25.10.05

INTERVIEW WITH R.M. BERRY

Dearest Chiasmus visitors, freaks, and mad readers:

We invite you to read, let it sink into your gray matter, and then construct your very own textual response to Lidia's interview with the mastermind R.M. Berry.

His book, FRANK, is due out at the end of October 2005. It's much more than mere trick or treat: see below.

Best,
Chiasmus staff

Click Here for Chiasmus Home

--------------------------------------


Lidia Yuknavitch:
FRANK seems to have at its heart, at least formally, a palimpsest. I'm thinking of the layers of history. The layers of language upon language. The geographic layers. The layers of time--past, present. The layers of authorship. The layers of character--or for me, it would be more accurate to say subjectivities. What's your take on this layering effect? I myself find it breathtaking.

R.M. Berry: Your phrase, the layering of subjectivities, captures with unusual vividness what I wanted to produce. My idea was that the source of our captivity to the past—and here “our” can refer to 21st century Americans collectively or to the Europeanized West or to human beings as such or merely to each of us as individuals—that the source of our captivity is to be grasped as the superimposition of two lives, competing histories. Sometimes I think of it as foreign occupation. Or perhaps demonic.
I don’t think anyone, not even the wealthy and powerful, really wants our present form of life. Capitalism requires too much repression of too much of what’s best in each of us. But we continue to live out the life we don’t desire, all the while displaying in a thousand ways the symptoms of our stifled disgust and anger. How does that happen? Ideology can’t explain it, economic coercion can’t explain it, institutionalization can’t explain it. What needs to be grasped is the seamless continuity of me with not me, or better, the sense of a forgotten life living in my living, a kind of ghost inhabiting my acts.
This alien subject is the holdover from a past that is not my personal past. It may have a different sexuality or gender from mine. It may speak an unfamiliar idiom, have a quite distinct style and taste. I think it’s what mythology calls fate. Or metempsychosis. But every emotion or impulse of mine, my most intimate and personal reflexes, every flinch projects a shadow, the emotion, impulse, twitch, sensation, of another being.
I didn’t read much growing up. I became interested in books late, only after arriving in college, but I’d always thought, worried, mulled, puzzled over things. I feel like I live in a basement. So, when I started to read and then to talk and write about what I was reading, I was startled when professors or other students responded to a thought of mine, “That’s Kant’s idea of judgment,” or “That’s Schlegel’s romanticism,” or “That’s Emerson.” I hadn’t read any of these people, in most cases had never heard their names. How could someone else’s idea already be inside of me? Once I actually did start to read, it really got crazy, since I started discovering in the writings of philosophers and poets and novelists from centuries ago or other cultures thoughts I’d always assumed I’d invented.
I don’t know when I first began to hit on my present explanation. It seems always to have been there, but not until I started reading Wittgenstein did I have the “Ah, now I see” experience. The ghosts of every story and poem and idea and argument ever written or thought or sung or screamed actually did inhabit me, always had. They were called words. And in learning to speak, I hadn’t just learned a code or system. I’d learned a memory, the memory of a whole culture, of the whole fucking human species! And like other memories, these could be referred to with merely a fragment or associated image or formula—dictionaries are collections of these shorthand references—but if I really wanted to know what a word in my head remembered, then I wanted its story, its history. Words are the histories of every past occasion of their use. That’s what we call their “meaning.” And these tight little knots of human history inhabit everyone. They narrate us before we do. There’s nothing at all unusual about discovering one’s own life written by someone else. What’s unusual is discovering oneself discovering this.
In FRANK I was looking for a way to write a novel in which you’d see both subjectivities at once, the word and its memory, me and my ghost. The aim, of course, would be freedom, but that would require another understanding of what freedom is. You don’t escape a story by narrating it. Quite the opposite. That’s what I learned from Beckett.

LY: Since Mary Shelley once visited me in a dream in what I would call one of the most lucid and concrete conversations I've ever had in my life (really. I woke up and sat bolt upright in bed thinking I'd either fallen out of time or she had staged a present tense break-in), how does her text speak to you specifically? Why inhabit her text to release your own?

RMB: The fact that Mary Shelley had a conversation with you in a dream explains why I’ve always found you so interesting. We occupy a tense.
I inhabited Shelley’s text to release my own because I was already inhabiting her text. The question for me was how to acknowledge this within-ness, my containment. Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN strikes me as the most ordinary of stories: it’s about a guy who wanted to create a life for himself. And who doesn’t want that? (I deliberately allow the male pronoun to stand, since it’s a question for me, a question for FRANK, whether or to what extent the wish for one’s own life is specific to men or shared. If FRANK is successful, then it doesn’t answer the question, but it evokes the pandemonium to which an answer might bring peace.) The paradox I faced, of course, is that precisely by trying to create a life for myself, I replicated hers, Shelley’s. Every man who sets out to create his own life becomes Victor Frankenstein. And this is awful, because it entails the death of everyone he loves. This is what I mean by my being within her text, my life being contained. How does a man get out? Well, Freud showed us. The way out is on the other side of all the way in.
So, I set out to write a novel in which, from literally the first word—and I mean “literally” literally—it is unrepressing its containment, acknowledging its place in Shelley’s plot, its desire for her creation, and so bringing to the consciousness itself, of its own reading and writing, what compels its story endlessly on. Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, voices his intuition of a fate driving him. This is how repression talks. A past in which Victor avoided Victor is experienced by Victor in the present as a power over him, his own alienated past repeating itself in his every instant.
In FRANK Shelley’s novel becomes the fate. When Rob Lawton or Frank Stein intuit some power over themselves, some plot they are forced to live out, they sense their position as characters in Shelley’s plot. The solution is obvious: I must acknowledge what I avoid by inhabiting her text instead of my own. Only in this way can FRANK become mine. I am not inside Shelley’s book because language forces me to be there. I am inside Shelley’s book because, when learning to voice to my desires, I also learned the history of their avoidance, the storehouse of memories of slights and fears and demands and confusions that makes avoidance itself so desirable. I must learn to hear what I’m saying, what my own words mean, what I mean in speaking them. My goal was to write FRANK so that this meaning continually calls out, trips us up, brings the forward movement, the compelling fate to a halt. There’s a sense in which, if only you saw what the words are saying, you could stop reading, go free. Unfortunately, until you see where this fate leads, you’ll just think the words are being cute, coy, self-consciously clever.
All you can ever tell is what happened to you. The alternative to the lived life is the narrated one. What’s happening here and now—this!—that’s what nobody can tell.

LY: The distribution of race, class, notions of otherness and geography mapped out in FRANK suggests you understand these categories as dislocatable/relocatable in terms of signification (not unlike words). put slightly differently, I get that great "what if" feeling when reading FRANK . . . like "what could happen" if we dislocated the old stories and relocated them elsewhere and differently. Do you mean to be making this kind of claim about language, definitions, and identity as well?

RMB: Yes.
The importance of the inevitability of FRANK, the sense that Shelley’s plot has the power of fate, the power of inescapability, is that it reveals an interconnectedness of racism and misogyny and class violence within the (male?) desire to create a life for oneself. Obviously, in FRANK this desire is what a novel must satisfy.
What I want the reader to feel is that the violence in the book is simultaneously interconnected, each part leading to and entailing the next in a vast network or social matrix, and also that it’s wholly contrived, arbitrary, without any necessity at all—almost as though somebody had willfully taken some other story and plopped it down on this one. I don’t imagine that this plot explain every form of monstrousness today, but I do think it explains a very old, very widespread one. For example, I think it explains the monstrousness in the Whitehouse.
There’s something more to be said. I don’t think Shelley is blameless. If my aim is to acknowledge my containment within her story, I must do that by acknowledging, not only my wish for her creation, my place in the story of male parthenogenesis, but also what Shelley herself avoided in captivating me. There’s something she could not have told and still have told FRANKENSTEIN. The plot she created, the one in which I’m a captive, is the one in which Victor Frankenstein makes the creature. It was that plot, by which I mean the one in which a man invents a life (I hadn’t read Shelley yet), which over three decades ago first drew me to the idea of becoming a novelist. The plot that frees me from her, hence frees others from FRANK, is the one in which I acknowledge the limits of that plot, that is, the limits of any man’s power to reproduce himself. That liberating story is the one in which the misogyny, racism, and class division in FRANK appear contrived, not inevitable. It begins with the acknowledgment—but how is this to be done?—that I’m the one creating this violence, that I’m the one who desires to reproduce Shelley’s plot, tell this old story. Unfortunately, acknowledging my hand in violence is not the same thing as telling a story in which I have a hand in violence. Or if so, I’d have to tell another story to acknowledge my hand in that one, and the violence would never end.

Acknowledging the words, their capacity to move independently of me, of my desires, reveals the arbitrariness of the plot. This is a way of saying: Mary Shelley created the monster too.

LY: I honestly believe that books such as FRANK pose a direct challenge to, or more accurately, burrow beneath the contemporary novel as a market-driven endlessly replaceable object . . . because books like FRANK remake a reader back into a complex human rather than a consuming machine. I say that because part of the reading experience is struggle. does that sound like something you want to happen to readers, something that should be part of the pleasure of the text?

RMB: Each of your questions catches so precisely something I wanted, that along with being very, very gratifying, they’re a little disarming. “Part of the reading experience is struggle.” Yes, I wanted that, but not in the sense of difficulty or obscurity or slogging away. Rather in the sense of a striving, a struggle for survival, or a struggle with one’s adversary. (The ghost, the cultural past, that me I’m not.) My fear writing the book, of course—my fear writing everything I write—is that people will sense the difficulties, feel that somehow the words won’t stay still, that the story continual folds back on itself, becomes preposterous or inscrutable or perverse, or that the characters aren’t likeable and the situations aren’t realistic, etc., and decide that I’m narcissistically caught up in my own cleverness and just can’t get on with the story. There’s no defense against that feeling. Hell, maybe it’s just true.
But what I’d like is not for the reading to be A struggle, but for reading to be struggle. I want that directness, that feeling that, if I could just see what these words right here in front of me are saying, what they could not possibly make clearer, I would be where I need to be—here, now.
The struggle is for peace.

LY: On at least one level, the form of the novel as we have traditionally understood it is alive and well and smothering real art (this is Lidia Yuknavitch's personal opinion). On the other hand, a handful of innovative writers such as yourself are insisting that the form of the novel must, and is, undergoing radical change. Why does the novel matter just now? What is at stake?

RMB: I have yet to hear one of Lidia Yuknavitch’s personal opinions which didn’t strike me as impersonal too, that is, as an opinion others could have. Anyway, this one has room for me.
Why the novel matters just now. I’ve been reading in MS a new book coming out from Fordham UP within the next year or so, EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY AND LITERARY MODERNISM by Gerald L. Bruns. At one point, in one of the book’s remarkable and surprising turns, Bruns suggests that what the kind of community called into being by avant garde writing may want, its utopia, is a world in which it no longer was necessary to answer questions like “why does the novel matter just now.” This isn’t my way of throwing off on your question; it’s my way of answering it. You ask the question because, we obviously don’t live in that world, in that utopia, and acting as though we did would be worse than stupid. It would be complicitous. So for us, you and me, the question “why does the novel matter now” matters.
To live in a world in which the writing of FRANK required no explanation, no justification, would be to live in a natural world, a world where human life no longer required us to make it what it is, but in which a life could happen by a logic or necessity within itself, by its own unfolding. Nature is what can simply be what it is w/out ever having to give any account of why. In that great Wallace Stevens poem about placing a jar on a hill in Tennessee, he suggests that nature is called into being by art, is somehow allowed to come into its own when art does. The fact that there’s a question about why fiction matters suggests to me that our present world, this ugliness with all of its promise, feels its unnaturalness in fiction’s presence, is ashamed of itself. Of course, this can only happen when fiction is fiction, that is, happens of itself, in accord with its own necessity, or nature. (Everyone knows naturalness of this kind is impossible until he or she sees the jar.) Neither it nor we, the self-contained work nor those who gawk, can be comfortably in the other’s presence. One of us must change. And that’s why the writing I care about, that you care about, is always on the defensive, raises interminable questions (and eyebrows), and must be ready to say why it matters. And that’s why it matters.

LY: Do you think independent presses which emphasize innovative writing will survive in the current climate?

RMB: I think the writing I care about will survive, assuming humans do. Will independent presses survive? Look at poetry. It has been financially hopeless for more than a century, but today I think it’s in much better shape than fiction. It knows itself, or much of it does. Its community is incredibly strong, well-organized. I don’t really have any idea how the present market madness overtaking the world, our self-imprisonment, will turn out. But I’m pretty optimistic that, if there’s a human wish for writing, there’ll be writing. Whether the wish for writing is the wish for indy presses, that’s another story. I don’t know. But I’m pretty confident that the future of writing will presuppose what you and I are trying to do now. I don’t really think that anything significant within culture dies. There’s only repression and return.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you know that Ralph M. Berry is not only a literary genius, but a master jazz guitarist as well. Ah, a man oh so many talents.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous arrestotle said...

This book sounds fascinating, and oddly, I find myself thinking it's "Old School" in the good way. Old School avant garde, back when it made you think and it challenged narrative, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. I haven't seen much of that lately, and instead, I see a lot of too-easy shock value hip-slick stuff.

I'll definately check it out.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what this means: "There's only repression and return," but I really like it...if I'm understanding it correctly, I'd say that's true about all of culture, history, and maybe even being. I know it sounds Freudian on the surface (right?) ... but I'm pretty sure I mean it more in the Wittgensteinian way...

Does that make any sense to anyone out there?

Anyway, can't wait to read this. I've been a fan of Frankenstein as cultural critique since I was a kid.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous minx said...

I've never thought about fiction or reading in quite this way. I read through all the interviews and I am starting to understand that maybe we need to rethink reading and writing (we being readers and writers). I'm in an MFA program but I guarantee you this is not the model we are being fed. I wonder why not.

I think I may know.

Thanks for the food for thought and THEN some.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous solidscore said...

I tried this once already but I think I messed up...so here it is again. That thing you said about poetry...how it is not dead, how it knows itself. That seems right on. Perhaps fiction does not know itself precisely because it IS financially viable, it DOES have a commercial market. I mean, how can fiction know itself if it won't even admit its own otherness? The non-mainstream writing, in other words, is very "other" and perhaps even threatening to the very existence of the market.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RMB: "You don’t escape a story by narrating it. Quite the opposite. That’s what I learned from Beckett."

- I don't understand. What IS the opposite of narrating a story? NOT narrating it? Living it? Do you remember what you meant? - JP
parkerjm71@hotmail.com

12:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home