I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Years before I read it, Jason Schwartz’s 1998 collection A German Picturesque (Knopf) captured my imagination. It wasn’t just because I knew Schwartz as a favorite of legendary editor and teacher Gordon Lish, who published Schwartz’s first stories in his magazine The Quarterly, or because the title struck me as provocatively incongruous given that there wasn’t anything obviously Teutonic about Schwartz, whose author note described him as living in Pennsylvania (he has since decamped to Florida). More than anything, it was that it seemed possessed of the power to make anyone who tried to describe its contents sound completely insane. “The nouns will be the bones, the adjectives the cartilage or skin and the verbs will be the organs,” wrote The Los Angeles Times in a typically gnomic review, while Ben Marcus, not obviously insane, described Schwartz as being “unlike any writer on the planet … a master.” I was curious, if not outright incredulous: how was it possible for a single writer, a twentieth-century American “master” no less, to depart wholesale from the line of succession and influence that I understood literature—with its various avant-gardes, occasional norms, and buffet plate of styles—to comprise?
Schwartz’s second book, John the Posthumous, new from OR Books, confirms Schwartz as a writer with neither peer nor precedent, except perhaps in certain Puritan textbooks, diagnoses of medieval plagues, and Biblical glossolalia. Broken into three sections—“Hornbook,” “Housepost, Male Figure,” and “Adulterium”—John the Posthumous reads like a story that already befell its characters, disastrously, and what is left is to pore over the rooms, interrogating the objects and words as though they themselves were the guilty parties. Or perhaps these remains are the stories themselves. Riddle me this, for example:
In Matthew, the house is a dead bird or a box of thorns. But parables are not always the same as lies. Your dictionary calls them stories, but these we can see behind the child. All right—let us put it a different way. The man returns in the morning. He stands at the window. The woman departs in the afternoon.
Whereas another book would begin by identifying the child, man, and woman, in John the Posthumous detail and implication take precedence, leaving only lurking impressions of why it might be pertinent to note that “Various medieval diseases were named for the Devil—but then, so were doorframes of an especially peculiar design” or that the titular monarch reigned in France for five days. Etymologies are unpacked, ancient architectures felt out from the inside and sentences cunningly assembled out of oddly tactile consonants to create an utterly unique reading experience that scratches some deep cranial ditch of the unconscious like no work of prose before it.
As you can see from the above, all who read Jason Schwartz succumb to the disease of trying to place a prose style that outpaces all descriptive language not already absorbed into the dead serious and sinister trivia he reserves for old beds (“Bed, in any case, once meant flay, as in a burr mattock or a beggar’s cup”), surgical instruments (“The bone saw would say the boy’s name”), and English canon law, which “allows for mention of a hedgerow, or, in lieu of this, a narrative about a black house.” John the Posthumous is a book that asks its share of questions (“If death is a room, as one conception has it, then where is the family?”) and provokes many more. I emailed back and forth with Jason Schwartz to get some answers. Here, he confirms that his work is no mere whimsical dalliance with language and, finally, tells me what a “hornbook” even is.
J. W. McCormack I want to begin by talking a little bit about the evolution of your style. Your work has been singled out for its departure from conventional or straightforward narrative—but maybe it’s simpler just to say that, while most books presume eyesight as the prime sense organ, your work strikes me as specifically tactile. Was this a gradual approach you came to over time or did you set out to challenge the fictional norm? What about your method changes between A German Picturesque and John the Posthumous?
Jason Schwartz No plan to challenge the norm. Just gradual—at times glacial—movement. I had a few things in mind, a certain image for the page, and I was working toward this. Pretty simple. Hard to say how things have changed. Tricky, all this—like inviting the murderer to perform the autopsy. Going back now to A German Picturesque: most of the pieces in the second section—e.g., “Ram Farm,” “Ox,” “Circus Station”—were from roughly the same moment. “Ram Farm” was really the start of it, in conception if not necessarily execution. Things had begun to shift a bit, for the better—it had something to do with pigs and consonants—at about that point. And then the aim, or one aim, was to avoid an exaggeration of the manner, becoming too fond of this or that. Tactility is one thing, after all, and strangulation another.
JWM When I was reading JtP, I kept feeling like I was reading a real historical novel. Rather than your average story that’s set in the past and sort of clip-arts contemporary psychology/ethics into a barely intelligible past, here we’re reading the histories and handling the devils in a way that makes them feel more imminent and yet accounts for the space between us. How did you wind up with this approach to history? Was there something about this particular, vaguely Puritan era that you felt was relevant to your present?
JS They played a game called townball, by the way, back in those days. I don’t know whether you follow baseball—but this was an early version of baseball: townball. I like the name. And in the nineteenth century—as long as I’m digressing—star players weren’t called stars. They were called artists. And the ballparks were made of wood and seemed to be on fire all the time. Anyway, I had a few subjects appropriate to a certain moment, a period, the era you’re referring to, and I began to talk about one thing and then another—a form of blundering, really. I had the hornbook, for example, and this was sort of up my alley—and I sat with it for a time, reasoning with it, after a fashion. Several bits and pieces found their way into the book. Bundling, on the other hand, grew into a kind of dowager’s hump, with a fretful rasp, and then a little medieval machine, in wool twill, named Mrs. Eaves. We’ll call these misadventures. It’s really a matter of subjects, in the end, especially the kind I might carve up or portion off into classification. Category has a certain beauty.
JWM Speaking of category, I read a fairly de rigueur article from The Guardian, one of those “end of fiction” pieces you see every few years—although this one seemed to be equating “traditional fiction” with “the realist novel.” Is this a mistake? Do you feel like the world needs a different fictive vocabulary than the purely representational one we’ve become accustomed to?
JS Probably and probably, but it’s unlikely that a new vocabulary would manage any better than the current one. And sure, “realism” is a particular system of habits and attitudes—and now the proper noun is traveling through the mountains, by carriage, with several young charges—rather than a map of quivers and stammers. Which is to say: actual human speech. And some examples of “anti-realism” might be better understood as part of an older tradition—the anatomy, say—now on hiatus or in remission.
JWM I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying JtP is anti-narrative. On the contrary, there seems to be a very powerful strand of storyline—for lack of a better phrase—that’s absorbed by objects, old books, or language itself. As though, instead of witnessing the death of a daughter firsthand, I’m in the attic rummaging through her library and finding what’s pressed into the pages. Or as you have it, “a handbook, a miscellany, an annual—this implies a romance, does it not?” I actually found it a lot more affecting this way. What kind of responses do you want to trigger—or what kind of sensations do you want to evoke—in your reader? Do you have a sense of an ideal reader? Or will anybody do?
JS No ideal reader in mind. And as to a response: I’ll take yours, above. You’ve put it far better than I ever could.
JWM How embarrassing. Let me ask a simpler question: what is a document?
JS Evidence, in the old sense. Sometimes literature in the best sense. Or maybe just a place to put your phrases. Or it’s someone else’s shopping list, at the bottom of the cart. A document can be a replacement for the body, if you’ve misplaced yours, or a loved one’s—or if you’ve sent it away once and for all. Or it’s simply an ornament on the corpse, taken from station to station, and then up the rungs of the gullet—and now waiting under the portico with the rest of us, distorting the horses. You have the annotated lighthouse and the four-part ledger, and you have the newspaper—now going the way of high-button shoes. It used to arrive as a package in waxed paper, light brown, a cylinder of sorts, fastened too carefully with a piece of string. A smart child would have taken a pair of scissors to it. I did otherwise. The New York Times, broadsheet, already down to six columns by then, but still ample enough to dominate a table. And now we have the parody, narrow and flat, in a blue plastic baggie. Soon they’ll subtract another column or two. And then they’ll simply roll a single column up the driveway, on adding-machine tape. And after that: they’ll pin a single character to your door. That exclamation point means it was a good day, or a very bad one.
JWM And a hornbook?
JS You didn’t have one as a kid? This was a board, usually wooden and plain, but sometimes more elaborate—perhaps silver, this or that, various details, decoration as specified by a particular family. A sheet of paper was affixed to the board and then covered with a layer of horn. It carried lessons for schoolchildren—letters, numbers, the Lord’s Prayer. You might hide yours within the folds of your cloak, if you were so inclined, or you might abandon it to a tree branch. It could be worn, cracked, lost—and discovered again after the thaw. It could double, I’m sure, as a paddle for the naughtier boys. Some had detachable letters, which were edible—and you would try, of course, to avoid the poisoned ones.
JWM Well, how about all these archaic literatures you seem so fond of? From folk superstition to the discrepancies of certain translations of the Bible, you’re flooding the reader with a lot of information. And yet it feels completely natural to me, about what I absorb after a day of surfing the web. And for all that, I never once felt compelled to fact check you or wiki something like “The Murder Act of 1752” or a place like Cuckold’s Point. I was instead transported to a more antique sort of database, like a Museum of Oddities or one of those Heritage museums you find in America where they have paintings of town founders, models of the colony, etc. Do you think our relationship to information—when we feel compelled to seek it out, our capacity to absorb it, our access—has changed fundamentally in the last two decades?
JS Yes, the town founders, the child-sized maps, the replica school bells and cook-stoves. Those places were great. The captions always had a kind of brutal neutrality. As for the last two decades: I’m hardly an expert. But the gizmos have changed, of course, and access and so on—sure. So let’s reminisce about an old tabletop object, heavy and black: the rotary telephone. It was patient and grave. It looked a little like a doctor’s bag. And you could also employ it as a weapon, if need be, should your enemy suddenly appear in the den. Telephone etiquette in those days was about eighty rings, I’d say. And if that didn’t satisfy you, maybe you’d bicycle over and knock on the door for an hour. These were the days of the “verification” and the “emergency breakthrough.” Simply answering the telephone: it was an instant of mystery. And now: well, you know. But the complaint—if complaint it is—is very old. If not for the telegraph, after all, they get away every time, don’t they?—the two of them, whoever they are.
JWM What about the trade-off between an illustrated bestiary of the Middle Ages or a garden calendar and having all this information in huge virtual databases? Is there something about records that’s getting lost in our fever to compile?
JS Compilation has its own charms, I suppose. Count the talismans, or place them in the furnace, or in one of the newer devices—parchment and blown glass—at the palace. Now you’ll remember the roast goose from New Year’s Eve. Or Edith’s heart, beating on the carpet.
JWM Speaking of cuckoldry, you refer to it as “your proper subject” late in John the Posthumous. Looking back over the book, it does appear to be a major, if sometimes subliminal, theme. As anyone who’s ever been at the receiving end of a slush pile knows, people can’t seem to get enough of stories of infidelity. The pre-Marxist French writer Charles Fourier identified it as the origin of commerce. Do you have a sense of there being a small number of “eternal” stories that we return to? Or are there as many tales as there are ways to tell them?
JS I was interested in adultery as subject—not on account of one particular story or another. And sure, betrayal is banal, and that can be part of the attraction. Maybe they aim the queen eastward, or set the hooves atop the village scene, which is already upside down, the final house next to an animal’s open mouth. The man is saying: “I won’t return.” The woman is saying: “He left town this morning, for the country, in his ugliest brown shoes.” Or we fasten the stamp at dead center, where her name and address usually appear. The face of the envelope, or the code thereon, matters more than the letter inside. It’s a simple conversation, over time, in plain sight. And sometimes it’s mediated by the mailbox, just like correspondence checkers. Unless you’re old-fashioned and prefer to use pneumatic tubes.
JWM If I had to describe JtP to a stranger, I might call it a “book of leavings.” What do human beings leave behind? What is permanent and what is temporary? What is it about material, memory, and language that moves you?
JS I guess you can practice a kind of household archaeology. And what if a person were to emerge, well preserved, from some sorrowful compartment? Well, then you’d be in a real fix. Andy Warhol—I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this—would clear all his desktop objects into a carton, seal it, mark the date, and start over. How often I don’t know. Seasonally, let’s say. And I don’t know whether this was intended as an art project, or as a nostalgia project, or whether he was simply defeating clutter in a very reasonable way. But the thrill, maybe, is in aging ordinary objects into interesting things. Whereas the collecting of persons as specimens, in receptacles of every stripe—I hear there’s a rich tradition of this as supposed antidote to loneliness. Which may or may not explain the incident of the secret agent who entombed himself in his own suitcase.
JWM I feel like I’m supposed to ask you about modern fiction and maybe authors that were formative for you, but given JtP’s use of Books of the Bibles and case laws—I was especially pleased to see Galatians—I’m just as interested to hear about antique documents, grammar books, or verses that had an influence on you?
JS Not quite what you had in mind, but the box score seems to me a beautiful form. “Rivers, Randolph, Munson, Jackson”—and so on. Columns and abbreviations. “Thurman Munson, C”—a splendid little configuration. “Biff Pocoroba,” meanwhile, proposed all manner of complication and difficulty. He was likely an invention of the baseball people, something from the commissioner’s office—created as a puzzlement, and present only in miniature, in box scores and in cardboard form. Just another phrase designed for mispronunciation, a little shame contraption for children and men. As distinct from the so-called phantoms, those supposed players from the early days, actually manufactured whole cloth out of typographical errors. The Baseball Encyclopedia tried to excise all these names from its register. Certain players who never existed, in other words, now no longer exist. They occupy an unhappy category all their own. And not exactly in the manner of the early Christians: “I am deader than you.” In any case, it went something like this: “Chambliss, Nettles, Piniella.” Or: “Nettles, Spencer, Dent.” And there was “Fred Stanley” from time to time, until they sent him away.
JWM Do you think of yourself as writing about objects? Histories? Diseases? Names? Or is it the human remains or charge contained in these objects?
JS All of the above, in my paltry way. But to be more precise: a sick cloak—or a plague dress—is more likely to cross my mind than a Scotch egg, say, or a phrenology shop. Or a photograph of Vernon McGarity, war hero, posing with President Truman and a third person—whose hand remains, but who is otherwise cut out of the frame for space.
For more on John the Posthumous visit OR Books.
J. W. McCormack is a senior editor at Conjunctions. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The New Inquiry, The American Reader, n+1, and Tin House, among other places. He teaches at Columbia.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee