Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #530)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. He is also the author of the forthcoming The Splendid Things We Planned, to be published in March. Both books, along with every Charles Jackson volume ever published, were read and consulted for this comprehensive conversation. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Author: Blake Bailey

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In Farther & Wilder, Blake Bailey mentioned an extraordinary radio program called The Author Meets the Critics, in which authors confronted their critics live on radio. After a diligent search, I was able to locate 46 episodes of this program and I’ve collected them at the Internet Archive, where they can be downloaded for your enjoyment.]

Subjects Discussed: Jackson’s need for money, how The Lost Weekend‘s success freaked him out, Jackson’s self-perception as a misfit, becoming an unintentional spokesman for dipsomania, Jackson’s block after The Lost Weekend, Seconal addiction, Jackson’s hospitalization, Mary McCarthy’s fictionalized version of Jackson, McCarthy’s unfinished manuscript The Lost Week, John P. Marquand, vacations in Truro, the friendship between McCarthy and Jackson, why one shouldn’t read all of Charles Jackson, Jackson vs. Cheever and Yates, the perversity of reading A Second-Hand Life, prosaic sexual affairs in Jackson’s later work, Jackson’s obsession with Shakespeare busts, Adam Kirsch’s review of Farther & Wilder, average writers who long to be geniuses, literary failures, the origins of Farther & Wilder, Calvin Kentfield, Nathan Asch, Flannery Lewis, Jackson’s death by overdose at the Chelsea, undiscovered papers at Dartmouth, the impossible-to-find TV adaptation of Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens” directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Jackson, Jackson’s involvement with radio and television, the nineteen years when Jackson didn’t publish a novel, William Inge, how television affected Jackson’s storytelling abilities, comparisons between “The Outlander” and The Fall of Valor, the way that Jackson wrote about writers, the stories that Jackson wrote sober, Jackson’s writing difficulties when stoned on Seconal, how Jackson’s fiction explored writing ego, Jackson being ahead of postmodernism with “The Sunnier Side,” what literary biography can do, The Author Meets the Critics (in which Jackson appeared three times), Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” when literary critics had the power to destroy a career, James Agee’s A Death to the Family, the mid-20th century war on midcult, why Jonathan Yardley is a terrible critic, Yardley’s negative review of Norman Rush’s Mating, John P. Marquand’s overlooked novels (The Late George Apley, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, and So Little Time), Roger Straus financing Jackson’s life, Philip Wylie, Wylie’s futile attempts to respond to The Fall of Valor‘s terrible qualities, when critics used to give talented writers a fair pass for sophomore slumps, Daniel Mendelsohn’s attempted takedown of Mad Men, Rhoda Jackson’s tolerance for her husband’s behavior, how the Jacksons managed their money, the many literary people who got their start at Fortune Magazine, Ron Sproat, Rhoda’s acceptance of Charlie’s sexuality, Jackson coming out of the closet, the weirdly limited way in which Jackson’s fictional wives were portrayed, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max angling for motive about David Foster Wallace, the importance to double source details and relate it to a writer’s career, Mary Karr’s response to D.T. Max on Twitter, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Bailey’s work on the Roth biography, how to ensure that people don’t come at you with pitchforks on Twitter while working on a literary biography, Karen Green’s Bough Down, DFW’s saintlike image, Infinite Jest, DFW’s nonfiction, literary biographers addressing issues of posterity, the DFW death porn industry, J.D. Salinger’s legacy held hostage by commercial interests, the collaboration between Roth and Bailey, Bailey’s access to Roth’s papers (sealed through 2050), coaxing Claire Bloom to talk, Philip Roth’s retirement, Bailey’s forthcoming memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, similarities and differences between memoir and literary biography, how hard you need to be on yourself when writing about yourself, Blake Bailey’s appearance diminishing somewhat in the second half of The Splendid Things We Planned, and writing about family.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I basically surprised you by pointing to the fact that I think you and I may be among the few people in America who have actually read all of Charles Jackson’s work.

Bailey: Living people. You know, Ed, probably the only two. His own daughters, who are alive and well, they have not read the oeuvre of Charles Jackson.

Correspondent: Wow.

Bailey: No. It’s you and me.

Correspondent: That’s it? Wow. So let’s talk. Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend. Let’s get into what he did. I mean, he was adamantly determined in his early days to write what he knew, as you outline in your biography of him. Don Birnam, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, many of Jackson’s short stories, and also the hero of this unfinished multivolume book project, What Happened? — this is basically Jackson’s life. This is what Jackson drew heavily on for his fiction. But then you have Jackson’s later fiction — The Outer Edges, A Second-Hand Life, and “The Outlander,” which I’m happy to argue with you about. These are adamantly determined to suggest deviance or behavioral aberration in common everyday fallacies, often out of step with the cultural mores of the time. And then, of course, you have “The Sunnier Side,” this story in which Charles Jackson himself appears and is commenting upon various people in Newark. So just to get started here — and that’s a lot to talk about — why do you think Jackson was so terrified of his own life in fiction? And so willing to castigate himself? Why did he need to pit his real and his fictional selves against each other and against society?

Bailey: Well, it’s interesting. You mention Newark. And I want to clarify for your listeners that is not Newark, New Jersey — the hometown of my current subject, Philip Roth. That is Newark, New York in the township of Arcadia. Up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was a little town of about six thousand souls where Charles Jackson led a very tortured childhood and idyllic childhood. It was a little of both. Beautiful region. And people are kind to you in a sort of condescending way there. Charlie and his brother Fred, known always throughout his adult life as Boom, were the town sissies.

Correspondent: There’s also a beefcake shot of Boom in the book as well.

Bailey: A gorgeous beefcake shot of Boom taken by the famous gay photographer George Platt Lynes. There are photos by Man Ray of Boom at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Anyway, Charlie kind of deplored the way that people gossiped maliciously in small towns such as Newark and yet put a good face on things. And when the worst catastrophes happened — for example, Charlie was molested by the choirmaster of his church; a man named Herbert Quance, who appears in Charlie’s first published story, “Palm Sunday,” which was a pioneering work. It appeared in Partisan Review in 1939 and nobody was writing about pedophilia. And it’s quite frank in its treatment of that. It’s a terrific story. And it caused as much of a ripple at Partisan Review as Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. So he was molested at age 14. The year before, his 16-year-old sister Thelma and 4-year-old brother Richard were killed by a train. And the egregious phony kindness with which he was treated — and meanwhile people knew about this pedophiliac choirmaster, but nice people didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about touching little boys and what not. So he was tolerated, even though they knew that their own children were in danger of being molested. So long story short: Charlie regarded this as a deplorable state of affairs and he thinks that human beings should face up to their vagaries. And so that’s what he chose to write about. The vagaries in himself, which were considerable, and in humankind very much at large.

Correspondent: But, with “The Sunnier Side,” he’s there to castigate these three real-life women in Newark, which is also quite interesting. And that also is sort of a You Can’t Go Home Again/Thomas Wolfe type of thing too. But at the same time, with The Outer Edges, this book is utterly bizarre. Especially the guilt of the dog. That whole incident. This protagonist. He runs over a dog. And then he’s comparing himself to this true sociopath. So there’s this weird impulse going along in Jackson’s fiction as well. On one hand, he wants to go ahead and out the truth. On the other hand, he wants to hold everybody, including himself, accountable for every conceivable moral failing — even putting it up there and comparing it with a rapist and so forth. He’s a really bizarre guy.

Bailey: Okay. Let me explain The Outer Edges. It is based on the Edward Haight murders. Edward Haight, when he was sixteen years old, gave a lift to two kids — two girls, 11 and 9. Not only did he rape them, he tied them up, put them in the street, ran over them repeatedly. I mean, it was horrific. And Charlie was deeply disturbed by that. Now Charlie was disturbed by the viciousness of Edward Haight. Because Charlie was a married father of two girls and a homosexual. These days, people don’t understand the opprobrium in middle-class, mid-century America. Especially gay men, who presumed to get married and lead a normal life and were still seeing men on the side, as Charlie certainly was. So he did feel this kind of horrifying kinship with this child murderer Edward Haight. So how to acceptably portray that in fiction? He comes up with a Charlie-like character who, like him, is married to a long suffering woman and he’s a doting father, as Charlie was. And he feels a kinship with the murder in the book because he’s having an affair. Heterosexual with this tootsie. And because he inadvertently runs over a dog, now that, of course, is the fatal flaw with The Outer Edges. It doesn’t work and everyone told Charlie it doesn’t work.

Correspondent: But also there’s that weird phone call heard through the gas station restroom, which makes absolutely no sense. Like this is the reason why the wife decides to leave. Because she’s speculating upon a phone call. Just as he’s actually more concerned about driving over the dog than this particular affair. He just has a really bizarre moral compass.

Bailey: Yeah. Well, but I don’t want to dismiss The Outer Edges out of hand. Because certainly Charlie wrote worse books than The Outer Edges.

Correspondent: [looking at the stack of Jackson books on the table] He looks at A Second-Hand Life. (laughs)

Bailey: Oh my god. Let’s save that. What does work in The Outer Edges is the portrayal of the murderer himself, which really captures this whole Hannah Arendt notion of the banality of evil in a way that I think is sort of pioneering and very effective. And it’s a very episodic book. The French, Bovary-esque woman whose stuck in the boring marriage and tries for her maids not to see her having nothing to do. All that was very astute. I mean, again, no less than — I’m blanking on his name, which is terrible. A great British novelist. Sort of out of favor now. Anyway, he reviewed the book in The Listener and said, “Charlie Jackson is the man to write the Great American Novel of suburban ennui.” And if he wasn’t such a complete pill freak, he might have pulled it off.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Okay, so he’s an alcoholic. And he uses this to write The Lost Weekend. Then he becomes this big AA spokesperson. But he’s also this go-to guy for Spencer Tracy, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker. He chronicles this problem — alcoholism — and, as you say, at the time this had not been pursued to this depth in fiction. And then this is interesting. He pitches his Uncle Mr. Kinbar to Roger Straus and he writes, “This book has everything. Humor, pathos, real social comment.” There’s the story idea that Jackson conveys to Sandy with the wife as “a shock absorber between him and the world around him.” Given Jackson’s keen interest in Thomas Mann, I’m wondering why he felt the need to mimic or outperform his better. I mean, the Fitzgerald passage in The Lost Weekend, where he just speaks glowingly about Fitzgerald, you would think that Jackson could have figured out that one of Fitzgerald’s fatal flaws was trying to actually reproduce Gatsby. So why was he just not self-aware enough to realize that masterpieces just kind of happen by accident?

Bailey: Well, I think that Charlie had a taste for fine things, which was very much like Scott Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald had a very big nut. He liked to live lavishly and that meant writing trashy stories for the Saturday Evening Post and not writing great novels. So there it is. Charlie, his great surrogate parents in Newark was the Bloomer family in town. And he wrote a story, Charlie did, called “Tenting Tonight.” In the midst of this dreary provincial place, here are people with real tastes, who have culture, who have this opulent house. And this is something that Charlie aspires to. And then later, this man, this gay bachelor, this Wall Street lawyer with a fabulous fortune whose father was Edith Wharton’s best friend, Bronson Winthrop, takes Charlie and his brother Boom under his wing and really gives them a taste for fine things. You know, they both had tuberculosis. Bronson Winthrop sent them to these luxury sanitoria in Davos, Switzerland. So Charlie said, “I want to live like that.” And he managed miraculously — we’re condensing a lot, but he went through this period of horrific alcoholism where he miraculously got sober. He wrote The Lost Weekend, which was not only regarded critically as a masterpiece. That’s the very word that The New York Times used.

Correspondent: I’d call it a masterpiece.

Bailey: I would too. I think that Don Birnam is still the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature. And he goes to Hollywood and suddenly he’s this alcoholism guru, which you pointed out. People like Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Parker and Benchley and so on. And, you know, he wants to keep living like that. He wants to still have the celebrity friends. He wants Judy Garland to remain his pal. And he buys this ridiculous federal mansion in New Hampshire and finds that he can’t keep it up without writing dreck. And pretty soon, he falls into the same trap that poor Fitzgerald did, which was writing terrible short stories for the slicks.

Correspondent: Was it Hollywood that forced him to have this yardstick to measure himself by? Or was it the success of The Lost Weekend? Because that sold like crazy. Like Franzen style at the time.

Bailey: It did sell like Franzen style. But what happened was — he goes to Hollywood. Everything’s going Charlie’s way. He’s the most popular man in town. He was very endearing and very charming. Everyone invited him. He never had to dine alone in Hollywood. All the stars loved him, especially all the alcoholic stars. Which was every one of them. What was the question again?

Correspondent: I’m trying to get from you why he felt the need to be this great social novelist and I gave you a hint with the Thomas Mann thing.

Bailey: Right. Charlie had a terrible need to be loved. And he adored the work of Thomas Mann. And Mann — they had sort of an Eckermann/Goethe-like relationship. Mann met him in Hollywood. And they became correspondents and friends who saw each other maybe three times. It wasn’t misguided for Charlie to aspire to write great books. He’d written one. And to his credit, he terminated his contract at MGM. He didn’t want to stay in Hollywood and be this hack. He wanted to write The Fall of Valor, which was the first mainstream novel about homosexuality in American fiction. 1946. Two years ahead of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The problem was it wasn’t that great of a novel. Now if you want to talk about what the real reason that Charlie’s fiction never equaled The Lost Weekend, we can do that.

Correspondent: Well, sure. Feel free. We’re getting into some really high-end reading geek things.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, 40a, and bedenney.)

The Bat Segundo Show #530: Blake Bailey II (Download MP3)

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Boris Kachka: The Inspector Clouseau of Cultural Journalism

“He said that, as a literary biographer, he’d been asked to talk about Peter’s literary interests, which of course was absurd in a mere seven minutes: Peter deserved a literary biography of his own, and maybe he would write it — anyone with stories to tell should see him afterwards, in strictest confidence, of course. This got a surprisingly warm laugh, though Rob was unsure, after what Jennifer had said, whether he was sending himself up as a teller of other people’s secrets.” — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

In more than a decade at New York Magazine, Boris Kachka has displayed a limitless knack for bumbling inquiry, suggesting an easily played and incurious rube who hopes and believes with every desperate palpitation of his hypoplastic heart that constant proximity to disinterested players will reveal some grand Talmudic truth.

Kachka is a “reporter” who has seen faux import in an osteoporosic Sally Field climbing fourteen flights of stairs in a midtown hotel. Mere months before Romina Puga, Kachka bombarded Jesse Eisenberg with vapid invasive questions, attempting to read sage significance in Eisenberg’s monosyllabic discomfort and leading one to wonder if Kachka had written his superficial queries on his palm in some headlong campaign to read the future. In April, Kachka visited Claire Messud and James Wood and, unable to spark it up with these two charming and gracious minds, littered his simpering copy with eight desperate New Journalism “[BARK!]”s (one sans brackets) and dwelt more on Wood’s mien than his thoughts.

At New York, Kachka established himself as a diseased mongrel who could barely push his debilitated legs off the porch to work his beat. He has littered his work with portentous phrases like “anomie of Lipsyte’s generation” and “Park Slope’s popular freelance perch,” and it all smacks of a desperate burnout raiding the low-hanging lexical fruit that hadn’t already been plucked for some “Talk of the Town” piece at a more august publication.

Kachka’s new book, Hothouse, comes out on Tuesday and purports to chronicle Farrar, Straus & Giroux with all the lapel-grabbing furor of Jacob Riis investigating the New York slums. Despite “more than 200 interviews,” the result is a dry, listless, tendentious, sexist, blinkered, and preposterous book which regurgitates insignificant facts, latches onto third-hand rumors, and fails to comprehend the way the publishing industry really works.

Yet Kachka’s insufficient history has inexplicably captured the imagination of a few gullible and unquestioning boosters, including Heller McAlpin at the Los Angeles Times and Carolyn Kellogg at Bullseye. Perhaps Hothouse has received a fair pass because journalistic standards have collapsed well beneath the lowest notches on the limbo bar. Or maybe these literary cheerleaders cannot comprehend that hearsay, which is impermissible testimony in a courtroom, is not acceptable in any work purporting to reveal the trajectory of an uniquely influential business.

Much like Leonard Zelig or, perhaps more accurately, Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner, Kachka has been allowed to commit solecisms for years, yet there’s an inexplicable hubris attached to his bungling, the telltale traits of a more famous Peter Sellers character. Kachka’s approach to the truth involves relying on inference without respect for person or underlying fact. Helene Atwan, now the Director of Beacon Press, leads Kachka to believe that FSG intended to change Peter Høeg’s last name to “Hawk” for the release of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Kachka laps this confabulation up so that he can grill Roger Straus III on this incredulous matter. Kachka specializes in the bold uncorroborated inference, writing like a man who isn’t getting any action at home: “By the early 1960s, [Roger Straus] was probably sleeping with three of his female operators.” Probably? The scuzziest TMZ reporters are more committed to accuracy. (There are, of course, no endnotes upholding this claim.)

If Kachka feels as if his subjects aren’t giving him the answers or the access that he believes he is entitled to by rightful decree of the tottering authority in his feeble delusional mind, or the quotes don’t match the story he believes he already knows, then he will burn them with his cheap prossy pen. Here, for example, is Kachka’s first description of Jonathan Galassi in Hothouse:

Galassi, on the other hand, is a patrician only by training, a bon vivant only by necessity, but a nerd through and through. He invited his fourth-grade teacher to his ninth birthday party. He seems to have learned the bold body language of an alpha male, but never quite vanquished his low, slightly nasal voice or downcast expression.

Instead of being curious about Galassi’s intriguing background, Kachka sees Galassi as a cartoon to be mocked. Kachka cannot be arsed to get his source to trust him. He is clearly not Richard Ben Cramer talking baseball with George W. Bush to get a stubborn man to open up. And stacked next to fellow New York journalist Robert Kolker (author of the recently released and well-received Lost Girls), he’s a total embarrassment, especially when he pursues an Oliver Stone-like trail suggesting that Straus had a secret telephone line and was working for the CIA. Had Kachka more time to push his plodding connections, he most certainly would have spotted Straus on the grassy knoll.

Like the despicable gossip peddler Paul Bryant in Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel, The Stranger’s Child, Kachka seeks any vaguely salacious angle to throw into his preordained template, whereby FSG is a “sexual sewer,” male employees fuck anything that moves, and Mad Men parallels snap into place like a smooth sudoku puzzle. In Hothouse, Kachka claims that, because someone may have seen long black strands of hair in a borrowed apartment, Susan Sontag and Straus were having an affair. He then spends the majority of his book calling David Rieff “an illegitimate son” to shove this unsubstantiated carnal connection down the reader’s throat. When Kachka finds former FSG assistant Leslie Sharpe, who tells him, “Everybody was fucking everybody in that office,” the reader feels the extremely unsettling aura of Kachka’s cock hardening at the news. But of course, Kachka has nothing reliable in his notes on the many affairs he claims went down. Any man close to the age of forty who wags his dry tongue for scuttlebutt scraps is a pathetic figure indeed.

Hothouse evinces how little Kachka understands wealth by pointing to “starter dachas,” opens chapters with journalism cliches (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have to invent him”), and squeezes out strained efforts at Tom Wolfe-style savaging against agent Andrew Wylie:

It doesn’t help that his face tapers from a broad bald pate to an unshaped brow, icy eyes, and a chiseled, lupine chin, or that his laugh sounds like that of the world’s most cultured hyena.

Can a face taper? Is Wylie a hyena, a wolf, or a jackal? Given all the mixed metaphors, I don’t think Kachka even knows.

Kachka lacks one of the competent reporter’s primary skills: pretend to like a source you loathe (or, more ideal, find something to like about someone you despise). He’s long past the point where any true observer can feel sorry for him, although the pity blurbs accompanying his cotillion ball reveal a few noteworthy mensches who should be commended for their kindness. Still, Kachka is not significant enough to be put out of his misery with a pink slip and a peremptory blast in the human resources office. He trudges on, a bearded penguin known to harass people with multiple phone calls at 6 AM (including yours truly many years ago on a matter pertaining to Zadie Smith) and getting people so thoroughly wrong that one wonders if he has even read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.*

Roth, like John McPhee and Edmund Wilson, was wooed by FSG without an agent. An assiduous journalist would look into whether or not Roger Straus, a notorious cheapskate (a man who operated FSG from a ramshackle Union Square West headquarters for years and a man who did not contribute a sou to Susan Sontag’s breast cancer fund), actively pursued writers who did not have representatives to protect their interests. (Kachka points out that Straus sought to discredit agents wherever he could, but he isn’t robust enough to construct a timeline or a concrete set of governing principles.) Given the sour grapes that developed between Straus and Wylie in the 1980s, to say nothing of the resentment expressed by writers for being underpaid, it is palpably obvious to look into the very business philosophy that permitted a publisher, often sustained by family wealth when times were lean, to subsist as long as it did. It would also seem natural to focus on how New Directions, who worked in the same building as FSG for many years, operated as FSG’s competitor, snapping up the poetry of Thomas Merton and John Berryman before FSG editor Robert Giroux.

Hothouse reveals that Straus was a poor businessman (“No FSG catalog would be complete without its impending announcement,” mocked one wag about the publisher’s long delayed titles), even as it promulgates the false myth that this apparent patriarch had “just enough of a personal financial cushion to keep from falling over the brink.” Nearly 250 pages later, Kachka writes, “The fact is that 1988-vintage FSG could have eaten 1982 FSG for lunch. In the old days, the cash simply hadn’t been there. Roger’s cheapness may have been inborn, but it was refined by forty years of hard, break-even experience.” Or maybe it wasn’t. Kachka is such an otiose journalist that he doesn’t follow the money, except through mere conjecture. He claims that Wilson, Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky “received financial support far beyond standard contracts,” but provides neither source nor sums for this claim. Why did Straus really sell his townhouse? Is it not possible that Straus sold FSG to billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck in 1994 because his coffers were light? Kachka lacks the diligence to pursue these questions, in large part because it contradicts his cheap thesis that FSG is the Greatest Publisher of All Time. On the other hand, Kachka is to be commended for inadvertently reminding us that Melville House’s Dennis Loy Johnson, arguably the most hypocritical man working in publishing today, is desperately trying to be a Roger Straus for the 21st century and will surely fail if he continues along the same trajectory.

Kachka does account for Straus’s tendency to skim his titles, but is too much of a milquetoast to probe: “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.”

Hothouse is plagued by other contradictory assertions which quickly out Kachka as a squirmy journalist who cannot be trusted. He claims FSG as an innovative publisher, but confesses that Robert Giroux was not an especially edgy editor:

But though he was still approaching the peak of his professional power, he was no longer, if he ever really had been, at the vanguard of taste. By the sixties, even the Beats — most of them too extreme for Giroux — were old hat.

In other words, FSG was hoary from the get go. And it took careful line editors like Lorin Stein, progressive-minded editors like Sean McDonald, and gutsy publicists like Jeff Seroy to turn it into the publisher it is today. But all that happened under a German congolomerate’s watch, not Straus’s.

But what ultimately makes Kachka such an unpardonable scumbag is the way in which he wallows in the very sexism he tries so hard to expose. Aside from perpetuating a fantasy that publishing was a “gentleman’s profession” with “Roger and his publicity girls,” Kachka undermines Margaret Farrar (along with her barely mentioned husband), claiming that the woman who created most of the rules governing crossword puzzle design merely “enriched one publishing house.” (Later, Margaret is dismissed as “the crossword-puzzle creator and sometime editor.”) He introduces FSG supplies manager Rose Wachtel as “a prematurely elderly-looking woman.”

Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’s secretary of several decades, tells Kachka that she refuses to answer questions about whether or not she was romantically involved with her employer. But that doesn’t stop Kachka from deracinating her dignity by suggesting that she’s “a living homage to Straus” and claiming that she and Straus were a “couple,” with rampant fucking during their annual trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Compare this with Ian Parker’s 2002 description of Miller as “a tall, chic, ironic woman.” In fact, save yourself the $28 on Kachka’s junk and just subscribe to The New Yorker to access Parker’s piece.)

The most prominent example of Kachka’s sexism is his deplorable depiction of Jean Stafford, a distinguished (if troubled) FSG writer. Kachka pits her husband Robert Lowell’s accomplishments over hers and has no sympathy for her nervous breakdown even as he points out that Lowell and Gertrude Buckman “spent unsavory amounts of time together headed for an affair.” Kachka’s vulgar and misogynist suggestion is that Jean Stafford should have suffered in silence. But he doesn’t stop there. Boris Kachka, a man who will never be a poet or a novelist or a journalist of any renown, actually has the temerity to write that “Giroux patiently endured broken deadlines,” as if Stafford’s great difficulty with a mentally unstable and philandering husband was some commonplace household task. It was likely that the pressure to produce in these conditions led Stafford to bolt to Random House, but the doltish Kachka actually writes this sentence: “It’s difficult to tell exactly what drove Jean Stafford away.” One can easily hear Peter Sellers speaking this line in a French accent.

Does Kachka stop embarrassing himself? Not at all. In 1963, A.J. Lebiling, Stafford’s third husband and the man who she experienced the most happiness with, died at the early age of 59. This premature death crushed Stafford and made it difficult for her to write fiction. But don’t tell that to the clueless and insensitive Kachka, who neglects to mention any of this when writing about FSG’s 1967 author compilation:

Giroux used it as a chance to prod another of his flailing depressives, Jean Stafford, to finish her autobiographical novel “A Parliament of Women,” only to receive the reply: “There is no book and I don’t know if there ever will be.” There never was.

A flailing depressive? Is that all she was? Never mind that Stafford would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories — an FSG book. Kachka does not mention this Pulitzer at all. Nor does this sexist pig point out that Stafford was good friends with Roger’s wife, Dorothea Straus. How many author-publisher relationships did Dorothea salvage? We may never know, because it doesn’t fit into Kachka’s “gentleman’s profession” template.

But Hothouse‘s greatest folie de grandeur is the notion that FSG willfully positioned itself as the most distinguished American publisher under Straus’s watch. Many of the Nobel winners that FSG published in the pre-Galassi days emerged by accident. Indeed, the publisher then and now has stayed alive publishing blockbuster authors like Scott Turow, Thomas Friedman, and Tom Wolfe. But the big tell that Kachka is writing for a lonely audience of one is when he shakily assesses FSG’s stature based on its spine:

The Farrar, Straus logo is so engrained in the consciousness of savvy readers that seeing it on sixty-year-old Noonday compilations provokes cognitive dissonance. To say that FSC simply appropriated the logo is not enough.

Who are these savvy readers? Can they be found in Washington next to the savvy insiders? FSG survived not through loyal readers adhering to the brand, but because it gobbled up profitable publishers. But Kachka is so blind to his invented mythology that he calls Walker Percy “a true Giroux-Robbins team effort,” even though his best-known book, The Moviegoer, was published at Knopf, where editor Henry Robbins merely “had some input into Stanley Kauffmann’s heavy editing of the manuscript.” (Robbins was to flee FSG only a few years later under extremely difficult conditions. Kachka is not especially interested in investigating the high turnover among top editors, but he cannot resist inserting any moment where Straus barks, “You’ll be back,” to an FSG employee fleeing to stabler pastures.)

Perhaps Kachka’s inherent squareness and his lack of adventure, seen with his hilarious suggestion that pot passed around a publishing party was dangerous or his equally pathetic fear of legitimate 1960s actvism (“acts of protest bordering on personal threats”), is to blame for this turgid book. The title is surely no accident, given how large chunks of this book are as dull and as boring as the smooth jazz Bruce Hornsby album of the same name. If Kachka is foolish enough to continue with his floundering career as a book writer, it is almost certain that, like Hornsby, he will celebrate every 4th of July just a little tamer than most of the rest of us do.

* — During the last BookExpo America, I attended a party in which a marvelous woman I hadn’t seen in a while kissed me. Kachka stood next to her and looked at me: his small mouth agog, a pathetic paralysis infesting his slapdash bearing, a hilariously pointless anger in his insignificant eyes. He didn’t even have the balls to introduce himself or call me an asshole to my face. Some years before this, Kachka proved incapable of recognizing a clear case of performance art by telephone voicemail. He really seems to believe that it’s still the 1990s. He’s clearly not going to blossom on the clock. But I’ll be the first to buy him a drink if he does.

8/7/13 UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, prompted by a Twitter discussion of Boris Kachka’s book involving Alexander Nazaryan and Kera Bolonik, Boris Kachka told me to “go fuck yourself,” as seen in the screenshot below.

boriskscreenshot

Kachka’s tweet was quickly deleted. I responded to Kachka with this reasonable reply:

borisktweet1

Kachka replied:

borisktweet2

So Boris Kachka, unable to refute any of this essay’s charges, prefers to take the low road — a fitting path, given how his book is so obsessed with the vulgar.

Periel Aschenbrand II (The Bat Segundo Show #505)

Periel Aschenbrand is most recently the author of On My Knees. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #7.

Play

Author: Periel Aschenbrand

Subjects Discussed: Borough biases, romantic attachments to Manhattan, on “knowing everything,” Ulysses, being introduced to Philip Roth as a “great writer,” when major writers put cherries in your mouth, courtesy and thank you notes, how to deal with compromise in life, going after what you want, risking everything to achieve, the importance of failure, not being qualified to do many things, Body as Billboard, House of Exposure, Aschenbrand writing more about the personal than the professional, The Only Bush I Trust is My Own, motivations to write, apartment battles, Aschenbrand as a “self-filling glass of water,” when new books are contingent upon life experience, approaching the act of writing almost exclusively through the self, crime novels, paranoia, being obsessed with Law and Order, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, serial killer documentaries, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawki novels, the problems with reading while pregnant, Jeffrey Dahmer, going to extreme positions to keep yourself alive, James Baldwin, writing what you know, standup comedy, safeguards against excessive solipsism, entering a morgue or a crime lab, efforts to persuade Aschenbrand to visit a morgue, transgressive behavior, long walks and journalism, live poultry markets, killing chickens, cutting techniques, persona lines, participating in acts that you write about, jumping out of airplanes, obsessiveness and interest, Aschenbrand’s suspicion of doctors, dental hygienists who may have killed spouses, thoughts on justifiable homicide, hiring private investigators, blind trust and therapists, degrees of risk with medical professionals, being an insider and an outsider, the impossibility of a full-bore outsider, the benefits of locking yourself in a room, pretending to be your grandmother to get a good rental deal, living in a high-floor walk-up, emerging from the wreckage of a bad breakup, Stuyvesant Town, the allure of the East Village, Aschenbrand’s massive throne-like couch, objects to project family history upon, narcissism and furniture, avoiding the safe lives that family members live, demonizing relatives in a book, grief, changing material in books to placate lawyers, loathsome behavior, considering other people’s feelings in a memoir, revealing details, empathy and forgiveness, avoiding malicious intent, finding humor in yourself, the romance of being written about, taking notes in front of people, Mikhail Baryshnikov, judging people as a genetic legacy, Aschenbrand’s gender assumptions, and responding to Aschenbrand’s claim that straight male professionals are incapable of not thinking about blowjobs when talking with women.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This is a rare case where someone who was in the first ten shows comes back seven or eight years later and is now here in the flesh. But we’re much different people, I think.

Aschenbrand: Um, yeah. I would imagine so.

Correspondent: How have you changed? For people who are not privy to your developments. Obviously, you’re expecting, I see.

Aschenbrand: I am expecting. So that’s a huge difference.

Correspondent: But you’ve always been expecting in some sense, I think.

Aschenbrand: (laughs) Expecting something, right? Always expecting something. In terms of the book or in terms of me personally or both?

Correspondent: Whatever, whatever. The nice thing is that there’s a lot of latitude here in terms of what we talk about.

Aschenbrand: Yeah. Well, I think that I have…the wisdom of experience maybe behind me. Which is to say that I would have done everything exactly the same.

Correspondent: No regrets. We’ll talk about this. Okay, so let’s get into the book. You say that, from a very early age, you knew that you were in the wrong borough.

Aschenbrand: Yes.

Correspondent: You also write that the last thing in the world you wanted to do was move to Brooklyn. You even say, “I hadn’t clawed my way out of one outer borough to move to another.” I have to ask. Speaking as a loyal Brooklynite, what’s so bad about Queens and Brooklyn? Why are you dissatisfied with the way you grew up? Why should Manhattan matter so much?

Aschenbrand: Well, I think I’ll probably enrage a lot of my friends — most of whom live in Brooklyn. I think that there really is something to the magic of Manhattan, especially when you grow up in Queens. And you see things are extremely different on the other side of the bridge. It’s where it all happens. I mean, it’s like — that’s where I saw, you know, the drag queens at Patricia Field transforming at, like, age 14. I mean, it’s where you see the nightlife and the skyline, which is still exciting to see every time I land here. Even after a hundred million times of seeing it.

Correspondent: But the skyline is not necessarily borough-specific.

Aschenbrand: No. It’s the skyline of Manhattan. Specifically the skyline of Manhattan. I don’t know. I think that there’s a magic to it. Anything is possible. I mean, I still think anything is possible here. I mean, if I was able to get out of Queens, anything is possible.

Correspondent: So wait. Anything is possible even though Manhattan is widely considered by many to be a playground for the rich?

Aschenbrand: Well, now, yeah. I think I still have that sort of nostalgia for what it used to be or the sort of love, the same love that I had for it when I was a kid, sort of wide-eyed and starry-eyed for it. I think Manhattan has changed a lot and not necessarily in great ways.

Correspondent: So you’re operating off of a sense of Manhattan, as opposed to…

Aschenbrand: I mean, I think it represents something. I mean, it’s a conceptual thing. I can obviously recognize it. There are beautiful parts of Brooklyn. And it’s a lovely place to live than all of those things. But for somebody who grew up in Queens and spent her entire childhood dying to get the fuck out of there, you know, when people from like Wisconsin come and start talking about how amazing Brooklyn is, it’s a little bit difficult for me to get on that ship.

Correspondent: Oh really? So actually, you’re courting some jealousy perhaps towards my lovely borough, I must say.

Aschenbrand: No!

Correspondent: It’s a little more welcoming. You can walk anywhere in a four mile range and be in a totally different neighborhood. Whereas there are wide swaths of Manhattan, especially the Upper East Side, where it’s the same thing for a long while. Until you actually get to the cool stuff that’s at about 100th. You know what I mean?

Aschenbrand: No. I think Park Slope is like the Upper West Side at this point.

Correspondent: There are some dives in Park Slope. The South Slope.

Aschenbrand: There are some dives on the Upper West Side.

Correspondent: Still.

Aschenbrand: I don’t hang out on the Upper West Side. I have no idea what’s going on in the Upper West Side. But I think that this romantic notion of the boroughs is as probably as ridiculous as my romantic notion of Manhattan. And I think that’s really what it comes down to me. To hear, like, Brooklyn and Astoria being lauded as these like amazing places — well, very well. It may be the case. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around.

Correspondent: You’re not tendentious or anything.

Aschenbrand: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. So you write that you thought you knew everything at the age of twenty-two. How have you curbed yourself of this impulse in the subsequent years? I mean, how do you contend with sometimes not knowing anything?

Aschenbrand: Now I’m sure. At 37, I’m sure I know everything. Just kidding.

Correspondent: I’ll start quizzing you on Ulysses.

Aschenbrand: (laughs)

Correspondent: Ineluctable modality of the….?

Aschenbrand: (silence)

Correspondent: Okay.

Aschenbrand: Sorry. I totally missed that. I think that I take with a grain…I mean, I think it’s a good thing to recognize that there’s a lot that you don’t know. But I also think that that sort of self-assuredness and hopefully not too much arrogance, but maybe a little bit at that younger age, really helped me. I mean, I think it served me well. I think I had a good enough head on my shoulders not to think that and be a complete idiot. I think that it’s very possible to think that you know everything and also just be really a moron. Maybe I’ve become a lot more humble in my old age. (laughs)

Correspondent: Really? Even though you were introduced to Philip Roth as “a great writer” and you have to unfortunately shake off this regrettable notion. Being told that you’re a great writer to an indisputedly great writer.

Aschenbrand: Well, he didn’t say I was a great writer.

Correspondent: But you didn’t exactly talk yourself out of that after the mutual friend…

Aschenbrand: Well, why would I? (laughs)

Correspondent: If someone had introduced me to Philip Roth, and even if I was a woman or what not, I would say, “You know, they’re just kind of talking me up a little bit. I know. You’re The Man.” (laughs) At least that would be me. But you didn’t. You did not disavow yourself.

Aschenbrand: Absolutely! No fucking way!

Correspondent: Why? You’re on the level of Philip Roth?

Aschenbrand: No, I don’t think so at all. But I don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive. I don’t think that I can’t be really good at something that he is. I mean, I don’t think that you can compare — I mean, I would say “better.” But it’s ridiculous. Like he’s Philip Roth, you know? But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also be a great writer in my work, you know? I don’t. I don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive at all. You know, I don’t think that I myself would ever articulate it like that. I think that I’m proud of my work and I stand behind it. And I think that I’m pretty fucking good at what I do. So, I mean, why should I not own that? Especially if I’m being introduced to him!

Correspondent: Well, why actually ascribe a modifier like “great” to yourself?

Aschenbrand: I didn’t.

Correspondent: Or at least play up that? Gatsby thought he was great, or was thought to be great.

Aschenbrand: Well, he was right.

Correspondent: So that very much is how you operate? That you need to put yourself at a high echelon in order to…

Aschenbrand: I didn’t put myself there. I did not…

Correspondent: Even though you said that you knew everything and that you’re still sort of abiding by that even now.

Aschenbrand: No. I said that, at 22, I thought I knew everything and that I’d become much more humble in my old age and that if somebody is going to give me a compliment, which is how I was introduced to Roth, I’m going to say thank you and accept that compliment and not deflect it. And, again, I stand by my work. And I would never in a million years introduce myself as a great anything to anyone. Like, I think my work stands for itself. And if somebody wants to laud it, like I am graciously accepting of that compliment.

Correspondent: But after The Man put cherries into your mouth, you then sent him a huge crate of cherries. And you expected him to reply. You did not get a reply.

Aschenbrand: Correct.

Correspondent: And you waited weeks and weeks and weeks…

Aschenbrand: Correct.

Correspondent: …for this particular…

Aschenbrand: Years at this point.

Correspondent: Years.

Aschenbrand: I’m still waiting.

Correspondent: So I guess you and I have to figure out how he can actually reply. What do you expect? Just a thank you note? Or something more?

Aschenbrand: Yeah, I did.

Correspondent: Okay.

Aschenbrand: That was it. Just a small, like, acknowledgment. I mean, the same way that I would expect it from any other human being in the world.

Correspondent: So if you sent a big crate of cherries to the White House, you would expect a thank you note from Obama?

Aschenbrand: If he had been feeding me cherries the week before? Yeah.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Aschenbrand: I would.

Correspodnent: So because there was the actual feeding of the cherries and there’s this continuity, you wanted resolution on the cherry feeding.

Aschenbrand: No. I just think it’s a normal thing to do. I mean, I didn’t like ingratiate myself to him. He asked me to sit down. I mean, we were introduced by a mutual friend. It’s not like I’m some weird fan who like showed up at his house. As said in the book, you know, I actually was not familiar. The onus is on — that was my bad. And I take full responsibility for that. But, yeah, it’s normal. Like I don’t care who you are. If you’re Barack Obama or Philip Roth, like we had dinner, like I sent you something, it’s a normal thing to do to say thank you.

Correspondent: In fact, I’ve had this discussion recently with another writer about how thank you notes are starting to decline in our society. Even by email, people don’t say thank you anymore. What do you think of that? I mean, is this a way of upholding a set of dying virtues? Or is this emphatic need for a thank you note a way of carrying on a tradition, would you say?

Aschenbrand: I always send a thank you note. In the mail. So I don’t know. Maybe I’m more old-fashioned than I give off.

(Loops for this program provided by Danke.)

(Photo: George Ruhe)

The Bat Segundo Show #505: Periel Aschenbrand (Download MP3)

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Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

Claire Messud is most recently the author of The Woman Upstairs. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #86.

Play

Author: Claire Messud

Subjects Discussed: How living in a surveillance state will affect contemporary fiction, the disappearing interior life, Sabbath’s Theater, proper norms and sentences that are alive, transgressions in fiction, girls who get up early to put on makeup, This American Life‘s climate change program, climatologists vs. novelists, the downside of promoting individual agency, why social novels are associated with “big books” and how “small books” can be just as big, James Joyce, reading Finnegans Wake, Ulysses references in The Woman Upstairs, A Doll’s House, how literary and ontological snippets float within your head throughout your life, Nora’s evolution, having to contend with the narrative in your head, people who are against universal health care, when interior selves set themselves up for disappointment, the fury guiding the first chapter, cultural osmosis, the glibness of assigning invisibility to a class of people, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Dr. Hook version and Marianne Faithfull version) Shel Silverstein’s songwriting career, not looking for original points or antecedents with family and culture, the “being wrong” speech in American Pastoral, Teju Cole’s Open City, always being a hero in your own story, peregrinations of memory, Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” why investigation into the mind inevitably leads to the corporeal, interpretive liberation, being profoundly disembodied, Nora and foreign voices, multiculturalism and inverted xenophobia, Pierre Nora’s interpretation of the Pieds-Noirs, living a life somewhere between desperation and wanting to count, fakery and personas, giving other people what they want, how the semi-autistic genius myth has become defined by gender roles, Temple Grandin, the Google People in San Francisco, the Publishers Weekly controversy, Enlightened, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, the unlikable character debate, why America is presently frightened by unlikable characters in art, why likability is uninteresting, +1 culture, how authors are held hostage by Goodreads reviews, the limitations of literature as escapism, how social media is regulated in the Wood-Messud household, and attempts to find a verb which adequately appreciates a difficult work of art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I don’t want to get into the ending of The Woman Upstairs, but it would appear that recent events — certain reports by Glenn Greenwald — would have the rare notion of reinforcing your ending in terms of what privacy means. And I wanted to start off this conversation because I have to address it in some way. Now that we are aware that we are living in a surveillance state, do you think this is going to do anything for contemporary fiction? Is America going to produce its share of Kunderas and Dostoevskys? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Messud: That’s an interesting question and I don’t necessarily have an answer. But one of the things that I was thinking about when writing this book — well, I was setting out to write somebody’s interior life. And the interior life is fast disappearing. The interior life was always invisible. But now, in the highly mediated world that we live in, nothing exists unless it is manifest. My daughter photographs her breakfast and puts it on Instagram. And by the same token, maybe there’s something satisfying. I mean, where’s the line between our own willful destruction of privacy and the intrusion of government agencies or whatever into our privacy? They meet somewhere in the middle, right?

Correspondent: You’ve just given me a very terrible idea. That PRISM exists to reproduce the interior monologue. That there will be some new version of Ulysses that is generated entirely by NSA wiretapping. I mean, it could happen! It seems crazy.

Messud: One of the things I’ve been thinking too — you know, we were talking earlier about the somewhat parlous state of literary life. I think it is both a great thing and a terrible thing, but literature may just become samizdat. It may become the underground form of communication. That one’s beneath the other forms of mediated communication.

Correspondent: Aha! So in other words, by going ahead and focusing on the interior through ornate, detailed, subtle sentences that convey several meanings, we are in some way revolting against this.

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you know, with that in mind, I’m going to have to bring up your epigraph. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” from Sabbath’s Theater. I do know that in your husband’s book, How Fiction Works, he singles out this sentence as “utterly alive, alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms.” So this leads me to ask. How much did you hope to scandalize proper norms with the writing of this book? I mean, what transgressions do you think are left in our oversharing age? How do novelists answer to this?

Messud: You know, it’s interesting. I think I did see in my mind Nora and the story she has to tell as transgressive. In part because she is not lovely, glamorous, fascinating. A model in New York City. She’s a schoolteacher. Part of her transgression is the fact that she’s leading a completely ordinary life in which officially nobody has any interest whatsoever. And I do think in this increasingly mediated culture where we all want to be represented, she is somebody who is completely unrepresented. So it felt like a transgression to give her a voice.

Correspondent: So today’s fiction transgressions are giving voice to those types of characters who normally don’t get on the page? I don’t know. Do you think literature is now that limited? That we can’t have anything other than a certain kind of perspective? Where is this coming from?

Messud: No, no. There’s room for everybody.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Messud: But I wouldn’t set any limits on what can be said. But one thing that felt liberating to me was to be writing her interior life, which she was accused of being dislikable, to which you want to say, “No, no. If you met her, she would be totally charming.” Because that’s who she is on the surface. He or she is showing you what nobody gets to see. And because I have some feeling — apprehension; some of it personal, but also observed — that that is to a greater extent the lot of women than it is the lot of men. Which is not to say it isn’t in part the lot of men. But we’re all expected to put on a game face. So I felt in writing somebody where the point was precisely to express and articulate unseemly and unacceptable emotions and reactions, that felt like a great liberation. And my hope would be that for people reading it, who might have shared even one of her thoughts at some point along the way, that it would be a liberation for them too. To say, “You know, actually, nobody ever talks about it. But this is life too.”

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I mean I want to get into the unlikable situation later. And I will do so through not just having you reiterate your points. But I want to talk about the proper norms thing and why you think perhaps people are reacting hostilely to Nora in this. Because as you say, any solipsist you meet in life is, of course, yes, going to have this wonderful epidermal layer. That once you peer and get to talking with them a little more, oh dear. There’s actually a lot of fury. There’s something else going on. And we’re living in a society now where you’re supposed to tough it up, bucko. So as a result, it would seem to me that writing about these perspectives would be increasingly necessary. Why do you think there’s this reluctance to explore the interior of something that is seemingly roseate?

Messud: Well, I think there are lots of answers to that. One is that we live now — she says it. We do live in a time that is particularly preoccupied with the surface. And the surface is what counts. I went to boarding school. I went back — this was already some years ago — to my old high school. And one of the very lovely teachers who was a dorm mother said to me, “Did you know that all the girls get up at six in the morning to blow dry their hair and put on makeup?” Which in the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. And her point was they have an hour less sleep than the boys do. Because the boys don’t have to blow dry their hair. I guess in the ’70s maybe the boys blow dried their hair too. Anyway, you realize that how you present yourself to the world counts significantly more than at one time it did. That’s a subset or a function of this mediated world. If everything’s going to be represented, then you don’t want to be represented with dirty hair on your dressing gown. Now I’m forgetting the rest of the question. But that was only part of what I was going to answer. But I can’t remember.

Correspondent: Oh, no, no, no. Free form is great on this program. I guess I was trying to tie this all into proper norms and the fact that, well, we all live lives in which we’re putting on masks. And there’s this reluctance to really penetrate further and actually wrestle with this problem. I mean, it’s not just with characters. I heard this This American Life program recently where they were talking about how people who talk about climate change are now incapable of actually being honest about it. Climatologists cannot actually mention climate change until after they have delivered two hours of lectures and a Powerpoint presentation. And this is increasingly getting in the way of having an honest look at what our world is.

Messud: Why can’t they? Why? What’s the obstacle?

Correspondent: They fear their jobs. They are afraid of losing their income. They may piss off people who may actually take away their income.

Messud: Right.

Correspondent: Obviously being a novelist is not quite on that level. Although in the likable/unlikable debate, there is nevertheless that particular reluctance. Don’t rock the boat. Maybe you can tell me what you think about this. Because I grew up and you grew up in an age where we could actually talk about things like adults and disagree and get into really shocking topics. And we wouldn’t be mortal enemies. It wouldn’t involve, “Well, how dare you say that. You’re not going to get work.” Or something like that. And now it seems like it’s moving more towards that. So it’s a reluctance to address issues in combination possibly with some aspects of the 2008 crash. What are your thoughts on this? And how do we bring this back to fiction? And that’s a very elaborate longueur! (laughs)

Messud: Well, I think — certainly there’s the sound byte problem. Jokingly, you said earlier that maybe writing complex-compound sentences that have multiple possible interpretations is an act of rebellion. Increasingly, it is. Because along with the interior life, certain modes of reflection are, if not disappearing, certainly not to the fore. So I think that’s a problem. If you want to say something complicated, but only half of it is going to be shrunk down to some supposed essence, it could easily be a misapprehension of what you were trying to say. So I think that makes people leery of saying unseemly things. But I also think — and it’s linked, it’s another conversation but it is linked — we are a nation always championing the individual, but now has put human agency, individual agency, to the fore to a ludicrous point where, if you get cancer, that would be your fault. You made bad choices. If you have negative thoughts, that can make you ill. Right? In which context everybody wants to become their mask. Everybody wants to be the cheerful, bright, upbeat, healthy, fun-loving self. That’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be the depressive, negative, whiny, anxious naysayer. Nobody wants to be the person who just says, “Climate change has reached a point where we are doomed.” Nobody wants to be that person.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, actually, I’m going to tie this in directly to your book. Because Nora does in fact say something along those lines. [searching through notes] I had a quote here. It appears to have disappeared. I’m going to have to use my damn memory.

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

Correspondent: I actually had it all here. It somehow disappeared. Well, the quote is — at one point, she’s talking about Sirena and about what her allure is in terms of how the art world is drawn to her. And she basically says that Sirena is, in fact, living a persona. Or something to that effect. And it’s a shame I somehow didn’t actually type up my quote. I meant to type it up. I meant to include it. But anyway, I think this draws on the predicament. Clearly, if we are going to explore the interior, we’re going to have to explore the persona. Do you think that fiction that does this is the way to address this problem we’re talking about? That we can only look at the self as reflective of a larger ill of society through the interior, through how other people are looked at, through a persona. Issues like that. Does that make sense?

Messud: I feel as though — that’s a really complicated question!

Correspondent: It is.

Messud: And I’m not sure I can properly address it. But obviously different types of fiction address these things in different ways. I do think — and this will seem perhaps a tangent — but I think…you know, somebody asked me, “The Emperor’s Children was a big book. Is this a small book?” And I said, “Absolutely not for me.” I can’t say what it is for other people. But absolutely not for me. I do actually feel that the only way to address the biggest issues is through the smallest mouse hole, if you will. That that is the way forward. But on the other hand, it’s true that big social novels in which characters may appear largely in their personas rather than unmasked, if you will, are able to articulate a different part of the dynamic and a different relationship that then extends that to the larger systems of society and government, if you will. And I would maintain that you could follow Nora through to a commentary about broader American society, if you so chose.

Correspondent: The novel is open enough for you to find another road to somewhere else. This is where the reader comes in.

Messud: That would be my hope. Certainly I liked that you used the word “open.” Because my hope with this book is that, in a funny way, it’s more open than almost anything I’ve written before. That that was part of the enterprise: it was to write something that each person would have their own reaction to rather than there being a template of how the novel should be read.

Correspondent: Sure. I had a very geeky question for you concerning James Joyce. There’s an obvious Ulysses connection with Nora, the name of the character. But I wanted to get into a number of Ulysses connections I found in the book. Because I am presently attempting to read Finnegans Wake and I will make it to the end.

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

Correspondent: It’s not easy. And that has actually necessitated going back to Ulysses as well. So I’m in a James Joyce fugue state probably for the next year or two. Anyway. Sirena, of course, referencing the Sirens. There is one “Yes Yes Yes” moment…

Messud: Yes.

Correspondent: …which mimics Molly Bloom. There’s one point where Nora says that she’s “oblivious like a lotus eater.” Which is interesting. Because “The Lotus Eaters” is the first chapter in Ulysses where we suddenly start to understand, “Oh, well! It goes back to Homer.” And then with Wonderland, Sirena’s project, it’s almost kind of a response to James Joyce’s famous remark where he said you could construct all of Dublin from the brickstones that are laid down in Ulysses. And it is interesting that Sirena’s project is very much a schematic recreation. And she has also done, oddly enough, an installation of Elsinore. Which also takes us backs to Ulysses. Because that’s Hamlet and all that. And the subject of art and photos reminded me very much of “Scylla and Charybdis” and Stephen Dedalus’s speech on Hamlet. I have to ask. It’s clear to me that Ulysses was your muse in some sense. And I was wondering if you could talk about this for these references and more.

Messud: Well, I thought…you’ve done a better reading. Some were conscious and some not! I mean, certainly the photography: well, that was not on purpose. Some of them were definitely not on purpose. Others were more deliberate. This is the sort of shaming admission though. As I say, some of those are very deliberate. But the other reference that people have said. Nora. Ibsen. A Doll’s House. And the terrible truth is was when I first sent the manuscript to my editor, she said, “You refer here to Nora’s ‘doll-housed labor.’ That seems a little heavy-handed.” And that was the first moment where I thought, “Oh God, it’s true!” I had forgotten that Ibsen’s Nora was Nora. I had read the play more than once. I had seen the play maybe twelve years ago on stage. I did not reread Ulysses in the planning of this book. My father always would say, “Civilization is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Messud: So we can say it’s a relief to know that even in my midlife Alzheimer’s state, I have still some collective memory of what I read in my youth.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I think also with Ulysses, it’s a book that’s very difficult to shake. Because you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting with all of Joyce, pretty much from Ulysses onward and Portrait to some degree. So it seems to me that in exploring Nora’s past and in flashing back, you were going to perhaps certain literary highlights, which may have included Ulysses, which may have been A Doll’s House. Numerous other references as well. This leads me to wonder how your own reading serves as, I suppose, beacon points in trying to really pinpoint who Nora is. Which we haven’t really talked about! (laughs)

Messud: Well, you know, I think there’s no question. There are little snippets that you have in your head as you go through life. Literary snippets. I mean, there are other snippets. But the number of times in my life — this sounds crazy, but the number of times in my life I have had occasion just sitting there to say, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think they will sing to me.” You know? Which also — it’s not quoted in the book, but in some way it’s in the book. There’s your mermaid. And there she is.

(Loops for this program provided by JorgeDanielRamirez, MaMaGBeats, and KristiJann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #504: Claire Messud (Download MP3)

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