WEBEXCLUSIVE

DISMAY AS REVELATION: CHRISTOPHER MERKNER with Matt Bell

Christopher Merkner
The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

(Coffee House Press, 2014)

Christopher Merkner is the author of the story collection The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic (Coffee House Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and he teaches creative writing at West Chester University. The stories in his debut collection are formally playful in their interrogation of Midwestern privilege and parental prerogatives, each rendering the familiar strange again so that we might see it anew. At the end of “In Lapland,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, the exhausted narrator and his wife look at their newly painted house in confusion, saying that they can only “see plainly that [they] can see nothing clearly,” before concluding, “We guess we have done our part. We guess the time after will be worth the time before.” It's a sentiment that many of the narrators in the book might express, a sort of dismay-as-revelation that arrives only as they look back at their marriages and their families, at the actions and reactions of their spouses and children, their friends and neighbors.

Matt Bell (Rail): Most of the stories in your collection are narrated by men, usually husbands and fathers, many of whom are troubled or confused or even threatened by some aspect of domestic life, but who also experience all sorts of absurdities and weirdness, sometimes realistic, sometimes more surreal. It seems to me that many of the stories in this collection read like deliberate attempts to reinvigorate the suburban domestic, a particularly well-trod ground in contemporary fiction. How conscious were you of the accumulative effect of these stories as you were writing them? Was it something that only emerged as you were organizing them into a manuscript, or was there a more deliberate project at work?

Christopher Merkner: The American Midwest is wonderful in many, many ways, but I think when you’re raised there, or at least if you’re raised there in the way that I was, and you’re paying attention to who and what is going on around you, you learn not to trust that which you love and that which purports to love you. It’s not a great feeling. One is inclined to brood and obsess a lot about it.

But if you plan to stay with these people you love, or you have no choice but to stay with them, then you have to test them. So you go after them, attack them, and the more you care about them the harder you go after them, to make sure of the strength of that love and their willingness to be there with you, against you, for you but against you. I really just think my stories are extensions and outcroppings of this brooding and obsessing and these small attacks against that which I hold most dear in my past.

But, to answer your question, for whatever reason it wasn’t until I had Miranda July’s crazy little No One Belongs Here More Than You in my hands that I started thinking about making a book of these obsessions and little attacks. I never doubted, I don’t think, the subject of my brooding and attacks: dumb men, brutally, violently, passive-aggressive domestic landscapes, empty or complacent fidelity, trust as thin as paper. It wasn’t a matter of content that kept me from thinking about making a book; it was a question of what I felt a collection of short stories should look like and feel like. I had a very narrow and conventional sense of what a collection should be, and I’d fretted for years that my stories weren’t “big” enough or conventional enough to make a book someone would publish, and god knows why but that July collection just sort of woke me up.

Rail: The first part of your answer reminded me of The Paris Review interview of William Gass, where he said that “Getting even is one great reason for writing... But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighed. Justice, I think, is the word I want.” It’s really interesting to think of your stories as “attacks,” in part because they read as so big-hearted to me. These narrators seemed more bumbling than malicious, more confused than terrible.

Merkner: But that’s the point, right? These dudes are bumbling and confused, and they have no business being so. These people are exceptionally privileged, as are most Americans, especially white American males, and they are living out scripts—scripts written for them years ago which they have moved to inhabit. I suppose it’s unwitting, but it’s certainly not necessary, and I am not attacking the people so much as the scripts they cannot seem to recognize they haven’t written. The narrators are decent people who cannot seem to find the decency to stop and apologize for themselves.

And, look, this script-existence in fiction and in life is hardly specific to just “dumb dudes.”  I just asked a former colleague for some help with a project, and he wrote me back asking if I needed therapy. He told me that it wasn’t like we were “pals or something,” so I must have something wrong with me to have reached out to ask him for help. This is a decent person. He’s an educated person. I know him, and many people I know know him also, and they would vouch for him as a decent sort of person. I knew him a number of years ago, and we’d had quite a number of convivial, collegial sorts of conversations. And yet this is his response to someone asking for help, and it seems clear to me that this is just another example of someone living out a script: the ‘accomplished scholar’ script and the belittling of a colleague who asks for help, first, and then the explaining of the rational grounds upon which he is justified in the cruelty. He will likely continue with the script that most of us know and do nothing about it. He will use his therapy remark as the punchline to some very winsome humor he’ll be sharing at another colleague’s cocktail party. I don’t even hold him accountable for it. It’s what people want him to do. It’s what he knows they want him to do, and whether or not he’s conscious of it, he’s going to live out that script and we are going to enjoy him while he does so.

Obviously there are many ways one might subvert these scripts, but it’s not easy, and most white Americans, and especially white American males in the parts of the country where I grew up, cannot figure out how best to do so, nor do they feel compelled to do so. Certainly they don’t feel impelled to do so, so it seems the role of fiction, at least the kind of fiction that interests me, is to find the means to compel people to face their scripts and then to see what happens. This sounds like textbook American Literary Naturalism when I say it like this, doesn’t it?

Rail: One of the things that interests me most about debut books is how writers arrive at the first material that eventually ends up collected. Can you remember which stories in Scandamerican Domestic were written first? Were they drastically different from the work you’d been writing, or was it more of a gradual evolution from where you began to where you could write these stories? In other words, I’m looking for the Christopher Merkner origin story, and I’m wondering how your writing style or process changed during the years you were working on these stories, especially since you didn’t originally see them becoming a book.

Merkner: The first story of the collection was also the first one I’d written, and I think it reflects the time and space that I inhabited at that time: I was an indulgent graduate student, young and wistful, dating an exceptionally sharp girl, my future wife, and I had all the time in the world before me, all the time in the world to play with time and suspense and plotting chicanery. I was indulgent and dramatically privileged, and you can see this in stories like “Of Pigs and Children” and “Last Cottage,” the majority of which were written during graduate school.

More or less every other story in the collection was written under somewhat different circumstances: quite a few years later in my life, full-time teaching, wedding planning, baby planning, house building, still privileged beyond what should be acceptable in our country and world, but an increasing shift in how I understood personal time and mental space. This is clear in the stories, I think, most of which were written on the back of bills while I was riding a bus or train to work.

To this point, I think it’s useful to add that I’ve been teaching courses in undergraduate creative writing and fiction writing for fifteen years now, and I was certainly teaching them during those years after my MFA, and mostly this had been a sort of serviceable teaching situation, not a romantic one, so that I’d have a schedule of, say, seven introductory creative classes in a given semester across three or four different campuses.

What you learn quickly about writing when you’re reading four hundred undergraduate stories a month is that you desire cuts and reductions far more than you desire additions. The last thing, in fact, you want to see happen in most of these cases is addition or multiplication. Subtract, divide, subtract. And if you’re honest about what you’re reading, and not judgmental or smug, which is a constant struggle for any teacher of undergraduate writing courses, you realize this is probably the same advice most readers would offer about your work: no one has time for this. And remembering this really helped me decide how to put the book together as an uneven and uneasy collection, and how to be to some degree or another confident that I’d made a good decision. 

Rail: In an interview at Subtropics, you said, “I suspect any inclination toward innovation I have in my own writing lashes out in direct rejection of every instinct I have as a person, husband, and parent.” In your collection, one of the pervasive tensions is how your narrators both cling to traditional roles, even as tradition becomes insufficient or smothering or even dangerous. How do you balance your respect and admiration for tradition as a writer with any urges you have to break new stylistic ground? Is there a danger in privileging tradition over innovation, or vice versa?

Merkner: I’m not sure I would use the words “tradition” or “traditional” because I don’t really know what these things mean, and if I do know what they mean I know they’re not something I value or target as a writer or a person. I didn’t necessarily mean that the opposite of innovation is tradition or traditional writing. I meant that innovation that works and reworks repetition, specifically, doesn’t particularly interest me because it seems to serve itself more than a larger social function.

I don’t have a problem joining a tradition, and the tradition of writing that I would like to believe I am trying to join is a tradition in literature that sees its work as socially engaged, socially and politically conscious. I criticize men, and I criticize contemporary and historical understandings of masculinity, which I find complacent, and which I find rampant and celebrated in much of my “home” of the American Midwest.

And this sounds good, worthy, etc, but it’s also at odds with the purer traditions of aestheticists, objectivist-Modernists, language technicians, writers and artists who find my interest in art’s social value quaint and sentimental, frankly objectionable and absurd, and that, I fear, is always going to make me an intellectual and artistic bore. It makes me a good parent, I think, and I hope it makes me a progressive and committed partner, friend, and citizen, as well as a motivated and dedicated teacher to students, but I think it will always be a drag on me in terms of intellectual ambition.

Rail: I really appreciate how explicit you're willing to be about the goals of writing as social or political critique. I went through school at a time where we seemed discouraged to write politically, with many teachers telling us that if we wanted to write stories driven by such ideas we were better off writing essays than fiction. Where does it begin for you? Does the critique come first or does it emerge out of character and situation? What’s your method for approaching the political or social critique without it becoming didactic or preachy?

Merkner: It’s hard to be didactic when you’re in the dismissible minority. On the parent-child circuit today, cool indifference is premium. It’s just really important, socially, for your own social well-being, and for that of your kids, not to give a crap—or to care in only the most abstract sort of way. Everyone tells me ‘Jimmy is killing it in school,’ in math, anyway, but, you know, the kid can’t spell worth a shit. This sort of thing. And invitations to swimming parties for five year olds that start at nine pm, and dump-off parties at inflatable mattress gymnasiums less sanitized than pet kennels, and the scientifically verified toxic cakes, and the play dates where you arrive to learn the kids will be “in the woods” all afternoon “so we can have some wine.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe I’m the one on his ear. But the fact is it doesn’t go well trying to be didactic under these conditions. I’m not going to turn lives around suggesting we take our wine to the woods, although now that I think of it that’d probably be a pretty good story.

But my point is that these conditions, made by honest people, decent and well-insulated people, really don’t require more than their representation. When a character calls his child an “idiot” in a grocery cart at the grocery store because he wants a package of diapers, I think the critique is implicit. Same with a character who announces he loves walls, or people who eroticize the painting of their walls. These are the people I know and have known, and they are the respected majority, the loved and celebrated and well-protected dignitaries of my middle-class neighborhoods as a child and adult, and these are people I enjoy and respect a great deal. I suppose if you’re interested in getting me to say something about craft here, I would say that the only critiques worth writing are the ones about people and circumstances you respect, and I think that’s Gass’s larger point in the interview you mention earlier, particularly insofar as he links his concerns with form and language to his concerns with social function.

Rail: I love that guideline: “The only critiques worth writing are the ones about people you respect.” It also brings to mind Chris Bachelder's fiction, who I think approaches satire from a similar place. Your collection reminded me of his work in many ways, and he also blurbed the book. The most obvious point of comparison is probably Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, which similarly unpacks the absurdity and the wonder of family, but I think it’s a broader resemblance than just one shared subject. Was Bachelder’s work a particular influence on your own?

Merkner: Bachelder and I were in a workshop together at the University of Florida, and the stories he brought in for us to discuss really blew my little mind. What he was doing with prose and narration and plot really ripped fiction wide open for me. We are friends, but I think Mr. Bachelder would not be pleased to be lumped in with the likes of me: he is far smarter, far sharper, and his fiction is far more interesting than mine will ever be, and he knows it, and I know it. That said, he won’t be happy to hear this, but I have to say that the more formidable ingredient in my “recipe,” more impressive than even Mr. Bachelder, was the days and years of growing up in a home of good-hearted Midwesterners.

I’d mentioned this dimension to my life earlier, I know, as well as my brooding business, so I won’t say more about that. Instead, I would only add I spent more or less all of my young life in a church, because my father was a Lutheran pastor, and my mother therefore a pastor’s wife, and my most intimate extended family was a house full of elderly Lutherans. And the stories and the songs they formed to communicate with one another throughout the weeks (life in the church extends way beyond Sunday mornings when you’re a PK) were elaborate, extensive, and frequently told in some polyblend of Danglish, or Swenglish, or Norwenglish. The way these good people blurred past stories and anecdote and their present realities, the way families before and families after became one family, it was all very natural and seductive.

As a PK, if you’re like me, any way, you listen to the stories for yourself when you’re young, because you’ve been seduced by them and you’ve been eavesdropping on these adult conversations because your parents have been talking about them at home in advance of your arriving to the church, and then you hear them again in the car ride home with your parents who are either bickering about them or laughing about them, and often both, and then you hear them again at the house, before and after drinks, two very different times, two very different versions of the stories, and each of the stories becomes a contemporary palimpsest. And what’s lost in fact and realism is gained in sentimental residue, the essences of a story cast over and concealing the actual narrative, and it’s a tortured and pretty and sad thing, and you’re drawn to it for these reasons, or I have been.

Rail: I’m not surprised to hear that you grew up surrounded by this kind of oral storytelling, because your stories absolutely feel drawn from the laughing, bickering world you describe. I love how you describe the effect: “what’s lost in fact and realism is gained in sentimental residue.” Obviously that occurs accidentally in conversations like the ones between your parents, but how do you recreate that feeling on the page?

Merkner: That’s easy: you have to be committed to caring about language, and to caring about not creating a space for your reader that is emotionally conventional. You have to be committed to not allowing stories to become what they are probably inclined to become, because these inclinations are not borne out of innocence and purity. They’re borne out of a culture that has already written the stories and the feelings associated with stories for you and for itself.

What excites the broadest community of readers implicitly is probably not what’s best for the story, the fiction, the facts, the writer or the writing, but it’s probably what pulls hardest on a story’s trajectory, and it’s almost impossible to find residue if you follow what stories want. You have to break a story’s legs, I think, and stop it from going to the terminus that it desires. I recognize this probably runs counter to standard advice about listening to the story. I don’t subscribe to this. I have not done well listening to my stories, and I’m pretty sure this is because, as I was saying earlier, the stories don’t derive from innocence and empty pure space. They arrive at and follow pathways that have already been trod for us, and the ones we are least conscious of are the ones that are the most common, and therefore the most trite and often the most hurtful and painful.

It’s very sad to me to hear writers today, especially male writers, talking about how they want to go back to the origins of storytelling, stories that make people tremble and quake, get all juiced up or whatever, when they are reading, because I guess what these writers are really saying is they want to keep telling stories that are not terribly progressive as we understand cultural progressivism today. Women don’t make out so well in traditional storytelling, do they. Minorities and the mentally ill and the economically marginalized tend to suffer fairly predictable villainy.

But more importantly, no matter the characters, the stories themselves tend to follow a predictable narrative pattern, and I guess stories that don’t subscribe to the patterns of narration that male writers have been producing for mass consumption over the years are ones that they feel are no longer “fun,” that bore, that seem over-wrought, over-artsy, mind-games for graduate programs, over-done, etc. Anything that subverts and redirects the culture’s desire to consume narrative is “over-done”?  This just strikes me as a cop-out, and when it comes out of the mouth of a privileged writer it strikes me as nearly daemonic. But of course one can hardly blame these writers, because, as I’ve said before, they’re really just capitulating to a scripted reality that is, I have to say, seductive and admittedly often brings with it mass fame and success and more privilege.

But let me just hasten to say something here, now that I’ve done some good Midwestern moral judging: do my stories succeed in this? Do they too readily capitulate to violence? Do they actively subvert proclivities to violence? Do they thoroughly redress narrative structural patterns? Am I perpetuating scripts that don’t critique aggressively enough to force readers to pause? Is Scandamerican Domestic part of a tradition of socially committed literature? I think these would be accurate concerns about my collection, and I would only say that it’s my first effort, and I look forward to the challenges in my next.

Rail: I’m really interested in your last few points here, in part because I worry about similar concerns with my own work. I spend a lot of time writing about violence, and one thing I’m constantly trying to interrogate is the balance between wanting to critique violence—its causes and its effects, its pervasiveness, the story of “redemption through violence,” which I’ve come to believe is a sort of foundational myth in our culture that does astonishing amounts of harm—while also recognizing that there is a part of me that’s drawn to it, mostly in media and narrative but also, in certain regrettable ways, in life. In other words, I’m a person who would love for there to be no violence in the world at all, but I’m almost always writing about it in my own work, and many of the books I like best are dealing with violence too. I’m constantly looking at those themes—often through variations on fairy tales and myth, among other kinds of “traditional storytelling” you’re describing—and I’m very worried about how to write about violence without glorifying it further. How do I recognize its power in a narrative while also critiquing its power? Because of course sometimes readers will enjoy or sympathize or identify with the subject or the method of the critique, missing the critique entirely. (See everyone who ever believed an Onion article was real, because its satire was the audience’s actual opinion.) And I think that as writers that’s true of us too, because we can’t be writing only about what disgusts us or scares us or upsets us—it also has to attract us in some way, for our gaze to land there in the first place, for us to want to tell the story of these kinds of characters. Our subjects seem to persist even if we don’t want that attraction. Maybe especially if we don’t want it, because we want to be morally correct or more progressive or likable or relatable or whatever the terms may be.

So maybe my question is this: As you look toward the next book, the next story you might tell, how much is the desire to participate in a progressive storytelling and to advance a social critique about the intended audience, and how much of it is about what you, the writer, wants or needs or even can’t avoid?

Merkner: I like what you’re saying, and I think you’re right. I’m openly embarrassed about it. We know that violence begets violence. So, what the hell are we doing writing it into our stories? Are we splitting academic hairs when we say that it depends on the type of violence or that it depends on how the violence is crafted? Probably we are. I am speaking in the plural here, but I really just mean myself. I know that substitutes as powerful and seductive as violence exist, and I’m increasingly confident they live somewhere between consonants and vowels, indifferent to the construction of characters and events and pacing, etc, entirely.  This isn’t news: Selah Saterstrom and Laird Hunt and Josh Russell and to one degree or another all of my former teachers and mentors have urged this line of concern.

I’ll just say that what I can no longer avoid is my complicity in the watering down of postmodern narratives that actively and aggressively critique the means of storytelling. I love William Trevor’s collected stories, because he more than any contemporary author I can think of—well, maybe Munro would be a rival—performs magic tricks in stories that read so seamlessly and in such perfect syncopation with the seamlessly articulated events he narrates, it truly takes a community of like-minded critical readers to unearth and discover them. And that’s a beautiful thing. Reading Williams and Munro alone is beautiful, and reading them in community is an even better, more illuminating experience. I will always love reading these writers, just as I grew up loving Steinbeck, Cheever, Oates, etc.

But do you know that Ursula Le Guin story, “She Unnames Them”?  I think it’s really relevant to all of this. This sort of kills the story but it’s basically just Eve saying, “No Thanks” to Adam and to God, and I love the narrator’s line, “It is hard to give back a gift without sounding peevish or ungrateful.” I may have been given the gift of Steinbeck and Cheever as an avid reader, and I may have loved them, but I am not interested in continuing their tradition as a writer or a citizen—not as a conscious, thinking writer of privilege. I can’t be. I love my kids too much. I love my kids too much to personally allow myself to say, “I love and cannot avoid…” anything, and I cannot involve myself in this tradition of fiction writing that openly celebrates one, dominant mode of storytelling and further marginalizes anything that seeks to complicate it. There are just too many stories and too many tellers of stories to be spending time indulging the gorgeous, transparent narrative experience that feeds consuming readers what they are certain is good for them. I feel very privileged to write, and I guess I’m saying that the way I want to steward that privilege is to give it back without being peevish.





MATT BELL's debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was published in 2013 by Soho Press. He teaches in the M.F.A. program at Northern Michigan University.

Contributor

Matt Bell

MATT BELL is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award. His next novel, Scrapper, will be published in Fall 2015.

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