May 15, 2010
Long familiar to anyone following the brilliant literary annual NOON, Clancy Martin’s saga of brothers enmeshed in the mischievous world of jewelry sales became a sensation upon publication in novel form by Farrar, Straus and Giroux a year ago as How To Sell, being selected as a best novel of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Kansas City Star, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, and others. It was apparent to anyone reading that this was no ordinary tale of greed, moral decay, and possible redemption—the author had not only lived through a great deal of what he wound up writing about, he’d become a philosophy professor whose emphasis was on self-deception. On the occasion of the paperback release of How To Sell, I spoke to Clancy about the themes of his novel, what we can expect from philosophy, and, of course, love.
For an excerpt of How To Sell, click here.
Shya Scanlon: Let’s start by talking about lying. The title of your novel, How To Sell, most obviously refers to the process of selling that occurs within the jewelry business as described throughout the book. But it could as easily refer to something broader: the sense of “sell” as used to mean “convince” or even “dupe.” The book, as you’ve said elsewhere, is full of lying–sometimes you draw attention to it in the narrative, and sometimes you let it stand. In the first chapter alone, just about every character that’s introduced–even the father figure, who only gets a few lines, but uses them to say something pretty outrageous–is involved in various levels of deception, both outward and inward. It’s as omnipresent as air.
I wonder if you could talk a bit about the generation of this book. Did you have a sense of the story, and the characters–based in some part, is my understanding, on your own experience–before and/or independent of this overwhelming theme (deception)? Or was the theme always organically bound to the story in your mind?
Clancy Martin: I wanted to write a novel exploring the problem of deception: I thought several people had taken a good stab at it (especially Gide in The Counterfeiters), but nobody had really explored it all the way through. So that was the driving force. My dissertation was about deception, and so much of my philosophical work is on deception, and many of my favorite philosophers explored the concept in great detail (especially Kierkegaard and Nietzsche). But one of the reasons I’m so interested in deception as a philosopher is that I spent a lot of time as a salesperson—where you are in the business of persuading people; a modern day sophist, with all that means—so I had rich material to draw upon. Also, I am interested in deception and the “truths” of religion, etc., and my father was involved with the New Age movement and ran several churches and that was all part of the fun. The jewelry business is rife with deception—like all business. So I wanted to write a novel about lying but I was lucky to have lots of material to draw upon—and yes, at a point, the characters took over, and lied or told the truth as they pleased. I think of Bobby as a guy who really is in search of the truth, and Lisa as a heroine who deeply believes in the importance of truth—and really kind of an honest, authentic person—and is ultimately sacrificed to her inability to reconcile her life with her convictions. Bobby could have been sacrificed, as well, but he gets to be the phoenix rising from the ashes, getting on a plane to go back to Calgary with his father’s cremated remains in his lap.
With all the philosophical roots of your interest in deception, the novel seems to weigh heavily on a psycho-social explanation for Bobby’s behavior–his father’s absence, strange convictions, and overall impression is one of a special breed of confidence man half-convinced of his own con. Though you don’t afford the man a whole lot of page space, you do seem to blame him (insofar as something hereditary can be anyone’s fault). Everyone lies, but why do some people begin to get off on it more than others? And can someone fall into such a cycle without ever actively selecting it?
I think Bobby’s father believes all of his own lies: I think his mental stability is such that, like many very unstable people, he has trouble distinguishing his own fantasy life from a more ordinary reality. This is why Bobby only comes to doubt him as he ages: early on, Bobby’s child-like perspective is much like his father’s psychological reality. I don’t think Jim Sr. is to blame so much as he is a cause, a part of the landscape of the difficulty of truth in Bobby’s environment, the elusiveness of truth, maybe it’s lack of importance (although in the end it takes the day). I think Jim Sr. has fallen into the habit of lying without realizing that he is doing it: he is part raconteur, and this is the danger (and the fun) of the raconteur, the stories start to create themselves (as characters will start to take over a story, when it’s really going well).
Aristotle distinguished four kinds of liars: the boaster, the flatterer, the ironist, and the man who lies for the fun of it. He thinks that man who lies for the fun of it is the least harmful sort, both to himself and others. And isn’t this what the artist is, a person who lies for the fun of lying? Not that lies can’t get at the truth in their indirect way, as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard argued; some truths may be accessible only through misrepresentation (like the truth of faith, for Kierkegaard, or the truth of life, for the German Romantics); Flaubert, of course, called art “the least untruthful lie.”
Why do some people get off on lying more than others? I think people move through different stages of or relationships with lying at different times in their lives. Some people seem to place an awful lot of importance on the truth, and then turn out to be the most awful hypocrites. Scott Reynolds (at U Washington) has shown that the more certain you are you know the truth of a moral code, for example, the more likely you are to violate it—and insist that you had not done so. I think that people who are playful with language perhaps take it a bit less seriously, and have a bit more fun with it. But lying that harms others is bad news, and you never know how far-reaching (and unintentional) the damage of a lie may be. Bobby learns, I think, that the truth matters. Bobby’s father dies in a whirlwind of fictions.
This idea of “fun” is interesting. I think I understand what Aristotle must have meant by saying it was the least harmful kind of liar: one can have fun by essentially being myopic, or otherwise being unaware–intentionally or not–of the true consequences of one’s actions. And so to this kind of liar, you must simply demonstrate these true consequences, and he’ll change his behavior, because his intention was never to cause problems.
Bobby’s realization about the true impact of his behavior comes long after his life has ceased being much fun. Is there heroism such an awakening, then? At the point when he gets on that plane–becoming the phoenix, as you say–it seems to me he’s not really leaving anything important to him behind. So is it really the truth that’s guiding him, or is he just escaping pain? Or is this the same thing?
I think Bobby is leaving everything he knows: his brother, his estranged wife and child, his business (for better or worse). Hopefully he will be able to have these things–or other things like them–in his life again, but he’s realized that he cannot live the life he had been living. Part of that is surely escaping pain; part of it might be confronting some painful things about himself. He is running away, but he is also refusing to accept who and what he has been. I think Lisa moved him out of the fun stage of life: hopefully he is starting to understand ethical categories.
So if on the spectrum of lies, art is the most truthful, where does philosophy lie? Philosophers sometimes dabble in fiction, of course–both of the philosophers you mention did so to some extent: Nietzsche concocted Zarathustra, and though I’m reaching a bit here, Kierkegaard re-imagined the story of Abraham a few times in Fear and Trembling if I remember correctly (and there was also the issue of his pseudonyms, which is of course different but interesting to note). Are philosophers just more ambitious storytellers? Clearly they believe the stories they tell–at least that’s the idea–but they seem to share an impulse: to reveal or help extrapolate universal truths through specific examples. Do you ever find philosophers guilty of self-deception in the erection of their philosophical systems or beliefs? If so, how does that affect your reading of the thinking itself? It seems like an author could hit on something true even if he did so via some kind of self-deception or delusion. Likewise, Bobby tells himself little lies about his relationship in order to convince himself that leaving the country is part of a plan to get her back. But really his action speaks for itself: she’s a bitch, and he wants to get away from her.
Nietzsche said that every philosophy is the more or less unconscious autobiography of its author. He added that “I distrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system reveals a lack of integrity.” I think philosophers are less honest about their work, very generally speaking, than other sorts of writers. But a friend of mine who is an important philosopher of science claims that scientists, too, are all too often guilty of forcing the facts into whatever configuration will best suit their theories, publications, careers, egos. The truth is much more elusive than it seems. That’s why Kierkegaard wrote with pseudonyms, and often in the context of stories or satires: that’s why Plato wrote dialogues; that’s why the mighty, honest David Hume was a skeptic. It’s also why Bobby Clark gets so outraged at the suggestion that anyone could know that there was no afterlife or that all his father’s stories were fantasies. We can strongly suppose; we can have good reason to believe or to doubt; but to know? Justified true belief? Especially about something like the afterlife or God? Please. No one’s brain is equal to the claim. The universe is too vast. And philosophers and scientists alike should strive for epistemic humility.
Hence the impossible imperative faced by the knight of faith.
Yes, hence. Poor Soren Kierkegaard. I think we should read philosophers in the way Nietzsche suggested: what is being hidden here? What avoided? What value system does this support or attack? What cultural form? Etc.
That sounds like exactly the way any philosopher would NOT want to be read. Doesn’t that, in a way, preclude taking the philosopher’s ideas seriously?
No, I think it means recognizing that philosophy of any kind is written by a particular human being with a particular perspective. No philosopher has direct access to the Godhead. It’s why Plato said the true philosophy would contain nothing but numbers.
Is Bobby a knight of faith?
I think he is a kind of fallen knight of faith, like Walker Percy’s moviegoer (but Bobby occupies a very different world, of course). By the end of the book he is threatened by resignation. I think that’s his next problem. But that is the adult problem, isn’t it.
A couple of years ago, I saw a video of you arguing with some theologian about the existence of God. In a church. Can you tell me how this strange opportunity came up, and what your feelings about it were at the time? How did you think it went?
I was invited to debate this famous apologist, and out I went. 5000 angry Missourian Christians. Moreland is a much better debater than I am–he’s debated some of the most famous philosophers alive today–I had, well, to speak immodestly, reason and integrity on my side. Let others be the judge. I am no enemy of false belief. It takes eleven self-deceptions for me to get out of bed every morning.
Is one of them that you’ll be able to write a novel about something farther afield from your own experience? Hmm. Let me rephrase that: are you now or are you planning on working on another piece of fiction? If so, does it depart from the jewelry business? Does it again tackle a big philosophical theme?
Yes and yes. All novel writing takes a big dose of self-deception, I expect, at least for beginners like me. I am writing a novel now about a brother and a sister. He is a good guy, pretty stable and normal; she’s awfully smart and a complete train wreck. It tackles three issues: self-deception, alcoholism, and suicide. And of course love.
Of course. Well, as long as your self-deception results in such compelling fiction, I’m all for it. Thank you very much for speaking with The Nervous Breakdown, Clancy.
Thank you so much, Shya. An honor and a pleasure. I love The Nervous Breakdown. Even though the name frightens me.