February 2013

Josh Cook

features

An Interview with Ron Currie, Jr.

At first glance, Ron Currie, Jr.'s first book, the collection of short stories God Is Dead, treads over well-traveled soil, examining the state of society in the absence of an all-powerful overseeing deity. But Currie takes a much more creative, much more interesting approach to the question of our relationship with the more powerful, positing a world in which there was a god that actually died, and then exploring the social, emotional, philosophical, and theological fall out.

His second book and first novel, the brilliant Everything Matters! plays a similar kind of expectational bait and switch. It's a novel about cancer, terrorism, the end of the world, love, and madness that manages to confound and exceed all expectations of apocalypse stories. With the world about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid, Currie finds a way to create the most sincere and optimistic ending of any contemporary book I've read.

You think you've read his third book, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, before. The character is a writer, who happens to be named Ron Currie, Jr. and happens to have written a book about the end of the world, who also happens to be in self-destructive emotional and creative doom spiral on a low-rent Caribbean island. After three decades of metafiction and a handful of successful novels with characters named after the authors, you think there's nowhere else for Currie to go with this conceit, but again he confounds and exceeds expectations. The result, is a powerful, brilliant, compelling novel about love, writing, fame, fiction, and shame that is emotionally effective and intellectually engaging, coming as close as anything I've ever read, to meeting David Foster Wallace's call for fiction that makes the head beat like the heart.

What is honesty in fiction?

Utilizing whatever amalgam of fact and lies necessary to convey the authentic, singular emotional experience of a thing, an experience that in daily life is mostly hidden from even those who are closest to us. The shorter answer: honesty in fiction is the effective creation of empathy. Very rarely does anyone pull it off, but that's the goal. And I should mention that I use the word "empathy" in a strict sense -- that of recognizing one's own experience in another. Compassion should follow from that, but I'm not necessarily looking to inspire compassion directly, which is part of the reason I want to gouge my eyes out with a soup spoon when I see or hear people complaining that they don't "like" the characters in a book (whether mine or another's), as if my primary job as a novelist is to provide someone a gaggle of imaginary friends. That's not the point. I don't care so much about readers feeling affection or sympathy for my characters, but I do hope that they will understand them in some fundamental way.

At nearly every event I've attended where an author reads from a work of realistic fiction, someone asks whether the work is autobiographical. Sometimes an audience member will ask if a particular event or character is based on real life. Why do so many readers seek the "real story" behind works of fiction?

It's a good question, and one that I don't really have an answer for, despite the fact that I'm just as interested in the "real story" as everyone else. It's an impulse I have to fight against. I was reading Junot Díaz's latest and found that, with the stories that seemed most obviously autobiographical, I spent so much time speculating about where Díaz and his narrator intersected that I had a hard time seeing the story for what it was itself, as a discrete object that Díaz created and sent out into the world. I will say, though, that the number of times I was asked about what was "real" in my last novel, Everything Matters!, was what made me want to try and invert that question, turn it back on the reader: what do you think is real? Why does it matter to you? And does it actually matter at all, in the final analysis?

One theory of authorship Italo Calvino articulates in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is "the author of every book is a fictitious character whom the existent author invents to make him the author of his fictions." Is this "fictitious author" somehow deceptive or dishonest in terms of the reader-author relationship?

No, I don't think so. On the contrary, I think it's a construct that has to exist in order for the reader-author relationship to thrive. Readers can't know who I "really am." Which is part of what worries me about the level of interaction that's possible between author and reader. There's a distance that needs to be there in order for a reader to take a book on its own terms. I can't tell you how many times people have expressed surprise, on meeting me in person, that I'm the actual guy who wrote my books. I think they were expecting someone smarter, and also probably a bit more off his rocker, than I actually am just walking around. 

One of the typical images of the "author" is as a self-destructive artist, living a life defined by bad decisions and alcohol abuse, and "Ron Currie, Jr." fits right into that. What is so attractive about self-destructive characters and self-destructive writers in particular?

I'm not sure the character is attractive at all. At least not in the sense that he's a guy you'd want to spend a whole lot of time with. I think it's important to point out the distinction between a person who is attractive in an ongoing, in-the-flesh kind of way, and the perverse romantic aura that surrounds someone who we would never consider taking as a lover or even a friend. For example, Bukowski was fucking insufferable to be around, by all accounts. He might be fun to hang out with for a weekend, but by the sixth or seventh time he threw up on your couch, you'd probably be pretty much over it. There's a funny exchange between the narrator of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and the coed who has sort of forced herself upon him, where she notes wryly that "It's not what you would expect, living with a writer." What we maybe find attractive about the idea of this sort of self-destruction comes back to the point I made earlier about empathy -- these characters allow us to inhabit our own self-destructive urges to a degree we're usually afraid to in our lives. Certainly I did that with this book, in this character who shares my name. Some of what he does hews very closely to the way I was living at the time. The Ron Currie, Jr. in the book is me with the volume turned up, is one way to think of it.

What should that name on the cover of a book mean to the reader, if anything?

This book was written by someone who would respond to this name if you called it out on the street and he was within earshot.

Which leads up to one of the questions Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles re-asks, a question that has fallen away from contemporary fiction of late, without being answered. What is an author?

Fucked if I know, man. My instinct is that what matters is asking the question, without expecting much in the way of an answer. Or without expecting the answer to come in anything but full-length-book form.

It's almost dogma now that literature asks "unanswerable questions," but what is the actual value of those questions? What do readers get out of struggling with questions that, almost by definition, cannot be answered? Or, is there something inaccurate in thinking about literature in terms of questions and answers?

Probably. It seems akin to the recently revived debate about whether violent films and video games play a part in the seemingly endless series of mass shootings in this country. My opinion on that is a) everything I've read (other than opinion pieces or shrill lay speculation) indicates that they do not, and b) moreover, art has no obligation to instruct one way or the other. I don't write books to make people behave in good and generous ways, or to offer moral guidance. Art exists for its own sake, and on its own terms. It bears no responsibility to society, and the moment we start insisting that it does is the moment we jump right back on the Slip 'n Slide that ends in the kiddie pool of censorship.

But to get back to the question you actually asked me, I'd guess that the value of the questions literature asks is, like the experience of reading itself, particular and personal. I'm not sure it can be quantified or even articulated, but I do know that the books that have really turned my head around over the years have actually changed who I am, however incrementally. And that sort of transformation can only occur through a sort of questioning, an intrapersonal interrogation.

The idea of the "singularity" is discussed in depth in Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, including imagining life once we have reached it. What would happen to storytelling in the singularity? Would there be storytelling in the singularity?

Now there's a question. I think storytelling will persist, but like everything else it will undergo such a transformation that we might not recognize it as such, from our present analogue perspective. One thing I think will happen in one way or another is that our fantasies will become quite real. Real in the sense that we will not be able to distinguish them from what we currently term "reality." This presumes that we all agree on the very loose definition of "reality" as stimuli perceived and collated by our senses into the (arguably somewhat fictional) narrative we think of as our lives.

In some ways, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is all about love, but it takes a different perspective on love than I've ever read before. The narrator's relationship with Emma is more like an addiction than a relationship. Can love have a variety of experiences, some of which are destructive? Can we love someone too much?

Sure, of course. We're so cuckoo about love that we erect all kinds of psychic bulwarks against its image being sullied. Primarily this consists of talking about what love isn't. I don't necessarily believe in the seemingly widespread notion that any romantic affection that does not create a net positive outcome is not love. "That's not love, that's obsession." "That's not love, that's pathology." Love is elemental, and therefore, by definition, neutral, nonpartisan, indifferent. It's a force, not a consciousness. It can be harnessed and wielded for good or evil, but it has no moral sense. Like fire or water it is capable of great destruction. We do ourselves a disservice by pretending this isn't the case.

There's a scene in which the act of fiction itself is on trial. How would you give a closing argument in that trial, either for the defense or the prosecution?

I'm not sure I have much more to say about it beyond what appears in the book. There's a couple of lines in the scene you reference that sum the whole thing up neatly, for me: "We're not reportage machines. We're perception machines."