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
I first met Lucy Ives when she edited a short novella of mine, The Patio and the Index, for Triple Canopy. I take a while finishing things up, so we worked on it for over a year and a half, then published in October 2011. Though she’s since left Triple Canopy, I feel I’ve been in touch with her more or less continuously for quite some time. During this period I’ve read all her poetry—starting with her first book, Anamnesis—as well as her works in prose, including nineties: A Story with No Moral. Anyway, I was recently up in the northernmost part of Manhattan, playing tennis with my twelve-year-old daughter and asked Lucy to join us there, in a spot overlooking Spuyten Duyvil Creek, with the dog roses in bloom. It’s one of the prettiest places in the city, and the flowers remind me of the Japanese roses my mother and father used to tend. And there’s tennis. Although we met up to talk about Lucy’s new novel, Impossible Views of the World, which deals with New York City and the art world, I also had a secret agenda: to get her to pick up a racquet again. She told me she had played as a child.
Tan Lin Are you doing anything autobiographical in Impossible Views of the World?
Lucy Ives Less and less. More and more, I have no life and have to make things up. I’ve found that to be a good solution to the problem of being a writer. (laughter)
TL I find that life sometimes offers itself up as one long description, rather than one long story, and it’s sometimes useful, in fiction, to allow the idea of narrative to subside and description to take over. That’s sometimes called the realm of “nonfiction” and it’s associated, at least for me, with the use of a documentary apparatus or the bibliographic. How would you describe the relation between fictional and nonfictional elements in your novel?
LI Well, I’m not sure about “nonfiction.” For me, nonfiction might not even exist. But that doesn’t mean fiction exists in opposition or contrast to so-called real life. Fiction is a way of seeing around corners. It’s a system of mirrors that isn’t designed to catch my own image, but rather images of what I’m not able or permitted to see in my actual life. I’m not exactly sure how it is you can know something that you don’t know, but fiction works like that for me. It’s a device for collecting information.
TL What were you trying to collect or see exactly with this latest work?
LI I don’t experience life as a narrative structure, so I was curious about that.
TL Life is amorphous and lacks such structure. On the other hand, it’s extremely chronological. Can you comment on the distinction as you see it?
LI People talk all the time about the story of their lives, and I thought it might be useful to try to write such a story—except I didn’t want to write about my own life, at least not in a straightforward way. I wanted to do something weirder. But, truly, my novel is about relationships. It’s often difficult to see the limits of relationships when you’re in them, so the book is a way to test those limits and learn more about what it means to exist with others, to be related to them, to be needed by them.
TL Is that essentially a narrative activity?
LI It might be a kind of solitary activity.
TL Stella Krakus, the novel’s narrator, is a born observer. In one of the early chapters she’s examining her boss’s office and sees her “personal collection of bioephemera.” And then Stella speaks of her own “wandering eye.” I take this to be part of the story’s varied inflections, where descriptive nooks and crannies seem to be hiding in the plot. And so, in a way, you have a plot submerged in extensive description and observation.
LI That’s right. I really like to linger in description. Originally, there was a very detailed, massive artwork in the book, sort of at the heart of the story, but I cut it out for various reasons.
TL What was it? Can you talk about that artwork a little?
LI It was a large three-dimensional work—a massive cube of wood someone had carved with insane, painstaking detail on five sides, top included, cutting quite deeply, to the center. It showed various intricate landscapes on each side. If anyone were to try to make something like that in real life, it would certainly fall apart. It’s not possible to fabricate, which was part of the point.
TL Why did you edit it out of the novel?
LI It didn’t do what I needed it to do in the plot. It was at the end, and once I cut it, the thread I was tracing through different places in the book went somewhere else. And that made all the difference. It turned out it was actually a block, a figurative and literal block, even if it was pretty fascinating. There was something important about having a false lure that needed to be taken away in the end.
TL A lure for you?
LI Yes, I think so. It’s very strange. In some sense, I must have needed to convince myself to write this novel. But I ended up putting this artwork in a little book of aphorisms and things, The Hermit, which was published last year. I’m very thrifty in that way. Waste not, want not—especially when you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a massive artwork that can’t possibly exist.
TL There must be some residual traces of it.
LI Its residue in Impossible Views of the World relates to certain characters. It led me to create a pair of counterfeiters. I won’t say more than that.
TL Is there an appendix that explains this missing artwork?
LI There is an appendix to the book, but it’s a historical timeline—so not exactly an explanation. And I’m not sure it has to do with that artwork. It includes both real and fake things, and both real historical events and fictional historical events that only occur in the novel.
TL I noticed more than a few time stamps throughout. Like “8:05,” the narrator waking up, the days of the week as chapter headings, the times when emails are sent, and so forth, which are all local and specific and serve to situate or arrange people and the feelings they are having. People are aware of time in the book, and its structure is cued to days of the week, much like a diary. Why is this chronology so important?
LI There is a lot of time.
TL I think about T. S. Eliot’s footnotes at the end of The Waste Land, and they are, of course, partly a joke and partly a serious commentary on the failure to achieve coherence across a vast plane. How are we to take your timeline and your time—by which I mean, the time in the novel?
LI Much of the time in Impossible Views is filtered through email, as you note, and the narrator is always on her phone, even though the reader doesn’t always know that. It’s not always so in your face, but there is a sense of time as mediated and parceled out by email and the functionality of SMS messages, along with some selective web browsing.
TL Yes, Stella’s world is highly mediated, certainly by filial and family relationships, and also by technology. I’m thinking of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who described love as a “symbolic media of communication.” Certainly a number of semantic codes are at work in this novel, aligned with notions of class and social differentiation, and these are in turn connected to your use of description and observation. Your book is very funny, but also about class and the kinds of feelings mediated within specific social systems, including the museum world. Could you talk a little more about how this relates to the characters? Do they stand in as types that manifest as highly observed descriptions, or as something else?
LI They are types, but I’ve tried to show, at least with Stella and her parents, some of the complicated nuances of class in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Stella has one parent who is a first-generation American and has experienced a dramatic change in class during his lifetime, and another who is perhaps far more conscious of class but has mostly worked to maintain a certain middle-class position, which she pretends has been hers all along, even if it hasn’t. Stella enters this scene with very different ambitions—at least, she thinks so—and proceeds to observe yet another narrative about class as it unfolds in her workplace, where there are members of the one percent, to give a quick thumbnail sketch. These observations play into Stella’s descriptive work, as she is often attempting to understand how the institution relates to society at large, whether it’s a reflection of society or something else. And it does seem to be truly something else—if not an extremely depressing reflection!
But, then, as you mention, there’s also the way in which our networked culture makes its own intervention into these social and economic systems. You’ll notice that through emailed articles, and the New York Times online appears as a sort of character in the novel. I think this publication has a lot to do with Stella’s class-related interrogations. It provides a counterpoint to her descriptions—as do many of the other acts of communication she engages in on her phone.
TL That’s interesting. Sometimes, I like to give my students a book and a set of colored markers. I ask them to mark all face-to-face conversations in blue, all SMS communications in pink, all phone conversations in orange, and all email conversations in green. Then we look at how all those things are tied together. That’s part of what I thought about when I was reading your book. Is Stella’s primary mode of communication electronic or face-to-face conversation? Or is it some other operational mode working beneath the level of plot? I find it fascinating. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue in this book. Can you say something more about this notion of Stella’s parceled-out time?
LI Stella is alone most of the time, and she has relatively brief interactions with people. But she’s also concerned with a pretty elaborate landscape of the past. There’s a personal past, but there’s also a historical past, and, contrary to what one might expect, she would like to have a greater commitment to the historical past—and less of a commitment to her personal one. But the presence of her phone, among other factors, makes this difficult.
TL So on the one hand you have a historical—or art-historical—and panoramic scope, then you have details that function in the resolution of the plot, which are also employed to individualize the characters. Can you comment on this crossing between what seem like two different perspectives as they relate to satire and the narrative development of the piece? What does the historical past hold for Stella that the personal one somehow lacks?
LI There is some hope that the historical past, in all its myriad detail and complexity, will provide justice or explain everything. The novel repeatedly offers this up as a possible solution, only to suggest that history is actually at once insufficient and crucial. You’re always left to contend with the present.
TL I wonder if there’s some sort of criticism of narrative here. You were trained primarily as a poet. Writing a novel is a very different sort of exercise.
LI It took a really long time. This book is the product of six or seven years of work, and I learned a lot about how narrative functions during that time. I don’t know if I’m critical of narrative here, but perhaps that’s because I’m not entirely convinced that Impossible Views is concertedly narrative. It seems narrative, but it might be something else. Certainly a lot of my other work points to possibilities for structuring writing and working with characters in ways that are nonnarrative.
TL You wrote one novel prior to this one, nineties.
LI Right, but that’s really more of a novella. It’s almost a short story, though it’s too long to be a short story. It’s also different because it’s primarily an exercise in style. It tries to turn a period style into prose, and characters into a period style. I get the sense that book has often been misunderstood as something it isn’t. It’s really an object without real people in it, whereas Impossible Views is more of an experiment in trying to think about actual subjectivity, different forms of time, and distinct forms mediating contemporary discourse and narrative.
TL Impossible Views is very character driven. Yet there’s a lot of description and very little actual dialogue. Can you say something about how character emerges from description in this book?
LI The narrator is an expert in caricature and satire in drawings. She’s also a caricature in some ways. She sees things in a satirical light. I’m very interested in the role of satire in our time because it seems to have taken over our cultural discourse in ways that are actually sluggish and ineffective. Satire doesn’t have the kind of liberating force it may have once had, even a decade ago. I get worried when the New York Times rehashes some late-night comic’s bit as an item of news in its daily email. It scares me when a newspaper doesn’t seem to feel that satire is within its grasp somehow, that it needs to outsource. Maybe it’s a deskilling thing in a period when newspapers seem to be in decline. I mean, where are your cartoonists? What is a newspaper, in this case? And what’s satire?
TL Has satire become the way we do politics?
LI Of course it hasn’t. Satire is a mode of writing and speaking related to irony, with the difference that it’s supposed to be constructive. It has much to do with perception and little to do with political agency. But maybe it has become the way we do politics. It isn’t that politics is satire, but that we no longer know how to talk about what we would like to be the case and what is the case without recourse to it. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet I think this illustrates the mode—and mood—we find ourselves in. It’s good we still have some broad version of satire, because this means there’s some possible connection between what we want and what is the case. If there is no longer such a connection, then satire will cease to have meaning—and the impossibility of satire is, to my mind, the impossibility of politics. We are getting close to such a state. Though I should say that there have been some great recent satirical works of fiction, by Paul Beatty and Jen George, among others.
TL If your novella, nineties, was an object and a stylistic experiment, and this new novel is about character, how did you get from one to the other?
LI I don’t want to describe myself as being too eccentric, but it’s just something that started to happen to me. About six or seven years ago, I was supposed to be doing an academic task when the first scene of this novel just popped into my head. I wrote it down, but I thought: This is not what I’m supposed to be doing right now, I’m not supposed to be narrating this scene. I had no idea what it was, but I just wrote it and this character appeared—the narrator. I somehow found this channel where I could switch into points of view that are coherent. They’re like caricatures of subjectivity, but they’re also more closely mapped onto language than my own experience of subjectivity as a human being is.
TL I don’t understand that. How are they mapped more closely to language?
LI I mean that they exist in language, whereas I’m an embodied, organic thing. They’re just there, and I started to encounter them in my academic work, for example. There are other figures who have presented themselves since then, and who I’ve begun writing about. Some are contemporary people, some are a bit more historical. I know you’re not supposed to talk about things that just happen to you. You’re supposed to be an expert and do things deliberately, with clear research goals and so on, but my experience of this character is that she just appeared as a kind of dead space within professional discourse, making it possible for me to talk about some things. It goes back to making a device that allows you to see around corners you can’t see around in your real life.
TL You’re saying that she’s a highly mediated stylistic device rather than a character in the traditional sense.
LI Yes, that’s exactly right.
TL When does a stylistic device become a character? Was that not desirable for you?
LI I resisted it. That was part of my editorial process, though at some points I did allow her to just be a character and experience certain kinds of contingent events in the story rather than have her just serve as a tool or a device. That part of allowing her to be a traditional character is more complicated for me, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable—deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
LI Because I don’t want to suffer, and it bothers me to vicariously experience the suffering of others. I don’t want to bring new beings into the world who might suffer, even if they aren’t real and will never live and die. It seems irresponsible to me. It’s something that I think about and believe about the world. But it’s also a form of paranoia, I know. I had a conversation with my editor, Ed Park, about this. He helped me to better describe how people exist in time, instead of showing them as if they existed simultaneously all at once. That’s actually how I see things. It’s a more normal mode of perception for me.
TL I think that’s how everyone thinks probably, with a lot of things occurring simultaneously. Just because thinking is mushy and laying things out in a sequence is—
LI Do you think that means we actually exist in a lot of different moments of time at once?
LI I think that, too.
TL Narrative is an imposition on an amorphousness that people don’t want to accept. Allowing that amorphousness to sit is just as interesting, and I think it results in a different kind of fiction.
LI That is one of the clearest descriptions of something that I’ve been aware of for a long time.
TL I’m curious about your editor. How did he work with the tension between time as a kind of simultaneity and narrative form as a progression? Was it important for you to have something like a beginning, middle, and end?
LI At some point, my editor encouraged me to stop the action and understand the difference between my descriptions and digressions, and the action itself—what was happening to the characters. He was almost encouraging me to have a more ethical relationship with the characters because in the first draft of the novel there were many more digressions about works of art, literature, and philosophy. There was a whole long passage about Gottfried Liebniz’s Monadology as well as other really long descriptive passages. There were also several invented novels that, fortunately or unfortunately, I excerpted at length. (laughter) Those passages were much longer then and there were other elements that went on forever.
TL Was it right to cut those? I’m just playing devil’s advocate.
LI I don’t know! But you’re better than I am at actually thinking and feeling in descriptions. I use them a bit sadomasochistically as a way to explore negative affect and the hell of other people, and to be like, “It’s beautiful, you all have to stay here and look at this crap.” I think maybe Ed was saying to me, “Do you really want that for yourself? Is that what you want for other people?” He called my attention to what normally I would think of as a sloppy humanist way of dealing with literary elements. He helped me to see that the event is interesting. My novel remains episodic, and it has a pattern, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing as a classical plot. If you look at it closely, you’ll see there are two patterns running parallel with one another. Together, they approximate something like a plot—or maybe they trick certain readers into thinking that they’re reading something that has a resolution.
TL Is that part of the satirical element of the novel?
LI So, again, there are a couple of fake novels that I’ve included parts of in Impossible Views. The second one I excerpted, Phillip Crystal, is about a young man living in a small city in western New York that is being ravaged by the image industry, by fictional versions of Xerox and Kodak. The novel contains fictionalized accounts of groundwater contamination catastrophes that happened in the ’80s. But this novel within the novel is really centered on a nuclear family, and the larger novel doesn’t really deal with this matter. It’s not an elucidation of family dynamics, really. This is my way of saying that there are unresolved plot elements disguised as artworks throughout the book. It doesn’t matter that they’re never resolved, because they are just works of art and/or objects. In my opinion, one of the major problems in real life is that many events tend not to be resolved, certainly not in the way that fictional plots are resolved. They’re just left however they fall. So I was able to introduce those kinds of elements into my novel by using objects or texts that are incomplete or can’t be excerpted in full because they would just completely take over the story.
TL You mentioned that some of the descriptive passages got trimmed or eliminated entirely after editing. What was the line that separated an acceptable description from an unacceptable one?
LI Are you looking for advice? (laughter)
TL Yes! When is too much too much? And how do you know?
LI You don’t work on description that way. You’re much better at it than I am. You don’t have the problems I have.
TL Why don’t I have those problems?
LI Because you’re better adjusted and were better cared for as a child? I don’t know if that’s true.
TL I like this idea, but I think I’m quite maladjusted. That’s why I prefer long and episodic works that don’t go anywhere. But what problems get solved by means of description in Stella’s life? She’s a very good student of looking and thus of methodologies of description. Can we talk about the psychological dimensions of description for a moment?
LI No, we can’t, because, though description might be psychological, I mainly experience it as work. I know you’re not supposed to say these things—and though I have a mother who was a curator, I wrote this novel about someone who is trained to describe so that I could prove once and for all that describing things is a real job. I’m sending a message the best way I know how: writing is a real job, too.
Tan Lin is the author of over thirteen books, including Heath Course Pak, Insomnia and the Aunt, 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, and The Joy of Cooking. A show of his work opens at the Treize Gallery in Paris in October 2017.
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