Part One: Reasons why this response took eight months to write
1. Cat was in lap; couldn’t reach keyboard.
2. “Just Dial My Number” by Jeremy Jay incessantly running through head.
3. Is that the smell of cookies? I love cookies.
4. Procrastination: attempts to facebook-friend people who are better-know or better-looking than I am. Finally, just plain better than I am. Rebuffed, depressed.
5. Unable to decide how large a box of chocolates to send Maria Farrell.
6. Eating many sample boxes of chocolates; concluding none was good enough to have sent; stomach ache, nausea, self-loathing.
7. Suspecting my response might entail me actually reading Sunnyside.
8. Peep Show, Seasons I-VI, which was such a bargain on amazon.co.uk, only playable on Region 2. Depression.
9. Figuring out hulu; watching of Peep Show through Season VII. Intense identification of self with all male characters (including Superhans). Stomach ache, nausea, self-loathing.
12. The internet turns out to have pornography on it. How long has this been going on?
13. Stalemated in determining whether receding hairline should or should not be accompanied by extended sideburns.
14. Building up courage. Brainstorm: sidestep article entirely by writing it in Italian!
15. Attempt to learn Italian confounded by there being so many different words for things. In Italian, “dog,” for instance, is an entirely different word than “dog.” Abject weeping. Io sonno cane.
16. Finding comfortable chair.
17. Fussing with 150-watt bulb.
17. Arguing with pillow.
18. Dabbing finger, attempt to wipe remainder mark from bottom of Sunnyside.
19. Reading Sunnyside. Oh, Jesus. WTF?
Part Two: What Do You See?
Have I mentioned I love you all? Because I do. I am flattered – no, I am what my spell-check suggested at first, I am flattened by the thoughtfulness of your essays. Ever since high school, when our Norton Critical Editions of Emma or Lord Jim had scholarly passages in the back that I would longingly ache to understand well enough to plagiarize, I hoped I’d write something that might engender a response of some sort beyond plot summary. So this is a dream come true. In my heart of hearts I imagine you all to be combinations of calendar pin-ups and Oxford dons, with tenure and waxed, glistening limbs. Except Adam, who would have tenure at Princeton and the figure of a vegan Deja Thoris.
The fact is, I was stopped dead for eight months by massive, crippling self-consciousness. It’s hard to know how to tangle thoughtfully with exegeses of your own work, but there’s also more –
From the moment I sold Sunnyside till the moment it came out in paperback, I talked about it too much. I grew up on the beaches of California, and am familiar with what it’s like to watch a pile of sand drift back into the hole you’re digging; I am less familiar with this feeling when I’m talking about my work. Normally it’s terrific to have people ask questions, especially about a novel that took so many years to write. But nonetheless, there it was, a sandy and collapsing despair, and I recognized I had to shut up about my book for a while to understand the feeling.
Sunnyside has all kinds of plot, it’s not a plot-driven book, so I had to explain ideas, which, well, I had more fun hiding underneath flamethrower battles and party scenes than exposing to the sunlight. My responses tended to be more and more about restating what I thought was obvious, and, well, the technical term is that I think I started sounding like a dick.
Works of art should stand on their own, in the same way lawyers should take pro bono work, and cowboys should be noble. There are a million ways to stand on a chair and proclaim. I write this in the long afterglow of the play Red (by John Logan), with the relentless block of Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. It’s a play with merits I could argue back and forth but for now, what sticks is that Rothko seems to have had no freakin’ problem explaining his work. He was a genius in his own mind. Not to say others disagreed, but the important thing about him was that he didn’t just explain himself, but also asked you to ask him to explain himself. “What do you see?” he asks repeatedly, basically browbeating his assistant until he, like everyone else, agrees, okay, yes, there’s something there, it’s not just smears of paint, got it. Please let my nuts go.
Does that sound attractive to you as a literary avatar? Because maybe he was onto something.
To Ms. Maria Farrell:
True story: the first piece of writing I published was in a local free weekly about our local suicide prevention agency, where I was a volunteer. I skulked around cafes that week, hoping to catch someone reading my article. And then I did. A woman in her sixties was slowly going through it. I ambushed her.
Me: Are you enjoying that?
Her: I’m hoping this article can explain to me why my son killed himself.
Ahem. That is why I have never wanted to ask people what they think of my work, and it’s why I walk in the opposite direction the few times I’ve seen someone reading a novel I’ve written.
Your essay was like years of therapy reduced to prose, however, in that it was a remarkable and joyous experience to read it. My eyes skidded off the page the first few times I read it, in that your reactions were so dream-like to me, things I wish I could overhear readers’ thinking. Thank you.
My father taught me about astronomy this fact: because of the interference of the earth’s atmosphere, in order to see the dimmest stars beyond the natural ‘limited magnitude’ we actually have to look just to the side of them and they come into focus. That embrace of the sidelong glance smacks of quantum physics to me, the English major, and will perhaps explain that the averted gaze – apparently, that’s what it’s called—is how I tend to write, and how I best understand.
And yes, this is another excuse for not writing this sooner, but it’s also an attempt to explain how I shyly approached the wonderful things you said about the work. You plunged into the book’s messiness and emerged, Kellerman-ic, awash in all the things the narrative might be, and I am truly, truly humbled by your opinions and observations and I sort of have to avert my eyes to absorb the truths you’ve put on the page.
I have a theory that artistic works are primarily conservative or radical. The conservative ones get high-fived more easily, in that they confirm what we already know about the world – even if they are labeled “challenging,” the challenges are actually to an square, slack-jawed, middlebrow, facile – and entirely imaginary – audience. To willingly leave the zone in which you feel comfortable is rare, and to have your assumptions truly shaken up so they’re different after reading a piece of fiction is rarer still. Normally, stuff that tries to shake you is ends up just being abrasive. I’m glad you reacted well to my attempts.
Perhaps this is too raw a steak to cut into, but it’s true: I wrote Carter Beats the Devil to be loved. Charles Carter is a hero fighting a pretty clear moral battle and I quite deliberately turned down the pyrotechnics so I could tell a story as if it were non-fiction. Relatively ego-free. Sunnyside however is about artistic ego, more of a risk and a weird beast. Only recently did I do some narrative math and realize that Sunnyside has as its protagonist a megalomaniac pedophile whose climactic gesture is to betray his mother, its co-star has a whore breastfeed a puppy, and its ending consists of a baby’s funeral, a dog dying, and, in case that wasn’t zippy enough, a snobbish anti-hero murdered in Russia in the snow in a war that the Allies lose. And the point of the thing is that we all die alone and all human endeavor, including the art which gives us care and shelter, is roughly akin to pinning a fake smile onto the mouth of a dead infant.
In other words: beach read. No, Sunnyside was meant to trouble people. For a very long time, even when someone was telling me he or she liked the book, I was bracing my solar plexus for something worse, and it took me a while to see praise when it was right there in front of me. I’m able to talk about this now in part because I’m into the next project and I can look in the rear view mirror and not feel like the objects there are larger than they appear.
What’s sort of interesting is that even now I have trouble relating what I wrote with who I am. To use the averted gaze to (maybe) explain or at least give some example of what I mean—Shortbus is a problematic film I nonetheless enjoyed enough to watch with the director’s commentary playing. John Cameron Mitchell explained that he set up an orgy scene and, because he didn’t want to ask the actors to do things he wouldn’t do, he doffed duds and went buck naked amongst them, called out “action” and then…went limp. No friction or fantasy (you know) helped. As he said, “it turned out that I could not participate in the world I created.”
I’m very glad Sunnyside lives with you – I wish it lived with me the same way, but that had to end and I do mourn that a little.
To Mr. Stuart Evers
Evers, bellissimo, I love you. The lookalike is a concept so deeply woven into the book it forms a binding strand of DNA. It’s something my American editor grabbed onto in his first comments, and something I’m proud of. There’s quite a bit of boxing amongst “lookalike,” “stand-in” and “alter ego” in the text, resulting in Rebecca’s taking Chaplin’s place at the end and appearing in all those convenient locations simultaneously herself.
I had a life-changing college class from Alan Dundes, whose focus was workplace folklore, the birth of urban legends – the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Hook-handed Killer, etc. His (mostly post-Freudian) views on myth, legend, folktales and the narrative underpinnings is one of my secret weapons in Sunnyside. There are easter eggs all around involving the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to folktales, which catalogues the paths old-style stories can take and salutes to the newer versions. There are dybbuks and ibbrim (sic) and reflections and mirrors all over. The more I read about Chaplin the more I realized that the man himself had become an urban legend, a necessary legend (not myth, unless we count this story as a creation narrative…which, okay, if it’s about the birth of modernism, maybe so) for American society.
Duncan and Black end up being reflections of Chaplin (Duncan surrenders to the tank, as Chaplin does in Shoulder Arms; Black of course dances like hell with three real princesses just before Charlie imitates the same on screen). And there are further examples of that, with Rebecca and her silver fish badge. (By the way, I wonder if the Girl Scouts, upon considering the ultimate badge – they never really issued one, but theorized that one would be necessary in case the ultimate girl scout ever showed up – did they understand that making one in the form of a fish would echo the fundamental symbol of the resurrection in America, a badge so universal it’s now satirically reprimanded by the Darwin fish?)
As I mentioned in my interview with the lovely Adam McGovern, I also had an interlocutor to further complicate this, the benshi, but my editor (wisely) shook that all the hell out of the book.
I shy away from speculating about the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction (to me, the word “novel” on the cover excuses just about anything), but I do know to the backs of my weak and trembling knees that history is a browbeaten lookalike to the actual motion of events. I struggle to articulate this, but here we go: lies work only when we say we want to hear the truth. Because we are discerning about lies, what’s really powerful about them is when they provide what we want, which is inevitably comfort or upset. That’s when they feel the most true. Which is what makes written history so compelling and hard to judge. There’s something I’m very happy about, which is that no reader has noticed that in Russia, in May 1919, it’s still frozen over and dark 22 hours a day. That dreamscape is a legend about Russia that we seem to want to believe.
To Mr. Robert Hanks
Hanks, I love you. Roughly as I do Evers, but in a more brotherly towel-snapping sort of way. You bring up a fascinating point about Chaplin as a non-sympathetic character, and an equally good one about – if I understand your complaint – his automatic slotting in as an icon to be studied without much necessary explanation. The truth is, I was never a Chaplin fan, and found him to be grotesque for the most part. Like you, I always felt there was something offputting, perhaps Victorian, about him. Then again, I never liked Punch and Judy, either, and I think his work struck me as a pie fight that, for whatever reason, critical theory had declared important enough to study.
I have to ask this, as I’m curious whether it might make a difference – have you seen a film of his with an audience? That was the turning point for me. I watched The Circus alone on DVD a few times and found it uneven but charming in places, mostly interesting because of the awful circumstances in which it was filmed. I arranged to show it three times – once to children, once to a general audience, once to professional filmmakers—and I was rocked by the reaction each time. Roiling laughter. Unexpected welling and crests and swells of laughter.
As you’ve mentioned, he can be funny sometimes. I hadn’t expected, however, the way the laughter opened people up to the other emotions – the pathos and struggle that I found tepid when I watched the films alone. Turns out that stuff I’d written about Chaplin as communal experience was true: for whatever reason, that weird body and face and set of motions that just should be repellent is instead, in a darkened room, an invitation to pure emotional feasting. I think your point (and Thomson’s), that Chaplin understood how audiences identified with him, is exactly how that sympathy with him – which you have trouble swallowing – is generated. In other words, if you were going to set up a scientific experiment, you need the audience with you to see if that empathic response is still vivid. I think it is.
And, well: “I found Sunnyside unsatisfactory as a novel. The three main narratives didn’t fit together; it has a succession of striking incidents that don’t cohere into a plot” – first, thanks for ‘striking,’ unless the sense was those incidents were ‘on strike’ and holding out for better conditions. This is a comment that I wasn’t sure how to respond to, as it’s very hard not devolved into protracted whining, but let me channel my inner Rothko and also hope that afterward you and I can still spin phonograph records, paint our nails and talk about girls.
Ahem: what you were saying there is that you read without doing the difficult work of seeing the threads that actually bind the narrative together.
But, no doubt, your response would be that the book didn’t make you want to do the work. To which I suppose there are two responses:
a) Right. Oops.
b) Dude, it’s there on the page.
I try to give credit to “a” but I’m unconvinced. After I finished Sunnyside, I started reading Against the Day. I’m about 450 pages into it and you know what? I love it. And there is not a freaking chance in the world that the plot threads are going to come together. I picked up on that 400 pages ago. Instead, even though there is a rip-roaring set of incidents, I recognize that there are currents beneath the surface that drive the narrative. The satisfactions to be had are in the work I do myself (see my response to Adam for an illustration of this.) Given that I’m not Pynchon, I did nonetheless – for instance – stop all momentum dead for 20 pages while having an economic theorist, then a film theorist, pontificate about the very theories that would drive the climax of the book. I had hoped that would clue people into how to read the book (ah, there’s my Rothko, right there). I’m curious what the book could have done to slow you down enough and want to pay attention?
The thing is, I think you actually know that the narrative threads cohere – I’m very pleased with your analysis of how Duncan and Black function together (they’re also based on two types of characters Chaplin played), and were you and I to drink properly together (I talk a big game, but I’m fairly sure I need to do all this drinking with all of you on the same night, and I’ll need serious coffee the next morning), I bet I could get you to commit to more ways in which things at the end actually spark off each other, even if it’s in ways you don’t like. Why not split the difference between us? I think that if you sat and stewed with it, what you might view as shortcomings would instead become mysteries. If we can get only that far, I will take responsibility for the mysteries that turn out to in fact be shortcomings.
Mr. Adam McGovern:
An averted-view response to the cult of the electron
When I was six years old, my father took me to a special effects seminar at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. The two films they took to the mat (or matte, I suppose) were The Ten Commandments and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. They showed how one scene in the latter, involving a fire engine tossing characters around the street, took 27 different exposures on a single frame (the shot had nine different parts, each of which was exposed three times for the Technicolor process).
The special effects wizard explained that the shot made no sense except that our brains told us it had to. When shown separately, the pieces had little to do with each other. The only reason that separate images of a character flying in the air, a spinning ladder, and firemen looking on helplessly fit together was that our minds insisted that they had to. I didn’t understand this – I was, as I mentioned, six, and I just saw what I saw.
When we left, my father told me he’d been nervous to see any of this, as if he’d be unable to watch a movie without thinking about the scaffolding and insulation around the narrative. A few nights later, we were watching a Tarzan movie, and “Tarzan” – I suppose it was Johnny Weissmuller – let out his yell and the next shots were of all the animals of the jungle looking up and running toward him. I said it was amazing they were able to find so many trained animals.
No, my father said: It’s what that guy was talking about. He had used this psychology to explain the elements together in one shot, but the phenomenon starts with separate shots. You can put any shots together and the mind makes sense of it. You could have Tarzan yelling and then cut to trucks coming up the onramp of the 405 freeway. You’d think they’d trained truckdrivers to respond to his yell. But they have zero to do with each other.
Unlike my father, I now forever had something I would think about when I went to the movies: images are put side by side, and film making is an unusual art form in the level of participation it asks from the audience.
Munsterberg, the real Munsterberg, not my Munsterberg, has some language about this in his book The Photoplay, from 1916. To paraphrase: we have binocular vision, we have two hemispheres of the brain, we can compare two unlike things and combine them, and with every other artform we do it so automatically – “this is paint, and yet it’s also an image of a girl” – we don’t think about it. “Tarzan” is a word, and our brains fill in the connotations for us. Film, however, can combine three unlike images, one after the other – Tarzan yells (that’s one), animals respond (that’s two), and poachers take aim (that’s three!) – and we fill in the blanks. And then it keeps doing it: more and more and more images, and we participate. What’s the logical continuation of that? Well, we keep making up connections we have with those images on the screen – even when they’re not on the screen anymore. We think that because of our participation, that creates a psychological connection (love, hate, fraternity) with someone who hasn’t actually seen us in return.
This has fascinated me since I was six because it’s what that special effects guy was trying to say – we fill in the blanks. And what does that say about our brains when we take them out of the dark and onto the city streets? It has got to work in novels somehow. Put three allegedly unlike things together and see if the constellations we make out of chaos might actually have an inherent meaning – since the world I’m describing isn’t really chaos, but controlled by artistic ego.
Then again, there’s always Last Year at Marienbad. Maybe I’ve written that.
Your comments on the morphing of texts according to time and culture are especially juicy to me. There’s a fabulous book I likely mentioned in our 8,000,000 word discussion on the Knopf website: Silent Traces, by John Bengston, in which he locates all of the exteriors that Chaplin shot in, and shows what they really looked like at the time of filming, how they looked like in the film, and how they look today. The layers of context here are staggering: is a place more real as a scrap of land no one remembers, a faux skating rink, or as a Korean drycleaners? Turns out: the faux skating rink, as that’s been distributed to the four corners of the earth, and its image, with memories and emotions attached, will survive long after the last drycleaning chemicals have leached into the watershed.
But the skating rink is also: a temporary construction last really there in 1916, a trace image found on film, a memory for the viewers and, most weirdly, it’s probably based on a separate memory of the creator, in this case Chaplin. So it’s a reconstruction and an imperfect representation of truth that stands the test of time best.
Eek. My head hurts.
I should, 4000 words and many months later, wrap up, but I have three things to add:
1) Every writer who wishes he knew how readers felt about his book should have this experience. It’s amazing. We live as we dream, alone, but sometimes, as when basking in a myth or legend, we dream together, publicly, and what a lovely experience it is.
2) I was thinking about “genius” recently, as I was looking up those old 1970s IQ tests and that word gets thrown around for someone who’s really smart. I don’t think that’s how I’ve ever felt about the word when I use it with care. There are ways to finetune this, but, simply: a genius has a different relationship with the materials than the rest of us.
True fact, not something I meant to expose, but you’ve been patient and thoughtful: a few years ago I was work friends with a guy who was both famous and a genius. Not of Chaplin’s dimensions in the world, but nonetheless, his name and image were out there a lot, and you’d probably agree that in his field of work, dude was phenomenally gifted. I saw how the laws of physics and psychology and social interaction were warped by his presence in a room, and I also began, fleetingly, to understand there was something I’d never understood before about the combination of celebrity and that different-relationship-with-the-materials thing. When Mr. X did his art, he did so ruthlessly, intensely, and selfishly, and when it was done, it came out buoyed with compassion and empathy, and critics and fans were often shocked by how much they felt invited into a vulnerability that wasn’t actually there. I mean, Mr. X felt vulnerable, but what he presented was actually shaped, honed and considered. It was packaged, but —well, see above discussion on history, lies and what stories make us feel comfortable. We want the feeling of engagement, not necessarily engagement itself. I know I couldn’t live without it.
I mused a lot about the finite and infinite powers that genius and celebrity play amongst. What does creativity touch and what is it powerless to affect? So that’s where Chaplin and his world gestated.
3) I don’t think about this stuff much anymore. The new project is memoir, and I’m currently figuring out how to do that. The normal pitfalls in any memoir are there but I also tend to yammer on, and the unexpectedly ambitious thing here is to keep it short. I’m out of philosophy head, out of “idea” head and into the pure emotional terror that lies in attempting to tell what happened without flinching.
Could I, by the way, nominate something as the most knee-bucklingly good novel of 2009? Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. I don’t want to say much about it, except that it takes place in 1940s Berlin, and concerns a small circle of people impacted by a middle-aged couple’s small attempt to make a difference. It is all the things you want in a narrative: thrilling, emotionally complex, a nail-biter and page-turner, vivid, hilarious, sad (I wept), and philosophically a barnburner. The characters come in all shades of gray, from pale to pitch black, and it has in it one of the best unxious villains, Enno Kluge, I’ve ever run into It made me understand (again) what fiction is for.
Two SPOILERS about that book (skip this paragraph if you don’t want them): I learned that the story wasn’t historical fiction in the traditional sense – Fallada wrote it in 1947, which was fascinating. I could tell there was something about his prose that didn’t feel contemporary but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was. I’m still wondering. Patience, maybe? Just as simple as a man without the internet to bother him? The other spoiler: it’s based on a true story. Which, I suppose, does make it historical fiction, just that the “history” was only a couple of years old. The actual case is much different than what he wrote – I for one felt fine about this, but I’m curious whether people who keep score differently would worry about it.
You all rock!
What’s this all about? See the introduction to the Sunnyside book event here.