On the European release of Sundogz earlier this summer, I met with author and cultural critic Mark von Schlegell to talk about a mutual interest—the desire to observe from multiple viewpoints simultaneously, both inside and outside of fiction.
The idea of transformation is at the heart of speculative writing. Sundogz articulates this desire both allegorically, through descriptions of shape-shifting subjects in liquid worlds, and structurally, through normalizing a disrupted linearity, letting the point of reading become irretrievable by expansion instead. One viewpoint is diffused by striking two new.
If a single viewpoint synthesizes information, text and image, into an all-encompassing linear stream, possibly diverse but architecturally monotone, then how can the novel remain so rich?
Our interview took place in a former Nazi bunker in the basement of an exhibition space in Frankfurt am Main. On the table lay Venusia, Mercury Station, Sundogz, New Dystopia, Realometer, Dreaming the Mainstream, and The Artist Abstract—samples of von Schlegell’s broad activity of publishing, ranging from novels to film scripts, theater productions, criticism, and science fiction in the format of a digital watch.
Erika Landström Aside from your novels and literary theory, the majority of your writing is published within the art world. Is this something that happens by accident or by design, or possibly both?
Mark von Schlegell It’s definitely both—you have to be an opportunist to a certain degree when wanting to be a writer. I first noticed I wasn’t made for the normal writing world during writing school in New York. I was working as an archivist for Lawrence Weiner and couldn’t help but to actually look at the books he was making. He had a collection of artist books from the ’60s onward. I saw that there was this whole other world of publishing and that encouraged me. Even though I was writing science fiction, I couldn’t really publish it anywhere except in the art world—and I didn’t really try to. Kind of like water flows, I’ve learned to go to wherever there’s an opening.
I keep complaining about the money problem of the art world, but I must say, that without that money I wouldn’t be here talking to you. My father was buried in this dry, badly chosen piece of land—if you don’t water it, it turns brown. There’s a pump where you can pour water into a can, and all around that pump there’s this lush little greenery from spilling. It reminds me a bit of my work. There’s a rush of money going to water some grave over there, and I’m growing up around its source. Barely surviving, until the gravedigger stamps on me, or something.
EL Did you ever consider being an artist yourself?
MVS I can’t lie. I even liked having my clothes all dirty from painting. My dad was an art teacher, so there were always these young artists around. It was a different time; artists loved to be messy. And I fell in love with the studio-life vibe. My family members, instead of dealing with me, would just sit there and lounge, looking at their own work in the studio. I even studied art in college, but I got so turned off by the crit system, because in the first class the professor really attacked me. It was a self-portrait, and he was like, “Who did this? Of all the shit in the world, this had to walk into my classroom…” At that point, I realized I couldn’t deal with this type of subjectivity for the rest of my life. But I had always loved writing and books, and I had always secretly really wanted to have the courage to write.
EL And you have writers in your family too?
MVS I do. Almost as many as artists. My mother and aunt both write experimental, left-wing poetry.
EL There’s a concern with poetry and language forms in your prose. Do you see your work at all in that tradition, of language writing?
MVS This tradition that you’re talking about, if it’s coming from Mallarmé and modernist poetry, sure I use it at times or I’m influenced by it, but it’s not something that I’m attracted to. I’m really the opposite. I’m looking for the invisible part of writing, the more mystical sense. The invisibility of interpretable text is more fascinating to me than the visibility of the code. But a book can be an action, and that fascinates me too. As a young fellow, I did also love Kerouac and this proto-hippy stream of avant-garde expression. I still do.
EL Before writing novels, you wrote short stories. In one of them, The Artist Abstract, which you’ve referred to as your goodbye to art, you introduce the term “the observer” for the first time. Who or what is the observer?
MVS I remember starting to write this third person story about an abstract version of an artist. I was describing this artist, Standish Rehl, as someone willing to float along time propelled by the unconscious mass of the failed. I wrote, “He had an observer, of course,” and I remember thinking to myself: What! Where did that come from? Maybe in my own head I had an observer talking to me. I decided to keep it in. It’s a fictional work so I could speculate. In Venusia, I explore the observer in contemporary science. In what’s known as the Copenhagen School, there’s an interpretation that the observer creates reality in a way. In an experiment where two things could happen, the only thing they could seem to figure out is that the observation made one of them happen. I always had a resistance to the power of this concept. How could the observer, who’s the scientist, make something happen just by being a scientist? That just makes you God.
EL I understood the observer as representing and enforcing what’s considered normal.
MVS Exactly. Standish is performing even when he’s alone in the elevator of the old MOMA.
EL In order to escape, he blacks out his basement and paints in darkness… and in the end, he becomes a junky. Could the observer also be the author or the reader as the artist abstract?
MVS I think it could. Now that I look back on it, it makes perfect sense—the observer being a more artistic and less literary move, making writing seem more like a performance. I can’t say I think of writing or being a writer as an art form, but I’m not against it either.
EL You publish science fiction novels and art writing. Which comes first? Are you playing with the role of the sci-fi writer in a similar way that some novelists might play with confessional writing or the writer as journalist or anthropologist?
MVS For many years, I tried not to say that I’m a science-fiction writer. Science fiction in America is such a fraught word and with a community that’s willing to go to extreme lengths to tell me I’m not in it. On the other hand, my work is in the fucking science fiction section since ten years now. So, I think I can say that I write science fiction. I don’t really say sci-fi writer, that sounds like you’re off at conventions. I say I write science fiction and other things. I don’t do it as an artist who’s like, “I’m going to be a sci-fi writer.”
EL Is success important to you, as in recognition in the literary field?
MVS I’ve had so little that I don’t know what it means… I guess this counts as success [points to the table]. I always wanted to have my work published. In Realometer, I talk about how published work is not just the mainstream; it’s dreaming the mainstream, and without it, the mainstream might not even exist. The mainstream might just be a dream of books like mine or other writers. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I’m embarrassed by my failure! I think at a certain point I realized that, even though my work appears in many places, very few people who see it are confronted with me as an authorial presence in their lives. I recently bought a copy of Sundogz at this store, and the sales person said, “Oh, I love that guy.” The reader can find me on their own. Unlike anybody else, I’m really unremarked upon as a writer, and there’s a great kind of luck about that. I can still be published and don’t have to have these corporations bribing people to buy my books in the process of creating pseudo stars out of ’90s mediocre writers. I’m lucky I don’t have to be a part of that. It might have something to do with the slacker generation I come from. It made me make more mistakes on top of the ordinary failure.
EL The book reoccurs in your novels as an artifact but also as a literary device, like the play within the play or the mise en abyme, etc. What’s the role of the book in your books?
MVS It started when I noticed that the book was there in everything I was doing. At a certain point, I had to admit it and start doing it on purpose too. Partially, it’s writing a book about the future in a time and culture that has a rhetoric about the end of the book, as was happening in the Bush years, when I really started getting into writing science fiction. Today, the book has to justify the book. I’m an ex-librarian, as you know, and as a child I was a retreater into books, and I still am. I feel obligated to create a space in the future for books to exist, or question why my own book would be there. Especially in the escapist science fiction tradition, I like self-referential books that can explain their own narrative.
EL The book as time machine?
MVS Yes. Mercury Station, my second book, explicitly explores that. I don’t want to get all sentimental about the loss of the book, but it’s a really great creator of history because once it’s published you can—I don’t know if that’s changing already—trust that it was published in this year or that. You can bring it to a lab, and they would say, “OK, this is ten years old,” or that this is an authentic artifact of a particular time. When you see a digital book or read something online, you know that any asshole could have changed any word yesterday. You have no idea what time it is. I’ve managed some blogs, and I’ve changed dates too. Venusiadeals with a world where they’ve forgotten how to read and have no history; they’re completely manipulated. When someone happens to find a book of Venusian history, and learns how to read it, it creates a total revolution.
EL Does science fiction or speculative writing have a secret relationship with chance or the arbitrary? In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick uses the I Ching to determine plot outcome—
MVS It was the only one of his books that won the big award, so it worked for him!
EL And in your essay on Raymond Roussel, Roussel Returns, you talk about his method of writing in which sonic resemblance or material aspects of language dictate wording and structure.
MVS In science fiction, chance—I must say I haven’t formulated this until in conversation with you—could be part of a tradition of refusing to be a romantic-authorial artist. Today science sees itself as anti-art. Chance might be a way for a writer to say: I don’t want to express myself. Roussel made whole novels out of chance; he arrived at a super modernity through the most casual glance, very much like the Hubble Telescope. And it’s risk too! As a writer, I think if you use chance, it’s thrilling.
EL You’re obsessed with conspiracy theories, and you’ve got your own on Roussel: that he financed the early avant-garde and by extension invented contemporary art—
MVS —as a place where his books would be read in the future.
EL Yes. Are these kind of speculations the reason why you’re writing both literary theory and fiction?
MVS Maybe. I don’t know why I always tend to have a revisionist view. I always want to say, “Oh, this is actually what’s really going on.” It’s an impulse I recognize both from writing fiction and criticism or theory. When I started writing, especially in New York, it was really frowned upon to do theory, criticism, and fiction at the same time—you picked one or the other. Then I moved to LA and met Chris Kraus and Norman M. Klein and other writers, and they were saying the opposite, that you should do exactly what you feel like—you can mix it all in one book.
EL You often write real authors into your novels.
MVS And fake ones.
EL Some writers say they write to both keep and rid themselves of voices of precursory writers.
MVS Obviously Philip K. Dick had that influence on me. I was in a funny place in terms of writing when I encountered him in full. I was temping at Ballantine Books in New York, and it was in the ’90s, right during the time when the paperback revolution that I’ve written about was being destroyed. The company that I worked for was part of this mega-corporation called Random House. My boss got copies of all the first mass-market editions of Philip K. Dick, because one of the sister companies in the same building, Vintage Books, had just bought them all from across the mass-market spectrum. She gave them to me free. The books I got were all $1.99 and $2.50 paperbacks in a stack. I read them all in a row, and it opened a door for me. Then they started republishing them, and now they’re $20 each. When those books were $2.50, they had a different meaning. After having read everything by him there was, I swore I would never read him again. It was too powerful for me.
EL You write about the paperback revolution in Dreaming the Mainstream. What’s the relationship?
MVS I first used the title Dreaming the Mainstream for an essay when I started out publishing as an art critic. I was in LA writing about local young art using science fiction. I thought these artists were dreaming about being connected to mainstream sci-fi. There would be a show with a poster or a sculpture from Alien or whatever. The article was rejected and shelved. Later, when I was asked to write a text for an art exhibition, I used the same title and wrote a short sci-fi story that also became the introduction in the book. In the paperback revolution, the mainstream was created on a literary base, because if you were Stevie Wonder and made a great album, or if you were some twentieth-century movie star like Clark Gable, or a director like Hitchcock, you always had a paperback book coming out as part of your deal. Paperback books connected everything. They were like the sea of the mainstream, and they had a richness because they were books, unlike all these other artifacts floating around. They had a deeper historical life to live.
EL They had really nice covers too.
MVS Especially science fiction covers. They had more influence on movies and arts than the actual books.
EL Apparently you’re a huge collector of these books yourself?
MVS I’ve tried to theorize the fan in an essay—fandom being that you love your influence and celebrate it. You don’t kill your father, rather you preserve and mother your father. It’s kind of perverse, but fans are perverse, as you know. They do too much. They go over the top. But I think now, the era of the true fan is in threat. I don’t know if it’s gone, but a lot of fans since the ’90s are sort of farmed. Science fiction or fantasy TV shows are creating whole worlds for fans to breed within and reproduce. It’s not like when Ray Bradbury started out as a publisher of his own fanzines, celebrating books, and one-day becoming the biggest sci-fi writer in the world. Lovecraft’s last line in At the Mountains of Madness is just a quote from Poe—a secret one, but any reader of Poe would know it. In his moment of real authority, he chose to say, “My master is Poe.” This is the tradition of the fan that can still inspire the theorist or writer.
EL You’re also a fan of Poe?
MVS Poe’s my first science-fiction writer, but I think it’s great that people have their own. A lot of people say Mary Shelley. Others say The Book of Elijah, especially people who read Hebrew. It really goes back. Some say the I Ching. Poe, as you can read about in Realometer, seems to have been the first modern detective novelist. He created—okay, maybe didn’t create, because there’s no real origin—but sort of made evident the idea of modern genres. He started writing certain types of stories he would then repeat.
EL Similar to Dick and Roussel, Poe used objective systems of logic when determining the structure of The Raven.
MVS He did. I mean, there are articles in the New York Times from last year saying, “Did Edgar Allan Poe, by some weird chance, realize we’re in an inflational universe?!” He has this miraculous presence in the contemporary. As Henry James said: “His works do not appeal to the serious mind.” TS Eliot dissed him horribly, too. Yet The Simpsons has a whole episode on The Raven. Poe is very mainstream. Freud’s unconscious is definitely present in Poe, and so much in Roussel comes from Poe.
EL He worked as a journalist for the Sun, and he wrote this fake news story—
MVS That was the first science-fiction story ever written. It has the word “astounding” in giant letters, which is in the name of Astounding Science-Fiction, the first major science fiction magazine. It has the word “voyage” in big letters, which is in the name of Extraordinary Voyages—the series of adventure novels Jules Verne wrote. And the biggest word of all, with three exclamations, is the word “machine.” When the story came out, it provoked a riot amongst the readers. Looking at it now, it’s almost like an AI wrote it, interfering in history. Poe’s already mocking our love of the machine in a hoax in 1844.
EL It’s interesting that you mention AI, because the hoax required people to actually believe in the story.
MVS That’s right. He did say he was most happy with the people who were yelling angrily, “That’s not true!“
EL It’s interesting to think of how to forge “astounding” unpredictability in fiction. In your novels, you often break with linear narrative, could this be a way?
MVS Yes, I do use those kinds of things, as a special effect almost—disorientation or sudden interruptions of a new plot. I’ve been accused of doing it way too often.
EL Sundogz begins in Oa, this wonderful underwater world, but just as the name Flann O’Brien flashes by like some obscure warning, we’re snatched from the bubble and locked into a space ship.
MVS When I did Oa I felt like it was pretty beautiful and fun stuff. I could do this the whole book. But we don’t have the right, and my reader doesn’t have the right, or I don’t have the right to just be entertaining them in this way. Or, maybe, I don’t have the right to use nature in that way. I have to deal with the fact that we’re being ripped from that. So in some respect, Sundogz is about being ripped from nature.
EL The System Series takes place after the abandonment of Earth and the colonization of space. It describes totalitarian states, diaspora, surveillance, and paranoia. Time travel, multiversalism, and the constant metamorphosis of subjects makes it impossible even to imagine death as a certain outcome or emergency exit. It’s like being stuck in this afterlife.
MVS I think you’re right. Now we’re living in a time where everyone is always talking about the collapse of civilization or the end of this or that; that science fiction is dead, that cyberpunk killed science fiction. So why am I writing it? I can start at the end. I can begin my books where other books end. I’m one of the last generations of pre-Internet, unless it all goes down pretty soon, but if it doesn’t, I’m past the end of something already.
EL Realometer and Dreaming the Mainstream have been referred to as ficto-criticism. Can fiction be cultural critique? Was this your ambition with The System Series?
MVS I think so. I don’t want to get too into the generic idea of the novel—it should be open to everything, never controlled. The novel has probably always functioned as cultural criticism, the difference is that in some of my work, there’s fiction in the criticism.
EL Are you ever concerned about the instrumentalization of the writer, especially in the art world?
MVS I’ve been concerned that, while I’m getting fifty dollars, my name is now attached to this person or that forever and is being used to inflate their career. I think every writer who is writing art criticism reaches a point where they stop doing it; they can’t handle it anymore. At least in my generation. It’s for younger people to get their name in print, become a curator or an underpaid freelancer. I grew up when literature was being used by artists, more so than the other way around. So one can get bitter as a writer, you know? Today, when I have my stories in art catalogs I try to make sure that they’re somehow antagonistic to the whole project. The sad thing is that it works even better in the context. It’s like writing science fiction in a totalitarian state. So there’s no escape, and nowadays I’ve become a little more appreciative of what I’ve been able to find in the art world.
EL You’ve mentioned fiction as an alternative framing device for art.
MVS That’s how I felt with the exhibition New Dystopia, which was organized around my story, as an exhibition “written by Mark von Schlegell.” But they failed to publish the catalogue in time, so people went to this fiction exhibition without the fiction. I think it made it even better, because not only did the fiction remove art history, the show was suddenly allowed to fucking be and do its own work without anybody writing about it. Maybe I’m just giving myself a break. I was being paid to be there, in France, at this museum that’s funded by one of the best winemakers in the world. I don’t even like wine, but I sure did there.
EL You could say that Roussel was an apolitical writer; by refusing to write descriptively, allegorically, or metaphorically, his writing became almost impossible to appropriate or instrumentalize.
MVS You see it in Jack Vance too; he really doesn’t want to be concerned with politics at all. Stanislaw Lem is in some ways perhaps the greatest literary science-fiction writer of the twentieth century. He wrote sci-fi during Communist Europe when he wasn’t allowed to write what he wanted to, and he stopped as soon as the wall came down. He didn’t want to write science fiction, he had to. There’s a cutting off of the artist from the present that’s surprisingly proto-political. As a writer, you can make the true depth of that cut felt, at least Lem could.
EL These writers were concerned with the autonomy of fiction. Speculative fiction is sometimes described as writing from within rather than from without. Can fiction writing be excused from the production of the real?
MVS In Realometer, there’s a quote by Northrop Frye: “Life has no shape; literature has.” The novel remains a creator of reality in my purview, more so than people realize. In fiction, I think you sort of go on a journey, or I do. I follow the path of real and not real, and I let the story solve itself. In literary theory, I focus on American culture and American literature of the nineteenth century. These writers saw a literary paraphernalia of English culture coming into the nature world of America. They saw that slippage between the Western reality and the reality of the first Americans, the African reality—and more so than the generations before them, and as a result it became a subject in their work. As I tried to discuss in Realometer, fiction can be this art object that doesn’t show us anything new about reality, but draws out everything fake. That’s sort of what the Poe story does.
EL In Sundogz, you write: “As narrative proceeds from left to right and from down to up… The old words fall away one by one, but new names appear to replace them, so that the invisible thing can move. Principle of constant leaping through a field of change, here is the soul we hunt… as long as we ride, our narrative self can think, leaping, diving words backward even as the narrative flows forward—editing as it goes, remembering where it might actually escape. Such a thing is a terrible quarry to hunt. Think of it not able to die!”
MVS This is the voice of an AI trying to figure out how to be human or how to be a self—to do so, it turns to literature.
EL You’ve gone as far as suggesting that language itself might be artificial intelligence?
MVS The idea suggested itself when reading Roussel, just observing the incredible vistas that came out of his sinful secret breaking of language apart. He talks about it as if hammering jewels and discovering an endless wealth. It makes you think about Western culture’s worship of someone like Shakespeare. We marvel at his texts but can’t help but think: How could Shakespeare have done all of this when he was just this kid in Stratford? How could he have predicted deconstruction? Roussel helped me understand what a large part of meaning is already contained in language itself, that the brilliance of literature is not the great myth of the genius single author’s soul, but a vast invisible infinity of meaning surfaced by the work with language. Shakespeare was obsessed with words. Intelligence, artificial or not, is contained in the form that will describe it and with which it will describe itself.