“I don’t know how to write a 300-page Aristotelian drama.”
Non-exhaustive list of words that Adam Ehrlich Sachs finds inherently funny:
Some words, it is true, are very funny. “Astral tube” conjures an altogether more humorous image than “telescope.” “Glockenspiel” is somewhat difficult to utter with serious intent, and the difficulty compounds the more it is uttered. As for proper nouns, “the Habsburg Empire” has just a touch of ridiculousness, as do the names Greta, Heinrich, and Gottfried.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs, author of The Organs of Sense, a novel (May, FSG), has an ear that is exquisitely tuned to the potential comedy of words. This extends to casual conversation: he has been accused not of slander, he will say, but of calumny; he confesses to a hope that is not silly, but demented. This last word, and other variations of insanity, come up often in his work. Sachs’s novel tells the winding story of a young Leibniz in the year 1666 who hears of a blind astronomer’s prediction that a solar eclipse will shroud all of Europe in darkness for exactly four seconds. None of the other, sighted, astronomers in the kingdom has made the same prediction. Is this man a genius, or completely mad? Leibniz wonders. Or, a mad genius? Or, neither a genius, nor mad? Compelled by the logical puzzle of determining the soundness of another’s mind, he decides to find the blind astronomer.
Earlier this month, I spoke to Sachs about The Organs of Sense and his first book, Inherited Disorders, at McNally Jackson bookstore in Brooklyn. At some point during the talk Sachs claimed to not be a funny person; despite this, there was frequent laughter. This interview is adapted from that conversation.
I. “I’m usually enticed by a combination of ridiculousness and brilliance.”
THE BELIEVER: Why did you choose Leibniz as your central character in The Organs of Sense?
ADAM EHRLICH SACHS: For one thing, Leibniz is an inherently ridiculous character. Apparently he had a cyst on his head, so he wore a huge wig to cover it, a much bigger wig than one would need to cover a cyst of that size. He was made fun of for that in his own time. And Voltaire made fun of him in Candide. Everyone was making fun of him all the time. Recently I wrote a little piece online making fun of him and a Leibniz scholar accused me of calumny, so I guess it’s still a sore point. Leibniz invented calculus, but he also came up with a get-rich-quick scheme to pump water out of silver mines using windmills and it failed disastrously. He tried to pitch the King of France on a new crusade in Egypt and the King, who was a madman himself, thought he was crazy. And at the same time, he was obviously a genius. I’m usually enticed by that combination of ridiculousness and brilliance. Philosophically, Leibniz was the great reactionary of the 17th century: against Descartes, against Spinoza, the modernists who threatened ideas of free will and the soul. He had the very understandable and reasonable urge to defend those things. But it brought him by the end of his life to the very bizarre theory of The Monadology, that the world consists of a multitude of self-enclosed entities called monads that are not material and can’t communicate, can’t see one another, because if they could then one thing could cause another, and you’d be on the fast track to determinism. So they exist but they can’t see each other, but they have to act in concert or else the world wouldn’t make sense. So his final stroke of genius was to assert that God made them all act that way from the beginning of time, in pre-established harmony. In both fiction and philosophy I like works that start from a reasonable premise and escalate step by logical step into demented fantasias. Kafka does that in fiction and Leibniz does that in philosophy.
BLVR: You start from an existing world, 17th-century Bohemia, in the book but your tether to the ground is thin; the story quickly departs from historical reality and goes off into fable. How much research did you do for the book?
AES: Probably more than was necessary. I did read that Leibniz scholar’s book, the one who accused me of calumny—it was a very good book. I’m glad you say the book quickly goes into its own world. That’s where I want to end up, but I can’t start there. The beginning of the book for me is about tricking myself into taking it seriously. I have to convince myself that I’m not wasting my time, not wasting my life. The way I do this, initially, is by writing something that refers to reality. It’s a psychological thing. In the same way that these characters lift off into their lunacy, I try to lift off into freedom, but like them I have to start reasonably and get there logically. But I also had the hope—what is surely a demented hope—that I was commenting on Leibniz’s philosophy in the background, and that the Leibniz scholar who hates me would notice that and celebrate me.
BLVR: To me, the book seemed very much a philosophical exercise in fiction not only in its themes but in its structure and prose style as well. You form these logical pathways of “if P then Q” or “if not P then not Q” that seemed to come out of symbolic logic. So the structure of the prose mirrors the content of the book in a really nice way.
AES: I think some of the reading I did, even if it didn’t come in as research, contributed to the feel of one of these demented 17th-century Rationalist texts, like Spinoza deductively out of pure logic coming up with the ethical life. There’s a lot of crazy, brilliant writing from that century that I wanted to infect this prose with.
II. “Family relationships are the only philosophical ones.”
BLVR: I imagine that having a historical world is useful to push off of to create a narrative, but it’s also useful for humor because the reader has a certain set of expectations when the subject is science, philosophy, astronomy—serious, weighty subjects—and then when the story goes off in a different direction that feels delightful. Your first book, Inherited Disorders, was a compilation of very short stories—a paragraph, a page, a couple of pages at most—and they were all variations on the same theme. The Organs of Sense has a similar prose style and continues similar themes, but of course it’s a novel. Instead of a multitude of stories about fathers and sons that are happening in diverse locations and points of time it’s one particular story and set of characters and their relationships. How was the process of writing different for those two books?
AES: I’m glad you think this book is one story, because writing it it ended up feeling like a lot of different stories. I tried to call the first book a novel, but no one bought or believed that, so this time I needed to write something that people would really think was a novel. This book is structured as monologues within monologues within monologues. I’ve been calling them nested monologues but someone at the last reading pointed out that they’re telescopic, and I clearly should have been using that metaphor. In a way it still felt like distinct stories. I don’t know how to write a 300-page Aristotelian drama so every book is just figuring out some other mechanism to keep the thing going.
BLVR: What work are you doing toward writing when you’re not writing? You took a family trip to the Czech Republic—did that inform your writing, even if not in a direct way?
AES: Like all writers, I spend a lot of time reading things and doing things that I hope, by some alchemy, will enrich whatever I’m writing, while knowing in the back of my mind that I’m almost certainly just procrastinating. Hence my Czech “research trip” for this book. Happily that trip doubled as a heritage tour. My mom is from Prague, and her father was a Bohemian scientist who died just before I started this book, and lurks behind the whole thing. I’m always trying to write about my family in some way but I need to go way out of the way to get back to it for some reason. Everything has to be as oblique and circuitous as possible. Anyway, my grandfather was born in Karlsbad, an old spa town in the mountains, which after his death my family decided to visit. There we had a very confused genealogist who showed us another family’s sites, and it took us a long time to realize that what we were seeing had almost no relation to us. Then we went to Český Krumlov, in whose castle the historical antecedent of my novel’s deranged prince spent his final days. None of this helps the book at all, probably. But I was there and I thought I should see it. You have to dupe yourself into thinking that your experiences all somehow infuse your writing, because otherwise all your non-writing time can seem like wasted time, and that line of thinking leads to very dark places.
BLVR: The relationships at the heart of your stories are those of family. Father and sons, notably, in Inherited Disorders, and in The Organs of Sense all sorts of complicated competition and love and resentment between parents and children and siblings. What is it about family that you want to work out on the page?
AES: I think family relationships are the only philosophical ones, the only metaphysical ones. I’ll take that back when I write a book about friends or lovers, but it’s what I believe now. You open your eyes, and that’s the world: a couple of parents (if you’re lucky) and maybe a sibling or two staring down at you. You’re born into this primordial soup of preexisting beliefs and desires and attachments and antagonisms, and you’re made up of that soup, but you’re also trying to figure out, as time goes by, where the soup stops and you begin. If the soup stops and if you begin. Whether your worldview is in any meaningful way your own. This is also of course the despairing writer’s constant question.
III. “Where you get more serious you also get funnier.”
BLVR: You wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. Where does your sense of humor come from?
AES: It’s probably some traumatic familial thing. I’m a middle child, so I had to get my dad’s attention. Growing up I don’t think I thought of myself as a funny person, and I don’t think anyone else did either, but a lot of people like me end up knocking on the door of the Lampoon and that stamps you as a funny person.
BLVR: Do you think of yourself as a comedy writer or as a serious novelist who is funny—if there’s a difference between the two? Unfortunately comedy gets marketed in a separate category as general fiction. Do you seek to collapse that distinction?
AES: This is one of the many things I hate about American fiction. How comedy often works in serious novels here is that there’s a sad core of truth and then there’s a sad-clown coating on top of it. The coating’s not serious, it’s for fun. And at some point the book sort of quiets down and you realize you’re at the serious part and it’s no laughing matter anymore, the author has stripped away the coating, everything’s very hushed and meaningful now. Horrible. At FSG and before that at Dalkey Archive Press, my editor, Jeremy Davies, has brought over a lot of wonderful European absurdists for whom the serious and the funny are not separate spheres; where you get more serious, you also get funnier. There’s no candy coating. I aspire to that, for those things to be the same thing.
BLVR: Your characters in The Organs of Sense almost all have a particular obsession or neurosis, sometimes a drive toward creative perfection or intellectual precision and sometimes just madness, but it all is pushed to a point beyond any practical application or usefulness. You’ve hinted at some of the neurotic habits you have when you write—like manually formatting the margins. What other forms do your obsessions take?
AES: Some of it is just run-of-the-mill OCD—touching things repeatedly, etc. For years I’ve kept my family safe at night by checking the lock on our front door an extremely specific number of times. A similar approach to the dials on our stove has consistently prevented our house from burning down every night. As a child I set out to count aloud to a million, and apparently made it into the hundreds of thousands, but only by forcing different family members to keep track of different place-values for me so that I only had to count from one to a hundred over and over and over again. Thinking back on that episode, it seems like it combines a number of my later interests. And even my preferred narrative forms.
BLVR: I wanted to mention your extremely specific and deliberate vocabulary choices. You’re very good at weaving in pseudo-scientific jargon and also interspersing contemporary affect with historical diction in a way that’s really funny. The historical-contemporary effect reminded me of Yorgos Lanthimos’s movie The Favourite.
AES: I just saw that movie recently. I think there’s a bad way of doing it, where the anachronism is part of the comedy, but that movie doesn’t do it. And I wasn’t aiming for that kind of comedy, either. I wasn’t interested in getting anything right, or intentionally wrong, in terms of historical verisimilitude—which is also at tension with the fact that I research too much and have a kind of student-y hope that the Leibniz scholars will appreciate what I’m doing.
BLVR: In your book, there’s a prince who is obsessed with glockenspiels because there’s a particular sound in his head that he wants to find and for a while he thinks, or his father thinks, that this sound might be replicated in a glockenspiel so he collects various glockenspiels. Anyways, the word “glockenspiel” comes up repeatedly over pages and pages. I assume you chose that word because it’s an inherently ridiculous word? You have a fantastic attention to funny words and names and overly long professional titles, for example.
AES: This is a sensitive point because Sam Sacks in a review for The Wall Street Journal accused me of writing that whole section because I liked how the word “glockenspiel” sounds. And I think he might be right. But what he overlooked is that that’s why all the other sections are there, too. I haven’t gotten over that some words sound funny. I think that’s an important thing to have in a book, funny-sounding words. Maybe the only important thing.
BLVR: I also get a sense that you are pointedly satirizing academia, literary criticism, and this sort of pretentious intellectual posturing that is inevitably more about having an opinion than understanding the artist or creator. I’m thinking of the first story from Inherited Disorders, in which there’s a poet whose father was a Nazi soldier but he wants to be purely a nature poet and write only about ferns and ponds and such. But the critical reception of his nature poems are that they are a brilliant and profound meditation on the horrific legacy of his father’s violence. Perhaps I’m projecting because I want literary criticism to be made fun of but I felt like this sort of intellectual inquiry where it’s not merited, and pompousness and pontification, was one of your targets.
AES: My wife’s an academic, and we’re around a lot of academics, so there’s a lot of material. It’s an unresolved love-hate sort of thing. I read a lot of that stuff, a lot of philosophy. I both think it’s bullshit and keep reading it. It wouldn’t interest me just to make fun of these things, to do that kind of empty satire. So I have to think there’s something there, and I do, because I’m fascinated by it. When I’m around academics and reading that stuff it’s attractive, and then I’ll have my fill of it and want to antagonize it. And I run to fiction, and then I get sick of fiction. I guess I’m running between comedy and fiction and scholarship and hating each of them in turn.
BLVR: You used to be a screenwriter, which I was a little bit surprised to read because screenwriting usually necessitates writing in the mode of realism and replicating everyday chatter and banal scenarios of the sort you don’t feature in your published work. Was that a job that you enjoyed?
AES: I was just talking with my wife about the decreasingly lucrative writing path I seem to have taken. In my early twenties I was on a Warner Bros. lot—not that I made a movie. But you seem to be able to make a living that way, and it’s nice to make something that people consume, which is not true of books. But all the horror stories were true. Once I ended up rewriting a children’s movie Casey Affleck wrote called Aardvark Art’s Ark—an unpronounceable title. A purposefully unpronounceable title. Later on, by the way, I was watching 30 Rock and they cut away to the set of a movie with an equally unpronounceable title, The Rural Juror, and the name on the director’s chair is C. Affleck. Anyway, I’m sure he hated what I did with his movie. At some point I had a meeting on the coast and then I was late for a meeting in Burbank and this guy with literally frosted blond hair who was a lackey to some other idiot was screaming at me while I was trying to drive over the hill in traffic. I’m glad I had that experience—it feels like a quintessential American writing experience, to be yelled at like that by someone like that. On the other hand, they were paying me to do it, and if they had made my movies I’d probably still be there, writing brainless animated comedies and getting paid well for it. So it was mutual.