Tag Archives: John Le Carre

Talking with William Giraldi 2.0

30 Sep

The last time (September 2011) I interviewed novelist, literary critic, Agni editor, Boston University mentor ,father of two boys, Billy Giraldi at the Keltic Krust ,was the first time we met. Three years later, Giraldi has published his second novel, Hold The Dark (WW Norton/Liveright) and written innumerable literary critiques for The Daily Beast, Oxford American, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review and the New York Times and most recently a review of James Franco’s latest directorial effort,Child of God>And my favorite local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust, has closed.

Giraldi and I have become friends such that the occasionally glib gabfest that follows might give the impression that he is not a serious literatus. He is. Below he and I address a number of artistic and existential issues as well as his second novel,set in a remote Alaskan lanscape, characters  transversing a fierce and foreboding terrain. People die. Wolves howl. So read on, dear reader, read on:

RB: Let’s do a little play acting, a little role playing. We’re at a party— play along. Hi, what do you do?

WG: I chase after my kids in Cambridge and try to make sure they aren’t maimed on the way to becoming upstanding citizens.

RB: I mean what do you do for work?

WG: That is work, Red [‘Red’ being my nom de guerre].

RB: What do you do for money?

WG: Boston University pays me to entertain their many colorful customers.

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Can you just tell me what you do?

WG: I teach them essay writing and the proper ways of reading.

RB: That’s how you would answer? That’s your first answer? You would not say,” I am a writer?”

WG: You asked what I do for money, Red. Samuel Johnson’s infamous quip notwithstanding, who writes for money?

RB: Okay, let’s go real here, enough role playing. You do several kinds of writing—novels, essays, literary criticism. Is there one that gives you more pleasure than the others?

WG: Yes, the criticism.

RB: Then why bother with the fiction?

WG: Because no one wants to pay me for criticism.

RB: So you do write for money!

WG: We’re talking pittances here. No publisher wants essays, but magazines need them, and I can use the pittance to help feed the ravenous little monsters who live in my house. You wouldn’t believe how they eat.

RB: What does the New Republic pay you? They do pay you?

WG: All the venues I write for pay me, yes, but I mean my editor at Norton isn’t interested in a book of criticism because he wouldn’t be able to sell it.

RB: Are you a regular contributor now at the New Republic?

WG: I’ve done a bunch of pieces for them, on Orwell, on Kafka, on Primo Levi. I’m not sure how regular that is.

RB: Primo Levi. You’re not qualified, are you? You’re not Jewish.

WG: I’m even less qualified to do Orwell and Kafka, but one fakes it as well as one can.

RB: So why do you gravitate to literary criticism as opposed to other forms?

WG: It allows me to engage in what most compels me—

RB: And impress people with your vocabulary.

WG: Let’s not underestimate that, okay. But it allows me to use what I know, and let’s me comprehend authors and books in a way that I couldn’t without writing about them. I understand Kafka better after writing about him. That’s my only mission.

RB: So you want to work out your own understanding of literature. But you must begin with a certain understanding, so you refine that understanding—is that what’s going on?

WG: That has to happen, yes, and certainly with someone such as Kafka. Everyone begins with certain popular conceptions of Kafka. People know the basics—about The Metamorphoses, some of the stories such as “In the Penal Colony”—but the trick is to transcend those popular conceptions and arrive at a more complex or nuanced place. Reading all of Kafka, delving into his body of work—which is what I do every time I write about an important author—you come away with a view very different from general conceptions.

RB: Do you know Jay Cantor’s book of stories about Kafka [Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka]? He objects to the overuse of the word “Kafkaesque.”

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

WG: I say the same in my piece. Not only do I object to it, but I’m certain that it’s a meaningless term. Kafka won’t be reduced to an adjective.

RB: People are using words they don’t have an understanding of and referring to a writer whom they probably haven’t read.

WG: Shocking, I know. In my piece, I speak about the occasion when I knew we’d entered the point of no return with the word “Kafkaesque.” It was in a movie theater, looking at an abomination called Congo, adapted from an equal abomination vomited by Michael Crichton. Don’t ask why I went to see this: I was young and I believe a beautiful girl was involved. But one character uses the word “Kafkaesque” so egregiously and erroneously—referring to a murderous band of apes, I believe—that I knew the word would never recover any meaning. Harold Bloom prefers “Kafkan.” That’s an improvement, though perhaps the difference between nothing and nothing much.

RB: How about “Kafkoid”? I mean, language is a living thing. How about the now great overuse of the word “epic”? You have to hang around with some teenagers, because “epic” is a big word now. It’s like saying “awesome.” This is what I’m hearing.

WG: Language is a living thing only in the hands of potent writers. But, you know, about “epic,” that’s not good, Red, because—

RB: Will you stop looking at your own book . . .

WG: Well, I’m just looking at what Dennis Lehane said about Hold the Dark: “A taut, muscular, and often unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness. Epic, relentless, and beautifully realized.”

RB: And Kafkaesque. You wanna read all the blurbs now?

WG: I’ve got to say, Red, that use of “epic” sounds not bad there, referring to my little tale.

RB: Well, I guess we might as well talk about your book.

Hold the Dark by WIlliam Giraldi

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

WG: Can I jar a memory in you? When we first met, when Busy Monsters came out, you told me you didn’t really like the novel but it still made you want to talk to me. Now, now let’s hear what the guy has to say about Hold the Dark.

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

RB: I’ll always want to talk to you because you use the word “raven” as a verb. But they’re very different books, and frankly, I never thought of you as the writer of Busy Monsters, and it wasn’t the kind of novel I’d usually read. I don’t know why I read it, but I did, and I wasn’t even paid to do it. But Hold the Dark is the kind of novel I’d read, and not just because of the other novelists some reviewers are referencing. Actually, I can think of some women writers who come close to Hold the Dark: Bonnie Jo Campbell is great, and the Australian Courtney Collins. They set their stories in remote regions where nature intrudes upon the narrative, where people are outsiders. I think of them as anti New York novels, surroundings you aren’t familiar with, no brand names, no career strivings and divorces. Hard to be original with shit like that.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

WG: A bored writer of letters-to-the-editor wrote in to the New York Times to complain about the favorable review of Hold the Dark. This was some unstrung fella in the wilds of Colorado, and his complaint was that I was an “urban elite” who had no business writing about the wilderness.

RB: Right. What do you know about Alaska?

WG: Anyone who’s lived through a New England winter knows enough about snow and ice to imagine what kind of cold breathes in other corners of America. But that was sweet of this person who never learned to read fiction, to call me an “urban elite”—the first word is technically accurate and the second word is always a compliment to my ears. What’s the opposite of elite?

RB: Right, and he was really recognizing the novelist’s chore, wasn’t he. You’re only allowed to write about traffic patterns in Cambridge and picking up your kids from school. That’s what you should be limited to. I guess I have to ask you: did you write the book you set out to write? Or did it change as you went along?

WG: It is, yes. To the degree that any novelist understands what lies beneath, I wrote the book I had envisioned.

RB: What drove it? Character, setting, plot?

WG: No, language. It’s always language—language as it relates to character. This is the difference between commercial fiction and fiction that aims for something more: the former is a mere public service message and the latter is an investigation into the durability and limits of language. Hold the Dark has been characterized as a literary thriller, and someone called it “action literature,” which defies meaning, I think. I’m not sure where they’re coming from because the novel is very much about the enigma of evil and the majesty of nature; it’s about a spiritual crisis that morphs into a spiritual quest. I’ve been lucky in my reviewers because almost all of them have spoken to the pitch of the language, to the tenor of the prose—without some cognizance of that, the novel loses its significance.

RB: It is sort of surprising to take a very raw landscape and terrain, with very nonurban or unsophisticated people, and apply a sophisticated, descriptive, specific language to them. You’re intricate in your descriptions of everything that takes place in this story.

WG: The landscape dictates its own language. Every novel demands its own style. As for the intricate descriptions, my editor pushed me in that direction—

RB: Robert Weil?

WG: The great Robert Weil. He pushed me to bring to life the village of Keelut in a more detailed way. I had the wilderness down, but he wanted that village to pop, and he was right, as usual.

RB: Hey, you live in Cambridge!

WG: Read enough Jack London and all of sudden you live on the edge of the Yukon.

RB: He didn’t have to deal with climate change.

WG: What a coincidence. We aren’t really dealing with it either.

RB: But you’ve never been to Alaska. So few people have.

WG: So it then becomes a question of audacity. Goethe says this, that a writer must have “a touch of audacity” if he wishes to make a work of art. In my wishes for this novel, I needed much more than a touch—I needed a kick of audacity to imagine that terrain, a terrain I deliberately did not visit for fear of turning this novel into loyal reportage, another fact-filled dispatch. For the longest time, the novel had no specific setting at all. Remoteness, ice and snow—that was it. The story could have been taking place on the moon, for all anybody could have known.

RB: Where would the wolves have come from?

WG: Imaginative literature doesn’t or shouldn’t care about those questions. I was fine with the namelessness of the locale, but my publisher wouldn’t have been. The Alaskan wild is an inherently mysterious place—a domain that keeps its secrets well and has a complete separation from the normal rules of existence. Behavior is different there, an outlaw spirit that pervades that territory. If somebody would say that I’m taking a rather big risk in writing about a place only from imagination—

RB: Who would say that?

WG: Somebody with a conviction against the freedom of imagination. A philistine, in other words.

RB: When you critique a book, do you talk about an author risking something?

WG: I have, yes. No risks, no rewards—isn’t that the cliché? But one’s heroes give one the bravery to take big risks in fiction. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having taken part in the Civil War—he was born six years after the end of the war. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King before he had ever step foot in Africa. Kurt Vonnegut obviously never rocketed to Mars or a moon of Saturn. I won’t adhere to that fallow idea that says fiction should be reportage. I could have spent a year in Alaska and turned this novel into a demographical study, a meteorological report, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of literature. Novels are a product of the imagination or else they are gussied-up newspaper articles, another useless simulacrum of reality.

RB: Right, that’s the key task. You just reminded me of Edward P. Jones’s second novel, The Known World, the one that took him a long time to write. Sections of the book have amazing verisimilitude to various legal functions and court transactions, taking place around the time of the Civil War, and he simply made it all up. I had a history professor write me once to say that she was offended that a novelist was having his way with history, and I told her, It says on the book “novel.” Why do people have these expectation of fiction? And they’re not half as critical of nonfiction.

WG: I’d guess they suffer from a bankruptcy of imagination.

RB: How about poor education? Poor training?

WG: I’ve met entire gangs of über educated people with PhDs in English who were the most imaginatively deprived souls in a hundred-mile radius, the sort who would read a novel and report that it didn’t “feel” real to them, as if their feelings have anything at all to do with the novel.

RB: Isn’t the key internal coherence, that a book is obliged only to be sensible within its own setting?

WG: Within its own architecture, yes. The bolts and the beams of the narrative need to fit only within the novel’s own structure and shouldn’t be worried about corresponding to any outside formula of comprehension. Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and countless others would be inconceivable any other way.

RB: Is your main character in Hold the Dark evil? Is Vernon Slone evil?

WG: That depends on the guidelines by which you’re judging him. By the standards of civilization, he can be called evil, yes, though let me say that he would have hurt no one if only he could have been left alone, left to his own course. By the standards of the wilderness, which are the only standards that hold sway in this story, he is not evil, no. That’s one of the chief conflicts of Hold the Dark: the agon between the rules of the wild and the proprieties of society. By Slone’s DNA, by the precepts of his own land, he behaves precisely as he needs to behave in order to achieve his ends. Slone and Cheeon both—Cheeon, his best friend in the novel—both are sociopathic and would never last a day in Boston, true, but they abide by an ancient code of devotion, a code of blood and bond and myth and bone. They are loyal to one another and that’s dignity of a kind. We’ve forgotten about the bonds of blood, the fidelity of tribe. Their devotion is wordless. Remember, they don’t speak one word to each other throughout the entire novel.

RB: Are we to understand what the moral firmament is in the wilderness? For instance, what justifies those first two murders?

WG: The protection of kin. The punishment of outsiders for meddling with a people and place better left alone. Those two detectives are killed because they are close to finding Medora Slone and Vernon Slone won’t allow that. Medora is Vernon’s to find. Those murders results from an intrusion into territory, which is exactly what I expect would happen if you barged into a bear’s den. This Alaskan territory is a bear’s den—Vernon Slone and Cheeon are the bears.

RB: I wondered about the path that Cheeon took because I think implicit in it is his belief that Slone is going to get caught.

WG: Why do you say that?

RB: Because if he doesn’t believe that Slone is going to get caught, is he aiding Slone’s getaway in mowing down ten or twelve men? And not only doing that, but essentially doing suicide by police.

WG: What’s in Cheeon’s mind during that rampage? Perhaps that the more of these cops he can kill, the fewer will be around to capture Slone. But also, and this is important: they came knocking. They came to him. There wouldn’t have been a rampage if he had been left alone, and that was what I really liked about John Wilwol’s review in the New York Times. He understood that. Don’t come knocking where you don’t belong because you’ll find something fatal. The cops from town and the Feds from the city, they come to this remote place and they attempt to assert their business where it doesn’t fit. Cheeon’s rampage is a retribution and a warning: stay where you belong or there will be these cataclysmic consequences.

RB: À la Ruby Ridge.

WG: I can see the connection. Cheeon’s massacre is a message in extremis. The suicide by cop is really the only outcome for him. His little girl is dead, taken by a wolf; his wife has fled never to return; he knows he’ll never be able to see Slone again. After what’s happened, Slone will be on the run always. Cheeon says to Donald Marium, the detective, he says: The wolf has come for you and me today. The raven follows the wolf, he says, and he points up into a tree and there’s the raven, death’s omen, peering down at them. Remember, he booby-traps his cabin: he’s been waiting for this. From the beginning he’s known they would come for him.

RB: Minor thing, but both Slone and Cheeon, when they’re talking to others, they use the word “guy” where most men who use the word “man” or “dude.” Is that an Alaskanism?

WG: I’m not sure. I’ve heard some Canadians use “guy” in place of “man” or “dude.” It sounds slightly wrong to our ear, and I like that about it, that quality of otherness.

RB: Another illegitimate step in your fabrication. I was thinking, today I harkened back to your controversial review in the New York Times two years ago, that negative review you seemed to draw so much fire for. One particular piece was on the website HTML Giant, in which the writer actually thought to instruct you on what a review should be and how you had failed miserably, and I thought, God, on the face of it, how fucking pretentious to think that he could instruct you. Because one of the things he said is that you have to deal with a book on its own terms, but don’t you also have to deal with a review on its own terms? Was that kerfuffle ever resolved intelligently?

WG: Are internetting nobodies capable of intelligence or resolution? No, the fracas you speak of happened among those internetting nobodies, the synthetically social on social media, so I wasn’t party to it. I don’t partake of social media and I’m not on the internet that much. I’ve never heard of that web site you mentioned but it sounds to me like a haven for the mentally miniscule. I wrote a piece called “Letter to a Young Critic,” my ars poetica, because my editor at the Daily Beast asked for it, but other than that, and receiving a thousand emails of support, I didn’t experience the fracas as others did. My son Aiden was a few months old at the time and nothing focuses the mind like diapers and a screaming newborn.

RB: Do you care? Once having established what you were confident was a well presented argument, did you want to hear counter arguments?

WG: A prepared critic knows there are no counter arguments.

RB: Do you care about being nice as a critic?

WG: Naughty or nice is irrelevant. The question doesn’t exist. The critic’s only concern is right or wrong, true or false. The emphasis on delivery is a dodge, a way of not dealing with the argument. Unpopular causes often rely on the aesthetics of delivery because their foes wear the face of gruesome banality. Let me point out also, for the record, that of the scores and scores of books I’ve written about, only two reviews have been negative, and one was mixed.

RB: All of the top venues you write for, not just the New Republic but the Oxford American and VQR and numerous others, is a recognition of your legitimacy as a critic—you’re guilty by association with some good minds. You must write 5000 words a week for these various magazines. Don’t you set aside other things to do that?

WG: I do, and I need to stop, or this next book will never get done.

RB: Another novel? You have a contract?

WG: The contract I have is for a memoir, believe it or not, and I’m very conflicted about this, Red.

RB: Make it all up.

WG: I’m very conflicted. Speaking of the Oxford American, I just filed a piece about this, about autobiography, as it pertains to the Southern documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, the great director who did Sherman’s March.

RB: I used to live near McElwee. Do you like Errol Morris’s films?

WG: I’m not a big film guy. I became interested in McElwee because his nephew is a pal of mine. But I’m spottily educated on film.

RB: I don’t want to bring up that you just reviewed the film Child of God at the New Republic.

WG: That was a rather rare exception; I know that novel like a prayer.

RB: You didn’t mention The Counselor in that piece. Do you know that movie?

WG: No. It’s not based on one of the novels. Did you like it?

RB: Sucked, but had some great parts. Cameron Diaz masturbating on the windshield of a car.

WG: That’s so sweet of her.

RB: She might have been the most interesting character in the film.

WG: When you look like Cameron Diaz that’s not hard. Someone once tried to talk to me about the movie There’s Something About Mary—remember that one?—and I asked this person if he ever considered that the something in question about Mary was that she looked just like Cameron Diaz.

RB: Something else I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been trying to reconcile a view I have of serious versus genre literature. When I was a kid it wasn’t like you either did sports or you read, either one or the other. You just read, it was like breathing. Now there’s this whole genre in which people write about reading. I don’t know why they do that. Like that book you reviewed recently in the New York Times, by Wendy Lesser.

WG: Lesser’s book in particular is a deft analysis of certain works of literature and how they function, how they cast their spell. It’s criticism, in other words, not a memoir about reading, which, you’re right, strikes me as a rather yawnful undertaking. The answer to the question why do you read is actually pretty straightforward: I read for pleasure and for intimations of wisdom. Dryden says this, right, that poesy instructs as it delights, but not one without the other.

RB: I.B. Singer said the same thing.

WG: The notion predates both Singer and Dryden. Horace called it dulce et utile: sweet and useful.

RB: Oh boy, I knew you would do this, get all classical on me. Didn’t Horace play for the Pirates, Horace Wagner?

WG: Focus, Red, stay with me. The Horatian prescription of dulce et utile was codified throughout the Renaissance and endured mostly in tact until the contagion of French theory, sneezed by Derrida and de Man, infected American academics in the middle of the last century. But maybe that’s too highfalutin an answer to your Pittsburgh Pirates question.

RB: No shit, Sherlock.

WG: Can we use profanity in this conversation?

RB: Oh yeah, and especially because you need to be more of a hard guy, given Hold the Dark and your author photo, wearing that hat.

WG: I don’t use profanity because—

RB: You’re Catholic.

WG: I was gonna say sophisticated, but you’re right. Lapsed Catholic, actually, but it amounts to the same thing.

RB: Well, your vocabulary far outstrips mine, but remember I grew up in Chicago.

WG: I grew up in New Jersey, Red. That state ain’t exactly a bastion of intellectualism.

RB: But it was the suburbs. But here’s the thing—

WG: I suppose. It was really just a tiny greaser town full of Polish car mechanics and Italian carpenters. Here’s the thing what?

RB: Right, here’s the thing: in my reading, I certainly don’t adhere to any literary theory, have never even read half of the people you mention, whatever their names are. Today, I value John le Carré as much as Robert Stone—

WG: Didn’t you and I have a fight about le Carré, over his stance relating to Rushdie in the 80s?

RB: I think if you go back and read his stance it wasn’t as obnoxious as it might have seemed at the time. Let’s say he fucked up, everybody fucks up, but the thing of it is, I don’t have a benchmark I check off and say, Oh yeah, this is a great book and this is a terrible book. It’s all flying by the seat. And less and less do I remember content. I was talking to David Mitchell* last week. I remember loving Cloud Atlas and I can’t tell you a thing about it.

WG: Then what in God’s name did you love in it?

RB: At the time I read it, I found it to be entertaining and instructive. Like in his new book: he’s a reminder that what’s in front of you isn’t necessarily all that’s going on. He writes stuff, fantasy elements, that I don’t think I’d ever read by somebody else. He does it very deftly. You haven’t managed to read him?

WG: I’ve managed not to read lots of writers.

RB: That’s understandable. I’ve never read Updike and I didn’t read Roth until recently.

WG: Have you still never read Updike?

RB: Never.

WG: I should leave now.

RB: Oh, that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh. We’re gonna judge each other.

WG: Critics judge, that’s there job. It’s extraordinary that you’ve never read Updike.

RB: Listen, when I was in Chicago, I associated Updike with pipe-smoking, tweedy types.

WG: That’s a very wrong association.

RB: Remember, I come from the town of Nelson Algren.

WG: Oh, tough guy, Algren. You remember Hemingway’s blurb about Algren? He said Algren was the second best writer in America.

RB: That’s right, I do know that.

WG: So, yes, we can judge one another by the books we read, and I don’t necessarily mean in that Leavisite manner of turning literature into an ethical audit by which we assert our puritanical values—all you had to do was tell F. R. Leavis what books you read and then he told you your moral coordinates.

RB: We certainly judge people by their friends and the teams they root for. Modern commerce and the Internet does the same thing: give me fifteen metrics and I’ll tell you all these things about you. Amazon does that: buy a book and they’ll tell you what other books you like. Frequently there’s commonality there. When bookstores hand-sell stuff they do the same thing. Music, the same thing. Speaking of which, you never review music, do you?

WG: I just did a piece on Jack White for the Oxford American. But mostly I’m not qualified to review music. The Jack White piece is more about artistic obsession. After the White Stripes it was difficult for me to listen to other music, just as Bellow’s Augie March ruined other books for me for several years.

RB: What would qualify you to write about music?

WG: Some knowledge of musicality, of music history, of melody and tone, a wider range of listening than I have. This applies to literary criticism, as well. Some seem to think that if they can read and are able to have an emotion and an opinion that they are qualified for literary comment. That’s not correct at all. One’s feelings do not translate into criticism. Edmund Wilson said this in the 40s, that our culture of literary comment was puerile and overcome by critics who mistake their emotions for analysis. One’s feelings matter not at all where criticism is concerned.

RB: Really?

WG: Really. One sees this all the time. This book feels contrived to me. This plot feels unfinished. This character doesn’t feel likable. It’s nonsense. Demonstrate what you think and how you think it and you’ll be on to something.

William  Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: I really have to strenuously object to that. An emotional response is what you want from art.

WG: Not only that, and not primarily that.

RB: The failure of such a review would be saying that’s the irreducible statement you’re making, about feelings. Whereas the obligation is, for a critic, if you feel something, you have to unpack and explicate what that’s about.

WG: We partly agree.

RB: I think I can write about music, that I’m qualified, in that I have a wide swath of familiarity with lots of music. So even though I don’t know music theory I think by association and by a sense of definition I can talk skillfully about music.

WG: And how it’s arranged and composed. I thought I could do the same, on a minimal level, with Jack White, and get away with it: the way Jack plays guitar, the difference between his playing style and that of others. I agree that art needs to aim for the chest but if it’s not also aiming for the head then the artist has done only half his task. Otherwise criticism becomes only a matter of opinion informed by emotion, and not knowledge or insight earned through expertise. Some opinions are more valid than others, are they not?

RB: I think yes, I would agree with that. But the thing about art is the high ratio of subjectivity that permissible. I don’t think there are theories and generalities that cover the arts.

WG: But one can prove how one book is better than another.

RB: Prove it to me. Prove to me that As I Lay Dying is a better book than Catch-22.

WG: Two masterpieces, equal in what they do, although they do it in different ways. The distinction I mean is the one that must be made between the first-rate and the second-rate. Look at the pitch, the modulations, the reach of the prose. Word by word, sentence by sentence, the superior book proves itself.

RB: The Times review of Hold the Dark repeated that idea of yours, or quoted you, saying that somewhere. And now? Any obsessions?

WG: And now I have no obsessions, which is as it should be for a man about to be clobbered by middle age.

RB: Have you done any readings in Boston, from the Hold the Dark?

WG: No.

RB: No one will have you?

WG: I’m tired. I don’t want to perform. It doesn’t sell books anyway. It’s just a lot of pressure on the writer and pressure on the bookstore, too.

RB: So what’s the next thing?

WG: That memoir I was telling you about, God help me.

RB: Which you’ve started, or not?

WG: Yes. God, I don’t want to think about it.

RB: Am I gonna have to go through the next two or three years listening to you piss and moan about this every time we get together? Why don’t you just give up these book-length projects and stick to essays?

WG: You know what I’d like to give up?

RB: What?

WG: Writing.

RB: And become a bounty hunter?

WG: Farmer maybe. I don’t know anything about it, but I like the way it looks.

RB: Why do you want to give up writing?

WG: Because it’s work and it’s hard and I don’t like work and especially not hard work.

RB: Oh stop about how tough it is. You wanna go pick strawberries in the fields?

WG: That sounds lovely. Walter Benjamin said that a writer must proceed as a man digging a ditch. Ever dig a ditch?

RB: How many fucking ditches have you dug?

WG: My fair share. Need I remind you I come from a working-class family of builders? I’ve dug many a ditch. My point is: writing is difficult and if it’s not difficult then you’re not doing it right.

RB: Okay so you’re a novelist, a critic, an essayist, a teacher, an editor. Anything we’re not knowing about you? You have aspirations?

WG: Wilde said ambition is the last refuge of the failure, so my aspirations are skimpy. I want to raise my boys with as little psychic trauma as possible.

RB: Good luck with that, as they say.

WG: It’s my goal.

RB: And you’re going to do that because you’re a picture of mental health? Why are you qualified to do that?

WG: One must try, Red.

RB: I know. Everybody wants to be a better parent than their parents.

WG: And so we’ve come full circle. This little chat of ours began with my kids and now ends with my kids.

RB: Commendable, I know, but bullshit, too, because if you were at a party holding a glass of wine you wouldn’t answer that question by saying you’re a father.

WG: Well, that’s easy, Red, because I’d never be at that party.

* David Mitchell Conversation 2005

Self Vs. Self

3 Sep
Shark by Will Self

Shark by Will Self

In lieu of spending hours transcribing my most recent (2014) chat with the now maturated ,bad boy novelist and social commentator Will Self, I call your attention to his recent auto auditory opus. Along with Martin Amis, and despite the challenges of their fiction, they are two of the most engaging and stimulating conversationalists I have encountered. “The author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella and the newly-published Shark asks himself whether he is willfully obscure, what role addictive illness plays in his work, what it’s like living with the same character for 25 years – and how come he’s only just noticed how tall he was.”

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I talked to Will a few times last century and the first time in this one, in 2003 for his newest novel : d most recently Dorian: An Imitation. Here’s a tidbit from that:

Robert Birnbaum: Do people still attach the word ‘jolly’ to the phrase “old England”? Is there a jolly old England?

Will Self: No. Jolly has gone. I think where you can mark the real decline of jollity somewhat paradoxically, is to the Blair regime, the Blair government. When they came into office in ’97, on a tide of apparent jollity, a reassertion of social democratic virtues, a kicking out of the previous corrupt conservative regime that had been in place for seventeen years and was riddled with actual pecuniary corruption, that jollity was very quickly perceived publicly as an act of media manipulation. And the focus then turned to the idea that this was a new regime that was predicated in a way that no previous regime had been, not to quite the same extent, on appearance rather than reality. This was a government of spin-doctors. A government of public relations, a government that fixed its policies on the basis of focus groups, that went out and tried to get people’s assent to a policy and then moved that way around it rather than actually being a creative government. [A government] That introduced a great deal of cynicism into the British political sphere. At the same time you had a kind of schizophrenia entering public life over the issue of whether we were an economy and a society that was really taking our model from American neo-liberal economists or whether we still had a serious interest in a united Europe. That’s really been the sawhorse upon which economics and politics in Britain has very painfully fallen on its crotch for the past six years. That tends to undermine any conception of jollity. At the same time all kinds of—things have happened in Britain—like the crack cocaine epidemic has finally reached Britain.

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

And then there is:

RB: I recently read Colum McCann‘s Dancer, which touches upon this period of AIDS, Warholian fame clique in Manhattan and what was a matter of interest was that now looking back this need to excise all or any fun out of that era, a retrospective moralizing and denunciation…

WS: I would not quite take that view. No, I think you can say that everybody’s experience is going to be partial. Whether you are having fun is an existential proposition not a universal one, isn’t it? And fun, the very idea of fun, is curiously atemporal.

RB: (Laughs)

WS: You know you are having fun when you know what time it is. So almost by definition it’s not gonna be an observation about cultural history to say, “Didn’t we have fun?” It’s gonna be an observation about cultural amnesia.

RB: Didn’t we have fun?

WS: That’s of course a different inquiry. My take on all of this is—and it’s an era I lived through—people say “How do you have the right to write about this?” I was an IV drug user during this period. I had my first HIV test in 1985. I was aware of the spread of AIDS epidemic which was savage in the IV-drug-using community just as much as it was among gay people. Now, I’m not saying, “Now look at me, I’ve suffered too.” I kind of despise that attitude. The truth is I haven’t got the virus and I feel very fortunate about that. The fact of the matter is I was aware of it during this period and I did see what it was doing. My perception was that following the Halloween parade riots and the real outburst of gay liberation at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, one thing is true in life, in the realm of the emotions, events that are consecutive are interpreted causally. You have a row with your lover and they rush out into the street and ten hours later they are killed by a bus and you caused that. I think the perception both outside the gay community and within the gay community, was we gained some level of social acceptability or at any rate we were allowed to be out publicly. We then had a lot of fun and games. We then fell victim in large numbers to a sexually transmitted virus. Our behavior caused that. Now, people of the so-called Moral Majority and on the right were saying that. My perception is that lot of gay people internalized that as well. And felt that as well. I remember talking to people about this at the time. There was a sense no matter how unjustified, of guilt around this behavior because of that ‘law’ of the emotions, if you like. And some people have said this text has a kind of homophobic taint to it. It looks at those ideas. As far as I’m concerned, again, like that point about fun, there is a retrospective desire now because of highly active retroviral treatment—really the evil bloom has been taken or people perceive it as being taken off the AIDS epidemic. People want to deny it ever happened. They want to kind of forget about it, “Let’s just forget about that stuff.”

Will Self  circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre (Scribner)

What The World Needs Now

27 Jul
Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Recently, I chatted with Philip Kerr, my favorite Scotch author , and he observed something to the effect that John Le Carre will be the author that is most remembered and read from this era (20th century).

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

I watched A Most Wanted Man last Friday afternoon and A Constant Gardener (again). I have previously read both these LeCarre novels and I am beginning to see Kerr’s point about LeCarre— A Constant Gardner is a precis’ of the foibles of (white) Western African policies and the immense corruption that has been rampant since the days of empire.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man is, plain and simple, a display of, in toto, the ineptitude of secret spy agencies (think back to the absurd machinations of the Czars’s secret police) and the self-serving nature of the security state. The bad joke in this story is that the CIA operative (Robin Wright) offers , when asked by the German anti terror unit agent(Phillip Seymour Hoffman) why they did what they did, “To make the world a little safer —isn’ that enough?”

Lecarre also reprises a notion that I first noticed in A Constant Gardener. Tessa want he husband to stop the car and give a ride to 3 Africans she knows have to walk 40 k to get home. He says. there are just too many to help. We leave it to the agencies.” She says,” But there are 3 people we can help now.” In A Most Wanted Man someone says, ‘“The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.”

And then there is this gem from Russia House (which Howard Zinn pointed out to me)

I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured,we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.

John Le Carre The Russia House p 207

Currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

The term ‘thriller’ was no doubt coined to describe a certain kind of genre fiction when car chases, high body counts and unlikely crimes and perpetrators were the stuff of ‘whodunits’. Roller coaster rides may be thrilling. Fireworks may be thrilling. And there are many pleasures to be derived from reading, thrills are not some that I can identify.’Thriller’ has become a term of art that, it seems to me, has outlived its usefulness.

There is a territory of the fiction landscape that deals with espionage, so-called ‘black ops’ (when did we realize that there were such things?) and cloakroom politics that has given good reason to remove it from under the implicitly deprecating rubric, ‘genre fiction’. No doubt commercial considerations influence the perpetuation of these categories (where, for instance, various titles are displayed at your small but mighty local bookstore) — but no one should be misled about the serious import and value of these narratives.

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and The Comedians) was my first inkling that fiction revealed real truths about the real/practical world. But I came upon his novels after I had been fed a diet of Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May) and the Terry Southern classic, Dr Strangelove. So the various plot twists and exigent conditions (the US Army drugging its men with hallucinogenics) of these ‘thrillers were improbable fictions.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer


Years later when reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer used some purported CIA espionage gambits in his narrative—in Berlin where the US dug a tunnel attempting to intercept Soviet communiques and in Miami where all manner of tricks and games were employed in the US’s anti -Castro vendetta. These things (exploding fountain pens, CIA/Mob collaborations) no longer seemed far fetched.

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

John Le Carre’s Our Tailor in Panama was my introduction to this master novelist (Philip Kerr avers that Le Carre is the one author guaranteed immortality based on his accurate depiction of the dark and spooky world of security and spying agencies). That book is clearly an homage to Greene’s Cuban adventure and it reifies the deluded and self perpetuating nature of the world’s secret services.And it served to change my perspective of some fictional worlds( just as I began to see Gore Vidal’s Empire series as more descriptive of American history than any history texts I had read.)

SHELLEY'S HEART BY  Charles McCarry

SHELLEY’S HEART BY Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry‘s Paul Christopher series and his stand alone Shelley’s Heart (which uncannily portends the debacle of the 2000 presidential election) depicts the tools and strategies of spy-craft as well as highlighting the amorality of spooks of all stripes. I chatted with McCarry ( A former CIA agent) a few years ago:

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

As a culminating moment in my awakening Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of The Dog a well wrought tale of the drug war(s) and the complicity of government agencies, the Vatican, multi national corporations, South American revolutionaries in corrupt and illegal practices removed any doubts I had that there were many innocent players in world’s geo political grand opera (except, of course, the People)

So now we are inundated with dramas (Homeland, House of Cards, West Wing, 24 Hours) that simulate perpetual war/security state world. And, if you haven’t seen the excellent BBC 7 episode The State Within you will find a “fictional” treatment of vested interests contriving to bring the USA to war with
Kyrgyzstan in manner closely resembling the Iraq Debacle.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Of course there are also books being written, some published, that investigate and explicate the shabby nature of American Exceptionalism. Greenwald’s account of the Snowden case i sone an there is also Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

There is also a documentary of the same name that is raises important and legitimate questions to which few journalists are pursuing the answers.

Noam Chomsky, steadfast critic of the American Security State, has the last word here in an essay published at TomsDispatch

… What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.

Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.

These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm

Currently reading Station Eleven by Emma St John Mandel (Knopf)