Travel, like great writing, makes us look at the world through new eyes. This past summer I searched for stories over four continents, from Florence to Portland to Lima to Brisbane. And I was continually rewarded by narrative, in its many forms, from the 15th century paintings in Florence and Cuzco, to poems I heard read aloud in Portland and Brisbane. After a week deep in the Amazon, I was hardly a local but I became acclimated enough to see and appreciate everything I’d missed when I first arrived. It is the same with reading—we enter every new work of fiction or poetry as a stranger, an outsider, and if the author is a sure and able guide, as Steven Millhauser is in “Arcadia” or Paul Willems is in “Cathedral of Mist,” then his world becomes a place we experience on all levels. Such authenticity transcends borders, language, and time. In rare moments of transcendence my experience of a story or poem felt like a slap to the face. The alchemical mix of language and idea so jarred me that I was forced to reexamine my previous assumptions. One such instance was when Major Jackson read from his epic poem-in-progress, “OK Cupid,” at our Writer’s Workshop in Portland. There was a collective intake of breath when he launched and it seemed like no one exhaled until the last line. I hope it hits you as hard as it did us.
Current Issue #58
Fiction:Steven Millhauser, Paul Willems, Elisa Albert, Alexander Maksik, Chinelo Okparanta, Shirley Jackson, Jenny Offill
One day the architect V., who was very well-known in Belgium before the First World War, grew tired of concrete and began to hate granite. He had noticed that no matter what one did, stone was stone. Stubborn, it fulfilled only its destiny, which was to endure. It focused its immense, compact strength inward, on itself. And pitted all its inertia against those who tried to distract it by moving or carving it. It loathed the verve church spires lent it. It abhorred all winged things. It suffered in the wind. And should one raise it to a temple pediment, it seized every chance it had to return to the earth. That is why columns topple and even the most lasting monuments slowly sink into the soil, where stone reunites with its beloved darkness.
The architect V. renounced the use of stone. After years of meditation, he built a cathedral of mist.
The principle was simple. The walls and steeple were made of fog instead of rock. As fog could be neither shaped nor mortared, construction was difficult. But the architect V. knew that fog follows certain paths in the air as water follows a riverbed. And so, with the help of skillfully placed bellows, V. founded currents of warm air that rose up like hollow walls and columns. These walls of warm air met in the shape of an arch one hundred and fifteen feet above the floor. Steam from a power station hidden underground followed the paths traced for it in the air.
The architect V. had chosen a magnificent setting, a clearing in the Forest of Houthulst where oaks and beeches soared higher than the vault itself. Here the strange monument wavered gently in the still air. The architecture was at once hazy and precise, for though the steam never strayed from its bed of warm air, it was stirred by drafts and even mere breath.
Visitors arriving on the woodland path would, upon rounding an old oak, suddenly see the mass of the cathedral rising before them. They would stop, astonished. After contemplating the monument at length, but unable to say why they were surprised, they would abruptly realize that the church had neither doors nor windows. Then they would circle the church a few times in search of a hidden entrance.
They left, disappointed and troubled, suspecting a mystery that excluded them. Others, taking inspiration from Open, sesame, entered the church by walking through the walls of fog.
The great nave was worthy of admiration. One hundred and fifty-four columns of mist flowed slowly upward, meeting in seven keystones. There the vapor condensed into droplets of water that fell one by one, at random. The goldsmith Wolfers had sculpted admirable irises to catch them on the ground. The deep blue blossoms bristled with slender steel fillets that each drop of water moved to sustained song. This music, which the fashion of the day deemed “violet,” replaced bells the architect V. had not found a way to hang in the steeple of mist. But instead of taking flight like the sound of bells, this sound could be heard only by visitors, and traveled to a place very deep inside them. Like harness bells on the little horse that draws a sleigh through the night we bear within, the sound glided toward that farthest part of ourselves beyond which music dies in sweet agony.
Here, there, everywhere, on high and from all sides, the boughs of trees surrounding the clearing pierced the walls and vault of mist. They seemed to hold the whole church aloft between heaven and earth. Ivy, unable to climb the walls, only reinforced this impression by thickly carpeting the floor in a green exalted by diffuse and exquisite gray light.
Despite the shelter of the woods, the church would scatter in heavy storms. It took shape again only at dusk, when the wind fell. That was the best time for prayer, as if, while flying over the forest, an archangel had wafted the storm away with his great wings, and then come to perch with nightfall in the thousand-year oak by the cathedral.
My father would say that prayer took on great fervor in that church because it was not expressed in words. As you stood on the carpet of ivy, hearing but not listening to the music of the irises, a kind of mute rapture seized you. You became silence. No voice rose up, not even from the deepest part of yourself. Your whole being went in an intense leap toward something—but what? Not any goal that could be put into words, or the fulfillment of any desire, or a battle, or consolation. You went toward something you did not know the nature of. Toward everything. Toward nothing. And the joy that answered this leap had no name. Leaving the church on such nights, heading down the forest trail, you could have confided in no one. Not even yourself, for you felt a sort of beneficent emptiness, as if that person inside us, who questions and judges us, were absent. My father would say then that he understood that the answers to questions never lie in explanations but in the acceptance of pain and anguish.
You could reach the cathedral of mist on a fairly broad path, easily wide enough to walk three or four abreast. But on the way back (especially after prayer—or should I say meditation?), you took another, narrow path, upon which you walked alone because you needed quiet, and because the visitor had become a pilgrim.
My father visited the cathedral of mist several times. He told me he spent Christmas Eve there with friends in 1909. They had carefully prepared their little expedition. That the night might keep its mystery, they had decided not to bring lanterns or any other kind of light, not even pipes and cigarettes, since they felt a match flame would ruin the darkness. They had sent one of their own ahead during the day to mark the woodland path with white stones, as in a fairy tale.
Around eleven they set out, to reach the church at midnight. Wearing boots and warm clothes, they felt as if they were walking in one of those great northern forests that have never surrendered their secrets. All around them the daunting silence of the Houthulst wood was broken only by the sound of their steps, dead leaves frozen underfoot cracking with a transparent sound like thin glass sheets splintering into shards. They followed the white stones that glowed dimly with vague light from the sky and looked like little dying stars.
When they reached the clearing, they made out the cathedral’s dark, woolly mass, at once deeper and softer than the forest’s hard night. They felt their way through the walls. At once they were plunged into total darkness. From the supple carpet of ivy under their feet came a bitter perfume. They knew they were in the great nave. One of them bumped into an iris whose delicate flower let out a sustained wail, terrifying in the darkness and silence, as if some small and lovely creature but a few steps away were telling them it was about to die.
They realized that the cold was keeping the drops of water from falling from the keystones, and that the music of the irises had gone silent.
And none of them dared so much as lift a finger.
My father told me they remained still for hours. They felt as though even their thoughts were freezing. “Strange,” he said, “one by one all our sensations grew stiff, and our breaths very small as if they no longer dared leave our chests. We were sure some kind of miracle was about to happen. Perhaps we were going to witness our own deaths, or something even simpler and more wondrous. And that’s why we all remained completely still. We felt that if we moved we would topple the massive mechanisms of Stillness and Silence readying an extraordinary event.
“You might find this unbelievable,” my father continued, “but we stayed there without moving for almost seven hours. Time was both very long and very short.
“Suddenly, just when the cold was at its most intense, the vault of the cathedral opened on a sky so blue as to be black, where a crescent moon hung among thousands of cruelly shining stars.”
At this point in his story, my father fell silent to give me time to imagine the sky, an immense frozen lake with the moon and stars caught in the jet-black ice.
“Then,” my father went on,” something strange and wonderful happened slowly, as slow as the hands of a watch. After devouring the vault of the church, the cold attacked the walls and columns. The entire church was absorbed by the night, and the frozen pipes stopped exhaling steam.”
When the sun rose shortly after seven, my father and his friends gave out cries of admiration. Some fell to their knees, while others danced in place like children, and still others raised a hand like those people in romantic paintings whom the artist has forever fixed in place pointing out a mountain landscape where the chaos of a glacier slides on, unmoving.
“But what we beheld,” my father said, “wasn’t chaos but the most perfect harmony I’ve ever seen in my life, a veritable vision that seemed a kind of culmination to our long frozen wait. The cathedral of mist had condensed into frost on millions of branches, the branches of the massive oaks and beeches surrounding the clearing. The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt as if we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors in which winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories. Some of my friends (those who were kneeling) said that the cathedral had parted ways with its walls, its columns and vaults, that it had surrendered its very image to the trees and joined the Three Kings to give the Christ child a church of dreams.
“While we were talking, not without elation,” said my father, “the wind had suddenly turned to the west, the temperature had risen, and snow began to fall in close flakes. In a quarter of an hour, the snow, with countless little strokes and dashes, had with its own whiteness erased the whiteness of the church of frost. And the branches slowly bowed beneath the immense weight of the light flakes. The silence then effaced everything, even shapes, even human beings. The sound of our voices changed and bent, too, beneath the whiteness, while the flakes piled on our clothes and hats. Then, without conferring with each other, we left as one along the pilgrims’ path, a trace of which could still be made out from a slight depression in the snow. I turned one last time toward the clearing. Already the flakes were busy erasing our steps in a kind of quiet rustling so no one could ever follow them and return to the clearing in search of some trace of the extraordinary event we had just witnessed. Besides, frost and footsteps in the snow belong to the ephemeral. The material signs of a miracle can never be erased quickly enough. Miracles belong only to the moment, and can go on only in memory.
“All my life,” said my father, his voice choking, “I have carried that church of frost inside me, and now I am trying to pass its image on to you. Never go to the Forest of Houthulst. Besides, it was almost completely destroyed in 1918, during a murderous battle between the Belgians and Germans. They say nothing is left of the church’s machinery. Nor did V. survive the destruction of his work. They say his friends wished to pay homage to his genius. They got the harebrained idea to erect a tomb for him in the forest. But as the forest no longer exists, they had to make do with a small wood a few acres across, the last vestige of the vast forests that were themselves part of the Silva Carbonaria a thousand years ago.
“And so,” said my father in conclusion, “to recall the memory of the architect V., to make his name endure, they put a heavy granite rock upon his heavy tomb, and his epitaph is graven in heavy letters. It says:
the architect V.
a cathedral of mist.
“No doubt,” my father said, barely hiding his joy, “the granite tomb that no one visits anymore is slowly sinking into the earth, where stone reunites with its beloved darkness.”
Poetry:Patricia Lockwood, Meghan O'Rourke, Britta Ameel, Kazim Ali, Wong May, Kevin Young, Dora Malech, Mark Z. Danielewski, Bianca Stone, Josh Bell, Major Jackson
Interview:Kevin Henkes, Robert Stone
Robert Stone has been there. And he has come out with clear-eyed dispatches from the soul of dark America. Born in 1937, raised by a schizophrenic mother in Brooklyn, with a few stops in Catholic orphanages, Stone went from high school into the navy, and after his four-year stint traveling the globe, came back to New York to work for various tabloids, from the Daily News to a National Enquirer rip-off, before sending a story to Stanford’s prestigious Stegner Program. There, he honed his craft and befriended Ken Kesey, who introduced him to the early experiments with the new research drug LSD. Married and with a young child, Stone watched the Merry Pranksters take off in Further, Kesey’s psychedelic school bus, and greeted them many months later at his Upper West Side apartment. He was in Mexico with Kerouac and Cassady, and in 1971 he went to Vietnam to write magazine pieces, which he used as the raw material for his National Book Award–winning novel, Dog Soldiers.
For his previous eight novels and two story collections, Stone has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and once for the PEN/Faulkner. His 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, vividly recounts his time in the navy and postservice life on the edges of the psychedelic and Beat scenes. His latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, taps into his many years of teaching at prestigious universities, including ten years at Yale. Death of the Black-Haired Girl takes place at a very Yale-like university, and is centered around the affair between the charismatic ex-seaman professor Brookman and his student Maud, the daughter of a Queens cop, which threatens to explode both of their families. The novel goes head-on at class and privilege, the New Haven–like town engulfed in a “terrifying atavistic cloud enfolding shame and resentment, even humiliation and murder.” Like much of Stone’s work, his characters know better than to give in to self-destructive impulses, yet still throw themselves into compromising positions, trapping themselves in webs spun by their own delusions: “What brought him to the office and the meeting with Stack was akin to every other high-risk adventure he had ever undertaken. Maybe the temptation of oblivion, or an obsessive curiosity about the ineluctability of fate. And an ancient anger he had been born with, an insatiable rage against himself, his cast of mind—a sense that he had been born out of line, raised wrong, lived deserving of some unknownable retribution that it was his duty and honor to face down, prevent, overcome.”
I caught up with Stone on an unusually pleasant August day on New York’s Upper East Side, in the modest, comfortable apartment he shares with Janice, his wife of over fifty years. Art posters line the walls, and oriental carpets dot the floors. Lately, Stone has been dividing his time between Manhattan and Massachusetts, where he is undergoing regular CPOD treatment for his chronic emphysema. Our conversation was occasionally interrupted by his shallow coughing, the only sign of his hard living during the late fifties and sixties. Otherwise, the seventy-six-year-old is sharp, measured, and gracious, with a lively twinkle in his eye.
Tin House: One of the things I most admire about your new novel is the multifaceted way it deals with class and privilege.
Robert Stone: Aspects of class and privilege persist on elite campuses and are manifest in many ways to a greater extent than most of us realize. I wonder if there isn’t a greater social and cultural division between young people at the most prestigious schools and kids in our underfunded, undemanding public system than there was fifty years ago.
TH: Both Maud and Brookman are class outsiders at the university.
RS: It is funny, I’ve just been reading about Sylvia Plath at Maureen Buckley’s coming-out party, where she is the most beautiful girl in the room, but also the least rich.
TH: In the crucial scene, you have a powerfully ambiguous moment of violence. I imagine it could be seen as a Rorschach test for readers as to who is most culpable. Are you clear on what happens at that pivotal moment?
RS: I’m quite clear about what’s happening physically in the violent moments. I’m less clear about the chain of guilt and desire that brought the violence down.
TH: So you are not in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”?
RS: Well, I don’t treat them very well. But, no.
TH: You’ve said in the past: “Ambiguity is not the absence of morality. It’s just a confusion about morality.”
RS: The confusions about morality in fiction come from attempts to resolve the whirl of motive and desire in life with a vulgarized formula of “good actions/bad actions, good people/bad people.” It’s not that moral choices don’t exist—it’s that they can’t be expressed in the kind of theatrical shorthand with which slack writing attempts to resolve moral questions. Obviousness in this regard is subversive of good prose and good fiction because moral elements are the core of our great stories.
TH:At the end of Dog Soldiers, you echo the marine motto “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” As fictional god, do you pass judgment on your characters or let the reader, God, or history make up their minds?
RS: To some extent I’m passing judgment. I can’t not. I can’t escape that. But it is more incumbent on the reader to make a moral call on the characters. And of course it is about how well the characters behave, how corrupt they are, and to what degree they fail each other.
TH: There has been a spate of absurd articles lately about the “likeability” of fictional characters, and this being some kind of litmus test.
RS: Well, it is absurd. Their relative likeability is silly. Likeability is something else altogether. It reminds me of a student’s story. I can’t remember if he had been in the military. He had been in one of those situations where there are a lot of young males competing for survival. It might have been a boot camp. And in such a group there is always a scapegoat, a persecuted figure, the one guy whose case everyone is on, the tormented figure. So all kinds of things are done to this person who is inadequate in some way—he can’t keep his gear in order, that kind of thing. So when this person in the story is persecuted, pranks of various sorts are played upon him, and they are meant to be funny; the reader is invited to enjoy the persecution of the persecuted. Well, it spoils the story, because it makes the narrator look like such a no-good son of a bitch that we don’t believe him. This is close to the issue of likeability. There’s a naïveté. The writer is failing to understand that when the writer is inviting the reader to enjoy cruelty, this really spoils the reality and usefulness of the narrator as a narrator. The same thing happens in Waugh. But Waugh, who was a complete no-good prick, knew perfectly well that in order to have a viable and reliable character, useful as a point-of-view character, it wouldn’t do to have him rejoice in the sufferings of the victim. So he makes a POV character, the narrator, actually helpful and kind.
TH: The moral presence in much of your work comes through the female characters. Brookman’s wife, Ellie, reminds me of Grace in my favorite story of yours, “Helping.” But Ellie seems tougher, her religious faith unshakable. What drew you to her and the Bezeidenhaut?
RS: Well, Ellie was born into it—into one form or another of Mennonite. Grace is the kind of Catholic that she has chosen to become. There’s more magic around Ellie. Ellie’s religion is quasi-pagan. It is really a subarctic Hutterite religion touched by Indian beliefs.
TH: It feels otherworldly.
RS: It reminds me that I have no business writing about places like Peru, places I’ve never been. But there too it is deep Indian magic.
TH: Do you admire people with absolute faith?
RS: I think they are lucky up to a point. I wouldn’t say that absolute faith is worthy per se. Sometimes absolute faith is a good guide for life and useful to the world; sometimes it just makes everything more of a drag. It depends on which faith you invest in.
TH: Did this novel start with a character, an image, a word?
RS: It had its origins in a scene of a room with two young women. It just began to happen.
TH: Is this typically how you work, starting in scene?
RS: Yes. Something outside of the narrative structure of the novel that happens before the main action, that isn’t sequential.
TH: Is this voice-driven?
RS: I certainly see the characters and their dialogue is them. So it is voice-driven. It is kind of like acting; it is impersonation, doing the voice.
TH: But it is also radical empathy.
TH: Brookman, like many of your characters, has a restlessness that can’t be tamed by alcohol, sex, adventure, or violence. Do you see your protagonists as suffering from a particularly American affliction?
RS: There’s a very broad sense of entitlement in America. And we deny our impulses less than citizens of other countries.
TH:Like with the character Browne in Outerbridge Reach, who thinks that “the logic of ordinary life was the logic of weakness and fear”—there’s a rage against ordinariness.
RS: That’s Browne at his best and worst. It sounds downright Nazi, but actually Browne is talking about responsibility.
TH: But he also will keep going in the face of near death, saying at one point, “I will lie here as long as it takes to die and call no one.” That refusal to back up and get yourself out of the predicament you’ve put yourself in.
I find it strange that some reviewers have called your work pessimistic. I view your work as clear-eyed and truthful. We live in a delusional society and speaking the truth can be seen as pessimism.
RS: “Pessimistic” is the wrong word for characterizing the work I do. It just isn’t a very considered description.
TH: You’ve spent time in the academic trenches, both as a Stegner fellow and as a teacher. Can fiction be taught?
RS: No. Only in a negative way. You can catch people doing something that doesn’t work. And you point out to them why it doesn’t work. You can’t impart to somebody the gift of storytelling; you can’t teach them how to do it. You can only tell them that they are doing it wrong or that they are doing it right when they are doing it right. You can help people learn. There is no body of technology to impart, no tool building. We’ve invented a diction around things like tropes, but it may not be instructional.
TH: When I teach, I frequently use “Helping” as a great example of physically and psychologically boxing in your characters. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, when Brookman is trapped, you write, “So he stood there in the room that had been contaminated for them by his treachery and tried to figure it out.” To me, that is what fiction should be.
When you were learning to write, did you learn by example?
RS: Pretty much. When I first started to read, I was reading Hemingway and I found it utterly magical. Of course he strode the world, this colossus. I was this high school kid and he was having the greatest life possible to ever have. And you could see that there was something special in the way he was getting inside of people, that he was doing things differently, a different way that people spoke to each other in his stories. I imitated him; I imitated anyone who grabbed me, I would say, shamelessly. I imitated anyone whose work spoke to me. I imitated J. D. Salinger. With the European work you learn differently. I loved Flaubert. I don’t read French, but I could feel the quality and truth. Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russians get mocked now, but they were the only translations we had at the time. I couldn’t imitate the translators. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was always trying to learn. I wanted to write. It was something I really wanted to do. It was like looking at an ivory carving and wanting to be able to do that.
TH: When did that start?
RS: It started in high school. It was the only positive feedback I received. I was very much out of line. I didn’t work hard. I didn’t do my homework. I was a fuckup. But I got positive feedback on my writing. Outside of the school situation it was something I really wanted to do.
TH: Did you spend a lot of time at the library?
RS: Yes, I was a very bookish kid.
TH: Was this at the main Brooklyn library at Grand Army Plaza?
RS: I was in Manhattan by the time I was in high school, so I was using the New York Public Library. My branches were the one where Lincoln Center is now, Ninety-sixth Street on the east side, and Amsterdam and eighty-something.
TH: When you got to Stanford, did you continue your autodidact ways or did you learn more from your contemporaries and teachers?
RS: The world was in the process of changing wildly. I was kind of clinging to realism, which seemed to be disappearing at the hands of John Barth and John Hawkes and so forth. I was sort of hanging in back there with Steinbeck. I remember a whole bunch of us student writers, what we discovered was Revolutionary Road, a realistic novel that refutes the death of realism. Then I had to make a discovery. And that discovery was that there really isn’t any difference between what is realism and what is not realism. I was not, as I had thought, a realist writer. That was not what I did. I wasn’t bound to realism. There are all sorts of ways to write, to make up stories, to tell them, and you don’t have to view realism as a technique and an ideology. I didn’t like the stuff that was supposed to be replacing realism. On the other hand, I wasn’t bound to the realist mode. I just learned that what I thought was going on wasn’t what was going on.
TH: What about Ken Kesey’s work? I know that he influenced you as a person, but what about his actual work? He was slightly ahead of you.
RS: He was two entire novels ahead of me by the time I finished the novel I was working on when I got there. I can’t say that I was influenced by his actual work. He certainly influenced me on what we were going to do that day! But he wasn’t a literary influence.
TH:Sometimes a Great Notion holds up to me as a great American story.
RS: That’s the one, by far, the better book. That’s the goods. I think he was sometimes too influenced by films. We were all influenced by films. You couldn’t be that age and go to the movies all the time and not be influenced. I thought his work was very entertaining and that is the bottom line. One wants to be an entertainer and a storyteller, and he was that. He lacked patience. His problem was impatience. Writing is so lonely and he didn’t like the loneliness. He wanted the audience, literally. He really wanted an audience out there digging it. And of course they aren’t. Or maybe they will still be there in three years if you are still alive. He was like a performer or athlete—he really wanted to perform; he wanted the applause.
TH: In Prime Green you write that Kesey ran “a halfway house on the edge of possibility.” Do you think being a ringmaster was his greatest gift?
RS: He was certainly that. But that’s not what writing calls for. Those aren’t skills that writers need. Showmanship isn’t what is good for a writer. He was impatient when he should have been patient. He should have taken it easy.
TH: Seems like it would have been physically impossible for him to do that.
RS: He was like that. It was virtually physically impossible for him to slow down, to not compete. The great thing about Kesey was that he was really a good person. I mean for a competitive guy with a lot of power and influence, the ability to influence people, the fact that he was actually a good person and a kind person was important, because there were a lot of people like him around at the time who were bad people, involved in drugs. Kesey was not a bad person.
TH: Do you think that Kerouac suffered from the same impatience?
RS: Kesey was just a better writer than Kerouac. My mother sent me On the Road. She was a very strange person. This was the kind of thing she did. I loved the Beat scene. I was in the service at the time, in the military. But I didn’t have the feeling that I was reading anything special. This wasn’t Thomas Hardy! I saw that it was a great, new scene. I was a teenager, so I kind of thought I knew what was hip and cool, and I saw all that in On the Road. But I didn’t see anything really beautiful or moving there. If you take the last couple of paragraphs of Gatsby and the last couple of paragraphs of On the Road, it speaks for itself. The endings of those two books—we all remember the end of Gatsby, whereas the end of On the Road is embarrassing. I’m not an admirer of Kerouac as a writer. And when I knew him as a person, and I didn’t know him well, he was already being destroyed by alcohol. Life was not being good to him, which was scary.
TH: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” famously begins with “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” You’ve had a remarkable career, maintaining your clear vision while descending into the fictional depths of violence and madness. What do you attribute your sanity to?
RS: A lot of it is luck. A strong constitution. Luck and grace keep occurring to me. And I feel like I got away with a lot. Eventually you have to stop because you can’t get away with it anymore. I’m still trying to write. I was surprised that I was able to finish Death of the Black-Haired Girl. There were points where I thought I couldn’t do it. I don’t know exactly what it was that kept me going. I’ve always felt that writing is service. One of the moral perspectives we talked about. Writing is delivering insight, and insight is what gets you through in the world. I need an excuse to be around, I need a job, a serious job to do, and this is my job. That’s one way I pulled through, that I wasn’t destroyed by my weaknesses. I certainly did a lot of drugs, and drank a lot of alcohol. The people who did a whole lot more than I did are dead. I was also with a woman who is really special, and we had children that were young. We got married young; my wife was a teenager when my daughter was born. A lot of things came together in a good way for me.
TH: Some say that art should give comfort to the uncomfortable and discomfort those that are comfortable. Do you have a mission?
RS: I fall back on the insight mode. I think that truth is beauty. It shouldn’t further complacency.
TH: Twenty years ago you said that American fiction is “not in a high state of health.” Do you still feel that way?
RS: I believed it was not doing well at the time. I don’t know if I would repeat that, feeling the same things that I was feeling at the time. There are some really good, ambitious young writers around. Maybe more than there were. I’m not quite sure how to answer that.
TH: Whom do you admire right now of the young writers?
RS: I was very taken with Rachel Kushner. I think she’s a firecracker. I very much admire Madison Smartt Bell. He works very hard. I thought David Foster Wallace was a person of great gifts. I don’t know how that would have turned out in the end.
TH: What about your contemporaries, like Don DeLillo and Joy Williams?
RS: I think Joy Williams is really great, and she is funny. There’s a too Humane Society attitude, that kind of “Save the Whales” thing, but she’s good because she is so funny. Lee Smith, and certainly DeLillo. Richard Ford was always quite good. Not my kind of writer, but still good. Evan S. Connell, I like his work very much. His book about Custer could be a manual for the enemies of the U.S. Army.
TH: The Vietnam War phrase “There it is,” which you have said was invoked when someone had “glimpsed the dark antic spirit of the war,” seems just as apt now for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
RS: Yes, absolutely.
TH: Alice Munro and Philip Roth both recently announced that they are hanging up their pens. Would you ever retire?
RS: No. I will be incapable of it. If I can do it I’m going to do it. My pen is going to hang me. That’s the way it is going to be. If Philip can do that, and I guess he can—he’s very strong-minded. I guess that is true of Alice Munro. It has been really fun to watch her career and she got less and less prim, and less and less afraid of sex. It has been fun to watch this lady from the country go to the big city.
TH: Do you have any perspective on your own work? Do you have any favorites?
RS: I think that when I succeeded, when I felt like I succeeded in saying what I tried to say, was with Outerbridge Reach. That’s my baby. That’s what I wanted to say about life and art. Children of Light is also one of my favorites, even though it is no one else’s. Talk about not too likeable. I haven’t worked as hard as I should have, obviously. But I’ve done what I’ve done.
Lost & Found:Robert Anthony Siegel, Dani Shapiro, Gabrielle Gantz, Rachel Monroe, Tobias Carroll
It is impossible to write about Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights without writing about Elizabeth Hardwick. The novel—if it can be called a novel—is the story—if it can be called a story—of a woman named Elizabeth. She is a writer, a Southerner, born and bred in Kentucky, as was Hardwick. She lives much of her adult life in an artist’s studio on West Sixty-seventh Street and summers in Maine, as did Hardwick. She is divorced—“I am alone here in New York, no longer a we”—as was Hardwick, who was famously married to, then not married to, then reunited just prior to his death with the poet Robert Lowell. Before the character Elizabeth married, she shared quarters and a tempestuous friendship—a “mariage blanc”—in New York City’s Hotel Schuyler with a young homosexual man from Kentucky, as did Hardwick: “He was quite handsome, but also soft and rounded and as determined against sports as if he had been born with a handicap. But one year he began the recreation of himself in a daily horrible contest with barbells, push-ups, excruciating exercises. And slowly the neck thickened, the chest expanded, the muscles of the arms were visible . . . by enormous effort, he finally succeeded in looking like others.” Hardwick and her friend spent time with Billie Holiday—which she describes in a 1976 essay in the New York Review of Books, and which she incorporates seamlessly into Sleepless Nights, using descriptions and details, as well as many passages such as this one—and who could resist?: (“One winter she wore a great lynx coat and in it she moved, menacing and handsome as a Cossack, pacing about in the trap of her vitality.”)
These “coincidences” are hardly surprising. Hardwick, one of the great critics and intellectuals of her time and a founder, along with Lowell, Robert Silver, and Jason and Barbara Epstein, of the New York Review of Books, openly defied genre. As a critic, she was less interested in theory than in what the critic Denis Donoghue calls a “working psychology” and this psychology—the shape of a mind, thinking—is what shapes Sleepless Nights. Incandescent, elliptical, challenging, her language itself is the story, and questions of what is true and what is invented, what is fiction and what is memoir—arguably some of the more tiresome literary questions of our current day—pale against the excitement of watching Hardwick’s formidable (and at times hilarious) mind at work. Reading Sleepless Nights, the reader is absorbed not by the momentum and velocity of story but, rather, by the fascinations of inner life.
Action, Aristotle once wrote, is not plot, but merely the result of pathos. And pathos is what forms Sleepless Nights. Pathos does not exist in a temporal reality. Nor is it linear. It moves along a poetic circuitry that creates itself, much the same way consciousness does. “If I want a plot,” Hardwick once commented in a Paris Review interview, “I’ll watch Dallas.”
And so these layers, or transparencies, of the fictional Elizabeth laid atop the real Elizabeth are like the layers of time and place that make up Sleepless Nights. We are led into a fretting, sleepless mind occupied by its agitated turning, a life expanding and collapsing upon itself so that it’s all playing out at once. Hardwick’s mind is a bit like her beloved New York, which she describes in terms at once acerbic and nostalgic:
The Hotel Schuyler is gone now. Uncertain elevators, dusty “penthouse” suites, the greasy, smoking ovens of “housekeeping units,” the lumpy armchairs—a distracted life, near the Harvard Club, the New York Times, the old Hotel Astor, the Algonquin, Brentano’s. In the halls you would sometimes hear a baby crying—child of a transient—and it was a sound from another world. The irregular tenants were most pitiful when they received visits from relatives, from their ex-wives, their grown children. They walked about sheepishly then, as if they had met with an accident. Soon the disappointed sons and daughters left, wives went back home, and at the Schuyler, free once again, our people returned to their debaucheries, their bills, and that stain of life-giving paranoia—limited, intact—each one wore like a tattoo.
Aside from the sheer joy of reading a writer who nails character the way Hardwick repeatedly does (I confess that several times, while reading, I found myself grateful that she never had the opportunity to turn her gimlet gaze on me), it’s striking that the vanishing city of which she writes has since been painted over by several generations of ever-vanishing cities. Brentano’s has been shuttered for years, not to mention Scribner’s, B. Dalton, and the Doubleday Bookshop—all of which sat within a few blocks that now teem with tourists getting good deals at Prada. The old Hotel Astor has faded from memory. Even the New York Times has moved to a soaring tower a few long blocks west. Institutions: you can’t count on them. And yet, Hardwick’s city—“New York, with its graves next to its banks”—is at once a ghost and as alive as it ever was: “A brilliant night outside in New York City. It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants, jumping in taxicabs, careening from West to East by way of the underpass through the park.”
It is only fitting that this literary excavation of the pathos of interior life should contain, near its end, the phrase “the battered calendar of the past.” Indeed, the entire slim volume is a battered calendar, its pages flipping back and forth as if by a gusty wind. The experience of reading Sleepless Nights is a profoundly intimate one. Hardwick will never read these words, but I want to do her proud. I want to apply my “working psychology” to hers and, in so doing, add another layer to the ongoing, ever-evolving edifice of transparencies, as soaring and beautiful and somehow as real as her New York—or mine—or the cities still to come. No matter. “In truth,” she writes, “moments, months, even years were magical. Pages turned, answering prayers, and persons called out, Are you there? The moon changed the field to the silvery lavender of daybreak.”