Bruce Bollinger: Whose features do not impress on their own but which, in the aggregate, give the impression of a man who’s verged on disillusion with everything that matters; he’s calling it quits any day. Henceforth: Verge Face.
D.O.B. 9.4.62 SS# 202-64-1592
Bruce picked at a gristle of cheese welded to an oven mitt. He thought: Okay, Crystal, where are you? It’s Sunday, and I want to leave this house. I cannot baby-sit my wife. I love my wife, but today I can’t do it. How long before she starts crying? Has there ever been a wife who cries more than mine? If Crystal ever gets here, there will be no crying.
He put his ear to the bedroom door. Rita was crying. And calling his name. He tiptoed to the kitchen and crouched behind the fridge. She called again. In doing so, she dwelled on the ew of Bruce so that his name toured the house until it found him. During their early courtship, this had been hot, the melody of the call a G-E progression that generally meant: Come here, lover boy. Now, the progression reversed, it meant simply: Come here, shithead.
Why? Because she was pregnant and it was not going well. Her uterus was loose, the upshot being four months in bed. One hundred twenty days. She’d only just started, and it was torture. As much for him as her. Just now, she’d dropped the TV remote. What did bed rest mean, exactly? Would she actually lose the baby from picking the remote off the floor? The baby would fall out? Why was it okay to walk to the bathroom? Here was an idea: Maybe she could grab the remote on her way.
He checked his watch. He’d never taken interest in Rita’s friends until now. Now they marched in one after the other, bearing casseroles and pie. He and Rita were putting on weight at the same pace. Only Rita was not experiencing the same gastrointestinal distress. He wondered at her resilience. A hormonal thing? To mention it seemed ill-advised, but since Bruce frequently departed from his better sense, he let it be known he envied her. To which: You envy me? Get out. And close the door behind you.
He’d been sleeping on the couch. Pregnancy can strain a marriage. A bad pregnancy can test your vows. Crystal was the day’s rescue. She was half an hour late.
He turned on the video camera and stormed the bedroom.
“Turn that thing off,” Rita said. “You know I hate that thing. I look awful.”
“You’ll be glad for it later. Trust me.”
She pulled the covers over her head. He deposited the camera on the floor. He’d been filming her pregnancy in snatches—when she wasn’t looking, as she slept—because his son’s ratcheting to life was too precious to ignore. Also, the tedium and stress of her venture was moving. Humane. An easy pregnancy would have been great, preferable to be sure, but without emotional content. At least not the kind Bruce was always wanting to capture on film. Normal people drafting their lives, and getting it wrong each time. Reality TV moved him to tears.
click for longer extract
From Woke Up Lonely
Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008; Picador Paperback, 2009) and Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf, 2013), soon to be published in Israel. Her work has appeared in Anthem, Bomb, Book Forum, Boston Book Review, The Common, Conjunctions, Fence, Glamour, The Millions, Mississippi Review, N+1, The New York Times, The NY Times Sunday Book Review, Ploughshares, Salon, Selected Shorts, This American Life, Tin House, The Village Voice, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She is winner of the Bard Prize for Fiction, teaches at Princeton University, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.
You have a new book coming out in 2017. Can you outline this project?
I do! It’s called What Kind of Man and is about what happens when you are emotionally incoherent to yourself—when you just have no idea who you are or what you’re capable of. In gist, it follows a mind-reader who wakes up one morning with no clue what he did last night, only to be presented with evidence that he sexually assaulted a women. He spends much of the book trying to figure out if he did or did not. The novel also follows his father, who has incipient dementia, and a woman who’s out to scam her way into a whole lot of money. I guess I’d say the novel is a hybrid of multiple genres—part domestic drama, part thriller, part science fiction. It’s probably less antic than my first two novels but not by much.
What are you currently working on?
Sadly, I’m still working out final edits on What Kind of a Man. But I did start writing a new book last summer, so I’m hoping to get back to that sooner than later. I’ve also written some short fiction, except, man, this question is making me feel like shit. In my defense, I started a new job working for a legal nonprofit and I had a baby, so my writing life has been sidelined to some degree.
There's a furious humour in your work, which comes through in your interest in genre. Is this a kind of reflex, about how you write, or is there something tactical there?
Total reflex. I certainly never set out to write genre, but I always end up doing so, or at least flirting with genre unintentionally. I guess the madcap has always allowed me to explore people’s inner lives with more freedom than if I come at them straight. Straight narrative has always made me uncomfortable, which probably just means I’m afraid of it. I do think there’s something defended about the madcap—and sometimes about genre—that gets penetrated when you come at things directly. My new project—the thing I started last summer—is a straight narrative, though even as I was working on it, I could see myself veering off into strange directions. So I had to correct for that. Mostly I just like to keep challenging myself, especially when that means denying what comes easiest to me and opting for something else. As for humor, it can come in all guises and has certainly served me well as a skewering device since—to me, anyway—all my novels read as political satire to some extent.
Weird, energetic, wild are the words thrown about in reviews about your writing.
Yes, well. I’ve always been told I was a bit of a weirdo until Karen Russell showed up and then I was like: wait, she’s the weirdo. And I mean that in the best way. What’s been interesting and alarming to me over the years is that people seem to think my work is a lot stranger than I do. Sometimes this has had the effect of making me feel like maybe I’m just not living on the same planet as everyone else. You know, like how maybe what I’m sure is pink is actually blue and everyone knows it but me. So people will ask about my weird characters or write about them and I’ll go: wait, that’s weird? That doesn’t sound weird to me. Doesn’t everyone wear bunny slippers and eat peanut butter for every meal? I will accept “energetic,” though; I think that’s apt. I’ve always had a lot of energy—I’m going to call it passion—which I think generates pace in my sentence-making, though of course pace isn’t always called for. But I do have a lot to say and I tend to feel strongly about things and maybe I don’t have all that much restraint, either. So all that energy gets channeled into the work in one way or another.
Is it possible to characterise your writing, now you've completed three novels. Are there clear shared interests between the works?
Probably. I’ve long been fixated on problems of estrangement and loneliness, and in my first two novels I considered these problems and their cultural and political fallout. But for the new book, I got particularly interested in self-regard and introspection as functions of estrangement insofar as it seems ridiculous to make “knowing each other” a threshold for intimacy when knowledge of self is unavailable to us.
Believe it or not, I got interested in thinking through “knowledge of self” thanks to Brett Favre, who, in 2010, couldn’t seem to decide if he was or was not going to return to the Minnesota Vikings for the season. He’d already retired and come back twice only to find himself unsure (again!) about what to do. So I began to imagine him less as an indecisive man so much as a man who just had no idea what he wanted. And though it was hard to pity what seemed like caprice at the expense of another quarterback, not to mention the whole team, I got interested in what might have struck Favre as the impregnability of his inner life. And just sort of went from there.
I suppose I’m also generally interested in people attempting to surmount their worser selves. Their egos and solipsism. I think this comes up again and again in my work, though one could say all of Western literature is basically about the same thing.
The chapter headings for Woke Up Lonely summarise the content. This kind of playfulness is very much like Swift and Stevenson who both similarly used the title to map out scope and content. There are other similarities in how they played with genre, and with big, packed narratives, and how conscious they always seem to be of the reader... am I making a leap too far here?
I like your leap, though I can’t say I had Swift and Stevenson in mind, per se, when I was writing the chapter titles, though of course I knew they threw back to what those guys were doing. I’m actually an old-fashioned girl and really like the way chapter titles of a certain nature can both orient and disorient. I knew Woke Up Lonely was going to be challenging for some people, so I was looking for ways to anchor it in tradition. Plus I was having some fun.
On your website you list Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge as a favourite novel.
Yep, I think it’s one of the great novels about alcoholism but it’s also just a great novel. How do I self-destruct? Let me count the ways. I am a big Thomas Hardy fan in general. The universe he inhabits in his novels is so cruel and unforgiving. And his characters are so painfully flawed even as they try their best. I modeled the ending of Woke Up Lonely on Tess of the D’Urbervilles, though I think maybe one person noticed, if that. Despite how contemporary my work might seem, I really do feel like an anachronism, though maybe that’s more in temperament than in execution.
In Salon you've written about longing for nuance and complexity, and you link an absence of both to both political debate and to certain strands of fiction and film.
Well, I’m certainly not the first to notice that our politics lack nuance. But, yes, the essay you’re referring to is about being seduced by easy resolutions when what we need—what I think we need—is to be endlessly unsettled and challenged lest we become complacent. Complacency is the enemy of progress. It also numbs us to the barbarism being prosecuted by our nation’s leaders because we’re just too busy feeling good to care. It’s not so much that I long for complexity, though. On the contrary, I yearn for what’s easy. More often than not, I’d rather read a glossy magazine than The New York Review of Books, the one being designed to reassure me that the world is fine, the other designed to narrate the elaborate mess we’ve made of everything. So I often have to force myself to confront the ugly truths and to do the hard labor of thinking when I know that there are no easy solutions to, say, terrorism. Deny all immigrants access to the country and start WWIII? That’s about as un-nuanced as it gets. Let me just thread this needle with a hammer. Political discourse loves this stuff for all the obvious reasons. This is probably why the Right hates Obama so much. I think he’s made many mistakes but he’s still a real thinker who trucks in nuance and complexity, which I’m sure drives all these gun-toting, race-bating war mongers crazy.
Terry Eagleton has (kind of) remarked that the rise of literature into the modern age was as much about sedation as it is about education, or improvement. A literate workforce could, arguably, be more compliant and more susceptible to control... in your article in Salon, you're starting to lay out a set of notions, or programme, about the usefulness of the novel?
It’s never occurred to me that a literate anything could be more susceptible to control unless all they’re reading are propaganda pamphlets. Was I laying out a program? I am wary of programs and manifestos and sweeping statements about the purpose of the novel. Though I do remember once reading an interview with a writer I admire who said something like: Fiction has no obligation except to be good, and thinking: do I agree with that? I guess I do, provided that good means staked in something fraught. I suppose I think fiction should spend some time illuminating the gray area—moral ambiguity—and forcing us to look at it until we are thoroughly uncomfortable and implicated in some way. That’s not to say that I don’t think fiction was meant to be enjoyed, but that maybe it’s not meant only to entertain.
You make short videos, which are the opposite of how you work in your fiction - being quick, low-fi, pieces. The same smart wit, perhaps?
I haven’t made a movie in ages. But I love making them, probably because I can be a dilettante without guilt and because the form allows for a pithy approach to narrative, which I never take in my fiction. Someone recently called me a Maximalist, which I thought was a compliment. But apparently it wasn’t. So maybe that guy should just watch my movies instead. Can you email him?
Hello! I am 5 feet 11 inches and have a medium build. I have dark brown hair and blue eyes. My skin color is pale. My mother’s ethnic origin is Belgian, my father’s ethnic origin is Polish and French. My racial color code as established by the Chicago Bank of Life is white. I am a full-time student and barista, and on the weekends, I volunteer in the cardiac care wing of a local hospital to tenderize my guilt before gorging on it whole.
Hello. I am 5 feet 11 inches and have a medium build. I have dark brown hair and blue eyes, lagoon blue, which people have remarked on with some incredulity. My skin color is white. My mom’s parents live in Oslo, though they’ve basically retired to their second home on the banks of the Aurlandsfjord. My dad’s parents are dead, but we don’t talk about that much. I am studying physics at a small graduate school because the implacable laws of the universe are of interest to me. My parents give me money, though I tell them not to. We are five kids in the family—me and four girls—and while I’m not the eldest, that doesn’t mean I cannot provide for myself. Especially since the eldest, Janine, is on medication that costs $1,000 a month, except watch what happens if she misses a dose.
From Dad's Just a Number, Ploughshares
Fiona Maazel website
US publisher: Graywolf Press, & Picador
Woke Up Lonely from Powells, from Amazon