This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives interview
by Dennis Loy Johnson

Continued ...

D.J.: Let's move on to the novel, because that is indeed who populates your book. It's a big cast, even for a short novel, but they are all kind of lost characters. I mean, was that a unifying principal?

I.S.: Yeah, I mean, the only people that I ever really know or can speak about or write about is just, um, this whole kind of blown–away generation — all those people born during Vietnam and to parents who were into EST, into experimenting with drugs, into being themselves and liberating themselves. And then they had little tiny, defenseless infants that they were supposed to take care of.

D.J.: Your parents were hippies?

I.S.: Yeah, I mean, they were sort of like Brooklyn hippies. They were into finding themselves. But the time to find yourself is before you have a kid, you know? But the thing in the book is that it's a book about adults. It's not about kids. But it is about, if you got threatened all the time, if there's danger around you, If you're raised that way, how does it affect you as an adult? How do you learn to trust anyone? How do you ever fall in love? How do you ever have an adult relationship?

D.J.: Maybe this is where the sex question comes in. The book is about adults, but they're all kind of stunted and looking to get comfortable in their adulthood skin and — well, the book contains the most outrageous sex I've read in a book since I–don't–know–when. Bondage, S&M, you name it. You must have been very conscious that this, in itself, would draw attention.

I.S.: Well, you know, yes, but, um, I could not write a missionary sex scene if you paid me. I wouldn't know how to. I wouldn't know why you'd do it. My sex scenes are to show you what happens to adults who take another shot at learning how people relate to each other. When your psyche kind of gets shattered at an early age and you try to put it back together yourself, and you put all the pieces back the wrong way, so your kind of fear/hate/intimacy thing is all wrapped up in this nasty little nexus where he's scared, he's being turned on, he's angry, he's being turned on. And they're all working out these issues on each others' bodies. You know, the narrator, one of his primary missions in life is to be some girl's slave. And if he is some girl's slave, then his life and death is not up to him anymore, and his pleasure is not something to feel guilty about because she's making him do it.

D.J.: So, there's the point that the man is not the dominant person in the sex that you depict —

I.S.: It's not that the man is the sub and the woman is the dom when I'm writing. It's that everybody in the book wants to be the sub. Nobody wants to take responsibility for their own sexuality. Nobody wants to take the blame for having sex, it's such a... it's such a shambled thing.

D.J.: Was it difficult for you to fight the urge to give it a neat ending where the sexual metaphor played through to the end? I don't want you to give away the ending or anything, but ...

I.S.: It shows just the slightest glimmer that people can get over that thing enough so that they don't have to be drug–addicts or alcoholics or, you know, slaves, or dominants. It really is like the main thing anyone wants that I will ever write about is to survive. But this book is more about surviving. I mean, I know – because I'm older than the narrator – that you can learn to cool it, and that it does become less important. All the sex shit, all the drugs, all the drinking. Everything becomes less important when you have a better handle on your own anger and your own fear, but the narrator doesn't know as much as I do. But it's not a how–to book and it's not an after–school special. It's not about how to do better. It's about this is what human beings look like when you fuck with them a certain amount when they were a certain age.

D.J.: Given that you're an extraordinarily media–savvy person, are you concerned that people are just going to fasten on the bawdiness of the book and miss the kind of unique, analogous way you've used sex?

I.S.: I'm in no danger from that, because if someone comes out and says, "Spiegelman is this pornographer. Spiegelman's trying to shock you." What does that do to me except sell books?

D.J.: But beyond that, as a serious, dedicated writer ...

I.S.: As a serious, dedicated writer, I know what I've written. And I know that I wrote what I know to be true about sex. And I know that it's shocking to some people, but it's not shocking to the people I wrote the book for. For me if I hadn't done it, it would've been a fake book. For me to write about all of these people – these young adults who can't get any kind of intimacy going, even on a friendship level that isn't completely troubling and even fatal – for me to leave the sex out of that, it's just a cop–out.
      That said, there's only a few purely sexual scenes in the book, and I struggled to put them in because it's embarrassing to say I know about this. It's embarrassing to say I am into this kind of stuff. But to just put a book out there that says, this is how these people relate to each other, and then not have the sex in it, you never understand the full depth of what has happened to their minds.
      And at the same time, I have no shame about it because I know, despite what polite magazines want you to think, this is how a huge amount of people my age — and ten years from either side of me – these are their sex lives. The whole idea of fetishism is suddenly mainstream. The whole S&M thing has become a fucking parlor joke. I was more reacting against the mainstreaming of that stuff than I was against the typical lame bedroom scene. That's why none of the couples that I put in the book — none of the sadomasochistic relationships in the book – ever work. It's just this kind of blind, na´ve, desperate drive to make any relationship work in any way possible. And that's all anyone in the book, or anyone I know, wants ... to be understood.

D.J.: You're describing a really, deeply, deeply, personal book. Let me make you step back a little bit and talk about any literary models.

I.S.: Well, there's um, in 1890 there's "Hunger" by Knut Hamsun, where all the sudden, it's just this balls–out attack on society, and this one wandering lunatic who can't make a living in one of the most prosperous cities in the world, which is, you know, Oslo in the Victorian age. That's where I kind of started with what should people write about. After him, I mean, the front of the book is "Journey to the End of the Night" by Celine. People think that my book is violent? He just kind of came in this time where everyone was writing this polite stuff, and wrote the most impolite book that anyone's ever written. The thing is almost satanic except that it seems satanic because it's so on the side of human beings and not on the side of systems or governments or technologies. And he's saying, what did I ever have against the Germans? Why do I have to be here sitting in a field shooting at them? And there's also Hemingway, "The Sun Also Rises." It's a great example of how gossip becomes a book. The whole book is the Paris scene and Hemingway's summer with, like, Lady Duff, and this Jew novelist, and the other friends, where the whole time, Hemingway wants to make it with Lady Duff but he can't because he's married, and he comes back telling everyone he's going to fix this dirty Jew, and he writes a whole book just to smear the guy. But it's a great novel, you know?

D.J.: Was there a point writing your book where you realized that the sexual analogy was so essential that you started thinking about it in writerly terms and you looked at some of these earlier works?

I.S.: I did think of "Satyricon." I did think of "Tropic of Cancer." I mean, sex acts can define a whole society. What the hell else is as essential to the lives of human beings as what they do in the bedroom? But when I was writing it, I was mostly thinking, I want to show people, as clearly as possible, what goes on with the human mind when you've fucked with it, when you should not have fucked with it. And the whole point of the book is don't fuck with kids. If you do, we will grow up and kill you.

D.J.: You're a big figure in New York's mainstream society, and yet you've written a book that the New Yorker, say, would have trouble excerpting. Is that a problem for you? Is that intentional?

I.S.: There's no forethought to it. I went to a New Yorker reading when I was 26 or something. And one of the stories, I don't remember who wrote it, it's from a novel. It's about this college professor whose marriage is shit and whatever. He writes this whole story about having a breakfast dinner with all his fellow professors. And the point of the story is the intimacy of violence, like it gets out of hand and one of the larger professors has to kind of hold him, and while he's being held in this bear–hug, he's like, kind of, all of the sudden he's being risen aloft...

D.J.: That's Donald Antrim, from "The Verificationist."

I.S.: Okay good. And he's, um, and he's leaning on this old "violence is intimate, oh, violence brings you and the person closer." And when I first heard it, I sort of liked it, and then I went home and I was like, well, I know about violence. I have lived with violence all of my life. I wonder if I could write about how intimate violence is. I started writing about it, and as soon as I started, I hated this motherfucker.

D.J.: Does it have something to do with writing from a different generation?

I.S.: There are people in that generation who know all about what violence was, too. That generation has Bukowski in it. That generation has fucking Kurt Vonnegut in it. Kurt Vonnegut is never going to tell you how intimate violence is. He's not going to tell you how beautiful it can be. Kurt Vonnegut's going to tell you that I was there when 150,000 humans got vaporized. And Bukowski's gonna tell you what it feels like to get punched in the fucking nose. And as soon as I started writing, the first thing that went into that book, I was like, wait a minute. I remember laying there, with a guy just punching me in the face over and over and over again.

D.J.: That was the first scene you wrote?

IS: Yeah. That was the first scene that I wrote. It didn't become the first scene in the book, but it's in the book. And I was like, wow, there was nothing transcendent about it. I just got the shit beat out of me, and it really fucking hurt, and I had to take codeine for four weeks.

D.J.: So that's what the New Yorker did to you?

I.S.: Yeah. I can thank them for giving me something to work against.

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©2003 Dennis Loy Johnson


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