Braver than most, Marek Waldorf has dared to spin literature out of the terrifying realm of political speechwriting. His debut novel, The Short Fall (Turtle Point Press), follows a speechwriter for a presidential campaign who has been left disabled after a botched attempt on the nominee’s life. In dense, lyrical prose, the narrator explores the campaign from its nascent form to the disastrous present, winding in and out of events as they lead his body to cross paths with the assassin’s bullet. If you think you’re up for a Bernhard-style treatment of American political rhetoric and its relationship to authenticity, idealism, and image making, then look no further. Marek was kind enough to answer some questions for HTMLGIANT via email.
Hal Hlavinka: In your professional life, you write grants for nonprofits like Girls Write Now. I’m interested in how your day-to-day contact with bureaucratese informed the lexical and logical frameworks of The Short Fall. More specifically, as the speechwriter’s paranoia unfolds, we start to read all sorts of fragmentary beliefs about the relationship between language and charisma, politics and fundraising, and I wonder to what degree these connections are carved from your day job.
Marek Waldorf: Grantwriting’s unusual in that you’re writing for a literally captive audience. Foundation officers are paid to read what you’re paid to write, allowing more freedom to be boring than, say, speechwriting or marketing. The latter I have very little understanding of. To be honest, I hadn’t moved into fundraising when writing The Short Fall—I was still a temp. But does the job involve more linguistic depletion than other writing professions? I don’t think we do too much damage: at one funder’s meeting I recently attended, grant applicants were encouraged to “step free of the jargon zone.” I’ll travel in & out of the zone fairly regularly, but I’m also—maybe more—interested in the infantilizing uses of language.
And TSF is less an immersion in bureaucratese than a recounting—a very long thought-balloon—of how people function within such immersion: the self-justifications, pretty stories, petty (&-not-so) delusions. There’s a recurring joke in TSF—particularly, section two—where the speechwriter spends pages explaining his craft & straining mightily on the pot of composition all in the service of (for instance) “A new day is rising in America.” Or let’s just say—one man’s unique susceptibility to language & its gaming.
HH: At your reading in Chicago, you mentioned that part of your strategy for writing The Short Fall, at least in the beginning, was to explore the narrator’s voice inside a dense, elliptical framework in the style of Thomas Bernhard. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges and benefits of using Bernhard’s notoriously demanding narrative aesthetic as a guide?
MW: Bernhard’s The Lime Works was a driving influence for sure—his books sort of cocoon the period of TSF’s writing. And, yes, I’ve often wondered about your well-taken second point. I worried Bernhard’s aesthetic wasn’t something you dabble in, that it demanded a lifelong engagement, but—fortunately for the book—I was chafing as well, right from the start. While there’s a show-off quality, an exuberance, to Bernhard’s style, it’s not one he conjures up at the level of “turning a phrase.” Whereas I can’t help myself. Two books I read during that period—Nicholson Baker’s U & I and Alexander Theroux’s An Adultery—seemed like masterful and disrespectful negotiations of that aesthetic (as is, I believe, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be). To see distinctive work occupying the same ground that wasn’t pastiche—resemblances surfacing almost as matters of temperament—was reassuring. Of course TSF is also pulling hard in the direction of the American maximalist novel of disintegration. The politics, the stamp of its ambition, the presiding question of authenticity—all contrive to keep it on native soil.
HH: You began writing the novel in the nineties, only to finish it over a decade and two presidencies later. To what extent did your writing change—first with the Lewinsky scandal, followed by the disastrous Bush tenures, and finally the bittersweet state of the Obama administration—as the office and image of the POTUS has changed?
MW: I had TSF pretty much finished by 1995, so it is interesting to see what’s changed since I wrote the book, and what’s stayed the same, given the 20-year gap. The Society of Victims, for example, started life as a pun-laden left jab—watching it metastatize within the real world vs. the book has been interesting. And the emphasis on a politics of infantilization worked out well it seems … witness our progression to ubiquitous bathroom-acronyms like POTUS & SCOTUS! I’ll say this about political and science fiction, having attempted both—prescience ranks among their highest virtues. But mostly I feel the oddness of returning to something written by a much younger me. Its youthfulness detains me, and when I write about it now, I feel a bit like an impostor.
My hope at the time was TSF would welcome a certain type of reader, which wouldn’t necessarily track to how s/he voted. I’m not sure I succeeded entirely, but I believe the pressure of that instinct—to abstract out of partisan politics—was helpful. In retrospect, the Clintonian triangulating which led many of my peers to cynical despair &/or a vote for Nader feels like TSF’s operational baseline. The politics of encroachment-from-the-middle isn’t what’s happening now—Bush certainly changed that—but it’s due for a comeback, I imagine, and it doesn’t matter for the book, because the narrator has burrowed so deep into the campaign he doesn’t see Vance as up against anybody—only chance—and the idea of an alternative arises in terms of rhetorical tactics … as deployment, a trick. My aim in all this wasn’t ambiguity so much as an absence, like everything else below the neck the speechwriter can’t move or feel. Like SCOTUS, he’s all head.
HH: In his essay on John McCain’s 2000 bid for the republican nomination, David Foster Wallace concludes, “the final paradox—the really tiny central one, way down deep inside all the other campaign puzzles’ spinning boxes and squares that layer McCain—is that whether he’s truly “for real” now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.” In my reading, The Short Fall takes this paradox and revels in its shadowy orchestration. Without resorting to a breach of the fourth wall, did you set out to corner your reader’s own relationship to this puzzling admixture of stagecraft versus idealism?
MW: Yes. It’s a novel that revels in the power & pathologies of projection. Perhaps disappointingly for some readers, the candidate Vance Talbot remains a cipher—he’s an object of worship, and while there are many variations on that, they mostly depend on the narrator’s moodswings & “shaky sense of self-regard.” Speaking of fourth walls, the shadowy operators are all lovable children’s television characters: this being what the recovering speechwriter spends most of his time watching, abandoned—& pacified—in the TV room.
HH: In some ways, 2013 marked the return of a passionately engaged and aesthetically challenging political literature. Peter Dimock’s brilliant second novel, George Anderson, took up the subject of moral complicity of the Bush presidency and the struggle for a language accurately representing our troubled American history, all from a firmly leftist point of view. With The Short Fall, you take up many timely political questions—the uses of national tragedy, the cults of personality, and the struggle for and against idealism—without firmly landing on either the left or right. Do you think your novel falls into the category of political literature? Or does its ambiguous stance make it perhaps to slippery for categorization?
MW: Any book about politics is a political book for me. I know that sounds boringly tautological, or like I don’t want to answer your question, but I think one can gain as much political insight from Advise and Consent as All the King’s Men, and that that fact doesn’t say much about either of them as novels.
Political traction is a different matter, of course, but TSF isn’t aiming for that. Which brings us to Dimock: the similarities between TSF & both his novels are striking—the timing alone is—as are the differences. I’m interested in questions he addresses—how fiction can explore or express mass/national guilt—but which have emerged in my work since the novel. The pre-text I followed in the TSF sections most concerned with rhetoric and effect was Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” I did so with great sympathy—therefore, as a mechanical transcription. It’s not a huge part of TSF, but it is the nub.
In my rather saturnine view, writers make useful idiots. For one thing, we tend to be good at convincing ourselves of things that aren’t true. TSF isn’t about this the way Shawn is, or Bolaño’s early stuff, but it deals with the psychology which makes cooptation so plausible. Thanks to technology, I see these “opportunities” as more available today than when I was writing TSF. I see how young writers are used (up) to prime the pumps for whichever political orthodoxy whatever site is getting its hits off of, and I find the conformity—the subtle and not-so-subtle naturally we all think that mentalities, and the ganging-up the internet so readily fosters—pretty unfortunate.
HH: And of course, what are some writers that you’re excited about. Living or dead.
MW: Wallace Shawn’s “trilogy” means the most to me right now—The Fever, The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. My two favorite recent novels were Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen. And I’m lucky to know two poets whose work I greatly admire—Chris Cahill and George Franklin. Chris is easier to find (my publisher), but I’d recommend tracking down George’s astounding lyric-epic, “Talking Head,” in the Naked Psyches issue of Epiphany. Books that have had outsized impact on me, in no particular order: Herman Melville, The Confidence Man, Anna Kavan, Ice, Herbert Read, The Green Child, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Autumn of the Patriarch, Venedikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line. I think of all these books (maybe not the poetry as much) as principally political fiction, btw.
MAREK WALDORF is the author of The Short Fall and Widow’s Dozen (Turtle Point Press). He was born in Washington DC, and grew up in various places: Idi Amin’s Uganda, coup-wracked Thailand, punk-era England, and apartheid-encircled Lesotho, but primarily Binghamton, NY. He studied Philosophy at Harvard, started a PhD in American Literature at UCLA and left after a year, moving to San Francisco, where he appeared in Jon Moritsugu’s Hippy Porn (1991).