When I first tried to review Personae, I did a bad job, in that I couldn’t do anything but say complicatedly positive things about it. I kept asking myself, what results from praise heaped onto the author, in conversation or in the internets? Does this put food in anyone’s mouth? Does it save a human life? Does it even make a life incrementally better? Certainly not mine. In turn, I find myself asking, what is the goal of a review? To just ‘manically implore’ people to read the book? To provide the critical nuance that distances and individualizes my reading from that of others? To just geek out for a long time and ‘raise awareness’ of an author who my tiny mind thinks merits attention? I hope not any of the above, but I’m left without a good answer. All I want is to point at some facts about my affinity for Sergio de la Pava’s first two novels.
I think his first two books can be presented together despite their glaring differences in tone, form, and narrative approach, and that presenting them together makes them more than the sum of their parts. Much like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, where a pair of volumes give both sides of the same moral problematic two faces of the common currency of life in our epoch. Towards the end of A Naked Singularity, an exchange is punctuated by a memo from a jail is perhaps the most infuriating and heartrending moment in the book, and betrays a deeper interest in form. The text of the letter has been copied, re-used, and had names of inmates impersonally inserted into it’s sentences on countless occasions, leaving them incarcerated even after their deaths, in the forms which serve as the only record of their existence.
Seeing the final form-letter, without even reading the words there, opened a valve inside me – I cried the entire day and wasn’t even finished with the book. Some summer campers observed me as a curiosity, weeping and furiously turning pages. Though I would go on to the end of the book, everything else seemed to swirl around that exasperating moment of intrusion. What I can say about Personae is that it is indeed a novel, but comprised of stories, plays, allegories, and translations, and with a plot that hovers above the text itself. Together they exhibit some of the superstructure of an epochal conflict between positivist and skeptical thought, one that has gone on much longer than the war on drugs. Since I am not in a position to review it, I decided to ask Sergio for an interview, which he granted.
Read the interview below:
CJ Morello: Hi there. So i heard the PEN Talking Transitions panel the other night where writers and other folks were given the chance to give recommendations to the incoming administration of NYC about how to ensure that NYC remains at the center of the scene of literary production. Your response was distinctly out of keeping with other answers, and you addressed the problem of incarceration. Would you like to elaborate on that a little bit?
Sergio de la Pava: Look, I like art, I like poetry, I love the novel, I love literature,I wouldn’t have devoted a substantial portion of my life to creating novels if I didn’t, but in that context, if I am nominally, allegedly addressing an incoming administration, that is a political situation. That is not an appropriate time for me to ignore what is the plight of indigent and marginalized members of New york City. I don’t think I was talking out of score in the sense that I warned them, look, if you’re going to invite me to this thing, I know that the subject of the evening is supposed to be encouraging the artistic prominence of New York City or whatever, that’s not what I’m going to address in any way. I’m going to address specifically what I made reference to, that crime has declined significantly in this city and really throughout the entire country, and I mean serious crime, burglary, robbery, has gone down drastically in this city and in many other places. Somehow contemporaneous with that fact, arrests rose 20% during the Bloomberg administration. So the idea was to hopefully begin a dialogue, though in that limited context there was no way to address such a complex issue, other than to bring up that anomaly in the hopes that you might cause some people to wonder how exactly we can justify such an inapposite result.
CJ: I hope some people did. There are some crimes we do want to see curtailed and prosecuted, especially violent crimes with deadly weapons. I grew up in Chicago, and there we have more problems than we can reliably handle, especially on the south side. So how do you explain that?
SP: Well I think with the Chicago situation you’re probably not even seeing decrease in crime, you’re seeing the result of decades of the evisceration of these communities through these draconian laws and the selective enforcement of drug laws. So what you’re seeing in Chicago, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a criminologist, but what you’re seeing is the result of decades of neglect and even worse, active brutalization of these communities. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’re incarcerating an incredibly high percentage of people who look a certain way and live in certain neighborhoods, the effects on those neighborhoods are going to be stark. That’s not what were seeing in New York City, we’re seeing a massive decline in things like homicides, and gun-related offenses. So what we are seeing in New york City is certainly different than Chicago, in that what we have going on is the redefinition of the very concept of crime. So the attitude that policing has taken in this city has been to keep arresting as many people as and bring down the barrier to what constitutes a crime. The problem with that is, no matter what ultimately happens with the case, it turns out it’s a really bad thing to be arrested. It is really bad for your ‘career’ lets call it, it’s really bad for your status in society. Even if you never spend more than a day in jail before your release, it’s a really bad thing to end up with a criminal record. That’s pretty clear-cut. And there’s been a movement recently to essentially ban the asking of that question when you’re applying for jobs and things like that. The bottom line is once you get tagged with a criminal record in our society, it’s an uphill battle. And if you have a criminal record and you happen to be a minority, the research shows, there’s basically two strikes against you and it’s going to be difficult to overcome. So Chicago and New York seem to be on two different sides of the coin. What you are seeing in Chicago is basically a consequence of what you have happening in new york.
CJ: So we’re ahead of the curve.
CJ: To cap off the violence section of the interview, you’ve said you’re a fan of boxing but also that UFC is something you enjoy less. I never really watched many fights growing up but recently I was introduced to UFC through some friends in California. So what do you think the salient differences are in the two sports and where does your boxing allegiance come from?
SP: It seems to me that the average UFC fight ends much faster than the average boxing match. I think that the fights have a maximum of? Three or four? The championships go five. And the average boxing match can go on for twelve… I mean when you say I’m a huge fan of boxing, I’m very much intrigued by it, I have an ambivalent view towards boxing as well. In that I don’t like to see people get hurt, and that can become a substantial part of boxing. It certainly seems to be a substantial part of UFC. It could just be the prejudices of what you grew up watching, I grew up watching boxing, there was no such thing as UFC. I trained in martial arts before it was called UFC, when you picked an actual martial art. I understand that there can be beauty in UFC too, I guess what I like about boxing is the ebb and flow, and the prolonged dance between two athletes that will eventually tell me something about those two individuals. It seems to be harder to find in UFC, but I have many people who tell me I’m crazy, that UFC is far better. I agree that from a spectacle standpoint, UFC seems like it’s more likely to yield the kind of spectacular visuals that you might only see in boxing once every ten fights. So you may see a higher instance of those spectacular visuals, but thats not what I come to boxing for, I come to boxing to see the struggle of two wills, and though I recognize that is part of UFC too, the brevity of it, the sheer violence of it, for me makes me difficult to enjoy.
CJ: You said in another interview that we want the novel to be a highlight reel, not every play. The distillation or condensation of the elements that are important.
SP: So I think that context, the question was asking about what responsibility a novel has to ape life. And I think it has very little responsibilities to that. Take dialogue. If I tried to create dialogue that replicated the way people spoke, it would be intensely boring, a lot of um, it would be a lot of how’s the weather. Right off the bat a certain amount of the heightening of life is going to be necessary in something like A Naked Singularity. So the question becomes why you’re doing that and what effects it is you’re seeking to create. So I don’t take it as criticism when people tell me for example “The way people talk in your books isn’t the way they talk in real life.” So it’s like, do you find the way people talk in real life to be so enthralling? Well then you don’t need to pick up a novel. You have people taking to you all the time in real life.
SP: In other words when I sit down to write a novel, mimicing life perfectly, well it is not a documentary. And we know even a documentary really doesn’t do that. And whatever a novel is, and I don’t have the firmest grasp on what it is I’m trying to do, I think really low on the list of those things is replicating quotidian existence. And the flip part is, whenever I try to make a definitive statement related to this thing called the novel, I always find myself contradicting myself. And the truth of it is, there are parts in ANS that deal with the criminal justice system that really do attempt that, that strip away the artifice and the heightening, that really do give a view, a pretty accurate account of what it’s like to unmediatedly come into contact with a trial. But that’s about ten percent of it at most.
CJ: Ten percent at most. So on the subject of trials, I wanted to ask you about allegory. Parts of ANS rung of allegory, especially the hotel that Casi stays at. Part of Personae, especially the players at play on the stage that is the world, seemed more strongly interested in it. So how do you see your relationship to allegory?
SP: I’m attracted to it. But somehow not attracted enough to it to make the entire work function in that register alone. It’s like one more tool. To me it’s probably the way a writer might decide, ‘well here’s a good time for dialogue, exposition, fill in the blank, whatever’, that’s the way I feel about it. It’s just one thing that can be brought to bear to create the overall feeling. So I think you’re right to detect its presence, but I don’t know yet that I could say ‘that’s an allegorical writer,’ because then you’d have to come to grips will all the other stuff in there as well. So I just don’t think I’ve come to terms myself as to what my relationship to it is, other than that is doesn’t satisfy me fully. Because if it did, then you could envision an entire novel like that, and something about that just does not appeal to me. So an entire novel like the orchard chapter, or the part where Casí goes to Alabama for the death penalty case. I don’t know that I wouldn’t tire of that pretty quickly, but I never tired of writing those chapters, in those contexts.
CJ: So what about a book like Wittgenstein’s Mistress? Do you think that approaches reaching too far with a single tool, or do you think that it works for the subject matter?
SP: I found that book to be perfectly realized. The funny part is, the works that followed, they seemed to essentially try to exploit the same tool kit, and I didn’t find them as successful. I think that what makes Markson successful with WM and the others less so, to just me as a reader, not as a critic, is where the mistress departs from allegory. Where you start to feel that this could be true. That what this woman is experiencing could be the truth, in a way that those other novels never gave you. There’s that bizarre blending of, sure, it could be the ravings of a lunatic, but i don’t think the novel cheats in that way, to tell you that they are the ravings of a lunatic. I think you could read that book in a way that you can just accept that what Kate is telling you is an accurate portrait of what has occurred, and because the novel works that way, to me that is what makes it powerful. Whereas with Readers Block and This Is Not a Novel, it never felt that way, I felt an intrusion at the end. To me they just didn’t work. And it may just be, that when I read WM it felt really innovative and new, and it’s hard to capture that when you pick up the next book and sense that, ‘here come these little aphoristic-type declarations about artists’, and you’re already familiar with it in such a way that you can never fire those neurons again.
CJ: Right. So in one part of Personae, you choose the same scene:
SP: Wait a minute. No that’s not it, the octogenarian is the writer. It has italics under the chapter number I think, so I think we are lead to believe that Helen created that title for that particular document, or whoever did. But that is why is it called Personae, each part is not the ocean. The ocean is the actual work. And that moment is just probably a 55-year old professor or something, impulsively deciding to stop at the beach. I’m not sure if the beach stuff was a reference to Markson, I mean a beach and an ocean? I don’t think there’s any way that he could have patented that.
CJ: Yeah…stretch. So I wanted to ask you more about form, and especially the theatre. In Personae a large part of the book is in play form. So I was wondering what your interest in the theatre is? Especially Chekov, and Beckett, who are definitely around.
SP: Yes certainly Beckett, and there’s the laughing reference to Chekov, obviously. I think what interested me most about the play was… you know one of the weird things about doing interviews is–
CJ: [Laughs] What?
SP: No I’m serious, put it in, I’m not even breaking character. Let’s say you think ABCD about bicycles. So then someone is doing an interview and the subject of bicycles comes up, and you say A. And then A gets kind of portrayed as what you think about bicycles, when in reality you think A, B, C, D, E. But the reason I bring that up, is because when you ask me what the function the play is playing there, is this notion of what is a novel? I mean formally speaking. And is there any way that you can create novels out of other things, that are not novels, including a short story, and a play. So this is one of the ten things I’m interested in when I’m writing it. but it’s the notion of investigating at what point do ten things which clearly are not in and of themselves a novel combine to form a novel. And what exactly is going on there when that happens. What is this alchemical thing, whereby if I write ‘a novel’ a the top of Personae, you are forced in essence to view it as such, and try to make sense of it in that context. Because there’s a way in which the component works of Personae are not intended to be absorbed principally. I didn’t publish it, I didn’t say, here’s a play, here’s a short story, here’s a novella. There is a way in which they are like chapters in a novel, but that’s a weird thing too, it creates this kind of yummy, weird confluence between what role the reader do I have in deciding what something is and what role does the reader bring to it. It’s just one of a small number of things that is going on at the time, but the references to Beckett and Chekov are intentional. I just hope that it is more than literary name-dropping. What I’m trying to get at there is something about the very nature of what it means for something to be a novel. Yeah, when you talk about the play, I’m doing it in these preconceived classifications that already exist prior to anyone picking up personae. The absurdist, kind of Beckettian play, the theatre of the absurd, etc. that already is a pre-existing category that exists.
CJ: Yeah, it’s part of the story of the 20th century.
SP: Correct, and so there’s a whole way in which the subject of Personae is just literature at large, and what it means to exist within these preexisting categories while, one hopes, combining to form something that didn’t exist before. that might feel new.
CJ: For me it felt very new.
[awkward silence which persists long enough for my own reflection]
CJ: So the problematics of the characters in the play, schematically, some of the issues they understand themselves to be facing are: where are we? how do we identify this place? and how do we know each other’s names? and how does a person make up a name? How do you relate that to the realm of literature or our current condition?
SP: Well I think most people go through life not really examining it too closely. Probably less true than of a person who would pick up a University of Chicago press novel and read it, but, when talking about the population at large, I think most people are rightly concerned with what they need to accomplish that particular day, and I’m not criticizing that. I think what you see in the play that we are talking about is maybe the excessive counterpoint to that way of life. A kind of paralysis by speculation, or by the zealous pursuit of knowledge. not so much wisdom, just literally, knowledge. What is it exactly? Because I find just existence incredibly fascinating, but not in a pleasant way. In a way that unsettles me. And I was trying to capture that in some of the dialogue. It doesn’t thrill me. So you bring up philosophy. I have a bit of a background in it and i think you do too right?
SP: When you first decide ‘this is what I’m going to study.’ You know–
CJ: It’s not a great moment.
SP: Not a great moment. You’re essentially dooming yourself to a kind of poverty, if you continue. But it also seems like a declaration of a certain mode of intent towards life. It seems like a declaration that you will engage in this activity, which is not altogether pleasant at times, which is examining what everyone takes for granted, in like, an extreme way. In a way that I don’t think I would recommend at all, but it’s built into your structure. It’s more like discovering something, that this is the way you are going to view the world whether you like it or not. You might as well try to get something out of it, and try to do it in a programmatic way that achieves something.
CJ: Right. So a question about skepticism. I think most philosophical movements are in someway motivated by different kinds of skepticism. You’ve mentioned before that you have a somewhat skeptical approach to the world. So how do you understand the skeptical influence in your writing? How did you become a skeptic?
SP: Well, I think it wasn’t so much that i became skeptical, as it was that I learned what the name was for what I was. It’s not that anything happened, it was more like I realized that, oh, there is a legitimate way of thought that is attributed to this feeling that I constantly have, and it kind of ties in to novel writing. listen, I don’t know how far afield you want to go–
SP: [audible sigh]… I tend to not draw the greatest distinction between say the fictional and what we call the truth. When I write, I’ve heard other writers describe this too, Philip K. Dick for example, I found the same sense of recognition of, where you don’t feel like you’re creating something so much as you feel like you’re being granted access to something that was already there. And when I have that experience as a reader, and as a writer, is when I most feel the tangibly the physical world start to melt away. And start to seem less real than a literary character, or than a concept even. And I don’t know why that is, but it’s my sense that it is coming on to something that is true on a base level. And I think that a lot of the advances in theoretical physics for example, are showing us that what we consider the physical world is not as unproblematic as we’d like to think. That it’s far more complicated when you try to say ‘this chair I’m sitting on is red.’ That statement turns out to be very weird in and of itself. The chair is not anything. It’s the experience you’re having when you observe a bunch of atoms collected in a certain way. Or with Heisenberg’s principle, you think it says you can’t measure two things at once, but the reality is that it doesn’t have any sort of attributes whatsoever until you look at it. And that has tons of strange implications for what consciousness is, because for example if you sent an inanimate object to go make an observation, that object itself would be susceptible to the same vagaries as what it’s measuring. So you eventually need a consciousness to come in and make something true, not discover something, But make it in the sense of giving it a velocity. Those kind of concepts appeal to me not because I know the math, not because I’m that conversant in it, but because they jive in a very sinewy way in the way I view art and the writing of novels.
CJ: I agree, but I don’t meet many people who think the uncertainty principle is a great writing tip. So what then is your relationship to christianity? There is definitely Biblical scenery in parts of A Naked Singularity, and an Adam in Personae but you don’t seem to be a writer with christian interests.
SP: Well if you ask me about christianity, and what it really is, I mean that a broad topic. You know Thomas Jefferson said we could take out all the supernatural elements of the gospels. The principles of christianity appropriately stated are undeniably true. Turns out when you examine these christian, truly christian principles, they are pretty clearly true. The problem comes from all the apparatus that emerges around it. You think of somebody like Tolstoy or Kierkegaard just being offended at all the apparatus that came around these principles that they thought were undeniably true, I kind of feel that way. I feel the beauty of this undeniably positive and unproblematically useful guide to a way of living is being clouded by so much nonsense around it, that it’s making it hard to see the simple beauty of it. That’s christianity, obviously thats completely different than saying Catholicism or some other formal construct that arose around the principles espoused by the writers of the gospels… it gets complicated fast. What’s my relationship to that whole apparatus? I feel they do a poor job of–what do politicians call it– getting their message across? I’m not sure that it even understands what true christianity implies really. Which is a radical lack of concern with things like materialism, and wealth. It seems that quite often what is being espoused as christianity is actually the opposite, which is a weird Orwellian situation. My relationship to it all is wonderfully up in the air, and in that way it becomes useful fodder. In a way that, when you have answers, it stops the pen. When you figure everything out there is no reason to try to tease out discovery which is a large part of what writing is to me.
CJ: So what are your opinions about pizza? Is there a style or topping you will drop dead for?
SP: By where I live is the best pizza around. Manhattan is great too. But yeah, of course I’m all over it. Prosciutto and spinach, onions, thin crust though I like it thin and crispy. You’re from Chicago? They give you that deep dish stuff over there, I don’t need that, you’re basically eating bread.
CJ: One more philosophy question: Socrates or Plato?
SP: Well of course our only access to Socrates is through Plato, he’s a character, so I’m going to say Socrates because that kind of ties in nicely with what we were talking about, in the sense that I don’t draw a great distinction. Like in the gospels or the dialogues, we’ve taken this literary character, and we’ve decided we’re not really too worried about the nuances of creation, who is the creator. Just that Jesus said, or Socrates said.
CJ: Any person could have said, the language existed for them to say it.
SP: Right, and because that brings in all these notions of literary creation, then I would say Socrates. But in terms of what’s the more useful activity, the problem with dialogue, is that somebody eventually had to write that down, and the creation of literary work, what draws me to that is the precision of it. You and I are having a discussion right now, and believe it or not, the imprecision in my answers is something that would offend me greatly if it was written.
CJ: Which will offend you greatly once it is written.
SP: Yeah, butI’m doing the best I can under the constraints of, right off the top of my hands giving you the answer, and it’s more fun than not doing it, it’s more fun than watching T.V. But it cant compare to writing, because what happens is, when I write something, then it will sit. And I will come back to it. In the process of tightening it, I will learn from it, and my ill-formed, off the cuff stuff will start to sharpen in a way. That’s why if we take Socrates later on who said ‘what is justice?’, the precision that resulted from asking so many people can never compare with what Plato did when he sat down and wrote the Republic. So in that sense I do find that the human activity of sitting down and figuring out for yourself what it is that you think through writing and the honing of language, that’s what it is really about for me. And that is what philosophy sort of is, when you write something, you don’t fucking publish sit, you give it to another philosopher and they say fuck you. and you say fuck you.
CJ: And then you talk until finding places where argument and language are in slippage.
SP: There is this way of dialogue being suspect, but there is a nod to that kind of notion, through each of us sharpening what the other has said, we are going to get to somewhere.
CJ: I hope so. Finally, what city would you like to visit that you haven’t been to?
SP: I think San Francisco. It intrigues me.
CJ Morello is a poet from Chicago. His work is forthcoming in Gigantic magazine. Find him at cjmorello.com or @siegethethird on twitter.