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 the occasion of the publication of their new novels, Orner’s Love and Shame and Love (Little, Brown and Company) and La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the two authors compare notes on writing and its vagaries. Both have a dedicated, almost cult following among their brethren writers. Perhaps because they never waste a word and never spoil a sentence. Peter Orner’s short-fiction collection, The Esther Stories, marked the beginning of his writing career (prior to that, he had meant to become a lawyer) and garnered international kudos. It was followed by the equally compelling novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. Paul La Farge, a master of the literary conceit, has previously published four books, including the historical novel Haussman, or the Distinction about modern Paris’s renowned city planner.
To La Farge, reading Orner’s work “is like breathing different air, or moving through a different kind of time—I feel like I’m stepping off some mental treadmill and looking around at a world which isn’t trying to sell me anything. It’s exhilarating and finally necessary.” In Orner’s opinion, La Farge’s writing “much like Calvino’s, introduces us to worlds that are both familiar and somehow so skewed that they seem entirely new. It makes for strange, compulsive reading. I had this feeling reading Luminous Airplanes … Wait, there’s something off here.” La Farge remembers meeting Orner when Orner received the 2007 Bard Fiction Prize. As a former winner of the prize himself, in 2005, La Farge was in attendance at the dinner in Orner’s honor. Orner “verified the veracity of this account” and vaguely remembers a barbecue somewhere in Tivoli, New York. The following is a fragment of their ongoing conversation.
Peter Orner How do you move from the momentum of one novel, especially one that is so immersing—is that a word?—as your last novel, Haussmann, or the Distinction, to another totally different world? For me, there was a lot of connectivity between the two books. It’s not just your calm, assuring, and sometimes pretty deadly voice, but something else that I can’t put my finger on. In both books I had this feeling: here are voices that I trust even though I know I shouldn’t.
Paul La Farge The subject matter of Luminous Airplanes is obviously different, but there was a natural progression from one book to the other in terms of form. With Haussmann, I set out to write an old-fashioned novel with historical scope and a fair number of characters, and subplots, and so on. Although there are features of Haussmann that feel contemporary, notably the framing narrative and the not-quite-reliable narrative voice that you mention, the form of the book was closed and complete in itself, and, in that sense, fairly traditional. After I finished Haussmann I thought, Well, I’ve just spent five years teaching myself how to write a 19th-century novel, and I have no desire ever to do anything like that again. So what can I do to take this form apart? How can I open it up, and push myself out into a space where I don’t know what I’m doing? The result of that inquiry was Luminous Airplanes, which launched itself into uncharted territory, formally, and also gave me the chance to visit new kinds of subject matter. In all likelihood you’re right that the two projects have some common concerns—ideas about the organization of space, for one thing, or about the structure of thought, or the relation between those two things. Luminous Airplanes is a way for me to keep those concerns alive, to keep them from ossifying.
PO Our respective obsessions come out in our books in different ways. Like the part of your immersive online text about snowmaking. I saw how it fit into the novel and yet was also a separate entity. I have my own brief sections in Love and Shame and Love where I just wanted to let things go and talk about what preoccupied the character but didn’t necessarily move the story forward. A character’s preoccupations are essential to their makeup, so you lose something if you don’t include them in fiction. Your narrator muses about the history of snowmaking, of seeding clouds. That’s who he is. In my case, randomly, I kept thinking about the game “bombardment”—you know, in gym class, when we used to throw balls at people’s heads. It didn’t exactly fit into any particular scene, so I gave it its own page. Kids probably don’t play bombardment anymore, which is too bad.
PLF That brings me to two questions: one of them has to do with form and the other has to do with subject, but in a way they’re the same question. Love and Shame and Love has this wonderfully open form. There’s a lot of inclusivity—I mean, there’s a lot of room for things to come into the story, to happen and to matter … I don’t want to use the word collage because it’s not a collage with something from a newspaper and something else from the back of a Wheaties box, but it’s a form with gaps and a lot of openings. Luminous Airplanes is in short sections also—I was thinking, does the subject of the novel need to be exploded somehow?
PO I think of my writing short sections as my limitation. Like, Is this all I have to give? Short bursts? William Carlos Williams said that every writer has a certain breath. Mine’s usually a short breath. To look at it differently is heartening.
PLF I don’t think of it as a limitation. Linear form, for all its seductions, is a confinement, a kind of restriction. The “book” part of Luminous Airplanes feels confined to me. It’s about what it’s like to be stuck in a small space. Then there’s this enormous relief that comes with opening the form up.
PO Right. Relief. I don’t have to go from point A to point B. I’d be bored stiff.
PLF In your books, and in novels like Tristram Shandy, I get the feeling that the sayable is vastly expanded. That’s what writing is about—finding a way to open up what you can say and getting out of the whole … tunnel.
PO But how do you control it when the structure of a book is so open that it can include anything? Where does it end? How do you rein it in? I envy the point-A-to-point-B people sometimes because the structure doesn’t allow for digressions and it keeps a writer on message. Yet a novel without digressions is not my kind of novel. I’ve gone in a circle here. I love the digressions; they make it impossible to finish a book.
PLF That was the impossibility of the web-based stuff for Luminous Airplanes, which continues the story that the novel began and extends it in different directions. Before I’d written the book, I had no starting point. And the possibility of the space was too big.
PO So, when you started, what kind of vision did you have for the whole project?
PLF I knew I wanted something that would be nonlinear. And I knew that it would not be completely autobiographical though it would be about a first- person narrator’s experience. It would be this experience of being in someone’s head. I had no idea how to begin. I would try these different technologies where you could create nonlinear stuff. There was a program called Storyspace, which a lot of hypertext authors used in the ’90s, and other different schemes. But every time I sat down to write, I got lost because there was no sense of sequence or necessity. Only after I had a sense of the story was I able to drift from it. You have to know what you’re doing in order not to do it.
PO In my case I started to remember. I kept remembering and remembering, and then everything—all those tiny strands—became a possibility. But then I had that same moment of doubt: How the hell is this going to be a story?
PLF Well, you use place. So many of your section titles are street addresses, and the book is so rooted in Chicago. My wife is from Highland Park; I had this real joy reading the street names. Revisiting the streets’ arrangement was like, Uh-huh, uh-huh, right, right.
PO That was an important way to control the structure. If I don’t know where I am, I can’t do anything. I’ve always been like that. I see a place even before I see people.
PLF Yeah. That’s the problem with working in such a big space: you have to be somewhere in it. I was talking to a friend about the Luminous Airplanes immersive text. He said, “Look, you need the first-person narrator, because otherwise there’s nothing holding it together.”
PO What attracted me about your narrator was that his preoccupations are so scattered, and yet through that one voice you hold it all together. It’s not a first-person voice in the sense that we’re used to. It’s one with a whole other realm of possibility to it. At some moment early in Luminous Airplanes his transitions get stranger and stranger. He connects disparate things in order to investigate how they’re not connected. I’ve read your other work and I know that you like to play with the reader. But then, there’s something so subtle about the way this narrator speaks to me, as if the strangeness of his life weren’t so strange. That’s what I appreciated, your concern with the strangeness of the day-to-day. He’s personal about his own life and yet he’s also got this much wider scope.
PLF Right, he’s telling his own story but he’s also trying to filter history, his understanding of it, through his own experience. Or at least he’s trying to relate the two, not to feel, as I think a lot of Americans did in the late 20th century, that life was one thing and history was something completely different. Then his voice changes in the immersive text; it becomes a lot more hysterical.
PO But in that great party scene—where your narrator finds himself with these older kids and he’s totally overwhelmed by the crowded apartment, the music, the beer, the girls—
PLF Uh, he’s a little frantic and desperate in the book, but much more so online.
PO So you are still writing the immersive text?
PLF I’m absolutely still writing it. There’s a whole sequence of events that I’ve written but not put online, or that I haven’t written yet.
PO So is it endless, the book?
PLF No, it’s not endless, but it’s kind of at the threshold of the endless. It has an end, and I know where it stops, but it goes on for so long that it feels endless.
PO But good books shouldn’t end. I mean, does Tristram Shandy end? Not that I’ve ever—to be honest—finished it.
PLF Me neither, really. I skipped to the end.
PO It does drag under its own weight. But Christ, without all that weight, we wouldn’t have the book at all.
PLF I’m going to stand up for the importance of ending. The importance of a beginning is decisive. Without a beginning, you can’t go anywhere, but without an end, the whole thing falls apart.
PO Maybe sometimes an ending isn’t the linear endpoint. Maybe in some cases an ending is actually somewhere other than the actual end. For me, Love and Shame and Love ends somewhere in the ’70s, which is in the middle. For my characters, its end is actually in the past.
PLF I don’t want to give the ending away, but I love the way that your book slips back. You get this extended sequence of past moments.
PO The past is like that. It grows the more you think about it. One remembered image begets another, and another. Actually, there’s this thing that I was developing in my head on the car ride here, the idea that when we are working with our past, we tend to call it “autobiographical fiction.” But this gives it a different cast. As if it were not really fiction, or, rather, were one step away from memoir. Of course that’s unfair to our fictional creations who may be based on real people but couldn’t be further from real people.
PLF If you start calling it autobiographical, the interest shifts over to this question of veracity: Wow, you really lived through that?
PO Exactly. And it cheapens it.
PLF In my case you’d have to say, Oh, you didn’t have that interesting a life.
PO The interest is in your narrator’s preoccupations—I keep harping on this—but that’s what makes his life so compelling, your use of the past, his memories of his grandfather, of his first love with the girl, literally, next door. He returns to Thebes after the death of his grandfather, begins to remember what happened, and is overcome by that whole haziness. He had to go back to Thebes to remember. Place works in the same way for me. It kicks in the memories. There’s something grounding in the past, whereas the future is sometimes so completely at odds with all your expectations. And all you want to do is go back to the past. That’s where our two books collide—our narrators always have one foot in another era of their lives.
PLF In both books there’s a feeling of recurrence, of history being a determinant. It’s not a coincidence that Alexander Popper, the young writing student, becomes a lawyer in the book’s last sections, or that he’s working as a public defender. I love the moment when it turns out that his feelings of guilt become his profession. You have this great line where Popper says that he’s not even interested in their guilt, just in the fact that they were accused. It’s everything he’s lived through as a child, and also this family narrative. The judge Abe Marovitz reminds me a little of Judge Wapter in Roth’s The Ghost Writer, the king-making judge for the young Jewish set.
PO The Jewish legal world was an obsession of mine; I grew up in it. That’s what it had the appearance of, although whether it was real or not is a whole other story. I took these iconic aspects of my childhood and tried to make legends out of them. I’ve been carrying these stories around for a long time. I have to give them life again. Even if they never happened, or never happened the way I now remember.
PLF There’s this feeling that because things have happened they happen again. Tendencies get established. Things are more likely to happen the way they happened before than they are to turn out differently, much as we want them to be completely different. You know, we want to end up as new people in the world, like nobody’s ever seen people like us before. But then it turns out that we’re people like everyone else.
PO Maybe sometimes we don’t want to be new—we love our pasts that much. Think of someone like Gatsby. The end of The Great Gatsby is all about who he was, not who he wasn’t. When his father comes in at the end, it’s all about this kid who grew up to be this legendary guy. You realize that however fantastic the self-creation is, it’s rooted in something ordinary.
PLF That’s a huge preoccupation of mine: San Francisco in the ’90s, the dot-com era. This fantasy that people had about how technology was going to transform human existence bumps up against the fact that that’s not really where people’s desire goes.
PO Computers are not my thing. I’m a confirmed Luddite even though now I’m on Facebook and Twitter, sort of. I loved how exciting you made the moment when the narrator—who is unnamed—is teaching Kerem. Forgive me, but it reminded me of WarGames. It’s a great movie. Does this make me decidedly uncool? And yet you captured that early computer excitement in a way that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. How much power your narrator suddenly had.
PLF The power he has over the computer isn’t totally different from the power of a book. It’s the possibility of creating a model world. It’s smaller than the real world, and it’s not ubiquitous like reality, but it’s your thing—you can tell it what to do and it does it.
PO You use the word monastic to describe how the narrator works with code on Kerem’s computer, trying to get it to do the things he wants it to do. It felt so right. What could be more boring and repetitive than typing in lines and lines of code? But monastic is a word that has so much respect in it also. I mean, obviously, things have changed, but I assume that, to some extent, that aspect has not changed.
PLF No. In fact, the programmers I know are also the most monastic people I know, although they’re sexually perverse. But so were the monks. (laughter)
PO I was going to ask you about minor characters.
PLF That’s the beautiful thing about this open form. Once you decenter it a little bit, you get the possibility of characters being in balance. Even though Alexander Popper is at the center of Love and Shame and Love, you don’t feel that the other characters are minor. They’re not subordinate to him. And we don’t always get them through him; we get them in their own space.
PO I love the idea that there aren’t minor characters at all. It’s funny how some people just stick in our memories, and because they stick, they aren’t minor. Whereas people we see every day may never fully enter our consciousness or become legendary. It’s often the peripheral ones who achieve the status of being immortalized by us. There’s a beautiful poem by Philip Levine called “On the Meeting of García Lorca and Hart Crane.” It’s not just about how Hart Crane and Lorca met—an apocryphal story probably; I don’t think they actually met. In the poem, when they do meet, they can’t speak each other’s languages, but they have a translator—the cousin or the uncle of the poem’s narrator. The poem is about this translator having a vision of his son falling out of a window while he’s looking out of a hotel room. So this meeting between these two giants of poetry exists so that this outside character can have this terrifying vision.
I keep coming back to this idea that you have to stay on message in a book. After reading an early draft of Love and Shame and Love, a friend said that the politics were a distraction. That the interjection of what, to most people, are now faint events (but, to me, are monumental events in pretty recent history) on the Democratic side—the Democratic losing side—was not important to the essential family story of the novel. But I kept them in.
PLF Politics is character; it’s like what computers are for my narrator. That’s where these characters’ investment is, where their attention goes. It’s what they care about. When we’re reading about Walter Mondale or Mike Dukakis, it’s not just about Dukakis. It’s about what matters to them. It’s also about the Democratic Jewish world of Chicago, which has its orientation, its values, and its parochialism. All of those things define your characters and give us a sense of place.
PO This was all we talked about in my house. Our entire orientation was toward the city. We had very little relationship with the beautiful suburb that we were living in. There was always this pining for the city, which became almost like an unreal place. In the same way, your unnamed narrator says, in that crazy party scene, “I’m from the city,” at which point the Thebes teenagers are all over him. It is wonderful.
PLF It’s this status thing, which for him, as for me, turns out to have no use value. It only has exchange value. Actually, growing up in New York was, for me, a deadening experience in a lot of ways. I grew up around a lot of rich people and also around a lot of frightened people, and my impression of the city, as a kid, was that either I couldn’t afford it, or it wasn’t safe, or both.
PO Your narrator doesn’t brag about it either. He says, “You can take a bus there,” as if they didn’t know that, as if he were giving them practical information they could use. A lot of his responses are like that.
PLF He has trouble apprehending the actual context in which things are happening. He is in one context and no one else is there with him. Which is a real programmer’s mindset.
PO Here I go again—he’s caught in the vortex of the past. Maybe this is obvious, but if he has trouble in his actual context, it’s because his context is not always in that present moment. And this is such a hard thing to put on the page because you have to command two—and sometimes more—senses of time simultaneously.
PLF Yet it is completely true. We talk about the arc of the character in writing classes, but it is like a spiral. Or like an arc that comes all the way back around.
PO So we come back to place. Your character starts … where is he? In the Mission District in San Francisco?
PO All the San Francisco stuff is so lightly done. And so rarely do I see it done so well. Maybe it’s because I live there, and I have so many students who write about San Francisco—I want to gag if I read another story about Valencia Street.
PLF Borges has this great line in “Pierre Menard” where he says the genius of Pierre Menard’s Quixote was that he didn’t furnish it with the canonical places of early 17th-century Spain. No one who was writing at the time would have thought to include them, because they don’t belong to the time. In the same way, I love how Chicago comes into your novel as tone. There is obviously a history, but it’s not like you need to hit the major attractions. It’s all these byways and side streets.
PO Whatever Chicago is—and it is as much myth as it is real, the idea of it, anyway. For me, as a place, it’s also trapped in 1978 or 1983 or 1996. Those years are gone. Or they never existed in the way that I remember them. Take 1978, such a pivotal year for me. I was nine years old. It’s long gone, and I’m still dragging it around in my head. Whatever a Midwestern sensibility is—and I’m not sure that you can track it—mournfulness characterizes it.
PLF Once you start tracking it, you’re classifying it, right? It has to be a living sensibility. Once you start saying a Chicagoan or a San Franciscan is this or is that, you’re in the world of types.
PO But how often do we see that? I wish there were more Chicago books. Certainly Stuart Dybek and Aleksandar Hemon are doing wonderful things, but, for the third largest city in the country, I would think Chicago would have more of a voice in the conversation. Even our president is from there. I mean, come on!
Let me change the subject to another city, Cambridge, which figures briefly in your book. Yesim tells the story of when she was working for the poet in Cambridge. The story shifts there in a way I found really interesting.
Yesim is one of the great characters. She isn’t just mysterious, because that is almost cheesy, but—
PLF She isn’t really mysterious, except if you make a decision not to know her. I mean, she is fairly straightforward about herself.
PO She is basically starving herself in her Cambridge apartment. It was in that moment where I was thinking about all of the baggage that we have to know about our people. Like, how long have that couple kissing at the bar known each other? I thought it was a moving way of presenting Yesim’s story, filtered through the narrator. Which again gives a sort of distance. He puts her story together from the fragments.
PLF The narrator is still trying to understand. By the time he is writing the story, he realizes that he didn’t get what was happening with Yesim, how he was reliving the romance he’d had with her 20 years earlier but not taking in who she had become. So now he is trying to put it in his own words to make himself feel what Yesim was trying to tell him—he was completely incapable of understanding before because he was caught up in the fantasy of her as somebody he knew as a child.
PO Somehow that is embodied in the text. But his attempt at trying to explain her is vicarious. There are moments where I felt there was an intimacy there.
PLF I’m not sure what you mean by vicarious in this context.
PO By telling her story in his words, not hers, the story gets oddly intimate. He knows her. Or at least the narrator would like us to believe he knows her. At this point these two were no longer characters for me—they became real. Yesim is described by the narrator as a person with hair on her back, which in the context of the story is this incredibly intimate, even moving, detail.
PLF I’ve been thinking about that idea of explaining people from the outside versus explaining them from the inside. You do this in the scene where Kat tells Popper why she is leaving him. Everything is ellipsis. You have to track the dialogue very carefully to figure out who is saying what to whom, and about whom. Nobody is telling us, “This is how you understand what is happening.” The result is that I’m more engaged with it. It’s much closer to my experience of life, which is always a bit overwhelming. There is no narrator. There is no explanation. You gotta figure it out.
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.