The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
Fiction In Conversation

DAVID MEANS with Alec Niedenthal

David Means is, to me, a mystery writer. I don’t mean in this the ordinary sense of a writer of whodunits or suspense novels. I mean that at its essence, literature is about a core human, and at times more-than-human, mystery. You can see this at moments in Tolstoy—Pierre Bezukhov staring at the stars and thinking about infinity as he nears a state of total hopelessness; in Faulkner—Ike Snopes falling in love with a cow in The Hamlet; in Stendhal—the fascination that Napoleon exerts over the pages of The Red and the Black; in more recent work like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry—the mystery in the division at the heart of the story.

I say all this, and cite these examples, to place David Means in a long lineage and perhaps as the most powerful practitioner of the art of secrecy in literature—that there is something unspeakable in the story which drives its pyrotechnics, its logic or illogic of memory, its thickness of description, its machinery of detail and soulfulness of tone.

I should go ahead and say that Means’s fiction has been immensely important for me, in my reading and writing life. In his stories and his lone-to-date novel, Hystopia, I discovered a way of arranging a surface of storytelling in a way that is as dense and descriptive and authoritative as it is fragile and delicate and always about to shatter and yet, for all that, not shattering, always driving onward, as if here are so many stories, so many beginnings and so many endings, that neither begin or end but rather wander in a constant motion that is at the same time an immobility, in a time so circular and self-annihilating that it resembles eternity. Many of his stories remind me of a painting that you stare at for a while until you realize that the glass covering the canvas is where the painting is located, and the canvas itself is actually blank. I don’t know whether that makes sense. I am trying to get at something that has meant very much to me over the past two or three years.

I do know that David Means has produced, to my lights, the single most memorable, challenging and lasting body of short stories in contemporary and recent American fiction. It was an honor to email with him for over a year—since early January 2019—and conduct this interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Alec Niedenthal (Rail): In the new collection, Instructions for a Funeral, we see a lot of characters who seem to experience an almost sexual satisfaction in telling each other stories. This seems to be a new facet in your work, or an old facet given larger more obvious life. Where does this concern spring from?

David Means: I’ve always seen storytelling—and that includes when a character begins to spin a story—as a kind of physical force, a shift in energy. Some of my characters are living on an edge, alone, psychologically damaged, and they find solace and a kind of freedom and—as you mentioned—a sort of erotic energy in telling stories. William Burroughs had this idea of the word as a virus, and I think that’s a good way to think of it—dialog is a physical intersection between characters, a way of overlapping, a kind of helix, and it’s the only real way we can attempt to mentally touch each other.

Rail: Additionally, in those sort of "nested" stories, e.g. in The Butler's Lament, I admire the way you let the "sub-story" (in this case, the butler's "lament" about his old boss and the foam nozzles, etc.) recenter the story itself. What begins as a "subdomain" of the story becomes equal to the story that frames it. It almost feels like a machine producing a new machine, which now works independently of its parent. The other clear example of this is The Ice Committee, where the substories, the sense of digression, are almost literally the story itself. Have you become less interested in the idea of a single timeline—a single story? Or do you not think of these as substories, but rather layers of the same thing? 

Means: The way I see it, at any time a new story can overtake another story, and so it felt perfectly natural, in “The Butler’s Lament,” when the patient in the hospital began telling his story and it took over. This kind of thing is inherent in the form. You can find it in a story like “Gooseberries” by Chekov—a character leaning back and telling a story that becomes the main story. It often arises from the situation, from the isolation, or the state the characters are in, sitting around a campfire, or riding in a car. The shape of a story is determined by factors inside the story. The two characters in “the Ice Committee” are pushing against each other in a way that is very intimate, sealed into their desperation and isolation, building their own rules of discourse the way people do when they’re outsiders. When that character goes into the story of his Vietnam experience and risks jinxing the lottery ticket, he risks throwing things off balance, including my story.

Rail: I say this because your stories have always flowed back and forth in time, but the way you use digressions and memories in some of the stories here feels less like “flow” than pieces which jut or jar against the present-tense of the story we’re reading. It’s a powerful effect.

Means: There’s a dynamic in the way a story can jut into another story—and, for example, in the case of “El Morro,” it can become an abusive sort of violence and desperation. We all know people who are in an emotional state, inside the terror of their own situations. They go silent, or they push in the other direction. I’ve said this before, but if you don’t do something with time in a story it feels short—or maybe super long.

Rail: I want to push the idea of digression in your stories a little further. I notice a lot of sentences or paragraphs in these stories that interrupt themselves. E.g., a story will be in the middle of a back-and-forth between characters, and then we'll read, between em dashes, "it was midsummer, and the breeze brushed the willow branches with a broom-sweeping sound." A beautiful detail, of course, but I love how it feels almost like another story, another mode of storytelling, inserting itself into this one. Or you'll be in the middle of a memory and the narrator will tell us, "I think I think." There's an oral quality here, but also a sense of intellection, of a mind doubling back on itself. What do you find useful about moments like that? What do they help you portray? What kind of literary space do they help you create?

Means: I don’t think of them as digressions—and maybe it ties into the oral quality you mention, the storytelling sense that anything can work as long as there is something deeper is stake—and all of that ties into something musical, some sense of the sound of the story itself, so you might have a little flick away from the story, as you mentioned, to the landscape, and maybe that includes creating a sense of glancing away. You can separate all of these elements apart from each other—but the good reader isn’t doing that when they’re reading. They’re just listening and seeing. When I first saw a Kara Walker painting, I was stunned into submission before the clarity of her work. I felt her pulling out of history—in those shadows—something that might’ve been lost. But I didn’t say: why did she include those little flowers over there?

Rail: There are a few stories here that feel like they're playing with the boundary between reality and fiction. You have a few narrators—perhaps the same one—who are upstate writer men; the tone in these stories also feels more direct. They still progress by digression like the other stories in Instructions, but there's a sense of frankness, of honesty in the style—which makes their obsessional bent all the more haunting. But they do seem different from the narrators you've had in the past. They're less angular, more relaxed. At the same time their anxieties are explored with more depth and attention. How did you become interested in narrators like that—who seem to mirror you?

Means: It might have something to do with getting older. My father died a few years ago and my mother died last October and I feel slightly more relaxed about getting closer to the autobiographical. Last year I met Jenny Offill and relearned an old lesson. I was lured by her tone in Dept. Of Speculation into thinking that her work was mostly autobiography. I mean auto-fiction—whatever that really is—but closer to biography, but when I talked to her I quickly realized that it wasn’t autobiographical. I love that sensation. All fiction toys with the boundary between so-called reality and dream.

Rail: It sometimes feels like there are two types of stories in Instructions: the "ships and 'Nam, ships and 'Nam" stories and the upstate-deconstructions-of-suburbia stories. There's some crossover—The Butler's Lament, Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother—but there is a slight bifurcated feel. Or maybe I'm just a lazy reader. Is there anything you can access—any experience you can get at—in the "ships and 'Nam" stories that you can't in the stories of suburban discontent? What can the one kind of story do that the other cannot?

Means: Well, it’s really partly a matter of geographic history, or something like that. Anyone who grows up in one place and moves to another—for example, in my case, from Michigan to the East Coast—knows that you feel this pull, this complex dynamic.

I was thinking a lot about the Vietnam War at a certain point, and my older sister, and at another point, for some reason, I was thinking about the Great Lakes ships from my childhood—and reading about deckhands, and remembering what it was like to hang out—as a teenager—up in northern Michigan on road trips. So I wrote into those memories, or out of them. Another time I was drawing on a road trip I took with a friend to New Mexico, across the Zuni reservation. And I was an at-home parent for years, taking care of my twins and observing a whole different world, so some stories dug into that experience.

Rail: There's a remarkable lack of death in these stories. There are a lot of characters who are suffering, who are trapped in a near-death state, but there's very little straight-up death. Do you think that makes it easier to portray or explore grace? Or do you think you've exhausted the kind of grace you can find by killing characters on the page, and you're moving on to something else?

Means: I’m not sure I think at all about exploring anything when I’m writing a story. I’m too close to the work—at least when I’m trying to write—to see how it fits in with anything else. I try to write about the world as I know it, and as I imagine it. What else can you do? I don’t think it’s easier, or harder to find grace, or whatever you want to call it, alongside life, or alongside death, or inside fiction. It might be an illusion—this thing, whatever it is—but it’s a good one, a sense as you’re brushing your daughter’s hair, feeling that little head, that life is of value in relation to the future; or standing at the mouth of a gun feeling your life reconfigure itself as you look up at the brilliant blue Reno sky. Whatever way you’re seeing it, inside any moment—well, this might sound like bullshit, but I like to believe it—there is a semblance of something that is of value that can pull the character outside the consuming reality, if only for a moment.

Rail: In your novel, Hystopia, some of the characters have obsessions which mirror the long-term concerns of your own work (as I read them). Hank is obsessed with the landscape; Rake, with demonic violence; Singleton, with the recovery of memory. What does the novel form allow you to explore, in character, that stories do not?

Means: In the novel I had an opportunity to spread out, to let each character carry a different kind of weight, or concern. In a story you can’t do that. In a story you go in and get out quickly, usually at what feels—to me—to be a sharp angle. With the novel the wider canvas and the frame let me draw from my own obsessions in a way that didn’t feel so acute, and the novel was built around Meg, around the story of a young woman who is destroyed by men, by history, by the war, which happens to be a theme that arrives out of my own life, my own family. Hank, as you note, is living inside landscape. He has a somehow physical sense of being in reality, and he has an intimate relationship with nature. Rake is a psychopath; he went to the war as one and came back as one. Singleton is trying to regain himself in relation to his past, to sort through lost memory, to address the violence in his past. I’m close to Singleton in some ways, but in the deepest way Hank is my psychological sidekick. He finds grace in nature, in the wider order that will outlive us all—no matter what we do to the earth. But again they’re all moving around Meg, and they’re all a projection—an imagined story—by the author of the book, Eugene.

Rail: Since reading them, I've thought a lot about your invocations at the beginning of Instructions. Particularly striking is the admonition not to "lean" on violence as an easy-to-use narrative tool. I've noticed that a good deal of contemporary fiction uses large climactic, cinematic scenes of violence to resolve stories, but these works fail to think in a larger or more complex way about physical brutality. Instead they tend to romanticize it. I like, though, that your writing tries to ask—among other questions: can violence ever be redemptive? 

Means: I don’t think violence can be redemptive, not really, not at all. It can solve a momentary problem—in life and in fiction—but it isn’t ever going to be anything more than a physical manifestation that radiates outward into more pain. The job of fiction, I sometimes think, is to bow in respect as much as possible to reality itself, to zero in on reality, and the truth is, at least as I see it when I’m working, violence doesn’t resolve narrative. Storytelling itself can be redemptive, somehow—but an act of violence, in my view, is the nullification of narrative inside the terminal moment; story instantly folds around the moment of violence and extends in both directions, to the future and to the past. To me—and again I have to stress that this just a personal take, and my thoughts are always shifting—the cheap version is to use violence as a tool to solve a storytelling problem; you can just feel it when that’s happening, and it takes the form of a cartoon physics, like when someone is punched hard in the head and falls out a window and falls three floors and stands up and comes back again. Primo Levi touches on this in his work. For the victim there is story all around moments of physical violence but the actual event—even the prolonged event, say, of domestic violence or political violence—feels, for the victim, horrifically void of structure.

Rail: What do you think is a more ethical approach to violence in storytelling? And how did you come to realize that a more ethical approach was needed?

Means: I don’t think I ever really came to the conclusion that a more ethical approach was needed. I was talking in a slightly fictional way to myself in those confessions—and then also revealing a little bit of the personal source of my inspiration. Since Toni Morrison died, I’ve been thinking about her work, and Faulkner, too, and how in Beloved, and Absalom, Absalom, the storytelling, the signification and language win out against the personal and historical violence, deepening and ensuring the connection to human lives—at least vivid, fictionally conjured human lives—and in doing so thicken the mystery of the complexity of violence itself. Another book I’ve been thinking about is Corregidora by Gayle Jones, because she builds structure around horrific violence, domestic and historical, and the end of the book twists into a gesture that seems to go against simple resolution. Again, how a writer approaches violence is deeply personal, and for me it goes back to trauma as a young man with a mentally ill older sister who was abused by men—I’ll leave it at that.

Rail: You’re one of the very few writers I know who has a sort of religious sensibility when it comes to landscape. You will sometimes let the landscape—to great effect—erupt out of the text; it's said that in some writers, the landscape is a character, but in your work I think it is something more, a refuge for beauty and a testament to goodness in stories that are often populated by cruel and wrong people. What value does the landscape have for you as a writer? What kind of space does natural description, for you, open up in a story?

Means: I like your phrase—refuge for beauty—and that’s part of it, a sense that images in landscape speak in certain ways to the characters in the stories. Sometimes—in certain stories—I get this feeling that landscape is a free narrative, of no cost, and even those who can’t afford to pay the price for other things can at least be in a place; for me landscape is something eternal and everlasting. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because of climate change and the harsh reality that it might just be too late; nature is going to endure, even if it’s in brutal forms, without us, and nature’s narrative is going to continue. I think maybe I have this sense, when I look at the world, of an awareness that landscape does have a story and is, even if we’re not paying attention, even if, say, the landscape on the subway train—the movement of people in seats around us as we stare into our phones—reminding us constantly of our mortality and of the fact that it will outlast us. To go again to Primo Levi—I read him early last summer—in Survival at Auschwitz he’s in such a bad place that the landscape—even inside the camp—becomes nullified, nothing, and the sky doesn’t matter to him anymore. But then one day, in line to march off to slave labor, he becomes aware, for just a few seconds, that it is spring and that the sky and the air have changed, and it’s a profound scene because a second later he’s back inside slave labor and the landscape is meaningless again. In that scene, landscape is a character and plays a role but it’s not the role of salvation, or grace, but rather a brutal reminder of where he really is. But in most situations—even dire situations—you can, if you look closely, find something beautiful, the grace provided from stepping back slightly.

Rail: Your work—like some of the novels and stories it calls toward (Dostoevsky, O'Connor)—has forced me to think differently about Christianity. But the role religion plays in your work is always interesting and unstable—the pathos of belief is less a crisis for your characters than, one feels, a drama constantly at work under the surface. What I often read is a certainty that grace (benevolent love) exists, and at the same time a restless investigation into where it might be located, where it might be found. I was interested, when I read Hystopia, to find a kind of satiric but also tragic depiction of a Pentecostal Christian (Hank's mother), who rolls around on the ground and has ecstatic (and vaguely erotic) godly fits, usually as she's hanging up wash on the clothesline. Yet Hank's faith in trees is portrayed as a deeper religion than hers. It caught my attention that Hank's mother was one of the first straightforwardly Christian characters I'd found in your work, yet she's in many ways a source of humor. Why do you think that is? Why does your work seem to avoid individual religious adherents, while also constantly reflecting on concepts like eternity and grace? Where does that urge come from?

Means: This ties back to what I was saying about the personality—the being—of the writer appearing in the form. My imagination just doesn’t gravitate towards religious adherents. Right now, I don’t know how to talk publicly about my religious beliefs because, in part, I struggle to talk to myself privately about them. When I read someone like O’Connor, the last thing I want to think about is Catholicism. Sure, I still think about Catholicism, but it’s the last thing. O’Connor’s stories are great because they’re great stories; same goes for, say, Isaac Bashevis Singer—I love his stories. The religious view is always secondary to the story, but that isn’t to say it isn’t part of the fuel gives the writer a chance to envision it in their particular way. And of course one can always bring interpretation to the work. Religion can also be a way to build a public scaffolding around the work, and a way to help, as it was with O’Connor, to help the critics to see the work. The mystery in “A Good Man is Hard to find” lies in the behavior, the gestures, of the grandmother in that terminal moment—and she could be any religion, or a nonbeliever. I’m not sure if grace exists or not—but I can’t live without believing that it does, at least within human narrative. It makes me very happy that you saw Hank’s mother—who was sort of a hybrid type—in relation to Hank. Hank’s worship of nature felt, to me at least when I was writing it, true and large.

Rail: To me, humor is very important to your writing, to the way your prose moves. It helps your writing stay an unstable surface, if that makes sense (it probably doesn't). Laughter helps you pull back from trauma or dive more deeply into it; it's like a cable snaking inward to your characters. During the writing process, what does comedy allow you to do? Does it open a story up?

Means: I appreciate that. The writers I admire always have a comic element that lightens their darkest material—like Lydia Davis, Isaac Babel and, oh, I could name so many; Katherine Mansfield comes to mind, and Clarice Lispector. If you ride right up to the edge of trauma or darkness, right to that terminal point, you’re going to find some sort of human comedy. Beckett was the master of that, and, in a different way, Kafka. Maybe it’s impossible to get close to certain horrors without the protective cloak of humor in some form; in a way humor appears to protect us, to allow us into places we could never get—maybe it’s a kind of heat shield. I think the best example in recent contemporary writing might be the Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Another young writer I really admire—he’s brutal and daring but also funny—is Nan Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

Rail: It's interesting how in many of your stories, the writing places in parentheses the events you'd think would be the core of the story. For instance, in "The Ice Committee"—god, I love that story—two traumatic incidents take place either in parentheses or through a fog: Billy-T's death—killed by the air cover he'd called in—and Merle's treatment of his wife. Or, well, we hear directly about Billy-T's death, but the reference to it is strangely stoic next to the fanciful, loving descriptions of deck duty. And at the same time, as Kurt tells the story, he's "weeping softly." Writing like this creates a strange effect—to put it lightly—of being intentionally led astray, of having our reality smudged, the normal order of things reversed. Why do you think you like orbiting around central events like that? Where does it allow you to go?—what kinds of stories can you tell when you're not telling the story at the center of a story? And are there ever times, in the writing process, when you need to force yourself to give certain events more emphasis—say, to focus more on a formative memory for a character, to spell it out more directly?  

Means: This is a terrifically hard question to answer. It depends on the story. When I’m writing a draft, I go where the story wants to go inside that particular moment—but usually have a sense of the central events feeding the story. The thing is, the so-called central events aren’t really central in our everyday lives; I mean we all have these huge events—death, birth—in our lives, but stories have to be about more than just that event, and in our everyday life we’re focused on the particulars of the moment at hand. The characters in “The Ice Committee” are mulling over the past, and they’re inclined, as I think most of us are, to survive by seeing around the moments of loss, trying to rearticulate them through story. Another example might be my story “The Terminal Artist.” I really did have a friend who was a gospel singer, and she was killed by a serial killer nurse; I wasn’t there when she died, so I couldn’t write that story, but I could write from a wider view about what it felt like to learn, years after I thought she died a natural death, that she died at the hands of a psychopath. Storytelling is a tool, a very human way of understanding, of exposing the mystery.


Alec Niedenthal

Alec Niedenthal has had stories appear in The Baffler, The Literary Review, Agriculture Reader, The Toast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and other venues. He received his MFA from Brown University.

David Means

David Means was born and raised in Michigan. His Assorted Fire Events earned the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction and The Secret Goldfish was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. The Spot was selected as a 2010 Notable Book by The New York Times and won the O. Henry Prize. His first novel, Hystopia, was published in 2016 to wide acclaim and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Means’s fiction has appeared in The New YorkerHarper’s MagazineEsquireThe Best American Short StoriesThe O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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