The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

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FEB 2017 Issue
Books In Conversation

Down with the Corpocratic Monoculture!
Holly Tavel with Angela Woodward

Holly Tavel
The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park
(Equus Press, 2015)

Angela Woodward
Natural Wonders
(FC2, 2016)

Holly Tavel and Angela Woodward have both been published by the Spokane, Washington-based Ravenna Press, which has released books by many other intriguing and imaginative writers. Tavel’s The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park (Equus Press) and Woodward’s Natural Wonders (FC2) were recently published. Fusing geologic history with fiction, mythology, and a failed romance, Natural Wonders is a feminist dismantling of “the story of men and their adventures.” In The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park, the title story of which appeared in The Brooklyn Rail in 2012, you’ll find a talking parrot, battling viking, mad scientist, coma victims, regressing suburbanites, and more besides, each of the collection’s eighteen stories capsizing narrative conventions. Sharing a love for the fabulist, the absurd, the evocative detail, and a tendency toward the dissolving of genre boundaries, the authors are happy to be in conversation about each other’s work.

Angela Woodward: Dear, dear Holly, your work is so surprising. We’re used to thinking of realistic stories about babies dying and wives drowning and husbands driving away down country roads as where we go for emotion; and so-called “innovative” fiction like yours, involving a skyscraper made of candy, vast deconstruction of houses, superheroes, plastic army men, the turd-like poem-creature of “Ars Poetica,” etc., as showing off a formal hijinks that leaves “real life” emotions secondary. But you’re absolutely getting the best of both worlds. My scribbled notes, made while reading in the coffee shop, repeatedly say, “so sad.” I also laughed a lot, and just marveled at your skill. It’s a very feeling experience, reading this book. How did this collection come about—were these stories written over a long stretch of time? And how did they go from individual stories to what seems like a fairly tightly thematic or integrated collection?

Holly Tavel: Angela, well, first of all, thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, the stories did come about over a very long period of time. The oldest one in the collection, “Fearless Leader” (the one with the skyscraper made of candy) was written in about 2000. I remember vividly that I wrote it in basically one sitting, and it was only revised once or twice immediately preceding the publication of the book. At the time I thought, “This is just pure silliness,” but reading it again I find it’s much stranger and darker than I thought it was. I wrote many of the stories when I was getting my MFA at Brown from 2004 – 06. And a few were just sketches, in some cases just a few sentences or a title, that I fleshed out over a few years. I’m not prolific, so it took a long time to feel like I really had enough for a collection. As far as them feeling thematically linked, it’s funny you should say that, because I actually never felt that they were. But I have long-term obsessions with certain motifs, artificial and hyper-real environments being among them. I grew up in Orlando in the ’70s, so the idea of theme parks—or anyway the problems of theme parks—mediated realities, which I was pretty aware of even as a kid, led me later on to become interested in psychogeography the Situationists, and from there urban exploration—people going into disused subway tunnels, filming abandoned shopping malls. Entropy. There’s a real sadness to the idea of being nostalgically drawn to things from childhood that are objectively vapid products of the monoculture, but they have all these complicated meanings and emotions invested in them. So for instance, “New Adventures of the Danger Twins” is a parody of these terrible no-budget kids’ action series from the mid-’70s, and then you’ve got this group of radical pranksters somehow showing up and commenting on it. But they’re also a parody. So there are all these layers of artifice happening.

Woodward: “New Adventures of the Danger Twins” made me laugh hysterically, with “The Autonomous Chaos League,” the pranksters, working diligently on their manifesto and dithering over “furthermore” versus “moreover,” while the TV writers bare the kid’s show down to its “corpocratic” bones. One of the sidekick characters starts listing all the features of the objects he handles, in a product placement-ish way: “But it’s a Hobie Cat with solid redwood stringer and an airbrushed trompe l’oeil painting of a 19th-century Italianate garden portico, boss!” It’s hilarious, but then the code names of the Danger Twins seem to be “Strangely Remote” and “Unavailable for Comment.” So this note of boredom, of anomie and disconnect, comes through in a strange, sad way. I would describe this story, and many others in your book, as overtly political. The worlds you create are so “wreckable,” worth wrecking. “Last Words,” narrated by the hyacinth macaw, is a dark account of colonialism and despoliation of the natural world, while being also a crazy parrot story. I think that political elements also get overlooked when it comes from an innovative fiction writer, particularly a woman writer. We get seen as playful and self-referential, while it’s somebody else who gets to use his art to critique the world.

Tavel: It’s very interesting that you would say that. I’m always fascinated by the various responses I get from people; sometimes people will zone in on the language more so than the content. I suppose my main motivation is a kind of defiance. I get a lot of creative energy from subverting things…or at least trying to. When I was a teenager I discovered the dark surreal comedies of the ’60s, of Richard Lester and Tony Richardson and Terry Southern, in which antic goings-on and flat-out absurdity and “surrealness” are methods of satirizing and calling out, you know, the fucked-up, hypocritical values of society. That attitude and approach is just absolutely in my blood. Even something like Monty Python’s Flying Circus—I started seeing those episodes when I was probably six or seven on PBS. Of course I didn’t really get it, but some part of me was like, “This is for me.”

Woodward: Well, I’m going to say that calling out the fucked-up, hypocritical values of society is political, and defiant, and worth doing, and let’s not let anyone say we’re just messing around. I don’t think we would go to all the trouble to be writers, which is extremely hard work, if we weren’t really trying to make a new world. There’s something about the playfulness of your writing that is in itself an antidote to that corpocratic monoculture. Are there some other things that inspired you?

Tavel: When I was a kid in the ’70s, there was a book that came out called The Book of Lists. It was a series—the first one came out in 1977, when I was eight. I was obsessed with that book—it was sort of a formative moment, I think. It was about 700 pages long, and had mostly short lists drawn from wide-ranging topics. There was a Science chapter, an Arts and Entertainment chapter, etc. Famous people who died during sex, the world’s greatest libel suits, people suspected of being Jack the Ripper, and so on. I ingested so much stuff like that, along with TV, movies, what have you, that I think for me, writing is a way of cataloguing a lifetime of accumulation—of ideas, thoughts, information, feelings, of trying to organize thought, as much as to tell a story.

One of the many things I love about Natural Wonders and that I really relate to as a writer is this sense of its being crammed full […] it’s quite densely packed for such a short book. There are so many things, so many threads and nested stories—this sense of stories and objects and vistas just spilling out of the pages. It reminds me quite a bit of some of Perec’s work in that way. Then the other thing that really struck me is the repetition, in the sections concerning the narrator and her husband, Jonathan. This idea of her being locked into thinking about the same sequences of events in the same way, down to the exact repetition of sentences, in the same order, but still, each time a repeated passage comes up, there are new additions, an additional sentence or two, a few more details. It made me think of multiples or replicas, but in a very analog, mechanical sense…like a cassette listened to over and over, or a glitchy old Xerox machine. It carries over in other ways too…the narrator’s worry that people are mistaking her for Jonathan’s first wife, as if she herself is the slightly-off, second-generation copy, the not-quite-as-good second version of “wife.”

Woodward: Natural Wonders started out kind of like your list books, trying to be absolutely everything I find interesting about science. I read tons of source material, including a long stint of feminist anthropology, and medical experimentation, and hunting practices, that really didn’t fit in with Jonathan’s lecture series on the earth and prehistory. I had so much stuff that the book, in its earlier drafts, was an absolute mess. My first working title was “The Disasters.” There was no way I could get in all the material I found fascinating. So first of all the lecture series was a unifying structure. Some of my draft chapters would not have been covered in Jonathan’s course, so I tossed them. I had also fleshed out the marriage a lot, but it was not good. I reduced that story down to those few motifs that are repeated. I had a lot of complexity in the way the narrative moves, with multiple stories intersecting within the lectures. The repetition gave me a way of really simplifying Jenny’s narrative. She obsesses over that one little moment with Jonathan, the kiss she avoids. The other parts of the book amplify and explore all the crannies of their love affair, as expressed by the history of the earth. It took me quite a long time to arrive at this structure, and the repetition was key to holding it all together.

Tavel: I was really interested in the ways you interrogate gender roles in this book. Jenny, in being called upon to compile Jonathan’s lectures, attempts to consider his point of view, inhabiting his brain, his voice. But, quite cleverly, these narrative voices bleed together. I was never really certain how much of what preceded the tag “Jonathan said” was what he actually said, and how much was Jenny making it up as she went, or subsuming his voice within her own. That feels by design. Natural Wonders strikes me as having a lot to say about male-female dynamics and certain standard perceptions of femaleness that are forced onto Jenny—Jonathan’s constant refrain of, “What a sweet, good nature you have,” and at one point “you’re so soothing,” and Jenny’s own assessment of herself as being unqualified for the task at hand.

Woodward: Natural Wonders goes head-on for the gender divide, where men are seen as scientific, rational, and have the history of the world itself as their story, while women are emotional, secondary, subsumed in the story of “mankind.” Jenny is the mastermind of the whole narrative, making Jonathan a kind of puppet, but also letting both their voices alternate and play together. It would be hard for me if this weren’t seen as feminist. So in that way, I’m conscious of my own gender as the writer. I’m trying to do something that seems urgent to me, as a woman. Beyond the gender dynamic though, I’m also writing about the whole world, and about climate change, which is what will kill us all soon. That’s the kind of bigger dimension that maybe doesn’t get seen as the sphere of a woman writer of innovative fiction. Here’s where I wonder about how my work is received. Did I write a big, ambitious book about science, nature, and change, or did I write a sweet, strange book about a husband and wife? Ideally, I did both. But I wish it didn’t seem like such a stretch to try to claim a larger cultural relevance. It’s hard to get that as a fiction writer at all. So maybe not for me—it doesn’t matter to me personally how my work is received—but I wish we could see other writers who are women, who are innovative, being taken as important, as serious, as meaningful. We see that with Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson. Their books really cut things up, and they’ve been totally honored for their work. Hurray! Of course, they’re not fiction writers.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

All Issues