Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I thought I had discovered Eric Kraft when reading Taking Off, the first in a series about his alterego Peter Leroy. I had felt a little like Peter Leroy himself when something in a comic book or the arse of a junior-high physics teacher prompted him to have one of those startlingly profound adolescent revelations. To my slight disappointment, I soon found out that Kraft had a big fan club out there.
The publication of Flying—which gathers all the books in the trilogy that began with Taking Off , continued with On the Wing, and finished with Flying Home—is a great event for Peter Leroy fans. In the third installment, Peter tells the “true” story of his famous flight from his hometown of Babbington, Long Island, to Corosso, New Mexico. We hear Peter’s voice as well as that of the older narrator who takes a trip following in his footsteps. The two narrators and their adventures take place in related but dissimilar worlds and time periods, but the mastery of Kraft’s storytelling weaves them together in a way that is a piercing meditation on memory, narrative, and myth-making. Critics will draw parallels between Babbington and Macondo, because both García Márquez and Kraft have imagined complete worlds, although there is one major difference: Peter Leroy is as American as Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain. His epic is a profoundly American story, with all that it entails: cowboys and Indians, flight, derring-do, wilderness encounters, vast geographical distances, and questions about science and faith. Yet what prevails in Flying is a gentle defense of childhood and of adolescent dreams.
Kraft is a disarming writer. What weapon does he relieve the reader of? Skepticism. The narrators of the Peter Leroy trilogy are plenty skeptical themselves, so they lighten your burden. You, reader, need not be a skeptic: the American Proust who practices the art of memory, plunges into its depths and workings for you with a great deal of delight in the operation. What follows is an e-mail discussion of Flying, a conversation kept purposefully high-minded by the interviewer for fear that the writer might cunningly, and at any moment, slip into Peter Leroy’s skin and start making fun of the questions. He tried. It didn’t work. This is a serious talk about writing.
Andrei Codrescu You have this fabulous Proustian hold on details of the past, even as you make it clear that you’re inventing some of it, and it’s your American delight in the mechanics of memory (and real things) that gives you such a big playing field. Mark Twain lost a lot of money investing in inventions, but Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s insatiable curiosity about how things work made us all rich. Your protagonist Peter Leroy is very much a kin of those two characters. Is this American thing essential to your narrative mechanics? Or put another way, how is your prose like a homemade airplane?
Eric Kraft I have to give you two answers. Because this novel is a false memoir, I have to answer first for the memoirist, Peter Leroy, and then for myself. Peter’s memoirs are like his many inventions and do-it-yourself projects, including the single-seat “aerocycle” that he builds, in that they are assembled from scraps and discards, and held together largely by wishful thinking. He makes the aerocycle from parts of wrecked motorcycles, aluminum tubing salvaged from folding tables and beach umbrellas, and fabric from tents and tarpaulins—and it never gets off the ground. His building mania may be a peculiarly American folly: a can-do attitude resting on a foundation of complete ignorance. My novel is something different from that flightless aerocycle, I hope. I have the advantage over Peter of having learned from his mistakes. His memoir is a part of my novel. My contribution runs over, under, around and through his memoir, and if I’ve been successful, it lifts the whole rickety construction off the ground and into the realm of romance.
AC Is that how you see Flying, as a romance?
EK I’m thinking of romance as Henry James characterized it, as “experience liberated.” James described the exhilarating feeling of discovering while you are reading a work of fiction that you are riding in “the more or less commodious car of the imagination” suspended beneath “the balloon of experience” tethered to the earth by “a rope of remarkable length.” And then he said that “the art of the romancer is, ‘for the fun of it,’ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.” That’s me, every time, trying to cut the cable without getting caught in the act.
AC Is Peter—Leroy, le roy, le roi—playing the part of the king in this romance, or is his name perhaps a reference to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi?
EK Although Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician plays a part in Flying, the name Leroy isn’t a reference to Ubu Roi. Actually, I’ve never been an admirer of Ubu Roi. Faustroll is another matter; when I first encountered it, it infuriated me. I was a student, and I was very, very serious about everything back then. Here was something that seemed like a very dangerous kind of antiliterature, since it was a work of literature, a work as rich and allusive as “The Waste Land,” but a burlesque, a kind of elevated buffoonery. It felt like a personal affront, and I found that I couldn’t ignore it. Now, although it still annoys me, I can say that Faustroll first made me begin to see that humorous art could be as rich a response to life as serious art could be—not for very serious me, of course, but possibly for someone I might invent.
I gave Peter the name Leroy because I knew that his egoism was going to be one of his outstanding traits. Like every other memoirist, he thinks that he rules the kingdom of his past, that in that realm what he says goes, and what he wishes had been can be made to appear to be what was. Here and there throughout his memoirs he appears under several variations of his name. For instance, in the series of adventure books that he read as a boy—not as they were, but as he remembers them or wishes they had been—he is both the bumbling Larry Peters and Larry’s square-jawed and much more capable pal Rocky King.
AC (laughter) You are one of perhaps three American writers whose joy in writing is immediately apparent and contagious. Your writing makes me happy; it seems to issue from a place of innocence and wonder, while being about as sophisticated as storytelling gets, meaning that I am thinking about the nature of fabulation at the same time that I can’t wait to see what Peter’s up to next. Many well-known American writers have made depression, despondency, and anger an ur-ground for their work, and they seem to have the attention of critics. From where I stand, it’s a crime. What do you think about the motivation of writers and the expectations of our literary culture?
EK Well, on the one hand there’s the honest howl of anguish, and on the other there’s the calculated bit of fashionable fakery. There are plenty of people who are entitled to be angry, desperate, and despondent, but then there is that old black nostalgie de la boue, and it makes writers who have been treated gently by life wish that life had roughed them up enough to give them some sensational material. They know that, among critics, misery is automatically granted gravitas. So memoirists falsify their lives and novelists skew their fiction in the direction of misery and squalor. They’re like the four prosperous Yorkshiremen in the Monty Python sketch who compete with one another for the most miserable childhood memories, one of them eventually claiming that his family lived in a brown paper bag in a septic tank.
AC The day of the “brown paper bag in a septic tank” school will be over as soon the body-public begins to feel some genuine misery. There is an inverse ratio, I think, between the sloth of the spectating public and the exhibitionism of private wounds. I digress now, but for me, it’s a problem in teaching: I assign your books and those by Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, Barth, García Márquez, and Gombrowicz, and I get back memoirs of being tied up in a trailer for long years before being sent to get an MFA degree. It’s hopeless, I guess, until the fad passes mysteriously away, like leprosy. I don’t think there are any great writers who aren’t funny, self-mocking, or satirical: I always forget how funny Dostoevsky is, for instance. Which brings me back to the universe of Peter Leroy, a world as detailed and magical as any ever made. Peter is obsessed with flight, with escape. Can you tell me about his evolution in your cycle?
EK At the start of Flying, young Peter has just reached the age when life seems to be elsewhere, anywhere but the place he knows, the town that he’s beginning think is too small for him. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, his hometown of Babbington, New York, on the south shore of Long Island, has been the center of his world, and he’s been content to have it be so. Now, however, he’s got the urge for going. He wants the world, and he wants to fly to it. His dreams of flying and his daydreams of flying are dreams of escape and exhilaration, so building the aerocycle is a youthful attempt to make a dream come true. His older self, who is telling this story, has come to understand how much his Babbington boyhood enriched him. He has even returned to the town after years spent living in the larger world; his flight has turned out to be a round trip, and the most satisfying part of it is flying home, even if it means facing some home truths about himself. And I, above them both and pulling their strings, sometimes feel that life in the world that our contentious, bullying species rules is not everything that it might be. Sometimes, I just want to fly away, to make my getaway, sometimes so much so that I’m willing to trust my fate to feathers and wax. Where do I fly? To my work. To Peter’s world.
AC There are so many elements that point to a critique of simulacra—for instance, the parody implicit in the narrator’s description of Babbington. Even the name of the place carries a tinge of parody. I’m also thinking of Bolotomy Bay and the Bolotomy River—an anagram of lobotomy. The townspeople who are intent on preserving the place’s historical charms do seem lobotomized, don’t they?
EK If you make an alternative version of something, the alternative is bound to be a comment on the original, and I seem to have a genetic predisposition to comment through parody. The people in Babbington who turn the town into a replica of what they think it was in the ’50s are saying that they think it was a better place then, and they seem to think that they can make life in the simulation as wonderful as they suppose it was in the original. I guess they’ve been lobotomized by sentimentality and wishful thinking.
When Peter looks at the people of Babbington, the result is a gentle satire, I think; a compassionate satire. He does try to understand those people, and he does find that to understand them is to forgive them, at least to forgive their foibles and follies.
By the way, Peter claims that the ancient Native American name for the place is Bolotomy, an obvious anagram of lobotomy, but this is more a schoolboy’s joke than a grown man’s judgment. However, another character in the work, the restaurant reviewer B. W. Beath, is not so forgiving. He is forever reminding the readers of his reviews—which I relish writing—that “most people are idiots,” and he clings to the hope that the Large Hadron Collider—the enormous particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland—might, when it is finally operational, “create a voracious black hole that will suck the sorry mess mankind has made into its yawning maw.”
AC Not far from the beginning of Peter’s (and the narrator’s) return in Flying, you have a marvelous layered passage that shows off the intricate nature of your story-telling:
I have quite a mental scrapbook devoted to that flight. To be truthful, flight isn’t quite the right word; flights would be more accurate, because it was not one continuous flight, though in the minds of most of those who remember it, or think that they remember it, it has come to be a continuous flight. I even think of it that way myself sometimes, as a nonstop flight from Babbington out to Corosso and another nonstop flight back. When I was interviewed upon my return, I tried to be honest about what I had accomplished and what I had not, but the interviewers had their own ideas about what the story ought to be, and nothing that I told them was going to change those ideas, so I began to go along with what they wanted. The account published in the Reporter was typical, an account that made the flight seem more than it actually was …
An article from the Babbington Reporter follows, a terrific sendup of small-town journalism. There are at least five essays here about time and our perception of it, but none of it is essayistic; au contraire, it’s pure narrative. Then you add the parody, another comment on the transient nature of our reporting. You delight also in diagrams and drawings that illustrate your various ideas, and then you have Albertine, the narrator’s wife, “checking” his flights of fancy, with Socratic and good-humored rigor. My question here has less to do with the seeming ease of your juggling so much, but with your training as a writer: how much journalism did you write in the past?
EK My only journalism experience consists of moonlighting as a rock music critic for Boston After Dark (now The Boston Phoenix) for a couple of years in my twenties; my day job was teaching English in a junior high school. I thoroughly enjoyed writing music criticism, but after a while I couldn’t afford to keep at it—or to keep teaching, for that matter. I began working as an editor of grammar-and-composition textbooks at an educational-publishing company in Boston. The authors whose names appeared on those textbooks didn’t actually write much of what was in them; we in-house hacks did. Some of the examples that were presented to students as worthy work were previously published pieces that would be reprinted in the textbook with the permission of the copyright holder. However, the accompanying workbooks, practice pads, tests, and other supplementary materials required far more examples than the budget could afford, so these were created in-house. In a day, I might write an editorial, a straight news report, a piece of a short story that could pass for an excerpt from an entire short story, a personal letter, a job application and résumé, and a couple of advertisements. There was always an element of parody in the work that I produced, though I had to make it so subtle that hardly anyone but I would notice it.
The most demanding and rewarding work was creating bad examples that the students would have to correct. These had to be incorrect or inadequate in specific ways that would make them didactically useful. To show the development of an essay, for example, I would have to create all the drafts as well as the finished essay. Merely saving all of my own drafts wouldn’t do because those drafts would not be deficient in the required ways. So, after I had a satisfactory essay, I would have to begin working backward to create false drafts, turning each of the essay’s strengths into weaknesses, its virtues into vices, one by one. It was like an OuLiPo game—fun to play, technically demanding, and tremendously instructive. Among other things, I wrote a research paper, which was presented as the work of a high school senior, on the history of the Babbington-to-Hargrove Street Railway Company, a little piece of the personal history of Peter Leroy in which there was, I can say with more honesty than Proust said of À la Recherche, not one fact that was not imaginary, including the sources, the footnotes, and the topic itself.
AC I seem to see many Oulipian elements to your writing. Did you follow any constraints in Flying? If you did, I’d be interested in knowing about them, since one hardly finds that in American fiction, as opposed to poetry.
EK I like to impose constraints on myself during revision. For example, very late in my work on Herb ’n’ Lorna, when I felt that the novel was nearly done and that everything was in there that ought to be in there, I went through several passes to tighten it. Toward that end, I set myself the task of making every chapter exactly the same length. It was a way of ensuring that they would be balanced and condensed. The chapters were enriched the way a sauce is enriched by reduction, and the imposed constraint made me focus on the weakest parts. When I delivered the manuscript, with every chapter ending at the same place on the same page, no one noticed.
AC The younger and the older Peter are engaged in a delightful discussion of memory, since the younger one exemplifies imagination and actual experience as a potential source of memory, while the older is feeding on the younger to relive things that may or may not have happened. It’s a case of narrative vampirism. I find Albertine’s character truly fascinating, too: she is a kind of ambassador from “reality,” but such an affectionate one, she plays right along. I wonder how you kept these multiplying ideas and characters under control: it’s a technical question.
EK I don’t use note cards or timelines or charts or smoke or mirrors. Memory is my essential subject, and I use it as my essential tool. I keep everything in my head. I don’t make notes before writing, and I don’t keep notes about what I’ve done. Because I do it all in my head, the process is prone to errors of memory. Over the course of many, many drafts, I correct the errors, or at least I try to turn them into errors that are less wrong in the context of the book and its story and Peter Leroy’s entire life. I reread and rework the story and its episodes again and again. This way of working ensures that I will be surprised many times during the work. It guarantees me far more surprises than I would have if I had the whole thing mapped and timed from the start. The errors also lend the work a kind of verisimilitude, maybe even a touch of truth, because they become errors of memory for Peter. Now and then he will make a statement about something that he did or something that happened to him, then pause and say, on the page, “Wait a minute, that can’t be right. It can’t have happened that way.” Those pauses and reconsiderations of his are artifacts of places in the writing where I have paused and reconsidered and revised and rearranged.
AC You question a lot of generic conventions. You push the limit with your constant digressions, for instance. They threaten to hinder the plot, but then it all comes together. Do you ever worry that the digressions will overwhelm the story, or is that perhaps something that you wouldn’t mind?
EK What’s most important to me is that everything works together by the end—even the digressions. That snap when everything comes together is what I strive for, structurally and thematically. It’s one of the things that Peter and I have in common.
AC My next question has little to do with words, to which you pay masterly attention, but art (of sorts): there are diagrams and faux newspaper articles and pages of popular magazines in your book—did the computer make this possible, or did you always diagram the impossible in notebooks? (Those should be acquired for a goodly sum, I’d say, by a university library now, before you outprice them.)
EK The drawings and diagrams are there in part because they lend verisimilitude, since they resemble the illustrations and photographs that would appear in a memoir or autobiography, things that might have come from Peter’s boxes of clippings, sketches, and old snapshots. They are also part of my attempt to represent as fully as I can the culture in which Peter lives. To do that, I like to quote from the artifacts of that culture—not only from its books and magazines, but also from its advertisements and ephemera. They also reflect an interest in science and technology that Peter and I share. When I first entered college, I intended to become a mathematician or a physicist, and Peter has a similarly divided set of interests, standing with one foot in the arts and the other in the sciences.
The computer has made including those drawings and diagrams much easier for me because I can’t draw. I can trace, though, and tracing became a way for me to make a drawing by revising it in drafts. I would make a drawing as well as I could, and then I would lay a sheet of tracing paper over the drawing and trace the best of it while improving the rest. Then I would treat the traced image as a second draft, and so on … For Flying, I used Adobe Illustrator to create the wiring diagrams, although I had to make them look as if they had been drawn by hand 48 years ago. So, I printed them, laid a sheet of tracing paper over them, and returned to my old method.
AC You seem to approach words in a similar fashion. They’re physical to you, material. I can sense that in the anagrams, collages, and substitutions, and in the ways you manipulate type. Where does your approach to words as a physical presence on the page come from?
EK For a while, years ago, I made concrete poems. I’m not sure whether I will have Peter do this when he reaches his twenties, if I ever manage to bring his young self that far, but if I do, he will discover the same kind of playful relationship with words and type that I did. I used to lay the poems out on foam-core posterboard using rub-on type. They became a meeting place for the graphic and the verbal, and I still enjoy playing with the appearance of the text on the page, using it when I can to add another layer of meaning, signaling authorship other than Peter’s, for example.
AC Throughout the novel the writing wallows in artifice. The illustrations also are blatantly artificial. And yet there’s an inescapable impression that this is somehow real. How do you reconcile the tension between artifice and verisimilitude?
EK I think that the reader reconciles them, or struggles—pleasurably, I hope—to reconcile them. If I’ve done the job well, the tension is something like the tension in the optical illusion known as a Necker cube. It’s a wireframe drawing of a cube in which foreground and background seem to change places while one is staring at it. Some viewers can hold onto one interpretation or the other for a while, but then the cube seems to flip again, exchanging its front and back. With Peter’s memoirs, the fantastic and the realistic should exist in an indeterminate state like that. Now you believe, it, now you don’t … and now you change your mind.
AC I believe that the Peter Leroy cycle has reached, if not the end, then the kind of presence that will always be part of American literature. You made a world. I just want to select one thing, as a provisional conclusion of this discussion, namely, I need to thank you for improving the quality of our travel accommodations. Until my wife Laura got Sally, her beloved rat-terrier, we had pretty decent rooms anywhere we could find them. After Sally, we pretty much had to stick to places considerably rattier than our previous lodgings. Thanks to your redefinition of beloved dogs such as Sally (I won’t give away the formula, let each reader find it for herself!) we can now stay anywhere. Who says that picaresque novels make nothing happen?
EK The dog you’re alluding to is named Mister Pfister. Peter and Albertine encounter him—nearly run him over, actually—while they are revisiting one of the places where Peter stopped on his solo “flight” to New Mexico. There they find that a young motorcyclist Peter met on his earlier journey has become a wealthy purveyor of consolation for people who feel that they are suffering from “pre-traumatic stress syndrome,” the feeling that something bad is going to happen to them sooner or later. I’m a little worried that you may be suffering a bout of pre-traumatic stress syndrome (or “pre-traum,” as pre-traum counselors call it) over the end of the Peter Leroy cycle. Let me offer you some comfort: I assure you that the cycle has not reached the end. After all, in the published work, young Peter hasn’t even met Albertine yet. I’m currently working on the story of their meeting. The cycle will continue for as long as I am able to continue it, and my hopes and dreams for it stretch a long way into the future.
AC Do you ever feel limited by Peter Leroy? Do you sometimes want to step out of his personal history, or to go beyond it? Or does staying within this one serial novel function as a sort of Oulipian constraint?
EK The memoirs of a fictional character have very elastic limits. I’m required to include his personal history, of course, but I’m allowed to include anything he has read, heard, thought, or imagined. So he quotes from books that exist only in his world as well as from books that exist in his and mine. He includes in his reminiscences not only his imaginary childhood friend, but also his imaginary childhood friend’s sultry older sister, who becomes an obsession. He even has one friend, Mark Dorset, who has begun writing a book called Risking the Ridiculous, which examines the motives and methods of the actual author of Peter’s memoirs, me. So, if the form is constraining, I haven’t yet come close to discovering its limits.
Andrei Codrescu’s new book is The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess (Princeton University Press, April 2009). He writes poetry, novels, and essays, is a commentator on National Public Radio, and edits the online journal Exquisite Corpse.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.