Freedom, negation, and marine zoology.
Goats will arrive. Goats will disappear. That’s the premise, in short, of Dolan Morgan’s “Infestation,” the story leading off his debut collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down (Aforementioned Productions, 2014).
Further along, another story, “Euclid’s Postulates,” reads: “I can’t help but assume the words are merely decorative here, festooning the empty belief that a narrative ripples beneath the facts. Something about space, about shape, about us.”
“Content” is what the business side calls the work of writers—you know, the words that fill the empty space where a book would go. Morgan’s fictions exist knowingly in that interstitial gap between notion and accomplished fact. Actually, they thrive there.
J. T. Price That’s When The Knives Come Down has an interesting dedication. I wondered if you could say a few words about that, what it means to you?
Dolan Morgan Absolutely. The dedication is “For nothing,” and I mean this in a number of ways. First off, I wrote the stories in the collection without any expectation of payment. For zero dollars. So I literally wrote them for nothing.
JTP A self-sustaining literary career is ever more an illusory prospect—and instead something a writer does in addition to teaching, or walking dogs, or delivering mail. Following the book’s publication, has your outlook changed at all?
DM I don’t think so. I feel the same. I still approach my work the same way, and I’m certainly not getting rich off of stories. In fact, perhaps the most important or impressive thing I’ve been “given” in return for this work is also nothing at all. That is, Marina Abramović Institute donated Nothing to the book’s pre-order campaign, so my publisher and I were able to reward nothing to one lucky winner on their behalf. MAI sent an empty box to a retired teacher and viola player in New York City.
JTP It’s the thought that counts.
DM I also wrote these stories without any real expectation that they’d ever be published—and certainly without any expectation that they would someday be gathered together as a book. That notion—“without expectation”—is maybe an appropriate way to distill the dedication. Like anyone else, I want for things in this world, and I experience desire and need and envy and lust and longing, yet I never feel so good as when I let all of that go, when I abandon intention. When I suddenly remember how little of what I’m actually entangled in can really matter. When I stop trying and lie down on the kitchen floor, wiggling like a worm and feeling the cool tiles on my cheek. When I cancel a trip and walk to the pier at five AM. When I put away the map and get lost.
JTP I’m reminded of a story from your collection, “Euclid’s Postulates,” in which the protagonist encounters some difficulty meeting his girlfriend at the funeral of her mother. Instead of asking how much of what you write is autobiographical, I’ll ask this: Do you have an example from your life where Nothing illuminated things for you?
DM I have a sort of absurd or selfish but still practical example that’s more akin to that “Euclid’s Postulates” story than Nothing in particular: Once, when I was much younger, I held a job at a small bakery and restaurant. The boss was an absolute tyrant. Fed up with his abusive language, I quit. The manager asked that I stay on for an extra couple of weeks, to help them transition. I agreed. These last few weeks represented a special circumstance, a place between routine and meaninglessness. A place beyond expectation. And without the impetus to perform or please, a certain freedom afforded itself to me. I created a Hostess Cupcake costume out of black garbage bags and white twist-ties and wore that to my shifts. I whipped up a special sale for an item I called “Warm Lemon Hand Wedge”—a latex glove filled with warm water, set gingerly on a small plate and garnished with a slice of lemon.
Writing is much the same. In making a story, I am both the disgruntled employee and abusive boss, and I work in search of the moment when I can finally quit and find a few weeks of sudden magic outside routine. I put in the time and berate myself. I clock in, making plans and outlines for characters and plots. I daydream and draw elaborate connections. Everything is possible, stupidly. Plans so rarely help me in my writing. Plans are the job that I quit. Plans feel good, then disintegrate in my hands before becoming anything real. Recipes overtake the bakery. Then it’s just a bunch of paper and half-formed ideas, ingredients and instructions littering the kitchen. As a rule, I throw away most of the work that I spend time outlining.
JTP A form of ritual self-sacrifice? Or a way of scratching past the most ready answers?
DM Maybe neither? I just need to fail a lot to do anything worthwhile. With every new project, I feel like I’m starting over and re-teaching myself to be both humble and unencumbered. All of the pieces in That’s When the Knives Come Down are the product of accident and luck and time, but only as outcroppings from the moments when I felt most exasperated by my own impotence and inability to do anything. You plan and fall short, and you outline and fuck up, and you wish and want, and then you don’t so much give up as you give in. You stand atop a teetering pile of your own absurd expectations and survey the dumb landscape that surrounds you, then don the cupcake costume and offer up the warm lemon hand wedge to the universe. I have to let go of what I want from a story and try in turn to deliver what the story itself wants or demands. Which is an important distinction. I think it’s easy to look at something like “For nothing” and think of it as selfish or cheeky or clever, but I think of it as quite the opposite: simple, mundane, sincere. For me, it is a reminder to shit on my big ideas. To forget me for a minute. I have to set aside my ambitions and do things that feel pointless and useless.
That moment of total abandon, of surrender to futility, has a quasi-religious flavor to it, not unlike David Mamet’s notion that “the purpose of the prayer was not, finally, to bring about intercession in the material world, but to lay down, for the time of the prayer, one’s confusion and rage and sorrow at one’s own powerlessness.” I agree, though I might add joy or ecstasy to that list. We need not separate sorrow from joy when facing our own uselessness, and I try to approach my work like this, and in fact my whole life as well. If I were a superhero I would want my special ability to be a kind of magic powerlessness, where I can do nothing to stop the war, and this saves the day.
JTP But how about this? A quotation: “He looked for loose ends, but oh, it was all loose ends." Negation comes up a lot in the collection. It almost stares the reader in the face. Although maybe stares is the wrong word, Nietzsche notwithstanding. Voids, absences, not-ness. One story, “Plunge Headlong Into the Abyss with Guns Blazing and Legs Tangled,” features a security guard tasked with watching over a fake abyss made to divert those who would otherwise jump into the other, real abyss. It’s fairly clear, though, that you find negation in some measure liberating.
DM I might go so far as to say that negation is the cornerstone of liberty. Freedom, for me at least, always exists on the other side of purpose. (I also think liberty and freedom are not actually possible, but can at best be approached through something like negation.)
Here’s an example: I was for some time a public school teacher, and in solidarity with many of my students, I observed Ramadan for a few years. This involves fasting for many weeks, among other things. You don’t eat or drink throughout the day. It’s a process of self-negation that, for a distinctly non-religious person like myself, is pretty pointless and irrational. There was no good reason for me to do this. And it seems kind of silly to tout elaborate constrictions and limitations as being liberating, but I can think of no better route to freedom than its abandonment.
Another way to say what I mean is: the purest kind of liberty is the one that frees you from your stupid self, yada yada. But really. Observing Ramadan imposed on me a new set of circumstances that negated my basic wants and choices and scrubbed away the surface-level version of myself. What’s left after that’s stripped away? What am I when I don’t have an egg and cheese sandwich in the morning. What am I when I don’t have coffee four times a day. What am I when I don’t drink or smoke. When I don’t respond to my body’s impulses. When I don’t indulge my thirst or hunger. When I wake hours earlier than I would otherwise.
JTP In, say, the way the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu viewed humanity, the individual as a composite of signifiers. Bourdieu’s work has taken on greater resonance over the past decade, with the rise of social networking and data mining, to which it seems he speaks fairly directly. There’s an n+1 essay out there on this subject.
DM Yeah, social networking is a kind of salty meal. And it can be alarming to observe just how much of one’s mental space is occupied by these incidental choices and actions. I mean, I don’t think of myself as being defined by egg and cheese sandwiches or bagels from the deli, or even by so many glasses of water. But the stunning silence when all of that is removed says otherwise. A person’s life is so many pieces of bread and the time it takes to eat them.
JTP Well put.
DM I think this is the underlying reason why people find vacations so exciting. Not because of the time off of work, but because of the way something truer about themselves comes vividly into focus when all of the accumulated trivialities are whisked off their backs and replaced with new, alien trivialities. Palm trees, airplanes, sunsets: these things aren’t more meaningful than meetings, annual reports, or advertisements. They’re just another kind of nothingness. In this way, pointless religious ritual can be as powerful as vacation. Vacations and rituals are not inherently good or bad or revelatory, but by covering yourself in a blanket of new absurdities (on a beach or a prayer mat), the outline of the standard everyday absurdities becomes clearer for it.
From the right vantage point, everything we do looks pretty silly, I guess. It can be hard to decide what kind of idiot to be from one moment to the next. And so: another way in which negation (in the form of something like observing Ramadan or anything else) can be liberating is in how it limits choices. Freedom/liberty/agency can be expressed as a sense of control, the feeling that you are able to make decisions and bring about change—and a surplus of choice doesn’t necessarily support that sense. I can offer a pretty concrete example of this. The writer Michael Thomsen recently told me of his experiences playing the video game Super Hexagon. The basic point of the game is to move through a series of fast-moving partitions. The openings are always in a small number of positions, but the player has a full range of 360-degree motion with which to work. The feeling of that many choices—nearly infinite—in comparison to the specificity of the desired effect is terribly frustrating. In other words, one feels out of control for having an embarrassment of options.
JTP Yes, a kind of paralysis where, Well, I could go here or I could go there or I could—and the “theres” keep stacking up until, boom, Rip Van Winkle, and you’ve been still at the center of the screen for twenty years. Nobody in town remembers you any more.
DM I feel this way constantly, even when I get dressed in the morning. Or when I look at a blank page for example. Especially then. Anything could happen, and that’s impossible. Negation, in the form of ritual, constricts choices, and in turn gives a firmer sense of control. Or at least the illusion of control, which I think is arguably the same. This is 100% true for me in writing. I rely on sets of ridiculous rules and arbitrary limitations to move forward with any sense of confidence or ability. What I mean is that I like to lock myself in a closet to get things done because I’m terrible at freedom.
JTP So maybe freedom can be a little frightening. At least without a proper guide. If you ever wrote a self-help book, what would it be called? Or is That’s When The Knives Come Down actually self-help in its own right?
DM Self-help is one of my favorite genres. The language and the structure stretches beyond ridicule into pure joy. I love lists. I love slogans. I love cheap and intricate metaphors that oversimplify complex scenarios. I love anecdotes that broker absurd logical leaps from generalization to universal decree. I can’t get enough of it. And yes, I do think of my work as a kind of reductive sloganeering.
I’m also enamored by the fact that self-help enterprises are by and large terrible for people. As in, they’re often indistinguishable from pyramid schemes. Rich Dad, Poor Dad is a favorite.
But it’s also hard to distinguish most of life from a pyramid scheme, so I don’t begrudge anyone’s reliance on self-help books or programs. To be able to choose how the world steps on and defrauds us is one of the rarest privileges. To feel guilt or regret about the impact of our own actions is a blessing afforded only to the lucky.
JTP And your proposed self-help title?
DM Absolutely, if I wrote a self-help book, it would be called Now Put Your Face in the Face Removal Orb.
JTP Pretty surreal. Like we’d all be walking Magritte paintings, or, at least, your following would be. I imagine the rival ideology as something like, Now Etch Your Face in All the Stone Everywhere and Make the People Look. But if there were one thing you could change about the USA, as if by magic, starting tomorrow, what would it be?
DM I wanted to say something flippant like “the way self-service check-out machines work” or “the taste of candy corn,” but I can’t commit to that. There are a million and one things I would change about this country, but I think chief among them is our prison system.
The difference between being in prison and not being in prison is pretty significant, I think we can all agree. I’ve personally never been to prison, but I have multiple family members who have endured the pleasure: none would recommend it. And as of 2011, about 3% of the US population is under one type of correctional supervision or another, either incarcerated or on probation. A quarter of the entire globe’s prison population is housed right here in the US. It’s the largest in the world and perhaps the largest in the course of human history: seven times larger than the entire population of Iceland.
JTP So it’s a form of negation you wouldn’t choose to go in for. Being that it severely reduces the possibility of choosing what you do and what you don’t.
DM The sheer numbers themselves should give us pause, let alone the disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities, the terrifying quality of life within the facilities themselves, the steady privatization of the system’s oversight, and the 2-5% estimated to be innocent and wrongly convicted. It’s hard to absorb or even conceive. And the state of things is such that our representative government can be held legally accountable for not producing more criminals: privately managed prisons have sued states for not delivering enough prisoners. The very idea is antithetical to the ambitions of a justice system but is nevertheless part and parcel to the “best in the world.” Privatization is intended to help limit spending and make the whole enterprise more financially solvent, but I’m of the opinion that removing the dignity and liberty from a few million people should not come at a discount. It should come at great cost.
JTP Yes, but the market. Market-based solutions are always the solution to problems created by the marketplace. That’s if I’ve learned anything by reading the Eternal Mitt’s words closed-captioned above me at the gym. ’Cause, how else?
DM I’m in no place to say how we might resolve any of this, so I’d be eager to try your proposed method: magic.
JTP Oh, that’s right. That was my solution.
DM We could start somewhere small, perhaps by waving our wizard wand at the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, Section 1: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” I’m not comfortable with nearly 3% of U.S. citizens (who are disproportionately black and Latino) being eligible for slavery or indentured servitude, now or ever. We must aspire to think about justice as something other than a recapitulation of the worst elements of our nation’s history.
So, yeah. Bring on the magic, please.
JTP I’m going to take this in a different direction now: If you were a sea creature, which creature and why?
DM This is a very difficult question because the answer is obvious.
I want desperately to say that I’d be a mantis shrimp. But I cannot. I want to have an explosion of vibrant color. But I don’t. I want to be able to strike passing fish with a force of 1,500 newtons, so swiftly that a secondary shock wave alone could kill my prey. Yet I can barely put on my socks. I want the clasping of my claws to be so violent as to create enormous heat and sudden light. I can’t even whistle. I want to have the most complex eyes the animal kingdom has ever known or conceived. I want to keep my eggs in a burrow, detect the presence of cancer, and recognize the firing of neurons. So yes, mantis shrimp, I want to be you. But I am not.
JTP I admire your humility. I feel like some of the stuff I’ve read by you—“How To Have Sex on Other Planets” from the collection, for example—makes it seem like you’re able to deliver a 1,500-newton verbal impact replete with secondary shock.
DM Whether or not my stories are lucky enough to be a magnificent monster shrimp (I wish! Imagine a bound book of them!), I think it’s pretty clear that I personally am not—I would instead be a zooid, one of many tiny animals in a pyrosome colony.
DM A pyrosome is a collection of smaller organisms held together in a gelatinous cape. I think of myself as one insignificant part of a larger network. And I think that the larger network exists unseen and unnoticed in a dark expanse that neither cares nor invests in the collective’s well-being. Many pyrosomes move primarily at the will of ocean currents. I understand myself to be influenced by social and physical forces well beyond my control, that I’ve arrived here and now by dint of error and coincidence. One zooid can shake its cilia, flailing about and trying to change its own life. The attempt is unreasonable yet no less tempting to the zooid. Yet it can occasionally fall into a unique rhythm with its peers, as they each foolishly endeavor toward the unreachable and unfathomable, finally allowing for slight deviations in travel and shared joy. I’ve known it to be true in rare instances.
JTP Solace of a sort. Succor.
DM If you’re lucky! This all sounds a little cynical maybe. But that would be a misinterpretation of the facts. A zooid is blessed to have companions and safety and something to hang onto in the dark. The mantis shrimp just stands around looking flashy and smashing things.
And there’s a sort of magic hope for zooids too: when pyrosomes collect near the surface of the sea, they can become bioluminescent in the night, glowing a gentle blue just beneath the waves. That sounds great! Sailors look on from their ships, far away from everything, in awe and wonder at the richness of the living world. Yes! Or they don’t give a shit at all because it’s only a bunch of zooids, insignificant and tiny. Their light is dim and the waters dark.
But either way, it’s also a kind of dream to be there at the edge of the universe, so I say keep flailing and shaking to no purpose. Because in all honesty, there are no sailors and the ocean has no surface.
J. T. Price's writing is forthcoming or extant in The New England Review, Opium Magazine, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tottenville Review, The Millions, and elsewhere.