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.
On telling a story within a story, writing about autocratic regimes, and finding creative inspiration in science experiments.
Ana is an artist who spends thirty straight days undergoing self-imposed sensory deprivation. She might also be the sister of another Ana and the daughter of a Romanian mathematician who warps time. In Mikkel Rosengaard’s debut novel The Invention of Ana (Custom House), recently translated from Danish by Caroline Waight, Ana is all these things depending on who you ask and how the story is told. The narrator, an unnamed Danish intern living in Brooklyn, becomes transfixed with how Ana spins a tale, a process that reveals how stories evolve through their telling (and through their reception). More intriguing still are the moments when Rosengaard pauses the story to reveal its philosophical import, moving across time and place, from artsy Brooklyn to communist Bucharest to the streets of Rabat. What follows is an edited transcript of our talk at Scandinavia House, where we discussed the impetus for his novel, bizarre lab experiments, and autocratic regimes.
Raluca AlbuThe Invention of Ana is a story told within other stories, which seems to be the narrative thrust of the book. Why did you make this choice?
Mikkel Rosengaard My interest in narratives comes from a feeling that storytelling has never been more important than it is today. For much of history, the vast majority of people had very little influence on the story of their lives. You were at the mercy of nature and the seasons and of the local warlord, and very few people had any leeway to renegotiate the tale of who they were. But today, many of us are free to invent and reinvent ourselves. We are constantly asked, “Who do you want to be? What made you the person you are?” And if we can shape the stories of who we are, that begs another question: just how powerful and manipulative is narrative? Can the stories we tell about ourselves and each other change not only our identities but also our physical reality? That is the central question of the novel.
RA Why not just write the story from Ana’s perspective?
MR Since I wanted to explore narrative and storytelling, my idea was to write a novel where the protagonist wasn’t a person but, rather, an anecdote. This protagonist-anecdote would function like a Casanova or Don Juan character—or no, maybe more like an STD. The story would travel from person to person and everyone who engaged with it would get affected and deal with the painful outcomes. Ana’s parents make up this narrative about Ana’s age and upbringing, and that story spreads from them to Ana to all the people Ana love. And in order to show the impact of this seductive story, I couldn’t narrate the novel from Ana’s perspective. I needed an outsider to tell it, someone who wasn’t part of the Ivan family. I needed all these layers of people who add their own layers to the story.
RA It’s even there in the title. Ana’s identity was invented by her parents in an urgent situation at a central point of the book, and then we have the narrator also inventing a version of Ana.
MR And Ana is an artist and performer, so maybe she is also reinventing herself. I see people reinventing and warping their personal stories all the time, shaping their identities, creating stories about themselves and their careers and the lives of their pets. This is true especially in a city like New York where so many people are involved in storytelling professionally, whether in publishing or PR or art or media or marketing, they are very skilled at creating convincing narratives. It’s true for social media too, of course.
RA How do you prevent the intellectual mission of the book from getting in the way of character or plot development?
MR I always try to write Janus-faced, with two readers in mind. One who doesn’t care at all about ideas or concepts, who just wants to lose themselves in a story, and one who is reading to explore form and language and structure and ideas. That makes writing this constant oscillation between the epic and the intellectual, and getting the balance right can be deeply frustrating. But when it works, the positions and layers can merge, held together by a narrative gravity. If the novel is a galaxy, the central story—in this case, the story Ana’s parents make up about her upbringing—should work like the black hole at the galaxy’s center, something dense and heavy which all the spiraling ideas of the book churn around.
RA Why did you choose to set the bulk of the novel in Romania?
MR Since I wanted to write a novel about the effects of storytelling, it was important to me that parts of the novel took place in an autocratic regime. Out of all the many layers of stories we live in, one of the strongest narratives is that of the nation. I studied political science and wrote my thesis on the narratives that underpin dictatorships and so I thought it was interesting to set large parts of the book in Romania in the 1970s and 1980s where the whole country was forced to believe in one exceptionally rigid and bizarre narrative about the nation—that included, for example, that Bucharest should be razed and bulldozed and built from the ground as a modern, ideal city. I’m also friends with a handful of Romanian artists, and through them I heard a lot of anecdotes about growing up during the Ceaușescu regime, and how their family narratives had grated against those of the state. There was just so much material to work with.
RA What was it like to write about a culture other than your own? As a Romanian, I was amazed at how much history and culture you nailed. You took some risks in creating this Eastern European woman with mysterious trickster-like qualities. Did you worry that would play into stereotypes about the “east”?
MR Writing about a culture that is not your own is such a complex and confusing task. First, you need to do your research. But just as importantly, you need to be very upfront about your limited point of view, clearly state your blind-spots, and think very hard about the position of your narrator. As for playing with stereotypes, I find that to be one of the most beautiful things as a fiction writer. Say you create a stereotypical situation. You put a man and a woman together—in this case, a young, naïve intern meets an older, enigmatic artist. Then the reader will automatically fill in the gaps and think, alright, this is a love story, even if you give absolutely no hint that they are falling in love. And that sets you free as a writer to plant all kinds of other clues, so by the time the reader finally realizes that this is not a love story, you constructed an entirely different narrative behind the reader’s back. This works for all kinds of stereotypes—the mysterious woman from the East, the betraying brother, the evil stepmother, and so on. You can play around, have the reader project where the story is going and then yank it in a completely different direction.
RA How was the book received in Scandinavia, and is its reception here comparable?
MR American reviewers have focused on the question of who owns a story and how you go about telling a story that is not your own, which is obviously a very important question in a country as diverse and fractured as the U.S. I was most surprised by all the praise the book received in Scandinavia. Ever since My Struggle came out in 2009, Scandinavian literature has been obsessed with autofiction and the idea of writing a more authentic and less manipulative novel. With The Invention of Ana, I wanted to do the opposite, to write an anti-autofiction novel. Autofiction and that whole idea of an “honest narrative” is a conceptual dead end. Writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk argue that we are drowning in fiction, that we are suffocated by manipulative stories. And I get it, we obviously are. From the moment we wake up, we are marinating in news stories, social media, ad campaigns, Netflix shows. We live lives submerged in fiction. I understand the disgust, the frustration with all of these manipulative stories attacking us from all sides, but I find it deeply nostalgic and reactionary to think that we can go back to a more authentic and honest mode of storytelling. None of this is going away. If we want the novel to remain relevant in fifteen years, we have to co-opt and engage with fabricated and manipulative storytelling, especially if we want to reach more readers who don’t have writing degrees.
RA Prior to the novel, you mostly wrote art criticism. How does that lens inform your fiction?
MR Many of the stories and ideas that inform the book are drawn from the time I spend with artists. In my experience, visual art is usually five or ten years ahead of the novel in terms of adapting ideas and artistic strategies, so writing about art is a kind of intellectual short-cut. A way to engage with new forms and ideas. As for style, I think it’s a shame how most art writing is very theoretical and dry, focused on materiality and art historical references, instead of enlivening the story behind the artwork. Or this magical experience, when you visit an artist’s studio and the artist opens up and tells you the ideas and desires and fears propelling their work. To me, visual art is not just about the object or performance displayed in the gallery. Whole lives can be embodied in a piece of art. There is a long, arduous story and process behind each piece, and that was one of the things I wanted to capture in this book. The magic of sinking into that idiosyncratic universe of an artist.
RA How did you come up with the black-room experiment and the other art projects you describe in the book? While reading, I had the thought while reading you are a secret artist who hopes to create these things someday, though I suppose you already did on the page.
MR The art projects weren’t a part of the book originally, but since I was constantly uncovering more and more aspects and theories about storytelling and narrative and its effects on perception, I needed a structure that could include all of these ideas. That’s why the art world is a really beautiful place to set a novel because things that seem unrealistic elsewhere happen very naturally among artists. In the story, Ana lives thirty days in a completely dark room to see how it will affect her perception of time. If you wrote about a woman who locked herself in her bathroom with no light for a month, that would seem fantastical or ridiculous. But an artist doing that is not extraordinary. Frankly, it’s kind of old-school. It’s just another art project. So by setting a novel in the art scene, you get the freedom to play around more. You can go to extremes without the characters or their actions coming off as outlandish, without falling back on literary cop-outs like magical realism.
RA Why did you choose to focus on Brooklyn, instead of Chelsea or other archetypal art spots?
MR Since The Invention of Ana is a book about narrative, I thought it made sense that parts of the book should be set in New York. This city is held together by a very strong narrative, or illusion really. The whole fantasy about making it and becoming your grandest self. Whenever I go back to Copenhagen, I’m always struck by how often I see that narrative projected, even in Scandinavia. Ads with yellow cabs, a commercial with the Manhattan skyline, a model walking down a street in Chinatown. I thought it was interesting to set the novel in Brooklyn because that powerful story about New York City is primarily a story about Manhattan. In the book, the characters never actually make it into Manhattan. They are all living and working in Brooklyn and Queens, and Manhattan only exists as this shimmering, shiny island on the horizon. So even for most people living in New York City, there is still this seductive illusion of Manhattan to remind you of everything you don’t have.
RA The book also explores the manipulation of time.
MR The whole purpose of The Invention of Ana was to explore just how manipulative narrative can be. How it can bend and warp our perception of space and time. This idea came from an experiment in sensorial deprivation that took place in the 1950s at McGill University that I stumbled upon. To block out all sensorial input, the test subjects were dressed in dark goggles and earmuffs and a special suit. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but after just a few hours most of the subjects started hallucinating. At first, they saw a few dots of light that gradually grew into intricate, geometrical patterns, and after awhile whole scenes would play out. One guy saw nothing but dogs. And one heard a church bell chiming, and someone saw a tiny spaceship flying around and shooting pellets at him, and he would even feel little shocks of pain when he got hit by the imaginary pellets. From this, the researchers concluded that the brain creates meaning when there is none. When you don’t get any sensorial input, the brain will simply make up something.
Our minds are extremely good at creating a reality out of the barrage of inputs we receive from our senses, but when we are completely starved of sensorial input, the brain just makes up an imaginary reality. I was deeply fascinated by this idea because of what it suggests about storytelling: when there is no meaningful story playing out in front of us, our brains will still make up a story. Reality is something that our minds have cobbled together from scraps of physicality and scraps of imagination. In a very fundamental way, we are always already living in fiction.
Raluca Albu is the online editor for literature for BOMB.
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.