(University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)
Over the last two years I have lost nine friends. I don’t mean lost in some Facebook “unfriend” way (see middle school cafeteria if you’re unfamiliar with the social media outlet), but lost as in passed away. I’m forty now so I guess it might be understandable that my childhood friends are dropping off. Regardless, the least helpful thing people older than me say in an effort towards consolation is, “wait until you get to my age.” Great, what a wonderful thing to look forward to: a never-ending funeral procession of my friends and loved ones until I too am interred in the grave.
While this has all been going on in my life, Alistair McCartney’s new book, The Disintegrations, was released. McCartney was kind enough to blurb my most recent book, and that kindness along with a small peek at The Disintegrations had me quite intrigued. This might only be McCartney’s second book, but he isn’t slouching from throwing his hat in the ring on the oldest, heaviest, and most important theme for literature and life itself: life’s loudly antagonistic and absent opposite, DEATH. We might find death to be a negative presence for those of us alive, not in its clutches, but accordingly it is for us the living to fathom, to stew on, and to mourn those that have been clutched.
Susan Sontag theorizes in her essay “Against Interpretation,” that we as humans have this habit of having to interpret, to classify, to delineate. Death is the perfect thing, with a non-thing-thingness to it, totally open to interpretation, maybe more than anything. Of course, her essay is about art and her opposition (or at least hesitancy) towards interpretation of art because of how she sees interpretation stand in the way of actual appreciation. She warns, “Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable,” and just earlier she says, interpretation “tames the work of art.” I’ve always been ready to wholeheartedly agree with her (as I often just do with a mind as brilliant as Sontag’s) about the problems with interpretation in truly apprehending a work of art. The most incendiary thing she declares is, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.”
However, can this be applied to death, a natural phenomenon? It seems to me that her prohibition and warning about interpretation in regards to art takes the opposite form—a recommendation—when applied to such a no-thing-thingness as death. And since death is one of the greatest literary themes and something real and scary, employing interpretation will make it “comfortable, manageable.”
The Disintegrations is Alistair McCartney’s “revenge of the intellect upon” death. This novel is forty-one chapters, often like little vignettes or stories or scenes, of McCartney firing his intellect and sensitive introspection into the scary void that is death, making it “comfortable, manageable.” This is not to say that the stories are all comfortable or even comforting. As a new father, there are stories that brought me to tears, and as someone who has lost a lot of loved ones recently, there are stories I wrestled with and raged about. But this is a novel, and McCartney is a fine writer. His first book, The End of the World Book, was a finalist for a PEN USA award and he teaches creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles. I trusted him and I pushed on. By the end of the book I felt like McCartney was someone who had thought as much about death as I had recently, and we needed to talk about it.
Jordan A. Rothacker: You begin with an epigraph from the Book of Revelations and then the caveat “Death makes fiction of us all.” This is a wonderful literary posturing making the work a novel and not a memoir. But let’s say it is true. What does that mean for life? Is it terrifying or freeing?
Alistair McCartney: I like your notion that the frame set up at the beginning of The Disintegrations foregrounds the fact that it’s a novel, despite the use of real names and events. That utterance about death and fiction gets repeated later in the book as well, in the mouth of one of the characters, a ghost. It was a really important concept for the book, almost its foundation, and although I could get conceptual or theoretical as to its origins, how the binary between fiction and non-fiction is predicated on the binary between death and life, it really came about from a feeling I’d get as a kid, walking in a cemetery, looking at the headstones, reading the epitaphs like they were books, not really believing in the fact of death. It’s a feeling that never left me. I’d say the thought that death eventually transforms us into fiction, makes our lives somehow ungraspable to the living, unreal, is both terrifying and freeing. And to stay in that Sartrean vein, with that freedom comes responsibility, the ongoing task of figuring out how to live.
Rail: This book wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so personal. An essay about death could be dry or trite. Focusing on yourself (or a character by your name) gives it honesty and heart. Was this a conscious decision or just the way the book evolved?
McCartney: Well, the book evolved very slowly, over a period of about 10 years. Initial drafts were at least three times as long as the end product. So much of that time I was focused on trying to get the right voice, the right tone, and even more challenging, figuring out the overall structure, how to hold the pieces together. Those earlier drafts were far more linear; it took me the longest time to find an organic form. I was very conscious of the dangers you refer to, in undertaking this project about death, hence the slowness of my process. I’m really glad you see those emotional qualities in the book, especially considering the narrator is someone who struggles with expressing himself emotionally, is not even sure what an emotion is. Quite late in the revising process, I realized that this was not only a book of the dead, but a fictionalized autobiography, yet I didn’t consciously seek to make the narrative personal: that was more a by-product of those other stylistic facets I was really focused on. And I need to emphasize that the narrator who bears my own name, Alistair McCartney, is a persona. By no means does he offer a direct window into myself.
Rail: This book focuses so much on cemeteries that it’s weird for me since the friends I’ve lost recently were all cremated. Does cremation de-center and de-locate death for you and make it even harder to quantify and contextualize?
McCartney: Well, cremation as a process is explored throughout the book, particularly in the Robert story, The Dancing Corpse of Jill Yip, and the essay How to Dispose of Me, and as a theme it pops up elsewhere. My narrator is fearful of being cremated, and one of his main fears is that quality you mention, that it makes death even more de-located than it already is, even more intangible, it makes the self seem even more abstract, more unknowable. He goes to a cemetery precisely for this reason, hoping that by investigating death at such a site, he’ll find out something, it will offer up concrete evidence. But as he undertakes this exploration he’s constantly aware that language, although it may hope to embalm the dead by representing them, is more like a cremation furnace, grinding the dead down, disintegrating their actuality. Interestingly enough, I think of the form of The Disintegrations as a scatter garden, with stories of the dead, philosophies of death, anecdotes, facts, poetic fragments scattered and intermingled together, though there is definitely not a scatter garden at the actual Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City, which is a Catholic cemetery. Cremation, while now allowed in Catholicism, continues to retain its taboo status—in this sense my narrator is still very much a Catholic! —and Vatican doctrine forbids that practice of scattering ashes.
Rail: While reading I got Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” stuck in my head. Was this song in yours? Was there a soundtrack in your head while you wrote or maybe even one playing during your process? If so, what songs would be on the soundtrack for this book?
McCartney: Wow, I’d forgotten about that song, I can’t believe it wasn’t on my Disintegrations playlist—I loved Carroll’s writing and music as a teenager. But there was definitely a long soundtrack both on the turntable in my head and on my actual turntable while I wrote. I couldn’t have written this book without music, which taught me so much about how to approach death as subject matter. There are too many songs to include them all here, but Television’s song Marquee Moon was a major influence on the book’s structure, its narrative arc and my use of repetition; the delicate blank melancholy of Nico’s Eulogy to Lenny Bruce really guided the shape of the fictional eulogies; Felt’s All the People I Like are Those that are Dead informed the narrator’s conversational tone, as did the wryness of The Go-Betweens When People are Dead; the folksy distortions of Atlas Sound’s Coffin Trick influenced the book’s humor; the sparseness of Smog’s Hangman Blues inspired the book’s atmosphere and use of blank space: the list goes on and on. Music was absolutely essential in helping me create a sonic landscape for The Disintegrations, teaching me how to shift from darkness to light on a syntactic level. If you want, you can listen to a playlist for the book up on Largehearted Boy.
Rail: Written in a first-person confessional style, the “you” narrator is addressing someone directly, as if they’re just off stage. Did you think of Walker Percy’s Lancelot while writing this way? If not, was there a stylistic model?
McCartney: You know, I’m afraid to say I’ve never read a word of Percy, though I feel like he comes up quite a bit. I looked up Lancelot and it sounds amazing, I have to read it. I didn’t have a particular model for the use of the second person narrator, though it came about when I got rid of all the scenes that were taking place with another character in real time. I instinctively knew I had to use this device sparingly and I employed it so it could be a fluid, slippery you; my narrator is addressing more than one you in the narrative, depending on when it’s used, and sometimes it refers to more than one person simultaneously.
As for the use of the first-person confessional, I definitely had models for that. I’d say the two most crucial ones were Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence. Both are novellas confronting death. Both make use of the first-person confessional, but in an evasive way, in a manner that is simultaneously direct and intimate but destabilizes the possibility of easy access to the truth, whether it be the truth of the narrator or the events he’s narrating, as well as the truth of death. And I have to stress once again, the confessional aspect of this book is definitely a kind of performance, not a solo performance but a duet between myself and the narrator, or a trio, including the reader. There is so much the narrator is leaving out.
Rail: Two of my favorite books that are explicit meditations unto death are William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands and E.M. Cioran’s On the Heights of Despair. Of course, it’s a common theme. What books inspired your thinking and process here with The Disintegrations?
McCartney: Yeah, Cioran is incredible right—philosophically, he was definitely a major inspiration, as were Blanchot and Handke who I mentioned earlier. Sebald’s The Emigrants was important, in the obliqueness and lightness with which he circles around the Holocaust. Also Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial; I think of The Disintegrations as my own version of that strange little book. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and The Holy Bible were both essential. Most of the books that inspired my process weren’t explicitly about death— I was trying to avoid reading such works, so as not to influence my ideas, to allow the narrator to form his own private cosmology. I was reading much more to help me with the formal difficulties I was presented with, the price I paid for the impossible task of depicting death, and there were novels like Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, Dostoevsky’s White Nights, Susan Sontag’s essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” and weirdly enough, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, books whose stylistic idiosyncrasies or in Sontag’s case, thoughts on style, that guided me towards locating the idiosyncrasy of my form.
Rail: In some of these stories death is calling for you. In others you’re calling for it. Where lies the power of the artist in confronting death?
McCartney: That’s a pretty perfect articulation of the position my narrator finds himself in. He’s positioned somewhere between death and life, half-way between the living and the dead. They keep calling him, to paraphrase a line from another great song about death, Joy Division’s Dead Souls. I can’t speak for every artist, I can only speak for my own process, which I conduct very much in private, in isolation, but to write this book I had to situate myself inside that tension you refer to: with one ear out for the dead, listening, one hand gesturing to them, beckoning them. I had to write from within that dialectic and gradually see what synthesis occurs. I wrote The Disintegrations in a kind of call and response fashion, recording what the dead offered when I reached out to them. That’s the space I was living in, for all the years it took to write this book, hence its difficulty.
Rail: When asked about death, Hemingway once famously quipped, “Death, just another whore,” (though I might be paraphrasing). Is this just bullshit; some machismo, (and maybe misogynist,) bravado, or do you see any wisdom in it?
McCartney: It’s interesting you mention Hemingway, because another book that definitely inspired The Disintegrations was In Our Time. I love the blank simplicity of the stories and the little interstices placed in between them. I wasn’t familiar with that Hemingway quote, so I had to look it up. It seems like it comes from Death in The Afternoon and goes, “‘Death is like an old whore in a bar—I’ll buy her a drink, but won’t go upstairs with her.’”
Well, that quote is totally misogynistic, which, coming from Hemingway and his frail machismo, is no surprise. I love Hemingway stylistically, but he’s not of much interest to me on an intellectual or thematic level. Where I tune into his personification, is his locating death in an erotic figure, though he shies away from the intensity of the connective tissue between sex and death. If I were attempting my own personification of death, it would be a he, not a she, and far more seductive, more like the young male prostitute who allegedly killed Pasolini, though of course that personification is just as problematic. Fundamentally, Hemingway is wrong in trying to turn death into a simile: death is not like anything. That’s the problem most of literature has when approaching and figuring out death’s indescribability. Just as Pasolini’s convicted murderer seems not to have been the actual party responsible for his death, no matter how much we metaphorize, Death will always turn out to be someone or something else than we expect.
Rail: One of my favorite things about the book lies in the feeling that death is this never-ending potential as an abstraction. Similes and metaphors abound to describe what death is or is like: “Gran’s death was like the Bermuda triangle;” to describe the dead is like “giving a missing person’s report;” “death is like being finished off [sexually];” “Dying is like going to a foreign land;” death is God’s accounting, “he’s just balancing the books;” death is a hole by which we pass out of the world; “Death is a form of relocation;” and “Death is sex. We are all virgins, pale versions of ourselves, until we penetrate or have been penetrated by death.” Of course in one chapter, the narrator confesses, “Language only obstructs our ability to see death.” As an author do you believe that language is an obstruction in apprehending this abstraction, or that the no-thing-thingness of death makes it the perfect territory for language to explore?
McCartney: That’s a really interesting question. We’re taught to think that language is a concrete medium, that there is a natural relationship between words and things, though of course Ferdinand De Saussure revealed the abstract nature of language, the fact that there is a gap between every object and every word, that the relationship is artificial and arbitrary, and that as soon as we name an object, that object isn’t there, it’s somewhere else. Death is perhaps the ultimate example of this gap between things and our ability to describe them. So that’s my long-winded way of saying that I feel language is an obstruction to exploring death, albeit a fascinating obstruction. In this sense my desire to write this book was pretty perverse. Though I really like your seeing possibility in this, an abstract medium taking on the most abstract of events, the never-ending play of that. Basically, I feel that language is an obstruction to exploring or apprehending anything. I’m one of those writers who have a highly ambivalent relationship to my own medium and I hope to explore that even further in my next book.