10/30/12

Anderson O’Donnell - discovery of the ‘soul gene’: a futuristic Raymond Chandler novel colliding with Philip K. Dick-like philosophical musings





Anderson O’Donnell, Kingdom, Tiber City Press, 2012.

In a secret laboratory hidden under the desert, a covert bioengineering project--codename "Exodus"--has discovered the gene responsible for the human soul.
Somewhere in the neon sprawl outside the nation's collapsing economic core, a group of renegade monks are on the verge of uncovering a secret that has eluded mankind for centuries.
In a glittering tower high above the urban decay, an ascendant U.S. Senator is found dead--an apparent, yet inexplicable, suicide.
And in the streets below, a young man races through an ultra modern metropolis on the verge of a violent revolution....closing in on the terrible truth behind Exodus--and one man's dark vision for the future of mankind.
Welcome to Tiber City.

"Against a backdrop of dystopian urban sprawl and human suffering, a morally questionable scientific corporation hunts for the gene responsible for the soul in O’Donnell’s debut novel, the first in a planned sci-fi trilogy.

As the novel begins, the chronology bounces forward and backward from the late 1980s—when scientist Jonathan Campbell flees from the “Exodus” project he has been working on after he discovers the horrifying human experiments authorized by his employer, Mr. Morrison—to a grim 2015. In the not-too-distant future, Morrison has nearly reached his goals, which involve genetic experimentation and test-tube humans, and Campbell has spent the past 30 years hiding among a secret order devoted to cultivating the soul, part of which involves rescuing Morrison’s human collateral damage. Meanwhile, the novel also tracks a troubled, drug-addicted young man, Dylan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s father was once a promising presidential candidate before committing suicide when Dylan was a boy—a thread that dovetails with the main arc in surprising, harrowing ways. O’Donnell captures the darkness in humanity and the world, particularly in such elegantly composed passages as this one: “Morrison imagined women and children packed into…overcrowded refugee camps…mistaking the deployment of a Predator missile for a shooting star, making a wish as a $40 million toy dealt death from impossible heights.” The overall effectis a taut, brilliantly conceived thriller with impeccable pacing bursting with ideas.
For fans of noir-laden science fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick that is in equal measures suspenseful, gripping, darkly funny and philosophically challenging." - Kirkus Reviews





A drinking session with Anderson O’Donnell, author of the bio-punk saga Kingdom.
By Ashley Crawford

Anderson O'Donnell.


“GENEVA — Scientists working at the world’s biggest atom smasher plan to announce Wednesday that they have gathered enough evidence to show that the long-sought “God particle” answering fundamental questions about the universe almost certainly does exist.” – Associated Press, July 2, 2012, 8.50am.
Why physicists dubbed this mysterious atom a “God” particle remain fuzzy at best, but evoking ‘His’ name is always a good fall back position when it comes to mysterious phenomena. It’s not unlike using that other mysterious description, the ‘soul’ – but that one, we now know, was solved in May, 2012 and exposed in a covert document titled Kingdom which outlined the bioengineering project named Exodus which in turn led to the discovery the gene responsible for the human soul.
“The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” So said the philosopher and Dominican Monk Thomas Aquinas some centuries ago. But reading Kingdom, the notion of there being a God – someone or something taking control – including the author himself – seems spurious at best.
Kingdom is the self-published debut novel from the rogue Connecticut-based Jameson-tippler Anderson O’Donnell. As a first book, Kingdom has its jittery moments as O’Donnell tries to get his stride and take on the monstrously huge ideas that sit at the novel’s core, but once he does the combined pot pouri of adrenalin, Lysergic acid diethylamide and Irish whiskey washes us down a rabbit hole of murderous monks, deranged scientists and twisted neon-lit streets. As Jack O'Connell, Author of Box Nine and The Resurrectionist, says of Kingdom: “Toss William Gibson, Andrew Vachss and David Fincher into the Petri dish, irradiate them, then infuse the result with Transylvanian meth, and you'll have some sense of what O'Donnell has concocted.”
Indeed it was Jack O’Connell’s name that alerted 21•C to Kingdom and his searingly funny introduction to the book that sealed the deal. O’Connell’s dark city-scape of Quinsigamond is a clear influence on O’Donnell’s Tiber as is William Gibson’s Sprawl, John Shirley’s San Francisco, Ridley Scott’s and Philip K. Dick’s mutated visions of Los Angeles and Samuel R. Delaney’s Bellona in Dhalgren. The city itself heaves and groans under the weight of post-industrial mayhem and spiritual malaise.
Combining hard-hitting noir, genomic science, theological musings and a city as gritty, rusted and blasted as Delany’s or Jack O’Connell’s, O’Donnell has come up with a bio-punk saga from hell. Indeed, it would seem that the fact that the gene for the human soul has been discovered transpires to not necessarily be a good thing. The discovery is made during the process of creating human replicants via use of human genome mapping, but one gene seems to go missing, leading to physical, philosophical and psychological horrors that would make Cronenberg jealous.
The resulting saga reads like a futuristic Raymond Chandler novel colliding with Philip K. Dick-like philosophical musings. All the noir clichés are here but delivered with an electro-magnetic jolt. The book is set in a near-future metropolis – Tiber City – a city that is as ill as many of its characters. Like William Gibson in his Sprawl series, O’Donnell is at pains to drag his readers kicking and screaming through its streets and into the cigarette-saturated environs of the nearest bar for innumerable glasses of Jameson – neat, thank you. As a first novel, it’s a rough-hewn book that takes time to build up steam and congeal its multifarious characters and twisting story-lines but once it does the adrenalin blast of events and ideas are breathtaking. Everything is up for grabs here – most especially your soul.
The book follows two key characters, a geneticist named Campbell who was usurped his protégée, the mad scientist Morrison, and a youthful and initially dislikeable family fortune heir named Dylan who starts out doing little but ingesting enough cocaine to inspire nasal blood loss in extremis but evolves into a masterful piece of maturing characterisation.
The central premise of the book – the discovery of the ‘soul gene’ – could well inspire book-burning events around the United States by born-again Christians, a notion that doesn’t seem to overly perturb O’Donnell as he sips from a smoky glass. “How does the old saying go – ‘Any publicity is good publicity?’ he mutters. “But in all seriousness, I’m prepared for people to react strongly to some of the ideas in my book. Actually, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t – there is no point in writing if you don’t have something compelling to say. Especially these days, when everyone and their dog has a blog or tumblr or whatever. Controversy means that at least someone is taking what you’re saying seriously; that your ideas strike someone as dangerous and worthy of censor.”
The very notion of the ‘soul’ has a history as long as mankind itself. Its various manifestation occur through every tribe across Hell’s Creation, from ancient Australian Aboriginal cultures through to various formulations in Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and every other religious variation. Not surprisingly, with a solid Irish name like O’Donnell, the Kingdom author was dragged through that most ‘soul centric’ of religious cults: Roman Catholic, which is, he says, “probably obvious from the book.”
“I’d call myself “lapsed” but these days that seems to be redundant. However, Catholicism is still a very interesting religion. The institution of the Church is fucked, to be sure. But the religion itself is a very old and mystical thing – I mean, transubstantiation? Exorcisms? Not many religions, especially Western ones, can boast that kind of pure ‘magic.’ There is so much ritual and ceremony in the Catholic mass that even as I find myself repulsed by the institution itself, as well as many of the Church’s moral teachings, I can’t completely walk away… there is too much going on there.”
O’Donnell’s premise proclaims “the soul” as a scientific fact, an access point to certain understandings and perhaps a portal to God – and the arguments/discussions in the book certainly tug both ways and raise the question of whether the ‘soul gene’ could also be a symptom of delusion?
“I suppose it could,” O’Donnell admits. “Just one more trick man has invented to soothe the alienation and feeling of separation that comes part and parcel with human consciousness. But, as far as Kingdom goes, the soul gene is real – hence the fact that even when Morrison and company are able to replicate every other human gene, this soul gene remains elusive. If it was simply another one of our delusions, it could have been replicated, and probably even sold for a tidy profit! Swap your old, tired soul gene for a fresh new one – Morrison would have been all over that.”
O’Donnell also strides into the realm of some of the debates and discussions encountered in such books as Umberto Eco’s Foulcault’s Pendulum and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem – books where philosophical musings can run for pages – but O’Donnell, for better or worse, avoids getting too esoteric and avoids the clear temptation to begin quoting Aquinas et al.
“Absolutely,” he says. “In fact, the first few drafts of Kingdom were stuffed with just that sort of esoteric back and forth – lots of heavy discussion on the nature of religious experience, and, of course, Aquinas found his way into the debate. But when I took a step back and reviewed the early drafts, I realized I wanted Kingdom to be more amphetamine and attitude; I didn’t want to sacrifice the feel/flow of the prose just to show off how smart I think I am. And that’s not a shot at Neal or Umberto – those gentlemen are brilliant. But the long dissertation just didn’t work for me. So I made some cuts... good thing I’ve got two sequels in the works, right?”
There is a potent sense of Armageddon and spiritual questioning in a great deal of North American writing of late – McCarthy’s The Road, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, Brian Evenson’s Immobility, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and innumerable other books. O’Donnell believes that there is a key moment that has carved into the culture’s core.
“Without question, North Americans are lost,” he says. “The sense of Armageddon comes from, I believe, 9/11: that event damaged America’s psyche in ways that we can’t even comprehend. And since that day, North America has been a clusterfuck of security checkpoints and terror alerts and unmanned drones and war without end – it’s not hard to see Armageddon on the horizon. I mean, unmanned drones? I can’t help but recall the Skynet concept from the Terminator series. Plus, the 24/7 news cycle fuels this sense of doom and paranoia – content is king, right?
“The spiritual questioning is a bit trickier. Obviously, people have lost faith in traditional religion. But I think there is a sense that, hey – there is something else out there, something we can’t quite grasp or describe, but it’s there… and its supernatural. I think that, not only did people rely on traditional religious institutions for community, etcetera, but churches and synagogues allowed people an opportunity to try and work out this sense of ‘the other’ in their own minds. For example, maybe you didn’t believe everything your faith professed, but it was a helpful way to explore some of life’s mysteries. But since so many people have turned their back on institutional religion, I think a lot of these questions are going unprocessed… a lot of these yearnings unsatisfied. And so you get this spiritual questioning….”
Clearly O’Donnell has taken in a great deal of noir in his time and one classic trope of that genre is “the city.” Tiber is clearly marked by O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and the city-scape of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren.
“Christ, am I that transparent? Actually, I’m flattered to be associated with those writers, and I have no problem wearing my influences on my sleeve. Guys like Delaney and O’Connell and James Ellroy – those guys are my heroes, and they were the ones who taught me how to bring the city to life, how to use it to flesh out the concepts and philosophies you needed to explore without boring your reader to death. The city can also be a place of wonder and mystery – I’ve always been in love with the idea of two layers to every city: the idea of this swirling underworld infused with a certain dark magic or mystery lurking right below the professional, white collar façade. Having a city like Tiber – a ‘character’ city – made exploring that notion a lot easier.”
“Furthermore, if the city is indeed a character, it’s going to have to grow and evolve like any other character, no? I think that gives the writer a lot more freedom and, to be honest, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.”
O’Donnell takes great delight in smashing the boundaries between hints of noir, science fiction and other genres, indeed, inventing his own: Bio-punk, a fleshly variation of cyberpunk, a genre that became ill once the Internet proved to be, as O’Donnell has said elsewhere, a “glorified toy.”
“I think that, now more than ever, genre branding is rather limited. The mutability of genre is the result of changes in how people consume information. The rise of digital media has played a huge role in the demise of traditional genre branding. And for two reasons: First, writers and readers alike have a lot more access to genres that might be outside of their normal literary fare – the ‘Oh hey that looks cool I should click the link’ type of browsing… recommendations from friends, and so-forth. And second, people with ideas that maybe don’t fit into a traditional, clearly defined genre have a lot more opportunities to get their work out there. It’s an exciting time, and I think the genre-blending is a lot more reflective of where we are as a society anyway… people are going to respond to that.”
Unsurprisingly, given his generation and do-it-yourself attitude, O’Donnell grew up with the not-so-dulcet tones of punk rock. “ Obviously, I adore The Clash... and lots of the first wave of punks. I dig the Swans and lots of their other post-punk brethren.... But its funny: lots of those bands didn’t have a huge impact on Kingdom. Rather, that’s the music that sustains me across the board – the attitude and independence and DIY spirit that push me and inspire me to create in general.... to drag my ass out of bed before my day job to write. And as far as keeping the day-to-day creative fires burning, some newer ‘punk’ bands have also had a huge impact on me: The Libertines and Rancid and Lucero to name a few.... There is a new album by The Japandroids that is absolutely incredible.
“As to Kingdom itself, I actually put together a soundtrack and published it on Spotify – posted the link on social media and hopefully won’t get sued :), But I tried to capture what Kingdom feels like (to me, anyway) while still putting together something to which people might actually want to listen. So, on this little soundtrack there are artists like The Kills, Kasabian, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Primal Scream, Mark Lanegan, Iggy and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.
“As for the actual writing itself, I usually toss on trance/euphoria music. I don’t generally talk about trance music with most people (and I don't know if you are familiar with the genre), but I think you'll appreciate what I'm getting at: Trance music helps me slip into that elusive flow state, and seems to give rhythm and drive to the language.... it helps craft the very feel of the words. And I’m fascinated with the idea that there is a universal ‘feeling’, an apprehension of the other? Something similar, anyway, to some of the concepts I mention in Kingdom. There are moments when trance music is able to touch this Other (although some of it is utter crap), and so, it has proven invaluable to my own work.”
One of the great spirits in Kingdom is, of course, Jameson. There’s also a fair bit of smoking going on – it is a world that is a far cry from the sanitized notions of socializing in this day an age, a world where bars still favor muted lighting in order to cover the scars of rough and tumble lives. O’Donnell feels a keen nostalgia for old smoky barrooms where the rules were few.
“Nostalgia would be an understatement,” he states almost bitterly. “Those old smoky barrooms were sanctuaries; these were places that weren’t scripted or sponsored or held hostage by dance parties. There was a simple honesty – an honor among thieves – that came with the dive bar, and I think the societal shift away from the smoky barroom to these squeaky clean ‘Adult Disneyland’ establishments is indicative of so many of the problems of 21st century living.”
Self-publishing in the Internet age has clearly become a very real option for emerging authors and the hive-mind of the on-line world creates new marketing opportunities indeed. Strange mutations are occurring, as seen with Sergio de la Pava’s self-published A Naked Singularity – championed by 21•C, amongst others, it was quickly ‘discovered’ and re-published by the University of Chicago Press. O’Donnell made the deliberate, albeit difficult, decision to go it alone.
“That is correct. It was a choice, albeit one I made with some reservations,” he admits. “I had trouble finding an agent, but I also turned down a publishing contract – the deal wasn’t the right one for Kingdom. I’m still hoping to land a traditional contract, so Otto, if you’re reading this, please give me a call! However, self-publishing has allowed me to learn a great deal about the industry, a publishing world crash course, so to speak. I think a lot of authors shy away from the business aspect of the industry, and wind up getting taken advantage of. Or not getting promoted with the vigor and verve they deserve. Granted, having taken on these responsibilities myself, I’m only sleeping three to four hours a night. But, on a positive note, the lack of REM sleep is producing some fascinating prose.
“As for sequels, Exile, the next installment in the Tiber City Trilogy, is currently scheduled for a summer 2013 launch. I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve, and I can’t wait to introduce readers to some new friends – and maybe resurrect an old favorite.”
What arguably sets O’Donnell apart from many of his contemporaries is a curiosity that delves beneath the usual surface structures of narrative fiction. By coincidence we began talking just before a journey I was undertaking with four Indonesian artists of Hindu background to the ancient tribal lands of the Australian aboriginals. This had followed a not dissimilar journey with three Chinese artists through the Australian bush and then on a road trip from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet – journeys which inevitably raised age-old questions of belief systems and ritual. “Your trip sounds incredible, and it sounds like we're into a lot of the same stuff – the rituals and structures, etcetera,” O’Donnell responded enthusiastically. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that there was/is a universal truth/religion that, over the centuries, has been filtered through different cultural belief systems... and that religions are more or less just different cultural interpretations of the same ultimate truth. I plan on doing the exact kind of travel you’re describing, as soon as I have an opportunity.”
Just what such a journey would inject into the cityscape of Tiber is anyone’s guess, but beneath that rough-hewn demeanor that is Anderson O’Donnell’s noir persona roams a curiosity that one hopes we will be reading for many years to come."

"Kingdom is a bit of an oddity to describe; its blurb proclaims it as being a bio-punk thriller however that still doesn't give us any clue into its specifics. I was attracted to it because of the difference of its genre setting and the bio-punk label. Kingdom opens up with in a couple of different time periods; one is in the year 1986 whereas the other one is in 2015. The first thread is about the scientist Jonathan Campbell who is overcome with remorse and guilt because of his dealings with Morrison Biotech, the second thread opens us with Dylan Fitzgerald who is the son of the famous presidential candidate who blew out his brains.
These two are the book’s dual point of view characters, Campbell and Fitzgerald, two men separated by the chasm of time, personal priorities and social stations. Campbell since his meltdown that lead to him escaping from his job at Morrison Biotech has been keeping busy with an order of monks called the Order of Neshamah. It is an order of holy men dealing with science in a quest to know more of about the human soul and its connection with God. Jonathan Campbell is not sure what to make of them however owes them big for dragging him back from his personal abyss and thereby does odd things for them based on his skills. Dylan on the other hand is going through life like a pebble being rattled from nook to crevice by the river flow. He doesn't know what he is looking for amidst the endless stream of coke, parties and girls. Things soon take a turn differently why he starts looking into why his father committed suicide.
The story isn't set in some dystopian future, its set just three years from now, the scary part being no apocalypse occurred, there was no great shift per say. The future that is shown in the book is just simply a fact. It occurs due to reasons that we humans have decided it so and this is one of the parts of the story that the author drives home. That most events in history occur due to human apathy or due to specific human interests, the decline of civilization in America is played out quite nicely through out the story and the author does paint a bleak picture.
The best part about Kingdom is its characterization especially that of Dylan as at first when we meet him, it’s really hard to relate to him. More often than not I felt contempt for him, however to the author’s credit, his character turnaround was brilliantly managed and that really set the tone for the book. Jonathan on the other hand seemed to have gotten the short straw, even though he gets a similar amount of page time, we never quite get into his head or learn what makes him tick exactly. Another plus point is the plot, which is a hodge-podge of SF, thriller and ethical dilemmas. The story takes some weird turns and with all the metaphysical stuff juxtaposed within the context of genetic science, it ventures into territory that is hitherto new. However it is still a thriller book which camouflages itself nicely with the bio-punk label.
The biggest discrepancy however about the book’s plot is in its origins, its never quite thoroughly explained as to why and how the exodus project got off the ground. Yes there are reasons given about creating better, perfect leaders and humans but what was the original spark for it? Who gave it its first push? Such questions and similar ilk are never quite clearly explained. The book however does end on a strong note and lays the foundation for book II in the Tiber City trilogy. I’m hoping that the background and role of the Order of Neshamah is further explored in the sequel as for me their role and intentions were the most interesting part of the story bedsides the plot tracts of both the POV characters. Also the epilogue plays out to a very strong mythological note and in particular gives a crucial pointer towards book II.
CONCLUSION: Kingdom is a different sort of book and Anderson O’Donnell has to be given his due for givin us a story that is different than most SF thrillers, given a few flaws, this debut is still something to be taken notice of. I’m curious to learn more about the author's future plans for the books and what the next chapter will hold for the denizens of Tiber city. Kingdom is a solid three star debut effort and worth your time if you want to read something different in the SF-Thriller genre." - Mihir Wanchoo



Nine Questions with… Anderson O’Donnell




Excerpt 

Making the Walls Quake as if they Were Dilating with the Secret Knowledge of Great Powers - A multidisciplinary reader on sound, space and architecture





Making the Walls Quake as if they Were Dilating with the Secret Knowledge of Great Powers, Michal Libera and Lidia Klein, eds., Zachęta National Gallery of Art, 2012.


A multidisciplinary reader on sound, space and architecture, that accompanies the exhibition of the same title in the Polish Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition—la Biennale di Venezia. The texts were selected by the curator of the exhibition Michał Libera, together with Lidia Klein, and the publication was designed by Czosnek Studio. The book features an interview with the artist, Katarzyna Krakowiak, contributions by the editors, as well as a selection of theoretical analyses, essays, poems and music scores by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Steve Goodman, Bohumil Hrabal, Bernhard Leitner, Alvin Lucier, Max Neuhaus, Georges Perec, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Bruce R. Smith, Jonathan Sterne, Georges Teyssot, Emily Thompson, Shelley Trower, David Toop and many others.



A truly excellent compendium, assembled to accompany an exhibition by Katarzyna Krakowiak at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, dealing with the intersection of sound and structures. The selections range remarkably widely, from Samuel Coleridge to Toshiya Tsunoda, but are almost always on point, offering historical, theoretical, political and philosophical observations on sound as it's experienced within architecture.
So there's a fascinating piece, by Karin Bijsterveld on the lineage of noise prohibitions and safeguards in Holland as cities became more crowded and industrialized and one by John Locke (not the philosopher) on eavesdropping. Brilliant works by Shelley Trower on street noises and the cataloguing of same in 19th century Britain and one by Lamberto Tronchin surveying architecture's attempts to enhance sound within. A very fine essay by David Toop, culled from his "Sinister Resonance" volume ("Architectural Sound") on the mysterious ways sound travels through building materials and the psychological effects therein has special...resonance. One could go on.
Interspersed among these are brief extracts of thoughts from sound artists including Toshiya Tsunoda, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Alvin Lucier, Eric La Casa and others, as well as very intriguing conversations with Bernhard Leitner and Mark Bain, causing this reader to become quite interested in experiencing their work.
Unlike most such collections, there's nary a disappointing entry to be found--a seriously solid volume and one well worth seeking out for anyone remotely interested in the field. Highly recommended. olewnick.blogspot.com/
                                     

10/26/12

Paul Maliszewski - the reader is advised to "imagine losing the same thing every day for the rest of your life. Now imagine that there's nothing you can do about it"


Image result for Paul Maliszewski, hypothetical"

Paul Maliszewski and Ryan Weil, The 

Hypothetical Man, Trnsfr Books, 2019.


THE HYPOTHETICAL MAN is a darkly humorous collection of stories featuring an assortment of anonymous characters--A, B, and S--all with problems. They work undercover at an amusement park in Illinois or else they work at a secret government facility that would prefer not to be named. They attend a freewheeling sales meeting with death masks on the wall. Some raise pigs, others race goats. One lives in a suburban home where he watches his wife with another man. They are, together, misled, misunderstood, and mistaken often, but their pursuit of answers never ends.

The collaboration of Maliszewski (Prayer and Parable) and Weil, a pseudonym, yields an intellectually frothy collection of nine stories laid out as a series of loopy dialogues between two colleagues known as “A” and “B.” (There is also an “S,” but he makes a single cameo appearance.) Each tale begins as an anecdote, but soon detours into multiple digressions and philosophical musing of a high order, with a peppering of both high and low culture. In “Caldera,” for example, B begins by confessing to some embarrassing behavior while he was in Ohio that A has probably heard about already. The long and tangled explanation includes numerous detours, and references to SpongeBob SquarePants, Nepalese violence, and peripheral characters with odd names including Vlox, Quilch, and Gyula. “Preplanning” begins as a meta discussion of the redundancy of its title, then digresses into discussion of goats, dead relatives, and the Breeders’ Cup, among other things. By far, the title story is the strongest; it begins as a mystery surrounding an envelope but expands to involve multiple envelopes, chair-making, a dog, and an untrustworthy fellow named Shernfavler. The authors display an almost palpable relish in their extended literary jousts. Readers with a similar sensibility will blissfully wallow in these elaborate yarns. - Publishers Weekly


In Buddhism, I have heard them refer to this as “monkey mind”—that endless chatter of what we are doing, what we are about, the way it goes, often beyond us, in the background or the foreground, the parade of images, and half-thoughts, noises, thoughts of smells, things that never happened to us, but appearing so. Often I have wondered, Well, who’s talking? You know? I mean, it’s in my own head, and yet it’s not me, not all of the time.
—Maliszewski & Weil
This book’s cover is the title surrounded by two names. Unfamiliar with either author listed, the first thing I wanted to know was who authored which part. A quick leaf-through showed no explicit delineation in the text itself. Google revealed Paul Maliszewski as the author of several books but, quizzically, listed a 2012 version of The Hypothetical Man. Was that different than the 2019 copyrighted version I held in my hands? Or was it a simple typo? The secondary author on the 2012 version is listed as Ryan Weil, not the James Wagner I had on my cover. A “Ryan Weil” search yielded little outside of his official bio: “Ryan Weil lives in California.” I wondered if I had encountered a LaFarge/Poissel situation that would send me into a spiral of questioning identity and reality, ending in an existential nervous breakdown. The answer is: Probably, but that was most likely going to happen anyway.
All of this foregrounding serves as an excellent preparation for reading this novel. The Hypothetical Man is a collection of Pynchonesque short stories, somewhat interconnected, that reveal just enough to make the reader feel like they are on the verge of discovering the answer to some great mystery. Or at least whatever it is that connects between each story.
Most of the book takes place as an interview between characters named A and B, or vice versa. One could easily see it as being Maliszewski and Wagner/Weil’s alternating dialogue; as them responding textually to each other. That being said, it could also easily read as a schizophrenic having a conversation with himselves. At any rate, the narrators, whomever t(he)y may be, are obscured and anonymous. This interview/dialog convention reinforces the theme of identity throughout the work—we never really know the narrators (though there is some evidence that B is an actual, not just hypothetical, man). These (largely) disembodied voices reveal elements of themselves and their thinking but often the other voice responds skeptically. It makes the reader question what elements of a person are actually real, what pieces of identity exist merely as performance, and whether or not something becomes real simply because someone has said it. When we invent a truth, what stops it from being so as long as one other person holds it in some consideration?
The first story, “Preplanning,” roots all future conversation in the absurdity of language and the complexity of its logic. It establishes some relationship between the narrators, though without too much definition. From the very beginning, the reader is introduced to a sense of foreboding, of mistrust and obfuscation. But one of the narrators reminds us that “[o]ne shouldn’t interpret departures from convention as lack of any plan.” The narrators seem to talk without sight, as if on the phone or through their computers, which makes the entirety of the narrative itself a created narrative or a memory. This set-up further removes speaker from reality and allows ample room for the reader to question everything that they read.
In “For Yama Is the Lord of Death,” B tells A the story of a man in a boat angered by another boat that keeps getting in his way, until he eventually discovers that the other boat is empty:
His anger was misplaced, was based on nothing. It was a misperception of reality. Do you see the point here? Are you causing your own agony, your own misfortune? Are we looking in the right direction? Should we look in all directions at once? We know from our schoolwork that it was the black sun that gave birth to us, and so we must go in search of this black light always. In the black light, the answers will be. But they may need deciphering.
So the author(s) are telling the reader that interpretation can be flawed and that we often read something into a situation or person that doesn’t really exist. Instead of giving us understanding, the author(s) challenge our conception of meaning-making by having A and B contradict and disagree with each other. There is also a flood of seeming non-sequiturs. It can be alternately intriguing and frustrating.
Because of this flood, these details, the text can be meandering at times. There are long sections of unbroken paragraphs that delve into intricately-crafted thoughts, often presented as soliloquies, about everything from Buddhism to county fairs to beastiality. Given its postmodern philosophy, we never get concrete answers to the questions posed or any justification from the author(s) for these intense observations, other than some vague hope that they might elucidate connections between each other.
In the gutter, the reader will periodically find black swirly lines. At first, they seem unintentional but, as they gather, the reader again realizes that these departures are indeed part of a larger plan, another ensnaring detail. The title story reveals their origin and they continue to symbolically represent that “[e]verything else—this hair, these words—is stuff floating by, wisps.” There is something revelatory in this special type of bewilderment; we are surprised by the oracle of our own confusion.
Intensely philosophical in a hardboiled detective novel way, The Hypothetical Man treats every element of life as a part of a larger investigation. If you enjoy solving intricate puzzles or piecing together disparate clues, then you will enjoy this novel. It resists easy interpretation. In some ways, it seems like a book about two people who are kind of talking to each other, and kind of talking to themselves. These stories mirror the chaotic barrage of details, images and memories in our lives and seem to imply that clues towards Meaning exist everywhere in their/our world, though some only further obscure a larger truth. In the end, the reader has to ask themselves: The Hypothetical Man—what part of him is deceit? What part of him exists even if he doesn’t? Answer: “Maybe the hairs mean nothing, and we are chasing a dream.” - Jesi Buell

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Paul Maliszewski, Prayer and Parable, Fence Books, 2011.


 At a campground, a divorced father confronts a man he believes hurt his daughter. A devoted student traces a winding path through the snow, searching for the next most beautiful thing. Two brothers watch their father tinker lovingly with his homemade robots. In Paul Maliszewski’s debut story collection, men and women struggle to do right. They argue. They think. They think again. They have odd dreams. Often they fail at being good, and yet, on occasion, they realize moments of true kindness. In language that is at once simple and supple, plain-spoken and arresting, these twenty-eight stories describe complete lives in sharp detail, lives we may recognize as not unlike our own.
 
"You want me to tell you what sets Maliszewski apart? The answer is probity. The answer also is decency. Here's another answer: modesty, tact, exactitude, pertinence, reverence, wit. All told, Maliszewski has all the graces, which is why I, in my old age, am renewed and schooled by him. Oh, and another thing: Paul Maliszewski takes no crap."—Gordon Lish



Paul Maliszewski's Prayer and Parable, with its occasionally interwoven stories of contemplative couples and surreal occurrences, is an unassuming, minimalist tour de force. To be sure, the numerous stories—told as alternating "prayers" and “parables”—in this collection are quite unlike the muscular minimalism of Carver or Beattie, and share more in common with the compact
interiors of Lydia Davis. Nevertheless, they render, even in their most bizarre moments, a more concrete feel of contemporary life than Davis’s consciousness-exploring abstractions. Whether exploring relationships in stories in which narrators in relationships reflect on evenings spent socializing with other idiosyncratic couples, or following the outcome of a child’s decision to become a hermit in the wilderness, what Maliszewski often achieves in these tales, penned in a clean, lucid prose, is the precision of, not realistic detail exactly, but the realistic detailing of thought itself when it comes up against the blockages and ambiguities of everyday, and sometimes not-so-everyday, life. Through his characters’ frank rationalizations and justifications of their often dubious behavior and unpleasant thoughts, Maliszewski sets up, via the prayer and parale structure, a kind of secular ethical scaffolding from which to hang his characters’ desires, hopes, and fears. Lest we feel like judging them too harshly, however, Maliszewski is careful to show that these characters are attending to themselves and the world, and actively seeking direction and understanding within it, whatever their successes or failures. These stories, then, as with all true prayers and parables, do not end with sudden realizations or lightning epiphanies but with quiet resignations or moments of faith shored against the uncertainty and ambiguity of the world. What peace is attained may be only temporary, what hope always provisional. Ralph Clare

Whether one page or twenty, Paul Maliszewski’s stories ask for a lot of patience from the reader. His work exemplifies a kind of minutiae-infused, hyperrealism–somewhere between the robotic delivery of Tao Lin and the soulful Ken Sparling–that has become trendy in recent years.
The trick with writing about the quotidian is finding the heart, the meaning of what would otherwise be a bland accounting. Unfortunately, often times Maliszewski doesn’t find the heart of his stories until the last paragraph, if at all. Rarely have I read so many stories in a collection that left me feeling empty until their last line.
In a collection where the stories are either “Prayers” or “Parables,” the difference is ultimately negligible. A quick look at the list of where these stories first appeared shows some of them even changed from prayer to parable between the initial publication and the collection of the pieces. Leaving one to wonder whether the titling is little more than a gimmick.
The collection’s opening story, “Prayer Against the Force of Habit” is an account of a fighting couple. For most of the story all that is expressed is the male character’s distance and unaffected attitude in regard to his surroundings. With simple descriptive statements, Maliszewski portrays this to a T–so much so, in fact, that his characters lose all dimension. When the main character’s girlfriend persists in talking about another couple, he responds by saying, “Baby, I don’t care. I already said I don’t care. I just can’t care about them”
Yet in the last paragraph Maliszewski deftly shows the character’s blandness becoming his asset, and rounds out the seemingly flat protagonist:
“He smelled the sheets and caught the perfume from the laundry detergent. He inhaled deeply, and the force of his breath drew the fabric into his mouth.”
Had Maliszweski made this simple character adjustment he could have kept the story engaging throughout.
In “Prayer for the Second Opinion” Maliszewski inverts this problem. While the story begins with the perfect opportunity for a struggle with the emotion and humanity of the characters, the struggle is not portrayed until the character is removed from the direct conflict.
“Only later did my father mention the doctors,” the story begins. From there the story gets mired in routine and when dialogue is used it feels forced:
“They’re just two appointments my doctor wants me to go to.
For what?
I don’t know, he said. Something to do with my last CAT scan.
What CAT scan? I said.”
The heart, the devastation of the situation doesn’t hit until the son is left to contemplate, to stew in reality.
Similar to the revelation in “Force of Habit,” however, it’s the simple adjustments here that make all the difference. The last paragraph begins, “I looked around my apartment, trying to locate some sign that would just tell me what to say. I could see all the rooms from where I sat, all the rooms and all my stuff inside them.” There’s nothing magic here, just introspection, an acknowledgment of the emotion that clouds this story from the beginning. Even as one of the collection’s shorter stories, only four pages, this lack of insight until the last moment feels almost like a setup. As if it were written devoid of emotion purely for the switch at the end.
In the end, Maliszewski’s collection becomes a parable itself. What works best in Prayer and Parable is perhaps what has been restrained all along, and in not letting loose Maliszewski has lost a bit of the promise of his stories. It is easy enough to feel bewitched by the stories that do end strongly, but the spell washes off as the next story starts and repeats the same struggles.
What the strengths, the reflections of introspection and heart do reveal is an abundance of promise. Just as the reader is asked continually for patience in Maliszewski’s delivery, patience will likely also be what delivers a stronger payoff in terms of a collection, both for Maliszewski as a writer and for his readers. But when Maliszewski finds that balance, the ability to allow some of the soul to leak from his conclusions into the premises of his stories there’s going to be a big reward in store for his readers.- RYAN W. BRADLEY

An enigmatic book with a puzzling title, Prayer and Parable explores the lives and thoughts of ordinary people with the assumption that we might learn something from their interactions and the spiritual implications of those interactions. The 28 stories here deal with the intimate, the personal, the simple, the sometimes unrealistic, and the ordinary people that we know (and sometimes are).
One major challenge regarding the book lies in the title. What is a prayer? What is a parable? Take the easy one first: Define a parable. Those familiar with the New Testament will find that the parables of Jesus come to mind. These short sayings deal with familiar situations and make a spiritual application. For example, the parable of the sower is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The story deals with a common activity: the planting of a crop. The outcomes of the acts of planting and sowing are analogized with the types of people who hear God’s word and respond (or not). The parable is effective because it takes an everyday situation (sowing) encountered by ordinary people and uses it to illustrate the possible of effect a less concrete event or issue.
Mr. Maliszewski offers up 11 parables in this collection. On the surface, they are simple stories, often poignant; however, discerning their spiritual truths is challenging.
For example, the last “parable” in the book is entitled “Parable of the Birds.” The story is simple: a family with a young child encounters a dead bird in the backyard. Wanting to protect the child from some of the harsher realities of life, the father removes the bird and disposes of it. Later, another bird appears, injured but alive. This bird triggers memories of an earlier time before their son was born. Later, husband and wife discuss memories and what they mean. It is a fuzzy story, realistic in feel, but leaving us with the elusive sense of “is there more to this that I must be missing?”
The prayer issue is much more difficult to get a handle on. Dictionary definitions focus on some sort of communication with God or other spiritual being. Mr. Maliszewski obviously has another idea in mind. He quotes Simone Weil: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” So there is no communication with some deity or spiritual being, but deeper interaction among people and more conscientious presence of mind.
Some of the prayer stories are off-putting. In “Prayer for Something Seen But Briefly,” a father and his young daughter are camping. At the campground caretaker’s place, the father becomes convinced that the caretaker has exposed himself to the daughter. His confrontation with the caretaker is ultimately ineffective, and he can only go back to his tent and try to convince his daughter that everything is OK. Where is the prayer? Is the father hoping/praying that the reality that he suspects is all but a dream? Is he praying for his daughter’s continued innocence? If he had paid more attention to her whereabouts would the possibility of molestation not exist in the first place; is he praying for forgiveness?
“Prayer for the Appearance of Something German” has a similarly surrealistic feel to it. A girl is teaching German to her boyfriend although she is not German and has never traveled to Germany. They are speaking German in a store in America when the clerk asks them “Are you from Germany?” They answer “Yes,” and he responds, “You had that whole different look about you.” And we are left hanging; these are indeed personal interactions, but where is the analogy to prayer?
This is a puzzling and perplexing set of stories, but they have a certain charm about them. The challenge is to discern why they are called prayers or parables—and then to ponder what they are attempting to say to you.- Donald F. Calbreath

Late in "Prayer for What They Said and What They Were Not Told," the longest story in Paul Maliszewski's collection "Prayer and Parable", a character referred to only as "man" thinks about himself and his friends: "They had mocked themselves, not because they deserved a good deflating but because they were afraid, more than anything else, of being criticized. They had begged -- begged -- not to be taken seriously. And so now what?"
All of the characters in "Prayer and Parable" -- the grown brothers dealing with their recently deceased father's robots in "Prayer for the Long Life of Certain Inanimate Objects"; the electrician who worked on a nightclub sound system in "Parable of Being Inside"; Claudius, Hamlet's brother-killing uncle, wandering a never-ending hallway in the afterlife in a "Prayer" with a 31-word title -- are in some way or another confronting that same question: Now what?
Of course, plenty of fiction deals with that question; what makes Maliszewski's stories so fascinating are the settings, the moments in which these characters find themselves confronting that question. A man at a theater is asked by his neighbor, "Why don't you put yourself in my shoes?" Maliszewski trades the cliché for fact: In "Parable of Another's Shoes," everyone in the theater moves one seat to the right, putting themselves in the shoes of their neighbor.
Even though there are fantastic elements in some of the stories, the moments under consideration and examination are moments it's easy to ignore, or to let pass unexamined: In "Prayer for the First Balance," it is the moment of scrubbing a floor after a plant has fallen and realizing that "doing something over is the real work of this life." Maliszewski has a phenomenal, almost mathematical eye, able to tease out even the smallest moment's fulcrum.
The book's title, "Prayer and Parable," is, like the rest of Maliszewski's writing, direct and literal: Each story in the book is either prayer or parable. Maliszewski's language is approachable, common as speech, yet he uses it to describe some of life's most inarticulate, wordless moments. In "Prayer for Some of What Was Lost," the story begins as a list: "One hundred fourteen ballpoint pens, ninety-seven pencils, thirty-five felt-tips, and at least six special pens, the expensive kind, gifts from behind locked counters." The man in the story ages, the scope of his losses widens and, just before the story's end, the reader is advised to "imagine losing the same thing every day for the rest of your life. Now imagine that there's nothing you can do about it." It's a brief, magic moment, in which the reader might suddenly see all the stuff of his or her own life differently.
These are welcoming, accessible stories: The lack of character names could be annoying, yet Maliszewski makes it work, makes each story feel open, as if the reader could step into it -- or as if the stories are describing the lives we each lead.- Weston Cutter


The strongest stories in Maliszewski’s Prayer and Parable were terrific: precise and incisive. They reminded me a bit of David Foster Wallace in their exacting detail and preoccupation with the limitations of communication. Maliszewksi’s characters are frequently aware that something they just said came out wrong, or that there’s a “right” thing to say, which they can’t quite find. They reminded me of a handful of moments of unusual clarity in my own life; times when I felt like I could predict, if not necessarily alter, the course a discussion would take, like some chess grandmaster seeing the shape of the board many moves ahead.
In the weakest stories, Maliszewksi’s formalism verges on gimmickry: almost none of his people have given names; most are referred to only as “the man,” “the wife,” “the husband,” “the boy,” and so on. Maliszewki’s titles almost all take the form of “Parable of . . .” or “Prayer for . . .”; the reader is initially perhaps led to believe that the “prayers” are more naturalistic and the “parables” are more symbolic/fabulist or, well, parable-y, but Maliszewksi quickly subverts that convention.
Although I thought Prayer and Parable was uneven, its high points were more than enough to keep Maliszewski on the list of writers I’m eager to see more from.- www.needsmoredemonsornot.com/

Paul Maliszewski on ‘Prayer and Parable’



Paul Maliszewski is a friend of mine. He recently published a short-story collection called Prayer and Parable. Around the end of last summer, I asked him if I could interview him about it. We exchanged questions by e-mail for a week. Several times I said that I was incompetent—forget the whole thing—but Paul reassured me I was doing fine. What I especially like about the book is that Paul doesn’t compromise when it comes to portraying reality. He’s a little like Fellini in 8 ½: he preserves the confusion, meaninglessness, suddenness, and asa nisi masa of the everyday.
I have a question that might be a little bit unanswerable. I know you think a lot about individual sentences, and I wondered what makes a good sentence. Am I right in thinking that you give a lot of time to them?

I do give a lot of attention to sentences, but mainly because they don’t come out right for me on the first go-round, or the second, or the eighth, or the thirtieth. Revising takes me a lot of time. I drive myself crazy. I’ll just stare at lines. There are sentences in this book where I had a page, back and front, of all the different versions I was at one time trying. One sentence I’m thinking of was not particularly long or complex, but it was at the end of a story, and I didn’t want it to seem too ending-y, or pat. So there I was, scratching out, writing something new, circling back.
Reading like that is a hard thing to turn off. I catch myself revising e-mails and I think, What are you doing? When I’m working on a story or essay, if I find something messed up, I make myself start over and read it through again. If I find something else wrong, I start back over, and I keep starting over until I can read it without stopping, until I don’t suffer any doubts. That takes a long time, Worse, sometimes revising one sentence throws things off further down the page. It’s like I’m working on a pipeline and making a repair at one point, and whatever fix I make feels right, but it twists things around so that they get gummed up later.
Complicating all this is that what I want from a sentence has changed over the years, even in the time I was working on this collection. When I went back to the older stories, I found so much to cringe over. I thought that was good? I read it how many times? And some magazine accepted it? Good God, I’d look at these sentences and think, What nonsense, what crap. Often there was too much flash. I’ve come to see flash as self-regarding, as reflecting back on me, the super writer, and that’s not where I want people’s attention. It was like there was some element in the older sentences pleading, Praise me, pat me on the head. I’d rather risk seeming flat just so long as it means an end to the arm waving.
I’m much more interested now in sentences that contain a story voice—the main narrative vehicle—as well as several character’s interior voices, all of which drop in and out as needed, sometimes only for a phrase. Creating a story that can indicate those slight shifts in the language, and do it subtly and quickly, without tags or signals, so that the words themselves indicate to the reader, Oh, this is the character thinking now—that’s what’s important to me. That’s part of the reason I decided not to use quotation marks. I want the words to do all the work. If it’s speech, the words should sound like speech. I shouldn’t need a little typographical hint. I think it’s worth taking this stuff on, making it hard for yourself. Hugh Kenner, in one of his books about Joyce, described how each character in Ulysses has this field of language, like a cloud around the character, and while there is overlap—they do speak the same language, finally—certain words can only be Bloom’s, say. I love that.
One of my favorite things about your writing is the humor. Is there some joke that comes up in your mind again and again?

We’re having work done on our house, in the basement. The other day, I was down there with my son. He likes to see the men at work. That’s what he says—“Can we go see the men at work, daddy?” We were down there, talking to the contractor, and a plumber was there, too, about to cut a piece of PVC pipe, and the contractor said to us, “Ooh, watch this. This is a cool tool.” The plumber picked up this handheld saw with a claw on it, and the claw grabbed the pipe and held it, and then a small circular blade went right through the pipe. Am I losing you with the technical talk, Barrodale? It was really fast, with almost no noise, like that pipe was butter. Anyway, I said, “What’s that called?” because I thought my son would want to know, and frankly, I wanted to know myself. The contractor said, “He used to have a guy called Slim who all he did all day was cut pipe, just like that. But then he got that saw, and he fired Slim, so now he calls the saw Slim.” That made me laugh. It’s so mean and sad and funny and true.
For some reason, I also can’t shake this joke from Zoolander. You know the part where Will Ferrell’s character has just unveiled the architectural model for the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good? And Ben Stiller bends down to take it in, studying it, and then he says, “What is this? A center for ants?” I just found the clip on YouTube and watched it, and it still makes me laugh. Then I watched it again, and I was laughing in anticipation of the line. He’s so indignant, Stiller, like it’s an insult even to show him this thing. And Zoolander, of course, is incredibly stupid—that’s the running joke—but it’s not the stupidity that makes me laugh. It’s the certainty, the utter conviction. Whenever his intelligence gets maxed out, the arrogance kicks in. That’s not just Zoolander, though. It’s human nature. Flannery O’Connor works the arrogance-intelligence sweet spot really well.
Maybe you could talk about what prompted the passage below, if something did:

The man tidied and picked up a little. He straightened a pile of magazines and then looked around the living room to see was there anything he was missing or something he should do. While he worked, he thought over what he had said about this dream of his and what it might mean, if mean was the correct word, even. He checked it for the fatal false note. He’d had ideas like this before. Big thoughts, he called them, which he meant disparagingly, because who was he kidding, really? He would not, however, talk himself out of it, not this time. Even if it wasn’t actually a big thought, it was his, and he refused to take it back. Nor would he think, as he often did, But then what do I know? There was no more point in self-deprecation. There simply was no time. That was the problem—and here the man included all his friends, and all the woman’s friends, everyone their age or thereabouts. The problem with them all was they had done so much of that disingenuous shuffling about, the aw-shucksing, the pay no attention to me, I’m crazy or drunk or stupid routine, that they had precious little self left. And what had they ever got in exchange? Anything? They had apologized when they shouldn’t have, when they didn’t even mean it. They had mocked themselves, not because they deserved a good deflating but because they were afraid, more than anything else, of being criticized. They had begged—begged—not to be taken seriously. And so now what? What next? The man didn’t know. He wasn’t being disingenuous, he really didn’t know. They just couldn’t go on as they’d been going on. That was the main thing. The man did know that.
There wasn’t any one thing. It’s our predicament, at this time and at our age, to avoid saying the grand thing—to be scared of it, or to say it and then, in the very next moment, undercut ourselves, want to take it all back, dial it down, turn it into a big joke. This habit of mind started from a good place. You can trace it back to what we’re taught in college: be skeptical of capital-T Truth, look suspiciously at all-encompassing explanations. But it’s gotten out of hand. You hear it in conversation. Someone risks something, some idea they have, something they’re struggling to give words to, and how do they follow it up? They disassociate themselves from it. They say, But what do I know, right? Even about stupid stuff, like an opinion of a new movie. You can see it, too, in the profusion of phrases like sort of and kind of. People take shelter under words like maybe and probably when they could, by rights, insist and declare. On sitcoms, the most earnest character will always, immediately, be cut down in the next moment. It’s the dance move of our time, that little two-step. I struggle with it myself, all the time.
When I was working on this story, I had a shorter version of this scene. The whole middle was gone. Over time, as I reread the story, that passage started to seem thin, like I was avoiding saying something because I didn’t want to go on too long. I was worried it might seem speechy or preachy. The scene itself was a prime example of what I wanted all along to explain and avoid.
There’s this side of your writing that I really like—we could call it the puckish side of you. I wonder if you could tell some stories about morons you have known. I love when a person irritates you.

Morons I have known? This could get long. Let me limit myself by telling you about an agent whose orbit I briefly came into. I haven’t, I should say, had great experiences with agents. One of my earliest brushes came while I was editing writing for a Web site. A well-known agent mailed me a package containing three short humor pieces. Also included were a cover letter on creamy stock, a one-page bio for the writer, and three pages (at least) of blurbs. All this material was tucked inside the pockets of a folder so nice I kept it for years. The writing itself was crap, and the folder and all the rest made it seem like a turd wrapped up in silver paper. I remember thinking, This is what agents do?
But I mean to tell you about another agent, the one I came to call the cheerleader. Whenever I talked to her, she was always saying how psyched she was. She was full of wild praise so beyond what I deserved to receive that, when I heard it, I felt immediately bad for not living up to her enthusiasm. I mean, I’m like the losingest team in high school football here, and yet this agent was so unflappably perky, rooting for me no matter how grim the game looked. It got so bad that I dreaded hearing from her. If there was a message that she had called, I’d call back after a few days. If there was an e-mail, I’d put off reading it.
Once, she went to a meeting with an editor and came back with this book idea that the editor really wanted to do. It was, she felt, the perfect idea for me. The book was to be about the future, I think, how the past has imagined the future over the years, or maybe it was about the moon, I can’t remember now. It was something I knew nothing about and had expressed no interest in. She was so jazzed about this book project, though, and all I could do was say, Uh, I have a lot of ideas already and am working on so many different things as it is. She didn’t even sound slightly deflated. It was just like, Okay!, and then onto the next thing.
Another time she asked me about this book of letters to the president I was writing, the thing I’m still working on ever so slowly, and she said, “I know this is a crazy question, but ... ” And I thought, Here we go. I mean, everything she said sounded a little bit crazy. “Have you,” she asked, “ever thought about doing this as a graphic novel?” Graphic novels were, I was given to understand, really hot just then. I stared at that e-mail for a while. Did it really say what I think it said? It did. I finally wrote her back and said, “Well, you know, that is a crazy question.” And then: “No, I’ve never thought of making my novel into a graphic novel.” I mean, I can’t draw.
Last story. I showed her my essay about Michael Chabon when I was still trying to get it published, and about a week later, she wrote that she loved it, blah blah blah, but of course she loved everything. Then she told me she had just watched this episode of The Wire where they say if you are going to hunt the king, you best not miss. I think the wisdom of that was supposed to be apparent, or else I was to allow it to sink in and then know just what to do with it. I was, she assured me, hunting big game here. Anyway, the e-mail went on, asking me questions I was pretty sure I had answered. And yet, in spite of everything that had passed between us, I still thought she could help. I was open to her guidance. I wanted her to identify some weakness in my argument. The e-mail ended with further counsel: Wear your Seymour Hersh hat, she said, and THEN wear your Edmund Wilson hat. “Does this sound good to you?” she asked. It sounds confusing, I know it does, but the sad thing was, at the time, I thought it sounded good. I was like, “Okay, first the Hersh then the Wilson.” I thanked her for the advice.


Interview With Writer Paul Maliszewski

Paul Maliszewski

An introduction to Paul Maliszewski, author of the fiction collection Prayer and Parable (Fence Books, 2011).  The cover description for Prayer and Parable says the stories feature people who “struggle to do right. They argue. They think. They think again. They have odd dreams. Often they fail at being good, and yet, on occasion, they realize moments of true kindness.” People much like any of  us. These stories are about life and the human condition. The artistry is in Maliszewski’s honest language, and as he mentions, the best way to experience art, is to experience it yourself. You’ll have to read the book to discover its beauties.
Quick Facts on Paul Maliszewski

  • Home: Washington, DC
  • Top reads: The list fluctuates, but some dependable favorites include William Gaddis’s J R and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. For a while there, I bought every used copy I found of those novels and passed them along to friends. Grace Paley’s short stories astound me, for how effortless they seem. They’re so completely free of the usual narrative mechanics. They just speak, like a voice in your ear. I love Donald Barthelme’s stories, too. In college, when I first read them, I remember taking them as a license and an invitation: he can do anything, therefore so can I. As I continued to read them, though, I found so much sadness and complication under the antic inventiveness. I could just go on listing things here, but one new book I admire a whole lot is Scott Bradfield’s novel The People Who Watched Her Pass By.
  • Current reads: Adam Gilders’s collection of stories Another Ventriloquist. I’m writing a review for Bookforum. Gilders was a Canadian author who died of a brain tumor in 2007. The stories are wonderful. Gilders writes about people at work, in office settings, and pays attention to how they think. I did pick up Paradise Lost, because Gilders did his PhD at the University of Toronto and wrote his dissertation on Milton. But I’ve been trying lately not to have a million books going at once, something I easily fall into.
What are you working on?
The big thing I’m doing is a much-delayed project about Joseph Mitchell (much-delayed, I should say, by me). Over the years, Mitchell collected stuff, for lack of a more inclusive word. He collected doorknobs and escutcheons, bricks and chunks of floor tile, wires ripped from walls and spikes pried from beams. No matter what he collected or where he found an object, he almost always wrote down the place and date, including brief notations about the object’s relationship to other pieces in his collection. He tied these notes to the objects with string and placed them in boxes or, if the object was small, he dropped it into a plastic capsule or a jam jar or a baggie. I’m working on this with my friend Steve Featherstone, who has done some great reporting for Harper’s, among many other magazines. Steve has been photographing the collection, and I’m writing an essay about it, with the book to be published by Princeton Architectural Press. An earlier incarnation of our project appeared in Granta some years back.
What do you hope readers will take away from Prayer and Parable?
I hope I’ve made it so readers can’t take anything away from Prayer and Parable. I mean, I hope they like it. I hope they find something recognizable in it, that deep chords are struck, even. But there’s no message, there’s just the thing itself, the book itself, the stories themselves. I think all art—writing, music, painting, what have you—should aspire to be irreducible. We can try to boil it down, of course. We do that all the time. We describe the play we saw to a friend, or say you’d really like this song, because it sort of reminds me of something you were saying the other night about x or y or z. But that’s just what we do to communicate. We use shorthand, because it’s impossible to convey a piece of sculpture, for example, in its entirety, using a few words. That’s why, in those conversations, we often end up saying, “You just have to see it.” You have to see it for yourself.
“There’s just the thing itself,
the book itself, the stories themselves.”
Where and when do you prefer to write?
I write when I can. My wife and I have a son, and I take care of him during the day. I write during his naps, when he naps, and I write at night, after he’s gone to bed, provided I have the energy. I’m not particularly ritualistic about where I write. For a while, I did a lot of writing in bed, laying across the bed. Lately, though, I’ve been doing more writing downstairs during the day, in a chair by the window, the reason being that if the mail comes or UPS or something, I need to be able to get to the door before someone knocks and wakes up the boy.
The main habit I stick to is that I write my fiction longhand and tend to write nonfiction on the computer. I focus better on the story with pen and paper. There’s just some connection there, for me, with the writing speed and the thinking speed. Maybe it’s that handwriting is somewhat slower and it makes me slow down and be patient. Also, I don’t want the computer’s editing tools standing by, when I’m just starting out. It’s too easy to become mired in moving paragraphs around instead of getting some forward momentum. Finally, the distraction of email can prove too great at times. If I checked my email every time I need to stop and think of some phrase or line of dialogue, I’d never get anything done.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
I can’t listen to music while writing or editing. I wrote papers in college while listening to music. I had a tape with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on one side and In a Silent Way on the other, and I just kept flipping that cassette while I wrote. Now I need complete quiet. I have a pair of those noise-cancelling headphones that I wear sometimes. My powers of concentration were much greater, years ago. Once, I was sitting at my desk, writing, and my girlfriend played the same song over and over on the stereo, just hitting repeat on the CD player. This was a song I really didn’t like, too, and she knew I didn’t like it, and was, I think, being funny. The song was “Now Be Thankful,” from Richard Thompson’s otherwise brilliant Watching the Dark boxed set. “Now Be Thankful” is from his Fairport Convention days and, really, if you wanted to create a parody of everything that is ridiculous about 60s British folk, you could just play that song. It has this just prancing, elfin feel to it. A few notes alone can put me in mind of renaissance fairs and juggling jesters and tankards of mead. Anyway, I was writing, and this song was playing, and finally, at some point, I looked up and said, “This song is so annoying,” and my girlfriend said, “I’ve only played it seven or eight times.” I had no idea. I’d only just become aware of it being on. And it’s not a short song. That said, for all my super concentration, my writing then was not what I would call good. Also, and perhaps more curiously, I’ve started to kind of like “Now Be Thankful.”

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?
I write because I have to write, because there’s something that needs to be written, something that must be written, because I know if I didn’t write it, nobody else would.
“I know if I didn’t write it, nobody else would.”
How do you balance content with form?
I think of the stories in this book as having forms. Some are prayers and some are parables. Those forms might not mean much to anybody other than me, but they have intrinsic rules and limits which I’ve abided. I’ve also been working on a novel in the form of letters to former President George W Bush. I think of the letter as a form, too. None of these forms is like the villanelle, of course, or the sestina. They’re much more forgiving, roomier, but still, over the years, when I’ve had an idea, I’ll think, is this for the prayer thing, or is this a letter? Sometimes it’s neither, but the times when the idea was right for a prayer or a letter, it just felt like something fit, like the content matched what I knew I could do in a particular form. And I knew it instantly. I don’t recall deliberating or starting something as a prayer, say, and then deciding, oh, no, actually, it should be a letter. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s something in the idea itself—the content isn’t even content yet, it’s embryonic, nothing is even written down in note form—that insists on what form it will take.
Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?
This is going to seem odd, but there’s a quote from Jack Nicholson, talking about acting, that I like a lot. I came across it one night while watching the “making of” documentary that’s included on The Shining DVD, and took to it immediately, to the point that I got pen and paper and wrote it down, starting and stopping the video, until I had it word for word. In the documentary, Nicholson is just talking about working with Kubrick, and he says:
“Anything you do as many times as a successful actor—you can’t have one set of theories. You can go for years saying, ‘I’m going to get this real, because they really haven’t seen it real.’ They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real, and you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley who says, ‘Yeah, it’s real, but it’s not interesting.’”
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Max Apple, my creative writing teacher in college, told us that, if we were serious about wanting to be writers, we would have to write a dozen bad stories. I took him literally and so tried to write my awful dozen as quickly as possible, to get them under my belt and, you know, move into my golden period. I sometimes repeat that advice but inflate the number to two dozen, because, frankly, I just think that’s more realistic. It was for me. The other thing I say, which students never like or maybe they just don’t believe me, is that they need to love writing—the actual solitary work of it—and they need to keep publishing in its place, ideally a small, separate place that doesn’t require a lot of oxygen or occupy much of their attention, because publishing, just taking all this writing and trying to find a home for the stuff, is a fickle and, at times, frustrating business.
“Love writing—the actual solitary work of it.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
My friend Steve, with whom I’m working on the Joseph Mitchell project, once observed that characters in fiction almost never make a metaphor or get to think a line of more literary-type language. That ability to speak and think, that power to find the higher registers of expression, is kept from them and reserved instead for the narrator and author. It’s as if the characters are these cavemen and -women, who haven’t even invented fire yet. They’re just left to, in effect, grunt and gesture dumbly at the sky. I think of this observation of Steve’s so often, more than any piece of advice. It seems manifestly true. It also seems like a current to work against. I like characters who reach for some understanding. I like characters who try to articulate their lives. I like books that don’t deny them that.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
Structure. I feel like I’m only now just getting a handle on the most fundamental aspects of structure.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Watch movies at home, be with my wife and son, go to the National Gallery.

About Paul Maliszewski
Paul Maliszewski has published essays in Harper’s, Granta, and Bookforum, among other magazines. He is the author of Fakers, a collection of essays published by The News Press. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Black Clock, One Story, BOMB, and elsewhere, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. Prayer and Parable is Maliszewski’s first collection of fiction. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and son. - wordswithwriters.com/

An Interview with Paul Maliszewski

by Weston Cutter

It’s been awhile since we’ve had the chance to run an interview this fun and in-depth in awhile, which makes this all the more satisfying: a long, interesting-as-hell interview with Paul Maliszewski, he of Prayer and Parable and Fakers, both of which I thought were excellent (reviews here and here). I’m not sure there’s all that much critical info one needs to get into this, aside from this: this could’ve been much, much longer. Maybe this’ll be some on-going thing, a Checking In With Paul feature on Corduroy. Regardless: enjoy the interview, but, obviously, more critically: go purchase the man’s books and read them and pass them along. A formatting note: no, I don’t know why the footnotes don’t automatically jump you to the page’s bottom, nor how to make them do so. 
Do you feel like there’s anyone writing at present who’s writing with any sort of similar aesthetic goals as you?
You’re supposing I can know other people’s aesthetic goals, when I can’t reliably explain my own. But let me say this: two recent books that gave me strong feelings of recognition were Adam Gilders’s Another Ventriloquist, a collection of stories, and Deb Unferth’s novel Vacation. Our sentences aren’t outwardly similar. Unferth’s are more arresting, the syntax torqued, where mine are plainer on the surface, to the point of seeming flat. This business of recognition is tricky, though. It’s a little like hearing a song on the radio and thinking, That sounds so much like my life! She must be singing for/about/to me! There’s guesswork involved, and one finally has to make a great interpretive leap. Both Gilders and Unferth pay particular attention to the thoughts of their characters, and they do so in not-typical ways, i.e. not just saying, so-and-so thought, quote-unquote, I’m not happy at my job. I appreciate when characters are allowed to think, and at some length. I like when they’re given access to sophisticated language, too, even literary language. I’m not a fan of the terse, uncommunicative school of character, where the author gets to be occasionally lyrical and the characters are all like, Hey, what’s up? Not much. You? There’s also some attempt in these books to capture the grammar of consciousness. This is not to say Unferth and Gilders are writing stream of consciousness. It’s more an interest in people’s logic, how people try to explain who they are and what they’re about, and how they deceive themselves with their accounts, which can seem carefully constructed but are rarely complete.

I really like your work, and I really like Helen DeWitt’s work—it seems like you two have this weird overlap, just in the reliance or utilization of something like rational rigor, or something like that: the worlds in which each of your works are set matter, the rules and orders of it. I don’t see this lots of places. Do you?
DeWitt is near the top of a lengthy list of authors I really need to read already. I haven’t even read The Last Samurai. I have been reading about the new one in reviews and interviews, so I think—operative word, think—I know what you mean. My book has some stories that are prayers and some that are parables. The parables are more like fables—things in them stand for other things, or hold out that possibility. The parables also often have some unrealistic premise that is dealt with initially and then just becomes the ground situation for the story. It is like you say, these worlds have different rules. In my stories, most of the rules are the same as in our world except for one significant thing, which is slightly off. It’s like, okay, gravity, for this story, will be green—and then I just try to deal with that as part of the new world and develop it in fairly realistic ways.
I also like logic. Logic was one of my favorite classes in college. I tell people that sometimes, and they’re always like, Really? Logic? But yes, I like logic. An old girlfriend once told me that if I were a Greek hero, my tragic flaw would be that I always think people can be convinced by a good argument, and I’m forever disappointed, of course, just crushed. I also think logic is funny, when it breaks down, or when people fall before logic and become frustrated by the terrific binds it puts them in. That drama is endlessly compelling.
You see a lot of attention to logic and what you’re calling rational rigor in satire. Satire is an argument strapped like a bomb to the underside of a humor-delivery vehicle. And DeWitt’s Lightning Rods seems (if I may) like a work of satire. That said, I don’t think of the stories in my book as satiric. I like satire, and I doubtless have learned a lot from reading my way around the satiric canon, and I’ve even written satires at times, but these stories are not satires. They do have that attention to logic. It’s just not my logic as the author/satirist trying to put forward some argument that unpacks, say, the hypocrisies of the human animal. What interests me is the characters’ ways of thinking. Where do they get stuck? What do they keep circling around, trying to figure out?
You’re right on DeWitt, and it’s funny that you liked logic in college—I’m predisposed toward math[1], and I end up finding more and more writers whose work comes from a non-belletristic background (Blake Butler, for instance, went to GTech to study computers), and I think there’s a wiring difference that obtains because of it (DeWitt studied classics at Oxford). Also: I don’t think your work’s satiric, either: that idea of people going to war with their own logic, that makes total sense—and the ultimate reveal is character, whereas satire’s ultimate aim/reveal is a deflation of something external, or so it seems to this very non-scholarly person. Do you feel like your work’s coming out of some specific tradition?
Well, you’d have to put Beckett on that list. People are always being undone by logic in Beckett, and it’s a great source of humor, their undoing, as well as empathy. I always feel, reading about them, close to coming undone myself. Kafka’s important, too, for similar reasons, as well as for his premises and the way he develops them: guy wakes up as a bug; guy wakes up and is arrested; imagine an artist whose work is starving himself; imagine an execution machine that inscribes on the body of a condemned man the law that he violated; imagine the world in which such a device exists; then imagine, and this is the most important part, the mental landscape of the people who operate the execution machine. There’s definitely a stronger European tradition for this sort of work. I would also mention here Flann O’Brien, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser.
Years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s Immortality, and there’s a moment in that novel where two of his characters, two sisters, as I recall, are used to illustrate some point he wants to make about people. The sisters, you see, represent two types of people, and Kundera has a character draw the sisters as simple diagrams. Kundera has this great ability to treat his characters as characters—full-bodied, three-dimensional, completely human, all a realist could want—as well as illustrations, and he can move back and forth, with the illustration not compromising the realistic work of character-building, but rather enriching how we see his people. Thousands of students in thousands of workshops might suppose differently, but so be it. You can find examples of this fluidity of character throughout his work, especially The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where he smoothly switches between realistic story and literary essay and allegory and dream and history. The book hardly needs me to declare it a masterpiece, but I will.
I don’t want to make it sound like your work’s somehow radically different—it’s great—but it does seem like it’s fundamentally doing other stuff than, say, Franzen’s, or Eugenides’, or whoever’s.[2]
No, that’s fine. I get it. I’m an odd bird, I know I am. I wanted to say, though, despite all my European credential-flashing, there’s a part of me—a big part of me—that loves Raymond Carver and Richard Yates and Denis Johnson, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I owe a lot to their work as well. You know that old Dostoevsky quote, “We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”? Many of us were born and are still standing in Carver’s “Cathedral,” mouths agape. There’s a lot of room inside to hunker down and do our work. My point is, I don’t see my writing as unrealistic or even—I dislike this word, but it’s so widely used that it’s pointless to fight it—experimental. I’m writing realism. It’s different from other people’s realism, but only because I attend to different aspects of reality. It’s not, however, unrealistic.
Eugenides I can’t really speak about. I haven’t read any of his books. My wife read The Virgin Suicides and recently started The Marriage Plot. The other night I asked her, Why do you think people like his stuff? I was curious. Maybe I’ll read it someday, you know. She thought about it for a second and said, The writing’s good but it’s not off-putting. It doesn’t make you work. And then she said: also, he’s describing things people already know. I asked what she meant. Well, she said, he describes, for instance, what it’s like to wake up with a hangover after graduation. It’s all familiar.
As for Franzen, I read Freedom like everyone else, and I liked parts of it a lot, the beginning especially. When I read that opening section, I thought, This is our Revolutionary Road. I don’t think he sustains that, unfortunately, but that opening held so much promise. It was so sure and had such depth. The novel as a whole is deeply flawed, though. Structurally, it lurches from story to story, beginning things but not always digging in and developing them. It’s like Franzen would rather start something new rather than finish something in the works. But what I liked and what I was impressed by are his psychological insights. He has complicated insights into his characters—into people. He’s good on the nasty interpersonal stuff that people do, especially smart people, as they’re trying to get the upper-hand or figure out where they stand in relation to one another. I haven’t seen him praised for that, which is a shame, because I think it’s better writing, ultimately, than the big-picture, ripped-from-the-headlines, portrait-of-the-culture-as-a-whole stuff that people fawn over.
I agree with that last bit—he does that well—but I think he chooses awfully easy characters to do this sort of work on—he chooses, basically, iterations of him… which is fine, okay, but he really doesn’t stretch, I don’t think.
Iterations of him, yes, I get that. Maybe we know Franzen too well, though. He’s put so much of himself out there, not just in his personal essays, but also in his appearances as a bonafide media figure, which he has been—he may like it or not—since the days of The Corrections and that whole mess with Oprah. Reading Franzen is like seeing George Clooney in a movie. The essential and unalterable Clooney-ness never completely disappears.
Maybe this is awful of me to think this way, but there’s a… I don’t know how to say it. Look, we’ve both read Freedom: by the end of that novel, we know these characters by significations—the who-gives-a-shit musician guy, the mom, the spineless dad, whatever. But we don’t actually get lots of their insides—it’s the same thing with the shitful new Eugenides as well.[3] I don’t want to sound too mean, but those books and the hundreds/thousands that do that thing don’t ultimately seem to be trying to do the stuff you’re doing (or DeWitt, or Unferth, or Diane Williams, or Barthelme, or Kelly Link, or whoever). Someone who maybe straddles that line’s Lorrie Moore. I’m young, too—I’m 32 and freshfaced and all. Maybe I just don’t know a secret lineage of stuff like this work, but it does seem like there are books I get—yours, stuff by J. Robert Lennon, etc.—that feel fundamentally different, start to finish, than other fiction.[4]
Freedom was a disappointment. It’s easy (but not inaccurate) to summarize the characters. Pious liberal environmentalist who gets his comeuppance. Young, idealistic intern whom the liberal, of course, has an affair with. And yet, I still thought there were human insights. I’d have to get my book down and hunt for examples—don’t make me get my Freedom out, Cutter!—but I think I appreciated his character-making more than you. I was still frustrated by the novel, but there were times when I thought, I haven’t seen a fictional human think like that before. There were just complexities that the summaries don’t contain. A lot of the complexity comes when Franzen writes about the rivalry between his two male leads, but I also thought the stuff between Patty and her mother was great. Still, those summary versions are so handy that it’s difficult not to think of a Franzen character as a big box with a crude label on the top: Long-Suffering Wife being the most obvious.
One thing to say is that you’re talking about art on two different scales here. It’s not apples and oranges, but it is, on one hand, a variety of apple that has proven to be enticing/wonderful/delicious to millions and, on the other hand, an apple that is more of an acquired taste, oddly bitter perhaps. To put this in other terms: Franzen is like network TV, a program that is both the most popular and the most acclaimed. If he were a late-night talk-show host, he would have great ratings and the critics, even the hardest-to-please ones, would adore him. Whereas I—I can’t speak for anyone else on your list—I’m like this scruffy comedian who erratically shows up on random street corners, does his little performance, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for just a single joke, nobody ever knows in advance, and then he moves on, having probably alienated or insulted as many people as he’s entertained. My point is not to run Franzen down or aggrandize myself. My point is to say: Jay Leno doesn’t want to be that street comedian. Moreover, if you asked him to comment on the work, I’m not sure he would have much to say. Would you trust his reading? Would you bother asking him for a quote? At the same time, the street comedian doesn’t want to be on TV and perhaps can’t readily understand what Leno’s up to either.
As for the secret lineage, what differentiates the writers you mention from Franzen, say, is the difference between society books and individual books. Franzen wants to capture the whole society. It’s a white society, predominantly, middle- to upper-class, but let’s leave that alone for now. Franzen wants to get at “the way we live now,” to quote that awful name for a column in the New York Times Magazine, a column which has been discontinued, though its guiding spirit lives on. At times, Franzen’s canvas is so large that chunks of the novel read like articles in the Times or New Yorker features. I’m thinking of that unwieldy fact download about mountaintop removal that Franzen tries, absurdly, to smuggle in as dialogue. The writing’s very newsy. I wondered as I read how it will age. Will it become dated quickly? At times, it gets hamstrung by its relentless pursuit of currency. There was a scene where an older man—the father of that woman (Jenna) that Patty’s son (Joey, I’m having to look this up, the names are already fading from the picture) falls in love with—uses the term app figuratively. He’s talking about Judaism and is saying that the good thing about it is “You can choose your very own apps and features, so to speak.” That line stopped me. Is that believable from this guy? Was app even in the language at this point? If it was, had the word bled into non-technical, figurative uses? Had app trickled up to the generally-out-of-touch set? What year is this supposed to be, anyway? All these niggling questions, but the reality of the book—of any book—can be shook by the slightest tremor of doubt.
Every now and then there was some bit of language that struck me as anachronistic, which is, at one level, crazy, because can something from 2007 be that out of place in 2004? Were the times really so different? But that’s the steep downside with these of-the-moment books: you get mired in the incidental reality. As I did when I found myself asking, Would Pirates of the Caribbean be an in-flight movie at this time? Would it be shown on a flight from the Caribbean? Even if that’s all true in the fact-checker sense, my attention has wandered. It’s like I was watching a movie but ignored the actors in order to scrutinize the furniture. And this was a book I was reading for pleasure. Maybe the passage of time will iron out these problems. I should have waited twenty years to read Freedom.
Individual books don’t get bogged down in set dressing. Often they just leave it out. These are books more concerned with a person, or maybe two people, or a family, though not a family in any sociological fashion. These books are much less worried about depicting “the times.” What is the society in Molloy or Murphy or, for that matter, any Beckett? You can get a sense of the world, I suppose, but it’s not the point. It’s not even a tertiary point. Waiting for Godot is not a play about what a mess the world has become. It’s not a warning to heed. It’s not some environmentalist tract about the peril we face in a world without trees. It’s about the individual, the world just happens to be barren to focus our attention. And it’s about the mind of the individual, and the language that remains. Nobody comes out of Godot and asks, But how did the world get wrecked? You accept the premise and just listen to Vladimir and Estragon.
Here’s a question for you, if I may. You described my work as being “fundamentally driven by non-character engines.” Since this seems like an insight that could explain myself to me, I have to ask: What are these engines? You mentioned the scenario and the world of the story. Are those the same? Are there other engines, either in my work or others? Are you interested in non-character engines as a writer as well?
This is a really good question, which sucks for me, because I’m lazy. How about this: two of the stories I most enjoy teaching are Saunders’ “Sea Oak” and John Leary’s “Scenarios for Lee’s Forgiveness.” Both stories feature massive enginery in terms of scenario/world of story (“Sea Oak”‘s got the grandma coming back to life, “Scenarios” features a list of feasible ways for this couple to forgive each other, all set at a birthday party [this story’s been, from my finding, totally underloved: it was in One Story]), but the characteristics of Saunders’ characters are much more critical than those of Leary’s. I think the first person I read who knocked me sideways in terms of this stuff is Millhauser: his stuff’s got characters, but the situation of the story, the unfolding of plot, the uniqueness of the situation: these fundamentally drive the story and keep the reader going.
I really, really like stories that harness this sort of energy—I don’t know how accurate the comparison might be, but the feeling’s akin to a microphone which picks up the sound of the whole room vs. one that just picks up the voice singing into it.[5] I really liked, say, Harbach’s Fielding, and I loved the characters and miss them etc., but I’m also really, really interested in and enjoy hugely stories from folks like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender—stories where the situation of the story dominates, and the characters are there and all, that’s fine, but who they are, the memories of them skinning their knees, age nine, etc.—this stuff doesn’t ultimately drive the story the way other works by other folks demand.
Millhauser is a maker of some great, well-wrought worlds. I like Martin Dressler, a William Dean Howells novel except with more lyrical and imaginative flights about the development and evolution of a department store. I see what you mean about scenario-based fiction. With Millhauser, I get this image of a jeweler bent over an intricate box, like something by Fabergé but more elaborate and larger. He’s setting tiny bits of wire into his beloved box, soldering them into place, and then moving onto the next piece of filigree. There are characters, like you say, but they’re figures inside the jeweled box, among many other figures. It’s hard not to appreciate the box as a box as much as one does the figures inside. It’s all so ultimately crafted.
I’m curious, too, in what the difference is, for you, between the prayers and parables in your book. I’m a shittily unfocused reader sometime—I don’t remember the names of characters, for instance—and I rarely track titles, so I know I didn’t pay all that much attention to the differences between Prayers and Parables for you. How’s the distinction shake out?
That distinction came late to me. For quite a while, they were all prayers, but what happened is I got into a lazy habit with the titles and just thought, Oh, another prayer, okay, the title will go “Prayer for…” or “Prayer against…,” and that was that. I stopped thinking about it, which was a blessing at the time, because I find it hard to come up with titles. When the manuscript was starting to feel complete, though, I stepped back and thought again and realized that some of the stories were different and, too, maybe there should be some way to distinguish them. I didn’t want to have a book divided into two sections, like halves. So that’s how the parables came into it. It was just a way to acknowledge a difference that I’d been denying with my uniform titles. As for the distinction itself, basically, the prayer stories are more realistic (I think), and the parables operate on a metaphorical level. To use your terms, the parables are more scenario-based.
What do you think fiction should do? I know this gets dicey, all sorts of moral/Gardner-esque stuff, but I think the above does a fair job of acknowledging that there’s a different lineage, or at least another lineage of “realist fiction”—stuff which takes as its focus different aspects of reality, or at least different tastes/feels of reality.
This makes me think of two Robert Coover quotes, only one of which I’ve been able to track down, sorry. He recently told a Guardian reporter who asked about realism: “I learned my realism from guys like Kafka.” I’ve also seen him say somewhere, I swear, that as far as he’s concerned, he’s been writing realism all along. People may call it postmodern or black humor or magical realism or whatever they want, but to him it has always just felt real. So is “The Babysitter” unrealistic because it’s broken into many parts, parts that sometimes backtrack and revise or contradict one another? Or does it, with its twisting variations and its fractured quality, get at some real psychological stuff, the interplay and repetitions of fantasies, stuff deep in the brain, deeper certainly than well-put details about the cut of a character’s pants?
Or take Barth, for instance. In his early stuff, he has these great anxious characters, just incredibly worried people. I’m thinking of the narrator in The End of the Road and the title story in Lost in the Funhouse. You can’t have that very real anxiousness without what’s innovative or—I should really stop using this word—experimental. The anxiousness is actually heightened by the experimental form, making what’s real more palpable, more felt.
As for what fiction should do, I’ve hinted around about this somewhat, but I’ll spell it out here: fiction should be mapping the reality of the inner landscape. To me, that’s the strength of fiction, what it can manage that other art forms can’t, or at least not as well. That said, our outer reality, the reality we share—call it the world—is still always interesting, worth describing and narrating. As I’ve said, there’s as much Carver in me as Beckett. I just happen to believe that outer reality cannot be the end point of art.
How’d you end up writing the ways you write? I know little about your background other than Syracuse, so I’ve got nothing. But certainly this strain of realism that you work within—that’s an overt choice against some other competing dogmas or whatever.
If I stop and think about it, I guess I prefer x over y, but I don’t sit down and think, Time to work against the major dogmas of the day. Really, I think it’s more like that TV comedian/street clown analogy. I’m always going to be the street clown. I woke up this way. I can only do what I do, finally. I don’t know how I ended up writing this way. We read Carver in college, but we read him alongside Barthelme, Where Are You Calling from? and Sixty Stories, back to back. That was the contemporary American story as I was taught it. Barthelme and company weren’t some misguided detour taken during the 60s and 70s. They were a still vital part of literature. This was at Rice University, in Houston. Barthelme was still teaching across town, at U of H, when I started there. After his death, Gulf Coast, the U of H literary magazine, published an issue of reminiscences and had a reading at Brazos Bookstore. I went to that. I received strong doses of the moderns (Pound’s Cantos in a poetry class) and the postmoderns. We read Gravity’s Rainbow in seventy-six page chunks, discussing it over, I think, five weeks of class.
Our creative writing teacher then was Max Apple, who in his work finds a sweet spot between formal innovation and telling a human story. See for instance “An Offering,” from his collection Free Agents, which reads like a corporate report announcing the sale of twenty thousand class-B shares in Max Apple Inc. It’s a story that works as a satire of commodification—everything stickered, everything with its price—as well as an earnest offer to the unknown reader. It’s a story about a writer that manages to be clever and sympathetic.
The English department then was distinctly pre-theory. There was one young professor, basically, who did theory. So we weren’t, you know, reading Barthelme in light of the poststructuralists. We read him as literature. Friends and I would talk about Barthelme stories the way people talk about movies. You know: Remember that part where the guy says… Just recounting favorite bits, quoting lines, laughing. “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” was a monument to us. We gathered around it. Not that I understood what I read. Initially I read Barthelme as this license to do anything—you want to put pictures in your story, put pictures in your story—which I guess is encouraging to a novice. It took years for me to grasp that there was a structure underlying the inventiveness. It wasn’t just page after page of antic carrying-on. When he writes, in “Rebecca,” that “one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page,” it’s not just a bunch of lovely, striking words strung together. And yet I stared and can still stare at that final phrase, that warm tympanic page, repeating it, listening to it, wondering where in the world it came from. It took me a while to realize that when Barthelme says one should never cease considering human love, he actually means that one should never cease considering human love. Sometimes he says just what he means. Eventually I learned that lesson.
When I got to grad school, I realized pretty quickly that I’d read a different set of books than some of the other students, who were more of what you’d call traditional realists. For the first workshop, Michael Martone asked us to bring in copies of a story that meant a lot to us, a story by another writer. I brought in “The Distance of the Moon,” by Italo Calvino, from Cosmicomics. Other students brought in Steinbeck, Carver, John Knowles, Cheever, and Stuart Dybek. One student, I think, knew Calvino, and he’d lived and taught in Italy. Most of the students had never heard of him. I remember Michael talked to me after class about how great it was to see Calvino, because, as he said, it’s what you’d expect someone to bring up in the 1970s. My Calvino photocopy got passed around outside of class. Weeks later, a poet told me how much he liked it. That Calvino story, he said. Man.
How big was Prayer and Parable? How’d you come to understand and perceive of its shape? Were there prayers or parables you cut? Were there ones you were missing that you, on putting the thing together as a collection, realized you needed to write? The book’s awesome for lots of reasons, not least that it feels cohesive, and of course I’m curious about how that shook out for the organizer of the thing.
There were two or maybe three pieces that I cut. Mostly that was an issue of the stories feeling to me like they no longer worked. My writing changed over the time I worked on these stories. I worked on them for a while, and I revised the old ones—I had to in almost every case, sometimes heavily—but a few just refused to be revised. I couldn’t make them work. Really, I just couldn’t find any urgency in them, or any energy. They didn’t feel like what I was at that point calling stories. I didn’t believe them any longer and, worse, I couldn’t get my head back into them. I assume at the time they excited me and felt vital, all that, but something had expired in them, an important ingredient had turned sour.
I did want to write some new stories. I had scribbled notes for a bunch of new things, but as I read them over, they seemed either no longer necessary—already covered by an earlier story—or just unintelligible. Only a few ideas were really asking to be written, and those were ones I didn’t need to remind myself about. I’d been thinking about them off and on for years and knew the book wouldn’t be complete until I turned to them. Coincidentally (or not), they’re the last three stories in the book. The collection is not chronological in terms of how I wrote them (there are newer and older stories mixed together); it just worked out that the newest stories appear last. I do think of the collection as having a rough chronology in terms of what the characters go through. It’s like the book is a partial biography of the central characters. It begins with a boyfriend-girlfriend story and then, in the second-to-last story, a couple is talking about having a baby, the woman of the couple thinks she might be pregnant but isn’t sure. In the final story, another couple has the baby. It’s not perfect, this chronology, just like how the division between parables and prayers is far from tidy, but the arrangement meant something to me. There’s an arc there, and I make a gesture of tracing it in the air. Not that any of this was apparent to me all along. I didn’t have a grand plan. I usually don’t. I just try to finish one story.

[1] How so? And how has math influenced your writing?
WC: I’m naturally better at math than writing or English—tested well, excitedly/voluntarily captained the HS math team, was a class away from accidentally minoring in math in college simply because I’d taken classes I liked which were math. I know my mathematical needs and urges get more obviously manifest in structural ways—I put poetry on the page with something like an arithmetic ear toward balance involved. I’m pretty taken with systems—prose to me ultimately works or doesn’t by the gorgeousness of its system as much as by its characters (DeWitt in an interview talked about this—the thrill of what if—that might be the way to talk about math, too: a story which ultimately functions as a postulation). My writing’s not quite as math focused as it used to be, but my early stories didn’t feature much character; mostly I was taken with structural questions. By and large, Barthelme and Mark Danielewski did this to me. I think the impulse has faded, but it’s not too far beneath the surface.
[2] What is this other stuff? Or, to put it another way, what’s missing for you in Franzen?
WC: All this should be read in the context of me having had a shitty fall in terms of reading fiction—aside from Harbach’s Fielding, I was massively disappointed in novels (Eugenides + Whitehead at the top of the list)—and my recollection of Freedom has dimmed significantly since I read it (I loved it when I read it—was 100% enraptured—but I’m not at all sure it holds up; it feels awfully of its exact moment, calendrically inert). What’s also weird: I really didn’t like Reality Hunger when it hit, but I fundamentally agree with (what I took to be) one of its big arguments—that Dickensian, linear fiction fixated on verisimilitude doesn’t obtain at present. I agree with this. I don’t think fiction’s made great strides (or poetry, for that matter) in challenging itself and allowing its form to shift in significant ways. Wallace did it, Danielewski did it, I think DOUnferth does it in Vacation, and Orner’s Love and Shame and Love is great and pushes well into a new form for a contemporary novel, but overall I don’t think fiction’s done that great a job of finding organic forms which’ll allow it to more closely and well map the reality of contemporary experience. So there’s that: I think Franzen’s form is just sort of eh—I thought the journal in the novel was old fashioned and easy, more of a neat trick than a character-based necessity.
I think your work, unlike Franzen’s, is fundamentally exploring characters on the page—exploring real people, getting in heads. I think Franzen’s work, and Eugenides, and lots of folks’s work, is fundamentally getting into types of characters’ heads. By way of example: I’m an early-30’s white MFA guy, professor at a college. I believe in buying a Prius, though I haven’t; I purchase and use Apple products; I have certain hopes for not destroying the earth. However: I’m also aware and alive enough to occasionally find it odd that I lie in bed and tap imaginary buttons on the glass screen of my phone, and my thoughts don’t follow overt paths based on who I am or how I’d appear on a page. If I were to be written as what I am in pretty obvious ways, I think it’d be a terrible robbery of the interior I possess. I think there are writers who are okay with the level of chaos that comes from truly opening someone wide, as a person instead of a type, and writers who are not. I think those who are not write fiction that’s more comfortable, and those who are write fiction that’s a bit weirder. I think Wallace was a genius who could somehow do both those things—balance perfectly the surprise and expectations of the reader. Franzen, ultimately, is someone who gives too much to expectations.
[3] Shitful how? I was leaning toward skipping it, but now you have me curious.
WC: The ways in which the Eugenides novel fails are too numerous to count. Ultimately, I didn’t remotely care about the characters or story. There’s a moment in the book which both my wife and I paused at (I asked her to read it because I was reviewing the book for a newspaper and was doubting my intensely negative reaction), a line about a book which plods on for pages but then feels like it’s finally working—this is a horrible cobbling of whatever it was he said—but that tiny part of the book felt very knowing—like Eugenides was aware of how ploddingly bad the thing was. Ed Champion blasted the thing on Good Reads, and the review in the NYTimes is on the right track as well. I’ll also say that Eugenides’s “not true at all” response to the inarguable fact that he’s got a DFWallace character in there is sad and stupid. Dude in the book literally uses Wallace’s words—sad that a writer won’t at least cop to it. A really crap read. For real.
[4] We’re circling something. It’s important, but it’s hard to articulate. What is the difference? I’m not convinced I’ve come close to putting my finger on it.
WC: I’ve now been thinking about this for close to five days. I think you’re accurate on Franzen approximating broadcast television and other voices being distinct, farther afield. What I’ve ended up being fairly confident feeling is that Franzen and Eugenides and that range of writers (KGessen of n+1 is certainly part of that group; there’s plenty—would be nitpicky, exhausting fun to create a thorough taxonomy of it) are ultimately creating characters they depend on the reader recognizing. What I’m sure of—and I’m not about to run upstairs to pull books and prove it, but I’m nearly certain—is that Franzen/Eugenidies/etc. are creating characters that depend on the reader recognizing stuff, types. That’s a broad way to put it. But there is, in reading certain fictions, a feeling the reader gets of the author either anticipating us recognizing something and letting us—needing us to—fill in certain blanks, and that gets awful and exhausting. Easy example: of course Walter and Patty drive a Prius at the end of Freedom. Of course they do. Is that a) a smart detail on Franzen’s part, a recognition of who these characters are and a supply of what the reader wants/needs or b) a bit of an obvious sham, given that there’s no other car they could possibly drive? I think that q’s hard to say, and I’ll admit it’s a tiny point, but shit like that, at that level, is where Franzen fails, for me: it’s in the details, and they add up. These tiny, cellular-level decisions which make the books bigger and realer or not, realer meaning ultimately able to surprise the reader. Freedom offered lots of satisfactions but not much surprise. For the record: I think Eugenides in Virgin Suicides totally does this, and well and gorgeously—that novel’s a masterpiece—but his latest one misses in exactly these ways.
[5] What do you think about the overlapping sound and dialogue in an Altman movie versus some more traditional and highly filtered or edited handling of sound? Is that a useful comparison or am I muddling things?
WC: I don’t know if you’re muddling, but I don’t know enough Altman to comment with any decency. I think, though, that the binary being attempted here’s part of the problem: it’s not just that one microphone picks up the specific voice and one mic picks up the sound of the room; it’s a difference in how we understand what makes a song (using the mic example). What’s created by capturing the sound of a song being made vs. what’s created by capturing what we believe to be the discrete bits which we understand to make up the song? You talked about this in the One Story interview—said it was Martone’s line—how you can never have too much peripheral detail; ultimately the thing we may be trying to talk about is what constitutes peripheral; the folks I like seem more willing to engage in stuff that’s not overtly in service to the obvious plot machinations of the story at every second; there’s just cool stuff, all over.


PRAYER FOR THE SAFETY OF THE PUBLIC SCREAMER
From my window, I can see the bus shelter. A woman is walking away from it, and there’s a man underneath, standing. Both are dressed in the clothes of the season, and both are angry.

The man I have seen before. I call him Screamer. I hear him before I see him. In this way he is not like a jet fighter. Today, Screamer has a splint on his nose, making it longer and more pointed. When he screams, his splint quivers. Much of what he screams is profane, curses and swears. He often screams, Asshole fall off the fucking earth.

In the mornings, I hear him coming from the west, walking toward downtown. Later, in the evenings, he returns, walking toward the suburbs. He keeps a fairly tight schedule, Screamer does. In this way he is not unlike people who work at jobs downtown. Always he is angry. Always he is screaming.

I have seen Screamer look over his shoulder, back at the suburbs in the morning or back downtown in the evening, and I wonder what to make of that looking back. My first thought was that he was being followed. Someone was after him. He had made someone angry. My second thought was that he just believes he’s being followed. Whatever the case, Screamer is always yelling at the place he leaves, yelling at what he leaves behind. In this way he is not unlike you, or us, those, say, who have ever felt disappointed by the most recently passed experience, the last big letdown, that time we let ourselves think we were lucky, blessed, made from gold and promises. Precious stones never did rain on us.

Which brings me again to what I see from my window. The bus shelter. The woman walking away. Screamer standing underneath.

The woman is angry. Screamer, she thinks, screams at her. And why shouldn’t she take Screamer personally? Perhaps he told her, Asshole fall off the fucking earth. The woman bends down to pick something up, and I think she’s going to throw something. I think, She’s going to hit Screamer. But it’s just snow, and the snow is so powdery and dry, it scatters immediately after leaving her hand. She might as well have hurled a handful of dust.

And Screamer still screams. The woman’s hair has come undone under her scarf, and she pauses a second to fix it. Screamer curses her, more loudly this time. Asshole, he says. Fall off the fucking earth.

The woman walks away, and then the woman comes back.

She walks to the corner, and then she comes back. This time, the woman spits at Screamer. And still, Screamer screams.

Once more the woman walks away and comes back. And once more she spits at Screamer.

As she walks away, I hear her say, I could kill you.

From my window, I see the woman crossing the street and walking along the hillside. Screamer is still at the bus shelter and still cursing. Maybe this will be the last time I see him. Maybe someone will kill him. Maybe some people will return for him and do what, I do not know. Fuck him up good.

I wish I could intervene. I want to manifest myself on the ground, between Screamer and the woman. I want to move between them. I want to say, Wait, please, you don’t understand. Hold back your blows, OK? Stay, for a second, the stones you’ve selected for this man’s skull.

And what if the woman then came upstairs to my apartment? What if she could see what I see? Look, from my window. I’m asking you. Perhaps something would come of it: me, on the ground, meeting Screamer, while she sits upstairs. With the woman may come the hundreds, maybe the thousands, of people who will ever meet Screamer outside, on the streets and on the sidewalks. They all can crowd into my apartment, jostling for a view, a seat, a spot by the window.

But can I say, really, that I wouldn’t feel insulted?

Asshole fall off the fucking earth.
There is spit, and then there is the anger, like fingertips gripping my scalp.


PARABLE OF A MERCIFUL END TO DREAMS OF FIGHTING UNDERWATER

My opponent always announces himself the same way. He says, I have a bum. Warning. I know he means bomb, but he pronounces it in the pinched way of the British. Bum. Warning. I have a bum. Yet he is not British. He has, in fact, never ventured outside the States. He does, however, have a bomb. That is why he’s my opponent, my dear enemy.

The city is our battlefield. Streets and avenues have, for me, pugilistic significance, a long history of beatings and many losses. You may walk past these sites without knowing it. I have met my opponent in fields, in parks, in city squares. He has met me on board buses, subways, and monorails. We have fought under overpasses and over rivers. I have struggled against him amidst the carnivals of summer. He has found me cowering in the beverage aisle of a grocery store, hiding in the shadow of a pyramid of Coca-Cola. In tropical restaurants, cool rooms, windy vistas, on snowy heights, there is, we believe, no place we haven’t already fought. Were you unwittingly in attendance at some of our more celebrated bouts? We have wrestled atop buildings, decorating the skyline like two feisty hood ornaments. Always the game is simple, as my opponent takes pains to point out: one fall, mano a mano, me or the man with the bomb.

When I fight, however, I am at an immediate disadvantage. When I try to punch him, there’s no force behind it. I draw back my arm, but that’s it; that’s all I have time for. When I try to run, I escape from nothing. I am always caught in midturn, pivoting and pushing off with my strong foot, but no more. Caught and then hit and then hit again, I fall. There is something in me that works against the punch, against my flight; it subverts each of my attempts. It is like misdirection. It is like the fact that water is at its thickest, its most dense, seconds before freezing. It, I say, because it hasn’t any name. It is all effect and no identity. In my most productive moments I come up with descriptions of it; I test them against my experience, comparing them against my bruises, measuring them alongside my memories of the man standing over me and laying into my body with whatever happened to be handy—a socket wrench, a golf club, a tire iron, a stick. It is like second-guessing raised to the power of ten. It is like an interior monologue as loud as a rock concert. It is like the flashlights of a hundred righteous accusers. Everything I do, anything I try, whatever I can manage, it is in double slo-mo. This is the cruelty of fighting underwater.

Do I even need to tell you that my opponent is not similarly afflicted?

Other opponents trade in casual menace. They like to say, I’ve been watching you, or, I know where you live. My opponent says, I know what you feel. He describes my small, daily failures to me. As if I didn’t know. His assessments are pinches that leave marks on the inside of my skin. He tells me, You are the Neville Chamberlain of your extended family. Or he says, Your love is like the plastic cups left over from a party. My body serves up for him a set of ready metaphors. Your stomach is a growing pit, he says, down which fall the snakes of your seven indiscretions. They are like arrows, their heads like arrowheads, and they move, constantly, one over another. Are you feeling that? he says. When I don’t answer, he asks, Don’t you understand?

I’m not sure, I say. Then, after some thought, No, not really, I guess.

I’m talking about your insignificance, he says, as if it could all be so plain.

I get what you’re saying, I tell him. In general, I mean, but you lose me on the specifics most of the time.

My opponent actually looks sort of hurt. Should I be less gnomic or something? he says.

I shrug. It would, I guess, be a start.

Consider arrows, he says, speaking more slowly this time. Arrows in an empty stomach.

Now do you see why I fight him? Even though my moves are slow? My efforts futile? I fight him because I must. I have no other choice, I think.

When I’m not fighting my opponent, I see other people whom I imagine are fighting their opponents, on other nights, in distant parts of a darkened globe. Between dinner and dawn, the city is turned over to these fights. A long fight card every night. Many matches and many falls. Who are these people? How can you recognize them? They are those who misbutton an article of clothing. They are those who react last and late to a joke. We are the people whom you find always looking down and seemingly in. Eye contact is for the foolish when it is night and an opponent is about. We stumble frequently, unfazed. We step into traffic, neither surprised nor frightened when we realize our mistake. Not a day goes by that we do not find ourselves stopping people like you and asking for directions in the city of our birth.


PARABLE OF BEING INSIDE

The new nightclub opened last week, and now everyone is trying to get inside. The new nightclub is fabulous, according to every indication, offering entertainment beyond measure, joy and conviviality in unparalleled quantities. Consider the new nightclub’s stereo. Its sound system, speakers, mixing board, and turntables are together larger, more expensive, and more powerful than the stereos of the top five most popular nightclubs combined. The stereo’s wiring would, if stretched end to end, run for seventy-seven miles, connecting cities to their suburbs. It loops underground, beneath the glass dance floor, and then circles overhead, in the rafters and around the exposed beams of the building, which, once upon a time, was a warehouse or a tannery, a potato-chip company or dress-shoe factory, something, in any case, that did something for someone, back when. Nobody can remember now. The new nightclub’s wire is bound together in thick, menacing coils, blue wires and black wires all feeding into intricately webbed nodes and impressive muscular bunches. It is as if the club powered itself off the flayed body of a giant. The new nightclub’s blue wire is the blue of 4 AM seen before sleep; its black wire is truly black indeed.

I haven’t yet been inside the new nightclub when it’s turned on, when the lights are up and people pack the open spaces and drinks are being drunk. During the day, I worked on the second auxiliary electrical crew, brought on board by one of the subcontractors, this guy I know who used to date my sister. I wired up a set of lights mounted on these robotic arms, metal appendages, starved in appearance, that supported these other things that someone else, hired by another subcontractor, worked on.

The DJ booth in the new nightclub can unleash various special effects, the sort that would not seem out of place in large-budget movies. I’ve heard talk of lasers and holograms, even green screens. Supposedly parts of the club can be rear-projected into whole other areas, like scenery. Also, the bar is actually three bars, three bars each on three separate levels, each decorated according to a unique style or mood. The owner of the new nightclub is a stickler for details, so the moods of the bars are very much like the moods of people, very lifelike.

The new nightclub is where the old nightclub used to be, before the old owner closed its doors, boarded the windows, and sold off all the furniture and stereo equipment in an auction sparsely attended by bargain hunters and just some curious lookers-on who felt they had some connection to the place. Nothing from the old nightclub survives in the new one.

People who have never even given a thought to going to a nightclub feel the inkling or perhaps pressure of having to go to this one, of needing to go, if only to see it, maybe just once. To see what it’s like, they say. For something to do, they say. They all have their reasons, and their reasons are the same three or four.

It’s a childish wish, this desire to be inside the new nightclub. Childish not in the sense of being simple, but rather because it reminds me of times I overheard my parents and their friends at parties. It was usually someone’s birthday or anniversary, the occasion was never all that clear or important. What mattered was that I could hear their voices, the sound of their voices, but I could not discern the words themselves. I would hear laughter and I would think, Someone just told a joke. Who told a joke? Who was it? What was the joke, exactly? How did it go? The laughter went on. Laughter carried, words did not. I could hear nothing except sounds of what I knew to be conversation. It was incredibly frustrating, this feeling.

Inside the new nightclub there is another, smaller, more exclusive nightclub, and inside that smaller, more exclusive nightclub, there is a smaller nightclub still. Five nightclubs at least are nested inside one another like so. After work one day, a few days before we finished and the foreman, as they say, let us go, I was talking to a guy who worked alongside me, this guy who put the things on the ends of the metal appendages I was working on. Anyway, this guy swore that there are at least nine nested nightclubs inside one another. He personally knew of at least nine, and he suspected there could be even more, each smaller, each more exclusive, each located inside the other. And at the center of it all, at the center of this series of clubs within clubs, there is a room, supposedly no bigger than a large box, like the sort of box a refrigerator comes packaged in. The owner of the new nightclub has had this room decorated sparsely, with a table and a chair and a candle on the table and a pillow on the chair. The table is not larger than a pad of paper. The candle is the size of a dime. The chair is plain. The pillow is more suggestion and gesture than pillow. What’s more, the walls around the table are not in fact walls. On closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be speakers that look and feel like walls. Solid speakers. From the floor to the ceiling of the room, nothing but speakers. When the stereo is on, and the music is going, a person admitted to the room that lies at the center of the series of clubs within clubs can hear nothing else, nothing to indicate that there’s anything else anywhere else outside or inside the room, nothing other than the room itself and the person inside it.

Paul Maliszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, New Press, 2009.


For anyone who has ever lied—or been lied to—True-life tales about faking, from Clifford Irving to Stephen Glass, by an award-winning writer. 
 Fakers are believed—and, at least for a time, celebrated—because they each promise us, screen-gazing and experience-starved, something real and authentic, a view, however fleeting, of a great thing rarely glimpsed. —from Fakers
From James Frey and his fake memories of drug-addled dissolution to Stephen Glass and his fake dispatches from the fringes of politics to the author formerly known as JT LeRoy and his fake rural tough talk, we are beset by real-seeming fiction masquerading as truth. We are living in the era of the fake.
Fakers is a fascinating exploration of the varieties of faking, from its historical roots in satire and con artistry to its current boom. Paul Maliszewski journeys into the heart of our fake world, telling tales of the New York Sun's 1835 moon hoax, the invented poet Ern Malley (the inspiration for Peter Carey's novel My Life as a Fake), and Maliszewski's own satiric letters to the editor of the Business Journal of Central New York (written, unbeknownst to the editor, while he worked there as a reporter). Through these stories, he explains why fakers almost always find believers and often flourish.
Since 1997, the author has been on the trail of fakers and believers, asking the tricksters why they dissembled and the believers why they were ever fooled. Fakers tells us much about what we believe and want, why we trust, and why we still get duped.
The essays in Fakers explore:
• Jayson Blair's faked New York Times stories, about Jessica Lynch and much else
• Early American con artists
• Oscar Hartzell and the long-running Drake's fortune scam
• Internet hoaxes about man-eating bears
• Han van Meegeren's forged Vermeers
• Clifford Irving's fake autobiography of Howard Hughes
• Michael Chabon's fictionalized version of his early years
• Binjamin Wilkomirski's fabricated Holocaust memoir
• In-depth interviews with three fakers: journalist Michael Finkel, painter Sandow Birk, and performance artist Joey Skaggs




In this detailed if uneven meditation, Maliszewski explores the complicated world of deception and those who practice it. The book begins with the author defending his own habit of publishing letters to the editor under pseudonyms while working as a reporter in upstate New York. He describes his actions as satire, although his lengthy, sometimes bitter mea culpa drags by the end. However, his analysis of literary and journalistic deception—a sampling that includes Stephen Glass, James Frey and JT LeRoy—finds nuanced differences between the hoaxes, cons and outright lies while connecting them to universal themes. The book abounds with interviews and anecdotes about con men, art forgers and historical fakes, leading Maliszewski to conclude, Writing, after all, needn't be a mirror in which authors discover only themselves looking back and grinning. The author could stand to take a bit of his own advice, although the book as a whole does provide some interesting insights into the nature of deception. - Publishers Weeklya

This fascinating survey of fakers and fabulists begins with a confession from the author that he, too, has been a faker: while he was employed as a writer for a business magazine, he wrote the occasional column under a variety of false identities. But he considered his fakes to be satires, not frauds. On the other hand, there are Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, journalists who invented magazine and newspaper stories. There’s Clifford Irving, who famously faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes, and James Frey, who faked his own autobiography. There’s the story of a newspaper that announced the discovery of life on the moon, and much more. Maliszewski does not confine himself to simple recitations of the facts. He explores why these fakers undertook their often complex schemes and how they found audiences who would eagerly believe them, even when the schemes themselves would fall apart under close scrutiny. The book is not only about the fakers but also the faked and about our natural desire to believe the unbelievable—as long as the tale is told convincingly. --David Pitt



According to filmmaker Werner Herzog, people in the twenty-first century face an “onslaught on reality” comparable to medieval knights confronting foes with guns and cannons for the first time. Pointing to mislabeled reality television, computer generated imagery in films, virtual reality and Wrestlemania – those actually-occurring events consisting of scripted, choreographed activity enacted by people with entirely unnatural physiques – he sees no direct and easy route to the truth. A maker of documentary films concerned about this problem might insist on a firm commitment to the facts in the pursuit of verifiable truth.

That is not Herzog’s method. He distinguishes between “fact” and “truth,” believing he should not strictly adhere to the former and instead penetrate deeply into the latter. In Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews edited by Paul Cronin, the director says his “documentaries” – he puts the word in quotation marks – show that “there is a much more profound level of truth than everyday reality.” For Herzog, making such films means doing more than presenting a straightforward factual chronicle.
Sometimes getting to the truth demands invention. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog shows a German-born, Vietnam-era U.S. Navy pilot, repeatedly opening and closing the door to his home. Dieter Dengler did not actually develop this tic. Herzog devised the ritual for him, believing it visually expressed the former prisoner of war’s appreciation of his formerly-denied freedom. Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog’s 2008 documentary about Antarctica, contains several examples of his bid for something of greater significance than banal images of snow and ice. He interviews scientists studying seals and includes the sound of the marine mammals’ distinctive calls. He stages a scene in which a trio of investigators prostate themselves on the ice to listen, something Herzog, in person but not on screen, readily admits they would not normally do. Speaking in New York City a year before the film’s release, he conceded that there is nothing inherently compelling about a man holding a frozen fish. However, he presents the discovery of one in a man-made tunnel under the South Pole and crafts a scenario to make it meaningful. He imagines archeologists from the future trying to surmise what human beings were trying to do when they constructed their subterranean shrine to a sturgeon.
Herzog, who believes filmmakers should know how to pick locks and forge documents, repurposed actual events in science-fiction scenarios several times before making Encounters. In Lessons of Darkness, he imagines aliens trying to comprehend the destruction of human civilization, which he sees in the flaming Kuwaiti oil fields after the Gulf War of the early 1990s. In The Wild Blue Yonder, he combines footage shot in outer space and under the Antarctic Ocean with still more scientists speaking and an actor portraying yet another alien.
Paul Maliszewski doesn’t write about Herzog in Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, but what he says about others suggests he wouldn’t be pleased with Herzog’s pursuit of an “ecstatic truth.” Indeed, he favors what Herzog contemptuously dismisses as the “accountant’s truth,” the literal-minded, unbending commitment to definite facts, which in Maliszewski’s case could be renamed the earnest journalist’s truth.
Maliszewski concentrates on writers of purported nonfiction, including such exposed fabricators as Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, James Frey and “JT LeRoy.” He concludes his survey of deceptive scribes with an essay about novelist Michael Chabon, who disappoints Maliszewski with an autobiographical lecture that strays from the checkable facts. Writing in Bookforum, where the essay on Chabon first appeared, Hua Hsu says the piece perfectly ends Fakers because Maliszewski’s doubts about Chabon’s talk did not emerge from cynicism or skepticism but from a conviction that real life stories do not need artificial intensification. Maliszewski’s investigation of Chabon does encapsulate his certainty about a discernable separation between the real and the fake, as if the dilemma concealed at the core of the hoaxes he finds so fascinating were easily resolvable. For him, the “onslaught on reality” Herzog identified can be dealt with, not through artifice, but with careful fact-checking. Everyday reality is sufficiently profound for Maliszewski.
Having previously written about writer-hoaxers, and done some falsifying himself, Maliszewski intends to reveal Chabon as an unreliable narrator of his own life story. He twice heard Chabon give a talk entitled “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Eldest Son’s Middle Name Is Napoleon,” in which Chabon describes his evolving identity as a writer and a Jew. Chabon recalls growing up near the author of Strangely Enough!, a collection of fantastic tales. Chabon tells his audience that he eventually mustered the courage to introduce himself to his esteemed neighbor, who dismissed that pseudonymous work and announced that he was actually a Holocaust survivor writing a memoir to be called The Book of Hell. Chabon says the slippery character turned out to have had still another identity, that of a Nazi who lifted a Jewish man’s identity after the war, married a Jewish woman (who provided him with the bogus numbers tattooed on his arm), and concocted an account of life in concentration camps.

Wondering why he did not remember The Book of Hell or the scandal Chabon said followed its author’s unmasking, Maliszewski looked into the matter and determined that “Chabon had fabricated a Holocaust fraud.” He says a quick Internet search satisfied him that the book Chabon named did not exist. He goes to hear Chabon give the talk again in order to watch a “magic trick disguised as memoir” and receive a “lesson in the art of audience manipulation.” Chabon, both in his lecture and in subsequent conversation about it with Maliszewski, identifies himself as a teller of lies and told an easily disprovable one in “Golems I Have Known.”
Maliszewski sternly disapproves. He contends that Chabon does a disservice to fiction by inserting some of it into his personal history. In an addendum to the essay (a defensive response to critics of the original piece), he reiterates his view that Chabon either resorted to an unnecessary cheap trick or conducted a “failed experiment” resulting in “bad art.”
Choosing an inapt example to make his point, Maliszewski contrasts Chabon with Philip Roth, who in Nathan Zuckerman developed a character with a biography similar to Roth’s own in order to “understand how experience mixed with imagination to create art.” Maliszewski does not object to Roth’s blend of fiction and nonfiction, including his use of the Holocaust for a “moral beard” to hide behind, because The Ghost Writer, the first of several Zuckerman books, is clearly identified as a novel. He ignores Roth’s playful disregard for genre integrity in other works. Roth opens The Facts with a letter to Zuckerman and ends it with a response from what Maliszewski calls Roth’s “fictional alter ego.” (When will writers finally stop using that tired tag for Zuckerman?) In a remark Herzog might endorse, the character tells his creator that he can be “much more truthful” writing fiction than autobiography, which is what The Facts is labeled as being. Another novel, Operation Shylock, includes both a “Philip Roth” and a Philip Roth imposter.
In Maliszewski’s forgiving assessment, Chabon might not live up to the standard Roth followed (with The Ghost Writer at least), but he does not belong on the wall of shame with other embarrassed fakers and counterfeiters. Maliszewski obviously shares Chabon’s awareness of a “long-standing connection between the idea of the con and the confidence man and the storyteller and the writer.” In Fakers, Maliszewski relays the acts of Stephen Glass, who concocted stories for The New Republic; Jayson Blair, who pretended to report for The New York Times; James Frey, who exaggerated his experience of drug addition and recovery in a memoir; and Laura Albert, who invented JT LeRoy, a former male child prostitute turned writer (who found an endorser in Chabon). Albert enlisted the half-sister of a boyfriend to play the role of LeRoy in public appearances.
Maliszewski also describes such classic historical hoaxes as the New York Sun’s nineteenth-century report of life discovered on the moon, Clifford Irving’s phony Autobiography of Howard Hughes, and a pair of poets who aimed to mock modernist poetry by producing nonsense work that, instead registering as devastating parody, ended up hailed as the next new literary thing. He interviews a painter who depicts a war that never happened (which does not really qualify as a hoax). He also writes of another “artist” who creates fake businesses equipped with elaborate websites and odd gimmicks, such as cemeteries modeled on theme parks, and bemusedly observes the press coverage that foolishly follows.
Maliszewski has special interest in that last area; he claims to have invented unreal businessmen and imaginary businesses when working as a journalist for the Business Journal of Central New York. Since Maliszewski confesses his background as a liar, I’ll make my own modest disclosure. I do not have a résumé of writerly deception as long or distinguished as either Maliszewski or Chabon. It does not extend much beyond replying, “P.T. Barnum’s autobiography,” once when asked what book most influenced me. At the time I had not read it. Indeed, then I did not even know whether Barnum had written an autobiography. This might leave me open to the accusation Maliszewski flings at Chabon. By casually taking liberties with the truth, did I, too, assume that reality is insufficient, “too pale and thin” and in need of improvement? Did I lack confidence that the true answer (Evel Knievel’s autobiography) was inferior to the fabrication? I readily acknowledge that it was a silly crack, and in retrospect a too obvious one. But as far as lies go, mine can’t be considered very serious. Regardless, Maliszewski offers me another, loftier defense: a literary justification. He accepts mendacity in the name of satire. If I claimed to be mocking vapid dinner-party conversation-starters with my dishonest answer, then I would have crossed no line.
Maliszewski wants his nonfiction strictly nonfictional – with this one exception. He thinks the confections of reporters like Glass and Blair show how journalism depends on narrative “forms” that can be easily followed in dishonest articles giving the appearance of truth. Glass, he says, showed neither imagination nor originality in his fake reporting; instead, he merely wrote stories that confirmed the assumptions of editors and readers. Others may make up stories in order to reach bestseller lists or, in the case of phony Holocaust memoirists Binjamin Wilkomirski and Misha Defonseca, because of mental disturbances. He complains that Glass’s articles, including those on the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ and about a phenomenal young computer hacker, betray a sarcastic attitude but have no satiric intent. His own fake business columns and letters to the editor, on the other hand, bravely extended the tradition of Jonathan Swift. Maliszewski says he used irony and pseudonyms to satirize the ideas and conventions of journalism and reporters’ regular practice of presenting corporate press releases and other marketing material as actual news.
Even when considering other categories of fraud, Maliszewski circles back to those who write about them. He wonders if journalist Frank Wynne fabricates dialogue in his biography of Han van Meegeren, who concocted fake Johannes Vermeer paintings, for instance. In an omnibus essay on several con-men, he describes a scam that promised investors shares of Sir Francis Drake’s fortune by discussing a biography of one of the scheme’s twentieth-century practitioners, Oscar Hartzell. Maliszewski makes the obligatory mention of Barnum by commenting on another biography. Turning to William Thompson, who stopped “genteel” appearing strangers on the street and asked, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with our watch until to-morrow?,” Maliszewski quotes a New York Herald article credited with the first printed use of the term “confidence man.” (Maliszewski gives the story’s date as 1848; other sources list July 1849. My own research into the matter convinces me that the 1849 date is correct. Is this a simple error, or does Maliszewski intend subtle satire of publishers’ shoddy fact-checking?)
In an aside about the 2002 off-Broadway show Ricky Jay: On the Stem, he names one of the star’s colorfully and precisely titled books on “conjuring, unusual entertainments, confidence games, [and] the biographies of eccentric characters,” as Jay describes the contents of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Sideshow Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments.
Maliszewski doesn’t document a delightful bit of trickster trivia involving On the Stem. A few years after the David Mamet-directed show closed, another performer, Eric Walton, mounted one with some of the same tricks Jay used. In “The Knight’s Tour,” Jay called out numbers to guide the knight through single stops on each square on a large, lighted chessboard, at which Jay never looked. He did this while also calculating cube roots, reciting Shakespeare and singing. In his version of the mental feat, Walton named state capitals. After seeing Walton’s Esoterica, Jay quipped, “I paid for a ticket and I sat through the show, and I would very much like my money and my material back.” Although Jay did not invent the bit, or claim to have done so, a friend of Jay’s said Walton’s act “border[ed] on plagiarism,” according to a New York Times account of the dispute between professional liars over ownership of someone else’s effect.
Jay wittily combined card tricks and vaudevillian acts with humorous stories about show business, but Maliszewski seeks a serious moral lesson from the show. After intermission, Jay sold boxes of candy, some of which he said contained prizes like a gold watch and a hundred dollar bill in addition to potency-boosting sweets. Seeing many eager buyers of Ricky Jay’s Chocolates, Maliszewski muses: “Has no one learned a single lesson from Thompson, Barnum, and Hartzell?”
Some people have, including an author who studied precisely some of those con-men Maliszewski names. The story of original con-man William Thompson almost certainly provided Melville with raw material for his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, which also refers to Barnum’s exhibits. (Although he writes of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and other literary figures drawn to confidence games and humbug, Maliszewski ignores Melville and his novel.)
Melville dramatizes the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of capturing the elusive, cunning truth. The Confidence-Man contains multiple tricksters (or serial manifestations by an appearance-altering demon) playing various scams: a crippled beggar, a man down on his luck seeking a loan, a doctor selling cures, a charity agent soliciting donations and the like. “Melville’s book now seems a prophetically postmodern work in which swindler cannot be distinguished from swindled and the confidence man tells truth and lies simultaneously,” Andrew Delbanco writes in Melville: His World and Work. The biographer cites a passage describing misanthropy as a lack of confidence in kindness that, for all its “right and wise” praise of love, is spoken by a con-man trying to win a doubter’s trust. While it satirizes Christians’ susceptibility to hatred of sinners as well as sin, The Confidence-Man ultimately provides no firm philosophical place to stand, setting characters teetering between heart-hardening cynicism and foolish faith. The trusting can be gullible, but the skeptics can also be conned. The indeterminate nature of Melville’s title character underlines the unlikelihood of arriving at certainty. Hershel Parker summarizes Melville’s novel as “a book in which the Devil comes aboard the world-ship to preach Christianity as an April Fool’s joke.” But it can also be read as following a human master of disguises. “Is he, or is he not, what he seems to be?” a character asks. Melville does not offer a simple answer.
Confidence games trade on the conundrum of never surely knowing how to distinguish between appearance and reality. Yet Maliszewski prides himself on being able to spot fakes (like Chabon’s tale of his former neighbor) and suggests that even elaborate schemes that fooled others can be easily seen through with the passage of time. Those forged Vermeers strike him as crude, for instance. It is easy to separate the legitimate from the fraudulent after all! He reduces a real dilemma to a mere matter of paying closer attention. “Looks are one thing, and facts are another,” he might say, as someone does in The Confidence-Man, which also has a con-man disingenuously reflect on the confusion that accompanies having god’s revealed truth and apocrypha bound up together in one volume.
Melville, who may have based a character in The Confidence-Man on a barber the showman describes in his 1855 autobiography, ponders the trustworthiness of taxidermy in a manner that resembles Barnum’s reflections on one of his renowned artifacts. Melville writes that “experience is the only guide here; but as no man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it.” For illustration, he points to the Australian duck-billed beaver. Naturalists, he says, declared “that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” Scientists relying on their experience to grasp what is can mistake their classifications for reality and dismiss something unfamiliar as phony. Then again, sometimes such things are faked. In The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, the author recounts an episode that would fit seamlessly in Melville’s novel. Considering whether to purchase the body of a purported mermaid, Barnum seeks an expert’s verdict, or as he puts it:

Not trusting my own acuteness on such matters, I requested my naturalist’s opinion on the genuineness of the animal. He replied that he could not conceive how it was manufactured; for he never knew a monkey with such peculiar teeth, arms, hands, etc., nor had he knowledge of a fish with such peculiar fins.
“Then why do you suppose it is manufactured?” I enquired.
“Because I don’t believe in mermaids,” replied the naturalist.
“That is no reason at all,” said I, “and therefore I’ll believe in the mermaid, and hire it.”
Of course, what Barnum chose to believe had nothing to do with the animal authenticity of the “Feejee Mermaid.” After confidently stating that those paying customers who examined it became convinced of its reality, Barnum declares it a fake, but one that deserved to be considered a real work of art. “Assuming, what is no doubt true, that the mermaid was manufactured, it was a most remarkable specimen of ingenuity and untiring patience.” Even if the thing is not an actual mermaid, the object reveals something of human nature and the creative impulse, the quest for ecstatic, if not literal, truth.
Just as Melville suggests preconceptions can keep people from recognizing reality, Maliszewski believes hoaxes highlight unquestioned assumptions. One that has survived since the label “confidence man” first appeared – one that Maliszewski does not challenge – is that confidence games reveal something about the American soul. The description of passengers of diverse national and professional backgrounds aboard the Fidèle makes Melville’s Mississippi steamboat a microcosm of American society, as if it were especially accommodating of confidence-men. A century and a half later, in Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, Pope Brock explicitly claims that America has a “special genius for swindle” and that “there has probably never been a more quack-prone and quack-infested country than the United States.” He says this even though he writes of European counterparts to the con-man of his title, a self-designated doctor who claimed to restore men’s virility via implantation of goat testicles.
Although in Fakers he covers a few hoaxes occurring outside the United States, Maliszewski returns to the notion of an especially American susceptibility to and propensity for them. The Dutch forger van Meegeren and the European writers of false Holocaust memoirs he discusses did not fool only Americans. Nonetheless, Maliszewski believes cons “expose inherent gaping contradictions in the American character,” such as “our boundless optimism married to our blind ambition; our insatiable greed matched by our lack of rigorous business sense; our belief in hard work coexisting with our dream of never having to work again; our insistence on high returns despite our being too risk-averse to ever realize them.” Confidence men everywhere rely on and exploit such contradictions.
And believers collaborate with liars, as Maliszewski knows. As he says of the Feejee Mermaid, audiences did not necessarily fall for Barnum’s tricks; instead, “they were delighted by the chance, for a modest monetary consideration, to wonder whether or not they were being fooled and, if so, how they could tell.” He gives essentially the same reason for attending Chabon’s lecture a second time without registering his own resemblance to Barnum’s ticket-buyers.
Even so, he insists that people do not like to be fooled, which does challenge a convention of confidence-game-related writing. Brock, for instance, contends that Americans have always “joyously embraced” fakers. According to Barnum, “the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” Chabon describes his audience as the “willing-to-be-hoodwinked.” Magicians like Jay, writers like Roth, and directors such as Herzog and Mamet count on audiences’ openness to illusion and their enjoyment of misdirection.
Maliszewski underestimates the human desire to be deceived. Admiration for “artists of the fraudulent” endures, as does confounded perception of reality. (“The grand points of human nature are the same to day they were a thousand years ago,” Melville writes in The Confidence-Man. “The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.”) Describing one of the fake news analysts he invented, Maliszewski says he created the embodiment of the money-making dreams of business newspaper readers. Successful con-men function the same way. As David W. Maurer in The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man says of the commonplace wish to get something for nothing:
“Larceny,” or thieves’ blood, runs not only in the veins of professional thieves; it would appear that humanity at large has just a dash of it – and sometimes more. And the con man has learned that he can exploit this human trait to his own ends; if he builds it up carefully and expertly, it flares from simple latent dishonesty to an all-consuming lust which drives the victim to secure funds for speculation by any means at his command.
(Anyone who thinks money-manager/pyramid-builder Bernard Madoff pulled off something new with his investment scheme should consult Maurer’s 1940 handbook.) What Americans don’t care for is failures, like the exposed frauds Maliszewski writes about. “Fakers,” he explains, “by their nature, remain elusive,” but this is a talent Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Laura Albert and James Frey did not have.
Maliszewski misreads the challenge implicit in true con artists’ mixing, blurring and faking. Despite the complicating efforts of clever pretenders, he writes as if truth and untruth resided in clearly demarcated zones. Some wily characters may try to misrepresent untruth as truth. Such trickery is permissible, he allows, when hoaxers want to draw attention to unquestioned assumptions or journalistic laziness. Otherwise it amounts to moral laxity. While he thinks Chabon demotes real life in favor of fiction, Maliszewski underappreciates art’s ability to reveal truth through fakery. He implies that the truth of accountants (or upright journalists) can be the whole truth. The tricks he finds so entertaining ought to undermine such confidence. - John G. Rodwan, Jr


 It’s only a matter of time before a scam is revealed.  And in recent years, stories revealing the discovery of fraudulent behavior have made some of the biggest headlines, dominating page space in print and online articles, in addition to consuming airtime on news broadcasts.  There was the MySpace Mom who posed as a teenage boy on the social networking site, in an attempt to monitor what a thirteen-year-old girl was saying about her daughter.  Three men from California preserved a gorilla suit in their freezer, claiming it was Bigfoot.  And late last year, Bernie Madoff was arrested and charged for running the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.  The media searched for reasons why these people trick scammed both their neighbors and the public.  Power, vengeance, fame, money.  What compels people to deceive others?
Paul Maliszewski’s insightful first book, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, concentrates on cases of fraud in the worlds of art and media.  Part memoir, part investigative report, Maliszewski explores the reasons fakers do what they do, and why people tend to believe them.  The book opens with a confessional essay titled, “I, Faker.”  While working as a staff writer for the Business Journal of Central New York, Maliszewski felt the stories he covered lacked depth and insight.  The real stories were lost behind facts and figures.  He couldn’t tap into a creative outlet on the job, so he adopted several personas and began writing satirical letters to the editor of this publication.  Right away the reader is aware of his stake in answering the whys of fakery.  This personal investment drives Maliszewski on a thorough quest to make connections to and draw distinctions from other pretenders.
Fakers looks at such recent well-known writers/hoaxers as Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Margaret B. Jones.  The book covers the widely distributed email about the world’s largest man-eating bear and the origins of the Con Man.  It also includes hoaxes that might be lesser known to the general public.  In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series of stories, proclaiming there was life on the moon.  In 2002, the New York Times Magazine fired Michael Finkel for creating a composite character from multiple personal accounts, then passing this character off as a real person.  And in 2004, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Chabon, delivered a speech that contained fictional elements, but presented it as nonfiction.
While the stories profiled contain clear arguments as to why people fake, Maliszewski explores all angles of his subjects to get a better understanding of the people involved.  He shows compassion toward fakers whose intentions weren’t malicious and, at times, comes to their defense.  Passionate about the art of great fakery, Maliszewski wants to make clear the distinction between satire and scam.  He does go after individuals who intentionally twist the truth and soil real people’s reputations for the sake of a good story.
But the underlying message seems to be one of hope.  That’s why Maliszewski wants to separate the satirists from the scammers.  All fakery isn’t created to harm others.  When carried out successfully, satire contains a message behind the hoax.  It’s about pointing out absurdities and revealing truths.  People can miss the emotional truth of a story when they discover that on the surface, it’s not 100% empirically true.  Why do people buy into these hoaxes?  Maliszewski presents several answers for this question.  One being that good writing makes a story more believable—the fakery goes unnoticed when the narrative seems flawless.  But most hoaxes are short lived.  Eventually the faker is exposed.  And what causes uproar in a lot of these cases is another reason why people initially buy into the hoax.  They want to believe the stories are true.  Social issues surrounding a hoax can make people suspend their disbelief or blind them to the possibility that the story could be fabricated.
Maliszewski writes these essays with smooth prose and structures them in a way that creates the kind of dramatic tension found in any good story.  These profiles are both informative and entertaining.  Blending research and interviews with his desire to find answers, Maliszewski avoids dry reporting.  His in-depth analysis of each case, the attention he pays to them, makes the reader want him to succeed on this comprehensive journey. - livenudebooks.wordpress.com/



An Interview with Paul Maliszewski

Honesty and authenticity are qualities that are highly esteemed in our culture. However, there have always been charlatans who have enchanted the populace, whether it is through mass media or more subversive methods of communication. Once these masqueraders are defrocked they frequently become convenient scapegoats for all stripes of cultural criticism. While the public outrage is vociferous and often legitimate, such screed rarely does justice to the complex factors behind these hoaxes and the personas involved. Paul Maliszewski’s Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, published by The New Press, analyzes hoaxes both contemporary and historical; it also recaps Maliszewski’s own career as a faker and the motivations behind his and others satirical creations.
In addition to Fakers Paul also edited McSweeney’s #8, which was thematically structured around the concepts of fact versus fiction, and the various shades of truth; as well as two issues of The Denver Quarterly dedicated to writing about locales real and speculative. He was a co-creator, along with Amie Barrodale, of The Allen Pearl Files, a satiric literary gossip column and his short fiction and criticism has been published in a wide array of literary journals and magazines.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in mid-February.
Fakers is your first book but you have been writing extensively on the subject of hoaxes and frauds for several years. What was the initial inspiration behind your fascination with these tricksters in our midsts?
I have two answers for you. In 1997, I started submitting satiric letters to the editor at a business newspaper where I worked as a reporter. A year later, I published the first part of my exploits in The Baffler. Around that time, Stephen Glass was discovered faking at The New Republic. I’ve often thought that coincidence, of Glass doing what he was doing and me doing what I was doing, motivated me to keep studying hoaxes and frauds. I wanted to understand the difference between my satires and Glass’s fakes, and yet I also wanted to get at what made our writing credible enough to pass as fact.
The other answer is that when I started to collect all these essays together for my book, I wrote a new piece about Internet hoaxes, which includes a short section I came to think of as my autobiography in pseudonyms. Writing that reminded me I’d really been faking and adopting made-up names much longer than I’d realized. In fact, the earliest episode goes back to when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. I told my brother that a neighbor, a talent scout for the Houston Astros, was so bowled over by my baseball-playing skills that he wrote me a letter to urge me to keep the Astros in mind and look him up when I was a bit older. Of course, I forged that letter.
The opening essay, “I, Faker” details your own satirical creations for an upstate New York business journal while you were employed as a staff writer. Some of your characters such as Carl Grimm and Gary Pike seem to border on the edge of sanity. Did you think that some of their jargon filled statements and stances were a way of subtly indicating that they were in fact fabrications? Did you think that the newspaper readers ever took their suggestions seriously?
It’s funny, one journalist I recently talked with about the book wanted me to understand that while the newspaper I wrote for published my satiric letters and opinion pieces and even two news articles, at his paper, that stuff never would have been accepted. Another journalist, however, who formerly worked as a writer at a trade journal for the insurance industry, said my satires seemed almost reasonable compared to some of the fulminations they regularly published. When you get beneath the radar of the trusted business publications -- the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and so forth -- and you start to get into the smaller venues, you find that businesspeople, some of them, routinely say some crazy things, and they publish them, and what’s more those crazy things pass for thoughtfulness in that world. The foot soldiers of free enterprise and the market economy hold as true and dear some strange ideas, ideas ripe, I thought, for satire.
As for taking the satires seriously, as fact, there’s always, with satire, an audience that’s in on the joke and another group of people who not only don’t get the joke, they don’t even register that they’re in the presence of humor. The joke’s not just on them, the joke, in some sense, is they. And while satirists do sometimes wink to readers and nudge them in the ribs, I didn’t think I needed to indicate or signal much to the people who are in on the joke. What tips them off, really, are their values. If they value, say, people and their labor as something more than a mere commodity, to be priced out as cheaply as it can be found, regardless of the consequences and the toll that philosophy takes on the society, then they’ll see those satires for the jokes they are.
In the same essay you also discuss a more elaborate construction of a fictional company, Teloperators Rex, Inc., that involved all of the accoutrements of an actual business but was in fact a satire on the types of companies that proliferated during the dot com era. The scope of your project caused an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office. Despite the harrowing experience how satisfying was it as a writer to see this creation enter the three dimensional world and the havoc that a fictional entity can cause?
Once I’d managed to publish a number of the letters to the editor, I figured I was ready to try an opinion column, as those seemed more a part of the newspaper. Letters to the editor appear in the paper, but they’re not exactly of the paper, you know; they’re more like voices from outside. I knew I eventually wanted to write a news article. That was the Holy Grail, to get my satires accepted as news.
It was harrowing in the end. I shouldn’t downplay that. It really was not pleasant to be questioned by detectives for several hours, despite the fact I knew -- and was confident -- I’d done nothing wrong. I mean, as they let me go, they told me they were planning to continue their investigation. They also said I shouldn’t leave the state, and that I still might be arrested at a later date. Weeks later, I was still wondering if the other foot was going to fall. When would they scoop me up? Would they come in the early morning or at night? That sort of thing. But yes, over time, it became less harrowing and quite a bit more satisfying.
I wanted all along to create fictions that would, as you say, enter the world. I’ve written about how dissatisfied I was as a reporter, and how my disgruntlement led me to write satires. But at the same time, I was discontented with literary publication. I wanted to write stories about business, but I didn’t want them to be framed as literary artifacts and read exclusively by the literary world. I didn’t see that world as my audience, ultimately. Or, at least, it wasn’t my ideal audience, namely because the vast majority of literary readers are already in on the joke. Most of them share the same political beliefs. So literary publication of these satires would just belike facing the choir and singing a few of their favorite tunes.
There has been much public hand wringing over the revelation of false or “embellished” memoirs such as those by James Frey, Margaret Jones and most recently Herman Rosenblat. Why do you think that the reading public is so drawn to the memoir, a deeply flawed form at best? Does their appetite for the amazing but true contribute to the memoirist’s tendency to exaggerate and fabricate in order to attract and subsequently placate such an audience?
You’re inviting me to generalize, which I try to avoid, and speculate, which I have no talent for, but let me dive in anyway, okay? I think the memoir is an ideal form for our self-help culture. If you had to invent a new type of written expression, one that would best capture the ideas and themes juggled on an average week of Oprah, the memoir would be your vehicle. Memoirs are first-person accounts, which makes them well-suited for both the it’s-all-about-me culture and the woe-is-me culture. Sometimes memoirs are broad-minded and far-seeing enough to offer a look at a nuclear family, but even those tend to be stories about an individual struggling and surviving within the household. And for all their gritty details, these books are still, at heart, uplifting. The memoir itself -- the fact that you can hold in your hands this pile of paper and glue -- testifies to the triumph of the individual. And that’s a comfort to the reader. As Chris Lehmann observed in an article for The Nation about Love and Consequences, the Margaret Jones/Margaret Seltzer production, memoirs provide us with both “extremity in suffering and the quiet grace of self-deliverance.” You get the bad times and, by the end, the good.
You used the word “appetite” to describe the reading public. I can’t say whether readers’ appetites led or motivated any of those writers to fake or embellish their life stories, but I like the word “appetite,” because it draws attention to the role of readers. That is, there are the fakers, whom we hear all about when they’re discovered, and there are the legions of those who are fooled, about whom we learn much less. The fooled aren’t wholly innocent. They’re not accomplices, but they are part of the transaction. Another way of looking at it is to say that there are suppliers of memoirs, some true, some few made-up, and there is, on the other side, great demand for those works. The demand, the appetite -- whatever you want to call it -- cannot be ignored. I tried in my book to look as much at the fakers as the believers.
And if I may add, there are excellent memoirs. I’ve read some. I’m not laying waste to the whole enterprise here.
In the book you discuss historical hoaxes, i.e. The New York Sun’s infamous lunar man-bat story in 1835, as well as the sort of deceptions that have arisen in the digital age. How do hoaxes represent their era of creation and how do they continue to adapt and still be effective tools of satire?
Art historians have a much better grasp on fakes and fakers than journalists. Art historians actually study fakes. One museum I wrote about was fooled by a forger, but later started collecting fakes, because the director believed they were an important tool for teaching students how to look at art. In addition, there have been exhibitions of fakes and catalogs written about infamous fakers. Journalists, by contrast, generally employ the bad-apple defense. They circle their wagons. Maybe they publish a few searching op-eds about the erosion of the public’s trust in newspapers, but they pretty much go about their work exactly as before.
Art historians use fakes to understand how a particular era looked at, say, the medieval period. If you have a fake medieval stein and you determine it was fabricated in the early twentieth-century, it can tell you a lot about how people of that period looked at medieval metalwork, and what they knew then about medieval culture, because presumably the fake must have looked medieval enough to someone.
Every fake contains the fingerprints of the age in which it was created. But those fingerprints can be hard for contemporaries to detect. That museum director I mentioned said the effective lifespan of a forgery is a single generation. After that, our sensibility changes. Our eyes change. What fooled our fathers doesn’t seem remotely plausible to us. Take the moon hoax story you mentioned. How ridiculous it seems to us now, the idea that anyone ever believed life -- man-bats and fire-wielding beavers, among much else -- was discovered on the moon. And yet we are fooled plenty, and often, by other things. We’re certainly not immune to fakes. We’re not even necessarily smarter about detecting them. Anyone who doesn’t think we have blindspots need only recall Herman Rosenblat’s touching Holocaust love story or Misha DeFonseca’s tales of living in the woods during World War II -- as a child, mind you -- and being befriended by wolves. We’re only smarter about a few select things. But at least we’ll never fall for the man-bats again.
As for how fakes adapt and stay effective, I would just say that the fakers are adapting. Fakers are as much a part and product of their time as you and I. But their fakes are flattering creations. Unlike true art, fakes don’t tax or challenge or arrest the eye. They feel comfortable. They fit in with what we already know, maybe they subtly congratulate us for knowing it, maybe they’re just similar to something else we read or saw. Think of Stephen Glass’s fictional articles for The New Republic. For all that was colorful and hilarious in them, at heart they were quite plain, bland even, just repackaged versions of the conventional wisdom.
Journalism has been rife with embellishment and fabrication since the inception of the form. Why do the structures of newspaper and magazine journalism so easily lend themselves to duplicity?
I’m not sure journalism is rife with fabrication. I’ve remained optimistic, even after writing these essays. So I still believe fictionalized articles are the exception; I just happen also to think that those exceptions can tell us something about honest journalism. Much of the fake work that has been discovered is what I’d call narrative journalism. The writers are trying to balance the news-gathering and truth-telling objectives of the journalist with the storyteller’s ambitions to entertain, entrance, amaze, move, and so forth. Now, the storyteller is not necessarily at odds with the journalist; we’ve all read and appreciated great narrative journalism, but those objectives are exceedingly hard to balance. It’s easy to let the storyteller take over. I wonder, too, if the storyteller is so important to us -- if we like stories so well -- what does that mean for subjects that don’t lend themselves to narrative, that don’t, say, have a main character we can follow through some real-life drama?
The essay “Lie, Memory” details the fictions involved in a predominantly autobiographical lecture delivered by Michael Chabon and the subsequent “literary dustup” that ensued. Do you think that the elements of fantasy made the “biographical” portion more concrete and subsequently believable? It sort of reminded me of the three stages, turn, pledge and prestige, of an illusion.
When I interviewed Chabon, he talked quite a bit about magic. He likes the parallels between the magician and the novelist. Both, I suppose, are trying to create the impossible right in front of our eyes. He also likened his lecture to “close-up card-handling” and said, “There’s such a long-standing connection between the idea of the con and the confidence man and the storyteller or the writer.”
I’ve never been comfortable with the old saw that a writer is nothing more than a great liar, except the lies the writer tells somehow get at the truth. I think that’s too tidy. It manages to be both self-effacing (I’m just a liar, folks) and self-congratulatory in that oh-but-what-a-rake-I-am way. I do think there’s a relationship between the clearly fantastic portion of Chabon’s lecture and the part that’s more about his childhood. One does feed and even substantiate the other. Things can appear to readers -- or listeners -- true and real by comparison. What’s more, because the lecture moves back and forth between fantasy and biography (a biography that skates at times on the edge of tragedy), the tragic passages have the feel of someone saying to you, “All right, no more monkeying around now with golems, this part is serious.” People respond to those cues. They listen differently. I do think that’s why everybody I interviewed from the audiences at those lectures believed not just the biography but the parts where Chabon details his supposed brush with a Nazi who is passing himself off as a Holocaust survivor.
You have taught creative writing at George Washington University and have published stories in One Story, Bomb, The Paris Review and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. Will we see a story collection from you in the near future? How has your study of fakers informed your fiction writing? What other projects are you working on?
I’m not sure the study of fakers informed my fiction writing, but those satires I submitted to the business newspaper have. I wrote them at a time when I felt uneasy about traditional stories. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted in those satires not just to tell a story but to make something happen. So instead of relating a story about, say, a machine, I wanted to create the new machine, turn it on, and show everybody. After writing more than a dozen satires though, I either got that out of my system or came to peace with stories that look, well, exactly like stories. They’re not disguised. They’re not pretending to be something else. They’re not appearing somewhere you don’t expect stories to pop up. They’re just stories.
My story collection Prayer and Parable is forthcoming from Fence Books. And my friend Steve Featherstone and I are collaborating on a book about Joseph Mitchell, which will be published by Princeton Architectural Press. Otherwise, I’ve been reading back issues of a 1950s satirical magazine called Humbug, founded by some of the principals behind Mad magazine. This is for a review I’m writing for Harper’s about the problems and challenges of satire, something I think I’ve been writing in my head for a very long time.- Interview by Sean P. Carroll

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