Tottenville Review

A new review of books focused on debuts, translations, and all works that would otherwise go undetected. It is a collaborative of authors, translators, and reviewers bound by one purpose: to contribute to the dialogue of literature.

In Conversation with D. Foy

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D. Foy is a topnotch talker. In person, over drinks, on email, the phone, or casually chatting online, my talks with the man feel like one continuous stream of great conversation. All of it peppered with his unique takes on everything from Rabelais to The Clash. Foy is preternaturally curious, with a mind as voracious as any I’ve encountered. Lucky for us, he wrote a book.

Made to Break (Two Dollar Radio) is the story of five old friends heading to a remote lake cabin to ring in the New Year and reminisce about old times. Trouble follows. Enter a near-fatal car accident, unexpected illness, and strange mountain folk knocking at the door, plus a killer storm, trapping everyone inside. The premise sounds like a horror movie, sure – and that’s a good thing, but the only monsters, here, are the sort that hide inside our past and present selves. The novel is a mad reflection on our greener, meaner days, an apocalyptic eulogy, a love song for excess and its wreckage. A debut like no other, Made to Break eats up every first novel cliché in its path. It is frightening, strange, and beautiful. Foy and I talked about “genre mashing,” “hate” in fiction, “experimental” writing, and the “gutter opera” as form. Our conversation, like the novel, was a wild ride.

—Scott Cheshire

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TR

While so many first novels are quiet, a reserved version of some bildungsroman, Made to Break is a yawp of a book.

FOY

I’m not really sure why so many debuts have that sense of quietude or reserve, though if I hazard a guess I’d say it’s maybe a function of the author’s diffidence. For many writers, their debut is actually their debut—it’s literally their first book. When that’s the case, it stands to reason that, regardless of its power, beneath it we’ll sense the tentativeness that’s inherent to an exploration. You know, we’re all out there, blindfolded in the dark of an immense vastness, our hands stretched before us as we make our way toward a destination about whose nature and place we have no idea, much less why we set out to reach it. Some of us are fools rushing in, but most of us take it slow or at least cautiously, messing up, slipping up, getting lost, getting too far ahead (and all the rest) along the way, only to stumble on back sooner or later with a broom and a mop to clean it up and start again, still blindfolded, still way the hell out there in the same dark expanse. It’s goddamned scary, as anyone who’s tried to write a novel, or even a poem or a story, can say.

And in that sense, now that I think about it, anyone who writes anything is a fool rushing in, or anyway a fool. There’s no profit in the work but the feeling of having conquered what’s mostly worthless to the rest of us. All the time I ask myself why I do this thing I do, sitting day after day, year after year, struggling to express what until the moment it coheres on the page before me, however misshapen, this thing that’s always been so awful and scary because so ineffably ginormous. That question, actually, assumes a sort of terrible poignancy the longer you go without any affirmation beyond what you yourself can muster.

We call a novel a novel because it represents—or is supposed to represent—something no one’s ever seen before, something new.

TR

You know, as strange as it is to admit, I’ve never actually thought of it in those terms, in that sense of the word. And you’re right, but that’s not always the case.

FOY

No, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, and in fact it’s becoming less and less the case these days, as is evinced, I think, by the wariness and outright hostility with which so many of us—look at David Shields, for instance, or Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Renata Adler—countenance today’s “fiction.” But the ideal is there, maybe not so much of newness anymore—of something freshly seen, of having brought something into the light, after a protracted period of intense effort, that’s been so long in the dark—as of the idea of the ideal of newness, and yet it’s there to aspire to just the same. A novel, really, all forms of writing, really, if we think about it in the Montaignian sense, is an essay, in that we’re all just exploring that old terra nova, attempting without any guarantee of success, to find our way to the scrap of meaning we think will make our effort worth the while. That’s the debut novel, a yawp, as you say, sometimes feeble, sometimes barbaric, but always (we hope) in a voice that’s never before spoken, from a mouth that’s never opened. It’s only natural that so many feel quiet or reserved.

TR

Did you ever feel that kind of reserve while writing Made to Break? It doesn’t seem so.

FOY

I wrote it, the first draft, that is, at the end of my first year of grad school, during the summer of 1998. But it wasn’t my first novel but my third, the previous two having been my own necessary shots in the dark, horrible pathetic efforts, honestly, that are now artifacts, alongside the countless stories and poems I’d written till then, of both my foolishness and my failure. This isn’t to say I think Made to Break is some crowning achievement. This isn’t to say, either, I think it’s a failure. It’s a book I wrote at a particular time out of a particular need, and it served a purpose, the way everything I’ve written, I’ve come to see, has served a purpose, even when I didn’t know what that purpose was. Sometimes, I’ve also learned, these things serve many purposes, actually. One of them, for sure, was, and still is, merely the exercising of the effort required to bring it to light. It took me a long time to understand this. As a writer, as any artist, I think, this understanding is critical. It’s critical, I mean, that we understand the meaning of our effort. And what is the meaning of our effort? The meaning of our effort is the exercising of it. That’s all. And that in itself is good enough. It has to be good enough. Because quite often there’s nothing else, though as often these days in our world of utility and expectation, where what fails to garner profit holds no worth, we’re helpless to recognize the universal nobility of that truth.

TR

I love the epigraph from William Gass: “In no sense sober, we barbershopped together and never heard the discords in our music and saw ourselves as dirty, cheap, or silly.” I think it’s especially fitting and serves as something of a key to the novel. Aside from the content, it says to the reader: Language is what counts here.

FOY

Gass is definitely important to me, though in a very strange way. He’s the kind of writer, like Beckett and Rilke and Woolf, whose work is a parasite. Once you’ve laid eyes on it, you can’t escape it, because, after it bores into you with the vicious implacability of a parasite, it consumes you against your will. So when I say Gass is important to me in a very strange way, I mean that I didn’t have to read much of him to fall under his spell. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” for instance—not the book but the story—was a devastation and a curse. It was a long time after I read that piece, and then the book, and then others, before Gass’s voice receded, and even then, rather than vanish, it pulsed in my mind, like some wicked echo, and has done so ever since. That, however, isn’t why he’s special. The effect he’s had on me is the effect that all great writers have on me. Once they’ve got in my head, they never leave, as much as I’d sometimes like them to leave, so that, now, after a time, my head is filled, as it were, with a pantheon of monsters barbershopping together in the most beautiful but most discordant way. What’s special about Gass, I think, and this is the reason I suppose the trope of the parasite is apposite to his work in particular, is his malice. It’s not merely that Gass’s work is rife with malice but that Gass himself is rife with malice, a characteristic that, in my opinion, though I dislike to say it, will keep him forever from the pinnacle of Olympus. Gass at bottom is a misanthrope in the truest sense. He doesn’t create from love, but from hatred, as he himself has said, and that, for any artist, is fatal. I remember seeing Todd Solondz’s film, Happiness, and thinking, “As talented as that guy is, he’ll never make truly great art. He hates too much.”

TR

You’re hitting on the thing I love most about Gass’s work, his marriage of beauty and terror. Are you saying, in Gass, terror wins? Hatred wins?

FOY

Not even the burden of Gass’s hatred is enough to subdue the sorcery that is his prose. It’s so crystalline, so distilled, so rhythmic and precise and cadenced and profound as to be injurious. It feels at times when I read Gass’s prose that it’s literally cutting into me, which is why I can’t read much of him at a time. And yet another trope comes to mind, too—forgive my mixing them up here. I don’t know if you’ve ever ingested the essence of a powerful herb such as basil or sage, but a single drop of the stuff is enough to send you reeling, physically and mentally. And that’s what Gass does. He gets inside of you, and he stays there, and then he fucks you up. And this, I realize only now, is what these comparisons share: violence. Gass’s prose hurts you. There’s no defense that, once you’ve opened yourself to him, can save you from the pain. He’s a parasite, a toxin, a blade, whatever, boring into you, poisoning you, cutting you, all in the most magnificent, sublime way.

That said, yes, language isn’t merely important to me—it is, if I may coin a word, supersedent. And yet, at the same time, just to muddle things up a bit, language isn’t my sole interest, which, contrarily, is also to say that my concern that language supersedes or usurps all other concerns is an exaggeration. What I truly mean is that I’m endlessly fascinated by the paradoxical enigma that is language. On one hand, language is everything. Practically speaking, without it, we couldn’t function en masse as we must if we’re to survive as a species. Language is also the chief means through which we all to one extent or other attempt to plumb the abyss of our existence. It’s all we have to convey the experience that is our life. On the other hand, though, language is nothing but a remote abstraction several times removed from our experience, especially when it’s written, and therefore, in the cosmic scope of things, utterly worthless. We have nothing at our disposal to express the unspeakableness that is life, only this puny index that we call language. We all see it, we all experience it, but that’s it. What we say about existence has nothing to do with existence. But still there’s magic in it, right? I think sometimes the way I use language is the way jazz musicians use their instruments, as a means of acknowledging my helplessness before the mystery that is all these worlds about us and of singing the praise of that mystery with the only thing I have at hand. It is terrifying, and it is beautiful. I wanted to Made to Break to express this holy ambivalence, and with any luck it does.

TR

I don’t like the term “experimental,” but the book certainly recalls a particular American “experimental” tradition, one Gass is significant a part of. Is it a tradition you identify with?

FOY

I identify with the “experimental” tradition only in that I identify very much with many of the writers unfortunate enough to’ve been labeled as such, not just in America but everywhere. Like you, to put it mildly, I do not like the term. It’s interesting, too, that you should mention this concern here, because it’s been a little on my mind. Stumbling recently across an essay about “experimental” writing, I had the immediate sense, however vague, that something was amiss. There was nothing new here, I’ve encountered terms like these right into nausea, what could be the glitch? And then I realized that that precisely was the glitch: the nausea I felt, now, after so many years of listening to artists and critics pulverize work into the friable categories from “realism” to “experimentalism,” seemed to me one of stale déjà vu. And very literally it was: the topic at hand was presented as though it were something “new” and therefore “worth” talking about, when in fact I, along with the rest, had already seen this topic, repeatedly, to the point that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to see or speak of it again, to the point that my incredulity had manifested as nausea. Probably the essay’s dek contributed to the extremity of my reaction, assuring me as it did that such a reaction was unwarranted. The author, it said, inferring an immensity of assumptions, was “tackling” the “tricky subject of experimentation in writing.”

Without a passel of hoopla regarding this history, I’ll just say I find these categories absurd. All writing is experimental. All art is experimental. Everything we do, in our intention as artists to transcribe reality as we know it at the making, is experimental, in the very sense of the word: “a trial, test, proof, experiment,” from the Latin experimentum, itself from the noun, experiri, “to test, try.” We’re not merely essaying, when we make art, to transcribe or record our experience, which is to say our “knowledge”—what the Latin experiential denotes, “gained by repeated trials.” Our task, really, is closer to that of the alchemist attempting to transubstantiate gold from lead, to create “ourselves naked, from exile, and in blood,” as Denis Johnson says, to “transform,” as David Shields says, “a particular feeling, insight, sorrow into a metaphor and then make that metaphor ramify so it holds everything, everything in the world.”

Yet even after all this time, even after endless discussion and explanation, depending on the context and the audience, to speak of anything as “experimental” persists to amount to speaking of it as revolutionary or dangerous or threatening or immoral or unsavory and the like. At certain extremities, the word “experimental” amounts even to the fusion of these incarnate. Its stigmatization via twentieth-century twilight, in the same way that words such as radical and liberal and anarchy have been stigmatized, like a criminal his tattooed face, is a function of outright hijack. Like radical, like liberal, like anarchy, words whose meanings have been crippled past recognition, experimental in creative parlance often carries with it a stench and a terror that, were the word a living thing, we could almost call innate. But in truth—yet another word, actually, as St. Augustine so clearly saw, whose welcome often wears thin at speeds astonishing to wits and twits alike—the power of these words to freak is illusory, the result, after their hijacking, of relentless semantic legerdemain and, if only de facto, of a sort of crowd-sourced propaganda campaign. Our discomfort before such words obtains from the assumption, in most cases, of someone else’s notion of its meaning rather than from its actual meaning. We imagine, that is, the word to mean what those who want none of what it means would like those who know little or nothing of what it means to believe it means.

TR

And so we should no longer use the words?

FOY

The fate of the words shouldn’t give us pause. Those who have at stake the lion’s share of control over this or that system rarely want those they control to see their machinations. This is why, generally speaking, they do everything they can to make virtue appear as vice. Sooner or later, in the hands of the corrupt, most things good are themselves made corrupt. As for the term experimental, in the world of art, it has mostly suffered this fate. And those in the world of art who think they have at stake something to lose—contracts, positions, sinecures, and such—continue to waste no time mucking up art that scares them with labels and brands they know very well to make that art seem scabrous, for a time at least.

TR

One of the characters, Dinky, says of Hunter S. Thompson: “Hunter S showed us who we all really are.” I think something similar can be said of moments in this book, with regards to me anyway (the old me), and by that I mean with regard to living like there is no tomorrow, and fearlessly ingesting drugs, alcohol, any intensity you can get your hands on (like the characters in Made to Break) only to be always left with the “real you” in the morning. It can be sobering (bad pun).

FOY

Hunter S. Thompson was one of the idols of my mid-teen years, a time when, like him, I was ingesting all manner of substances at any given time, often with names I didn’t know, especially when they were pills stolen from the medicine cabinets and underwear drawers of the homes of parents in whose absence their rascal offspring hosted those mythical, Animal House-type bashes we’ve all been to at least once or at minimum heard of. Back then, some knucklehead would ask me my favorite drug, and I’d say, “What have you got?” and when another didn’t know the name or effect of some tab or powder or pill, I’d say, “Give it to me — I’ll tell you what it does.” Probably I loved Thompson and Carlos Castaneda best, but there were other antiheroes in the bunch, too, Lou Reed and Jim Carroll and Jack Kerouac and the like, because they were living the life I’d somehow got it in my head to aspire to. Most of the crowd I ran with in my youth felt more or less the same, and, as the years passed, many, like the people in my book, hung on to that feeling and lifestyle both. In this light, it’s accurate to say that Thompson is a ghostly presence in my life still.

But I think I’d intended most for that line to say something contrary. Thompson et al showed us who we really are by showing us who we really are not. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems that’s what you mean when you say some of us would holler otherwise, that the world of Made to Break is nothing at all like the world most of us inhabit, that it’s nothing if not a world that’s totally alien to the population at large. Literally, this is probably true.

TR

I would absolutely agree with that, it’s an exploded version of life in the world.

FOY

Figuratively, however, though it may not be true for some, I fear it resembles our inner worlds much more accurately than most of us would be comfortable admitting, especially now, here in the twenty first century with its bewildering speed, and the apathy and confusion and anomie that speed spawns, and will continue to spawn, at volumes past bewildering because so radically exponential.

On the whole, I’d say we are no longer who we are. We are something else—what that is, though in our most private moments we can glimmeringly fathom it, we just don’t know—and yet, with things as they are, the prospect of finding our way back becomes increasingly implausible. I’ve said this elsewhere, and I’ll say it again: we have committed the fatal blunder of confusing the concept for the thing. And when I say fatal, I mean precisely that. Our general inability to live in the real world any longer is a flaw of Darwinian proportions, in the sense that, unless we somehow find our way back to that ability, we’ll perish. The scientist and philosopher Neil Evernden, in a conversation with the great environmentalist Derrick Jensen, put this dilemma into blinding perspective by pointing out the absurdity of our relationship with “nature.” “The belief in Nature,” Evernden says, “becomes a danger when you begin to mistake your own abstract conceptions for things. You make these ideas up, but then you forget they’re concepts. That’s why it’s tricky to talk about concepts of Nature, because that’s all they are—concepts of Nature.” If this isn’t enough to stop us in our tracks—much less the avalanche of cataclysms and horrors we daily witness—I don’t know what will. I mean, how much more terrifying can a state of mind be? Nature is all there is. Everything is nature, nothing is not nature, and yet most of us speak of it nonetheless as something that simply does not apply because it’s something beyond us, out there, where there are rivers and stones and those horrible intractable annoyances Woody Allen so abhors (there’s a pun and an irony here, sorry), trees. That this is the truth of our state belies in a very radical and very, very terrifying way the critical extent of our dilemma. Back to Thompson, what Dinky says about him is doubly ironic and doubly true: as well as anyone else ever could, he actually did show us who we really are.

TR

Aside from Thompson, there are lots of other cameos, by name, I mean, and quite a few are Shakespearean or from classic epic, Fortinbras, Laertes, Horatio. It gives the characters, and the dialog, the given moment a hyper-realistic quality.

FOY

You know, I’m glad you picked up on these aspects of the work, because I very much intended them. The names you’re talking about all come from one character, Super, whose own name should pretty obviously suggest any number of things about him and his role not just in the action proper but also in the book itself. It’s Super, that is, who gives these names to his fellow characters—Horatio, most importantly, to AJ, but then as well Laertes to Basil and Fortinbra to his companion, the yellow dog always at his side. Earlier drafts of the book saw Super playing something of a bigger role, not much, but a little, and certainly he was stranger, in only linguistically—in what he says, that is, and the way he says it.

Super, as someone with such a name should be, is a multifaceted creature (I use this word intentionally) with a multifaceted role. On one hand he’s an alien—supernatural—with alien knowledge and alien powers; on another, he’s a tragicomic fool—supercalifragilisticexpialidocious—pregnant with world pain, gravid with absurdity; on another yet, he’s a force beyond the ordinary—superhuman, superman—invincible and implacable; on still another yet, he’s just an extra in the play—supernumerary—a substitute for what’s real, an actor who can’t speak because he has no lines—and on still yet another, he’s a tedious imposition—superimpose—the outsider, necessary in his unnecessariness, an addition at once ridiculous and profound; and, finally, though there’s more, like the language of his name (Latin), he’s an obsolescence—just super—dead, useful, by and large, only as a prefix for loanwords from Latin, incomprehensible everywhere else. Hence, I think, it’s not by accident that those moments you feel the work’s hyper-reality are, among other things, those that feature Super, and, more, those where we see Super calling people by names from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, both of whose spirits—Shakespeare and Hamlet the man, are in this book everywhere potent. He never says so, nor does AJ (the narrator of Made to Break), but a big part of Super believes he is Hamlet reincarnated and/or even Hamlet’s father, who is a ghost also named Hamlet, reincarnated. As for Horatio, like him, the friend and confidant who gives validity to Hamlet, AJ, too (I hope!), gives validity to Super. Just, that is, as without Horatio, Hamlet would be little more than an eloquent madman, so too would Super without AJ be merely a goofy-tongued lunatic. We believe Hamlet because we believe Horatio believes Hamlet. In the same way (I hope!), we believe Super because we believe AJ believes him, too.

But Horatio is more to Hamlet than merely a shill for his credulity. Horatio is both the sole survivor of the play Hamlet, and the survivor and heir, so to speak, of Hamlet himself, compelled by Hamlet in the throes of death to tell the story of his tragedy. In the same way, AJ is the survivor of the tragedy that is the undoing of his so-called friends and the loss of all he’s held dear, commanded by Super to tell the tale of it. This isn’t anything new in storytelling, of course. Look at Frankenstein. Look at Moby Dick. Look at Lord Jim. Look at The Great Gatsby. Walden is to Frankenstein as Ishmael is to Ahab as Marlow is to Jim as Carraway is to Gatsby as Horatio is to Hamlet. Like all of these sad raconteurs, AJ has survived a disaster, and now he’s about the business of telling the story of it. And the story of it, this disaster that’s as much his life itself as any event or era in it, seems to him a thing unreal. It’s natural he’d attempt to get at its nature through the telling of his narrow escape from catastrophe through the help of a man who by any standards of normality might be considered insane. Super is AJ’s soothsayer, fortuneteller, shape changer, trickster, jester, fool, philosopher, sage, clown, all rolled into one. In the end, it took the hyperreality of a world with a man like Super to jar AJ into seeing the truth of his reality in a world without him.

TR

Speaking of—at first, I couldn’t articulate how best to describe the tone of the book, and then I heard you refer to it as “gutter opera.” I think that’s spot on. Can you tell me a little more about this?

FOY

I reached a place after a time where a single form or style or technique felt insufficient to my needs. I didn’t want just this or that, but all things all at once. And every time I found myself slipping into one mode or other, I felt like a hypocrite scumbag liar. So rather than keep to just one way, I began to meld approaches derived from influences as disparate as film script, allegory, jabberwocky, slang, doggerel, yarn, tale, poetry, journalese, profane street talk, criticism, lyric essay, theory, philosophy, and history, among others in giant list. Given my history, it made sense. Like Henry Miller, to name just one writer I identify with, I’m a guy who came to the world of letters from the street. I just about failed high school and didn’t put myself through college until I was near thirty. My mother tongue was trash, but by and by I taught myself to speak in a host of other ways, too. It stood to reason that I search out a heteroglossia supple enough to treat low subject matter in high style, and vice versa, in which everything is permitted and nothing forbidden. It stood to reason that I find a medium through which to express the countless baffling ways that beauty emerges from ugliness and ugliness from beauty, that wisdom swims from idiocy and idiocy from wisdom, that faith rises from despair and despair from faith, and, ultimately, since life lives by killing, that life leaps from death and death from life. I wanted to create autobiography as fiction. I wanted to engage social analysis as self-ethnography. And I wanted to write fiction as cultural criticism. Gutter opera gave me these freedoms. It opened the door, as well, to a sort of philosophical journalism by which to transcend the “what” of our lives that we glimpse the invisible “whys.” It was also with gutter opera, I saw, that I could right a thing merely by turning it upside down. The pitiless scrutiny I couldn’t keep away from, the repulsive curiosity, the grotesque apotheosis, scintillating tragedy, the horrific comedy—gutter opera lets me do it all and more. That’s what it is, really, gutter opera, euthanasia with a sledgehammer, confession with a bullhorn, epic in a dumpster, redemption through a needle’s eye. For better or worse, it’s the only way I know to make a saga in a capsule that roars not through outer-space but through the inner-space of our massive human heart, whispering, screaming, moaning, singing, weeping, laughing, howling, and anything else between. But best of all, I don’t have to think about any of this anymore. It’s who and what I am. Nor did I have to become it. All I had to do was allow myself to be what I’ve always been. That’s not as easy as it would seem, actually. It takes a lot of work, continuous work, continuous practice. Of course as painful as it is at times, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

TR

There are lots of comic theological poetic “profanities,” and they deliver my favorite lines of the book. Heaven is “that whorehouse in the sky.” Iggy Pop is “God” Himself. I could go on.

FOY

Basically, one word: Rabelais.

But seriously, Rabelais. If you haven’t read Gargantuan and Pantagruel, it’s time to throw down your remote control and run down to the bookstore—because this cat can’t be done electronically, or at least he shouldn’t be, because that would approach something like blasphemy and be worthy therefore of the cataclysm of profanities that should pummel whoever commits it—and buy and read it forthwith. The more I think about it, actually, the more convinced I am that Rabelais is the Father of Gutter Opera. In one breath, he’ll spout scatological maxims—“A Squitty arse never lacks for shit”—and in another, he’ll wax faux pedantic—“That problem is neither in Aristotle, nor in Alexander of Aphrodisias, nor in Plutarch”—and in another yet he’ll list a catalogue of books in the Library of Saint-Victor at the University of Paris, all of them parodic, some dangerously so, for the times at least, absurd, irreverent, scandalous, or obscene as they are, and often all of these at once. Bragueta juris (The Codpiece of the Law), The Elephantine Testicle of the Valiant, Decretum universitatis Parisiensis super gorgiasitate muliercularum ad placitum (Decree of the University of Paris on the Gorgiosity of Pretty Women, for Pleasure), The Apparition of St. Geltrude to a Nun of Poissy in Labor, and the like are just a few of crazy “titles” in that list. And when Rabelais isn’t lurking and snickering like this, he’s describing in single and scientific detail the means by which a beserk monk slaughters a horde of men in a vineyard with his staff. And the list goes on and on. There’s nothing that escapes him, really. Every age has it’s sentinels, the sleepless humans who see everything, from the least hypocrisy to the most hideous outright crime, and with their stentorian voices boom it all from the top of the towers they’ve scaled for that purpose, and Rabelais was certainly one of his. He’s so radical I’m not sure how he escaped imprisonment or beheading.

There are many other writers in this vein after Rabelais, in only spirit—from Aretino, Cervantes, Swift, and Sterne on through to Baudelaire and Bataille, and Nietzsche and Nin, and Menken and Miller—but when I think of the source of my interest in the comically theological and generally profane, Rabelais is the first to mind, even though, honestly, I wasn’t thinking about him at all when I wrote Made to Break. I guess this is another of those instances like the one I was just mentioning, about the influence of Gass. Once an artist gets in your head, you’re forever doomed to echo her to this or that degree, in a way, no doubt, that is markedly your own. Eugenio Montale meant something along these lines when he said, “True culture is what remains of a man after he has forgotten everything he has learned.” Or at least that’s how I understand it.

TR

The book seems to poke fun at ‘60s idealism,  one character refers to “the ‘60s hangover” (and there is at least one Grateful Dead joke). It feels like one carnivorous weekend that stuffs in all the sexual freedom and substance-abandon associated with the ‘60s, coupled with real life consequence. Does this make sense?

FOY

The story begins on the day before New Year’s Eve 1996, an era, I’d say, just before we were crushed by the epidemic of irony that in my opinion has us still in its grip. Or rather, I should say it was an epidemic that’s mutated and morphed and finally become something of an insufferable condition. Irony today suffuses everything we think, say, and do. There’s nothing that’s not ironic anymore, not even ourselves—irony is our way. Our irony is a white sheet of paper. It and the gestures we make against it now—all ironic, all white—are identical. This, and nothing else, is why our “ironic games,” as Benjamin Kunkel said a few years back in his essay on the state of American letters, appear to be “weightless.” This, and nothing else, is why we can scarcely detect irony today, and how we can get away with making such ridiculous claims about “the new sincerity” and the “post-ironic.” The people in Made to Break are certainly viciously sarcastic, and therefore ironic, but their irony hasn’t yet turned to consume itself like an ouroboros. Their irony is still in the service of a position, that is. They still believe in something, or want at least to believe in something, but are catastrophically disillusioned. That is, after all, the trajectory of faith after the ’60s, right? If the ’60s was an era of revolt and liberation, the ’70s was one of decadence and debauchery en par with the post-war ’20s. And the hangover you talk about took hold the morning after, which was the ’80s. That horrible decade, the worst of the twentieth century to my mind, was nothing but a hangover, with all of the tossing and turning and retching that come with hangovers. Just as we saw Hitler rise in the aftermath of the Weinberg era, we saw Reagan, that boil on the ass of the world, emerge from the imbroglio before him. I mean, at the risk of some hyperbole, it’s from Reagan that the germ of this irony we’re in the grip of was spawned. He and his regime destroyed any possibility for real social goodness that the ’60s might have opened our eyes to. By the time we hit the mid- to late ’90s, the thinking people among us were confronted with the nasty reality that darkness was once again upon us. Nirvana showed us that. Of that, Nirvana was the zeitgeist incarnate. There was nothing left to do by the time the millennium rolled around, for many, but to wallow in the dregs. Made to Break, in this light, I suppose, could function as something of a parable for all of this.

TR

Can we talk about genre? There seems to be a resurgence of “literary” writers, whatever that means, refitting the modes of genre and making new and unique books. Your book bends and breaks the “Beat novel,” even as it uses a lot the tools of the “apocalyptic novel.” The book is about revelation gained through excess, violence, survival.

FOY

You know, you’re spot on about my use of genre in this book—it’s definitely a perverted mash up of the ones you mention, in addition to any number of others, the autobiographical novel, say, and the gothic, the crime, the noir, and the coming-of-age/bildungsroman. (The Catcher in the Rye? There’s as much Holden Caufield in AJ as there is Shithead, Sal Paradise, “Henry Miller,” Quentin Compson, Mrs Dalloway, Marlow, Rabbit, Quixote, Augie March, and the narrators throughout Lovecraft—Holden’s voice is yet another I’ll never be rid of!) I have to say, though, and this may sound goofy, that inasmuch as your observation is true, I can’t see Made to Break as part of the new wave of genre mashing you’re talking about, mainly because, as I mentioned, I wrote it in 1998. This book, in other words, is already sixteen years old. The time of my writing it fell considerably earlier than this genre renaissance, which has become so much a thing these last few years, with so many people arguing about it (Choire Sicha, Michael Robbins, Arthur Krystal, David Shields, and Lev Grossman most recently, for instance) that people call it the “genre wars.”

In any case, I’ve got my opinions on the matter, but in terms of your question, and of your assessment of Made to Break as an example of how “literary” works can refit quote-unquote “non-literary” modes by way creating new, and revitalizing moribund, “literary” modes, it seems best simply to say that at the end of the day I’m not at all concerned with what “kind” of book I make, or, for that matter, read. I’m just trying to realize a vision through any means necessary, usually, that is, with what I have to hand. And what I have to hand is what I’ve seen and listened to and watched and read over the course of my life. And that’s the sort of book I want to read, as well. All of the writers I love most come from this place, more or less. All of the artists I love most come from this place. My much better half is a choreographer, performance artist, and dancer. Not that she has, but to achieve her ends, she’s as likely to cobble up elements from Japanese Noh, puppetry, spoken word monologue (a la Spaulding Gray) and museum-style video installations as from krump, military drills, rock shows, and Off-Off Broadway theater. For her, there are no holds barred. In my way, I do the same. The story, the novel, the essay, the poem is to the artist-writer a single blossom to the honeybee. The book is one source of learning among an infinitude of sources. As a writer, to confine myself to a single referent or style or source of inspiration is to live a sort of death. My seeing Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been every bit as crucial as has my reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Grombrovich’s Pornographia. To have witnessed Jeanine Durning’s performance piece inging or Tere O’Connor’s dance Wrought Iron Fog has been no less vital to my education than has my devouring Adler’s Speedboat and Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence. And gazing on the paintings of George Condo and Francis Bacon, or the sculptures of light of James Turrell, has been every bit as necessary to me as has my basking in the glory of Beckett’s Malloy or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or Bolaños 2666. Krasznahorkai, Svoboda, Krilanovich, Knausgaard, Brontë—all great writers, all lacking, to this degree or that, however, as a chair absent ground, without Mingus, Rothko, Bergman, Gursky, Hay. The same goes for Monty Python and Porky Pig, and anime, and slang, and video games, and cribbage, and cage fighting, and opera, and so forth. I need it all, and I’ll use it all, or parts from it, at any time, ruthlessly.

Some would call this bricolage, others, more current—Nicholas Bourriaud, for example, speaking of the “radicant” in the onset of twenty-first century “altermodernity”—would call this “radicantity.” “Today’s artists,” Bourriaud says, “do not so much express the tradition from which they come as the path they take between that tradition and the various contexts they traverse . . . Where modernism proceeded by subtraction in an effort to unearth the root, or principal, contemporary artists proceed by selection, additions, and then acts of multiplication. They do not seek an ideal state of the self or society. Instead, they organize signs in order to multiply one identity by another… The radicant art implies the end of the medium-specific, the abandonment of any tendency to exclude certain fields from the realm of art.” On the whole, I agree with this assessment, and, as an artist, very much identify with it. That Made to Break seems to have the feel of something at once familiar and new can probably be attributed, generally speaking, to my abhorrence of safety. I don’t like stillness and calm, in art at any rate, because in these there are no risks. Stillness and calm are conservative. Our inclination toward them derives from fear, even though in the end the only thing they can ever truly offer is death. This isn’t to say I think genre per se is conservative. There’s nothing conservative in a Simenon or Hammett novel, for instance. Nor would I mind that someone tied my own stuff to genre. In fact, I consider it a genre, “gutter opera.” But like I said, it’s not about the “kind” of art I or anyone else makes. My concern lies in how we go about the making, the spirit that drives how we go about the making.

TR

The language of the book is so unapologetically poetic, so hyper-real, it makes me wonder about your process. In fact, I usually don’t like, nor do I believe in, the notion of a book “drunk on language,” it’s too cheesy and romantic and bereft an idea. And yet I might apply the phrase to the book.

FOY

Made to Break was the third novel I wrote, but the first, really, I’d say, in which my proclivity toward a constant metamorphosis of voice, style, subject, and speed assumed its better form. I had tried to write “normal” or “regular” novels but failed for just that reason. I wasn’t allowing myself to be who I am, in my head at any rate, which is a guy under the spell at any given time of four songs, ten poems, seventeen books, a dozen films, and any number of comic strips, ads, cartoons, essays, hobbies, and games, to say nothing of the juicy snippets from all the conversations I’ve overheard. When I wrote Made to Break, my desk stood before a wall maybe fifteen feet wide and ten feet high covered every inch with my recent scraps and notes. I could look up at any time and see a handful of notions and facts. Sometimes I knew I needed a specific item, and sought it out, but more often I let the wall talk to me. Or rather, since I had written the notes and collected the scraps, I suppose that what I was actually doing was allowing myself to talk to myself. On the whole, that was my process. I sat down everyday and talked to myself, and the parts of the conversations I thought most important are what you find in Made to Break.

All of this, by the way, gets me thinking how very much process is related to style. The effort to cultivate doesn’t result in style but in artifice, and never the twain shall meet. At all times, I’m in favor of nearness, which again is to say, if only implicitly, that on the whole I’m against artifice. Artifice reflects distance, and all that distance kills. Real style, or what at any rate we call “style,” is nothing more or less than the form the artist’s mind assumes in the moment of her art’s creation. The form of the artist’s art, which is inseparable from her art, expresses the artist’s mind in all her gorgeous particularity at the instant she created: it is the only expression her art could assume. So when we say that we’re disappointed by a piece of art, for whatever reason—that it failed our expectations, that it offended, that it revealed a morality abrasive to our own, that it seemed to us the nadir of stupidity, and et cetera—it isn’t because we don’t like the artist’s “style” or method or technique (though of course this may also be true), but because we don’t like the way the artist thinks. And the opposite is also the case.

If the language of Made to Break appeals to you, it’s because you like the way I think. My language is the form taken by my thought, and by the process of my thinking. As for my language, and my relationship to it, which is utterly ambivalent in the truest sense of the word, I’d try to get at it better with more of my own language, but won’t, because Beckett has already said it for me better than I ever could:

“And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things, or the Nothingness, behind it. Grammar and Style—to me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it (be it something or nothing) begins to seep through: I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.”

TR

What’s next?

FOY

Well, I’m hoping to publish a couple of the novels sitting in my drawer, and in particular my most recent, Patricide. Last fall I knocked out the draft of a book length essay, too, about my thoughts on the current state of all things art, which I’ll get into editing on the heels of my tour. I’d also like to adapt Made to Break for the screen, and then I’ll start in on another novel I sketched out and wrote the first chapter for. After that, there are more novels—five—planned to go with Patricide, the next being Matricide. All six volumes will ultimately sit under the title, If He Is Healthy. If They let me, and I hope They do, I’ll be busy for a while.
And the tour—I try not to let my thoughts run away, but I’m pretty darn excited for it. I start on February 26, at AWP in Seattle, where I’ll do three events with some very cool writers, including Cari Luna, Matt Bell, Sean Madigan Hoen, Jeff Jackson, and Scott McClanahan. Then, starting March 2, Cari and I will do four more towns in the Northwest, ending at Powell’s in Portland. After that, I’m on my own, at least while I’m on the road. In Alameda I’ll read with Christian Kiefer, in SF with Samuel Sattin one night and Joshua Mohr the next. I hit San Luis Obispo after that, my second home-town, where I was conceived, my mother was raised, and my grandmother lived for 60-plus years, and then LA for two gigs, the first with Two Dollar Radio legends Karolina Waclawiak and Grace Krilanovich, and the second with the guy who wrote my favorite book of 2013 (American Dream Machine), Matthew Specktor. Then I head back to NYC, where I have two official launch parties, at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan and at BookCourt in Brooklyn, and then I’m off again for points South, Midwest, and Northeast. All told, I’ll be on the road for something close to 50 days. You can see the whole itinerary and the trailer for Made to Break on my site. Oh, and also, while I’m on the road, I’ll be sending weekly reports of my adventures to Electric Literature, who’ll post them on their blog, The Outlet. I’m looking forward to that a lot!

 

Scott Cheshire is the author of High As the Horses’ Bridles, forthcoming from Henry Holt (July, 2014). 

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