September 2010

Blake Butler


An Interview with Christopher Higgs

I had high expectations for Christopher Higgsís The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, released this year by the brand new Sator Press. I had read a lot of Chrisís work in the past and followed his amazing curatorial blog Bright Stupid Confetti for some time. I knew Chris was going to shatter any expectations I had, regardless of how amorphous those might be, and so I was ready for something new. True to form, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney seems to me unprecedented via form, making new ways of both telling a story and relaying information, but also doing so in a way that is, as David Foster Wallace so expressly begged for: fun. The result is a book that is as delightful to move through as it challenging to how it comes across, and a testimony to the fact that the book as a form is in no way dead: in fact, it is very young.

Over the past few weeks or so I got to talk to Chris via e-mail about some about his process of constructing the book, as well as his influences as a reader and writer.

How did you first come to know and interact with the corpus (language or physically) of Mr. Marvin K. Mooney?

When I began the MFA program at Ohio State (back in í06) I made a conscious decision to approach each semester-long workshop with a different overall focus. So with Lee Martin I worked on formally experimental stuff that toyed with syntax and space and footnotes and fonts, with Erin McGraw I worked on hyperbolic histories that bled the borders between fiction and nonfiction, with Lee K. Abbott I focused on experimenting with the sci-fi genre, with Michelle Herman I produced a kind of linguistic surrealism in which I attempted to give life to an inanimate concept: a sentence or a metaphor or a story, etcetera. As I was producing this material I had no idea how it fit together or how I might assemble it, but I maintained a blind faith that the answer would come to me. Then, one fine evening, I was in the basement of our house on Tibet Road, doing laundry, and for some unknown reason I began thinking about the Dr. Seuss book Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which was my favorite book as a child, and it dawned on me that the way to combine all of these seemingly disparate modes of writing together under one roof would be to invent a writer (why not call him Marvin K. Mooney?) who was responsible for creating that material at various points in his life. So in that single act of imagination I created Marvin K. Mooney, and Marvin K. Mooney created the book.

Interesting to hear the childish element come in as influence. In some moments, the way the narrator observes objects in the book seem to parse the middle between adult and child, some kind of middle ground of seeing things both simply and new, common. I felt that a lot in the Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously section when I read it as a stand alone, and was so impressed with the way that section was only one of many modes, like a collage, but with a very definite flow or center to it. It seemed like the text as stand alone might have come about in various modes on their own and then been assembled, or assimilated, or what have you as you realized the book and began to build it in that mind. I wonder if you could talk about the realization of the form of the book and the synthesis of those pieces, how they came together into the living object that they are: how long, how many, in what mind?

The first incarnation was nearly 500 pages. A real ďkitchen sinkĒ number. No text left behind. That sort of thing. It was the only way I could do it: put all of everything I had composed and found interesting into the boiling caldron: fillet of a fenny snake, eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg, and owlet's wing; the whole Macbeth thing: double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble. Then I spent a good deal of time rearranging and subtracting material. Then I produced what I call the connective tissues, which are those segues between particular bits. See, initially I had conceived of a form akin to Calvinoís If on a winterís night a traveler, but the tendency of the text to resist that rigid form was too great. It desired to be more dissonant. It desired to be more fluid, porous, more in flux, more becoming, more morphogenetic. It wanted to be its own thing. So I let it find itself. I followed behind and cleaned up the edges, ever diligently documenting the will of Mooneyís narrative presence, in most instances. But in those instances when I felt compelled to intervene, I did. And on occasion this led to a disagreement between me and Mooney, which more times than not played out on the page. He wanted one thing and I wanted another. The final product, the final arrangement, represents our final compromise.

There is a lot of outsourced or sampled work in the work, quotes, negations, self negations, a kind of collage of self and words that got stuck in the self from out. For Markson's Author cycle, he famously wrote his notes down on notecards and shuffled those in a shoebox, abstracting the work out of a timeline of those bits and pieces. Reading Mooney, I was wondering about how you culled those outside sources and over what period, what kind of period of reckoning occurred. For me, your book is such a more apt manifesto for future remaking than the much hyped David Shields book [Reality Hunger], have you read that? Is form a conscious matter for you, something you architect, or is it more organic, or how does that form infect or inform the meat in the make?

So many good questions. The Shields book Iíve got on order from the bookshop, havenít read it yet but am intrigued to see how it differs from either Kenneth Goldsmithís or Robert Fittermanís plagiaristic projects. As far as I understand it, the Shields book is a ďdeath of the author/all-hail-the-decontextualised-unattributed-intertextuality-of-all-textsĒ type of thing -- right? Iím not sure how I feel about that sort of project.

The kind of bricolage you find in Mooney is very different. It relies upon the ethos engendered by the authorial attribution. In other words, if I had just written [ďA text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its competition, and the rules of its game.Ē] without attributing it to Derrida, it would lose a great deal of power and also it would lose the ability to frame the text within particular discursive fields. By opening the book with a quote from Derrida and William Carlos Williams, I am hoping to alert the reader to the primary discursive parameters of the text: art & philosophy, which is crucial to the structural formation of a text that resists mimesis and verisimilitude. Readers desire legibility. This is one of the great challenges an experimental writer encounters: how to engage rather than alienate the reader without utilizing conventional means.

The process by which I constructed Mooney was probably split 70/30 between conscious construction and organic creation. I culled the quotes over the three year period I worked on the book, and the way they came to be where they are in the book is that I used them as connective tissue between the various longer sections. Instead of thinking about Mooney as a story with a beginning/middle/end, I thought of Mooney as a kind of symphony where a certain noted needed to be struck here and another series of notes here and a particular instrument needed to be played here while another instrument popped in and out there and some parts needed to be intense and other parts needed to be soft and some parts meandered and some parts circled and repeated themes and variations on themes and other parts attempted to escape the symphony while other parts attempted to rescue those parts and some parts were self-contained and other parts were anomalous and other parts were surprising but comforting and together the piece held together by the very fact that it should not hold together. Paradox as form. And form, for me, is always paramount.

That is interesting that the quotes were compiled over a period of three years. I was really impressed by how fluidly they fit into the vision of the book, and the mind of Mooney as a kind of continuity. Did you find that the shape of the quotes and the writing moved based on what you read, piece by piece? Was there an order that formed out of your own reading habits or ways that came out based on reading and/or actual environment? In other words, why did this book come out now, the way it did?

From the rebellious antics of my youth to the literature courses I now teach at University, the particular perspective from which I engage the world remains relatively constant. In other words, while change has occurred in time/space/circumstance, the continuity you recognize in Mooney is creditable to the fact that my worldview (for lack of a better term) remains relatively consistent. When I encounter a text that seems to resonate with my perspective, I will notice that it begins to glow, begins to intensify on the page, thus becoming hyper-legible to me. It is as if I am encountering a member of my tribe I have not met before, but who wears identifiable colors or markings. For instance, when I first read Derrida, I had the distinct feeling that we shared an intellectual affinity: our particular perspectives correlated. It was not so much a matter of ďlearningĒ from him, although that was part of it, but more a matter of discovering a long lost member of my tribe. Same with all of the quotes you will find in the book. They are all examples of this correlative perspective. And so, because the composition of the book is a matter of assembling various members of this affinity, the order of my encounter (i.e. the fact that I read Derrida before Deleuze, for example) is irrelevant. We are all of the same tribe. We all wear the same markings. The book is, in one way, a family portrait: a portrait of our tribe. There are obviously many people missing from this portrait, but that makes sense to me. Someone is always missing.

Do you remember the first time you felt the urge to write? Or something about the time you did begin? And what you wrote?

My mom actually just sent me a box filled with childhood memorabilia. In it, I found my first stories, which I wrote in third grade (I was seven or eight). Theyíre in the form of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, wherein I cast my friend in the role of Holmes and myself in the role of Watson. In fact all of the characters in those stories were people I went to school with -- you can tell when I was not getting along with someone, I would make them the villain. You can also tell what girl I had a crush on because she would be the damsel in distress. All of them are written on Big Chief tablets. Looking back, itís weird that I didnít write myself as Holmes. Not sure what that says about me. A year later I began writing less mystery-type stories and more adventure-type stories based on my love of Miami Vice in which I cast myself in the Crockett role, or my love of Top Gun in which, oddly, I cast myself in the Goose role rather than the Maverick role. So I guess when I was a kid I always wrote stories where I was the sidekick, except when it came to Miami Vice-type stories. I also liked to write poems about robots and dragons when I was at that age. Then in sixth grade (when I was nine or ten) I started keeping a diary -- a practice Iíve now been at for more than twenty years. Junior High is sort of a blur, but when I got into high school I had an amazing teacher named Diane Panozzo who encouraged my writing, gave me confidence, and introduced me to interesting literature. If it werenít for her -- well, her and Jim Morrison -- I wouldnít be here now answering these questions about my first book.

Haha, okay you are going to have to explain the Jim Morrison thing. I do wonder about the influence of musics on you, would you talk about that?

Although I wrote extensively as a kid, I didnít read a lot. In fact, for much of my childhood and early adulthood I was uninterested in reading. Then I got into high school and started consuming hallucinogens and listening to hippie music. But instead of falling in love with Phish or the Grateful Dead, as many of my peers were doing, I became fascinated with The Doors. Unlike Phish & The Dead, The Doors werenít making dorky, happy-go-lucky, quasi-spiritual, "let's all love everybody" music; they were making dark, foreboding, mysterious, monstrous music, which was much more suited to my temperament. I became enamored with the figure of Morrison, his presence, his character, and I desired to know as much about him as I possibly could. So I went to the library and checked out all the available biographies. What I began to notice was how important literature was to him. Names kept popping up: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Huxley, Nietzsche. Names Iíd never heard of before. So I decided to start jotting down every author and book that Morrison considered influential. This list became my first reading list, the first time I seriously engaged in literature outside of school. So there I was, this zonked out sixteen year old kid in Wyoming reading Danteís Inferno, Blakeís Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Kerouacís On the Road, all for the first time, on my own, because I thought if Morrison thought they were cool then they must be cool. He introduced me to philosophy, perhaps the paramount revelation of my youth, and most importantly he instilled in me this idea that reading wasnít nerdy, being smart wasnít nerdy, reading and being smart made you a badass.

That doesnít really address your question about music as influence. For me, music animates the landscape in which composition can be accomplished. In other words, it sets the conditions for the composition. Without music, Iím not really keyed to the right wavelength: my brain hibernates and my fingers resist the keyboard. Like a painter needs a canvas, I need sounds or else I struggle to make words. And so I am constantly listening to music, searching for new music, searching for strange music, searching for potentially unfamiliar soundscapes. Mooney was constructed in so many different soundscapes: from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to Pierre-Yves Macť to Nico Muhly to Blockhead to Meredith Monk to Captain Beefheart to Wu-Tang Clan to Craig Burk, on and on. Because of this deliriously carnivalesque range of soundscapes, itís no wonder Mooney is so raucous, fragmented, elliptical, recursive, discursive, etcetera. If one is creating words in a world engendered by John Zornís Naked City (for instance), those words will likely seem radically unfamiliar to those accustomed to a world engendered by Miley Cyrus or U2 or whatever. At the heart of Mooney and the heart of my heart is a desire for the unfamiliar, the strange, the dark, foreboding, mysterious, monstrousness that Jim Morrison infected me with way back when.

The ending of Mooney is really interesting for how it is framed almost as an afterthought, and then kind of for me worked to reset the whole trajectory of the book, opening the puzzle of Mooney into an idea of a whole American mindset and trajectory of people. How did that piece come into the book? How do you feel as an American, if I can ask something like that.

I wanted the book to have an encore, like how musicians do encores at concerts, and what better way to end a book than with an origin narrative (The Invention of America) that concludes with a headless Anne Boleyn leading John White, the leader of the lost Roanoke colony, into a bright white light? The nationality thing was something I wanted to toy with throughout: first in regards to producing ďthe great American novelĒ and second to explore the idea of what it means to be an American for someone who did not choose to be an American. Thatís where Iím at, as far as nationality. I think itís hilarious when people who were born in the U.S. are proud of being American -- they didnít do shit to be proud of, they didnít choose their parents and therefore didnít choose to be Americans, they just won the luck of the draw, couldíve just as easily been born to Hungarian meat merchants. Being proud to be an American when you did not make the conscious choice or suffer any hardship or struggle to do so is the same as being proud of winning a soccer match because the other team didnít show up. The only people who should be proud to be Americans are immigrants: people who chose to be Americans. I didnít choose it. Mooney didnít choose it. Like the vast majority of Americans, nationality was thrust upon both of us (Mooney & I) by virtue of being born to American parents. So I donít identify as an American. I have no stake in that commonality. I care much more about being a Lakers fan than I do about being an American. Mooney, on the other hand, does care about being an American even though heís secretly a diehard Francophile.

You are one of a set of reasons of proof I know the book is alive. What makes you know the book is alive? What are you working on next?

I really appreciate you saying that, it means a lot to me. Right now, Steven Mooreís The Novel: An Alternative History is providing the proof for me. But honestly, Iíd be fine with the death of books, with books being dead. Then, for those of us who persisted in creating books, we would actually be making ghosts.

As for me, Iím currently working on a couple of projects: (i) a new novel that so far wants to be a crazy word garden-meets-adventure tale, (ii) a nonfiction book about the history of American experimental literature, and (iii) a groundbreaking collaboration with two of the most important literary voices of our generation. The future looks like candy.