“In a way, the novel hasn’t changed significantly in all of these centuries. You can kind of look at the Joyces and the Robbe-Grillets and the John Barths or whoever as anomalies. Off grazing in their own little paddock. And that’s great. That means literature persists as an art form but also in commerce. People still buy and consume literature.”
Existed in 1924
Doesn’t preclude seriousness
Peter Mendelsund’s debut novel, Same Same, arrives in stores exactly one month before Andrew Ridker’s debut, The Altruists. It’s only fitting that these two (very different) novels should be published back to back; they were written over the same two-year span at desks no more than thirty feet apart.
Readers will recognize Mendelsund as the author of What We See When We Read and as the designer behind iconic covers for novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as classic works by Kafka, Joyce, and Dostoevsky. Before his career as a designer, Mendelsund studied classical piano. Same Same, which marks his first foray into fiction, takes place at a mysterious Institute in the desert where various creative types (The Architect, The Philosopher, The Woman Whose Hands and Face are Covered in Yarn) convene to work on their ambitious, vague, and seemingly unfinishable projects. Witty, brilliant, and defiantly strange, Same Same is the novel Walter Benjamin might have written after a long night’s drinking with the two Thomases, Pynchon and Mann.
The desert—or, more accurately, the lowveld of rural Zimbabwe—plays a pivotal role in The Altruists. It is a place of promise and despair for Arthur Alter, the patriarch whose ambitions and miscalculations shape the novel. The novel tracks his estrangement from his children, self-conscious Ethan and idealistic Maggie, and his attempts at reconciliation as he schemes to con them out of their inheritance. Spanning continents and generations, The Altruists is at once a portrait of a family in crisis and a comic exploration of love in its many permutations: romantic, filial, familial, unrequited, perverted, and fulfilled.
The two novelists met at Mendelsund’s book-filled apartment on the Upper West Side where they talked over sandwiches and periodically shooed away a cat named Pickles.
I. I’ll Get Back to You on Tuesday
PETER MENDELSUND: I was having a conversation with a friend who’s a puppeteer. Which is like, ha-ha—
ANDREW RIDKER: I didn’t say anything!
PM: But he said something to me that I thought was really fascinating. He was saying that in puppetry the big thing is addressing the artifice; which is to say that it’s so obvious at a puppet show that there are people walking around holding strings or rods or whatever. So in a way, the form, puppetry, dictates that you have to address two things: the diegetic material that the puppets are performing, and the actions the puppeteer is performing. I.e., if you want mimesis, if you want suspension of disbelief, go to a fucking movie.
All puppetry since the dawn of film has to reference this question: “Well, what do we do about this guy running around in the black suit who everyone can see?” And for me, fiction’s no different. Fiction also involves all of these obvious mechanics that are visible to the audience, and so should be addressed.
AR: I see it differently. I don’t need everything to acknowledge its construction or artifice, but I’m also not looking for mimesis. In fiction, at least, I love the artifice. It’s more exciting than life. I never really struggled against those constructions because they’re so pleasurable. I’ll come away from reading Tom McCarthy or Ben Lerner and for a day afterwards my head is in pieces because I’m like, “This is clearly the only way to write a book, how can I go back to this dream world I’ve made when other people have so elegantly pointed out that it’s a dream?” But inevitably, after a day or so, I’m back in the dream.
PM: In a way, I agree with you. You can’t really prescribe these things, nor should you. I’m always really angry when someone says that fiction equals X, Y, or Z, because there’s obviously a million ways to read and take pleasure from reading. Reading your way through a dense, difficult novel—there’s real pleasure there. It’s somewhat akin to the pleasure of listening to spiky, atonal music; or looking at non-figurative canvases; difficult works, that are made in order to rearrange your synapses in a particular way, and they’re unusual and challenging and that’s a pleasure. As you said, they make you see the world in a new way, and this can be bracing. But another pleasure is wanting to know what the hell happens in a plot, and then being satisfied by a story’s resolution. The one pleasure shouldn’t preclude the other, and I think we would both agree that it’s ridiculous to draw those kinds of lines. Though I will say that I increasingly value originality in fiction; originality in formal structure, in diction, in the worldview being presented. There’s a kind of trite, received world we tend to represent in our novels. And, I find in the age that we’re living in now, there’s an increasing formulaicness to every way in which we represent ourselves and interact: on social media, on email, in person, in our art. There are more and more of these stock, phatic kinds of modes. Whether it’s an emoji, or—
AR: Gmail autocompleting, “Do you want to respond, Thanks, I’ll get back to you on Tuesday?” Those aren’t my words anymore—but also, thank you, and I’ll get back to you on Tuesday.
PM: Right. We are being given stock phrases and images to communicate with, for our own convenience. And these conveniences make our lives efficient, stable, comfortable, predictable. All of these received modes are, in a way, delimiting experience. And I worry sometimes that we foreclose on all the weirder parts of life, in habitually using such prefab means; whether they are emojis or realist fiction. And I think that if we were able to wriggle out of those narrative formulas, we would see how strange life really is.
II. Dense with Meaning
AR: Your background was in music, originally, and I sort of started in poetry. I aspired to be a poet in high school and college. When it comes to form and structure, a sonnet, for example, always felt like a straightjacket. But someone like Terrance Hayes can use the constraint while also playing within it. And that to me is somewhat more interesting than a certain kind of poetry that’s free-form to the point of words melting off the page.
PM: In poetry there’s so much density of meaning. In a novel, there’s so much moving things along. You can’t get bogged down, word-by-word in the same way you do writing a poem. Did you find it hard to transition from thinking on the word level to thinking, say, on the chapter level?
AR: Well, my poems were not very dense with meaning, because they weren’t very good. I don’t think I write in a particularly lyrical way, but I’m always listening to the sounds of words and sentences. But my poems were often narrative poems. I didn’t have the abstract brain that I think you need for poetry. I would hand my poems in to Mary Jo Bang, who was my poetry teacher at the time, and she would hand them back with almost everything crossed out, except the interesting words. And there would be a beautiful poem left behind after that erasure. But I could never get there on my own, and I felt weird about erasing myself like that.
PM: Conversely, I was just talking to someone who’s in an MFA and writing a novel, and their teacher was crossing out every sentence that didn’t just move the plot along.
AR: And there’s something to that. Maybe this is what you mean by density: an economy of meaning, of motion. It applies to all written forms.
PM: But I think you need a comfort level with putting something prosaic on the page, because it’s an important part of the mechanism.
PM: I remember once we were talking about formulaic stuff in novels, in dialogue specifically, and we were talking about how often in fictional dialog people sigh.
AR: That’s really funny because I remember one distinct note from my editor that went, “Too much sighing.” Not like there were fifty sighs in a row, but more like: “Wow, people in this novel sure are sighing a lot.” Which I think speaks to my worldview more than anything. A not-so-subtle tell.
PM: People shrug a lot in novels too, I realized. And “reach for” things while they talk. I think this is because writers feel a need to vary dialogue tags, so everything isn’t all he said, she said… and I have a passage in my book in which all the dialog, all of the he saids and she saids are all sighs. As a result the scene, which is otherwise prosaic, devolves into a kind of overheated sex scene; simply by virtue of pointing out the absurd mechanics of traditional dialog. In metafiction you are allowed to do this. I never paid attention to this stuff until I started writing a novel. For me, having these characters repeatedly sigh performs a certain double duty. It points to the artifice of the thing, but it’s also humor. And, maybe we should talk about humor, because that’s something that’s hugely important to your work. And in some ways mine, too, but I came around to it kind of obliquely. But you always set out, I think, to write a funny book.
AR: I thought, as I think we often do, that literature had to be capital-S “Serious,” which is to say devoid of humor. It wasn’t until I started reading Lorrie Moore, or Philip Roth, that I realized, “Oh, I’m loving this, I’m laughing, but these people are also taken seriously.” It was important to me that this book be funny, but also that it not be only funny. The Sellout by Paul Beatty came out while I was working on this and it blew my mind—it’s very funny and it’s deadly serious. But I also remember, reading through many iterations of Same Same, that the first draft was very funny. Then I think there was a subsequent draft that was less funny, and I remember we had a conversation about it. And then you put the humor back in.
PM: I felt, wrongly, that especially if you were writing an “experimental” novel” it was important that it be “serious” on some level. Of course there are many examples of novels that are “experimental” and “funny”—the whole Oulipo movement comes to mind—or Gravity’s Rainbow, which is freaking hilarious. Like, legitimately funny. It took you reminding me that that was okay. My book, Same Same is based in many ways, is a same-sameing of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which was actually supposed to be a comic novel. Magic Mountain was supposed to be the humorous companion piece to Death in Venice, which was the serious book. And it is a very funny novel, and nobody really remembers it that way. There is this weird process by which, when we think about classical, canonical literature in general, we tend to forget or overwrite the parts that are comical.
AR: The Magic Mountain is a very funny book. We don’t always see the irony because it’s old and dusty. We think, “They didn’t have humor in 1924!”
PM: Back when life was in black and white.
AR: You used the title, Same Same, as a verb just now. I think it’s worth pausing to explain the origin of the title and core concept, because it’s an insane story.
PM: There are these places called Same Same shops which are prevalent in the Middle East and Asia, and what they do is they make duplicates of things you bring to them, for money. A friend of mine who’d been living in Doha had a bunch of stuff—a shirt, some books, I think some electronics—he had taken them to this place near the bus station in Doha that was literally called “the Same Same store.” You literally say in English to the guy behind the counter, “same same,” and then you come back and you have a duplicate of the thing you brought in. Which seemed like a very interesting setup for a doppelganger story. I’m very interested in intertextuality. Obviously if you’re writing a work of metafiction you’re going to be very interested in the way that books mirror the world, mirror themselves, but more importantly mirror other books. It’s hard to not see the ways the books you love are more in conversation with other books than they are with their own audience in some ways. I’m wondering now when you were writing The Altruists, if there were particular books that yours was in conversation with.
AR: I felt like I was in conversation with the postwar Great Male Novelists, or Narcissists, some of whom were Jewish, like Roth and Bellow. They gave me so much pleasure growing up—they’re my “problematic faves.” I asked myself, what do I love about these novels, and what doesn’t hold up anymore? In many of those books, you’re living in the head of a Moses Herzog, or a Rabbit Angstrom. But no one wants to live in that kind of character’s head exclusively anymore, myself included. It’s already been done, and it can feel claustrophobic. So what happens, I wondered, when you spend a quarter of a book in this guy’s head, but the other three quarters of the book are told by other voices, who are seeing him from the outside, and who have their own concerns?
PM: Rather than an anxiety of influence, it’s a patricide. You’ve taken a Herzog and you’ve put him, fish-out-of-water style, in a contemporary setting, where the old standards just don’t adhere anymore.
PM: People always ask me what I’m listening to, and I say that I don’t really listen to a lot of music, because I play. I spend a couple of hours playing the piano every day, and that works out whatever desire I used to have as a passive recipient of music. I’ve started to feel that way about writing. To what extent does writing exhaust the need to read as much?
AR: I definitely think I read less while I’m writing. I’m always writing, but there are those times where it’s multiple hours per day, seven days a week, you’re buried in it. I don’t get a lot of reading done when I’m doing that.
PM: You don’t think it’s a question of satedness, also? It’s just a question of time management?
AR: It’s the same part of your brain, I think, so it is about satedness. I read fiction almost exclusively. Occasionally nonfiction, poetry, memoir. I read the news, I read longform essays online, but for books it’s 95% fiction.
PM: Where’s your reality hunger?
AR: I have so little reality hunger. I’m reminded of something you told me once about why you think literature has persisted where other art forms—classical music, let’s say—have collapsed to some extent. It had to do with repetition and tradition.
PM: In the western art music tradition, the “make it new” dictum became so fascistically applied in the 20th century that you literally could not put pen to paper without creating not just a new composition but a new language in which the composition could be expressed. So from Chromaticism to Atonality to Serialism to Total Serialism to Aleatory musics, etc. When Schoenberg wrote his first truly atonal works, he referred to his new language as “the emancipation of dissonance.” It’s almost a Marxist-dialectical terminology. And this is how people in music and art started to think about these things. It was absolutely necessary that history progress along an upward-moving, linear, evolutionary path, making newer, better languages. So the idea of anything that was nostalgic or regressive, meaning using a received language from the past, was antithetical to notions of futurity. And it’s very hard to work in a field where everything has to be made from whole cloth all the time. But, that way of looking at art, in music at least, died, though surprisingly recently, but is now good and dead. You can hear all kinds of music now in concert halls and conservatories. Though I think that attitude has winnowed the audience, and its yet to come back fully. There just aren’t a lot of listeners anymore.
But the thing with literature is, yeah, the modernists were doing their thing, the post-modernists, but at the same time people were still writing conventional novels and people were buying them and reading them, and that just continued on apace. The experimental novel became cordoned off. Given its own privileged space; but the mainstream remained pretty mainstream. So in a way, the novel hasn’t changed significantly in all of these centuries. You can kind of look at the Joyces and the Robbe-Grillets and the John Barths or whoever as anomalies. Off grazing in their own little paddock. And that’s great! That means literature persists as an art form but also in commerce. People still buy and consume literature. It’s way healthier, I think.