The Doorknob Passage – A Conversation with Bennett Sims
I’ve never read a zombie novel, and after reading A Questionable Shape, the debut novel from Bennett Sims, which has been described as a zombie novel, I still haven’t. We see glimpses of rabid zombies on grainy mall security cameras, ghost-like versions in a field, and zombies crowding a police car, but the book is more about retracing our memories, how to deal with loss, and ultimately, how to live in a world falling apart around us. It’s a philosophical mind-fuck of a novel filled with illuminating sentences and dark footnotes.
Bennett and I traded emails to discuss his time as a student of David Foster Wallace, paranoia, insecurities, influences, and push-ups.
Shane: So, how are you feeling?
Bennett: It’s the end of the semester, so I’m feeling somewhat hollowed out. This year I was teaching an undergrad fiction workshop here at the University of Iowa, and I wrapped up all my grading yesterday. Nabokov has that line about finishing a work, how he feels like ‘a house just emptied of its grand piano.’ It’s a little like that—except that instead of producing beautiful music, the part of me that’s missing is used to shooting off workshop letters and miscellaneous correspondence. So I guess I’m feeling like a house just emptied of its fax machine, which is a different kind of quietness. How are you feeling?
Shane: I’m depressed because I’ve been doing nothing but eating cookies and drinking coffee and now I’m crashing from it. I’ve never heard of that Nabokov line before but I like it. Pale Fire is a beast and my favorite of his. Did Nabokov influence A Questionable Shape? I see some of his wordplay and magic in your sentences.
Bennett: Sorry to hear about the cookie-and-coffee comedown. I usually have to take a nap when that happens.
Thanks for the kind words about the book. I’m flattered by the Nabokov comparison. He’s definitely a background influence—one of the stylists I’ve admired longest, whose sense of wordplay and whose sheer felicity of description I’ve tried to absorb. But I was not thinking about any particular work of his when drafting A Questionable Shape. The footnotes, for instance, were self-consciously modeled on Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, rather than Pale Fire.
Shane: Ah, The Mezzanine. I can see that. Certain books I distinctively remember physically where I was, the weather, the feel of the book, etc, and that’s one of them. I think there’s a description of a cloud/reflection in a glass doorknob in that book (I could be wrong) that is pretty amazing. I assumed the footnotes were an influence from David Foster Wallace, who was a teacher of yours. And I understand you’re probably sick of interviews pressing the connection (I understand it’s weird and difficult to talk about) but I have to ask: is there one thing specifically you learned from Wallace you’d like to share?
Bennett: Yes, I have that doorknob passage in The Mezzanine underlined from my very first read-through. It’s in a footnote about the narrator’s childhood home:
‘The upstairs doorknobs in the house I grew up in were made of faceted glass. As you extended your fingers to open a door, a cloud of flesh-color would diffuse into the glass from the opposite direction. The knobs were loosely seated in the latch mechanism, and heavy, and the combination of solidity and laxness made for a multiply staged experience as you turned the knob: a smoothness that held intermediary tumbleral fallings-into-position.’
What was your first reading experience of The Mezzanine like? I must have been twenty, twenty-one, and I was struck by what seemed like the physical impossibility of certain passages: I couldn’t understand how a human being with an unmutated brain could write sentences so microscopically precise and virtuosic. The other life-changing moment in the book for me was when the narrator describes his mental exercise for overcoming paruresis in public bathrooms (namely, to fantasize about peeing all over the next guy’s face). I’ve become something of an evangelist for this technique among my friends—it really does work every time.
As for studying with Dave: well, we all tended to internalize the fine-grained ineffable things, like his ‘Grammar Nazi’ love of language (which included an affinity for usage guides, OEDs, and the unique pleasures of sesquipedality), as well as his deep empathy for the reader (what he called an ‘almost-prayerful concentration,’ a sensitivity to the consciousness at the other end of the page). For me, the major life lesson I learned from him had to do with intellectual generosity. He was incredibly giving of himself, as a teacher. He’d read our manuscripts at least four times and think hard about how to improve them in his workshop letters, which amounted to James Wood-caliber mini-reviews. Obviously this was time that he could have spent on his own fiction, but he never seemed to begrudge us in a cost-benefit way. It was as if he understood that all thoughtfulness would enrich him in the long run: that the more of himself he gave away, the more of himself there would be to give. That was why—it seemed to me—he was willing to expend his intelligence and attention so lavishly, whether it was on amateur manuscripts or the mathematics of infinity, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or Te
Shane: What gets me is the line “As you extended your fingers to open a door, a cloud of flesh-color would diffuse into the glass from the opposite direction.” There’s so much movement, beauty, and strangeness (yet somehow childhood familiar), in that one single line. It’s a maddening book and one of my favorites of his along with The Anthologist and A Box of Matches. What I got from reading your other interviews and your response here about Wallace is just how hard he worked, almost at an insane and religious level, and how that kind of work ethic (on his own work and others) can really influence students at a basic just work hard level. It’s somehow sad and inspiring to think about this now, so thanks for sharing. It’s funny you mentioned his Terminator essay, which I love. Your novel has several movie references (Solaris, The Birds, Pyscho). We’ve talked a bit about writer influences, but were movies and directors also an influence on A Questionable Shape?
Bennett: The novel has an oblique relationship to zombie films. On the one hand, the characters inhabit an obviously Romeroan universe: the parameters of the epidemic match those in the original Night of the Living Dead trilogy, and there are even stray refrains that carry over from Dawn of the Dead into the language of the novel (‘When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth’; ‘Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!’; ‘They want to return here, but they don’t know why’). On the other hand, this isn’t a universe in which Romero’s movies exist: the characters can’t stream Dawn of the Dead on Netflix to make sense of what’s happening to them, and, indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any available body of knowledge about zombies at all (Vermaelen, the narrator, uses the word ‘zombie’ only once, in reference to mind-body philosophy). So when Vermaelen does try to conceptualize undeath, he appeals to narratives that are not recognizably ‘about’ zombies: movies like Vertigo, in which people are compelled (by nostalgia, obsession, possession) to wander back to haunted sites from their pasts; or else Solaris, in which people’s memories are spontaneously materialized, often in the form of ghost-like revenants, whose behavioral patterns and habits are circumscribed by a kind of repetition compulsion. Another way of answering this question might be to say that the novel itself is influenced by Romero, whereas the characters in it are influenced by Hitchcock and Tarkovksy
Shane: Do you see zombies or the undead in current society? As I was reading A Questionable Shape I thought of people zoning out on television, phones, cheap entertainment, and maybe a bit deeper, people always trying to retrace their memories in order to get back to something good that may or not exist from faulty memory. Do you ever feel undead?
Bennett: One of the essays that Vermaelen invokes is Viktor Shklovksy’s ‘Art as Device,’ in which Shklovsky writes about ‘automatized perception.’ This is the result of performing certain tasks so routinely, so unconsciously, that we cease to even see what we’re doing: ‘The object fades away,’ according to Shklovsky. ‘We know it’s there but we do not see it…[L]ife fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives.’ Habit blindness ends up being a crucial concept for Vermaelen, since he’s fascinated by the phenomenology of undeath, of what it would be like to be a zombie. But, like Shklovsky, he does recognize the prevalence of automatized perception in everyday life: to the degree that we behave in an unthinkingly and unseeingly habituated way, we’re already undead. This is why so many classic sight gags in zombie films involve shopping sprees: malls and grocery stores are habituated spaces, sites of blindness, which both the living and the undead can navigate without seeing. In Shaun of the Dead, for example, Shaun can shuffle through the convenience store without registering any of the pools of blood on the floor. Whether this kind of habit blindness is a particularly contemporary or societal problem, I don’t know. But it is something that I worry about in my own life. It’s always distressing to notice my (increasing?) distractibility and inattention, especially when I’m just pawing at my iPhone screen like a ghoul, instead of concentrating on the world around me. What about you?
Shane: Man, I am the internet. I feel like I’m always attached to it and it’s amazing and awful at the same time. I do think breaks are needed. I recently stopped using twitter and facebook for a month and it felt good. It was needed. I wonder if all these screens are damaging. I’m not sure where I heard this, but I read/heard that some elementary schools are going totally unplugged. And where are the schools located? Silicon Valley. That’s pretty wild. I liked what you said about Vermaelen, his fascination and obsession. He also strikes me as a bit paranoid because of his fascination (top of page 149 is a small example where he’s trying to read but imagining an undead coming in and having to kill it). Do you see him as a paranoid narrator? Do you see yourself in the narrator at all? I’m imaging Bennett Sims fighting off the undead…
Bennett: I’ve heard about those unplugged schools as well. Brad Listi likes to bring them up on his Other People podcast.
I suppose I think of Vermaelen as being paranoid in a pragmatic way: he has a survivor’s hyper-awareness of all the things that might go wrong. So even though the novel is largely optimistic regarding apocalypse (most of the zombies have been swiftly and safely quarantined, and pose no immediate threat), Vermaelen still suffers a form of PTSD from the initial outbreak. No matter where he is now, he can’t help calculating worst-case scenarios. Occasionally this will lead him into a state of interpretive hysteria, in which he’ll keep connecting dots and examining details until—like a conspiracy theorist—he succeeds in constellating them into the most ominous possible pattern. The novel’s title actually works as a pun on this tendency: whenever Vermaelen is confronted with a ‘questionable shape’ (e.g., an ambiguous silhouette in the distance), he’s quick to project some sinister meaning onto it. For what it’s worth, this is a state of mind that I associate more with fear and dread than with paranoia, and it’s something that almost all of my narrators—in both the novel and my short stories—have in common: they will horrifically enlist the powers of reason (pattern recognition, interpretation, deduction) on behalf of unreason, in order to construct credible-seeming nightmares for themselves. This is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a feature of my own thoughts, which tend to be depressive and pessimistic, and which are weighted toward worst-case scenarios.
Shane: Yeah, I can see it being more about fear and dread than just paranoia. And I don’t think it’s unusual for a writer to fall back on depressive/pessimistic thoughts. Look at the writers and directors we discussed earlier—not the happiest of people in a real generic sense—but through the depression we get these works of extreme beauty and light. The attitude can, and does, connect to really tender and compassionate work (guess I’m talking about Wallace here really). So what’s the ultimate worst-case scenario for you, personally? What if a loved one became infected and confronted you right now at the computer?
Bennett: My personal insecurities have to do with feelings of literary failure, so the bulk of my short-term and long-term worst-case scenarios involve various forms of rejection. I always seem to be working my way down a flowchart of refined anxieties: once I achieve goal X or Y, the flowchart just branches off, forming ever-more-sophisticated and -subtilized subcategories (‘I’ll never publish anything’–>‘I’ll never publish a book’–>‘No one will ever read this book,’ et cetera). I recognize this as a treadmill mentality and trap of desire, but I seem unable—or unwilling—to stop it. And I can’t see far enough into the future to imagine what the endgame (what you call ‘the ultimate worst-case scenario’) might be. Probably nothing zombie-related. I do worry about my loved ones suffering versions of undeath (Alzheimer’s, coma), but thankfully everyone is healthy. If an actual zombie confronted me at the computer right now, I’m not sure what I’d do. Maybe hit COMMAND+Z.
Shane: I don’t think those feelings ever stop. When you spend so much time in your head you just fall into these kind of pits that get deeper and deeper, but really, it’s all so silly. No one really cares if you, me, anyone really, publishes another book. I think when you’re not writing, the thoughts just kind of automatically go to what you described about publishing, people reading, etc. You have to get out of your head. In A Questionable Shape, the character Matt, seems to be a person of action and little reflection (until the ending, which is crushing). He’s always wanting to move, to get on with the search for his father. He’s described in a very physical sense as well—his body, his exercise routine which consists of push-ups each morning. I don’t have a specific question here other than wanting to know, if you stepped away from the computer and did some push-ups right now, how many can you do?
Bennett: Seriously? Okay. I do them elevated, like Matt, and with undoubtedly horrible form. Any PE teacher would scoff at them. I’ve never tried a rep max before, but for you, Shane, I just gave it a go. I collapsed at 180. Matt could beat me up.
Shane: You did 180 push-ups in a row?
Bennett: Yeah, but—again—with horrible form. This isn’t part of the interview, is it?
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Shane Jones is the author of several books. Crystal Eaters, a novel, will be published in 2014 by Two Dollar Radio.