Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fiction and Transgression: 12 Preliminary Theses

  1. Without conflict, there is no story.
  2. In a stable society, where the power of the state is or appears secure, there is no conflict without transgression of one or more social norms.
  3. When a social norm is codified in law, its transgression is defined as a crime.
  4. To the extent that human conduct is governed by laws which are enforced by a state, therefore, literature as the telling of stories will tend to become synonymous with crime fiction.
  5. A given work of literature's relationship toward crime fiction must be judged synchronously with the system of laws in place at the time and place of its telling.
  6. At present, in the core states of the Anglophone world (U.S. and Britain), as well as the more prosperous states of the periphery (e.g. Canada and Australia) the authority of the state is not subject to large-scale challenge, and has not been for quite some time.
  7. Also at present, within those geographical and linguistic areas, crime fiction is generally regarded as something distinct from fiction as literature, a "genre," and as such is regarded as literature only insofar as it engages in some form of ill-defined self-transcendence.
  8. Coincident with the emergence of that distinction, there has been a widening of the scope of privacy such that certain social norms which were once enforced through law are no longer, though they remain social norms. When Hardy wrote about adultery, for example, he was writing about an act which was defined as a crime, and thereby critiquing the intervention of the state into these libidinal transactions. Now the adultery plot is staple of literary fiction, without criminal implications of any sort. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to consider whether there is a causal or conditional relationship between the emergence of the distinction between "crime" and "literary" fiction and the decriminalization of certain "private" acts. Their temporal coincidence suggests that this would be something worth investigating.)
  9. Thus, crime is now something to be avoided by the writer who seeks for his or her fiction the marks of literary distinction. Yet it is impossible to avoid transgression at all--for without transgression there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no story.
  10. Within "literary realism," therefore, transgression must be kept within careful bounds. Either it must be a transgression of a social norm that is not, or is no longer, a criminal matter, or it must be the sort of transgression that, while formally against the law, is rarely enforced--the sort of thing, like smoking pot or exceeding the speed limit, that "everyone" does and for which "no one" gets arrested.
  11. In practice, this limits the potential subject-positions of the protagonist of such literature. For some people do indeed get arrested for smoking pot or speeding--members of the lower strata of the working class, especially those who are marked as non-white. Just as a young man of color "risks" getting stopped and frisked if he dares walk in New York City, a story risks categorization as genre simply by having a few too many swarthy and/or impoverished characters.
  12. From the above conceptual framework, combined with empirical data, it would be possible to derive a set of mathematical equations for predicting the frequency of certain story-lines (the affair, the uncomfortable cocktail party), characters (the functional alcoholic, the lecherous professor) and demographic types (professionals vs. manual laborers; white people vs. non-white; native-born vs. immigrant) within any given set of fiction defined as "literary".

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Love Is the Law: Interview with Nick Mamatas

JT: One theme I've seen in reviews of Love Is the Law, as a minor criticism which I find off-base, is the suspicion that Dawn serves at times as a sock puppet for your views. For those of us with detailed knowledge of the far-left ecosystem, it's clear you've chosen to set her and Bernstein in a milieu--"orthodox Trotskyist" for lack of a better term--purposefully distinct from your own. What was hardest for you in thinking/writing a character like that?

NM: Not hard per se, but that was the core of the challenge. How do you write characters who find the collapse of the Berlin Wall upsetting, or even apocalyptic? Like anyone else on the far-left, my hobby was reading the opposing newspapers and magazines, so the constant litany of the number of washing machines in East Germany, or the supposed acceptance of personal responsibility for the Cultural Revolution, is pretty bizarre. But it's just a matter of accepting axioms, trudging down the logical path, and entirely ignoring impulses toward pragmatism.

JT: In that respect, it seems similar in some ways to Crowleyan "magick": The notion that one need only find the "correct" slogan acts as a kind of abrahadabra, the stenciled placard as a kind of sigil.

NM: Yup. And if I were to drop you into a room full of Trotskyists and then into a room full of ceremonial magicians, you'll meet many of the same sort of people. Declassed intellectuals who like reading, who keep certain aspects of pop culture at a distance, almost always white and male, occasionally oversexed.

JT: Yet the respective world-views demand that they regard one another as polar opposites. Dawn so much as admits it at several points in the narrative. She is conscious of her own contradictions, but perceives as contradictory systems of belief whose inner connections she is slow to perceive.

It seems to me like it was a conscious decision on your part not to set it in the hot-house atmosphere of a microgroup, to make Bernstein into a "sect-of-one". What can you say about your motivations for that?

NM: Partially I just wanted to set it on Long Island, with a main character loath to set foot in the city, and outside of the occasional college campus or extended hippie family, you just weren't having sects on Long Island in 1989. Partially it was just based on my own experiences. Like going to a house of this kid who had hired me to work on his movie project, and meeting his middle-class parents... and the basement is full of Che Guevera titles. Or meeting an old man on a bus who sees a copy of Socialist Worker in my bag and says, out of nowhere, "Is that a Shachtmanite paper?!" Or the woman who whispers in my ear about Dorothy Day. Leftism was an underground, with more former members of this or that movement than current members.

JT: The Long Island setting seems to me critical to that, in a way that I did not quite realize even as I was reading the book. It hit me earlier today at a birthday party for one of my daughter's school friends. I wander over to the bookshelves--as bookish lefties often will--and even here in suburban, semi-rural Maine I'm seeing Karl Marx & The Black Jacobins--same as on my bookshelf. Yet when I talked with the parents, it was all about our kids' classes, teachers, etc., the usual middle-class aspirationalisms.

At that moment, the "Red Submarine"--which I'm assuming was satirical in intent--seemed like it might have something to it after all.

NM: We're all just waiting for our AK-47s and instructions for the uprising to appear in the mail. Well, Stony Brook did have a group of sorts called the Red Balloon, but RS is more of an inversion than either a send-up or a tribute.

JT: Yet 90% wouldn't know how to handle the weaponry if we got it.

NM: Luckily we only need fifty strong Bolsheviks.

JT: I caught the reference to the Red Balloon, in a moment of sectarian imprecation by Mike that was pitch-perfect. Previously I'd only heard about them through polemics in back issues of Proletarian Revolution.

NM: Ah yes, the grand fight for the hearts and minds of the working class! Red Balloon or LRP, who shall lead us?

JT: In some ways, this seemed like your most formally traditional book. The narrative mostly moves forward in linear time, with fairly standard flashbacks. First person, mostly naturalistic narration, by a seemingly trustworthy narrator. There came a point when I accidentally skipped a couple chapters and had to go back, and the resulting feeling of disorientation put me in mind of Bullettime, but that was my own clumsiness, not your design. Did you want to keep it formally straightforward because this was your first venture into crime fiction, or were there other motivations?

NM: Yup, crime required a minimum of shenanigans. Which makes it more challenging. I was writing a noir story last week and it took all week. I started it in three different ways, got 2000 words in and then starting throwing stuff out. With fantastical fiction, you can paper over narrative logic with spectacle. With crime, you can only get to spectacle through strict adherence to narrative logic.

JT: Yet Dawn's dueling ideologies do result in some moments of retrospective papering over of the sort that is naturalistically performed all the time. Her escape from the final showdown is a function of blind accident and the ineptitude of her opponents, yet in her mind it is her Will and the historical dialectic converging on inevitability.

NM: Well, we are all the heroes of our own stories!

JT: In a certain sense, we have someone who is facing events that could have destroyed her faith in all that she once believed--the collapse of the Soviet Union, the death of her guru, the drug-induced collapse of her family--and we watch as she grasps onto the slenderest shards of what remains to reconstruct it all.

NM: Right; that's the narrative logic. She's telling us her version of events, in the first person. And she's introspective, but like everyone else her ability to see herself is limited by her worldview.

JT: I don't want to destroy your chances of commercial success with crime readers, but Dawn is a terrible detective. She discovers things only when they're directly on top of her, and in the end the story, despite the pile-up of over-the-top events--sex, drugs, rock and roll, murder and the occult--can be said to take place entirely in her head. It's a bit like "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Punker".

NM: Aw, that's okay. I was reading an Ian Rankin novel the other day in which there's 300 pages of spinning a big international conspiracy involving the Russians, a big Scottish bank, and a mysterious sexy woman, but in the end it turns out that some random guy did the murder. It happens. But ultimately, Dawn thinks she's in a hard-boiled detective novel, but actually she's in a noir novel.

JT: I'm not saying it as a criticism. My preference is for stories in which the story that is diverges from the story that is told. In some respects, the lack of fantastic crutches enables that gap to remain in place, unremarked but there for the reader who likes it to seize upon it.

NM: Genres always eat themselves, right out of the womb. Agatha Christie is credited with a lot of the "rules" that are supposed to scaffold mystery writing, but she also published books in which the narrator committed the murder, or ALL the suspects did, etc. So anyone who tries to write something other than paint by numbers will keep from painting by numbers, or at least I hope.

JT: I just finished Rankin's most recent and he pulls a similar misdirection: The character who convinces herself and the cops that there's a serial killer is a distraught mother. There is a serial killer, but it turns out her daughter has just been hiding out from familial dysfunction.

And in the end, I don't think it's ever resolved whether Bernstein's death was homicide or suicide.

NM: Well, Riley thinks it was a homicide, and that he did it!

JT: Now I'm feeling like an idiot, but I had the sense that Riley's "confession" was confessing to some sort of occult process.

NM: Well, yes he thought he killed Bernstein via the occult process. But he's clearly as weird as Dawn.

Some years ago I was in a Wendy's restaurant when a woman bumped into someone and accidentally led that person to spill his drink, and she blamed Satan for what happened. But then she got to chatting with the man and they had a friendly exchange. So then she credited God for spilling the drink, which is how He led her to meet such a nice man.

JT: And Dawn believes in a similar occult process of responsibility as well. Even before Riley's confession, there's this: "So, did Riley kill Bernstein? On one level, it hardly mattered. His neck was made for the lamppost." They were bound to hate each other regardless of their overt actions.

On a totally trivial, inside-baseball level, I have to ask: Did you mean to name Bernstein after the arch-revisionist? Or is it just a happy accident of a common German Jewish name?

NM: Happy, occult accident!

JT: Dawn would say there are no accidents.

So, now the obligatory question: How's retirement from the SF/F/H spectrum treating you? What are the odds of the world seeing something along the line of Bullettime again?

NM: Well, Bullettime was a noir-fantasy, so to get to that again I would either have to march backward, or forward the whole way around the world until I caught up to it from behind. The latter is more likely to happen than the former.

JT: Mostly noir for the moment, then? Or are your marching boots on?

NM: If you're writing, and not trapped writing a bunch of series characters to order, you're automatically wearing them.

JT: So if a publisher asked you to write a Dawn Seliger lesbian erotica prison murder mystery sequel, how much of an advance would they have to offer to get you to accept?

NM: It likely wouldn't take all that much, but they'd really have to publish the sequel in which she is out of the joint, it's 2008, and she's a yoga mom in Berkeley California. Then capitalism appears to collapse...

JT: ...and soon enough she's showing up to Occupy Oakland with her kid strapped into an Ergo baby carrier.

NM: Or something like that!