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 met Nam in Iowa, and for some dumb reason I’ve had to remind myself, over the years, that he’s not an American writer, that his journey and our meeting in the Midwest was an unlikely one, hardly destined by history or class or geography. Faith in the odds leads me to believe that I would have crossed paths with Nam eventually, on the shelves of a bookstore, as an encounter with sentences, but I’m also quite fond of the idea that the late Frank Conroy reached across time and introduced us. Frank himself would call this sentimental and suggest I strike the sentence—either that, or own up to the indulgence and thus avoid being coy. Sincerity is always problematic, but I side with the genuine, as I do with hope, if only because both are so vastly superior to the alternatives of deceit and despair. The sentence stays.
I feel a solidarity with Nam’s work, but one that comes to me circuitously, from Camus and Merton, two writers who abhorred abstraction and fitted their lyrical passions to the complexities of their time. There are no heroes in Nam’s stories. They are full of average people who find themselves playing a role in a tragedy, people who’ve been thrust onto a stage that just happens to have the immensity of history as its scrim. They are absurd people, pitiful people, small people, moving through our history—Tehran, Colombia, Hiroshima, Vietnam—without power or any relevance beyond their suffering. This is a vision of history in which time itself has ceased to operate, history that is not a reclamation project. There’s a characteristic moment in every one of the stories in The Boat that captures the collapse of time, where you can watch as the stories strain against narrative. A single example suffices, from “The Boat,” in which all the world is reduced to the smell of “urine … sweat and vomit. The black space full of people, bodies upon bodies, eyes and eyes … here she could hardly breathe, let alone move.” This could be a description of anywhere, anytime—Darfur, Iraq, Guantanamo, the Twin Towers—in a world where the nauseating repetitions of history are little more than a record of our impotence, offering no orientation.
And yet there are the old verities, stubborn truths that survive, insisting on themselves. In the interview, we begin with a discussion of “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” because chronologically it comes first in the book, but, in my experience, it reads well as the last story in the collection too. Or, to put my sense of things more precisely, the book forms a circle of understanding that can’t be fully grasped until we’ve returned to the beginning and witnessed, again, the struggle of the artist, who is not exempt from his time, as he tries to give form to the complexities common to all of us.
Charles D’Ambrosio In his first book In Our Time Hemingway cut 3,000 words out of the culminating story “The Big Two-Hearted River.” Today we read that story in two parts, but in my understanding “The Big Two-Hearted River” originally would have formed a triptych.
That missing third frame shows Nick Adams (Hem) elaborating his artistic doubts and ambitions and articulating his thoughts on writing. At the same time, those 3,000 words give the reader a set of instructions about how to read the book. You get to the end and you can’t help but reconsider the whole. It recasts the book, making the artistry self-conscious, explicit. In Our Time is partly a book about writing, about the difficulty of it.
It seems to me that The Boat takes a similar but contrasting approach. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is a story for the ages. It stands alone, for sure, but it also frames questions that cast forward and complicate the entire book. Whereas Hemingway held the meta-business off to the end, and then cut it, you’ve included key questions, and raised them right up front. It’s really bold—as a reader, you finish “Love and Honor …” and think, well, there’s no backing down now! Can you discuss the nature of this choice, its importance, any fears you may have had about its influence over the book?
Nam Le Oh, man, you move fast and you hit hard. Hemingway! Somehow you’ve slyly intuited that Papa’s a good place to start. When I was 15, I wrote a long story that totally ripped off The Old Man and the Sea; it was called “Desert Dance” and instead of the Gulf Stream it took place in some unspecified desert; instead of a guy dreaming about lions on African beaches, my guy dreamt about golden eagles—or were they, surely they couldn’t be, vultures?—on some unspecified golden beach. (I then tried to dignify that theft with another one: my epigraph ripped off Tennyson’s “Tithonus.”) Fast forward eight years and the first version of the first story I wrote from The Boat was inspired, in part, by Hemingway’s ball-grabbing Macomber story. And, to segue into your question, the burning drum in “Love and Honor …” was, of course, a nod to the end of The Garden of Eden—a strange, moody novel that lives longer in the mind than its slightness and simplicity might first suggest.
I like what you say about In Our Time being partly a book about writing—about the difficulty of it. I think all serious books are on a bedrock level about writing and the difficulty of it. Conventional wisdom (an unstable construction if ever you heard one) exhorts writers not to write about writing, but, of course, all good books honor this in the breach—are self-conscious in their bones. Words can’t dodge style; all serious writing has to reckon with the necessity of approximation in the face of arbitrariness, in the face of all the inevitable, unpredictable, rich failures thrown up whenever we try to trap experience and render it into language.
You’re right to imply that sticking “Love and Honor…” up front wasn’t an easy decision for me. I’m generally averse to the kind of vertical self-consciousness that spines that story, and I knew the arguments in it would invite simplistic reading, well-meaning dogmatism, as well as all grades of misconstrual. I knew they might cast the other stories as five-finger exercises. I knew some people would try to extract a meaning or message from the story that was never rigged to survive outside the story’s life-support system. I knew some people wouldn’t adequately consider why any such meaning or message might have been invoked in the form used—fictive, self-reflexive, intertextual, unreliably unreliable, exploiting vagaries of quasi-autobiography and inferred ventriloquism—rather than just explained. To me, it seems pretty clear “Love and Honor…” can’t be reduced to manifesto simply because it’s not trying to say anything new; the only aesthetic preferences stated therein are fusty and old-fashioned: that fiction be judged as fiction, on its own terms, on its own merits.
So why did I do it? Looking back, I reckon maybe I wanted to reserve all my rights. I wanted to pull out the sharp elbows and carve out as much space for myself as I could.
CD There’s no question in my mind that it was the right move. It makes all the various readings both possible and untenable, increasing the suggestive range of the book by undermining our desire for comforting absolutes. I’d feel like a chump insisting on one way of seeing. One of my favorites in the book is “Halflead Bay,” but the ballast the story might offer my reading because of its centrality and heft and subject matter isn’t quite … acceptable, I guess: I feel I have no right to favor or privilege that form of understanding over another.
In a somewhat related matter, collections can feel like a drawerful of miscellany, a random gathering. They can leave us hankering for the whole, for some sense of the string binding it all together: an obsession or sensibility, maybe a style or a place, some kind of cohesion above and beyond the accident of time. The Boat reads like a book; ultimately, the stories sail under that flag, and that’s the encounter.
NL I can’t take too much credit for The Boat reading like a book—each of these stories I conceived as a separate, self-standing entity. I kind of like the idea of them being at odds with one another, mutually scornful, each convinced of the superiority of its own ethos, yet forced to assemble under the flag of my name. (And what a black flag that is! Were these stories’ protagonists their champions, it’s amusing—nerdily so, I admit—to think of how Ron in “Cartagena” would be hostile to Henry’s excesses in “Meeting Elise;” Henry, in turn, to Jamie’s languor and unironic sincerity in “Halflead Bay;” etc.)
This said, when I learned these seven stories would be collected between cloth covers, I picked through them and culled certain redundancies, cultivated certain repetitions—all with a larger structure in mind. Which leads me as close to an answer as I’m likely to come: I write under not only the presumption that everything I write is deeply conditioned by everything I’ve already written, but that everything I write changes, retroactively, all those things I’ve already written. There’s your unifying element. Every new fiction gives new shape to the entire body of work, and that body of work is the only place and means I have to work out what matters to me. Which is why, before I set out to write something, I try to ask myself: Why? Where’s the reason more compelling than the simple pleasure of a calculated risk, or—even worse—the simple confidence that I’m up to it? I can’t tell you how exciting it is to hear that you were unsettled by “Halflead Bay,” that your frames of normative reference were shaken, because, in a sense, that’s the whole rub of why I write: to challenge old understandings, or consolidate them, or try out new ones—whilst actively misbelieving the very processes and principles of such understanding. It puts me in mind of a description of writing I heard somewhere: that what we writers do is create, every day, the very ground we need to stand on.
I have a question for you. I’d be bloody interested to know what it was like in your case—whether The Dead Fish Museum reads, to you, more like a book than The Point. Did anything change in writing the latter stories insofar as you knew they’d find a home—most likely in the flagship of the Condenasty fleet—but quite probably too in book form?
CD That the stories in Dead Fish would likely find a home must have exerted some influence, but the exact nature of it escapes me. Maybe because my sense of trespass is so keen, I always write as if I were only trying out material, and in that sense the stories in both books felt like auditions. As I work I test certain sounds to see whether they’ll combine to make comedy or hit a particular note of sadness—or both, if I’m lucky. And then my drive is just to sustain that sound, to follow it and be true to it as it moves and decays over time. Or, I’ll write dialogue, then struggle to create a housing for it, some world that doesn’t damn the characters to their darkness, to silence or incoherence, and maybe even achieves the opposite, lifting them from their isolation—all because I want that dialogue (qua dialogue) to exist in a state of maximum, if temporary, relevance. I’m naïve that way. It’s a character flaw. And it doesn’t change from story to story, book to book.
What changed is an appreciation of risk, especially in terms of a story’s resolution. I have an impulse toward completeness, which is a dullard’s habit, I think, and betrays a lack of trust—a well-meaning attempt to make life cohere because otherwise there’s just madness. That kind of thinking only has two outcomes, sentimentality or cynicism, neither really the stuff of art. Knowing the stories would likely get published put some of that to rest, and I could allow richer notes, I felt, because I could accept greater discord. Some people like to believe that being edited is a tense and acrimonious business but my experience of the process has always been quite the opposite. Carin Besser at The New Yorker encouraged me to let the stories be. Just be. A lot of the editing involved peeling away layers of personal anxiety, not in any therapeutic sense, but in the art—scraping off trace deposits left in the tone, removing lines of dialogue that were overly articulate, scorifying exposition that was false because it interfered. I became more confident of the difference between finishing the story and fixing the life, between aesthetic resolution and desperately panting after answers. Now I think of stories moving toward a feeling of necessity, of inevitability. When I finished “Up North,” for instance, I knew who raped the wife, but the character didn’t, and I thought: well, that is the story. Too bad for him, I guess.
NL Nice throwaway tease there—I won’t be suckered into asking the question, but of course I’m interested, as a matter of aesthetic experiment, in the structural stress you would have exerted on the story by making the rapist’s identity known. (That is, beyond the trite effect of making it a different story.) The ending’s where a reader is most likely to find a story speaking to its own concerns—its “relevances” as you call them—and such a disclosure in “Up North” would have totally mucked up the careful, complicated network of relevances you’d built, conscribed them into the service of one overarching relevance (here, of the whodunit variety). A single question such as this seeks only its single necessity, and good writing—like life, I guess—can’t help but give itself conflicting needs, can’t help but hijack its own inevitabilities.
CD Early reading moves the prewriter in us and returns to shape us as our work seeks shape. Certain obsessions are awakened, and, later, it seems, specific moments get honored. Have you read Graham Greene’s essay, “The Lost Childhood?” He writes:
Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already […] No, it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.
Is there an analog in your life, an experience similar to Greene’s, a book that marks “the crisis”?
NL Graham Greene’s one of my favorite authors but I’ve always taken issue with his tendency to define writers by their obsessions. It’s true that much of what I love about his writing grows out of the deep Catholic patterning of his thought, but boy, how it shortchanges him—his humanity, psychological insight, mastery of prose—to think of his work as always attestable to this “obsession.” And isn’t this approach paradoxical? Isn’t the whole point of obsession the fact that it escapes apprehension? Writing, as you suggested, isn’t therapy. The page isn’t a crucible for writers to test their obsessions to see what’s soluble and what’s not.
Still, what disturbs me most about the above passage isn’t Greene’s (intently provocative) assertion that he’d found his obsession at age 14—but more the follow-on idea that a reading experience so charged might only happen when you’re that young. I can’t think of any single book that marked a “crisis moment” for me but I do remember reading a hell of a lot (including a lot of Greene) at that age; I remember the beatitude of plummeting into books while reading under the bedsheets, under the kitchen table, while walking, even with one hand out while showering. Maybe the real crisis moment—the real end of innocence—came for me at the unmarked moment when I lost the ability to read with that kind of absolute, unreserved absorption.
This has concerned me. I wonder whether, as a writer who no longer reads that way, I’m analogous to a chef who no longer has any cravings, a comedian who listens to jokes and determines what’s funny and what’s not without ever doubling over and pissing himself. Look, I don’t accept the notion that books have become mere mirrors of my adult self, but nor can I claim to keep myself out of my reading. I read as I am: older, more self-aware, more solid and settled in my biases, more inclined to both judge and reserve judgment, and unavoidably—often despite myself—I read as a writer. The last thing I’d ever want to do is privilege this “adult” kind of reading over the kiddie kind, the same way we tend to privilege adult emotion—hopped with its subtleties and contradictions, its off-tones and opacities—over the clean full-strengthed spirit of youth. What, I worry, if first love is the strongest, purest love? What if first reading is the truest reading?
CD If Greene weren’t a great writer I’d be with you, rebelling against the reductive aspect of viewing an author’s world and work as an obsession. That would be like trying to make all the vast, varied work circle the drain of biography. No single fact, no matter how humongous, explains the resulting pleasure. Like you, I love the man’s work, and his obsession with obsession interests me as a quality among other qualities, not as one overwhelming idée to which all the rest is subordinate. Everything that makes Greene Greene, all the sentences and drama and characters, the patience and trust, the tone and mood of the work, all of that spins away from the obsession and enlarges the world, it generates life, which to my mind is just the opposite action of most obsessives, who narrow and fixate and finally kill whatever doesn’t conform. He’s an artist, and the others—I guess they’re just garden variety maniacs. Elsewhere, Greene calls his sense of preoccupation a “ruling passion” and perhaps that captures the spirit that speaks through his work more generously than the idea of obsession.
To circle back, I found this line from your earlier reply tantalizing: “Words can’t dodge style; all serious writing has to reckon with the necessity of approximation in the face of arbitrariness …”
Besides style, are there any other fictional elements or methods you rely on to address the problem of the arbitrary and bring a feeling of necessity to the work? For instance, plot or narrative?
NL The key word here is “style.” Today, it carries a cosmetic residue; we associate “style” with stuff that draws attention to itself. This, in itself, isn’t bad—we’re reading and writing at a time when for a work of art to not draw attention to its worked aspect, its artfulness, is blinderism at best and bad faith at worst. I don’t have a problem with this. I personally suspect it’s been this way from Aristotle onward but anyway, what’s material is that it’s this way now. For me, the interesting question then becomes how to draw attention to style without copping out, without becoming necessarily arch or defeatist or esoteric or ironic. Without breaching the dream-state that’s the sine qua non of fiction. Nabokov called what you’re referring to as “necessity” the “inner force of style”: the enlivening energy, the urge to precise articulation, the thing in the absence of which style is arbitrary and a story nothing more than a proof of itself.
I know I’m being nebulous. Part of this is because I resist your phrase, “besides style.” Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. Sentences have a wisdom that inheres in their structure, syntax, and constituent parts, and not merely in what they purport to signify. I get agitated when I see critics lauding writers for their “invisible prose,” as though style were only a window to be scrubbed out of sight. Beckett, in one of the great PR moves in all letters, switched from English to French in a reputed retreat from style, yet here’s a snippet from Molloy (translated with Patrick Bowles) that I recently happened upon in Harper’s literary blog: “I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world, under a faint untroubled sky, enough to see by, yes, and frozen too.” Anti-style? Aside from the slightest trochaic throat-clearing at “under,” the whole thing scans in bloody iambic feet!
This is the super long way round to your question. And here, now, is the super unsatisfactory answer. To my mind there are no fictional elements (plot, narrative, language, character, structure, etc.) that can be considered either necessary or sufficient to address this problem of the arbitrary. Moreover, it goes without saying that mishandling any of these elements can be a deal breaker. You ask how a feeling of necessity can be brought to a work. I can only answer for myself. Beyond the technical (as distinct from stylistic) stuff, what I look for is negative capability, is charge. An openness to accident. The sensitivity to follow its leads. Who knows how these things work? How many times have you tapped a cadence against the casing of a spent sentence, read and discarded years ago, only to discover there’s charge there yet? Courage. Sometimes I think that’s all that matters. The grim ecstatic faith that in the face of arbitrariness there can yet be grace in accidental sense, beauty in strange order, and that even certain defeat is not deterrent enough.
CD I agree that style is everything, so to me the surface is the hardest part of any story—but if it’s true that style is “everything,” then I think narrative or plot or character or dialogue, any of those “elements,” can’t be considered “not-style” or some other lesser category. Maybe it’s like Aquinas’s idea of divine simplicity, that the being of God is identical to the attributes of God. A story is simple, not composite, assembled from parts. I’m comfortable with the way “style is everything” sweeps up and includes the entirety of a fiction (style as well as what I called “the elements”) because I grew up entranced by the mystery of the Trinity. In fact, we were taught to distinguish ourselves from Protestants based on our capacity to accept this utterly mystical truth. I guess I think of the things of fiction, in a William Carlos Williams’s way: “No ideas but in things.” And it’s the faith in those “things” that gives the work its openness to accident, the sensitivity to follow leads: a way for fiction to reach out, make itself available to the material.
As for the arbitrary—oh boy, this could go on forever! Eudora Welty has a nice phrase: “No other saw life in an ordering exactly like this.” That says it all.
NL The way you described, way back when, Greene’s work as spinning away from obsession and enlarging the world—as generating life—this is, in a very real sense, the only way I can come at good fiction. That is, as a vitalist, a crackpot chemist of words positing the existence of some unknowable élan vital that distinguishes “life” from “non-life.” I know this is, in one sense, an easy agnosticism, but it’s not as if I’m alone in this approach: philosophers and theologists have long animated their worlds with nonmaterial essences and forces, while scientists continue to honor the venerable tradition of plugging holes in their understanding with ether, dark matter, dark energy, cosmological constants, extra dimensions, and so on. I’m favorably disposed, I guess, to the idea that nothing of real worth can exist without a determining mystery at its heart.
What’s interesting, looking back over our exchange so far, is that I’ve been so insistent on all this mystical, wishy-washy stuff with you. Interesting because usually I find myself firmly (and happily) ensconced in the technical when talking about writing. To me, a lot of public discourse is insidiously willing to overlook the technical elements of fiction to get to the whatever: the meat, message, marketable points of interest. Any discussion of whether the writing works gets sucked into the black holes of relativity, or de gustibus, or, worst of all, the fallacy whereby any flaw in the writing can be justified as a deliberate instantiation of the work’s intention, whatever that’s deemed for the moment to be.
CD Early in The Enchafed Flood, Auden says:
The sea or the great waters, that is, are the symbol for the primordial undifferentiated flux, the substance which created nature only by having form imposed upon or wedded to it. The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse. It is so little of a friendly symbol that the first thing which the author of The Book of Revelation notices in his vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of time is that “there was no more sea.”
I like Auden’s suggestion that the sea is unfriendly to writing, even for a visionary. And yet, without the sea, half our literature would vanish. Obviously, in your work there’s a hell of a lot of water. It figures evocatively in various stories: “Love and Honor…,” “Cartagena,” “Halflead Bay,” “The Boat.” My interest here is semi-autobiographical but not really concerned with the facts of your life so much as the allegory of it—I want to know about the correspondence between the sea and your writing, rather than the sea and your life. Certain things move us; the sea moves you.
NL You’re right; the sea is an obsession with me and as such, to invoke prior statement, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. All I know is that for me it taps into something deep and true, it draws from the dimension on which I’d like all my fiction to exist. For me it transcends both beauty and terror, or, rather, it somehow enables that asymptotic endpoint where they meet and cancel each other out, and that seems to me the most loaded point of all. Any explanation I come up with is likely to be as plausible (and personally persuasive) as it is indeterminative. I could riff on my family history, or the fact I’ve almost drowned a couple of times myself (and have, come to think of it, just finished the first draft of a story that involves a drowning), or the fact that when I had a bundle of borrowed money and a backpacking year in which to spend it, my first choice was a berth on a supply ship to Antarctica where I’d get to experience the Roaring ’40s and Furious ’50s and Screaming ’60s (storms move me perhaps as much as the sea does). I could don my professorial hat and declaim how the sea overwhelms both mystery and metaphor, enervates pathetic fallacy, as these abstractions can’t exist outside human subjectivity, and the sea—ever-changing, ever the same, vast and all-accepting, omnicapable and indifferent—is nothing if not outside human thought and time. I could say my temperament is compelled by how the sea, like the sun, is the source from which all life flows, but because it’s here, within touch, we continually exert ourselves upon it; we bang up against it though we come off worse every time; we skate and pullulate on its sheer membrane and yet claim mastery over it—and I’m drawn to the romance and the absurdity and futility of this. If I were pushed to an idea of God, it would be sealike, and utterly beyond language, and therefore the ultimate desideratum for any writer.
And dangerous, too. As you could probably deduce from the forgoing, I’m obsessed with the irresistible, if facile, parallel between the physical sea and the body of mystery it could be posited as protecting. Such that to plumb the physical depths of the sea—as to plumb the psychic, philosophical, epistemological depths in writing (or thinking, or living)—is to be crushed, not as a matter of conjecture or possibility but as a matter of mathematical certainty. And isn’t this an apt description of what we do? Stand on the shore, facing figments, throwing words into the water?
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of The Point and Other Stories; Orphans, a collection of essays; and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He is a 2008 Lannan Fellow and lives in Portland, Oregon.
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