My Last Days is gleefully loaded with so many contemporary cultural placeholders (from the iconic Superman, naturally, right on through to Rudy Giuliani, Al Sharpton, and Donald Trump, etc.) The piece demands and encourages from the reader an exploration of how the references and placeholders are playfully manipulated to function in the story's overall landscape.
Before we get to that, would you mind talking a bit about the genesis of the story? Specifically, I'm curious about your use of the Superman character. Are you a fan of the comic book series? Was this, in any sense, a dream project for you?
LR: In my single-digit years I'd sit on the floor by the supermarket magazine rack reading comics. I felt that Superman and Superboy were more "real" and "normal" than the Marvel Comics heroes. The Superman movies I've found pretty average, but liked the Lois character, except for the sanctimonious Lois in the latest movie. The novel uses the basic knowledge any American might have of our primary superhero.
I thought of this version of the myth running the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in 1983 or so. I wore horn-rimmed glasses, and neighborhood kids yelled "Go Clark!" at me.
Supe's prissy attitude towards women in the book is a variant of the cowboy in movie-westerns feeling more at home with his horse than the ladies. I don't see any reason why a superhero should be fully-functional in all psychic areas. The boorishness bumptiousness of the caricature male (of which we have too many in this country, most destructively in the White House) is a flight from the anguish necessitated by the vague but powerful demand on men to be "strong."
And so I've tried to present a "well-rounded" superhero, to explore a bit the inner consequences of his special powers, his alien origin. His madness might also be related to that of Achilles.
As for the figures from contemporary history, somebody has to put them in their place if neither the media nor the democratic process (whatever's left of it) can. My theory of contemporary America is the Wrestlemania Hypothesis, which will I'm sure be picked up by descendants of Thorstein Veblen: the wedding of entertainment/advertising with journalism breeds little smackdown creatures who bioengineer into public figures. Donald Trump is Gorgeous George lionized: his deals are that "real," if you understand his actual finances. Same with Al Sharpton, whose accomplishments one would never put next to those of say Bayard Rustin, but whom the media represent as a civil rights leader. Bush beat Gore and Kerry because he knew the moves, not the issues, and we care about lookin' good. Politics as fake sport, Karl Rove as impresario. His victory over Gore was as "real" as a pro wrestling victory.
Not to linger too long on Superman's characterization (MLD isn't so much a story about Superman, per se, as much as it is the change corporate corruption and political buffoonery run amok inflict on that which Superman represents), but the tweaking done to the traditional representation of the character is one of the most compelling angles of the story. Most of the heroes in the D.C. and Marvel Universe exhibit a defining, fatal flaw in character (usually the driving force behind the heroism). With Superman, the manifestation is a little more benign -- his love for Lois Lane often causes a conflict of interest in his decision making. As the storylines play out, he always ends up taking the moral high road, the dedication to his humanitarian mission trumping and sacrificing all personal desires (often rendering Superman one-dimensional and predictable.)
As anti-hero became en vogue among the major titles of the 80's, later works attempt to add some depth of character, recasting him as a government shill and sell-out (I'm thinking Frank Miller here in Dark Knight Returns.)
MLD takes this a more sophisticated step further by exploring the possible dissolution of his compassion for the human race. His good deeds are exploited for political capital, and Superman (in one of the story's more poignant scenes) is essentially irrelevant as a solvent to the more realistic problems of the lower middle class, such as economic disparity and the absence of health care. Was this an exploration you considered before you started writing, or did that element arrive organically as the premise and narrative evolved?
LR: My Supe is a little like J. Edgar Hoover's agents going after lone bank robbers while the Mafia throve, or wearing Hawaiian shirts to join the counterculture. The dangerous innocence of the straightforward male--and yes that makes him a shill for folks like Von Umph or Giussilini, and above all Rupert Murd.
Confronted by an actual social problem, if that's what you can call the abuse of foster children, his first response is to go crazy. But then his displays of knowledge become more far-reaching and less smug, and his language perhaps less bland.--I don't remember the heroes of comic books ever saying anything memorable. Nor have I seen much liveliness in the public presence of champions of the so-called information age.
My Last Days is a small homage to Gulliver's Travels, and just as Gulliver's "powers" as a physician did him little good in coping with the myriad societies of which he's a rapt explorer, so Supe's powers and routines do him little good--with a couple of exceptions--in coping with Gotham.
OK, to answer your question: I knew I'd take the most powerful man in the story of the U.S., and I knew I was angry about the postwar history of New York, until recently the most powerful U.S. city. (Now I'd say LA, or the LA-Orange-San Diego-Riverside county megalopolis.) I knew I'd play with him and with NYC bigs. And I was saddened by the story of Vanessa Green, still another dead foster child on the cover of the NY Times. We know, we know the foster-care system is mortally corrupt, another proof of the modern "history is the nightmare. . ." psychic and storytelling axiom to which Supe refers near the end. I knew I'd do the scene in the big newsroom (hastening to say I wrote this before the Lewinsky distraction from the news) and have a dorky Supe struggle to go figure why the mob sent someone to quell the investigative ardor of Lois and The World. Also, I knew I'd have Supe do as well as he could pop-psychologizing his upbringing, while he copes with his increasing malaise, as if he were engaging with Oprah. Finally, I knew that he would speak a bit like a corporate annual report, and that he would espouse a "what's good for Wall Street is good for America" theory of history, an actual theory, which is worked out in the chapter "World History." That's what I knew when I began in 1997.
(Interviewer's note: the following two responses are from Quentin Rowan, illustrator for My Last Days. Also a writer, Quentin Rowan's work has appeared in Paris Review and the Best American Poetry series. He lives in New York and is currently at work on a graphic novel.)
I think the story lends itself very well visually. The current illustrations for the book are terrific - a note perfect companion to Supe's complicated, extended-adolescent naiveté. The likeness, even, is closer to Superboy than Superman. Wonderful as they are, they are more comic-strip than comic-book. Have you thought at all about approaching D.C. with the story? A graphic novel treatment could be interesting? I think it could be done without compromising the literary elements of the work. Would you worry about sacrificing the narrative? Are you interested in cross media collaborations?
QR: My first impulse was to do overly heroic blown-up musclemen drawings of Superman and friends but thinking a little longer about it thought that would be cheesy and tie into something that's already overdone. One need only look at tv or ads in the subway for toothpaste to see representations of that sort. The 'Superman' or Superman-type figure in My Last Days just seems so innocent and childlike (as opposed to the real Superman who's learned everything humanity has thought and said in his spacecraft as a baby on the way to earth) that a more comic-strippy style seemed in order. I was thinking primarily about Tintin and Little Orphan Annie when I did them. Or some kind of update on that style...My father invests Superman and Lois Lane et al. with so many thoughts and feelings way beyond anything they'd be capable of in the comics that I thought it would be an interesting contrast to flatten their visual appearances as much as possible. I would consider doing a graphic novel adaptation, sure, but I can tell you right now DC wouldn't touch it in a million years!
I'd be interested in hearing more on your thoughts about why D.C. wouldn't touch MLD. They've successfully marketed controversial interpretations of their title characters in the past. (Again, I'm thinking Dark Knight here.) With the Superman franchise back in full swing (thanks to the success of the film), perhaps it wouldn't be good timing for such an unusual take on the myth, and Lou takes a few justifiable liberties here and there with the traditional 'story.' Those don't necessarily seem like deal breakers to me, though. Any additional thoughts?
QR: Certainly DC has a history of revising and re-interpreting its characters but I think MLD is kind off on a tangent and actually has less to do with Superman than with my father's ideas about NY politics in the 90's and things like that and not 'character oriented' enough for them...the dark night if anything reinforced this idea of Batman's darkness and coolness, the mystique of the character etc...and MLD is kind of the opposite.
Would you mind talking a bit about your sense of humor? There are very uproarious moments in MLD and certainly in SP, but I would never describe your work as 'comedic.' Even during the darker moments in the selections from 'Alphabet of Love Serial,' there is an element of wit that keeps the stories buoyant. Do you think humor is inherent to your voice as a writer? Is there a certain wry tone you tried to master from your earliest forays? Maybe that's phrased awkwardly, but some comedy is spontaneous and some comedy is carefully planned (and made to seem spontaneous.) Do you think much about being funny during your process, or is it second nature to you at this point?
LR: On the visual: I've seen it as a movie. And I think the caricature-creatures of the recent "Dick Tracy," "Batman," movies are as relevant as those of the Supe movies. MLD's plot (outside of what happens to Supe himself) is elliptical--the connection with crime through Rick Hussell's chop-shop art materials is one of the few concrete clues. The bad guys are a condition as much as a set of political/economic capos. That might have to be jiggered in a movie, making the plot and their responsibilities for it more direct. The grab-bag of episodes is cinematic, I hope.
But I don't have a visual imagination, and so objects with funny names like "The Allegorical Figure of Brooklyn" (a real thing) I see better than say the more important Meadowlands. In other words, and particularly in this book, I read objects rather than simply contemplating them. As Supe swims to the Meadowlands he moralizes the history of their destruction. Which is why I'm happy with Quentin's drawings. As you say, they capture Supe as the boyish innocent so typical of American heroes.
Self-pity is a crucial aspect of American masculinity.
--That's the kind of generalization you begin with in satire. I try to go "inside" Supe a bit, while parodying the confessional that's so popular, popular because of our endless need to heal and fix ourselves in public, to substitute moments of titillation for lives of sympathy and growth. Supe's trapped in that erzatz self-help cult (not culture.) So his biggest revelations about his inner child can be funny while sad....
Which leads to your question about humor: in the little criticism of music I've read, there can be discussions of the "feelings" it expresses. Difficult to hear music as a world of its own, with procedures and rules you can learn as you listen--so we translate it into feeling-statements, at worst statements about what the composer or musician is feeling. But that misses the wonderful pure inventions in the sounds, their relations with each other (not us), inventions affording us chances to loosen self-absorption's psychic cramps.
In the Intro to Sweet Potatoes I mention Huizinga's Homo Ludens which proposes play as a basic category of experience, even "serious" experience like work and war and courtroom trials. The absolute freedom of play allows anything to happen anytime, and for me the "modern" and post and post-post and all the classroom and critical categories with which we pigeonhole the threatening and baffling of the new--all the supposed breakdowns of form into dada or whatever are wonderful because they remove barriers to the mere unpredictable that is play (or general and personal history!). Kafka laughed when he read his stories. --So that's the serious crackpot answer to your question about comic and serious, which I can summarize: yes.
Long ago I adopted a little dog, and took in a feisty hamster that was trotting along Broadway, to the consternation of two gentlemen wondering what kind of rat it might be. When Louis Zukofsky visited, he commented that they "steal a lot of your thunder." I tend to get angry and moralistic about injustice, absurdity in our culture--as I write Bush and Rice are lecturing the Mideastern heads of state, rather than listening to them and their "cultures"--and it is good for my sanity if not my characters' to regard the nightmares of cultural and personal history both closely and at a remove.
We love the things and people we play with: toying with characters and events is often the farthest I can get beyond "we see through a glass, darkly." When Douglas Woolf, truly a modern master, speaks of writing lovingly, he's so accurate about his work.
So it gets I hope mixed into something new: the angry distancing techniques of satire with loving play with sadness, and if I were a critic I would intone: the improvisatory techniques of play mediate, providing dynamic nexus between Jonsonian satire and heartbreak over the tragedies of everyday existence.
So is that sense of play your starting point when you sit down to the keyboard or put the pen to paper? Or is it more of the Douglas Adams concept of 'staring at a blank piece of paper and waiting for your forehead to bleed?'
Well, Dominic, I like that word keyboard, for the notion that brings music and play and invention (following William Carlos Williams on its necessity) together is improvisation. I've told you what I knew I'd do in MLD. I also "knew" that I'd do some kind of sendup on educational testing, and on the corporatizing of schools. Very little of that got in.
I've improvised for the past 5-6 years. It may sound hokey, but I just don't know what's coming next. For example, I had no idea that "The Accounting" would be my version of a mystery-story when I began: writing the first few sentences I'd thought about a beautiful and serious relationship, basing it on a couple I'd known faintly 10 years before, but it went away from that, far away. The pauses and startups in new voices in that story are maybe similar to passing the lead around the band, maybe. The shorter stories of "The Alphabet of Love Serial" were roughed out in one sitting—that became a kind of discipline for them. The story "P" is partly based on "pee" being a homonym.
And I've got to tell you: what a relief from the hard work of thinking you know what you're doing! So much more fun—and Huizinga points out that "fun" occurs only in English, something for which I feel blessed, like the bourgeois gentleman so thrilled to discover he's been speaking prose.
When I began to write, I imagined answering anyone who asked me what's necessary to writing as follows: you have to know how to suffer. Thank God no one asked me then!
So yes, the sense of play is a starting-point, and its presence usually means it's a day of writing something new, rather than reworking. But sometimes a reworking session can light that eco-friendly bulb, and how to rework an earlier episode or go on with one ahead can appear, happily. If I've learned anything, it's how to balance hard work and play, so that I don't force solutions. I've also learned that the seriousness of the material, its happiness or sadness, can run independently of that basic current of sounds, words and sequences - the rough analogy again being a musical instrument's neutrality about what kind of sounds you get from it.
And you're right that it's physical: I don't want to imagine writing without typing, and I don't ever want to go back to keys I have to pound.
Finally, I'd like pompously to point out that many of my heroes, especially when I began to write, have been poets, which leads me (I hope) to feel comfortable throwing the toys together, rather than signaling transitions (lining them up on a shelf in an obvious formal structure—what good are toys there?).
My mental activities don't follow "logical" sequences, any more than my days do, and so I'd say amen to all the famous slogans about finding form in content. I don't feel happy with a piece until it does have a form that allows me to let go.
David Antin's talk-pieces presented me a delightful challenge: I love never knowing how the hell he got from where he started to where he leaves off, but also knowing that it works beautifully. That's an interesting connection between poetry and fiction. Also Robert Creeley's early explorations of jazz while he and Gaddis and Douglas Woolf were struggling to be Harvard undergraduates supplies a crucial connection between the spoken and the musical vernaculars, and much of the American writing I love finds a vernacular peculiar to its intentions, even when it's a well-educated vernacular like Melville's or William Carlos Williams'.
While it isn't necessarily an overt presence, on one level, both SP and MLD deal with the perceptions and expectations of masculinity and what it means to be a 'man.' (Is that an accurate assessment?) Is that theme recurrent in your work?
Oh yes. Notice that it's rare for me to present a heterosexual male "good guy." The fellow in "P" is a variant on ee cummings' Olaf ("glad and big"), kind of a beneficent slack-muscled Supe between the sheets and within the marital bounds. I think it is difficult for popular modern American writers to create "sensitive" men who don't complain, and complaining simply isn't interesting, unless it's the splutterings of Jason Snopes unable to control the universe, the psyche, or birdshit. Gilbert Sorrentino used to ask why he needed to hear Saul Bellow's men kvetch and kvetch.
I've heard but never tracked it down that Mark Twain said he couldn't have Huck grow up, because then he'd lie. The man demanding rather than achieving understanding is a lie and a liar. But this is a huge subject, and now I'm doing a story with a "real" man to help me with it: James Turrell materializes in one of his installations to help an intelligent woman think through a trouble or two. I know nothing about Turrell himself, other than what's appeared in print and TV interviews, but here you have a man who combines, seemingly, the quiet sensitivities of Quakerism, the intelligence to master parts of modern physics - and in addition to doing the art he dresses like a cowpoke, flies an airplane, runs a working ranch, and has not retired to or climbed his mountain, he's turning a whole damned mountain into art! So if I can't invent an interesting man, I can steal one, as Gil did in his wonderful fictions, perhaps following Flan O'Brian. I'd rather idolize him than some paternal football coach.
Mr. Twombly in Douglas Woolf's Fade Out is a wonderful man. The golf hustler in Toby Olson's Seaview another. Jack Gibbs in JR very interesting, except for his interactions with women, and JR himself the only worthy successor to Huck Finn I know (combining him with Tom). It can be done, if we listen to what's best in ourselves writ small and large, and let preconceptions go.
I've written a sequel to MLD, in which Supe undergoes successful therapy for his asexuality and becomes President. Lois learns of a Project Cretin hatched decades back by James Jesus Angleton and a group of cynical Skull-and-Boners (heh-heh) to illustrate Tocqueville's observations on why men of ability eschew pursuing the White House. The inane creature of these rich Yalie's interests is brilliantly ousted from Pennsylvania Avenue and the ranch by Supe and Lois. Supe risks assault after assault by being a truly humane and astute chief executive - the thesis being only Supe can do that, for humane politicians are as vulnerable to assassination here as elected social democrats are vulnerable to ouster and/or murder by us overseas.
As he administers the country fairly, Supe becomes a man. And there's tender romance in it for him!
But that happy ending for us all is a Hollywood ending within a hopeless premise: the only answer to the American Empire situation is to put a comic book hero in the White House. We are to my knowledge the only empire that has succeeded in being both barbarian and imperial—witness our indifference to the looting and destruction of the artifacts of our civilization in Iraq. "Stuff happens," says Rumsfeld, former CEO of Searle, purveyer of cancerous sweeteners. Economic egomania reinvents history. Or does it? Rulers have always been ruthless and self-involved, but now they involve us all, not just the usual poor and minorities. We've been living for six decades with the slow-death or fast-death scenarios for the planet. And that's why MLD's title (and the sequel is called Our Last Days) and its Quaker eccentric Dan Veldt refer to the theological "doctrine of the last things."
Would you talk a little bit about arranging a short story compilation? Was chronology the chief consideration or did you throw lawn darts at the manuscripts to determine the sequence? (That, of course, isn't to imply that the arrangement is haphazard.)
I've written large parts or all of 4 collections of stories, which you could group as 1. Seeming memoirs; 2. The short improvisations of "Alphabet;" 3. The generally longer improvisations tentatively called "You've Got my Number" (first letters, then numbers); 4. Mysteries. That is a chronological list, and takes us back almost three decades.
The selections in SP jump this sequence, partly because there's an introduction to "Alphabet," partly to go from short to long, and partly so I could begin and end the first section with references to childbirth.
I chose the stories that seemed most independent of their context, and which were my favorites as the time of the choice. Again, thought plus play.