September 19, 2017
So The Disintegrations is a book about a man obsessed with death, who knows nothing about it and is trying to understand it. You call it a novel, yet most of the names that appear in the novel are those of actual people, including the protagonist, who bears your name. Similarly, the book is an investigation into Culver City’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Why shouldn’t the reader just think of this as memoir or creative nonfiction?
Well, this book, as with all my writing, springs from non-fiction, that’s always the departure point. But as a writer I can’t stay within those parameters; as soon as I start writing, it shifts into fiction. To call it CNF or memoir would be an act of bad faith.
At the same time, I’m not interested in turning the people I write about into concealed fictional characters. Or that’s not how my imagination works. I write from a tradition of auto-fiction. Clearly there are bunch of writers working today in this genre—Knausgard, Teju Cole, Lerner. But I’m more influenced by the French writers, Marguerite Duras, Annie Lernaux, Michel Houellebecq, Herve Guibert, back to Maurice Blanchot and his notion of the récit, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but wedged precariously in-between. Sebald and Peter Handke are also major influences, some of Coetzee’s books as well. And American transgressive writers also provide models for me, where the author situates themselves within a fictional landscape, the risk that involves, like Dennis Cooper’s amazing novel Guide, or Chris Kraus in I Love Dick.
Similarly, when I write prose, poetry leaks in. Anne Carson’s free approach to genre has been deeply inspiring to me. One of the characters in The Disintegrations says he wants “to disintegrate the line between life and death, until that line no longer exists.” That’s how I feel about genre—I want to disintegrate the line between fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, until that line disappears. Or I need to. That line isn’t fixed anyway—we imagine it is, we assume some certainty in language’s ability to write the truth of the self, but I can’t subscribe to such certainty.
In The Disintegrations, there are 13 stories of the dead—suicides, overdoses, violent murders, a range of natural deaths. What was it like to write about the dead, ethically speaking?
It was extremely difficult. I think that’s one of the main reasons this book took so long to write, figuring out the right voice and tone, and then tackling this dilemma of representation. That’s why, to refer back to your first question, I could never call this non-fiction. For me as a writer, as soon as we represent the dead, we move into the terrain of fiction. The dead can’t be captured or accessed through language. To think we can do that, that we can retrieve their existence, is unethical, at least from my perspective. Throughout the book, the narrator is fully aware that he’s in a double-bind; he’s compelled to speak of the dead, but he knows that to do so is a violation, at least according to his own personal, idiosyncratic ethics. Much of the book is a working out of this problem—I think it comes to a head in the story about Eun Kang, where the dead finally get a chance to speak for themselves.
The voice of your narrator shifts between a conversational and a more formal, even professional register. One thing I was intrigued by was the quietness of the voice, its volume; more than once he refers to his need to speak quietly when referring to the dead. What led to that decision?
I suppose part of it was drawing on the fact that at least in certain cultural contexts, when we speak of the dead, we’re meant to shift to a low, discreet tone. Of course in other contexts speaking of the dead requires the opposite, like wailing and ululations. At one point my narrator says that he’s talking this way because he doesn’t want the dead to hear him—he’s worried about their response. So perhaps it arose from a superstitious impulse. It’s also a way for my narrator to force the person he’s talking to to get closer, just as it was a rhetorical strategy forcing my reader to draw in closer.
But generally, I’m fascinated by the question of volume in writing. An exercise I do with my students is to write about a dramatic situation, but to lower the volume. Hugo Largo, one of my favorite bands from the 80’s, talked about how their music was a counter-response to the art-noise in the downtown NY scene—everyone was turning the volume up, so they turned it way way down. And even though I work in isolation, I think I was somewhat aware of the noise level of public discourse in this country, people’s tendency to scream and rant, and I took a counter-discursive strategy.
Speaking of your teaching, you teach creative writing at Antioch University in L.A. At one of the MFA residencies you recently gave a talk about your aesthetic process with this book. You referred to Joy Williams’ 9 attributes of writing short stories.
Yeah, I love Joy Williams. I don’t read that many contemporary American writers, but she’s legendary. Of course, she’s primarily talking about the short story, but I take from everything.
I was really drawn to her attribute number 9: “A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.”
An earlier draft I’d written was much more jovial, friendlier, and in a pretty radical rewrite, I sought to drain that quality from the novel. I sought out a certain coldness in the narrator’s relating of the dead, and didn’t want easy consolation or any easy uplift. Though I sought to combine it with a conversational, almost light tone. I’ve definitely been influenced by the colloquial, “confessional” tone of the New York school of poets, like Eileen Myles or Frank O’Hara. Some readers have told me that a quality of warmth is still there, which is good, I think; it seeps out whether I like it or not.
I was also drawn to Williams’ attribute number 6, which she claims is the distinction between the novel and the short story:
“A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.”
I actually would differ with her on this, because I think my narrator wants to befriend the reader and is also doing something else simultaneously that has nothing to do with friendship. One of my friends, the writer Deborah Lott, said something about my narrator that totally enlightened me—he starts off friendly enough, but then he gets increasingly odd and unreliable, yet you can’t stop listening to him.
I’ve heard you love cinema and in particular French cinema. Are there any particular films or actors you had in mind as you wrote The Disintegrations?
Yes. The films of Robert Bresson, in particular Diary of A Country Priest, Four Nights of A Dreamer, and The Devil, Probably, all were a major influence. His Notes on the Cinematographer was also a huge source of inspiration. The protagonists of all three of those films exist in a state of intense isolation, like my protagonist. They don’t understand other humans or themselves. Before I settled back into that radical revision I mentioned above, I watched The Devil again, in increments, really studied it; I can’t articulate very well what it taught me, it was more learning by osmosis, but it gave me that permission to be cold.
Similarly, I’m kind of obsessed with Isabelle Huppert, her coldness. She said something amazing in an interview that she’s not interested in pleasing the audience, “The best way to please is not to please.” That also gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, to not have to please the reader, to withhold key information.
And then there was Jean-Louis’s Trintignant’a famous dictum: “The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least.” I thought about that a lot regarding my narrator, striving to make him someone who feels everything but hardly reveals any of that.
You’ve lived in L.A. since the mid 1990’s, but you were born and raised in Australia. Do you consider yourself an Australian or an American writer? And do you feel anything about your book relates to Australian literary traditions?
Wow, that’s an interesting question. I actually just got my US citizenship this year, a very strange and complicated time in American political history to become a citizen. This book came out a month later, and I’ve been calling this book, privately, my American book. Some of the influences were pretty canonical American works—The Catcher in The Rye, Moby Dick, Didion. And in terms of the narrative, although it contains some stories of Australia and the UK, it’s very much a book of California and of L.A.
As for Australian literary influences, I don’t see my work relating to that space directly. Often I think of canonical Australian literature being obsessed with the landscape of the country, which is something my imagination has never been drawn to capturing. And I don’t think of my voice as especially Australian. But Paul Curran once said something very interesting to me, regarding my first book, that Australian writers are drawn towards very grand encyclopedic projects and big novels, like the great Australian writer Patrick White, and there’s a theory that it’s an attempt to cover all the empty space in Australia. Although my books aren’t super long, they’re ambitious projects and I can see conceptually that I might be working in that tradition.
On the whole though, I don’t really like to relate my writing to nationality. The landscape that interests me is the one in my head.
What did you learn about death from writing this book?
You know, once I finish a book, I feel the need to detach myself from it. So I can’t tell you whether I learned about death or not. The book is now external to me. I no longer feel the need to think about the subject. Perhaps, like my narrator, I think it’s impossible to know anything about death until you experience it for yourself.
But in terms of writing about death, if I learned anything from this book, it was how to compress. I threw away a huge amount of material, reduced the book by two thirds. I learned how to be ruthless.
And also to be somewhat uncompromising, to not seek out the approval of any reader, but to write the book I have to write.
This is your second book. Can you talk a bit about that process, the difference between writing a first and a second?
Well, the first book is the one you’ve had inside of you all your life, and everything is new. You have to figure everything out. This doesn’t make writing the second any easier, at least for me, because then it was a question of how to write something without repeating yourself.
It’s also the problem of form. My work always begins with fragments, and the question is finding the right form to contain that fragmentation. My first book, The End of The World Book, used the form of the encyclopedia, A to Z, employing Rimbaud’s method of systematic derangement, which is a method I also applied to this book. But with The Disintegrations I didn’t have a ready-made form like the encyclopedia to turn to. I had to listen really intensely to the fragments and stories and essays I was accumulating, to create a form for my book of the dead. That form came, finally, in a pretty organic sense. I think the space of the cemetery was helpful in finding it, thinking of this book as a guide through a cemetery, as well as a guide through the narrator’s philosophies and stories of the dead.
Both books were difficult, but in distinct ways. I guess each book presents its own difficulty.
So are you working on a third book, and can you tell us anything about it?
I am, though The Disintegrations took up so much mental energy and physical labor, I’ve been trying to let that book seep out of my brain before I dive back in. I want to exorcise this book from my brain. I’ve already written a lot of the new one in rough draft, and I’ve been working on it by hand. It continues the cycle I’m constructing. The End of the World Book was my book of everything. The Disintegrations continues my obsessions, but focused in on one death. The next book also has a distinct, singular, obsessive focus, which I’m not ready to articulate.
I’m still figuring out what the voice and tone will be, but I suspect it’s going to be pretty different from The Disintegrations. I’m really influenced by music, and I like how Dan Bejar of Destroyer creates a certain sound and style for each album, and when he’s done, wants to move on and try something new. I’m thinking that whereas my first book was Dionysian and exuberant, and the second Apollonian, more somber, the next one is going to be both Dionysian and Apollonian, in a dialectical state of disintegration.
ALISTAIR MCCARTNEY is the author of The Disintegrations: A Novel (University of Wisconsin Press). His first novel, The End of the World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) took Rimbaud’s method of systematic derangement and applied it to the form of the encyclopedia. TEOTWB was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award 2009 and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award 2009, and was in Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. Born in Perth, Western Australia, he lives in Venice, California. He teaches fiction in Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, and also oversees AULA’s undergraduate creative writing concentration. He has presented at institutions throughout the country, including CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, AWP, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison.