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We Become the Monsters We Fear: Jennifer Egan on Gothic, Paranoia, and The Keep

The KeepA crumbling castle, an ancient aristocrat, a family secret, an illicit romance, revenge, incarceration, telecommunications: Like all good examples of the genre, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep overflows with gothic motifs. It’s eerie. It’s funny. It’s often rather touching. And it’s mesmerizing. I read it last October—when my daughter was just a few weeks old—whenever I could snatch a few minutes. (Sleep deprivation and the general freakiness of new parenthood were ideal complements to this magnificently odd novel, but not, I believe, necessary for enjoying it: Egan’s writing creates its own kind of altered state.) Indeed, I was so captivated by the book that I managed to think up a few interview questions, and the author very graciously agreed to answer them.

The Keep was a lot of fun to read—fun in a scary kind of way. Did you have a good time writing this novel? Did you ever creep yourself out writing this novel?

Jennifer Egan: I had a lot of fun writing the novel, mostly because I didn’t know what would happen (I never do) and I enjoyed sensing the ways in which the plots—and worlds—of the novel would gradually converge. One of the biggest technical questions on my mind was whether a book could be both funny and scary—I couldn’t think of any other books that are both, and I badly wanted this book to be both. And there were some moments that were creepier than I’d expected; I didn’t realize that Danny would sleep with the 98-year-old baroness until just before it happened, and I was startled when the group stumbles on the dead and moldering prisoners underground. And I’d have to say that I enjoyed that creepiness.

I know you did a kind of immersion course in gothic as you were researching The Keep. Did you enjoy your reading? Was this your first encounter with Walpole, Radcliffe, et al?

JE: I loved the reading. It was my first encounter with Walpole and Radcliffe (though I’d gotten a bit of Radcliffe through Northanger Abbey), but by no means my first encounter with the gothic—I loved Dark Shadows, the goofy 70s soap opera, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was a book that took over my life when I was about eleven—I really couldn’t think about anything else while I was reading it. John Fowles’s The Magus was another early favorite of mine, and it’s incredibly gothic. And I’ve always loved ghost stories. So no, I’d say I’ve had a casual longstanding interest in the genre

In your interview with Poets & Writers, you describe the gothic nature of much modern technology when you say, “We’re constantly communicating with people who aren’t there.” A few years ago, I taught a high-school class on gothic literature, and I read some lit-critical stuff about the uncanny quality of telephones and photographs and recorded voices. Dracula, for example, is just filled with new-fangled technology, but yours is the first recent novel I’ve read to explicitly explore the creepy, ghostly side of our disconnected connectedness.

JE: Yes, the connection has certainly been made before; I mean, Thomas Edison tried to invent a “spirit phone”—a telephone that could communicate with the dead! I guess as soon as you raise the possibility of communicating with people who aren’t there, that naturally invokes the possibility of communicating with people who really aren't there—because they’re not even alive. Interestingly, early on in my work on The Keep, I’d had the idea that communicating with the dead was Howard’s core project in making his hotel, but it came out too weird, and I think it’s implicit anyway. I guess that, in light of this new wave of technical disembodiment we're experiencing nowadays, it felt like a good time to revisit some of these ideas.

The critic Terry Castle is very good on the gothic appeal of people who aren’t there, the ways in which absence can be more desirable than presence. Certainly, Danny would rather be listening to voicemail from people continents away than talking to the people in the same room. It’s also true that Danny is, himself, kind of an absence, and the same can be said of Charlotte in Look at Me—she actually says it about herself. You’ve also written a pasty dungeon master who turns into a bronzed, blonde captain of finance; a terrorist who's constantly reinventing himself; and at least a few teenagers. What draws you to these protean characters, most of whom grow less substantial as their narratives progress?

JE: Well, I do have a longstanding interest in the power of absence; I think I probably explored that most fully in my first novel, The Invisible Circus, where a girl tries to understand the reason for her sister’s suicide, which happened at the end of the 1960s. Phoebe, the younger sister, is completely overwhelmed by the memory of her absent sister (who is physically her double—twinning again) and the period of history she missed—to the point where her own life feels unreal to her. I think the power of absent things originates with the impulse toward transcendence, or worship, which is deeply human. I also think it's the key to how image culture—advertising in particular—works on our imaginations and emotions.

Interestingly, I’m not sure I'd point to the examples you mention. To my mind, absence and change are two different things. I’m fascinated by the way people change over time, and I don’t see those changes as making them less substantial, as you suggest. The remarkable ways in which time works on people was Proust’s great subject, and his book is full of unexpected transformations: the unknown and pitiful composer who turns out to be a genius, the prostitute’s daughter who marries into the aristocracy, etc. As I get older, I find that watching time work on the people around me is the best show in town.

I might not have noticed it if I hadn't read Look at Me immediately after finishing The Keep, but the former is incredibly gothic, too. There are no castles with dungeons, but there’s a heroine with an uncanny ability to see people’s shadow side and, by the end, there’s a virtual version of the main character that is kind of a contemporary analog of an automaton. A number of reviewers praised Look at Me for its eerily prescient vision of our times. Do you think we're living in a gothic moment? (As I write this I am thinking not just of the fact that the sneakers I’m wearing are dotted with little pink skulls but also of the fact that the most powerful man in the world seems so keen on torture that he begins to look like a sadist.)

JE: Interesting idea. Well, to my mind the most central convention of the gothic is that it’s cut off from ordinary life, and one can’t tell whether the strange phenomena that are happening are real or not. And I do think we live in an era when the whole notion of “reality” is besieged, which is probably why our culture so fetishizes the notion—most spectacularly in the entirely artificial phenomenon of “reality TV.” So if you use that definition: cut off from ordinary life, and imbued with confusion about what is real and what is not, then I’d say we are indeed having a gothic moment. And I think 9/11 has heightened our gothic state in that it’s brought on such intense paranoia—a hugely gothic sensation. This was James’s great achievement in The Turn of the Screw, the most perfect gothic novel in my opinion: the destructiveness of paranoia, and the way it can turn us into precisely the monsters we fear. Worth thinking about right about now, I’d say.

July 25, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

JT Leroy and the Author as Character

I have not read Sarah or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. They sounded really, really depressing, and that’s just not my thing. I should clarify: It’s not just that I don’t enjoy reading depressing novels, although I do not; it’s also, more crucially, that I do not believe that suffering—the suffering of a character, the suffering of that character’s creator—equals literary merit.

Nor was I interested in JT Leroy as an indie superstar, and, as he became an eccentric and bewigged literary celebrity, my disinterest turned to mild antipathy. I was very bored with JT Leroy before I had read a single word he’d written.

Then it turned out that there was no JT Leroy. That’s when I got interested. It wasn’t merely schadenfreude, although I did feel more than a little bit of that. What caught my attention was the fact that JT Leroy’s debunking occurred at almost the same time as the deflation of James Frey and the unraveling of Kaavya Viswanathan. I followed all three stories and wondered—as I’m still wondering—what these episodes say about readers’ expectations, the role of the author, the business of publishing, and the cult of authenticity. James Stafford’s Independent interview with Laura Albert—the woman who invented JT Leroy—has given me some new ways to think about these issues.

Albert begins by trying to excuse her hoax with a metaphor: “If we’d had a party and I’d brought two bottles of wine, and we had a great night and got a little drunk and had fun, then after I told you there was no alcohol in the wine, hey, we still had fun, didn’t we?” How one answers this question depends, I think, largely on how one feels about being deceived. It’s not that fun was not had; it is, rather, that the memory of the fun is tainted if one interprets the lie not as a joke but as an abuse of trust.

But I think Albert makes a crucial mistake when she uses the word “fun.” I kind of doubt that most readers experienced JT Leroy’s tales of teen prostitutes and crystal meth as “fun”. I also think she misunderstands her audience’s understanding of truth. It is certain that some readers derived a dark, voyeuristic pleasure from Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but I believe that a lot of people read books like these because to read them is to bear witness to the suffering they describe. Either way, it seems that it’s not enough to read stories about abuse and degradation: We also want to know that it actually happened.

Stafford says as much when he writes, “Perhaps the gravest charge against Laura is that she deliberately led people to believe that what the books described had actually been experienced by JT. Readers took her novels for memoir and it made the pain they described all the more appalling. It also made them more compelling and enabled her to sell more copies…” This is, of course, what got James Frey into trouble. A story that publishers passed on when it was presented as fiction became an Oprah book when it was a true story. Albert’s deception is slightly murkier: JT Leroy’s stories were bought and sold as fiction, but everyone seems to have assumed that they were essentially memoir, that the horrors they contained were actually experienced by the shy, frail, strange boy who wrote them. The author’s biography was vital to their appeal.

It’s easy to understand how people who befriended JT Leroy might have felt betrayed and disoriented by the discovery that their friend didn’t actually exist. I am less sympathetic, though, to readers who feel betrayed. Fiction either works or it doesn’t. A novel or a short story should succeed or fail on its own merits. An author’s personal suffering shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But, obviously, for a lot of readers—and this includes editors and critics—it does, and it’s fascinating to me that Albert defends her work by explaining that JT Leroy’s suffering was actually her own. That is, she’s still claiming that the fiction wasn’t really fiction, so it remains valid. She is arguing that suffering equals artistic merit.

This argument is not a new one. It seems to be implicit in much of what passes for contemporary literature—especially middle-brow literature. A book about an alcoholic, or a guy laid-off from his job at the steel mill, or a girl who is raped by her father gets an automatic ration of credibility that has nothing to do with its aesthetic merits. This has bothered me since I read She’s Come Undone—a book which, I believe, paved the way for a lot of depressing crap that passes for worthwhile fiction—and it bothers me anew every time I have to review some cartoonishly gloomy new novel with literary pretensions.

While I do not, myself, appreciate tales of squalor and misery, it’s easy for me to see how daytime talk shows in narrative form have a built-in audience. I’ve had a harder time understanding why so many critics seem to like these books, but I think Stafford is getting at something when he talks about his own reluctance to investigate the many inconsistencies in JT Leroy’s life: “Who would dare question an abused child?” I wonder if reviewers worry that to criticize a novel about, say, a crack addict is to criticize the crack addict, and if such criticism seems especially proscribed if one believes that the author who created the crack addict was, in fact, a crack addict. If this is, indeed, the case, I wish that reviewers would overcome their fear of offending.

Anyone who wants cleverly packaged “reality” has about a million TV shows from which to choose, and the web is paradise for voyeurs of all proclivities. I think it would be good for books and good for readers if we could separate stories from their creators, if we could dismantle the cult of authenticity that shackles a novel to its author’s biography and inspires writers to write and publishers to publish dubious works of autobiography. I know that it’s utterly unrealistic to hope for this, but I hope for it nevertheless.

July 24, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Unretouched: Jezebel on the Airbrushing of Faith Hill

Jezebel's Redbook

I know that airbrushing happens. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to keep that in mind when I’m standing in the checkout line, staring at the covers of the women’s magazines and thinking, “Isn’t she, like, at least as old as me? Why doesn’t she have any crows’ feet? She doesn’t have back-flab pudging out over the top of her strapless dress, either. And look at those arms! They’re the arms of an undernourished adolescent. Jesus, I am such a fat, fucking hag.” That’s why Jezebel’s analysis of the July cover of Redbook is so awesomely valuable. I realize that this has already been all over the Internets—and even the TV—but I really consider it a public service to make sure every media-consuming woman in America sees it. So, here’s the original post, here’s a helpfully annotated version of the un-retouched photo, and here’s the Today Show segment with the adorably naïve title, “Are Magazine Covers for Real?”

July 23, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Few Snapshots from My Family’s Trip to Springfield

Me at Krustylu Studios

Frances on the Set

Ted at the Kwik-E-Mart

Frances at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant


July 21, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Today’s Celebrity Birthdays

Erstwhile Monkee Mickey Dolenz is 61.
Fitness enthusiast Richard Simmons is 59.
“Dancing with the Stars” contestant Cheryl Ladd is 55.
Contemporary Christian superstar Sandi Patty is 51.
New Wave icon Gary Numan is 48.
Adorable actor Topher Grace is 28.
World’s greatest baby Frances Jernigan-Clayton is 1.

July 12, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bush v. The Rule of Law

If you didn’t spend Independence Day fuming about George Bush rescuing Scooter Libby from jail time… Well, I would have to suppose that you just haven’t been paying close enough attention. Or maybe you did have a cranky 4th of July—possibly one that’s even extending into the 5th—but you’re worried that you’re not quite as pissed off as you could be. In either case, I hope you find this analytical round-up helpful and infuriating.

  • Sentencing Law and Policy noted the contrast between Scooter Libby and Victor Rita—a man convicted of crimes similar to Libby’s who received a within-guideline sentence that the Bush administration found quite reasonable—even before Libby’s sentence was commuted, but Obsidian Wings offers a spectacularly panoramic view of Bush’s view of what constitutes a reasonable sentence when the convicted criminal isn’t one of his pals. Neither exoneration through DNA testing nor having a court-appointed defense attorney who sleeps through your trial is enough for a pardon or commutation when you’re not Cheney’s right-hand man.
  • Maybe you’re wondering why Bush chose to commute Libby’s sentence. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, at least it wasn’t a full pardon.” An op-ed piece that wasn’t published by the Los Angeles Times—but was excerpted by The Atlantic Online—explains why a commutation satisfies the rabid Republican base that still supports Bush while allowing the White House to continue their campaign of obfuscation.

  • As a governor and as a president, Bush has enjoyed and actively fostered a reputation for being tough on crime. When he liberated Libby from prison before he had ever served a day, Bush used justifications that “the administration has aggressively sought to preclude judges from considering when imposing sentences on everyone else.
  • And, finally, this event gives that douchebag Tony Snow the opportunity to write complete bullshit like this in middle America’s paper of record.


July 5, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack