Books In Conversation
David Burr Gerrard with Scott Cheshire
(Rare Bird Books, 2014)
I like opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages, especially those that seem to contain inexplicably all things that follow. Whole novels lying dormant on a single page that, with a turn, spring forth like a minor Big Bang, or one of those giant sequoia trees from an incredible tiny seed. David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel Short Century may not be giant in size, but the cast of his voice—and his narrator’s—is so broad in scope and content, it subsumes pretty much every modern political polemic. And all sprung from these few opening lines:
My sister was the one who ensured I would never sleep soundly. When I was a child I couldn’t sleep for fear of what would happen to her; as an adult I can’t sleep for fear of what has happened to her. Those who make it their primary purpose in life to attack me—and their ranks have swelled in the past twenty-four hours—would probably say that I sleep badly because I have lived badly. But popular language gets sleep backwards. The indifferent and the evil find it easy to sleep at night, while the sleep of the just is fitful at best.
Short Century is a novel-long defense on behalf of one Arthur Hunt, a leftist public intellectual whose pro-war stance supports the invasion of an unnamed nation, referred to only as “REDACTED.” Echoes of the Iraq invasion, and Christopher Hitchens’s polarizing support of the war abound (a Yale-era George W. himself makes a few appearances), as Hunt is slowly undone by some rather sordid breaking news: that of his incestuous and past relationship with younger sister, Emily, now apparently trending on Twitter. Gerrard’s manic and hilariously unreliable narrator is utterly modern, desperate, comic, and smart, like those of Philip Roth and Thomas Bernhard, but also classic in the tragic sense. Hunt’s demise is essentially self-inflicted, unavoidable, and foretold. Like one of Hunt’s beloved drone strikes, Short Century hits with devastating accuracy. We are all complicit in its unfortunate “real world” context.
Rail: I cannot think of another novel that so deliberately pairs sex and death. Especially in that opening drone strike scene, which is as funny as it is uncomfortable. I’m curious, is this a pairing that makes sense for you only on an artistic level?
Gerrard: One of my favorite books is Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, the epigraph of which comes from The Tempest: “Every third thought shall be my grave.” Of the remaining two thoughts, one is about sex, and the other is resenting that the world is not the way you would have designed it. In various forms, resentment seems to me an important part of the sex-death cocktail, at least in my novel. (Relatedly, I always confuse the words epigraph and epitaph.)
You mention the drone strike scene. I’ve read a lot of memoirs and novels by war correspondents, and one thing that comes up again and again is that war makes you horny. Flesh in danger seems to want to connect with other flesh. Of course, Arthur is in no physical danger whatsoever; this is, I hope, part of what makes the scene funny, but as with everything that’s funny it’s no laughing matter. Anyone in the control room of a drone strike has transcended fleshy mortality and has assumed the status of a god, throwing lightning bolts from the sky.
And apart from sex and death, what else is there? Family, maybe, but obviously I’ve got that covered, too.
Rail: The incestuous relationship between Arthur and Emily seems neither cheap nor exploitative, and by introducing it so early in the book, we become slowly accustomed to the idea. And when we finally do come to those scenes they are almost entirely bereft of voyeuristic attraction.
Gerrard:I like that you say “almost entirely bereft of voyeuristic attraction,” because I don’t think any good story is entirely bereft of voyeuristic attraction. I don’t think conflict would be the heart of drama if we didn’t, in some way, enjoy watching people suffer. And when drama contains no conflict, we call it pornography. Either way you turn: voyeurism.
This is why some of the recent talk about literature and empathy strikes me as suspicious. Empathy is often merely a respectable uniform in which we dress voyeurism.
That said, I was wary of the voyeuristic attraction, and I wanted to do as much as I could to distance you from it and make you question it. Much more importantly, I wanted to make sure that Emily would come across neither as a sexy, compliant little sister nor simply as an exploited victim, but rather as a particular human being in a particular situation. I hope I’ve succeeded.
Rail: Arthur Hunt, too, is a very particular type of person, an exaggeration of the idea of some public war intellectual, and yet he also seems completely believable and real.
Gerrard: If he seems real, this gratifies me as a writer but terrifies me as a citizen. Arthur wants to believe he cares about the lives and freedom of others, but really he makes them pawns in his own psychodrama. He uses empathy as a weapon and as an excuse to use other weapons, and I wish I were wrong that real-life public war intellectuals do this as well. I certainly wish that the New York Times op-ed page would stop supplying daily evidence that I’m right.
He is an exaggeration, as is his world. In the real world, it is unlikely that a journalist, no matter how pro-war, would be permitted to attend a drone strike; they are conducted with the greatest conceivable secrecy (a secrecy that is itself fetishized in a sexual manner). This is mostly a matter of my preferences as a reader and as a writer. All good fiction is about seeing through the walls of politeness and evasion that we put up both individually and collectively. A lot of really great fiction does this by guiding you to these walls’ tiniest cracks. But the fiction that I’m most drawn to tends—and I choose this metaphor only in part because an interview that references Shakespeare must also reference Miley Cyrus—to come in like a wrecking ball.
Rail: Hitchens seems to figure in your portrait of Hunt. Am I wrong?
Gerrard: Probably the single biggest reason I wrote this book was that, as a senior in college during the invasion of Iraq, I found myself persuaded by the arguments of a lot of pro-war pundits, many of whom had been ’60s radicals (or at least ’60s liberals) and who argued that the war was the fulfillment, rather than the repudiation, of their ’60s ideals of freedom, democracy, etc. I wrote the book in part to find out why I had been fooled by my parents’ generation.
Hitchens was clearly the most attractive of these pundits. He wrote sentences I might aspire to write myself, unlike Thomas Friedman, who writes sentences that I would write if I suffered massive trauma to the verbal centers of my brain. On the other hand, there seems to be a certain honesty to Friedman’s prose, the incoherence of which mimics the incoherence of his thought. Hitchens often prettifies brutality, and often quite effectively. When I read him, I think: “Yes, yes, bring on the bombs!” His work constitutes an accidental argument against good writing.
Rail: The novel seems deeply informed by Roth and Bernhard, both in its humor and manic rant-like nature. But it’s is also a take on the classic Greek tragedy, no? It goes straight for the eyes actually, literally and hilariously. It suggests a certain kind of unavoidability, as in if we engage in certain story lines we cannot escape the outcome.
Gerrard: There’s an uncontrollable (or rather, apparently uncontrollable) anger in both of those writers that both Arthur and I relate to, though Arthur and I are angry about very different things. And of course there’s nothing funnier than a manic rant.
A manic rant is basically an attempt—life-or-death for the speaker, often amusingly trivial for everyone else—to solve a riddle. When the rant expresses certainty, that riddle is: WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE SEE HOW CORRECT AND LOVABLE I AM??? Oedipus Rex is funny because it’s about a guy who is really famous for solving one (pretty dumb) riddle, but is totally clueless about another one. If you had been told you were fated to kill your father and marry your mother, don’t you think you might repress your road rage at the old guy who cuts you off, and don’t you think you might repress your attraction to that hot older lady?
But of course we all think we can avoid our fates, which is why we fall into them so easily. For more on this, stay tuned for the novel I’m currently completing, The Epiphany Machine.
Rail: Emily talks a lot about her fear of “the boring life.” Is this a fear based on mid-century suburban values? Or is it just teenage angst? I ask because the book is very complicated with regard to its take on “modern values.” The book seems to be a poke at 1950s traditionalism and at 1960s “taboo-busting” against that traditionalism.
Gerrard: One of my all-time favorite novels is Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, in which Frank and April Wheeler destroy each other because they are afraid of living boring lives. Is this an argument for living a boring life? No, but it is a reminder that if you’re living a life of quiet desperation, it’s easier to get rid of the quiet than it is to get rid of the desperation.
How much of what Emily says about boredom is teen angst? (For that matter, how much of teen angst is an accurate perception of the pointlessness and injustice of many social structures, a perception that we choose to stigmatize as “teen angst” once we no longer have the energy to object?) How much of it is her attempt to make her brother think she’s cool? How much of it is nonsense that she sees through but pretends to believe because she’s afraid that her brother is drifting away in the weeks before he, catastrophically, does the opposite? These are questions I hope readers will find provocative.
Rail: The book is obsessed with place—for example, the Hotel Chappine, where Arthur’s brother has committed suicide. It feels like a primal place, where a basic formative and ultimately unexplainable action has taken place, and in some ways you can never really leave it.
Gerrard: That puts it perfectly. A family inexorably drawn back to a hotel within their own city was immensely enticing to me. The Chappine is not based on a real place, but it had an effect on me similar to the effect it has on the characters. The more I wrote, the more I found myself coming back to the Chappine. This is also true, in a somewhat less intense way, with the other places in the book. The process is mysterious and should remain so, but the act of coming back keeps on coming back. Sometimes I’ll have a thought like: “Here I am, sitting in a chair and reading a book, just like when I was seven.”
This dynamic is also at play in Arthur’s relationship to “REDACTED,” which he basically treats as his own private childhood make-believe playground, a playground that has been taken over by monsters with whom he believes he must do battle. The fact that it is a real place populated by real people hardly registers in his mind. Teju Cole has a brilliant essay on this phenomenon called “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”
Rail: Can you talk about the structure of the book? Did you start with Hunt’s manuscript? Or the frame narrative? And at what point did Bush walk into the room? He is an amazing character, weirdly likeable, funny, and not at all a cartoon.
Gerrard: Bush is impossible to separate from the story. I first conceived of Arthur essentially as a version of Bush that I might be able to understand. The original impetus for the novel dates all the way back to the fall of 2003, when I had just graduated from college and was working as an intern on the Howard Dean campaign. I noticed that not only Bush but several of the men vying to replace him—Dean, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman—all attended Yale sometime during the 1960s. Suddenly I found myself with a riddle: what’s the word we use for a very small group that’s closer than it should be? Answering this riddle wound up taking 10 years of my life, because I’m a lot dumber than Oedipus.
As for the structure, it was basically trial and error, with an emphasis on error. At first I was writing about Arthur in the third-person; then the voice basically shoved itself into first. And then the character who speaks at the end of the book shoved that voice out of the way.
Before I had finished the novel I got very annoyed when writers would say things like “the characters took over,” and to a certain extent I still get annoyed, because obviously the characters don’t exist and I selected each word that’s in the book. And it felt like intense labor even when it was going well, not at all like the characters had taken over. There were times when I felt like the car had stopped and I was pulling it down the street with a rope. Then suddenly the book was done and I was just sort of there, with no real idea how I had gotten there, like a small child who has napped in the backseat for the entirety of a long car ride.
Rail: The book is hilarious and death-obsessed, and yet it never stops being funny at its core, even while it remains sad, desperately sad. It’s a complicated perspective. How do you maintain a balance?
Gerrard: I wouldn’t say it’s a balance for me because I don’t see death-obsession and humor as in any way opposed. On the one hand, death makes pretty much any human endeavor funny—Really? You’re writing a book? And you think that that accomplishment will make dying more tolerable? Hahaha!—and on the other hand, death-obsession itself is funny, since it’s kind of hilariously stupid to think that your death is any less trivial than your life.
That sounds dark, of course, but there’s a strong positive purpose to remembering the essential triviality of life and death: it takes the wind out of the grand world-remaking plans that tend to create truly gratuitous misery. I’m reminded of the brilliantly sardonic title of one of the best books of recent years, a book that is by far the best war-correspondent memoir I’ve read and very important to Short Century: Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. As far as I’m concerned, getting rid of meaning would be a small price to pay for getting rid of war.