Beyond the Borders of American Realism: A Conversation by Jeff Jackson & Martin Riker

A two-sided novel and a psychological road narrative, both books explore contemporary culture by channeling iconic literary traditions. 

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Jeff Jackson is a writer I’ve been interested in since Two Dollar Radio published his 2013 debut Mira Corpora, a novel that received all sorts of deserved attention but that also struck me as quiet, in its way—focused on the work it was doing, not distracted by any outward sense of what a novel is “supposed” to do. Jeff and I both write a lot of criticism, and the art, music, and literature he likes also interests me. So when I learned Jeff’s new book, Destroy All Monsters (FSG Originals), was coming out in the same month as my own debut novel, I thought a conversation about our two books, and more generally about what we’re both up to aesthetically, would be a way to get to know him.

In fact, our novels are very different. Destroy All Monsters tells and retells, in stark and unsettling themes and variations, the events surrounding a national epidemic of mass shootings at music shows. A Don DeLillo blurb for the book describes “fragile characters who suggest a bleak inner world made in their own collective image.” My own Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (Coffee House Press) is a modern retelling of Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, an 1836 social satire narrated by a dead man whose soul travels from body to body, experiencing life in different strata of American society. Tonally, the books are worlds apart, and this, we found when we spoke, was the first thing we had in common: how important it was to us that our books not sound like anybody else’s.

—Martin Riker

Martin RikerYou said something to me that I thought was great, that both of our books seem to have their root systems outside of contemporary American realism, yet they’re both very American, and their American-ness is important to them. I’d like to ask you about both sides of that statement.

Jeff JacksonOnce you read beyond the borders of this country’s contemporary realism, you quickly discover so many radically different ways to tell and structure a story. In France alone, various movements have mapped alternative approaches to literature. Countless authors have forged unusual narrative pathways that remain only partly explored. And there are counter-traditions in this country as well. Early American literature from the 1800s—Melville, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and your inspiration Sheppard Lee—is extremely unorthodox, inventive, and often straight-up batshit (to use a technical term). 

I’ve always loved Ralph Ellison’s assertion that one of the great gifts of being an artist is that you get to choose your influences and claim your forebears. Critics wanted to pigeonhole Ellison as being indebted to Richard Wright, but he saw himself much more in conversation with Andre Malraux. Although he was influenced by a French writer, that doesn’t make Invisible Man any less of an American novel.

I see our books in a similar situation, partly inspired by the techniques of writers we love from other countries while also dealing with the landscape, people, and cultural texture of present-day America. They also feel like they’re at least partly concerned with the country’s pop culture—the music, television, and film that helped to create a sort of shared national experience—and how that’s rapidly unraveling. They strike me as books with one foot in the contemporary and one foot in something older.

I wonder if there’s something deeply American in the particular ambitions of our books? They both inhabit a lot of different American landscapes. In Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, there’s also the breadth of the characters from various backgrounds that Samuel’s soul inhabits. 

Samuel Johnson Portrain And Cover

Photo: Jessica Baran

MRI think both books exhibit a Whitmanesque desire to “sing America,” to locate patterns and variations in American experience and to find in these patterns a kind of shared … something. A plentitude. It’s a funny thought, though, because while there’s an ambition in that, there are also problems, since America is a fairly complicated place. The plentitude you invoke in Destroy All Monsters is frankly scary, a detourned Whitman singing the horrific variations of a murderous nation. My book’s plentitude is made up of people living mostly in solitude, finding connection through media, though I will say I’m not entirely skeptical of the connections media affords. I mean, mediation is a fact of our lives, and we find our connections where we can, and I’m less interested in diagnosing loneliness and alienation than in thinking about how the sites of intimacy change as the world changes. And books, of course, are a form of media and a site of intimacy as well.

I should say I don’t think either of us aspires to “encompass” America the way Whitman seems to. We’re a nation of diversity—if we’re worth anything, that’s what we’re worth—and more than ever we’re a nation of differences. But I also don’t think the impossibility of encompassing American experience should cause a writer to shy away from trying to find ways to invoke the shared patterns of life in this country. For my book, this meant telling stories that all dealt in different ways with the same sorts of concerns, things like parenthood, solitude, how we relate to each other through technology, and how we relate to technology itself. It’s not to say that everyone’s life is equally defined by these concerns, and certainly not in the same way, but it’s a way of looking at our experiences as not defined entirely by difference.

Your book deals with this narrative problem in a more overtly formal way, structured on almost every level—the line, the scene, the overarching structure—around repetition and variation. You have recurring events, or events that take place over again in different circumstances. You have an “A” side and a “B” side, where the reader literally flips the book over and starts reading a different version of the same story. How did you decide on this structure?

JJOriginally Destroy All Monsters only had one side. It took me a while to find an agent and publisher, and during that process I was haunted by the image of the novel as the “A” Side of a vinyl single. This naturally brought up the question, what would the “B” Side look like? I began to think of it as the flip side of the main text, a sort of alternate history or reality. I didn’t want it to function like Rashomon—telling the same story you’ve just read from a different perspective. 

Ultimately, Kill City (the “B” Side) deepens the main narrative by dramatizing events that are largely missing there and simultaneously rewrites that narrative by reversing the fates of two key characters and by switching the genders of others. I wanted to make it impossible for readers to connect the two sides in terms of story and instead focus on the thematic connections between them.

Jeff Jackson Portrait And Cover

Photo: Lydia Bittner-Baird

Although the first part of Kill City includes a series of murders from the epidemic of violence that shadows My Dark Ages (the “A” Side), overall it’s not telling the same story. The next section purposefully includes a critical scene that’s absent from My Dark Ages—a funeral. I thought it was important to see the characters when their grief is fresh and raw. Another key moment is a scene of the victims confronting one of the killers. While there are many echoes between the two sides, readers encountered the characters in new scenarios that would reveal some different aspects of their personalities.

Speaking of formats, I’m curious what sparked the idea to reimagine Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself and how that initial influence changed over the course of the writing. Was there something in the structure that you found useful? Were there elements of the original that you were surprised carried over into your book?MRThe story of its genesis is complicated, but the short version is that I was about equally attracted to Sheppard Lee for the things it did well and the things it did poorly. It had this very fun and flexible premise (metempsychosis), and the form felt to me like a great big bag I could fill with almost anything, stuff with all the stories I’ve hauled around for years. The road novel (novels constructed as strings of episodes) is all about surprise and possibility, not unlike the road itself. This is why I’ve always loved the road novel form, the way your protagonist can leave behind whatever terrible mess he made in the previous chapter and proceed to make a new terrible mess in the next one. Gogol’s Dead Souls is perhaps my favorite example.

But one problem of road novels, from a narrative point of view, is that a true road novel—like Sheppard Lee—is purely episodic, and lacks that central desire or sense of purpose that drives the character of a psychological novel through the book’s episodes. It is largely this central desire and its resulting choices and consequences that allow traditional linear novels—since, say, Cervantes—to accumulate emotional force as they go. And while, as a reader, I don’t care whether novels are constructed in this particular tradition, and love many novels that spread desire around in much less linear ways, I also enjoy novels that work this way, provided the writer does something interesting with it. In the case of Sheppard Lee, I actually found the lack of a desirous forward momentum disappointing, and my attempt to wed that book’s wonderful bag-like form with an overarching desire (the narrator’s quest to return to his son) resulted in a collage/narrative road/psychological mash-up that was never in any way inevitable, but it looks, to me, precisely like the sort of book I would write.

This brings me (if only in my own mind) to the other question I wanted to ask you, which concerns your ideas about literature being contemporary—since your subject matter certainly is. What does it mean for literature to be “of its time?” Is “of its time” something literature needs to be?

JJIn one sense, literature isn’t set up to be timely. It works so slowly—it takes a long time to write, it can take years for a book to get edited and published, and it takes readers longer to consume than visual art, music, or film. Destroy All Monsters deals with an epidemic of violence, but I started it seven years ago when American attitudes and politics around mass shootings were very different. So even if I was attempting to make a “timely” statement, I’d almost be guaranteed to miss the mark. Current events are moving so fast these days that attitudes may have shifted again by the time this conversation appears.

Although I think it’s futile for literature to chase current events, I also think it can’t help but reflect its time. Like us, a book is contemporary because of when it was born. Those qualities of being “of its time” might not be screamingly obvious at first glance—no references to social media shaming, group sexts, whatever—but broader contemporary concerns, attitudes, and anxieties will filter into the work whether you want them or not. Critic J. Hoberman has a theory that every movie isn’t about the year it’s set, but about the year it was made. For instance, The Wild Bunch has much more to say about 1969 than 1913. And I think there’s truth in this theory that applies to literature, too.

I’m more concerned about keeping my work from being consumed by the contemporary. There’s a danger that books can end up being reduced to a sociological representation of their moment. That’s why I embed elements of myth, ritual, dream, and folktales into my novels, so-called timeless structures that hopefully give them resonance beyond their initial publication and which might help them retain some usefulness to future readers.

To complicate things a bit though, I do keep thinking about Rimbaud’s artistic manifesto: “Il faut etre absolutement moderne.” What does it mean for a novel to be absolutely modern? Especially at a time when so many American novels seem aesthetically antiquated? Or maybe a better way to put this: What makes a novel exciting for you these days?

MRFor me the excitement doesn’t usually have much to do with what’s happening in the culture at large. Which is not to say I’m uninterested in the culture, only that there’s a crucial difference between this thing called “culture” and the larger thing it inscribes itself upon (life, reality, the world). I agree with Virginia Woolf that novels should be about anything and everything, that life exists as fully in “what is commonly thought small” as in “what is commonly thought large,” and that literature should concern itself with life in its full range of possibilities. Literature is the place where we are reminded that the official stories we tell ourselves about who we are—i.e., our culture—occupy only a partial and provisional space in the largeness of lived experience. It’s one of the few places in our lives where we are invited to step outside of the buzz—or the doxa or “received ideas” or just the pressing issues of the moment—and consider experience in totally other ways. And—to answer your question—I guess the best way I can describe what makes a novel exciting for me is that it demonstrates this fact in some compelling new way.

Which is no doubt why I wanted to have this conversation with you, Jeff Jackson! I’ll wrap it up by asking the same question: What makes a novel exciting?

JJI love what you said about complicating the stories we tell ourselves about who we are—that project feels more necessary and timely than ever and it remains something rare and thrilling and unsettling.  

These days, I find myself excited by novels that are deeply literary but lack the expected sheen of so-called literary prose. I’m excited when a novel feels “open”—where the author has left plenty of interpretative room for readers to roam, to explore possibilities and emotions that remain in flux. And I’m especially excited by novels that challenge my taste and make me revise my precious ideas about what makes a good book.

There’s a wonderful Guy Debord quote: “The passions have been sufficiently interpreted; the point now is to discover new ones.” That’s an almost impossible challenge and that’s also what excites me: when literature attempts the impossible. At the very least, novels should be discovering different ways to interpret the passions so we can experience them as if they are new. I found the end of Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return extremely moving, partly because the way you generated that surging mix of emotions was so singular and strange.    

One final quote, this one from visionary bandleader and composer Sun Ra: “The impossible attracts me because everything possible has been done and the world didn’t change.” 

Jeff Jackson is the author of the novels Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel (FSG) and Mira Corpora, a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Vice, Guernica, and The Common. Six of his plays have been produced by the Obie-Award winning Collapsable Giraffe company in New York City.

Martin Riker’s debut novel is Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (Coffee House Press). His fiction and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Review of Books, TLS, Conjunctions, and The Baffler. He and his wife, Danielle Dutton, co-run the feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project.

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