When Everyone Is Lying, Fiction Tells the Truth:
Conversation with Eric Bennett
by Justin Goodman
Author Eric Bennett teaches at Providence College, the alma mater of Boston Accent Lit’s founder, which is how this book and interview were decided. Bennett’s 2015 novel, A Big Enough Lie, is a fitting homage to a post-9/11 America’s cynicism—but its tone is entirely out of sync with his playful intellectualism. In what people are calling a “Post-Trump” America, it seems eerily excellent timing to release this book review and interview, which remains largely unedited over the several days we communicated. This is not because I was lazy, but because it seems appropriate that, in a “Post-Fact” world (everything is “post-” these days), one should strive to maintain forthrightness in all its error and simplicity. This conversation, and Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, are good reminders that these issues we face today are old and that the concerns we face are everywhere present. Hopefully, someone will find comfort or a few laughs herein.
Justin Goodman: I'm going to start from an unusual place because A Big Enough Lie is, I think, so conceptually diverse that it'll probably take much of the time for itself. Plus, I find the best way to learn about someone is to consider their future orientation. So, in that vein, you said in a Q&A with Deborah Kalb last December that the next novel you were working on was called Everybody Can't Be Naked, which you described as a novel with "tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast." Foremost, I want to ask how that project's coming along. Has there been much progress over the months?
But I also noted that you described the project as “tales” (suggesting concrete divisions), while also calling it a novel. It made me think of something like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. An urbane, multi-layered world engaged in constant fiction while invoking Theory and Aesthetics to defend their commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption. I know you have a similar perspective regarding a style of MFA student. The Greater Than X boys from A Big Enough Lie, for example, or your descriptions of former Iowa Writing Workshop director Paul Engle as something like a writerly power broker. With that in mind, do you see Everybody Can't Be Naked as a continuation of this criticism of the (anti-)politics of the American art world?
Hopefully that wasn't too much at once. Sorry, if so. I'm trying to hold back as much as possible to start.
Eric Bennett: Since Deborah's interview last year, Everybody Can't Be Naked has come more and more to resemble a novel proper. An international Chinese artist creates an installation in the ruins of nineteenth-century mill buildings in a city in Rhode Island. The installation—a work of art—is a full scale replica of a factory you'd find in the Pearl River Delta in southern China—the kind of place that makes 80% of everything we own and wear. The “factory workers” are rich girls, the daughters of Communist Party higher-ups, playing labor as Marie Antoinette is said to have played milkmaid. American artists are hired to build out the “factory” itself—to do the wiring and hang the sheetrock. They think they're really building a factory. And they live fatly on the good wages from the Beijing arts council, or they do at least until the money runs dry. Much of the novel concerns the dreams, hopes, loves, and empty bank accounts of these American artists (the old “tales” that I mentioned). But thematic continuities with A Big Enough Lie and Workshops of Empire will probably be clear to anybody who's kind enough to read the three books. Our material reality depends on industrial activity we barely ever even think about, let alone see. That's a truth that belongs to the realm of economics and politics and ethics, or at best to memoir or journalism, and not in a lush, vivid, plausible novel. But could a lush, vivid, plausible novel contain it? We'll see.
Goodman: I hadn't realized in making the comparison how fitting it seemed. Down to the factories. I don't know if you've ever read The Flamethrowers, but I more than recommend it. I think you'd appreciate it. And I look forward to reading Everybody Can’t Be Naked.
It strikes me as unusual that you say the truth belongs to a realm independent of a “lush, vivid, plausible novel,” but could you elaborate on that more? Could you explain, particularly because I think it's a charged word here, how this might relate to the importance of the “plausible” nature of a novel?
Bennett: The Flamethrowers is one of my favorite recent novels. I feel like Kushner takes a lot from DeLillo but also adds a lot to him—it's an edgy, weird, fast, paranoid book, but also one full of feeling. (DeLillo's Americana is maybe the one most worth comparing it to; it has the same spirit of manic solitude).
Just to be clear, although I'm sure you got this: when I say “the truth,” I mean the particular truth about the invisible industrial underpinnings of how we live and not the “Truth” as in the Ultimate Nature of How Things Are. In my writing, I've been thinking through ways to combine a political impulse, or really an ethical reflex, with an aesthetic process. The political impulse/ethical reflex goes something like this: it’s obscene to lament personal misfortune on one scale (the emotional hardship of divorce, the crisis of loneliness or disconnection) when the preconditions for that misfortune, even if they seem impoverished, are comparatively lavish compared to life on a different scale. Some poor Chinese teenager made the shoes that the moping divorcee is wearing. In saying so I don’t mean to suggest that the divorce isn’t important. If my heart didn’t bleed too easily for everything that ever hurt anybody anywhere, including me, I would have gone into business rather than fiction writing. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is real human stuff and belongs in the pages of books that people turn to to read about real human stuff. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is stuff I write largely about. But there’s other stuff, compelling, relevant, and crucial, that shows up far more often on the non-fiction shelf, in statistics and scholarship and journalism. Can that stuff fit into fiction? George Saunders makes it look easy—fits it right in. He captures this collective crisis of irreconcilable scales of consciousness in short stories like “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Brad Carrigan, American.” So it’s not as though there aren’t writers working on problems of scale, like this. But vast swaths of American fiction since 1945 have concerned themselves with the single scale of the lives most of us live, as they feel from the inside. And even writers conscious of the problem of scale will often point at that problem rather than find (as Saunders finds) powerful ways to dramatize it. I greatly admire Ben Lerner's 10:04, which could not succeed more vividly as an account life as some of us live it. It also tries to do more. At one point in the novel, the narrator riffs on the strangeness of the course of events that leads a product's appearing on the shelves of a Whole Foods he shops at—imagines his way into the global network from which he's mostly alienated. With this, Lerner gestures at breaking through to another frame of reference, but, at least for me, the gesture underscores the provincial reality of the narrator rather than effecting an escape. The Lithuania subplot in Franzen's The Corrections similarly never attains the level of dramatized reality. It doesn't hurt anything. But it doesn't do anything, either. To bring it back to Kushner, I find the interspersed episodes from the history of Italian Futurism remarkable—and successful within the emotional economy of the fiction.
In A Big Enough Lie, I wanted to put two cultural moments into the same book: George W. Bush, draft-dodger, landing an aircraft on an aircraft carrier and standing before a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" (and getting a relative pass from the media for the charade); and James Frey, author of a harmless entertainment, getting shamed on Oprah for fibbing about how long he was in jail. The former was a non-event, the latter a scandal. Which types of falsehood inspire American outrage? Clearly not always the larger falsehoods. This discrepancy between magnitudes of deception, and the political relevance of that problem, is still very much with us, not least in the horrific contrast between the grotesque bogusness that is Donald Trump's very essence and the hysterical attention that Hillary Clinton's emails have received.
Why does any of this matter? There's the hedonistic answer and the civic answer.
Hedonistically, I'm most exhilarated, in my own reading, by works that fill a full canvas. I'll take Toni Morrison over Mary Karr, William Faulkner over James Salter, Ralph Ellison over Richard Ford. Civically, our crises are crises of scales of consciousness: individual gun ownership v. a national gun epidemic; driving to Whole Foods v. climate change. If the majority of three generations of American novelists have concerned themselves only with the local, the personal, the private, in the pages of their work, they've added to the narrowness of vision that contributes to our crises—even, and that's in italics, even if they're staunch advocates of gun control or garden-tending hippies who bike everywhere. Of course, plenty of people will doubt that novelists even matter that much. And those doubters will seem saner than you and me, who refuse to believe it, even if we believe it.
Goodman: I'd largely agree with the analyses you've given of those books—although, with Lerner, his project seems less related to effecting an escape than trying to determine if escape is possible when confronted by one's alienation from collectivity—but there are three things that struck me in your response that I want to mull over.
You go far enough to imply blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists for our literary myopia, possibly our cultural one. This is a classic topic that leads certain people (myself included now) to mention American genre fiction. For instance, you've praised David Mitchell in an interview with Booktrib for what you call his "inspired borrowing," but it's important to mention he's a genre writer too. Half of Cloud Atlas is dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction. There's a laundry list of great works that question the political/personal like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness or Asimov's Empire series. I'd say the genre's MO has been one focused on collective action—I could go as far back as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which features a scene where the telepathic detective protagonist is at a party with other telepaths whose thoughts and feelings aggressively collide with his. So when you talk about a "plausible" novel with "dramatized reality," do you use these words in a looser sense than some are accustomed to taking them?
A shorter, vaguer question with a longer answer: what do you see as the ethical demands of a novelist specifically, or an artist generally?
And, to A Big Enough Lie crises of scales of consciousness. It's directly related to this lack of perspective, I suppose, but I'd like to hear about the almost compulsive sexuality of your characters. Heather and John, as the protagonists, are constantly engaged in a state of jouissance. This seems like a way to characterize young adults, sure, but there's also an exceptionally Freudian sense to it where there exists a 1:1 correspondence of social futility to sexual frustration. John himself considers himself as suffering from "the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action" and Heather's only poem is titled "Blowjobs in the Interregnum"; meanwhile, she can't fit in with her sex-addled classmates. How much does sexuality/impotence play into your notion of political/collective action?
Bennett: To see my words come back at me like that (and it's a fair paraphrase)—"blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists"—makes me want to scrap the whole way of talking. But of course I can't. The thing that seems impossible to say in a way that sticks is that you can both love Richard Ford's writing (or whomever's, but I really enjoyed The Sportswriter and Independence Day) and take issue with the Richard Ford-ness or Mary Karr-ness of American letters, in the same way that you can both thrill at driving a well-engineered automobile on an empty Utah highway and wish that automobiles had never been invented and that the first nations of Utah hadn't been shot by Mormons. Polemics, or how polemics come across on the internet, force us to love something or hate it but not both—even in the realm of literature, which is supposed to include lots of room for complexity of emotional response. In any case, it's the pervasive lack of an eagerness to imagine alternatives that is above all the object of my attack. A kind of comfort with what we've got. I don't doubt that I'm a little too nostalgic for the high modernists and too forgiving of their fascistic tendencies (have you read John Carey's book on them? The Intellectuals and the Masses? I loved it!) but what was appealing in that generation was the radicalness of their repudiation of what they found fault with. The repudiation got expressed via intense preoccupations with both literary form and social structure. And those writers managed to fuse the two concerns, formal and societal, into novels, poems, and essays that still, for all that ambition, continue to scratch the itch of reading for pleasure. That generation took itself so so seriously. And, as far as I can tell, Marilynne Robinson is the only first-tier American novelist writing these days who can take herself that seriously and not be subjected to chronic ridicule. Why can't we have two dozen of her, instead of just one? E. L. Doctorow was another along her lines. But the scene is largely a blitz of smirks and personal affront. James Wood and Jonathan Franzen have achieved eminence enough that nobody seems to want to feel sorry for them. But I certain feel sorry for US, that our impulse, in the face of their opinion-rife eminence, is to make lame bogeymen of them. I'm not clueless about the gender politics of all this, and that the attacks, not on Wood but on Franzen, are informed by the aftermath of a twentieth century full of Mailer, Roth, and lots of men trying to be like Ernest Hemingway. But, even so, I sense within the blowback against Franzen and Wood a blowback against seriousness itself. We're offended by high ambition. It's a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness. The only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome. People take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions. "People? Which people?" I know I'm generalizing offensively. Thank you for letting me generalize offensively.
You put your finger right on the chasm on my reading list, the authors who employ genre conventions to push back against what a Marxist would call bourgeois illusions and delusions. My affection for writers who straddle the line a little (Mitchell and also Pynchon, Atwood, Samuel Delany, Vonnegut, and DeLillo) makes clear that I've got a lot of alternative worlds to look at. I'd never heard of that Bester title, which I look forward to looking at. You probably agree with me (or feel even more strongly than I do?) that the line between "literary" and "genre" fiction is overstated and overplayed. If I insist on "plausible" fiction and "dramatized reality," it just means that I want the magic to work—want to read about alternative worlds imagined in a way that allows me to believe in them. How does that happen? Well, it seems to depend on their being created by, well, smart people. Not just like Richard Powers smart—my affective response to Powers's fiction is never strong enough to propel me to the end of his books—but 360-degree smart, whatever that means. My best friend from way back is not a literary guy, although he'll occasionally read "literary" fiction to keep his finger on the pulse. But he's always urging pulp fiction on me. And as much as I want to like it, whenever I look at it, I always think, "Oh. Some guy is making shit up." And I can't get through books where the middling powers of the author are more real to me than the ostensible reality.
I'm going to dodge your big question about the ethical demands.
Bennett: And as far as sex in A Big Enough Lie goes: hmm. You might have discovered another chasm, the chasm of my awareness of my relation as a writer to sex. My answer feels post hoc to me - something I arrive at by thinking about the question, and not that existed in mind as I was writing the novel. But the thoughts I have now relate to the other stuff we're discussing, so why not? Sex has always been a major territory for politics. A century back, John Sumner and Anthony Comstock suppressed anarchists by persecuting literary journals on sexual grounds. And the 1920s and the late 1960s were two moments in American history when a coherent and not-purely-academic coordination of sexual and political freedom seemed to be at play. Since the 1980s, literary scholars have loved to talk about sexual subversion, the queering of texts, and so forth. But the revolutionary emancipations heralded by such scholarship are almost purely limited to our domestic lives. (And frankly Modern Family has probably done more for same-sex marriage than Judith Butler; although I say that in praise of Modern Family and not disparagement of Judith Butler). There's an analogy here with what I said about domestic malaise and suburban alienation, about fiction about divorce. This stuff matters! Hugely! To good friends, to people I love and want to see happy! But, even so, it's important to remain aware of how much it matters, just how much, and in what way, and in relation to what other concerns. It strikes me as dangerous or at the very least unconscionable if an educated elite mistakes their privilege to sleep with and live with whomever they please as a sufficient democratic watershed. It's a necessary one, but not a sufficient one. I tend to buy David Harvey's formulation in A Brief History of Neoliberalism: both sexual variety and multiculturalism are easily coopted by a market logic that leave fundamentally unchanged the economic reality that leads to class stratification. We're given a sop to justice that doesn't hurt an unjust global order any and might even help it. You now have persons of color among your high finance crowd. You now have gay and lesbian couples living in the heart of Manhattan, helping it brand itself as a center of global culture. And yet you still have endemic problems of class stratification. The investment bankers of color and the same-sex couples are like progressive legislation passed in Norway when you're living in Kentucky or Oakland. But yes, sex in A Big Enough Lie is kind of hollow, yeah?
P.S. Junot Díaz also manages to be serious without getting made fun of. I forgot to mention him, and God bless him.
Goodman: Haha, that's a wonderful answer that makes me think of this essay from Electric Literature. I think this is what people are generally saying when they lament the ubiquity of "identity politics." It's necessary to talk about race and gender and sexuality, but not sufficient since it ignores the powers of class stratification. And where is that in our literature?
I would argue it can partly be found in A Big Enough Lie, in Marshall Stang. Stang is a mysterious figure in the novel despite his prominence—he's the centerpiece of John Townley's identity, the focus of Emily White's book, and nominally a fetishistic object for Heather. Yet none of the characters provide a qualitative reality to him, and he's largely absent near the end. He's also the only distinguishably lower-class character while tending to also act as the repository of other people's fantasies. With John Townley alone he's seen as "truly transcendent and righteous." This seems allegorical in how we treat the poor—from Algier's rags-to-riches narratives to fighting meaningless wars in foreign lands. Was there another goal in drawing Stang out as you did in the novel? Relatedly, where did you draw Stang's mannerisms from? I'm honestly curious because of his nickname for Townley.
I'd like to look at Trump for a moment. [Editor’s Note: Justin did not mean this literally. Nobody likes to look at Trump in the literal sense.] "We're offended by high ambition" and "the only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome." When you look at Trump and his popularity, this seems the exact opposite situation, no? Running for president with legally unattainable goals while using his heavily-branded name as a trumpet. Of course you meant artists who are criticized for ambition, but looking from this angle, it becomes a question of what artists are doing differently that they face the dismissal and sometimes scorn of the populace (if you're A.O. Scott and don't like The Avengers). You suggest "a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness." About what, do you think? Could you elaborate? Because if it's also the case that "people take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions," it would be hard to be ashamed about what bruises they've left on other people's histories. Or do you mean it in the same vein as Steinbeck's supposed "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires?"
It's definitely the case that the genre/literary binary is antiquated and, other than its current practical use in conversation, should be set aside. I warn you now that Bester is not a great stylist, or even a great writer, a condition which, as you noticed, traditionally plagues many a genre author. What I think fiction has come to learn from genre, however, is the need for a plot to be involving—"the magic to work," as you put it. Faulkner was influenced by Rex Stout, a crime novel author, which explains how he managed to rivet drama into his spiritual horrors. I'd always recommend Philip K. Dick, just as I always take recommendations (I'll have to find a copy of John Carey's book). But, of bourgeois illusions and delusions, do you think the seeming increased interest in genre has anything to do with an increased consciousness of class politics? Do you think that, at least in literature, there is in fact an increased focus on histories and social orders?
Bennett: The PLOT in Faulkner is always what makes it work, even though it's buried under the eschatalogical mists of verbiage. I'd never heard about Rex Stout. Worth reading?
Trump [was] the least serious major party candidate for President of the United States in living memory (and probably much longer) in the sense that I'm using serious. By serious I mean considering yourself to be in intellectual and ethical company with other human beings at other times who have tested the limits of the field and feeling some kind of obligation to their afterlife (even if it's to overthrow it with equal and opposite seriousness). Testing yourself against what has been done by people who probably, at least according to future editions of the Modern Library, will always dwarf you. Upholding a kind communally constituted but intrinsically enforced standard. Instead of "limits of the field" I almost typed "genius" or "excellent" or "aptitude," but it's so easy to sound 1) reactionary and 2) covertly gunning for your own career with such language. I wish you could admire "genius" or "excellence" or "aptitude" in a field, by the way, and call for more of it, and not sound like a narcissist projecting. But that's precisely what I mean by the shamefacedness. The more full-throttle a writer is, the more likely his or her tail is going to be tucked between his or her legs. This is in part because of how small late capitalism makes everybody feel. But it's also largely because the very nature of the project of writing great books has only gotten, in the market and in the cultural prejudices that fosters it, more personal. Whereas Joyce's epic ambition, even while drawing upon autobiographical material, seemed to take as its subject Dublin and the English oppression of the Irish and the diminishing legacy of inherited memes and the charismatic vanity of commercialized and disposable culture, the average ambition of a writer today centers on the adequate promotion of a small square of personal territory. A writer like Knausgaard (to take one of the more pseudo-epic examples) has made that small square as vast as possible, and to occasionally mesmerizing effect. But that's so different from Woolf's handling of England in Between the Acts or Orlando or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Clinton [was] the more serious candidate, in this race, because she actually knows things about other countries and, presumably, about the history of this one. The analogy between that and our literary conversation may seem glib, but the seriousness of a writer can be gauged by her awareness of other times and places and other ways of putting books together. Such awareness gives (or can give) thickness to books in a way that makes them durable, and, well, beautiful—transcendent in both the sense of lasting and of really fucking awesome. Invisible Man, good even if you don't know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris, is only better if you know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris. I know I'm a stone's throw from shaking my cane and invoking the lost value of tradition. But when I watched the campaign this year, I found myself wishing the old mores of American democracy still pertained. (As soon as African Americans and women at long last join the imperfect project of American democracy, angry white men gear up to shit all over it.) It has become politically viable to threaten journalists, praise autocrats, rough up protestors, invoke penis size, and so on. I know the like has happened since the beginning. The KKK sold like hotcakes in Indiana in the 1920s. John Birch mattered for years. But it's never been this ugly in my lifetime. But, to say one more thing about shamefacedness: Lerner and David Foster Wallace, both ambitious, have woven their ambition into a kind of apologetic fabric. It's important, it's a report on the condition, that need to apologize, but viscerally I prefer Mitchell, because there's so much life, and so little Mitchell, in Mitchell. He has found a way to write with ambition without writing about himself. (Fredric Jameson seems to think so too—The Antinomies of Realism is pretty great, and it ends with a laudatory reading of Cloud Atlas).
Where's Stang from? Really? Are you asking me if my fiction is autobiographical?!
Justin: I phrased my question poorly. Let me try again. Stang made me think of Jacob, from Woolf's Jacob Room, in how his identity is always the substance of other people's thoughts and dreams and ideas. Did you have this project in mind (of making Stang a surrogate for others) when writing A Big Enough Lie? Was it intentional that this type of essentially voiceless character was of a lower class/economic background? It ties rather nicely to your political sentiments.
It's also funny that you censored yourself, seeing as your novel revels in narcissism and grandiosity to the point that Townley is disappointed he missed "inhaling the terror, witnessing [the]history]" of 9/11 while Heather sleeps with Townley-as-veteran hoping "she could become a war poet of a kind" through him. You've highlighted how far is not far enough with Lerner and Wallace, but I'd like to know at what point the "serious" project of an artist goes too far?
On the issue of race—since we're talking about Trump and angry white men shitting on minorities—race is incredibly understated in your novel. There's passing mention (mostly in the book's pseudo-memoir, Petting The Burning Dog) of J'Million and Antoine's being African American, and cruder references to race by Stang. There's Petting the Burning Dog's campy stereotypes of the wise Middle Eastern man and jocular Italian. Largely, that's to say, these characters are caricatures (the exception being Greep). This is easily traceable to Townley, the white middle-class man with sexual frustrations, who wrote them into being. This seems to exactly mirror the 90s and 00s, when neoliberalism patted itself on the back so hard it knocked the conversation of racial injustice out its own mouth.
So, to rephrase my previous question, and revisit an older one, this seems to get to the heart of what are the ethical demands of an artist, no? It seems from what you've said, and from the purposeful stereotype dependence of Petting the Burning Dog, the artist has to write while respecting the storied history of others. You can't just write other characters without seriously respecting them. As Townley's boss—and later the Middle Eastern academic—say, "not one big picture, a thousand little pictures." Would you disagree with that?
Bennett: No, you phrased the question really well, and I chose to crack a joke instead of answering it. So I appreciate the second chance to answer it. A precocious middle school or high school student in a nowhere place can have this double consciousness regarding the students around him—can perceive and envy their superiority, which is location-specific, even as he knows that he's bound for elsewhere, where his own relative inferiority will vanish. It was this mutually asymmetrical dynamic that I mostly was trying to get at with Stang: the triumph and tragedy of the location-specific alpha-male. But then Stang gets thrown into a kind of non-location-specific alpha maledom—into celebrity—and that original seed of novelistic interest ended up as something else entirely. Your reading of it—Stang as blank surface onto which elites project fantasies—is flattering.
Last night I was thinking about our email exchanges so far, and returned to the same question you've returned to, that of the ethical demands of an artist. Fiction, I really believe, is a tool we should use, among other purposes, including pleasure, to think our way into others' experiences. Not my idea, and, well, obvious, but also not uncontested as a belief. And a big question for me is: should I only think my way into others' experiences by reading accounts of experience by people who actually lived them? This is the dominant twenty-first century trend, and by its logic James Frey should enrage me and even Faulkner and Woolf look dubious. Or, am I allowed to enjoy and believe the work of writers who stretch beyond the bounds of their biographies by thinking their way into other minds? If the latter is the case, then, as a WRITER, rather than a reader, what are the limits of that propriety? Can writers also get outside themselves? Or only by reading? Do I get to write about Iraqi archealogists and black soldiers and jocular Italians? A Big Enough Lie only does so under the cover of falsehood. But I wanted to think that question through within fiction itself. There are certainly limits to how much you can vicariously or by proxy walk in another person's shoes. You are you; I am I. But I think these days we underestimate those limits and make a business of that underestimation that's by turns both angry and sanctimonious. In your question, you've already answered the question I'm working through, and answer it with the word "respect." I wouldn't have put it like this at the time, but I think I wanted to think through that concept fictionally, and in light of a political climate, a social milieu, and a war, none of which were very much replete with respect.
Goodman: I think this just demonstrates your point about how the internet—to go further than specifically polemics—creates a unilateral landscape. Poe's Law strikes again. Besides, in an uncomfortable way, one could say that A Big Enough Lie is about the possibility of second chances. I think the two readings go well together in that regard, though, and it's what I think I was thinking of. All the characters seem to depend on the Gatsby Effect, of being reinvented or of reinventing. But "The American Dream" leaves them in a state (I think) worse off than Gatsby. Instead of being dead, they're merely husks. A particular line from Petting the Burning Dog, perhaps one of the only self-conscious lines written by Townley, struck me in that way: "Without God, only TV cameras." I'm not religious, and your novel doesn't seem heavily motivated by faith in any typical sense, but all this seems to suggest to me that the ability to function requires a grounding/preserving force. "There was no continuity, and without continuity it seemed impossible for there to be sympathy," Townley writes, as Henry Fleming. Which, speaking of continuity, maps to something you wrote in "The Pyramid Scheme": "Texts worth reading...coordinate the personal with the national or international; they embed the instant in the instant's full context and long history." Does that sound right? Could elaborate on "full context" and "long history" in this sense?
Your response very much makes me think of Kamila Shamsie's "The Storytellers of Empire." It's a fantastic essay in Guernica on post-9/11 literature. In particular, she says:
The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.
Her entire point being your point about an increasing concern over "appropriation." And while I think it's used liberally and for polarizing purposes, I think there's also a lot to be said here that are valid concerns. Shamsie in the paragraph just before this one points out how Updike's Terrorist, "the figure of the young Muslim seemed such an accumulation of stereotypes that it struck me as rather poor writing." And Sinan Antoon, in an essay about Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, notes how Turner reverses the image of civilian and soldier so that "the occupier is a victim trapped in a foreign landscape, fighting a war in an incomprehensible place." I guess the question would be, did you feel an obligation to read through first-hand accounts before writing the book? Do you feel an obligation with this second novel? Or, as regards to the idea of "full context" and "long history," do you feel that to study an individual you need to study their context and history extensively?
Bennett: I said above that the seed of A Big Enough Lie was the contrast between James Frey and George W. Bush, or between the handling of their mistruths by the media. But in another sense I simply wanted to see how close I could get to the Iraq War as a mere civilian, as somebody without the motivation to go there as a soldier or the opportunity to go as a freelance journalist. This felt like an ethical undertaking—a challenge to engage with the disastrous foreign policy of the nation I'm a citizen of in a more meaningful way than simply posting my anger on Facebook. This meant, for sure, reading everything I could find about the war. In 2007, there were far fewer titles available than now, but still plenty. I also drew on my experiences living in desert places and traveling in poor ones.
As far as current events go, a writer, if finances permit (which can be a crippling "if"), always has the option to travel and behold face to face what he or she is writing about. Shamsie is right that people need to get out more. That's a good thought experiment: if the money that goes annually to summer writing conferences in the U.S. were spent to deliver those same writers to the far corners of the globe: how would that affect contemporary American literature? I've never seen mainland China, which I'm treating in the new novel, but I spent the summer in Hong Kong in 2010, and those weeks have been proving crucial. Memories of how it looked, sounded, and smelled, plus excellent recent nonfiction and fiction about contemporary China, have given me purchase on the materials I need for Everybody Can't Be Naked.
The question of "full context and long history" are closely related. As soon as a writer writes about events that are not current—and most of them aren't—the only real resource is text. Or the major resource is text, along with visual media. So unless we want to declare the whole of human history sympathetically inaccessible, unless we want to declare as meaningless everything but what's happening now, we need text. I teach at a conservative Catholic college and am not Catholic and would not call myself a conservative. But one of my most conservative colleagues, in resisting the formulation of diversity requirements within the curriculum, pointed out that the cultural differences dividing medieval Europe from contemporary America are far vaster than even the vastest cultural differences amongst us as citizens now. That argument doesn't change my attitude toward diversity requirements (which thank the Lord my college has more of than it did when I started teaching at it), but whatever that colleague's intent in making that argument, I agree with the argument. As hard as it might be for me to put myself in the shoes of Colson Whitehead or Maggie Nelson, it's far harder for me to read Edmund Spenser and think my way into his weird, obsolete reality. But even THAT I can do. It just takes more work. This may seem like trivial role-playing, or some kind of escapist make-believe, but the relevance to the contemporary world is profound. The material and psychological similarities between, for instance, the British who experienced industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s or the Americans who experienced it in the 1870s and 1880s and the Chinese who are experiencing it now are astonishing. Modernity destroys value systems and replaces them with other value systems that soon come to seem like the only thing possible and (to some) like the only thing that has ever been. So Dickens not only provides for me great tricks of the trade—elements in plotting and crafting a novel—but also an account of another place and another time when economic exploitation and environmental degradation wore the melioristic mantel of progress and liberalism. There won't be anything explicitly related to Dickens in the new novel, but it would have been a different book without him (and without Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams and Edward Bellamy and more authors on seemingly unrelated topics than I can name).
Let me say just a little bit more about diversity, so that that point doesn't come across as inhumane, reactionary, or tin-eared. It's not that I don't think that our local American differences are enormous, vile, and at the heart of many of the problems that need to be solved. Class is stratified along racial and ethnic lines; men out-earn women; social networks matter crucially to wellbeing; and so on. But the diversity I was invoking above pertains to what the moral philosopher Charles Taylor calls hyper goods—the largely unspoken values that structure what most people consider to be a good life. And, regarding hyper goods, were mostly much alike. If you interviewed the least advantaged people living on the South Side of Chicago and the most advantaged ones living in San Francisco, many of their assumptions about the Good Life would be similar—not similarly within reach, of course, but similar in conception. And, in my view, overcoming socioeconomic divisions such that our recognized hyper goods can be achieved with greater parity is the most pressing immediate work for our politics.
But there also exists the even more difficult work of genuinely being able to make sense of human beings who don't share our hyper goods. Some but by no means all of the residents of Baghdad, probably only an educated minority, shared the hyper goods that went without saying in the Iraq war (liberalism, free markets, democratic enfranchisement, religious tolerance); few people attracted by the worldview motivating ISIS share those hyper goods. In domestic politics, reading about life on the South Side of Chicago is a good way for the person living in San Francisco to liberalize himself. But in international affairs—or even in some of the wider cultural differences within our own country—the intellectual work concerns not just policies but an ability to grasp the discrepancy between foundational values, whole systems of belief, which is philosophical or intellectual historical work, and not political work. For that, the past is a great resource. It has left huge traces of (now, to us, strange) permutations of belief and other ways of living.
I realize, too, that I'm downplaying the differences, in terms of hyper goods, that divide Americans. Devout Mormons differ cosmically from black Southern Baptists from New York Jews. But even my staunch communist friends own smartphones: the majority effect is far more homogeneous than the human record as a whole.
Justin Goodman is the Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit.