Books In Conversation
JOHN DOMINI with Christina Milletti
(Dzanc Books, 2016)
At the outset of John Domini’s book of essays and criticism, The Sea God’s Herb (Dzanc Books, 2014), he reflects on the trajectory of his writing over the past several decades—three novels, with a fourth novel out next year, a book of poems, and two story collections, in addition to Movieola!, published this summer—before diving into a cross-section of writers, past and present, who each in their own way advance what he calls “non-traditional storytelling:” writing that pushes expectations, searches beyond borders, writing that reconfigures ordinary language in extraordinary ways.
Domini’s own range in this respect is never more present than in his most recent collection, Movieola! Released just in time for summer blockbuster season, the text turns the movie industry’s elevator pitch idioms inside-out with acrobatic humor. Giving life to old plots, to every candy-striped starlet and otter-slick boy-toy, to all the villains with a heart of gold who gild cable TV’s wee hour landscape, Movieola! playfully retools storyboard hustles into sonorous wordplay.
In Movieola!, we meet an aging actress and a CGI fanboy, elsewhere a storyboard workshop General and tribes of Armani clad agents, all of them spouting marketing propaganda with earnest glee. But Domini’s self-reflexive style doubles down, lets the reader onto the set to eavesdrop on voices whose clichés, jingos, and personal proverbs weave together harmonically and with great humor, even as he makes us as culpable as the very targets the industry is trying to please. In the same sentence you might encounter a reference to “b.o.” or a “nutso” then spin off as the narrator waxes eloquently, if tongue-in-cheek, about the nature of summer lovin’—assassin style: “Carrying a condom lubricated with toxic gel—but not for our girl, no, she’s not the target, it’s the real deal between these two and we can never lose sight of that, it’s our bottom-line arc. For the two of them every orgasm’s as distinct and gorgeous as a snowflake.”
Always, juxtaposed to the developing plots of the next zombie apocalypse or alien invasion, you hear echoes of Flaubert, references to Barth, nods to Calvino. Domini’s work moves comfortably between character building realism and more formalistic ventures—one story in Movieola! is written strictly as dialogue over Skype. In the final piece, the credits come unloosed from their moorings and letters rampage the screen “Destructo-Glyph” style—creating a synchronicity between idioms and argots, high and low culture, a diction culled from the past as much as the present.
Just as his book was released, John Domini and I ventured a conversation over email. I asked him to reflect on how Movieola! fit into the larger picture of his fiction.
Spoiler alert: he’s not going to tell you what his favorite movies are.
Christina Milletti (Rail): You’ve been an advocate of non-conventional forms of fiction throughout your career. In your recent book of collected essays, The Sea God’s Herb, you make a case for how “non-traditional storytelling” can “transhumanize” readers: transform us, make us see what we could not see before. In your past work, much like your new collection Movieola!, you’re similarly playful with literary expectations. Why a book on the movies, now? What do the movies have to offer readers of fiction?
John Domini: “Career,” well, what I’ve managed so far feels more like one of the secondary meanings, as in “careering breakneck through the streets.” For instance my last book of stories, Highway Trade, looks to me like this one’s sober-sided twin. Those fictions all took shape as psychological realism, American dramas of the self and its metamorphoses. Naturally, Highway doesn’tread like Carver, either; I’m far too Italian for that, far too intrigued by how perception can bamboozle.
Still, my novels all occupy a reality more recognizable than the one in Movieola! Again the perspective allows some strangeness, and on top of that I toss in a few sprigs of magic. For something quite so strange as this newcomer, though, I have to look back to the first book, Bedlam, which developed—along with more conventional dramas—phantasmagorical landscapes and non-narrative shapes. Following that book, perhaps it wasn’t just the demands of making ends meet that kept me from producing more fiction for so long; perhaps it was also an inability to find a decent handle on the form.
Rail: But whether you were careening or careering—
Domini: Well, whether caree- carries an n or an r, at the back end—that’s part of the fun right there, I’d say. I mean that I got all kinds of jollies, all sorts of energy, out of the play, allowed by any alternative means for telling a of story. Even when I was working relatively straight, in Highway, I found veins of such alternative. And meanwhile I was keeping up the criticism, sometimes it brought in a useful paycheck, and as you say, my reviewing often sought out the fringes.
Also, I burned with competitive fire. Nobody understood Maso’s Aureole so well as I! And Gilbert Sorrentino, fuggedabowdit! In the end, though, what moved me most was how well outré approaches took the measure of the contemporary world. The so-called “experimental” felt more real than the realism. I could even admit that some other critics had the same insight. Zadie Smith, tip of the hat.
Now, the contemporary world, that’s American, right? We drink the American century to its lees, just now, right? Of course Donald Trump might poison whatever remains—but my own skewed perspective for the moment comes with a different soundtrack, that of movie industry insiders. Talk talk talk, and I didn’t and don’t understand, actually. I mean, I can’t say what switch was thrown, within my sensibility, in order for me to compose the first of these stories, “Making the Trailer.”
Rail: Let’s expand on that idea of a soundtrack. Movieola! is a book of voices—that’s more than evident. But they’ve been carnivalled up with a lexicon that arises as much from hipster slang as cinematic history, tonal registers which reenergize characters we’ve perhaps become numb to. You mention “Making the Trailer,” the opener, and it tackles the stock character issue right away. There’s a Satchmo-styled Choir Leader, macho Hit Men, a Foxy Mom, Happy Lesbian Couple at Home, Artist Going to Hell with Inappropriate Girlfriend, and so on. They arrive capitalized as the types they too often are at the movies, troubled by -isms of all kinds. A stealth critique of the film industry’s cultural backwardness? Simple commentary on serious material?
Domini: Well, “simple,” that word stings a bit —but then I was after laughs, throughout, and I guess laughter’s simple, if also mighty mutable. Also I can say that “commentary,” in the sense of explication, isn’t what fiction’s about. I did see how such industrial Hollywood products depended on familiar tropes, so easy to manipulate that the trailers were often better than the movie. The entire art form, I came to comprehend, had begun to suffocate from familiarity. By the time I caught up with Erickson’s Zeroville, I saw how that novel provided the same “commentary,” more or less, about the end of the 20th-century’s escape into the big screen.
Later still, as I got into the final story, “Closing Credits…” I could even grasp that the book had no better ending. The credits, what else? Also I could sound a bit like a cultural historian, calling movies “a doddering and fusty entertainment.”
But between “…Trailer” and “Closing Credits…” every time I released another of these weird imaginative bubbles, as I followed its drift, I went into a face-plant. Really, I’d start with a riff like the Story Seminar, in “Wrap Rap…,” and—face-plant. For a pathway, the intellect laid out only a few stones: here a boy’s yearning to be Hefner, there anyone’s yearning to know the Divine. Then once a fiction somehow reached wholeness, I had to sift through a wheelbarrow of rejections. Granted, a remarkable number were personal and regretful—make of that what you will.
Often, the only thing I knew for sure was I’d engaged a storytelling muscle that was all stretch, no constriction. The script remained perpetually in development, as the “arc” came down first in one place and then another, and the “twist” snapped back in the face of first one actor, then another.
Rail: Movieola! kept me thinking about the expectations that make blockbusters, well, the hits they are. They rely on commercial familiarity. You have such fun with those constraints: every piece parodies starlets and fanboys, the Story Seminar and its General—yet always with a good deal of heart. Maybe it’s the exclamation point in the title, but there’s a distinct celebratory element to every story, even as you hit a note of critique.
Domini: Wow, what a gratifying reading. Clearly you got the book, and thanks, and in response I have to return to the pleasures of language. The argot of the industry, after all, is a fresh energy source for American English. Granted, we’ve got more recent ones, hello rap, hello Twitter, but for me the Hollywood palaver was the soundtrack, and all the more, umm, piquant for how it’d begun to sound out of date.
By now, when I’ve escaped the thickets of composition and can look up at the book on the shelf, I can also make out the connection to prose narration. Is there any art form more often faulted for being behind the times? The novel is always dying, said Leslie Fiedler—half a century ago. The connection to the art of fiction must’ve been part of my joy, I can see that now. After all, each story jerryrigged the way moviemakers have jerryrigged the language of story.
Each time I started to shimmy up another narrative arc, I marveled again at the name. An arc, really? Yes, I hear the ting of Freytag’s triangle, and I see the “rising action” of Aristotle’s Poetics. But writing in ancient Greek, how’d the philosopher intend that “rising?” Really, neither man laid out an arc. The corners are sharper, mountainous; I picture Vesuvius, the famed panorama from the Naples waterfront.
And with that, I couldn’t help but go on to picture a couple members of some film company’s creative team, sent to Southern Italy to scout the location. They take in the view and they say, not bad, but it could use a little work. A little improvement, more swoop and uplift. Give it the right look, and we’ll tease the eleven-year-old boys in our demographic, they’ll think of breasts. Come to think, wasn’t Loren from around here? The geeks in CGI, they’ll go nuts for that. Omigod, they’ll gush, Sophia Loren.
You hear the excitement in such imagining? It’s a critique, sure, it exposes late-capitalist cluelessness, but on the other hand, where does our common humanity reside, if not in cluelessness? That is, what another writer would castigate as cultural imperialism, I air out like a clown’s laundry. To some extent that’s just the nature of the beast, the clown-beast. But now that the book’s up on the shelf, once more I see the context better. I can see how Rome’s troubled lurch into Empire produced both a severe, didactic type like Horace and a sprite like Ovid.
Rail: Well, there are plenty of satirical elements in Movieola!—and I’m thinking, here, of the long history of satire that you implicate above. And perhaps that’s what I personally enjoyed most aboutyour new collection: as the voices cue together with their twitter-amplified hustles, elevator-pitching us what they know (or think they know) about how movies are made, the reader is implicated too. “We” and “you” regularly pepper your stories. “We’re” not just an audience. “We’re” implicated in every move the industry makes.
Domini: Christina, that’s another really gratifying response. This time, I think back to my abiding interest in alternative narrative forms. Central to that is the place of passion in the funhouse, to reference Barth’s ground-breaking short story from 1967. Postmodern, experimental—whatever you call such fiction, it by no means shortchanges the intimate pains and passages for which we come to fiction. “Funhouse” certainly offers identification and catharsis, even as it points out that the amusement park we know as “narrative” looks awfully old-fangled, these days. The pretty girls decorating the rides wear the fashions of fifty years back, if not one-hundred, just as the identifying marks of commercial still include, for instance, the roving third-person perspective, always an easy way to drum up suspense.
A classic approach doesn’t guarantee bad work, of course. I mentioned Zadie Smith earlier, and her superb On Beauty observes most of the 19th-century protocols, among them roving third-person. But that doesn’t mean that someone else I mentioned earlier, Carole Maso, has jettisoned emotional weight in order to present Aureole in far different, stranger ways. In fact, Maso’s text is all about the passions.
As for me and my Movieola!, part of the challenge was just what you seem to have enjoyed, namely, sussing out the person within the stereotype. The products of Studio City and Burbank—well, if I turn on the TV right now, let’s see. There’s Biceps in Kevlar alongside Cheekbones in a tank top, both staggering down some ill-lit—what are those? Corridors in a space station? Whatever, it’s another weary old trope, as familiar in its way as a fairy tale.
Earlier I spoke of the pleasure in recombining the tropes, redrawing the landscape. Maybe I was making sketches for my own rudimentary Invisible Cities, maybe, but in any case I found myself settling in with the people there. For instance, up in that space station, how could the tough guy ever keep a straight face while saying, “I’ll hit him like a Sherman tank?” The Sherman was old-tech during the Battle of the Bulge!
Rail: I could Google exactly what movie you’re referring to (BR readers: it’s Lockout, a 2012 Guy Pearce flick). But at least three possibilities, maybe more, come to mind for me, immediately, which is exactly your point. That’s where Movieola! sinks in for me: you take so much joy in presenting us with voices we think we know, but retooled with a language that makes us refocus, see them anew.
Domini: Well, we expect intelligent men and women will pay for that Sherman-Tank hooey. It may be hooey hoked up further with 3D technology, but an entire Elephant Dollar industry has been built on expecting ticket-buyers to come out somehow better than before the show, relieved of their cares, even uplifted. On the viewers’ side of the screen everyone expects that the men and women who provided that uplift, from scriptwriter to star, can convince us that they too were transformed by the story.
Everybody, I’m saying, is supposed to believe in the product. It may depend on FX so freaky they require blue-green specs just to look viable. But that’s the job, to amaze and yet affirm. We all know who’s good and who’s bad, we all know who’s getting out of that space station alive—and in this, we’re all doing our job.
Rail: Was there a list of movies that you were thinking about while writing Movieola!? I have to admit I’m as curious about the truly terrible films that might have stayed on your mind, as much as the weighty ones that have remained with you.
Domini: Oh man, I should’ve known we’d get to this. No interview’s complete without revealing guilty pleasures, is it? For starters, bobbing and weaving, I’ll reiterate a point you made earlier, namely that I worked from certain types, rather than specific titles. I had the zombie movie, the assassin movie. I had the monster flick and its mollifying codicil, the scary creature who’s a kid’s best friend.
Still, I’ll fess up. How about those Milla Jovovich vehicles, Resident Evil? Truth is, I’ve only seen maybe two-and-a-fourth of the set, but those have just the qualities celebrated, if acerbically, in my Movieola! The colors are eye-popping, the slaughter always surprising, the sexual allure at once pervasive and impossible, and whoever handled the editing (Paul W.S. Anderson must’ve had a lot to do with it) shows a jeweler’s eye for timing. All this, and Ms. Jovovich, no doubt leads an interesting life.
Will that do, for an instance? I can add that I wanted my muses to channel-surf—to join me in those lonesome, sick, and tired moments with remote in hand, when the weary variety on the smaller screen unexpectedly yields a story that holds my attention. Not infrequently I’ve heard of the movie, and I tell myself, oh yeah, I wanted to see how they did this. But obviously, the experience is nothing for the critic. Rather, it’s all about the beat-up little boy who wants his mommy. Soothing, like that, has its secrets too, and these I wanted my muses to sing.
The larger question, after all, is what do these shapes of storytelling signify? Is ours a culture that rejects illumination, finally? Does the signature art of our time amount to no more than an infantile whiz-bang? And if my book succeeds in using these degraded forms of narrative to create new ones—well, promising, right?
Rail: You dedicate the book to “early exemplars: Anne, George, Jack, Don Stanley.” A mix of authors and directors? Who are they? How were they influential?
Domini: Ah, now here’s a personal arena I’m happy to enter, and a fine interview finale. Those are all workshop leaders in the remarkable Boston University program run by George Starbuck, the “George” on the list, when I was an undergrad.
Starbuck is now the least well known, since in mid-career he dedicated himself to light verse, though often with a cutting political edge. The man was whip-smart, anyway, and his first hire was “Anne,” Anne Sexton. Just by letting nineteen-year-old Domini into class, she committed a radical act; I was, for a couple of meetings, the lone man in the group. But then she called me into her office and, chain-smoking as ever, explained that she’d decided her workshop would be women only.
“There are a lot of old fogies here,” Anne told me, nicely. “I want to see if I can help a few girls steer clear.” Suzanne Berger, essayist and poet, was one of those girls—and I a boy who’s still learning from our teacher’s judgment call.
Anne remained friendly, she advised me informally, and so did “Stanley,” Stanley Elkin. He and I got into an hour-long give and take over one story, without notes, and this devolved eventually into lamentations over the fallen state of the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet the talk was instrumental in my first “big sale,” to the Paris Review.
As for “Don” Barthelme and “Jack” Barth, my thoughts are in print elsewhere, in Sea-God especially. Here, I’ll just emphasize that both were tough in how they pressed us to pursue excellence; they were tough even as they were generous.
Jack, the only one on the list still with us, remains in touch. He sent a lovely postcard congratulating me on Movieola! Yet while I honor him and the others, I wouldn’t say any of them taught me this book’s peculiar salute to the tattered American Dream. When I try to think just what prompted these stories, I find myself instead musing on something more recent. I find myself back in the late-’90s wreckage of my first marriage.
One of the shattered pieces I clung to, then, was a brief round of contracts with film companies in Naples, Italy. I lived with my family in town and even saw one filmmaker romantically. Such people made compelling movies (Paolo Sorrentino was part of the scene) for roughly the cost of pasta and wine. They spoke of the work as personal expression and as art; the woman I mentioned told me more than once that she was glad she’d been spared Hollywood’s obsession with the bottom line. Could my time in that alternative film universe have opened, a few years later, a wormhole into this one?