Jeffrey DeShell and Rebecca Wolff discuss their latest works–from class, porn, to intertextuality found in our day-to-day lives.
We’ve invited Rebecca Wolff to the University of Colorado Reading Series. This will be the first stop of her Western Swing: she’ll be visiting Counterpath Press for a Small Press celebration and panel, then onto a reading at Wolverine Farm in Fort Collins. We’ve known each other for a while, for six or seven years, and our children have played together once or twice. At BOMB’s invitation we engaged in a leisurely email exchange about her recent foray into fiction, The Beginners, and my most recent novel, Arthouse.
Jeffrey DeShell Welcome to Colorado, Rebecca!
Rebecca Wolff Thank you! It’s lovely to be here. Today’s my birthday.
JD Happy birthday!
One point of contact between your novel The Beginners and my Arthouse is the strong role that influence plays in the lives (I won’t say development) of the characters. Ginger, your protagonist, seems influenced at first by literature, then porn, and, finally, her new friends, Theo and Raquel Motherwell. The Professor, my protagonist, is obviously influenced by film. My question is this: Is The Beginners a comedy, in that it has a happy or hopeful ending? Or does it end with a sense of foreboding?
RW I guess you could say that both of our protagonists are perfectly unformed? And ready to be manipulated. They are radical characters, in that. And both are at the mercy of artifice, or in love with artifice, and with being its container or exemplar, involute. The Professor is so malleable that he maintains no stable speech-character or selfhood from chapter to chapter, and is expressed through the framing devices of each chapter’s titular film. Ginger embodies a classic teenaged moment of malleability in which her story—with its closer resemblance to “life”—can read as ghost story, trashy horror show, bildungsroman, love story, and hopefully as literary novel; it works into each of these in turn or sometimes simultaneously. So the influence of genre—how does art make a life?—is a primary motif for sure.
The Beginners ends with a beginning, or a gesture at beginning: Ginger and the reader are left together in a graveyard with a map. I was very interested in that tension between “wrapping up the story,” and its characters, which is my main understanding of comedy—in a comedy every tension is resolved, at the end, every character married, figuratively speaking—and the irresolvability of the true ghost story, in which ambiguity is the true resolution, is what leaves the reader with that delicious, generative sense of radical unease.
JD There are two things I like very much here. One is your thinking about radical characters as characters that are “ready to be manipulated” and “in love with artifice.” Both characters (and perhaps stories) are of necessity open to different genres, to different narrative requirements, and, as such, are fluid. Even though the Professor’s an agenda is to keep a high/low art distinction, the films quoted are not, in his eyes, on the same level. And Ginger, because of her age (she’s 15), seems even more open to the fluidity of experience that tends to subvert genre.
RW Yes, and you may note that her reading swings wildly around the spectrum of classy and class-poor art, as well as inside and outside of market distinctions of age-appropriateness (as do our experiences): she reads Gore Vidal, she reads Cherry Ames, Student Nurse; she reads Bruno Bettelheim; and she reads Beginners (the titular porn mag which, recursively, presents deflowerings)!
This makes me want to ask you a dum-dum zinger: How does your thinking go about that classic high/low art Brobdingnag regarding extratextual materials? How does this book work for those who are not familiar (I count myself among them) with many of these art-house classics? I just watched Contempt last night, finally. If I had watched it at the beginning of our conversation—or at the beginning of my adulthood, the beginning of my higher education!—this conversation, and my reading of Arthouse, would have been inflected so differently. I would have been an insider. The low-class rejoinders: “I don’t want to read anything that I need a dictionary to understand.” “I want my art to be complete, like I am.” “I want to feel that I understand everything without any help from my friends.” And obviously it is a complete work of art in itself: I was able to read it and “understand” it without the help of the extra text. So what does this enact about intertextuality?
JD Since I came to this relatively late, I assumed everyone knew more than me, had already seen these films, and that I was coming unprepared to the conversation—I thought I had all this catching up to do. Overall, though, I found, and continue to find, these films (with one exception) to be so interesting, so beautiful, provocative, and complex, that I want to share them, discuss them, have a drink over and with them.
So many other writers do pop culture better than I ever can, I thought I’d explore other grounds. Pop culture, as a rule, is meant to be immediately accessible, ephemeral, temporary, disposable, isn’t it? And can novels really do that well? I can’t. Every film in the novel is accessible, but perhaps in a different way. I do think that the information presented, to adopt the most neutral tone I can, is more complex or full of more irony than popular films of today. And more glamour: I’d much rather hang with Bette Davis than Jennifer Aniston.
If we take intertextuality seriously, then I think an important power we have as sentient human beings is managing our intertexts as best we can. And some texts are better than others. And some texts’ mothers . . . The second thing I like is the fantastic quality you mention at the end, when we can’t tell, for certain, what actually has happened. Speaking of genres and their attending expectations, do you think that some readers might have trouble with this ambiguity, with this literariness? I understand this is likely a question of marketing, but while the reviews I’ve read of your novel seem beautifully positive, when there is hesitation, it does often have to do with that ambiguity.
RW You can just visit the Amazon page for The Beginners to see the deep trouble many readers had with this literary ambiguity. They were disgusted! They wanted not only their money back but the actual time back that they wasted on reading this book! But seriously, one of the impressive experiences I had in the editorial process with The Beginners was that my agent and editor expressed only a little resistance to the befuddlement of the ending. Megan Lynch at Riverhead was willing to accept the book as a figure of ambiguity, and to love that about it. On the other hand, the book was marketed (promotional copy, advance press—everything superficial about it except, thank heaven, the fantastic jacket art) mainly as a coming-of-age supernatural thriller with a historical twist (the Salem angle), which in my hindsighted opinion was a big mistake. I understand it drew a lot of advance notice, but it also may have ended up disappointing more readers than it pleased, and turning away some readers who might have been more intrigued by the literary profile of the fiction.
But as you point out, the readers the ambiguity disappointed were not only those one might expect to disappoint. The review in Bookforum, a thoughtful one, was by a writer named Trinie Dalton whose own novels apparently make use of the tropes of magical realism, and her disappointment was not that I did not land the reader squarely on a belief system at the end, vis-à-vis, as the marketing copy went, “exactly who are the Motherwells and what do they want with Ginger?” (or something), but rather that I did not land the reader squarely on a representation of the novelistic reality wherein its supernatural elements could be understood as being real. She wanted the magic and the ghosts and the reincarnation and the witchcraft to be squarely “real,” and felt it was a failure of my art that I could not be so brave. While, for me, the challenge of this reality (and this reality) has to do with how to believe when very little presents itself as believable. We are left with choices, no matter how determined we want our experience to be, or how much we look for objective reality—whatever that objective reality may consist of, be it that we walk in beauty like the night, or that we live on a spectrum of oppressor and oppressed, or that love is all you need, or that we are figments, or that we are born with a certain amount of dialogue to say and then we die, etcetera.
JD One of the tensions of the novel that I found most interesting is the conflict between influence and solipsism, as strongly exemplified by Raquel and Theo, where Raquel doesn’t exist without others and Theo is radically self-contained. Does the sexuality of the novel play into this conflict? And horror as well? And what is the connection (it seems extremely strong here) between sex and horror? And I’m not forgetting that our heroine is a young girl coming of age sexually. I find it interesting that the novel’s arc is a movement from masturbation to pregnancy.
RW It’s funny: for me the sex in the novel, however porny and inherently nonconsensual, as I would hold sex between a minor and a major always is, is representative of the wholesomeness that these characters have so much difficulty attaining in other areas of their lives. Ginger’s perfect little town, her archetypal small-town American life—these are the tropes and bubbles she has escaped from with her unwholesome consumption of literary sophistication, even decadence, and these are the tropes the Motherwells have come to explore and exploit. But they most closely long to enjoy some of what she has, some of the givenness that they perceive in this kind of life, as opposed to their decadent urbanity. The Motherwells come upon her quite like characters from a fiction she has conjured—there is even some suspicion, faintly drawn, that they might actually be figments. In turn they each have, as you have said, their own difficulties inhabiting the elusive shared reality, the consensual reality, and one of the ways that they do explore this is through carnality. Sex, with its magical properties of connectivity and indisputable physiological phenomena (attraction! arousal! concessions and penetrations and attentions!) and potential consequences (orgasm, reproduction), grounds them and opens them up to the contingencies of the Other, of contact with another. It’s what they attempt when they want to love.
So in terms of a connection between sex and horror: If horror is in the botched apprehension of the Other, the incapacity of the creature to join in a consensual reality with others (as in the story of Frankenstein’s monster), then sex is an affirmation of the paradoxically indisputable nature of that bodied reality. You just can’t fuck a solipsist. Or you can but it will be a bad fuck, as evidenced in The Beginners. To have really good sex you have to have longing/desire (I hate that word desire but it’s useful) and to have these you must admit a presence, an object of desire.
JD So there’s the possibility the Motherwells (echoes of the maternal as well as the painter of The Feminine 11) are projections of the overheated Ginger’s imagination. That’s great.
RW Yes: I wasn’t brave or perhaps skilled enough at the time of the writing to figure out how to make this possibility airtight, in terms of continuity (or discontinuity) but I insist on its being there anyway.
JD Now that I’ve been thinking about this, with all the Flannery O’Connor naming—Ginger, Cherry, Raquel, The Motherwells, even the town of Wick (wicked, Wiccan, candlewick)—seem so obviously literary as to at least suggest that this is all made up.
RW Thank you!
JD I’m not, however, as convinced about the separation between sex and horror: we’ve had incubi and succubae forever, and sex has been tied to death for as long. I think you can fuck a solipsist: in fact, I think that’s a contemporary cultural paradigm, and perhaps tied to our death instinct. But I’m getting too psychoanalytic here. I think one of the interesting things about the novel, about the narrative momentum, was that it wasn’t dependent on the exploration of Ginger’s psyche: she wasn’t essentially psychological, or, to be more precise, her being-in-the-novel wasn’t determined by the genre of psychological realism. I cared about her and about what would happen to her, and in some ways this was a page-turner, but her so-called issues weren’t what propelled the book for me. I know I’m going against a number of your reviews here, and perhaps even your intentions, but the other themes—sex, death, ghosts, witches—overshadowed the questions of Ginger’s psyche. In fact, they do more than overshadow it, they subvert its dominance.
RW Jeffrey, you are my ideal reader. I was amazed and even touched at times by the humanistic ways in which readers, including reviewers, experienced Ginger’s story. It is pretty much a reification of the experience I had in writing it, in which I was forced to come to a realization about art, and even about what I like about art: that, at its best, it is both mimetic and representative simultaneously, or sequentially perhaps. I think of a novel by Aaron Kunin, The Mandarin, which I published at Fence Books. His structure is self-conscious, metafictional, mimetic, and propositional of structures of consciousness that deny or annihilate theories of self-as-representational-unit, as unified structure. At the same time, the characters are joyful, they speak in canny sentences, they inhabit rooms and express relationships to one another that bespeak the feeling of what it is like to be alive. They eat good-smellling bread, constantly. I call this “psychological reality.” At a certain point in the writing of The Beginners I decided that it was imperative that Ginger and Cherry and even the Motherwells confront and embody and simply have psychological reality; not only because otherwise no one would really want to read this book—I want readers to want to turn the page!—but also because this is the compositional split that the story rests on: Raquel wants to be human. She wants it so badly. And so she is. And so she isn’t.
I suppose for me psychological reality (the real one, not the one in my novel) has not been the dominant one, and that may be the confounding apposition in my life as a reader and writer and maybe editor; I’m seeking it. Others have too much of it and are fleeing it, by subversion or other means.
JD And then there’s the language. The real trick here is to tell a story within the language, to keep the narrative going when the thickness of the language wants to slow it down, to move the story along while allowing the language to focus on the image, the simile or metaphor, the depth of the linguistic association, on language itself. That’s the rare accomplishment of your book, I think.
RW Thank you again! I revere transparency but from a distance. As in Arthouse, dialogue is one of the places where I felt able to really play with the effects of simple utterance, of things people say that move the story forward, that establish plot points. It was really fun to make Cherry, Ginger’s earthbound best friend, say the most limpid, pellucid things, to insist on her lucidity.
JD One of the things I think is wonderful about this novel is the way you build on absence, on things, people, entire towns, not being there, being absent yet still influential. Do you approach absence differently in your poetry than in your fiction? Do you slide easily from one to the other?
RW My poems, I think, are more reactive to presences than to absences. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong: absence may be represented in my poems more by disjunction, syntactical or formal, than by any shadows or specters or glamorous figures of absence. The absences are more systemic, or rhetorical, than figured, which is typical of poems, I suppose. Telling a story, as I do in The Beginners, but don’t often do in my poems, lends itself to representation. Poems, or my poems, lend themselves to mimesis.
JD I’m thinking that some of the oppositions we’re trying to articulate—representation versus mimesis, absence versus presence, narrative versus poetry—are really unsustainable or ineffable. It’s as if these differences were themselves ghosts. Not unreal, not non-existent, not weak or illusory, but specters whose outlines or definitions dissolve under reason’s harsh light.
RW Interesting. I’m always finding out different ways in which I am old-fashioned, or simply behind the times. Having come to fiction writing later than most, I am still interested in contrast as a means of understanding. But in that dualisms are totally maya, in this our life, I’m sure you’re right. Maya, as I understand it, referring to the ways in which illusory distinctions must be made, and are made, so that we can, for example, speak—language presenting itself out of disconnection or the appearance of disconnection or the belief in its appearance.
JD So the absences in your poems are traceable to the grammar, to language as such? While the absences in fiction are more narrative, in that one can’t possibly tell everything? I’m reminded of Barthes likening of all narrative to a striptease. You speak later about how you left a lot out of The Beginners because the narrative was already so literary, so overdetermined, and I see what you mean more clearly now. I think literature does occur in those gaps, those absences, and by extension, those failures.
RW Your protagonist is a thwarted or disillusioned or even failed film history professor. He’s fallen far, in his career journey from academic to meth dealer, though not far from his family tree. His formative childhood experience (exactly like that of my protagonist Ginger!) was that of sequestering himself in the town library, in his case lost in the alternative reality of cinema. Professor, what is your own film history?
JD My formative years were spent more like Ginger’s, reading novels in my room. There was no real opportunity to view anything but blockbusters, and I didn’t know what was going on anyway. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned anything, but despite a few courses, and an errant passion for Buster Keaton, film didn’t really “take” in my younger consciousness. And novels seemed more fun, more complex and difficult. Maybe in grad school I began to see more, but other than a Fassbinder here and a Bergman there, I still didn’t really know anything. When I got the idea for this book, after reading Faulkner’s Sanctuary, I slowly became obsessed, and developed a schoolboy crush. I absolutely fell in love with Pasolini’s hats, Robert Mitchum’s shoulders, Bette Davis’s voice, and Gloria Grahame’s lisp. It was wonderful to live in this enchanted world, a world of narrative and image, a world of light and sound and gesture. When I was most heavily researching, I would watch at least two DVD’s a day (thanks Netflix!) and take notes: I wanted to make it something like a job. But what a job! The novel is a love letter, in a way.
The enchantment I felt watching those films was the opposite of the feeling contemporary film (usually Hollywood, but not always) produces in me. This led to another theme of the book: nostalgia. On the one hand, it’s the curse of getting older, and it can be a sign of depression. On the other hand, some things were better—more provocative, complex, and adult—in the past. Or so they seemed. And these things are worth fighting for, are worth dragging to the present, to the present (cultural) consciousness. Film seems to be a prime site for this conflict.
RW I really hate it when I talk about how much better X used to be, or Y (X=New York City, Y=popular culture), and invariably someone steps up and talks about the fallacy of decline, i.e., how everyone always thinks that X and Y were better in the past (which is the premise of nostalgia) but, really, it’s an illusion of scale. Film does seem to me like a great qualitative example of something—in this case an art form—that is in decline. Less is being done by more. Could you talk a bit more about this effort, the Professor’s effort, to encounter the reality of decline? Which we must do if we are to attempt to resurrect or reintroduce or simply capture what was valuable in past glory? In art forms, of course, I mean.
JD No, I hate that “everything was better” line as well; I feel I age a couple of months each time I utter it. This “reality of decline” question is a hard one to answer, as it almost inevitably leads to more nostalgia. On the one hand, it does seem as if market forces, or the dialectic between market forces and aesthetic production (or aesthetic thinking) has “progressed” in such a way that the market has come to determine artistic production. One sees this in literature, where popularity is confused with success. And in film, which costs so goddam much to produce and distribute that the market’s grip has become nearly absolute, where if you don’t have enough paying customers you won’t make another film. On the other hand, wasn’t this almost always the case? Art has always needed to please someone, whether a Medici or the masses.
RW That “almost” is so important. I guess a question would be whether it is inherently impossible that art “absolutely” predetermined or mediated by market be really, um, good—as good as or better than what came before. One for the Greeks. In Fence I had the idea that I could make or preserve a place in which poems and fictions could find their own value, as it were—surplus value?—by virtue of love and beauty. Like, if I as editor proactively love beauty and with my laser beam find it shining within a variety of impulses for writing, and select writing for Fence based on that love laser, do I not thereby encourage writers to eschew or resist the implicit values of market forces, any forces? Problem is, Fence is a product, always has been, somewhat proudly. I’m working on ways to make it less of one, now. Backing away from pragmatism, with my hands in the air.
JD I’m disappointed you mentioned the “almost” and ignored my attempt at alliteration. Both Fence and FC2, my publisher, are attempts to circumvent the market hegemony, are attempts to play within the almost, to intervene before the market can intervene, if such an action is possible. And if it’s not possible, what can we gain by pretending it is? I think a great deal. And the great thing about living and writing today is that there are more and more presses and magazines out there, more publishers than I can remember (Starcherone, Dzanc, Dalkey Archive, Calamari, etc.) playing within the almost. There’s a lot of breathtaking work out today. But this playing within the almost is a preservation, a curating, with the attendant religious overtones. This makes you a saint.
RW You are the second person to say that in a public forum this month. Meanwhile, form and content are having public group sex in this novel. Each chapter’s filmic POV or narrative consciousness enacts two things simultaneously. Each chapter makes use of different formal terms, as informed by a different art-house film and sometimes B-movie: Branded to Kill, Shoah, A Man and a Woman, etc. At the same time, each variant narrative stance allows for your protagonist to work out in a different way the essential art-life conundrum he’s engaged in overall: at what point do we enter our own story? What is the “reality” of our lives when we can tell such banal and sensational and artful stories to ourselves and to those who observe us? (Jeffrey, please help me if I’m stating this woefully inadequately, which I fear I am.)
JD I’ve always been very interested in how our lives are essentially intertextual, and how and how much our behaviors and thoughts are influenced, if not created, by what we see and read. So the question is not, perhaps, how we enter our own story, but if we have our own story in the first place. I realize that in a novel, one can play this game out or test this hypothesis more thoroughly than we can in our so-called real life. It was interesting to see how the choice of film did more than influence the plot and characters, it more or less determined the arc of the book. For example, I knew I wanted to write on Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I felt that his narrative “style” was built on stasis and limitations. And so the problem for me was how to recreate these limitations, and yet keep the plot flowing. I limited myself to eleven paragraphs of eleven sentences of eleven words. These restrictions, in probably the most violent chapter of the book, severely curtailed any sort of psychological reflection, atmospheric description or structural emphasis. There’s an irony here that masks all the killings. And this came form Ozu, not me. The negotiating between what I thought should happen in each chapter and what could happen given my reading of each film was one of the more interesting, at least to me, aspects of the composition. This is, certainly, his story, and is dependent on his consciousness, a consciousness created by his background and the films he’s watched. But he doesn’t have the last word: film does.
I’m really interested in this question of having an individual story: I suspect our lives are less distinct that we believe them to be, and our stories even less so.
RW It brings up for me a current obsession: the banality of the crushingly expressionistic reality of individual experience as expressed most apotheistically in the experience of falling in love, of being in love, of loving “someone special.” This heightened and divinely banal experience situates us squarely in the stream of perfect understanding; we understand the one we love, they understand us, and everyone who’s ever been in love, and, most notably, anyone who has written or sung or made a film about being in love. I try to talk about this toward the end of The Beginners. Ginger speaks her only actual word of dialogue in the whole entire book (a little trick no one ever picks up on): “Love?” she croaks. It’s a stab at allowing for communication to take place, a stab at suspending the disbelief that makes speech, for Raquel and consequently for Ginger, seem so arbitrary as to be absurd. She might as well say anything, Raquel says—she might as well say “Rainbows are blue,” or something much more foul, as is her wont—but when you talk about love you transcend nihilism. When you say love you’ve really said a mouthful. It’s such a cliché but it’s so fucking true.
JD I “love” that Ginger’s single word of dialogue, which I have to admit I missed, is, with the question mark, the novel’s one-word critique. And summary. Your stab at communication is both a question and within quotation marks. And it is followed by something unspeakable, a look in Raquel’s eyes that “was unbelievably difficult to observe, something like a hybrid of a dog who has just been hit by a truck but has not been killed, only had its rib cage crushed, its heart bleeding into its mouth. . .” That’s love all right.
RW In love, as I am, I would say further that our living is intertextual too, that we intersect with one another as texts, as influences in the same way that we do with cultural products or art. That no one lover, or character, or speaker makes “the story” of what goes on between any two, or three, or more, and if he thinks he does, then he is taking on more responsibility than any one lover can withstand. And he is missing all the fun. That’s what I meant when I said you can’t fuck a solipsist. I meant he can just fuck you.
Both our novels explore the relationship between dream consciousness and so-called real experience, though with quite different propositions. Arthouse proposes film as a radical site of consciousness, but, at the same time, the implication is that film is possibly an arbitrary medium for the purposes of discussion: “‘This isn’t about film, is it?’ ‘Yes and No.’” Do you believe there is something essential in film’s relationship to life? (Do you believe there is something essential in anything?)
JD This is an excellent question, and one I would like to ask you as well. It’s a question of self-consciousness and point of view. For the novel’s protagonist, “outside” of cinema (this is a book not a film) but “inside” literature, there is an essential relationship between film and life, certainly. That’s part of what the book is about. Outside of the book, outside of literature, I would say no, there’s not an essential relationship: I lived my own life fine without film for a long time. But as a thinking and writing being, have I ever been outside of the book? I don’t mean to be glib here. I was trying to create a fictional character who thinks like a film student, because in literature (and film) that’s an accepted way to create characters. So does there exist an I “outside” of literature who could answer this question negatively? After writing the book, does there now exist an I who could or would say no, there’s no essential relationship between film and life? Is this in fact the essential relationship: that the border between art and life is porous and illusory? Does the novel (film) in fact create the creator (I)? I guess it’s finally a question (story) of the I. And so on. The image that provoked the project was Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., where he’s asleep, trapped inside the film he’s projecting, ensnared by or between the jump cuts.
RW I flirted heavily, in The Beginners, with the suggestion, made to me by the text and I hope made to readers as well, that Raquel and Theo are indeed, literally as well as functionally, fictional characters, either figments of Ginger’s or, more directly, of the town of Wick itself, in that the town of Wick is a fictional town. These literary constructs as such—the small New England Town and the Dangerous Louche Strangers—are so generative of understanding. We already know what they are capable of, we already know what is at hand. Anything that happens there, or seems to happen, or is set in motion, is well within the parameters of literary understanding. This is one reason I felt comfortable leaving so many questions “unanswered” in The Beginners—I felt that there were already many answers in place in any readerly consciousness. This is, I think, the “dramatic irony” your Professor had written his grad school paper on. I love that we both have graduate schooling feature so prominently in our characters’ lives, or at least in the first version of Theo and Raquel’s lives, in which they are dropout lovers exploiting a fellowship year for their new beginning in Wick.
The struggle that Raquel acts out, bathetically at times—the struggle to be a “real” person, to transcend or outwit her own overweening self-consciousness, that which makes her a fictional character, preempts her chance of being really alive, of being a speaker in real contact with another or others—is I think a real struggle, but one that most human characters outwit every day, every hour, every moment. Most of us effortlessly imagine ourselves to be real. And this allows us to “be real,” because there is no other way of being real in the world. And then there is the beauty of the material reality of the world, and others—and texts!—which is something I hadn’t thought much about when I was conceiving of The Beginners. Political/cultural/spiritual materiality: the stuff of what I want to call “domestic” fiction, to reclaim an abused term. I want to call my next novel a work of “domestic” fiction because it engages the material of experience in a way that gives readers the same kind of pleasure that being easefully engaged with their lives does.
JD It is interesting that Raquel’s struggle to be a “real” person, to outwit her self-consciousness, takes place in the extremely self-conscious context of your novel. There is a sense that Raquel wants to escape the novel, wants to escape the literariness of her role: she’s come to Wick and then realized it’s not for her. And perhaps she is allowed to succeed.
The more I think about it, and the more we “talk,” the more ironic The Beginners seems to be. I sense there’s a real effort to communicate, to transcend the literary or self-conscious, to break through and actually touch the X that marks (quotation, question) the spot. And, at the same time, a subversion of that desire (sorry), a move away into the artificial and literary. A subversion that keeps the sincerity while undermining it simultaneously. And it’s the tension between these two that drives the novel, and, well, makes it unique.
RW Yes, this is the particular maya I was trying to work out with these characters in this almost absurdly novelistic setting. It’s a novel. These are characters. And you read it, no quotation marks there. That’s where that particular domestic intertextuality occurs and makes irony weep.
JD I think there’s a lot to recuperate in the term of the genre of domestic fiction. From Antigone on, it’s been the place to connect the political, cultural, and spiritual spheres.
RW Let’s breathe new life!
Speaking of the domestic, in synchronistic preparation for this conversation my domestic arrangement was outfitted with a dandy little wallet-sized projector that hooks up to your laptop and shows films on any receptive surface, such as a living-room wall. On my living-room wall the other night I watched Fellini Satyricon, and the viewing imparted to me the exact sense you describe in the novel of what it means to be inside film’s architecture—filmic reality vs. concrete artifice such as architecture—in a way that writing doesn’t, even your writing about film and architecture doesn’t. Is writing about film like dancing about architecture?
JD I like “dancing about architecture.” Many of Pina Bausch’s works were site specific, weren’t they? I think that’s what writers do, in a sense, anyway: we translate different forms of experience into prose. Sometimes that experience is textual (art) and sometimes sensual (life).
RW That was a silly question, mine; I guess what I was trying to get at is to ask you to discuss the ideas you bring up in the book about the architecture of reality and how film reality stands in relation to reality reality. In the penultimate, amazing chapter, called “Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard (1963),” the Professor and his captive attain the interior of a villa on Capri featured in the film (which I’ll be watching later this evening), and this is where the second-person narration reaches a fever pitch of limited omniscience, in which the character’s psychology is prominently unveiled and we are privy to all manner of interiorities, including a musing of his on the relation between the brick-and-mortar location, the “reality” that was documented in the film and still stands, now under his hand and feet. A much earlier scene had him musing aloud in a very externalized fashion to a barfly friend on his love of what he calls “cinematic déjà vu,” in which an image from a film enters the mind—“A man in a fedora walking by a brick building . . . a rotund man yelling through the door at his German Shepherd . . . A young girl looking up at a withered tree . . .”—but cannot be located in the filmic context that takes it out of “reality reality.” Now, back in the Contempt chapter, he tries to imagine his life without the images of film. He concludes that he can’t even imagine such a life, that it is “impossible to forget, to erase, to unlearn, to not see. . . . How could anyone forget anything?” And then a few pages later he asks himself “Which came first, film or reality? That was the question he was asking: which came for him?” And concludes a page later that “maybe it wasn’t so important which came first. Maybe what was important was that the experiences he’d had completely outside of film were inconsequential, unremarkable, easily forgotten. Prison, for example . . .”
JD The negotiation between the world and our imagination (language, art) is complex, certainly, and difficult to analyze. I think of watching my four-year old boys play, and imagine the membrane between their imagination and world to be so thin that it’s almost at times non-existent. And perhaps film is an attempt, more so than other media, to recapture the dream-like enchantment of that childlike existence. I think film uniquely can insert itself into our unconscious, and therefore affects the way we experience reality at a fundamental level. Film, in its combination of narrative, image, and music, infiltrates and creates the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences in the world. Music, literature, and painting do this, as can the experiences of everyday life, but film does it somehow in a different (more profound or basic?) way. Or at least it can. Or at least it used to. Are films that important any more to our cultural or individual consciousness? Is anything?
For the Professor, his imaginative filmic reality is much more satisfying than his real reality. He’s not psychotic: he knows the difference. But also the seduction. We all want to live in a movie. In one we can direct.
RW The Professor is, much like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, trapped in an environment (in this case that of meth addicts and dealers and militaristic substandard-intelligence lowlifes) in which he intellectually outclasses everyone he comes into contact with. The college student whose life he saves—even as he holds her hostage and transports her against her will—is not a particularly smart one, but he is pathetically eager for her to recognize his intellect, a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome in which the kidnapper desires the approval of his hostage. Can his film-buff status save him from a life of crime and punishment? How do you perceive the interplay of high- and lowbrow cultures within the art-life continuum?
JD Class definitely plays a role here. I think that came into focus for me when I watched and then included Grand Illusion, which is the story of the class divisions and shared codes in WWI, divisions and codes that transcend the deadly trenches of the war. He’s lonely, and he’s looking for someone he can share language with.
From all I’ve said about influence and class, the distinction between high and low art is important, and one I’m willing to maintain. Obviously, there exists a lot of contagion and reciprocity, but if one is influenced or created by other texts as much as I think we are, then we’d want the other texts to be as complex and sophisticated as possible, yeah? No thinking person wants to be a cliché. And one could argue that much of what’s popular is a cliché. That’s what makes it popular (an unpopular tautology?)
There’s one film chapter in the group that might not belong, and that’s the film that causes much of the Professor’s trouble. I won’t tell you which one: maybe it will be different for you than it was for me.
Can he be saved by art? Your question, in a sense, with its Dostoyevsky quotation, begins to answer. As much as any of us. He’s got money and he’s in Italy. He’ll be chased by his brother and the Brothers, not to mention the Police. This is the stuff of film certainly. Maybe he can’t escape. Maybe he shouldn’t want to. Maybe time for a sequel. Maybe Raquel’s already answered this question: “Or will light triumph over darkness and the couple escape out the other end of town, back onto the interstate, leaving behind dark clouds and other such symbols, remarkably unscathed? You know how those movies always end, though.”
RW I can’t figure out which chapter does not belong!