taught us to look away from religious belief as evidential (that is, whether or not these beliefs could be “proved”), and to focus instead on “what work does religious belief do in the world,” or more pointedly, “how do religious beliefs function as masks to disguise and advance self-interest.” What is the function of religious belief in your stories, your version of a spirituality adequate to the times, and how did this govern your employment of terms like “Christ-portion” and “light-craving” in “CommComm?”
Well, sounds like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud had it all figured out. And yet, where are they now? Ha ha ha. No: I think a spiritual approach to life just means that you are smart enough to negate the idea that everything you know at this moment just happens to be everything there is to know in the universe. Wouldn’t that be weird? If our generation just happened to be the one alive when our intuitive, sensory-based understanding of how things work was EXACTLY right?
A human being is exactly: a fish out of water. There is limited time, the situation is unsustainable, just lying there is not an option. So if the fish goes: Ha, you religious weirdos, what are you getting so frantic about? – he seems…dopy. Self-satisfied. Doomed.
There’s this incredible place in one of Freud’s books where he’s talking about Eastern mysticism and says something like, you know: Now, it is said that certain practitioners can alter the state of their minds, and thus alter their perception of reality – but we do not need to concern ourselves with this at this time.
My feeling is, Freud missed the most interesting exit ramp there.
What we know: we’re going to die and are not ready to die, because we like it here too much and are too fond of ourselves and our loved ones. If we look to the known and common-sensical world, there’s not much help being offered. It mostly says: get yours. Be a success. Or, as Dr Seuss said it: “Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be. With the whole wide world watching you win on TV!” But anyone who’s lived and/or succeeded and/or failed at all can see that this is a dead end. As much as we win, we are going to be in for a big shock on our last day, if not before it, via bad luck or ill fortune etc., etc.
So what are we waiting for? I’d define “the religious” as: “that field of inquiry that ardently seeks to know that beyond which we lazily know.”
So I like: “focus…on “what work does religious belief do in the world,” but find “how do religious beliefs function as masks to disguise and advance self-interest,” a little dismissive.
I’d say: religious beliefs, at their best, are series of complex metaphors that are so accurate they cease to be metaphors. If having religious beliefs, and pursuing religious practices, and thinking in religious metaphors, has the effect of transforming the individual and moving him towards more presence and more kindness and more openness – than the distinction between the real and the metaphorical has dissolved.
I read where you once said, “The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness.” Please unpack this comment, with constant reference to Tolstoy. And thanks for spending time with us today at BLIP.
Yes, that was a joke. A joke meant to undercut the idea that writing dictums are any damn good. Writing dictums are the equivalent of replacing the tightwire with a wide plank: a lazy man’s approach. Safer, but less thrilling.
My pleasure, and thanks for asking me. Great questions…
Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at BLIP Magazine and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of four books in philosophy, Percesepe’s fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, PANK, and other places.