MAYBE LOSS IS WHAT LITERATURE IS FOR
RICK MOODY with Porochista Khakpour
Hotel of North America
(Little Brown, 2016)
Last winter, I asked writers Rick Moody and Porochista Khakpour—whose passionate and fiercely intelligent exchanges about literature, writing, and writers I’d been reading on social media—to bring their conversation to The Brooklyn Rail, partly to share their words with our readers and partly to celebrate the occasion of Rick Moody’s new novel Hotel of North America. I gave them no prompts other than to go as long as they’d like to explore their ideas as fully as they wanted to. I expected two, maybe three thousand words. They came back to me this summer with over ten thousand. All of which (after some light editing) are published here.
As you’ll see, the pace of the culture moves so fast. While their conversation was happening, David Bowie had just died; Donald Trump was gaining momentum in his run for the highest office in the land; and Lionel Shriver had yet to don her sombrero. But the eternal verities are the real material of this talk: grief, loss, fear, family, mortality, identity, and art.
I spent the weekend rereading Persepolis, and I know you have some complex feelings about it, but I thought, because we are starting this conversation on the day that David Bowie died, that some of your feelings about Persepolis might be because of grief. Still, maybe you’d be willing to talk about your feelings on the subject of Satrapi. I don’t know all of the nuance, because I was a guy who grew up in the American suburbs, and watched the revolution only in the news. And I think I am insulated from the kind of intense loss that must orbit around that subject for others. I learned so much from reading Persepolis, but I am alert that there are things I don’t know and can’t know.
I’ve been in a strange dream of State of the Union, David Bowie—then also CD Wright and Bryn Kelly, and Natalie Cole was not long ago, all women I did not know but admired—then the GOP debates . . . yes, so much grieving. I keep forgetting that my 38th birthday is coming up and I’m pretty sure I will forget to celebrate it, as every day is sort of slipping by. Illness (my late-stage Lyme), plus a concussion from a car accident, plus all the Islamophobia of this season compounded by so much of the Islamophobia of my life—it feels like grieving is the default. Iranians do grieve quite a lot and at times I find even fetishize it a bit—I badly want to be on the other side of my hyphen: the celebrating, strong, invincible American . . . except I don’t know if that fully exists either. I don’t know if that ever existed.
I ended 2015 questioning so much I thought I understood, and still I am questioning two weeks into 2016.
I love Satrapi’s Persepolis and weirdly just today a photographer who came to my apartment in Harlem, visiting for a project, said I reminded him of her. For a second, I had that self-protective instinct to go, Why, do you think all Iranian women writers are the same?! But then I remembered her work and the story. There is a lot that resonates for me, a lot we have in common. I used to have her “punk is not ded” illustration as my Twitter wallpaper. I loved punk and metal and Michael Jackson. We both loved to smoke (I can no longer, sadly, but I miss it). We both could be a particular mix of extremely exuberant and very dour.
We have many differences of course: She’s older than me by nearly a decade. She went back and forth to Iran (I was supposed to go to Iran last month for a big travel magazine assignment—first time I would have been back since I was three—but the magazine has now delayed it indefinitely because of security issues). She lived in Austria. She lives in France. She’s very much French, whereas I am very much American. She use the graphic novel whereas I’ve used the novel and essay (and memoir to come.)
I say all this because I always assumed grief should not be general but particular—no two people’s grief should look alike. But I don’t know if I think that anymore. Right now in America, I see many of us mourning for the mainstream hate that has seized our nation, for so many different forms of bigotry, for how an election year further weaponizes all that, for the catastrophes pertaining to our climate, for our helplessness before digital life and electronic communication. We might only express it similarly,
I would also think that grief would be rational—since leaving one country and continent and coming to another, I’ve always sought the meaning behind things, which is maybe why I wanted to be a writer—but I miss Iran in a way I never imagined today. And I do have a few memories, but they are very negative snapshots of the war, just trauma memories of a three-and-a-half-year old. Maybe it’s because I feel more and more alienated by American life, and I hear “go back to your country” all over again—and yet, what is my country? Iran won’t take me either. I became an American citizen just months after 9/11—very proudly—but I never imagined the country to get quite like this.
And then grief of the most personal kind: I have lost so many people who were my community, who gave me a sense of belonging. And so many writers who were my idols. It was the link to Maggie Estep and David Foster Wallace—both writers we shared in a way, though only the first was my close friend. And while I’d read and taught you for years, this made me connect with you even more deeply. . . I wonder if you could talk about this too. Maybe also writers, community, and how we are related to each other—I feel something in your prose that I really respond to, but I also feel we have many friends in common, and after we “chatted” that there was this feeling for me of us being distant relatives or something. . .
Maybe loss is one thing that literature is for. The loss that is in Persepolis, and the kind that resulted in your hyphen, as you put it so well, is one kind of loss, and an incredibly important and powerful kind. A lot of great literature of the twentieth century is animated by statelessness, right? By writers who for whatever reason are deprived of the state of their origin. Especially because of the recalibration of imperial powers that were the two world wars (or the three world wars, if you will), but not exclusively, as it appears that almost any state can go hopelessly awry (as you suggest by alluding to the debates!). American culture of the most reductive and predictable variety tends not to know anything about this statelessness, however, and it is certainly a good example of our variety of unexamined privilege. Through some devious, not to say morally bankrupt and reprehensible eighteenth- and nineteenth-century military action, we managed to seize much of a continent, and in the years since, we have never been deprived of it. When we say we are “exceptional,” that’s one thing we mean. That we have never doubted our stronghold. As a result, the kind of loss that your family went through is available to the likes of me (whose family has been here for some time) only through narrative. And that makes what people say about this very important.
One time I moderated a panel for PEN World Voices. The panel included Chimamanda Adichie and also Yoko Towada (whose work I really, really, really like), and also Nuruddin Farah. The whole day sort of went badly for the moderator, in that I lamented that Americans tended to read only in one language. I was chastised for our laziness (about which I already felt bad!). And thereafter I made the mistake of saying that one thing that was really valuable about literature from abroad was that it helped instruct American readers about the contours of life elsewhere. Farah had perhaps been waiting, and he pounced! It was Orientalizing, as he saw it, to use literature to give the news. I now see what he meant, but I also feel this: that loss is one thing that literature is for, and that Farah, in writing about the state of Somalia, and all the hardships thereof (especially for women!), taught me again about what loss might feel like to a Somali writer, and to me that was important. If there are cultural differences, as identity politics would suggest there are, are there any mechanisms through which we can see through our tribal affiliations to the biological similitude of all human organisms? I think, yes, we can see into them through the identification with loss.
If it’s true that literature is about loss, why is it so? One reason that it’s so, I imagine, is because language is reflective, and when we write in the past tense, we make use of that reflective capability, and are therefore somewhat distant from the action we would narrate. That’s the “exile” part of Joyce’s “silence, exile, and cunning” formula. But it’s also related to the death that Derrida imputes to writing itself. Writing is the form in which the sender, per force, is at a distance from her recipient. There is always a loss there, where writing is concerned. It’s therefore a conjunction of form and theme.
Persepolis concerns a lost Persian youth, and as such, it’s both rich with the specifics of the Iranian revolution, and rich with the specifics of a lost childhood, like so much literature is. I would argue, maybe, that even when literature is noteworthy for its happiness, its cheerfulness (though I am trying to come up with a uniformly happy book right now and can’t seem to do so), it is about the lost qualities of the past. All the bildungsroman is about the vanished childhood of the narrator or protagonist.
Death is just the handiest and most obvious situation in which one might talk about this ubiquitous loss, the most acute, the most painful. For me, as with many people in the arts, the list of suicides of my acquaintance is long. In one case, I was intimately involved with trying to save the life of a well-known memoirist bent on doing herself in with heroin, only to find, as many do in the predicament of caring about a suicide, that there were not enough hours in the day with which to stop her, and eventually, despite the efforts of all who knew her, that she would do what she wanted to do. Everyone knows a story or two about this (and you mentioned my colleague David Wallace, of whom so much has been said, and yes he would go on this list, and: I still miss him), but somehow as a writer one often finds, it seems to me, that there are too many stories like this. The language of literature, for me, comes out of this desire to roll back the inevitable sense of loss, and to preserve what’s gone so that others can have access anew.
One further interesting part of this question though is how the fantastic can play an important role in describing and articulating completely this thematic material. Both of us have laid claim to a fabulism in recent works. For me, it’s almost by reason of my education (as both John Hawkes and Angela Carter, my teachers, were noteworthy practitioners). Why is this approach to capturing the lost feeling of being somehow more accurate? How did you come by it?
Do you know the Jean Rhys quote “reading makes immigrants of us all?” I love the next part of the quote even more: “It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for everywhere.” So I’m thinking of your panel with Farah and the accusation of Orientalism and all that. I get what he’s saying, as I see you do too—ideally we should not be reading for anthropological insights. The ethnographic and sociological should not be a burden on the author, and in a way it is an imposition (or a confusion) for the reader to want that. But can a reader impose anything on an author exactly? (I get the “market” can or publishing can, but I think they are often wrong about who readers are and what they want). And to what degree does authorial intent matter? It’s a 50-50 pact, writer and reader, so who has the power at any given time? I am more than ever sort of blissfully confused on where I stand on these issues.
After all, you and I are writers and readers. But some people are only readers. This divide in us might be part of why you say we writers have a lot of problems! How could we not with just this fact, never mind all the other mindybodyspiritfucks of our trade.
In this moment of extreme xenophobia and bigotry—that Trumpian Western World I can’t seem to shut out—I especially am okay with someone reading my work to learn about Iranians, if it means it will expose them to us. Adichie did a TED Talk, speaking of the danger of a single story as representative of a people, which I get. But in a time of crisis could one not argue for the merits of ANY exposure to a culture outside of some dominant reality?
In one sense I am saying, feel free to underestimate the reader and teach them things! In another sense I am saying, why do we underestimate the reader so much? Do we really think you reading one book with Somalian characters means that is all you will base your concept of Somalia on? It seems absurd.
So as far as the reader goes, I’m always inclined to say read outside your culture, your experience, your everything, as much as possible. You can’t read everything and you shouldn’t assume any absolutes, but read! And read widely! That bottom line seems like a lot.
But this other burden on authors is something else. For instance, for you to write outside or race or ethnicity today would be an issue, of course—even with your acclaim, especially with your acclaim.
I do wonder if you’d speak about writing about a racist character in your recent book.
But let me give you a reverse example—a journal I love once was set to run a short story of mine. At the last minute, a new editor all these edits and one of their concerns was that it did not go with their new mission, which was all about an international focus. Well, this was odd—they had run my work and courted me for new work for ages. From an American standpoint, I am pretty “international.” But the problem was I was writing about an American woman named Anne—that was my protagonist. It had no Iran in it, it had no other world in it other than a small college town in Middle America. And they did not want that from me.
One time, I changed the name of a character to a Persian name for this very reason.
I mean, this is sort of crazy. This is where Orientalism, a real issue, gets adopted in a sort of weird warped hashtag way. And what to do with an author like me—WOC, who enjoys the Western canon and admits to it? I was a brown immigrant kid in suburban LA and I went to the library wanting to know what “important authors” read. I taught myself this stuff. Which was largely literature by straight white men for other straight white men. I’ve joked before that I’m an Occidentalist but really I am someone who was also cut off from the literature of my own part of the world—and everyone assumed I knew every writer of color on earth, but like many of those writers, I had to dig too.
It took ages for me to admit to myself that Harold Bloom’s canon had some books I hated in it!
Anyway, here is my old mentor Tim O’Brien on this very issue too—he’d agree with Farah but in a slightly different way (I love teaching this piece—maybe you’ve seen it?) Imagination over anthropology in literature any day!
We all have loss in common, as we all have love in common, but also all cultures have in common a love of the arts and creative expression of all sorts. I am most interested in that. And I am interested in outsiders, which I think most individuals are, more than they might want to admit. Some of us are more than others in obvious ways but I’ve never felt comfortable in any group, among any people, including my family and friends. I quit clubs and squads the minute I get in. So in a way I don’t belong anywhere, but then in another way I am allowed to belong everywhere. . . . Maybe I want to not belong.
Fabulism is precious to me from this angle. It is a sort of home for me. I love that you studied with Carter and Hawkes, two writers I love. ( I can see them in your work—I sort of can see another mentor of mine, Stephen Dixon. Always wanted to ask you about him, if you’ve read him.) Hotels of North America takes me back to that sort of fun, wild reading experience that one gets from the best fabulist premises and conceits—or the best experimental, I guess we should we say. (“Fabulism” is so murky conceptually these days.) I keep wondering if one of my favorite books, Pale Fire, was an inspiration?
Wow, the Tim O’Brien piece is interesting. I can’t say that I totally agree. Although: I’m torn. On the one hand I have staked out some spots that are mostly, I think, about imagination (as in, e.g., The Four Fingers of Death), and that work was really incredibly rewarding work in my writing life. But I also note that a lot of the really revolutionary moments in literary history, as I see it, have been sketched out along realistic lines too. Chekhov and Flaubert reacting away from what they thought was inert about the 19th century literature before them, Joyce making the decision to include the “kidney” in Ulysses, Hemingway’s Stein imitations, Carver/Beattie/Hempel, etc.
Hawkes used to mix all this up into a Hawkesian paradox and say stuff like the purely imaginative is the most realistic and vice versa. I suspect realism vs. imagination is one of those faux-dialectics that Nietzsche reacted away from. They aren’t oppositional: the imagination and the “anthropological.”
But purely anthropological, right, is somehow wrong. Literature isn’t a legitimate news source. (Though maybe the news media in the Internet age isn’t a legitimate news source either.) And anyway it all leaves out the question of style, which is really interesting to me. I’m more interested in style, perhaps, than I am interested anything else.
I admire your commitment to the canon as a young reader and I was sort of the same way. Although I was a little bit catholic in that I liked a lot of pop stuff as a young reader too. I read a lot of science fiction up until I was thirteen or fourteen. And I can remember, at 9 or 10, reading the bestseller list and seriously thinking that I should have read all of the titles listed there somehow. My mother surrendered to me anything that came from the Book of the Month Club in those days. I read Jaws before the movie came out. Etc. I would read almost anything. Nowadays, I can’t make a canonical list without finding the whole enterprise highly circumscribed by what is excluded, which is why all my public syllabus-making is public. I truly want other people’s ideas, because I don’t think my ideas are exhaustive, and I want to read stuff I don’t know about. If I’m not off balance in a class, I am unlikely to be able to bring the truth of the work to my students. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to make a canonical list of non-white writing, and it felt like a relief to be able to be canonical in a non-traditional way. Though I imagine part of the problem here is canonizing itself.
You asked about racist characters in my work. This is tricky. The characters are obviously at liberty to have political positions that I do not hold, and I consider that part of my obligation, up to a point. When I was young, I wrote a story set in the 19th century whose protagonist was a black boy (he was, in fact, Pip, the cabin boy, from MOBY DICK), and I allowed a character to use, crassly, the n-word in referring to him, because I thought this was historically accurate, and because Pip was the character in MOBY DICK more acted upon than acting (he goes overboard, after all), and I thought I had an argument for using that word. But now I feel ashamed of that usage. I don’t think I would ever use that word again, and if the story in question ever turns up in a collected stories volume or such, I will probably alter it. I know a number of southern writers, people I like and admire, who argue passionately for the use of that word, as realistically employed in their milieu, but I don’t feel like I can go there now, and I truly regret ever feeling I could.
That was an example of having an intentionally racist character. I have otherwise had dubious, oblivious characters who said stupid things now and again because I thought it was realistic that they should do so. Anti-feminist things, on occasion, or conservative things. But what of unconscious racism? My family was upper middle class, and in the generations before my parents they were significantly unsophisticated about questions of race. I could go on here. They were people I loved and who were kind to me, but they were unsophisticated, even ignorant, and, perhaps, of their time. What is my obligation with respect to these facts? I imagine that I can do better than my parents and my grandparents, and I would like to do better. But I imagine my daughter (and my newly born son) will do better than I have done, and I will encourage them to do so. In the work, I would like to repair the damage that the European oppressor has done to races under his subjection (and that is part of the work of The Black Veil, which one friend of mine, a person of color, referred to as a “race traitor” book, and I considered this an honor). But I’m just one writer. Is it possible that there is unconscious racism in my work? Definitely. I wish it were otherwise, and the conscious part of me is committed to working against cultural preconceptions to the very best of my ability.
It is the work of literature, I think, to try to regard the pain of others and to feel it alongside them, and to make those things perceptible to the world at large (in style!). I think it’s a big mess, naturally, exceedingly complicated, and the part of your letter that deals with having to change a character’s name back to an Iranian name is a good example of this. I remember reading the Chang-Rae Lee novel where he attempted to do that (I think it’s the one called Aloft, right?) and coming up against a critical establishment that preferred him to be the voice of Asian-American immigrant experience. It’s probably not that there ARE others, at the end of the day, but that we are all one tribe, and that our diversity is our strength, as Bill Clinton used to say.
Here’s one other sad story from my own struggle with these issues. I assigned My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in a lit class a few years ago. It’s a book I truly love. And I happened to have two African students in that class. One from Nigeria, and one from Kenya, I think. It was the Nigerian student who truly hated Tutuola, and who embarked, in class, on a lengthy denunciation for its having been taught, and would not be talked out of the opinion that I was racist for assigning the work. I obviously reflected on this at some length. The Nigerian student said that I couldn’t possibly like Tutuola’s pidgin English, and that I wouldn’t like it if it were written by a white person. And yet I think Philip K. Dick is technically an awful writer, and I like his work a lot, and Allen Ginsberg, at least the later Ginsberg, strikes me as a very bad poet, but whose work I nonetheless like quite a bit. Lou Reed was a markedly bad lyricist, etc. There are artists for whom the standards are variant, because if they were not then the cannon would make sense, and we know it doesn’t, that there is relativism in evaluation, and this relativism can coexist with a need for literary excellence. The Nigerian writer’s argument was that GOOD writing by Africans was being obscured by the can’t-write-at-all pidgin English of Amos Tutuola. The irony of all this is that a Ghanian writer who is a pretty close friend of mind had done an in-class appearance in the same class and told me that he really liked Tutuola. So in this case I decided it was the messenger who was the problem. Namely, me. That Nigerian writer never backed down. But what can I say? I still love My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But I like a lot of the contemporary African writing she and the Kenyan writer turned me onto as well. The house of fiction SHOULD have many windows.
Interestingly, I don’t like Farah’s work that much. Or not the recent work, at any rate.
I continue to find this exchange so fascinating. I love your candor and humility. Which is something people have often depended on me for too—online especially. It is just who I am but lately I find that people fetishize it almost—like, hey, go speak the truth now! People may attack you, but we will admire your courage, Porochista!
And I am so exhausted. Still, I can’t help but be me. And I feel like you have this quality and I feel less alone hearing it in you.
I’m going to beg for this: will you please answer my Pale Fire question—I really have become enthralled by Hotels. And that brings me to style! I too am obsessed with style and one of the most upsetting and false dichotomies is the one that says style or substance, or style versus substance, or style over substance. But style to me is substance! Even if one were to call it a “surface” (which I don’t think it is), it is still part of the substance. They say those writers with English as their second language often become Anglophone “language writers” a la Nabokov. Well, I definitely fell in love with the sounds and rhythm of English, especially the maximalist, Faulkner for example I felt so deep in my blood it felt like Farsi. And I do think sometimes I use English incorrectly—I rebel against English by going back to my original tongue maybe, or I hybridize it and mash it up and I use inversions in syntax and inventions in diction (Rushdie’s wordplay always felt right to me) but that should be distinctly American anyway.
But I also have music in common with you too—I was a music journalist and my intro to America was MTV (I remember the early stuff, like 1983 vividly) and with it 80s punk and New Wave and metal and then I discovered older stuff like 70s punk and classic rock and then back to newer stuff like 90s grunge and all sorts of hip hop and then electronic. Is that where the language stuff came from for you?
I also wanted to speak about you past race—frankly, about you + anything and how people respond. There is you, Rick Moody, and the idea of you, Rick Moody. You say you are just one writer, but you are a giant of American letters. You are part of a small handful of writers I would say that get recognized publicly. Millennials more than ever, because of their skewed relationship with fame and power, cannot imagine or don’t want to imagine the vulnerabilities of the famous For a Gen X-er like me, well, I could have imagined running into you at a show at CBGB’s or something. But no one lives “IRL” anymore (or so they think) and so the burden on you is big.
I know some of my contemporaries and your contemporaries have been very hard on you. And I have my theories, that it had more than anything to do with THE ICE STORM probably, and this idea of “making it.” And that you weren’t haughty about it—you still sort of remained a bit punk, a bit outsider, a bit misfit, which confused people. And then you continued to engage and stick around instead of becoming more obscure and aloof. As if people not only expect but demand one become a recluse after success. I find that people are super-weird with authors and success. Like, what is success for a writer? What does it mean? How rich is this person? Do they have intellectual capital? What is this author about? What do they want from the pure noble thing (ha), the reader?!
Did you read Dwight Garner’s recent review of Joyce Carol Oates? (Carthage, I believe). I sort of rejoiced when I saw that, because I had had a real problem with her. Her work, some of the early stuff, I’d liked, but she lost me with a lot of the more recent and even middle stuff. (She was never my favorite writer—and that has a lot to do with style.) I started to find her not just overrated but lazy (while she got championed for productivity). I forgot about her. Then she went on Twitter and she was often so Islamophobic, very primitive in ideas of sex and sexuality and gender. She used Lolita in her defense of Woody Allen! I was like, aha, you are a bad person and a bad writer! Yay! But years later, I wonder why is that experience “yay” to me? I mean, this is an old woman, an old writer, an icon who got places by hard work not even pedigree. She is obviously not hip to everything on earth, and well, maybe she is trying. I felt bad for having been so hard on her, as if she were causing the ills of the world.
A young journalist I like, Hermione Hoby, did a Guardian profile of her recently where she sounded quite balanced about it and so much else, until this finale: “The fickle memory of Americans is something you can rely on. The literary world is very different, and I’m much more serious about the literary world. I write these reviews which are quite long and nuanced for the New York Review of Books—that’s really like my real life.”
What do you make of that? I guess I wonder if the internet is part of the problem? Now a new generation is discovering you? All the discovery and rediscovery? My first book came out only in 2007 and I’m already dealing with this weird rediscovery stuff and the amnesia of the Internet on the one hand and the never-forget-ness too?
And I guess what I’m also trying to ask is, do you think that in a classroom or out, in magazines and websites, on the page, you are allowed to be you? Does that person change? How do you feel about this today?
You mentioned The Black Veil, which I’d recently revisited. My third book is a memoir and I’m toying with just how experimental to be (my other work likes to go in that direction—and I still remember being in grad school and being shocked by these take-downs of it. Peck, of course, but Wolcott’s takedown in the LRB interested me a lot because it actually put you in a context that I quite liked “maximalists like Moody follow the lead of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo by wiring themselves into consumer culture, conspiracy theory, pop iconography and spy-craft technology, trying to chart an underlying pattern in the chaos, a treasure map of paranoia.” And of course I think of Wood and “hysterical realism” and how this was to be an insult (but when I teach it, it’s a great compliment, I think. I love the writers of this category and how they see/saw the world and, more importantly perhaps, how they heard it).
Which also brings me back to Moby Dick, which you mentioned, also a favorite of mine. That is where I begin and end an experimental literature class. I speak about it when I speak of style, language. Perhaps it’s the father of what Wolcott and Wood fear, whether they admit it or not.
And, look, we are days away from the anniversary of a death of a dear friend. Heart so heavy. Sometimes when I am so ill (always at this time of year, both years), I think, Maggie, leave me alone, I’ll get there eventually, not now please.
I think you are asking if Pale Fire was a major influence on Hotels of North America, and the answer is yes. I feel a little embarrassed about it now, because it seems a little obvious. I really love that novel, and it had a huge impact on me. It’s interesting that now I love the poem (John Shade’s poem) more than I love Kinbote, but it’s the shape of the whole that is most perfect about the thing, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as lovely if Kinbote were not there with his abridged reality testing. Some of the internecine politics of Zembla tire me a bit, but the sections between Kinbote and Shade are so moving. I love Nabokov a lot, and especially some of the ones that people aren’t as passionate about—like Bend Sinister and Pnin. John Hawkes was very obsessed with Nabokov, which is how I originally got the bug.
Nabokov leads directly to the question of style. Like you, style is very, very important for me, but in a strangely inadvertent way. I remember thinking, when young, with high anxiety about what my voice would turn out to be like, because people were always talking about “voice” and “finding your voice.” But in a way style is the thing that happens after you stop thinking about it. I suppose my voice is in part composed of certain influences. But after a point one individuates, and then you just sound like yourself. My slightly convoluted style, with the long lines, is heavily indebted to certain writers, but it’s also very organic to me. I think that way. I don’t like writing that features a degree-zero style. I find it boring. Even a radically colloquial style (I am reading James McBride right now, and I really like his colloquial, personal, warm, melodious touch) to me is more artful than this kind of studied negation of style that you see often in the New Yorker. It’s the writing equivalent of the broadcaster’s accent on television. Style is a relief from third person objective point of view, which is a construct in any event; style is a blow for subjectivity, an announcement of the fallibility of all narration. Which I suppose is an item of conviction for me, as I think it is for you.
And as for the “idea of Rick Moody,” I don’t know anything about it, and I go to great lengths to ignore any such thing! Right now I am about to get my falling-apart car inspected, and this morning my wife, who is five-months pregnant spent quite a while throwing up every single thing she’d eaten, while we debated going to the hospital or not, lest the poor little fetus be endangered by the loss of fluids, etc. I have to write a piece about the Beatles without quoting from them (permissions!), and I haven’t written enough of my memoir yet. I don’t know if I’m going to get that teaching job I’m trying to get. I keep waiting for the cardiologist to call me back, but as yet he has not called. There is no room inside this day, or tomorrow, or the day after that, for the writer called Rick Moody. No room! I don’t know, in general, what “Rick Moody” refers to. I know you know about having too much at hand, and I too have too much at hand.
I think I can say honestly that this was not always the case. There may, in fact, have been a period in which I believed the hype, and there may have been a period in which the more violent detractors may have had a point, if the point was to make me feel badly about myself and to note all the times I had let my reputation do the work, instead of doing the work itself. It was not a long period, and it was over fifteen years ago, but there was a period. That period has passed. Being a father, for example, is so much more important than my work, and so much more demanding, that I don’t have time for the “career” of writer. My daughter said to me, at one point recently, out of the blue, “I wish you were more famous so that everyone in the schoolyard knew who you were and that I was your daughter,” or something to that effect. What a teachable moment! I don’t want any of that stuff anymore, and I told her as much. I don’t care. I want to be a decent father, and I want to have done some good when my time ebbs away, and I mean the good of the human variety. I want to feel I showed up for my friends, did a few favors, worked off the burdens of some of the horrible stuff that I did when I was still drinking, etc. When I get on the subway, in the morning, like everyone else, I am so glad that I am exactly like everyone else. In my building in Queens, where I live right now, I am the only Northern European, American-born white guy there, as far as I know. It’s a tremendous relief to be in a building with the rest of the world.
That what happened to me in The New Republic, and elsewhere, is a product of envy and competitive fervor among writers, this seems hard to dispute. It seemed true to me then. I never thought it had to do with my work exactly. I always thought I wasn’t as good as some people said, nor as bad as others said. And this is true, in my estimation, of just about every writer I know. A work of fiction, after all, is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it. As some wag was heard to say. And that’s what we’re doing out here, chipping away, because we can, but in a totally fallible way. Back when I briefly believed the hype, I also would get really irritated when certain other writers got a lot of attention—but eventually my reaction, like yours with respect to Oates, was horror at my own behavior.
Now I tend to feel incredibly lucky that I still get to publish, and mostly I am incredibly happy for the attention that my friends and colleagues get. This has manifested in one especial way for me: I really love when my students get a lot of attention. It makes me really happy.
I have made sure that all of these interpersonal relations with writers are free of rancor to the very best of my ability. I have done events with Dale Peck in the last few years and made sure to give him the love, and I have corresponded with James Wood, and I apologized to his wife for the indecently stupid things I said in 1999, and when I see that Clancy Martin I will make sure that he feels the love, too, and here is the other cheek, and if he wants my shirt he can have that too. Life is short. Division just makes it easy for a thoroughly dumbed-down culture to feel that much dumber.
Let’s talk some more about Moby Dick. Now there is a novel! A blueprint! A design for living! And: I taught Djuna Barnes this week and it did not go well. I think Ryder is maybe too hard. Last year I made converts with Nightwood. Not so many this year.
I love Nabokov too—just this week, once again, I passed along what I consider to be one of his most mysterious early short stories “Wingstroke.” That story has haunted me thirteen years now. I teach it all the time and it’s never easy to know what to say—we all just marvel at it. Sometimes, I think there is no point in teaching Nabokov—how can anyone learn from him? But he always gets me excited about writing and reading. Have you read that story, by any chance?
I love Pale Fire with all my heart and soul. I only taught it a couple times but it was an exhilarating experience. How our brains were on fire. I hate the poem, as I guess we are supposed to, but Shade and Kinbote’s connection I find so moving too. It’s one of those novels that I just think have to be real—it is a memory for me, more real than so much of my own life. (This lede from a 1962 Time review feels so today in its dismissiveness “No critic, Russian or not, has yet been able to lock Vladimir Nabokov in a box, except for the clumsily made critical box labeled ‘cleverness’—a confinement not really confining, since cleverness implies an ability to get out of boxes.”)
I really appreciated your thoughts on critics and how you approached them.
The only bit I am not sure of is, are we all the same? I think you and I have things in common, and sometimes we meet members of our sort of people in the wild, writers who we just click with, but more and more I think, wow, we writers are so different.
I’m sorry for everything you are going through and in my own way, sitting here in Harlem, n my run-down mess of an apartment, I relate. I too am waiting on a call from a cardiologist (I hope yours called already!)
I haven’t written enough of my memoir either, which is due June 1 now that I’ve had this Lyme relapse (just scrapped the old plan and now writing it differently, very simply).
And teaching jobs—well, I feel like with all this illness I’m about to lose my job but I am so dependent on the health insurance that comes with it, that I’m doing everything in my ability to hold on to it. Which includes dragging myself sick and feverish and crying to the train and getting through these long days we have at Bard, praying I won’t be in the ER again.
Congrats on your baby! Do you want to talk about that? I don’t have kids—just a dog who feels very much my baby. Does the impending fatherhood (sounds ominous the way I put it) seem like the new chapter it is? Are you terrified? Excited?
As for Moby Dick, I barely have the words! It’s one of my favorite books and I love to return to it I’ve read from it twice for those Moby Dick Marathon readings here in NYC. I’ve been lucky enough to be given the Sperm chapter and last time, the very moving penultimate chapter, the “O Captain My Captain” that of course Whitman references about 15 years later in his poem. (I’m obsessed with their intersection actually—they were born in the same year  and died just months apart in 1892.)
I teach Moby-Dick as the first experimental novel (oh, how I live for those digressions) and link it to the Old Testament (another favorite experimental novel!)
I can barely judge it anymore, it is so in my blood. There is no greater joy than when I get to give it to a student for a summer reading assignment.
(I also have a sort of life coach question for you that I want to save for next time.)
“The only bit I am not sure of is, are we all the same? I think you and I have things in common, and sometimes we meet members of our sort of people in the wild, writers who we just click with, but more and more I think, wow, we writers are so different.”
This is the big question you ask, right? I guess my faith on the above point comes from the recovery movement, the mere announcement of which I know will cause any readers of this exchange to roll their eyes and consign me to the fires of irrelevance. But the thing about recovery is there are all kinds of people there. My personal (unpublicly announced) guru is this guy ______ (name suppressed) who for a long time shined shoes at Viacom. Just went around from desk to desk shining shoes. Truly an amazing guy. One time I watched him, while speaking at a meeting, think for like twenty seconds, then say “God is love,” and then just refrain from saying anything else. A remarkable performance. And I’m not saying this in any kind of aren’t-the-shoe-shine-guys-smart way, I’m saying: I honestly believe that _____ is touched by God, whatever God means, and I believe that he is more spiritual than I will ever be, and I truly admire him. He and I have nothing in common biographically speaking. I am given to understand that in his youth and under the influence of whatever he was under the influence of he was not a nice person and definitely committed larcenies, etc. Now I understand him to be touched by God. In this cauldron that is the recovery movement, people who have nothing in common have everything in common, because they have a purpose that unifies. The differences, and the insistence on differences, fall away, and the tendency is to err on the side of unanimity, even if there’s a cost for doing so. As a result, much is accomplished in that theoretical space that would never happen out in the world, with the civilians. Leadership is temporary (always term-limited, e.g., so no one gets to be in charge), change is infrequent except when truly useful, and everyone stays focussed on matters at hand. And this is a bunch of people with serious mental illness, of which I am one. I am one of those people.
The tendency on the left, politically speaking, is always to fall into discord and schism, and to allow the potential for change to be mitigated by the narcissism of minor differences. Thus, SDS, for example. Thus, the Black Panthers. You see this, now, so aggressively, in the Democratic Party, and I for one find it terribly dispiriting. I feel like I have watched this happen for 35 years, my entire adulthood, the Maoists quarreling with the Stalinists, the Socialists threatening to beat up the Communists, the feminists trying to kick out all the men, the white men trying to kick out everyone but the white men, etc. Maybe it’s human nature, because apparently it can happen in the Republican Party as well, as we are also seeing now. But it afflicts the left, and the left is one place where they should be smart enough NOT to continue down this road.
But I think human beings have a lot in common. Human beings are not salamanders, not mollusks, not dolphins, not elephants, not orangutans, not gorillas, not even chimpanzees. Human beings are not vegetable in any way, and they contain only trace elements of rocks and minerals. There are many, many, many things that make us alike. Principally, there is human biology. We are about as alike as the various kinds of retrievers are alike. Or, if you want to craft the analogy further, we are about as alike as the various retrievers and retriever mixes are alike. If aliens attacked the planet, we would suddenly find ourselves remarkably alike. As you probably remember, after 9/11 in NYC there was a remarkable affiliation of the different municipal tribes. I remember, the day I got back from DC (I was in DC on 9/11), a black guy giving me a kiss on the subway. It was incredibly moving to me. It was a kiss of affiliation. I believe imagination can bridge these differences, even though it is very difficult to do so. I believe in hearing from all the municipal tribes, and I believe all the tribes are one tribe.(Note: this is the only spot, in editing these remarks some six months after they were first written, that I feel a profound need to clarify a point of view. Having read Lionel Shriver’s recent remarks on imagination and “identity politics,” and having found these remarks sorely wanting, even repellent and embarrassing, I would like to be on the record as feeling that there is a paradox in the world of imagination, and it goes like something like this: there are no limits on imagination, but proceeding as if there are no limits and that is the only thing worth saying when imagining other people’s cultures is to be elitist and exploitative. The imagining of other cultures can only be performed effectively when one tries to live with, and be in, the culture of a group of people who are different from you, to hear their languages and their utterances and their histories and their stories, and to listen to them, and to feel them, and even then there is a chance that there are limits on what practicable. Feeling the pain of racism, for example, can be accomplished on occasion, and there are occasions when it can’t be done at all. Bourgeois liberalism is sometimes not the way to understand the rest of the world, but just another kind of exploitation.)
Some years ago an acquaintance of mine made a rape charge against a prominent artist she had worked with when younger in a public way, and many people came out for or against, attacking and backing, this acquaintance of mine. In the midst of this, a person who had worked with her called me and indicated that s/he had a lot of proprietary info that would perhaps indicate the lack of truthfulness of the claims. S/he tried to win me over, this disbeliever, at great length, about the horror of all the players in this story, and I would not be won over, because I believe. There are sociopaths, there are dangerous murderous people out there (I can’t take my eyes off the Uber murderer guy in Michigan for some reason), but these continue to be, from my point of view, anomalies of bad programming. I believe all people basically are good and want things to go well. I believe this even about the Republicans in my family, and I believe that you and I, who superficially come from very different places, have much in common, above and beyond Nabokov and Melville (and, I’ll bet, Virginia Woolf). In fact, we already know this to be the case.
And because I know this about you, I know it about other people as well. Indeed, the Life Coach thing, which started out as lightness and fun, has been a ratification of this idea: the ache in the heart, the sense of the brevity of time here on earth, the yearning for more, these are all human things, and while the quantities may be different, and the additives required vary from case to case, the basic “search for meaning” is consistent across the life of the species. And because this is the case, our diversity is our strength.
I did have a rocky class two weeks ago, where we were reading The Passion of New Ever, by my teacher, Ms. Angela Carter. The fact that there are some highly stylized rapes in the novel, and the added “transphobia” of the narrative, as indicated in the long, lovingly described punitive castration of the narrator, these were evidence, for some in my class, that the novel was/is politically incorrect. (I should say that the were some collectivist remarks about “the blacks” that I found slightly off-putting on the narrator’s part, too, but I continue to think that these were the narrator’s opinion, and not the author’s.) I found the conversation depressing not only because I loved Angela and figure she was smart enough to have thought through these issues, but also because I feel like arguing that you should just AVOID works that have some dubious quality renders you insufficiently historically versed in the form. It’s Angela Carter who first gave me Naked Lunch, and I can definitely admit that the hanging section, where the young woman fucks the young boy when he gets an erection from being hanged, I experienced as offensive. But I also found the offense liberating in a way. I found Naked Lunch exceedingly liberating. Burroughs knew this: there is freedom simply in speaking out certain words that would otherwise be suppressed.
There is difference in the world, and this we know because Aristotle tells us so. But there is also unity, and this we know because the Tao Te Ching tells us so. And of these two things is all human consciousness made. I hate to see division and rancor so overcoming the body politic. Or: the way with a name is not the true way. Maybe the Tao is the more enduring document.
I have been trying to understand Heidegger in slow motion for a year now. I think I might have hinted about this earlier. I am not so great at reading philosophy in the original (Kant, e.g.) and sometimes have to read the commentators to really get it. And Heidegger, that Nazi, presents some real challenges. But every time he talks about “being” I feel something happening in a register of myself, the part that perceives and IS, the part that feels exceedingly lucky to be here still, to have this conversation with you, to watch the birds on the bird feeder out behind my house (eight blue jays there yesterday), and this I know—the being of humanness—is something that I share with everyone here, and all who read this message, and it is precious. My time is short. I want to experience this being while I can. I want to get closer to the source.
So now I want to hear your life coach inquiry!
So much to say! I am very much moved by your thoughts on our common grand as humans of different tribes. And your memory of the black man kissing you on 9/11. And perhaps what I share the most here: the belief that we are all good. But it frustrates me so much when then we are not suddenly. I was always a bit obsessed with the Transcendentalists, sort of agreed with them on everything. Before the Existentialists, before the Beats, they were my loves. That inherent goodness of all humans was what hooked me. I loved their passion and despair too—for ages, I was hooked on Thoreau’s “Plea for Captain John Brown.” Recently I realized (I taught it last at Wesleyan now nearly two years ago), that it could be dangerous for some of these more ideological young men I often get in my workshops. You could use it to justify abortion clinic bombings, etc.! And then that Kathryn Schulz New Yorker piece about Thoreau kind of had me rolling my eyes at him. If we look at him from our perspective today, he can seem like such an awful brat and pain in the ass. But I want to look at him as I did when I first read him.
Transphobia and Angela Carter. Wow, well I am not surprised and yet I am surprised. How few things pass the test of 2016. Or the 20-teens in general maybe. That’s my first instinct. But then in spending long hours with trans students (I’ve had several) and hearing their stories and understanding their struggles, I can see their offense. But I feel helpless because I don’t know what to do on that one. Racism and misogyny and homophobia I can tackle, but that one is harder for me, newer for me, and so I’ve made a point of being very open to issues around it, and my students have opened me up to some amazing trans authors.
Rick, I’m bothered when you say—and I’ve read it too, I feel—“my time is short.” It alarms me. I tried to investigate this alarm and of course it comes out of care for you—you are now someone I care about on a whole other level—but also out of its sort of familiarity. I say this a lot. I believe this. I feel resigned to it. I don’t even know what I mean entirely with it. Do I mean suicide? Do I mean illness? Why am I married to this concept? Do I hope by thinking it I will actually mean I will live to be very old? Where am I going with this? I hate the part of me that always understands when a friend commits suicides, or ODs, even when they sort of prematurely die. I often think there is no way I can sustain my existence, but I am frustrated at why I think this way.
I am frustrated at why you think this way. I want you to live a very long time, to surprise yourself.
The life coach inquiry is maybe a question I already answered for myself: I had to recently back out of a journal where it was clear the young white male in charge (who was operating it out of his parents’ home, very inexperienced, very dazzled by us all) just wanted me on his masthead because I was a POC! Sigh. And then when I gave some POC opinions I could see that he did not care. This I expected! What I did not expect was his saying if he could hand my opinions to another writer to write (because I did not want to write it for free). It was like, hey no prob, let me give this to any other random POC to express your opinions! Well, I walked away from this journal. I started to think young white men are really in crisis and just hated the guy. Then I wondered why I was getting so upset. And then I realized it was also because this guy was sending me drunk emails in the middle of the night, drunk texts at 4am in the morning.
And so I walked away further. I guess my life coach question for you, being a writer I’ve read for so long and admired, who I share friends with, who now sort of knows me in this other way, deeper than some—is there any hope for me in this literary world? Am I best as a sort of POC literary nanny? Will anyone every really read my books? Should I change my name to some white-sounding thing so people will want to hear it? Is being a woman the problem? Is being a single woman also the problem?
Does everyone kind of feel this way in our world, if there is one world to speak of? I go back to the original question, all we have in common, and I think back to my question several emails ago about you being Rick Moody and people having this idea of that and I realize this: perhaps what is so surprising and so appealing to me about you is that I feel you can relate to the frustration of being a writer as if it’s your first time. You have had tremendous success, but I don’t think you ignore how hard it is. And whereas people could discredit that feeling, I now feel that is very important. Perhaps liberating even. No matter what, we’re screwed! Am I crazy for finding optimism in that? Perhaps because it parallels the fact that we all die? The trajectory is already cursed!
I swear, that’s ending this email on a happy note for me.
I expect you are right about Thoreau, and I have had a similar path with him. Although I read Thoreau and Melville for the first time in the same year: 1977. Melville had the greater impact. I like Walden, because it reads like a novel. I tried to read some of The Maine Woods last year, and I bogged down. It is more Bill McKibben than Kierkegaard, and I like Bill McKibben, but I’m more likely to read Kierkegaard. You are right that civil disobedience can produce bad outcomes. I think the rule of law is a good thing in most ways. At least philosophically speaking. Moral architecture is a fact of the world, it’s how people get along with other people. It may come from some hitherto-existing source. How you apply it is much more tricky to decide. The transcendentalists are onto something as regards religious experience, spiritual life, but one does (and this is what I keep saying to myself about the election) have to render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s. Maybe that is a middle-aged reply to the transcendentalist model.
Meanwhile, I think what you are asking me (in capacity as Life Coach) is if the pain of book composition and book publication will ever be worth it. And I am afraid that I have to say that I am not sure. It has frequently not been worth it for me. But from my present vantage point the goal is simply to love the craft, and to turn over the results. I would like to say that your work is extremely unique and important, and it is occasionally the lot of such things that they are not immediately understood. Sometimes there’s a lag, critically speaking. Angela Carter herself is an example. I don’t think she got any respect in the United States until well after The Bloody Chamber, which is a real masterpiece. We could go on and on with examples. The redemption for the practitioner of this form has to be in the making, and not in the result of the making. I believe that what you are doing deserves an ample share of the public relations pie, and I believe you will get it. And when it comes, it will be easier to see that while race and gender certainly play a part in all of this, sheer unalloyed talent plays a part too. A positive part. You can’t disguise the singularity of a real gift.
My time is short! When my son is born (in two months) I will be a 54-year-old guy with a newborn. He will be 11 when I start collecting social security, and when he graduates college I will be 76, or so. That means I am well into the winding down, rather than the winding up. I hope that is plenty of time to write something important, and to do better with the critics and so on. I hope that I have plenty of time and energy. But I’m not going to claim to be young any longer! I don’t troll, tweet, or Instagram, and I will not be getting any medical marijuana. I can, however, learn from an exchange as ours, and delight in the play of ideas. I hope it will ever be thus.
Rick Moody will be reading to celebrate the paperback release of his latest novel, Hotels of North America, at the Astoria Bookshop, Friday, November 18th, at 7PM.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore