I’m checking out the cover of Five Hundred Sirens, Jay, those striking phone or power lines that curl around the spine. What’s that all about?
We chanced on that photo pretty randomly. It was a leftover from another roll of film unrelated to the deliberate shoot for the cover. It seemed perfect the moment we saw it, though I couldn’t then say why. In part, there’s a fixation in the novel with voyeurism and surveillance, but the old school kind, absent of technology, not the government watching us or listening in on us, but each of us watching or listening in on each other. Philip Palliard, chronic voyeur, likes to watch his neighbors and guess about their lives. He listens in on them too, almost against his will, but spends precious little time considering they might be doing the same to him.
Can you really eavesdrop ‘against your will’?
I think so. I do it all the time. Especially if the voices are available and clear as a bell in the neighboring room of a thinly walled apartment. Or the subway. The office next door. You don’t listen in if you can?
You know I do. I’ve got a problem with it, actually. I thought we agreed not to discuss this.
Oh it’s not such a horrible problem. You’re not doing anything illegal or sociopathic or all that strange. Everyone does it to some degree, though probably fiction writers most of all. It’s in the job description. Seek out the secret workings of the lives you can’t see in full. Take guesses at the inner lives of others.
From my read of the book, I question if that’s really what you’re up to, Jay. The story is told entirely from the perspective of Philip Palliard, a frustrated playwright and stay-at-home dad who lives in Humboldt Park, Chicago, someone in aspiration, location, and world view a whole lot like you.
Well okay. I guess you got me there. Maybe the book is more concerned with the futility in that sort of seeking. In Philip, we see someone taking guesses at other lives and getting into trouble as he goes. This, in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood where he’s clearly come with the visiting team. A financially strapped gentrifier, sure, but still on the eating end. I took effort to make Philip distinct from me, but his worldview is pretty similar. He’s a little more self-defeating and death-obsessed, burdened by moods, et cetera. This is to say: he’s not me, but he’s my people. And I should note: I’m not a stay-at-home dad.
But you were for one summer, right? Many years ago? And you sort of liked it?
I could see the end coming and enjoyed my time with a relatively easy infant. It was gorgeous in its way. Philip, however, sees no end in sight. There’s a pea green malaise, a lonely aimless gaping hole that can come with a stay-at-home gig. Along with the not making money. It’s not just a macho aversion to financial dependence or being ‘kept.’ It’s also feeling underused and a bit lost. Or it can be. Many come to love it.
Luckily, there are enough other characters and flow of plot to keep the lens off Philip’s inner trouble. Among those characters, none dominates a scene like Adam Swivchek, his cantankerous neighbor. You could argue he’s at the center of the book. He’s also the mouthpiece for the critique of lifestyle that lures in Philip. ‘Do your part for the war on terror!’ Adam urges. What’s he mean? Why ‘war on terror’?
Adam advocates a ‘war on terror’ a few leagues beneath the one we’re accustomed to. According to him, we should seek out our local terror—the gangbangers and poverty and blown out lights, the terror that’s been swept to the fringe of middle class awareness, even when it rages only blocks away. Also, Adam’s all too aware of another terror, closer to home: the somewhat humdrum life he leads, the ‘domestic sentence’ he’s serving and the risky ways he seeks escape.
He sounds like a real blowhard.
He can be. He’s at times reprehensible and a bit of a prick but he’s the most compelling person in Philip’s life. Plus also the dead kid. Adam and the dead kid.
The ‘dead kid’? Don’t tell me this has zombies in it?
No zombies. Not literal ones, anyway.
So … figurative zombies?
Only a few. But they’re more like figurative ‘ghosts.’ Mostly the dead kid. He died in Iraq.
What else do we have to look forward to?
Stolen cars, handcuffs, half-baked infidelities, full-on congress, spinal cord injuries, toxic white guilt, secretly spinning tape recorders and complications with Chicago detectives.
Sounds like a real page turner.
One can only hope. Or pray. In my view, it reads like butter. But my butter might be your lard.
I’m looking at your book, and it says here, opposite the table of contents, that three of the chapters have been published as short stories. Yet nowhere is it labeled a ‘novel of stories’ or ‘linked stories’ or anything like that. What exactly is this? Is it a novel?
It is, in fact, a novel. No one need read it as anything but. My first intention was to write a novel of stories, but slightly different than the usual fare. That is, the chapters would both stand alone and add up to the traditional arc of a novel. I envisioned it mapped as a kind of narrative cardiogram composed of cardiograms in miniature, jagged little peaks and declines within a macro-version of the same. I dropped that image pretty soon, though. It started to sound like, with every chapter, the book died.
But why drop the novel in stories thing? It’s a hot commodity these days. Everybody’s doing it.
It just proved too difficult to maintain. Not really worth the effort. Nearly all the chapters still stand on their own, but I needed to include some that didn’t. A kind of tuckpointing, if you will. Or maybe like building a few additional rooms in a house that would remain forever incomplete. Whatever. It wasn’t worth the bother—for me or the reader. ‘Novel’ will do.
So it is ‘traditional’ then?
No. I wouldn’t say that either. Part of the appeal, I hope, lies in the oddly nuanced shifts between chapters plus the crossover of story lines and characters. There are also plenty of meta-moments involving plays written by Philip. Dreams and memories and lengthy monologues. Stolen cars, handcuffs, detectives, affairs.
You mentioned those before. You’re making me tired. Could you sum up Five Hundred Sirens in a single pithy phrase?
I’d rather not. A friend of mine calls it a ‘coming of (middle) age story,’ which isn’t the hottest blurb for a back cover but nails a truth about the book for sure. Coming of age can come more than once. Teenagers haven’t yet cornered the market on unsettling life transformation.
But your previous book, a chapbook novella, WAS an actual coming-of-age story, correct? In the conventional sense? You seem drawn to the youthful perspective as well.
I am. And I’m so glad you mentioned The Pulpit vs. the Hole, available online from USC’s Gold Line Press.
Wait. Dude. One last question I meant to ask before. Is Five Hundred Sirens a bro-mance?
Someone asked me that at the AWP conference in Seattle and my honest answer was, “well maybe a little.” But only if The Great Gatsby and Huck Finn are bro-mances—and they just might be.
I’d say that’s a stretch. And are you comparing yourself to Fitzgerald and Mark Twain? Did that just happen?
No, it didn’t! That’s absurd. How … ? You’re hostile, you know that? [pointing fiercely at the mirror] This interview is over. [rips tiny microphone from chest and storms off the set]
JAY SHEARER’S novel Five Hundred Sirens is available May 1st on the Cairn Press website as well as Amazon and in select bookstores. His chapbook novella The Pulpit vs. the Hole won USC’s Gold Line Press chapbook competition (selected by Percival Everett) and was published in 2012. His writing has appeared in multiple publications, including Other Voices, Beloit Fiction Journal, Southeast Review, Mayday Magazine, Peregrine and Florida English. His short story collection How Exquisite the Dead Girl was a finalist for the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press). Before he took the plunge as a writer and academic, he wrote and performed songs with Meet the Head (Lost in America Music) and continues to produce music with his song project Canoe Speed. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. You can check him out at Cairnpress.com/Shearer.