New Routes in Fiction
by Alec Niedenthal
A talk with Jonathan Lee
Jonathan Lee’s masterful High Dive is at once a high-minded political novel and an interrogation of how it feels to fail, to stagnate, and of the moments of grace that can occur within stagnation. It binds three stories in a knot that, as Jonathan mentions in our interview, isn’t afraid to fray: Dan is a young bombmaker for the IRA, working on an explosive meant to murder Margaret Thatcher during the yearly Conservative Party convention, which will take place in a Brighton hotel; Moose, an ex-diver, is the deputy manager of this hotel, and Freya is his teenage daughter who’s just finished high school and, despite her high marks, dislikes the idea of attending college. Like a detonator the novel tick-tocks between these points-of-view, never settling on one as the center but sprawling out instead, shrugging off any easy answers or tidy truths as so much consolation.
High Dive is a crucible testing three people who, despite or indeed because of their very ordinariness, find themselves at a historical hinge-point (the bombing did really happen; see Wikipedia). But it sticks to your ribs, tough to digest because of such depth, because of, first, Jonathan Lee’s voice and stylistic decisions, his tone and the sometimes messy, sometimes tucked just-so texture of his prose, which goes freely between alto and soprano, low and high—between the swollen emotions of broken lives and the comedy that’s often a consequence of people trying very hard not to break. Secondly, High Dive lives and lingers long within a reader because of the heed Lee pays to his characters’ inner lives, the love one knows this writer must’ve felt as he listened in on their odd heads and cracked-up hearts, which is exemplary, and is the very work of which those works of fiction that will last consist—that is, this way High Dive has of giving history’s lost and vanished actors their beautiful, full due, as men and women who hurt and were hurt in turn, rather than as footnotes, citations, or blips on a Wikipedia page.
I interviewed Jonathan Lee via email.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): High Dive has a unique lilt and tone, musical without becoming lyrical, so that it stays gritty the whole way through. How long did it take to get this tone right? And how did you know when you’d found it?
Jonathan Lee: I don’t I ever know if I’ve succeeded in achieving a certain tone. Nor do I seem to know when I’ve truly finished with a piece of work—it always seems over, and then it isn’t. My definition of finishing is that I get so sick of myself and of my own sentences that I have to send them to someone else—they become, at least for a few weeks, my agent or editor’s problem.
I sort of like the idea that High Dive might contain a variety of tones, in the same way that The Grand Hotel at the center of the narrative contains such a variety of guests. It wasn’t something I was aiming for, but hopefully that instability is there — the shift between the comic register and the more earnest tone, and between choppiness and fluidity. I think Dan’s sections have a different tone to those belonging to Moose, and that Freya’s chapters have a different tone again.
Thank you for saying the writing is musical. Like most writers, rhythm is important to me, and I read my own work aloud more than I’d usually care to admit. Sometimes I record myself on my phone and listen back, making notes about the sounds of sentences. It’s a sure route to madness, if you’re looking for one. I recommend it.
Rail: Since reading the novel I’ve been thinking about how you use sentence fragments. At first their frequency was jarring, but as I read further I realized that these kind of scattered ashes of sentences could say something that a complete sentence could not and could deliver a perspective that the complete sentence could not. What do you think such fragments can do that ‘conventional’ sentences cannot, and what role do they play in setting scene and the center of consciousness within that scene?
Lee: Well, I feel that every sentence needs to build itself or destroy itself around its own subject matter. In moments in the novel when I may be flirting with sentimentality, or a character getting carried away with his or her own thoughts, you’ll probably find sentences that loop and swing a little on their own punctuation, a series of commas, things getting a little precarious, drifting out of control a little, Javier Marias style, but then swinging back, hopefully, just in time, to a full stop. At other times, the brutally abbreviated nature of a character’s own thoughts in a given moment might make me break off a sentence unexpectedly and have a whole paragraph composed of those fragments. I like those jarring effects. I like anything that captures the way our thoughts are sometimes long, and sometimes very short. People forget that occasional ugliness can be useful in a piece of writing, the same way it can deepen a piece of music—you are lulled into a certain peacefulness, or an expectation of smoothness, and then the sentence. Just. Ends. Do you know what I mean? I’d hate to read to listen to 5 hours of unvarying beauty. If it’s unvarying, I don’t see how it can be interesting.
Given High Dive is about moments when history and politics intrude on the smoothness of our own careful, privately-curated worlds—the hotel being a good example of such a private curated space—interruptions in the sentences themselves felt fitting, I hope. Two of my heroes are James Salter and Joy Williams, and I think they know how to bend sentences in interesting ways without sacrificing readability too much, or getting too fussy or pretentious. I enjoyed Claire Louise Bennett’s recent book of stories, Pond, for the same reason. She is a first class sentence-bender.
Rail: Some recent novels consider moments in public history from “the margins”—A Brief History of Seven Killings is one, my mind blanks on the others but I know there are more, and High Dive. Of course it’s complicated: in High Dive, Dan isn’t exactly on the margins, he’s a “major player,” but he’s also someone who’s disappeared into history: the “second bomber” who may or may not exist, as you tell us in the author’s note. Nonetheless, you aren’t writing about Thatcher or Thatcher’s aides or what have you. You’re writing about ordinary people and their pain—people who happen to get swept into history’s dustbin. Why do you think this way of looking at politics has found its way into fiction today?
Lee: Thomas Mallon is a writer who does this beautifully, and he has been doing it for many years now — looking at historical events from their margins, reanimating everyday moments and characters that have settled behind the headlines. He’s a famous American writer, of course, but in my ignorance, as a Brit, I only discovered his work recently. He wrote a review of my novel for the New Yorker, and in a spirit of gratitude that soon gave way to wonder, I read my way through several of his novels—Finale; Watergate; Fellow Travelers. I greatly admired the Marlon James novel you mention, too—the vim in those voices, and the re-performance of history, mixing fiction with fact.
I think fiction-writing that deals with political events is fairly rare in America today, when you compare it to all the books about people fucking each other on various desert islands? But when contemporary novels do broach moments in political history, I suppose the fringe character’s perspective is always going to be an appealing one. There are many books out there about Thatcher, so I had little interest in trying to inhabit her in High Dive. I wanted her to be the still center, the half-glimpsed ghost in the middle, with everyone dancing around her, having different versions in mind of who she was. I wanted to inhabit the lives of people who history fails to record—ordinary people. At the time, that seemed to me to be a more interesting endeavour than giving you my version of Thatcher. In the future, perhaps I’ll feel differently. It is risky to inhabit the mind of a well-known figure, but it can be extraordinary when done well. DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald springs to mind.
Rail: It occurs to me that writing about political terror—either as perpetrated by the state or by individuals—has never felt more urgent. Clearly the novelist has a difficult job in this regard, that is humanizing the terrorist while weighing the human cost of terror against his grievances and alienation. There are of course very many stark, irreducible differences between the Troubles and today’s randomized, and for that matter globalized, terror. But after working on High Dive do you see the specter of “the terrorist” any differently? On the other hand (this is an evenhanded book after all) do you see the everyman’s fear of terror any differently, having written so intimately about the ravages of a bomb well-planted?
Lee: I think terms like "the terrorist," "the victim," "the witness," don't get us much closer to what terror might feel like for any given individual, whether that terror is political, or the terror of what we refer to as "domestic" abuse, or the fear of a child being bullied at school, or the fear of an animal backed into a corner. It's interesting that you talk about the difficulties and dilemmas involved in a novelist "humanizing" a terrorist. I didn't humanize anyone -- every member of the IRA was human, and every member of Al Qaeda is human. What's more human than doing something awful to other human beings? When we think purely in terms of labels, we forget to look hard at the people wearing them.
Rail: I’ve seen at least one critic comment on the resemblance of your character Moose to Updike’s Rabbit. Clearly they share animal epithets, failed sports careers, and a wounded way of loving the people most important to them. Both have bad hearts. I would say though your prose tries to do things similar to Updike’s (to praise reality in all its sallow flatness), its texture and tone don’t bear many marks of his influence. Why was the “Rabbit archetype” appealing to you as a writer? Your portrayal of Moose and Updike’s of Rabbit use the “dead-end job, failed athlete” character to say something very specific and telling about middle-aged masculinity. What do those traits allow you to do with a male character that you cannot do with, say, a failed artist or journalist (the normal novelist's crutch when writing about middle-aged anomie)?
Lee: In the same way that I wanted to explore characters who were at the fringes of this real historical event—the bombing of The Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984—I also wanted those characters to have, I think, various fringe-successes and fringe-failures within their lives, their pasts. Moose was once a talented platform diver. Diving is a marginal sport, much like writing. You could be one of the 20 best in the country and no-one would ever know who you were. I also saw the novel itself as a kind of dive — it is about what happens in the weeks that fall into the bombing; structurally, it is a kind of narrative dive towards the moment of impact.
I don’t think I was deliberately alluding to Updike’s Rabbit novels in High Dive, but those books are certainly important to me—and represent his best work, I think. As you say, I’m not sure my sentences have much in common with Updike’s—I love much of his prose, but I’m also wary of the indulgence of it, and occasionally the misogyny too. If anything, I probably learned a lot about close third person storytelling from reading Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Is Rich, and I still love writing in that mode—the elasticity it offers. You can spring so easily into and out of the character’s head, when using the close third person well.
Rail: How has your work changed since your first novel, Who Is Mr Satoshi? Could the Jonathan Lee of 2010 have envisioned himself writing “period fiction” about political terrorism? Or is this a path you always had in mind? On the other hand, how do you think your aesthetic concerns have stayed the same?
Lee: One cliché I subscribe to is the one about it being important for a writer to try to do something different with each book. Who Is Mr Satoshi?, when I look back on it, feels like the work of a different writer—someone other than me—but there are similarities, too. I seem drawn, in whatever I write, towards thinking about the unknowability of parents from the point of view of their children. I also seem to be obsessed with the fear of falling and of failing. And I suppose Who Is Mr Satoshi? also seeks to inhabit, in its middle sections, a moment in history that is often forgotten — the occupation of Japan by American forces, led by General MacArthur, after the Second World War, and the role of American and British anthopologists in trying to understand and sometimes manipulate the mindset of Japanese citizens. Maybe in that respect it was preparation for High Dive.
I think one thing that’s changed over the last ten years is that I’m not much interested in narrative neatness anymore. These days, I trust that if I make the characters’ lives authentically messy, which is how my own life feels most of the time—a series of wants and needs, of almost-getting-theres and falling-shorts, the reader will be interested.
Rail: I’ve noticed that historical fiction, recently, feels—rightly so, in my judgment—it can forgo the elaborate process of “taking us back in time.” No more the little tokens of historical moment (pastel polyester jackets, luminous running shoes, bouffants; though there’s some Madonna in your novel): instead the novelist straps you in and says, here, experience the past as if it’s a present. Did you consciously, as a writer, refuse to play the game of, “Look! You’re in another historical period!”? What were the considerations behind such a choice?
Lee: It’s always tempting, when you’ve done a lot of research, to show it all to the reader, and ask for a pat on the back, and that temptation is probably most pronounced in historical fiction. A novel like Wolf Hall achieves a lot of its exquisite power but resisting those temptations and instead using a style that reminds that history is always happening—that it is happening right now—and that what you or I are focussed on, in the moment of living our lives, probably isn’t how amusing or iconic your pastel polyester jacket will seem to future generations.
To be honest, with High Dive, it never occurred to me that I was writing a historical novel at all. I know that this probably sounds a little silly, but it’s true. I suppose I think of 1984, the year in which my novel is largely set, as “recent history” — and perhaps there’s nothing more invisible than the recent past. A new generation in England knows nothing about the bombing of The Grand Hotel, but they will learn about the First and Second World Wars in high school, and also Henry VIII, and all his wives. We don’t quite have the distance on the 80s yet to have formed a full set of expectations and prejudices.
Lately I’ve also been wondering: isn’t every novel historical? As soon as you try and set down on a page of prose a thing that happened to you or to someone else, whether 10 minutes ago or 50 years ago, you’re in the past tense. You’re trying to recover and reanimate a moment that has already fled. You’re remembering, which means you’re also inventing, and at every turn, you’re looking back. Fiction writing is always a process of recovery—of staggering around in the dark for something you’re sure you saw.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.Jonathan Lee
Jonathan Lee's latest novel, High Dive, is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, an IndieBound bestseller, and was named a best book of 2016 by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Guardian, among others. It has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in New York and is a senior editor at Catapult. www.jonathanleewriter.com