"There are times when all writing is like the cinema hat you can't take off, and once it's in place, there's a tendency to catastrophize, to make things more interesting."
Stories and texts get passed from one character to another in Susan Daitch's fictions. Details change. Truth becomes relative. For the reader, the desire to understand "what happened" soon takes a backseat to the appreciation of "what is happening" with respect to narrative form. Tensions between form and content—constant alterations to the map's depiction of the territory—are especially prominent in her newest work, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, a novel in which an international, intergenerational series of characters searches obsessively for a phantom city. Over the course of a few weeks, Daitch and I corresponded about her characters' obsessions and the value of art in relation to cultural and geological catastrophe.
Evan Lavender-Smith I was especially struck by the rich historical and geographical detail here, and I found myself wondering about the work you must have done, beyond writing, to create a sense of verisimilitude about places and periods that aren't our own. Did you travel? I'm assuming you did quite a bit of research for this one.
Susan Daitch It was a lot of research and written over a twelve-year period. I spent time in most of the cities that appear in the book: London, Berlin, Marseilles, the province of Chiapas, and I lived in the East Village in the ‘80s. The only place I couldn't travel to was the remote part of eastern Iran, the location most central to the book. Since Suolucidir isn't a real place, I had some latitude with what I could invent, but there were aspects of Zahedan, an actual town, that had to be accurate. On the eve of World War I and again just before World War II, there probably would have been no hotels in the Western sense, no trains, and little or no electricity. Later on, in the 1970s, the town wouldn't have been so isolated as to be immune to the reach of the Shah and Savak. So there was a balance between what had to be researched or visited, and what I could invent.
The name of the lost city determined its location. Suolucidir is ridiculous spelled backward, because of the absurdity of the illusion-driven excavations each group undertakes. Suolucidir sounds like Seleucid, an actual ancient people who occupied Persia, so it made a kind of sense that an offshoot of the Seleucids might be called Suolucidiri.
There's also an actual site in eastern Iran called the Burnt City, or Shar-e Sukhteh, that resembles Suolucidir, which was also explored in the 1970s before the door closed, then reopened years later. It, too, is in Sistan-va Baluchistan, the beak-shaped border of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. All kinds of things were found in the Burnt City: an artificial eyeball, dice, evidence of brain surgery, early animation in the form of spinning plates—sort of like zoetropes. I was also referencing the work of sculptor Norman Daly, who invented a vanished ancient culture he called Llhuros, complete with academic authorities and artifacts made of gaskets, sneaker soles, rusted graters, all kinds of stuff. The nature of Suolucidir itself, its systems of justice, defense, and ways it irrigated the desert are all completely invented, but the historical context of each expedition had to be accurate. I interviewed archeologists about how the process of digging and recording changed from the let's-take-everything-we-can-get-our-hands-on end of the spectrum to a take-nothing approach, from drawing and field notes written by hand to holding up a phone. Attitudes about how we go about looking for origins have changed, and this needed to be reflected in how all the puzzle pieces of the quest for the lost civilization fit together.
The Franco-Soviet Friendship Dig of 1939 was the most fun to write and the most ridiculous. A friend who lives in Berlin, Ori Ginat, gave me an invaluable tour of the corners and alleys of Mitte and Scheuneviertel where the fake Franco-Soviets first established themselves. The Hilliard-Congreaves Expedition just before World War I was the most difficult to write. There is no end to the received ideas about British colonialism, and I wanted to both use those ideas and undermine them. No pith helmets, but umbrella stands made of elephant legs, unfortunately.
ELS Suolucidir is an object of obsession for characters in the novel; one after another gets bitten by the Suolucidir bug, as it were. I thought of Ahab and the whale, of obsession becoming an end in itself. There's a lot of doubling in the novel—characters appropriating the identities of other characters, the nesting of narrative within narrative—and I suppose at a certain point I was made to think that all quest narratives are, to some extent, "absurd," or at least doomed to some form of failure. Does the illusory nature of discovering Suolucidir possess some metafictional resonance, I wonder? I found myself wanting a resolution of the "real" Suolucidir while recognizing that this desire followed from my expectations relating to the conventions of adventure narrative. Maybe I'd been bitten by the Suolucidir bug, as well, and the final "illusion-driven excavation" is the one undertaken by the novel's reader. Can you talk more about obsession and illusion in relation to the novel's story and structure?
SD As I was writing, I kept thinking of the book as an artifact, something that also crept in when structuring my first book, L.C. I was thinking about the book as an object that changed hands and was retranslated according to who was doing the translation. With Suolucidir, the camera kept pulling back. A plate meant to spin like a zoetrope wasn't just a piece of clay pornography in a cave, but a sign of a much bigger, but dismembered culture. The camera pulls back again and the plate is buried in basement storage in the British Museum.
I'm reluctant to knight any one of the Suolucidir stories as the actual, most 100% truthful version. For archeologists, an object has one meaning on the site of origin, another when it's in a museum, or part of a looter's inventory. Is it a votive or a can opener? All versions can lay claim to a piece of the accuracy pie. In Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, you know Zeno is never going to quit smoking. There will always be one more last cigarette, and you see the banana peels in his path that he's doomed to slip on, but you keep following him in his obsessions, even if you have reason to doubt the confessions he delivers to his doctor. I'm Not Stiller by Max Frisch sets up similar questions. You read James Larkin White's journal, and you believe him that he's innocent until halfway through when he confesses he's Anatol Ludwig Stiller, murderer, and you have to rethink everything you believed was absolutely true until then.
Nineteenth-century adventure stories were often fueled by obsession, whether the obsessive was realistic Ahab or fantastic Captain Nemo. The obsessions in Suolucidir might appear as archeological treasure, but that quest masks other obsessions, ones that also drive our current moment: oil, capital, origin stories. Also, in writing exploration stories we now take into account that all those empty spaces are home to someone whether a giant squid or dark matter; it's not just all yours for the taking, at least I hope so, making it difficult not to write adventure stories without some kind of self-consciousness.
ELS I also thought of the artifact in relation to narrative, as I did in L.C., but in The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir this quality feels even more immediate, in part due to the typographical shifts from one section to the next, serving to remind the reader that what she's reading is something material, something "found." The typographical difference also underlines any given perspective's tenuous relation to objective fact: I know that the information I'm receiving has been marked by a character's desire, subjective bias, linguistic/narratological predilection, etc. Of course, there's at least one instance of narration here, Ariel's, which isn't necessarily artifactual or epistolary—I don't associate its material presence with a character having written or found it—and therefore it doesn't receive typographical alteration. Oftentimes when encountering non-standard typography in a novel I involuntarily raise an eyebrow, involuntarily tsk—but in The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, there's a sensation of the narrative deepening with each successive alteration, and my excitement and anticipation as a reader keeps growing. How is it for you with respect to typography and the materiality or the “foundness" of the writing? Is it generative to your process to posit an imagined authorship and material life to the documents that make up a novel like this one?
SD When writing both L.C. and The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, I was thinking about how the book would be transformed every time it changed hands. They were both constructed as a bundle of documents, and each piece of evidence added needed to be a reflection of the person telling the story at their particular moment. The materiality, the tactility of a book is lost when information is delivered through the screen (though there are things the screen can do that paper can't, like add sound and motion), but I wanted to use that physicality to the extent a printed book can. I wanted to try to reproduce those material signals as much as possible, and support the ruse of imagined authorship, though I'm the one pulling levers behind the curtain. In film, there's the jump cut. We take it for granted, and when a camera cuts from one place and time to something entirely different, it's generally not a surprise. I wanted to do the same thing with a book. The eye works more quickly, initially registering difference, so the effect is immediate, then the act of interpretation that is reading takes over, and then you go from there.
When I taught for a semester at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I discovered the university has a great Dada archive, where I was able to look at and read Duchamp's Green Box, his notes and documents for The Bride Stripped Bare. Each piece has its own purpose, identity, and sets of references to the parts of the sculpture. Some fragments include typing, but most are hand written. There are drawings, schema, and bits and pieces written on different kinds of paper. Duchamp is signaling that, among other things, linear continuity may not be all it's cracked up to be, but you can still find meaning and order. I wanted to borrow some of that same sense of discovery and putting the pieces together.
Most of the contributors to Lost Civilization aren't sitting in front of a screen, and some are writing in times and from places where even typewriters weren't readily available. The process of how they thought and wrote needed to be reflected in the content of what they wrote, and how that would look.
ELS The inevitability of things disappearing is a theme that crops up in a lot of your writing; it was certainly something I noticed in both Paper Conspiracies and The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir. In Lost Civilization, there are a number of foreboding references to the inevitability of cultural disappearance—future archaeologists excavating Los Angeles—and even of geological disappearance—the sun eventually exploding or crashing into the Earth. I sometimes wonder whether my own anxiety about inevitable large-scale cultural disappearance—whether at the hand of politicians, war, climate change, or whatever else—shouldn't more strongly determine the subject matter of my writing. There's probably a part of me that still believes art could potentially represent a bulwark against such loss. Surely that's a naïve, idealistic way of thinking. But do you feel compelled to engage with these matters—the will to historical preservation, the anxiety about imminent cultural or geological destruction—out of a sense of concern? Is there an ethical imperative associated with the presence of these themes in your writing?
SD Everyone involved in looking for Suolucidir—the Franco-Soviets, the British spies, the residents at the sanatorium in Kierling, Bokser watching the Watergate hearings and facing unemployment—they all have the desire to occupy the past and the future, obsessively unearthing one with the full knowledge that the other doesn't look so hot.
Cultural, geological, and ultimately planetary disappearances—yes, there is a motion toward those inevitable vanishings, while at the same time there's a desire to preserve and to read again. Part of Paper Conspiracies was about Méliès's filming of the Dreyfus trial, the first filmed docu-drama ever that followed the actual timeline of the Dreyfus Affair, from his trial to his imprisonment in Devil's Island. There was a raft of completely false paper evidence—forgeries, doctored photographs, notes from embassy garbage—intended to buttress the invented case against him, and for years that case was successful. Méliès wanted to make a film that would say, "No, that's not how it was." He wouldn't accept Dreyfus' guilty verdict, a kind of disappearing, and his film was an act of defiance, a case against disappearance. For Méliès, there was an ethical imperative, and I wanted to look at that.
Those contradictory impulses drive all the characters looking for Suolucidir, even if they come to think the site is doomed, they can't stay away, can't leave it alone. Even if driven, initially by self-interest, all the groups are looking for origins, for records. Both impulses are going on at the same time, wanting to find out what happened to the lost city while courting the possibility that they themselves will become lost, too.
Years ago I saw Charles Long's sculpture, The Cinema Hat. It appears in The Colorist. It was a box that looked like the inside of a movie theater, so when you put it on your head and walked around, it was as if your life was a movie. There are times when all writing is like the cinema hat you can't take off, and once it's in place, there's a tendency to catastrophize, to make things more interesting. When Bokser is waiting for a elevator before a job interview, a job that has nothing to do with his training, he can't help himself. He's an archeologist. What he did for years was try to find meaning in the things ancient people threw away either via sacred burial or actual trash, so he can't help himself when he wonders how the lobby's vermiculite composite paneling will be read in 5,000 years. How will meaning be found in the stuff we try to preserve and the stuff we toss?
No, I don't think it's naïve at all to think of art as a bulwark, and it's a valid concern, otherwise we might as well fold up shop and wait to be turned into whatever layer of some future Burgess Shale will turn out to be ours.
Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books) and Avatar (Six Gallery Press). His writing has recently been published by Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, Hobart, and others. He is the founding editor of Noemi Press, the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, and an assistant professor in the MFA program at New Mexico State University.