This interview appeared in the Spring Issue of Four Quarters . Copyright LaSalle University 1995
AUTHOR = JUSTIN CRONIN
TITLE = A Conversation with Madison Smartt Bell
BIGFIRSTPAR3 = Still in his thirties, novelist and short story writer Madison Smartt Bell has won a following among readers of serious literature that any author would envy. In the twelve years since the publication of his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Bell has published not one or two but six more, and a pair of story collections besides, all to wide acclaim. His work has appeared frequently in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, and the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies, and among the many honors he's received are fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the midst of this, he manages-somehow-to teach, at Goucher College in Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, and their young daughter.
Intellectually rich, tautly crafted, ambitious in scope and form, Madison Bell's fiction sets him apart from the vast majority of writers of his generation, weaned on the spare prose, buried emotions, and implied plots of the Minimalists. A rural Southerner by birth but an urban Easterner by habit, Bell brings to his work the rhythms and sensibilities of both regions, making a literature that, as novelist and critic Anne Bernays has written, "loves people and things the way they are while simultaneously expressing outrage that they are not better, wiser, kinder." Everywhere in Bell's work the reader finds extraordinary combinations, dramatic turns, and a bottomless appetite for story. In his last three novels alone, he has covered considerable territory. Dr. Sleep, published in 1991, is perhaps his most ambitious novel, telling the story of an insomiac hypnotist in contemporary London, whose nightly wanderings draw him into a high-profile murder case involving the London underworld (while making considerable structural reference to, among other things, 16th-Century Gnostic cosmology, the music of John Coltrane, and the London subway system). Save Me, Joe Louis, published two years later, takes the form of a road novel, chronicling the violent lurchings of two petty criminals en route from New York to Baltimore to the author's native Tennessee. Bell's newest novel, All Souls Rising, marks his first major foray into historical narrative. Set in 18th century Haiti during the slave rebellion, the novel is part of a planned trilogy and is due out in October.
In April 1994, Bell visited La Salle to read from the new book and visit with students who had been studying his work in a course on contemporary fiction. After class, we stopped at my house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia to talk.
JC: I'll start by asking you about your last two novels, Dr. Sleep and Save Me, Joe Louis. When I read them again, I thought I saw something new happening, perhaps a brewing confrontation between your love of plot and the more ruminant philosophical aspects of your work. How do we get from Adrian Strother, a hypnotist and modern-day practitioner of 16th-century hermeticism, to a petty thief like Macrae?
MB: To my mind, Dr. Sleep was the end of a whole trend in my work. The book is basically structured as a prayer, and Adrian Stother's internal monologue drives the story. After I had finished it, I realized in a way I hadn't before that all the novels I had written up to that time were spiritual pilgrimages of one kind or another. Though they are by and large couched in the form of thrillers, they're essentially experiments in religion. My model for that is Dostoyevsky, who was basically a thriller writer with a lot of religious obsessions that he was trying to work out. I wasn't completely aware of this strain in my own work until I'd finished Dr. Sleep, or was well on the way to finishing it. In my first book, Washington Square Ensemble , there's a rather complicated argument going on between Islam and santer'a; the next book, Waiting For the End of the World is basically about Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the next-that's Straight Cut I'm speaking of-is about philosophical Christianity under the aegis of Kierkegaard. The Year of Silence is a novel about life in a world without religion, based on the ideas of French existentialism. In Soldier's Joy we're back to primitive Christianity, and then in Dr. Sleep, it's hermetic Gnosticism and the writings of Giordano Bruno. To me, this seemed like the answer. I think the idea that the universe is divinity is viable as a fundamental precept for a reformed religion for our time.
So after I finished that, I decided I couldn't write that kind of book anymore, and I started two new projects. One was the historical novel about the Haitian slave rebellion, and the other was a novel that I'd planned earlier, which became Save Me, Joe Louis. To my mind, Save Me, Joe Louis doesn't have the kind of philosophical system beneath it that the others do, at least not one that I was aware of. It's pretty much anarchic. To an almost comical extent, the main character is living in such a way that he doesn't know his intentions until he has already enacted them. Then he looks back and thinks, "Hmm, this seems to be not planned." Macrae is an internally silent character. I fumbled my way toward this structure because I think it's a fairly accurate picture of the way small time criminals operate. They're not geniuses, and they're not particularly good planners; most crimes are not very thoughtful acts.
JC: The southward motion of those characters from New York to Baltimore and back to the territory that you originally inhabited, and that we see in Soldier's Joy- was that part of the original plan, or did it just evolve?
MB: Well, some of that was preconceived. Certainly by the time I got to the end of the New York section, I had figured out all the rest of the characters' movements, but the plot of the book unfolded from circumstance. That was the way I wanted to do it, to make it seem almost random.
JC: You said in class today that after you finished Dr. Sleep, you felt for a while that you couldn't move on.
MB: I experienced some real confusion and depression after I finished Dr. Sleep, because I really liked the book. To my mind, it didn't have any serious flaws, and it was what I'd always wanted to do, and I could see how the tendencies of all the other books fed into it. I considered not writing any more, either slitting my throat or going to law school. (laughs) Those thoughts continually ran through my mind. I haven't taken that course, so I guess you could say they weren't serious considerations, but they did prey on me for about a year after I finished Dr. Sleep.
JC: But there wasn't really a gap in the writing between Dr. Sleep and Save Me, Joe Louis. There couldn't have been, given the publishing schedule.
MB: There was, though, for me. I usually only take about a one week break. That time it was more like six months. In fact, it seems to me now that it was nearly a year, but maybe that's not true; maybe it was just a few months. I know I started Save Me, Joe Louis, and I think what I did was piddle with the Haitian material a little bit without getting anywhere. I finished Dr. Sleep in the summer. I remember that because I was in London, and I actually finished writing and typing the final chapter sitting in Russell Square at a little picnic table. The weather was atypically pleasant for London, so I was working outside. I think it must have been the next summer that I really started Save Me, Joe Louis. At that point I'd written maybe fifty pages of the Haitian thing. That, to me, is not work.
JC: About your new work on the Haitian slave rebellion: I recently reread Russell Banks' Continental Drift and was reminded of the animism of voodoo and African religion. Is that what drew you to the subject?
MB: Partially. When I was trying to research santer'a for my first novel, I ended up reading a lot about voodoo because more has been more written about it. There's a kind of structural similarity between the two, and the more you read Haitian history, the more you see how voodoo played a part in the rebellion because the structure of that religious community was cellular, the way that revolutionary organizations are cellular. They had these little congregations, groups of people and a priest and a kind of secret language that was already in place. And they had a communication structure-a spider web-that was all ready to go, which is why, I think, Toussaint L'Ouverture tried to suppress voodoo when he came to power in Haiti. He was always nominally Christian and a publicly devout Catholic, but I believe that he was a voodoo practitioner, too. Although this is an unorthodox reading, I believe his motive for suppressing voodoo was not Christian devotion or the desire for a single religion in the country but the understanding that the structure of voodoo observance could be used to organize an insurrection because he'd used it himself.
JC: What would you say is the center of the new book? What drives it?
MB: I'd been probably working on it for three or four years before I figured this out. The ultimate question behind the novel is: what's a human being? This question is easily overlooked, because in our society it's theoretically no longer an issue. It's generally understood that regardless of skin color, human beings are all human. You don't find any serious exception taken to that. But in the 18th century this belief was not generally shared. It was held by some people, but it was quite seriously being argued at the time that black people were the missing link between apes and men, that they were indeed less than human and that this was sufficient justification for slavery.
JC: For the record, the new work on the Haitian slave rebellion is a trilogy. Could you describe the narrative shape of each of the three books? The question is kind of cumbersome, I know. Let's start with the decision to write it as three books.
MB: It seemed to me that the complexity of the politics was so great that I couldn't cover it in one novel of reasonable length. There were too many factions, and I'd have to have an incredibly large cast. I quickly saw that if I did it as one book, it would be about 2000 pages long and probably not publishable. If we still lived in a culture where you could write a novel the length of War and Peace I would probably just do that. But that's not the way it works. In fact, it was psychologically easier on me to subdivide the story. It made the project more conceivable.
Each individual novel is designed so that there will be closure, and it will function as an autonomous novel. The structure resembles The Year of Silence, but played on a larger scale with a smaller number of parts. The resolutions of the three novels depend mostly on things that go on in the lives of fictional characters who are involved in these historical events. My ultimate plan is that if you read all three books together as one book, Toussaint L'Ouverture will emerge as the protagonist of the story. I'm pretty confident I can get that to work. I have experience with those kinds of designs. The first volume, All Souls Rising, is written, and it's on the way.
The peculiarity of this first volume is that Toussaint L'Ouverture is not hugely prominent, because it covers a period when very few of his activities were known. He didn't show his hand in the revolution until comparatively late. Initially, he appeared as a subordinate to some other black leaders. He gradually broke off from them and eventually eliminated them.
The first volume begins with an outbreak of insurrection in 1791, and stops in 1794 with a watershed event, which was the burning of the capital city. White factional politics was really the cause, but what ultimately happened was that tens of thousands of disorganized blacks, not Toussaint's party actually, were admitted to the city by one group of whites who were trying to overcome the others. The whole thing went crazy, and they burned the place down. That's the conclusion of the volume I've completed.
The second volume covers all these military successes of Toussaint's middle period. War in Europe between France and Spain had caused the Spanish people in Santo Domingo, which is at the other end of the island of Haiti, to subsidize the black revolutionaries. At one point the black revolutionaries were even incorporated, at least theoretically, into the Spanish army. Many of them did this in the early period and they invaded the French part of the island as Spanish soldiers. Because Toussaint had gotten news of the abolition of slavery by the French National Assembly, he suddenly changed sides at a moment when the French were totally embattled. There was an English invasion going on the other end of the island, and they had all these black insurgencies to deal with, and they were blockaded; the French position was completely hopeless. All of a sudden Toussaint comes over to their side. He attacked the Spanish and the English on two fronts, won both and negotiated a treaty with the English. After this, a war broke out between the mulattos and blacks, which was called the "War of Knives" because the participants would frequently throw down their swords and pistols in favor of using their nails and teeth to attack each other. Their antipathy ran very deep, sort of visceral and primary.
Volume three is the story of Napoleon's invasion. Napoleon comes to power and things in France get much more conservative. Napoleon sends about 25,000 soldiers to Haiti, commanded by his brother-in-law. This force misread the situation, basically; they were supposed to go down there, briefly put down the slave rebellion and restore slavery, although these were secret orders. Later they were to go on to Louisiana and invade the United States. Haiti would function as a supply post for this maneuver. The truly interesting thing is that if Napoleon had cooperated with Toussaint, he could have led a multi-racial French-sponsored invasion of the United States through Louisiana. Napoleon acknowledges this mistake in his memoirs. Ironically, a fair number of the people who were prominent in the Haitian slave revolution got their military experience fighting in the American Revolutionary War under Lafayette. So the whole thing made perfect sense. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it wasn't at all ridiculous. If Napoleon had succeeded, everything south of the Mason-Dixon line would be like Martinique is now.
That was all completely possible, but instead Napoleon wanted to depose Toussaint, restore white supremacy, and ultimately restore slavery. Napoleon's brother-in-law, Leclerc, arrives with zillions of French soldiers, they fight all these battles, and finally negotiate a settlement with the insurgents. Toussaint was sold out by his own subordinates. There was a lot of unauthorized surrendering on the part of black generals who wanted to believe that the French were sincere in their claim that black liberty was close to their hearts. Leclerc also promised that black generals who acknowledged French authority would retain their rank. A lot of Toussaint's aides de camp believed these claims and went over. Only one held out to the end, Jean Jacques Dessalines, who negotiated a truce whereby he would retain his rank. Toussaint was isolated. He was shortly thereafter entrapped and deported to France in secrecy.
Meanwhile, the fever season began. A lot of French soldiers got sick. Black resistance had never stopped completely, but it broke out again at the height of the French fever epidemic. News came that slavery had been restored in Martinique, and the whole thing just caught on fire. Napoleon lost 25,000 men in this operation, another little known fact. A lot of them were killed. One of the ways this is usually presented is that they died of yellow fever, but a lot of them were killed, probably half.
JC: What are some of the problems you've encountered writing an historical novel? I'm thinking especially of a place like Haiti, with a very complicated history dominated by some strong personalities.
MB: The worst thing about it is the temptation to generalize more. If you're writing a story that takes place today, you have access to a good deal of precise information, all the things that make fiction engaging, that address the senses. When I start describing some character in 18th century Haiti and I want to say what she's wearing, or what she had for breakfast or what she does in her spare time, I have to somehow find these things out. Everyday minutiae that you would simply know if you were writing about events in our own lifetime-all of that material has to be researched or faked. It's very time consuming. It's also very interesting. In fact, the research that you do tends to make you a fanatic.
Another thing that bugs me about it is not really knowing how anybody looked. In Toussaint L'Ouverture's case, there are verbal descriptions and several portraits, but they don't resemble each other at all. They could be six different guys. A lot of them are probably fake anyway. It's like looking for a picture of Crazy Horse. With the Europeans, this drives me crazy because I know that somewhere there are probably fairly accurate pictures of these people, but I don't have any idea how I'm supposed to find them. What do I say about the person's face? So that kind of thing can be very taxing.
JC: Is it confining to work within a recorded series of events?
MB: It took me a while to figure this out, but once I did it wasn't so difficult. The historical text becomes the subtext of the novel, so you're really reading a story about people, and you learn of the history insofar as it affects them. Every now and then there are certain key transitional episodes where I have enough documentation to do a fully realized scene that is historically true. The other scenes that are written like that are about key political decision of key political events. The rest of the novel is such that I can't put the real people on stage, and don't have to.
JC: To change the subject slightly, your essay in the Chattahoochee Review begins by addressing "Southernness" as a feature of your writing. In what way do you perceive yourself as someone whose writing has a regional aspect? Do you see your yourself as a writer operating within a particular tradition or a set of artistic habits?
MB: I feel like I am a Southern writer. Since I haven't written that much with a Southern subject matter, I'm off that hook to some degree, but my prose style is very much influenced by growing up in the South and doing my first serious reading of literary fiction from the fiction of the Southern Renascence. That's all kind of in the back of my brain, as a writer.
JC: So what about your sensibility is particularly Southern? What is the difference?
MB: I never have wanted to be a "professional" Southern writer. That's kind of tedious. I'm not sure I could talk about this without reciting a lot of cliches, but a lot of the cliches are sort of true. I kind of take Walker Percy's attitude toward this. The sense of human limitation, which may or may not be expressed in religious terms, has been a little bit different in the South ever since the Civil War because the experience of defeat was not shared, until recently, by the rest of the country. The fact that I come from a culture that was basically eradicated in a war has some effect on the way I see the world. For a long time, even in my childhood, there was a sense in the South that the rest of the country was racing at the galloping pace of industrial and technological prosperity on a long, long trajectory to nowhere, something we'd already experienced. I'm not somebody who sits around and nurses grievances about the Civil War; I don't think many people in my generation do, but certainly my grandparents could remember specific events that they'd been told about by their parents, and they're still personally pissed off about this stuff. Now we're coming into a time where national experience is able to serve up experiences of disenfranchisement of one kind or another to almost everyone, irrespective of region.
JC: In my experience, living for a year in Memphis, it seemed that the sense of proximity to the past, to that past was so much greater there than I had ever imagined.
MB: In some ways it's hard for me to understand why people don't feel the same way in the North, because if you look at the death toll, at the number of soldiers killed in combat, there were as many of y'all as there were of us. Somehow, it seems to make a difference whose territory the war was mostly conducted on.
For me the connection is not direct; it's not personal, But because it did directly and personally effect the people who were raising me, I got a diluted sense of it, much more an abstract philosophical attitude than any kind of structured position. A lot of the Southern fiction that I cut my teeth on was predicated on the idea that- disregarding the whole slavery issue, which is sort of necessary for this reasoning, and thus renders it, shall we say, incomplete-the Civil War was really a conflict between the pastoral way of life and the industrial way of life, which is true; it's just not the whole truth.
JC: It may be a way of remembering the truth.
MB: It's not the only thing that is true about the Civil War. It conveniently disregards the fact that the pastoral way of life depended on slavery, which was completely untenable. But the idea that industrial society is a trap, that it tends to lead to its own destruction-I think that's true.
JC: "A vector placing us in permanent proximity to our absolute destruction," as you've called it.
MB: That's right. I think the person who in my reading brought me into the latter half of the 20th century was Walker Percy, who has a very traditional, conservative Southern attitude toward history. The interesting thing about Walker Percy as a Southern writer is that he didn't write about the past. He tended to write science-fiction, instead. He was interested in teleology, how the present was going to form the future. According to Percy, it's all spelled out in the message of the Bible. Everyone inside the Judeo-Christian tradition tends to refer original sin and failings of human nature to some kind of aboriginal catastrophe, some version of the fall form the garden of Eden story. For Southerners, the aboriginal catastrophe tends to be the Civil War. Things were better before, theoretically, for white people. This is not a point of view held by blacks, I don't imagine.
What that means is that certain vicissitudes of modern life, like ecological catastrophe or the threat of nuclear war, are seen, from a Southern point of view, as inevitable, as something that comes to everybody. There's going to be a point in every culture, every society where your momentum in one way or another is broken, whether by violence of by exhaustion. It seems to me that's happening in America now, across the board.
JC: With only a couple of exceptions, you have not written about the South per se, by which I mean use it as a setting. Many of your characters are Southerners, but their living somewhere else. Even characters who aren't technically Southern seem to share a related state of spiritual and physical exile, a sense of not being properly at home.
MB: Yes, and again, this is a big Walker Percy theme, this sense of estrangement. To some extent, this aspect of my work does draw on personal experience, because I've lived most of my adult life out of the South. To a certain extent, I feel like a pilgrim. I feel like someone on a very extended visit. On the other hand, I've been gone so long that when I go back to Tennessee, which I do with considerable regularity, I feel the same way there. There's no place where I feel fully at home.
JC: Where's the last place you felt fully at home?
MB: I don't know. I guess I feel most fully at home on my family farm in Tennessee, but it's increasingly difficult to think it can be preserved as a physical space, because the subdivisions are gnawing their way toward it constantly. I felt connected to the poorer sections of Brooklyn in a way that puzzled me for a long time. The best answer I can come up with is the Southern belief that any society based totally on frenetic industrial advance is bound for destruction. An industrial slum-where the manufacturing is gone, and the sidewalks are broken, and the streets are full of people who speak languages unknown to you, where everything is falling down and decaying-sort of bears that out. Urban decay is evidence of a cyclical return to the soil. The well organized, highly functioning parts of New York City have never appealed to me. The ghettos are more comfortable for me because they're atavistic. The way life is lived there is like village life. The physical structures are submitting to natural process in a way that buildings on 5th avenue don't.
JC: You've made yourself a spokesman, or anti-spokesman, for a certain kind of writing. I'm thinking of your essay in Harper's in 1985, in which you made a claim that a good deal of contemporary writing was overly influenced by a few practitioners. I really have three questions here: Is Minimalism dead? What did it accomplish? And how did you, as a young writer, manage to avoid it? It seemed to have barely mussed your hair.
MB: I wouldn't say I did avoid it. First of all, Minimalism isn't dead. It never will be dead. Hemingway created that mode. He stole things from his predecessors, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and even, to a certain extent, Kipling, and he welded them into something really new, which is an example of the proverb: small talents borrow; great talents steal.
Hemingway's stories are based on the model of Freudian repression. The problem in the story is unstated, and the characters are very laconic about it. Much of the story has scrubbed away, but it's still there; the writer knows it's there, because its presence is felt. Hemingway worked all of this out, theoretically. He achieved it, too, by editing his own work ruthlessly. He would try to see how much of the story he could cut and have the story still make sense and retain its mood and its subterranean tendencies. It's masterpiece fiction, and it's still a perfectly viable mode. He had hosts of imitators while he was alive, all of whom are now forgotten. Right around the time he blew his head off, Raymond Carver was just beginning to publish his first stories. Carver rewrote all his early work, but if you go look at Best Short Stories of 1968 and read "Will You Please Be Quiet Please," you'll see it's 40 pages long. Need I say more? He did the same thing, and he was aware of what he was doing: reifying Hemingway.
JC: He reinvented a bunch of stories that way- "So Much Water So Close to Home."
MB: Yeah, sure. Hemingway's developmental period is lost because of a missing suitcase. Carver went back and systematically swept away his tracks. Carver was a big enough talent to do the things that Hemingway did with Anderson, Stein and the rest.
Then come the host of Carver's opportunistic imitators, who wrote stories that had his mannerisms, but for no particular reason. There isn't any subtext. Writing without subtext is extraordinarily hollow; there's nothing to attach to. So here's where I begin to have a problem.
I think that the fad of Carver imitators is pretty much finished. But I certainly don't think that approach is defunct, nor do I think it should be. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of this has more to do with the economics of publishing than with any aesthetic questions. The ascendancy of the Carver-Hemingway style happened to coincide with a peculiar moment in publishing when it was discovered that short story collections could be presented as a novelty. A six or eight year fad brought the short story back into the public eye in what, I think, was ultimately a good way. I've benefited from it. I think I had an easier time publishing my books of stories because of the momentum that had been started by Carver and Carver imitators, whose work I don't especially like. And it brought to greater prominence a lot of other writers who had been around for a long time but had been relatively ignored, writers like Peter Taylor and Andre Dubus. Grace Paley suddenly got a new lease on life. But all that appears to be over, too.
JC: This leads to something else I was curious about. A lot of good mid-list writers of literary fiction are at this point in some peril from changes in the publishing world. You wrote in the Mississippi Review last year that there was a lot of good literary fiction being written right now, perhaps more than ever before, but that the outlook from the publishing standpoint was dire and getting worse all the time. Has that changed at all?
MB: From the point of view of short story writers, things are really bad now. The situation is back to where it was before 1977. If you're a new writer, you can basically forget about publishing a collection of short stories unless it's stapled to a novel in a two book contract. Collections are just more difficult to describe and promote. They don't lend themselves to capsule description. I think there will be a resurgence, but publishing tends to be the canary down the coalmine of the general economy. People stop buying books before they stop going to the movies, buying drinks, buying cars. I'm eagerly waiting for some sign of recovery, because the rest of the economy seems to be picking up, but that doesn't mean things will goes back to the way they were before, because whole houses have been eliminated. That's what happened last January when Harcourt Brace, Ticknor and Fields, and Athenaeum effectively closed their doors, to literary fiction, at least. I don't think they're going to be replaced.
JC: It seems to me that more writers are going to have to look to smaller houses whose stock-in-trade is literary fiction, places like Ecco Press and Algonquin.
MB: The funny thing is that's been predicted for at least twenty-five years by intelligent observers, but it hasn't really happened. The pace of change is a lot slower and the nature of the change is not what people thought. I think it was a case of commercial publishing being lifted by the rising tide of the general economy, but the bogus boom of the 1980s saw the prominent success of some fairly literary writers.
JC: It seems like commercial publishers co-opted and popularized literary fiction and, maybe, in the process, created some false hopes.
MB: I don't know if those hopes were false. Again, my career was lifted. too. I was a beneficiary. The sluggishness of publishing is the discouraging thing. Whenever it takes a long steep dive, the way it has now, things become frightening because there's so much consolidation. Now every publishing house of any size in New York can be traced back to one of seven conglomerates. That's a real structural change. It gives me pause, but I think that the feeling of constriction will probably go away again, unless the general economic trend is irreversible.
JC: What do you think we need from our writers right now? I read your work and it's so intellectually dense, I feel that perhaps you're saying we need a more ambitious fiction. Certainly you write fiction of an intellectually ambitious kind. You've also talked about the virtues of cross-pollination, writers that are both literary and popular.
MB: Cormack McCarthy is a writer I've admired for a long time. I still admire him. He has ceased to be particularly obscure, so I don't think he needs much of a lift from me. People who have lately become interested in him should go back and read his earlier books. I think Mary Gaitskill is a terrific writer. Of all the urban, New York fiction that was written in the 80s, I think she is probably the only writer whose work will be of real interest in ten years. I think those books are going to really grow. William Vollmann is really the most exciting new writer to come along in quite some time. His brand of experimentalism has really broken a number of molds and created very liberating possibilities for other writers.
JC: He's brought back the visible writer, put the writer back in the frame, so to speak.
MB: Yes, but in a very different way from what we had in the 60s.
JC: Do you think he's more on the mold of George Orwell? I'm thinking of Down and Out in Paris and London or Homage to Catalonia.
MB: Yeah, or Poe. (laughs) Really, those are the sort of writers he likes. He's not particularly amenable to 60s metafiction.
JC: I don't think his work is metafiction at all.
MB: Well, technically it is. He uses that same bag of tricks, but the nature of his enterprise is very different. What we got before was a fundamentally insincere demonstration of cleverness and agility. Suppurating sincerity is all over everything Vollmann does, and it's really touching. The idea that you can use those devices and somehow be an authentic presence in the work instead of some Mephistophelian manipulator is really quite new. I don't recall anybody doing it quite that way. In twenty or thirty years I think people will be playing off of some of his innovations in the way that a whole generation of writers played off Faulkner and Joyce.
JC: A final question: which of your own novels is closest to your heart?
MB: I'll say about this what Vollmann said about the worst book he's published so far, An Afghanistan Picture Show, which he called "a masterpiece of failure."
Aesthetically, I think Dr. Sleep is my masterpiece to date. It's as good as I can make a book and I'm really very happy with it as an aesthetic object, but in terms of communicating the message of the story, it was a masterpiece of failure too.
There's something kind of appropriate there, because Giordano Bruno's life was very much like that. He was a writer. He was multi-lingual, and he would drift from country to country trying to get people to entertain his ideas, which were very dangerous because they could kill you for heresy in those days. His tracts were disguised as popular literary forms of the day, cycles of love sonnets in Italian, dramas, and so on. Buried underneath it were themes of religious reform that were recognizable to people who might somehow be competent to recognize them. Eventually they did, and he was duly burned at the stake. So I have my main character, Adrian Strother, doing the same thing. He goes around and whenever he starts spouting all this hermetic nonsense, everybody sticks his fingers in his ears. The response to the novel bore out the character's experience perfectly. People enjoyed it. At least the reviewers did. Every now and then I meet a reader with a wild, deranged look in her eyes, who actually understood this stuff. But for the most part, everybody, without exception, was completely bewildered by it. What people seemed to like was the thriller shell in which it was wrapped. I certainly didn't expect that all the readers of the book would convert to Gnostic hermeticism, but I guess I thought the message would be understood and observed somehow. I couldn't get anyone to listen to it anymore than Giordano Bruno could.
So there you have it. I'm not complaining. It's nice for me that they no longer burn people at the stake.
April 28th, 1994