December 2006

Andrew Ervin


An Interview with Laird Hunt

In terms of style, and much to his credit, Laird Hunt is a difficult writer to pin down. His work ranges from bucolic lyricism to gritty urban realism to other -isms wholly his own. He’s the author of The Paris Stories, copies of which are tragically difficult to find for those of us unwilling to send $129.95+s/h to, and the novels The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana, and most recently The Exquisite, a playful, noir-ish thriller of ideas set in Greenwich Village.

I met Hunt for the first time last summer at a fake English pub next to which construction of the Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Denver Museum of Art was just wrapping up. Having been stung by a bee thirty minutes earlier I was in the throes of a severe allergic reaction; as I remember next to nothing about our conversation, this interview is culled from a subsequent and slightly more lucid e-mail exchange.

Hasn’t noir been done, well, to death?

I'm quite a long way from thinking that the tactics and narrative tendencies available in noir and noiresque works (and The Exquisite would be in that latter category) should be set aside, because a number of people have recently employed them, as out of bounds. They are simply too useful, too evocative, too potent to exclude from any given project. Victoria Nelson writes in The Secret Life of Puppets about the highly problematic split between realist writing and genre writing that occurred in the US toward the end of the 19th century and that sailed along for much of the 20th (realist concoctions, allied with "the truth" go mainstream and genre, with all its inherent funny business, heads underground). This didn't occur in countries like France, and so writers like Robbe-Grillet and Perec could use the tools of thrillers/spy novels/detective stories to create works that no one would argue didn't deserve an important place in the national literary conversation. Clearly writers like Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders and Kelly Link have helped take genre work back into the mainstream in the US, but there perhaps remains this sense that they are isolated cases and that that thing they are doing has been done now (even if they keep doing it). I would argue that works like theirs, which combine realist and non-realist (noir, ghost, slant, etc.) strategies and stances, can effectively help us continue to try to get to what fiction has always been after: insight into this ever-morphing human epidemic. And in that context, I tend to think that not all that much, actually, has been done in literature with non-straight noir. Where is noir's equivalent of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, for instance? Where, for that matter, is noir's equivalent of The Turn of the Screw?

The Exquisite triangulates three earlier texts -- Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson,” Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and your own The Impossibly -- and incorporates elements of each. To what extent did those texts affect your formal and thematic decisions?

The Exquisite project started when I came across Sebald's discussion of "The Anatomy Lesson" in an early (the first?) section of The Rings of Saturn. Sebald's observation that no one in the painting seems to be looking at the corpse, which had lately been a living, breathing individual named Aris Kindt (also known as Adrian Adrianzoon), struck me as an opportunity: it would be interesting indeed to write a novel with that overlooked corpse (and the overlooked dead in general) in a starring role. At the time (this was '98) I was very deep into working on The Impossibly, which is a text riddled with half-assed constraints and a kind of carnivalesque relationship to reality, and there is no doubt in my mind that starting The Exquisite while in the midst of that narrative quagmire, in which almost everyone has been stripped of his/her proper name, and time loops like film that has jumped its reel, had a serious impact. Still, when it comes to setting compositional rules for myself, I'm a little like the kindergarten class that has been told to stay in their seats. I can't help getting up and hopping around and otherwise breaking whatever rule I've set for myself. So that it is probably best to describe the various structural and thematic borrowings that inform the novel as "irritants." With those irritants and others (Ben Katchor's “Julius Knipl” comic strips for example) poking away at me, the text grew very slowly and strangely. Like those misshapen pearls that the baroque gets its name from. And just as the two narrative threads in the novel inform but don't explain each other, I would hope that The Exquisite, throws back a little fresh light onto some of the precursors it has borrowed inspiration from.

Are you suggesting that The Exquisite isn't a sequel per se but more a parallel narrative with The Impossibly?

It is certainly true that I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly (insofar as both Indiana, Indiana and The Exquisite come fully clothed in terms of narrative/descriptive textures), even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. I absolutely subscribe to the notion (which will come off as butchered Blanchot) that what I am engaged in, spend my days obsessing over, come to again and again, is writing (as opposed to book-making), and that all my books have and will come off the central (and perhaps one or two subsidiary) rootline(s) of that tyrannical engagement. The question that gets begged of course is what is meant here by writing -- the answer I have to offer is sustained text-based engagement with the improbably rewarding, infuriatingly elusive mysteries of individual and collective self. In other words, language (life) and death (death) are everywhere. It's a loser's game but I keep feeling compelled to try and deal with it.

On another note, I just saw Michel Gondry's pretty marvelous The Science of Sleep, in which life is revealed to be a multi-tendril-equipped thing, in which parallel narrative strands are the rule rather than the exception. I was reminded, even though the tone is completely different, of Lynch's Mulholland Drive, where we are offered the implication of parallel narrative, without one strand being called on to dominate the other. Realism's great strength and fallacy is that it embraces the knee-jerk paradigms of singularity Judaeo-Christianesque thought systems have forever now (it seems) offered us. I have considerable trouble with this.

So what are you working on now? Will we meet Henry and Mr. Kindt again?

Soon after the book came out I started what I thought might become a longer work about one of the characters in The Exquisite, Fish, who incidentally is a kind of composite of my editor at Coffee House, Chris Fischbach (a.k.a. Fish) and the American journalist Brad Will, who was recently killed in Oaxaca (Brad was a well-known squatter in NYC, as well as a fire breather, activist and friend of poets). I realized fairly quickly though that being in a promotional/supporting space around The Exquisite was not a good place to be when trying to start a new work, especially one set in a similar world. So I stopped that and we will see if I go back to it. Just lately I've been working on what feels like it might have some legs -- a ghost story that borrows a constraint from Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Assignment. Each chapter is a single long sentence. I'm also registering that there is some Saramago in the mix, those long, agglutinative sentences of his. It's an interesting challenge -- keeping the work energetic while working with the constraint -- and is making me do a kind of Twister routine with my syntax.

What specific demands are you making upon readers of The Exquisite? More generally, what do you ask of or expect from your readers?

I'm a sucker for Calvino's Six Memos for the New Millennium, in particular his memo on Lightness, which is a kind of love poem to work that, without sacrificing power, sheds all kind of fresh insight on its subject(s) by coming at them obliquely, treading nimbly, leaping this way and that, executing the unpredictable, etc. It's kind of a vote in favor of the Legolas walking over the snow to get there approach to negotiating blizzards -- not so easy to pull off, but gorgeous, even moving to watch (well -- not necessarily moving with Orlando Bloom playing Legolas). One needn't, of course, be Elven to traverse the snow drifts of The Exquisite (dirty New York snow), but the reader does need to pull out a mental dance step or two to avoid tripping up (and so potentially landing face first in that dirty, numbing stuff). I've long found it fun and often exciting to read this way -- as if my mental and physical health were in some way at stake and while I'm not batty enough to expect anything like a majority of readers to be willing to engage with books in this way, I do think there are far more readers up for the unexpected than we tend to imagine, and that some few of them might be willing to follow along with a narrator who can't quite get the who, what, where, when and how to function as much more than a jumble and who, on top of it, has more than one version of events to propose. There we tread a bit into another of Calvino's memos -- the one on Multiplicity. The Exquisite doesn't so much call for readers to solve puzzles, but, in the face of multiple vectors of narrative, etc., to do some puzzling.

So is there really such a thing as "difficult" literature? 

I recently participated in a moderated conversation with the writer Brian Evenson. The moderator went to some lengths in describing our recent books as unusual, strange, weird, etc., and Brian (to a lesser extent) and I (to a greater extent) picked up on this in our subsequent remarks. A comment came back to us afterwards that this business of referring to the work as weird, etc., was off-putting, especially if one didn't know what such terminology was meant to indicate. Did weird, etc., simply mean "non-realist"? And if so, why not say that? Why not define the terms? Good questions and good points. We (and again, it was more me than Brian) were caught speaking in code. "Weird" being another way of saying innovative/challenging/ slant/experimental/non-realist, which of course are all ways to say something without really saying much of anything at all.

Difficult is a little like that. In conversations around fiction, difficult is code, though much more often launched as a pejorative, which generally tends to mean non-realist work with a considerable admixture of play with referentiality and other trickery to do with the surfaces of language. The Impossibly, no surprise, got called difficult a lot. What precisely this difficulty was comprised of was rarely stated. Sometimes, after the "difficult" thing, I heard the comment, "I couldn't get into it." This was more helpful. This let me know that for some (perhaps many) I hadn't made the windows and doors into the thing quite obvious enough, or if I had, I'd left them locked (and here we go with the Tolkien thing again) like the door into the Mines of Moria. Some people saw them straight away and entered (perhaps after a bit of lock-picking or spell-casting: "speak, friend, and enter"). Some people couldn't find them at first and then did. Others, who couldn't get into it, never found them. Still others, could get in, but then kept getting lost. Looked at that way, there are plenty of texts I find difficult, can't get into, get lost in, etc. Middlemarch being one of them. War and Peace another. George Saunders said something that may be useful around the difficult thing in an interview he did for Marginalia a while back. He was paraphrasing someone (ah, my crappy memory) who had said that all great work, whether realist or non, is experimental -- in other words it broke with convention/status quo/dominant paradigm in some important way. We could niftily substitute "weird" or "innovative" or "challenging" for experimental in that formula, but could we substitute "difficult"? I guess all I'm saying is, not necessarily.

I’m left to wonder if there could possibly be any such thing as a reliable narrator? Isn't even an omniscient narrator making potentially shady decisions (focalization, exclusion, &c.), like Descartes's evil genius?

It's funny that you mention Descartes -- I've just been thinking it's time to reread The Inferno, that ferocious, ever more outrageous, downward spiral, and then there is Descartes cooking up his cogito literally in an oven, or so the story goes, maybe he was lying, or fudging, or misremembering. I listened to an interview yesterday with Dave Eggers and the former Sudanese child refugee, Valentino Achak Deng, around Eggers new novel, What Is the What. The novel, if I understood it correctly, is Achak Deng's autobiography fictionalized. The two of them talked about the reason Eggers decided to turn the thing into fiction rather than sticking entirely with the ostensible facts of the matter. The reason was that the main player, Achak Deng, was a child when a lot of the action happened, and that there were enormous holes in what he could remember, and of course (I may be embroidering on what was said here) his memories got laid down at a time of enormous, mental and physical suffering. So they decided to go with a composite of Achak Deng's memories, accounts from other "Lost Boys," reports from outside sources and what sounded like substantial doses of Eggers' informed imaginings. The resultant creation, apparently, rings "true" to Achak Deng. Which is useful to think about around this question of reliability and narration. It's as if intent to deceive were built into the fundaments of the memory/narration equation -- in our daily lives, around the small things and the big things, we get it wrong or at the very least not quite right constantly, and so constantly we either let it go at that or do our best to reconstruct, gather evidence, cross-check our story before admitting defeat or agreeing to give in to approximation as likely depository for something like truth.

Then there is the saying of whatever thing we've been struggling to remember. Or the writing it down. And what we intend by it. It's hard not to think here about Benjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, which were supposedly his recollections of time spent as a child in Auschwitz. The book was widely hailed until it turned out the whole thing was either a willful or unwillful hoax: Wilkomirski wasn't born at the time of the events in question. That the whole thing -- memories of a 2- or 3-year-old as set down many years later -- could only, as in the case of Achak Deng's story, be a kind of fiction to start with was largely, though not entirely passed over in the furor after the "truth" came out.  I used the word "intent" above and was only half joking. My memory, and by extension that of most of my narrators, plays so many tricks on me I often think it's doing it deliberately. There ought to be a little wing in some middling circle of hell for that particular trickster -- malevolent memory. I wonder what the torture would be?