sábado, 13 de setembro de 2014
In Fiction: Greg Jackson
Posted by Deborah Treisman
Your story in this week’s issue, “Wagner in the Desert,” is about a group of thirtysomethings embarking on artistic and entrepreneurial careers who meet up in Palm Springs for one last lost week before settling into their adult lives. Where did the inspiration come from? Do you know anyone who’s actually done this, or some version of this?
Yes, me. It feels terrible to admit that I’ve modeled a story on an experience I’ve had, in part because I so rarely do this, and in part because it tempts readers to see me in the characters. While pieces of a writer necessarily find their way into his or her work, I never write from a perspective I believe to be my own. And I feel that the natural distancing effect of turning life into fiction means that my characters end up bearing little, if any, resemblance to anyone who might have inspired them. Typically, I find myself patching a few real details into largely imagined material. Here, I took something I had actually done as the contextual foundation on which to build a fictional story, one whose possibilities were, in many ways, inspired by the world I encountered in Palm Springs—which is a very weird place.
The thing that appealed to me about Palm Springs was its contradictions: it’s a desert near the California coast; it’s a gay destination, but it also has a culture that’s unabashedly nostalgic for “Mad Men”-era values—patriarchy, materialism, traditional gender roles; the Koch brothers hold king-making meetings there, while massive wind farms turn in the desert breeze and, presumably, power the very grids the Kochs use to project their flowcharts (or whatever) about how to retain market share against renewables; and Palm Springs is, in fact, a popular vacation spot for New York Hasidim, who, when I was there, showed up in the strangest places, and offered a decided contrast to the group I was travelling with, which, as in the story, was comprised almost entirely of Jews, though of a more secular and libertine sort. (My name belies me—my mother is Jewish.) I find it energizing when contradictory worlds come into close proximity, because it forces us to consider the choices we’ve made—or haven’t made but defaulted to—and the contingency of our lives. The more time you spend around people like you, of course, the less often you are compelled to ask tough questions of yourself and to justify your own decisions and values.
At the heart of this story, I think, is the bind in which I perceive a specific segment of my generation, caught between trying to remake the world we were born into and conspiring with that world to remain upper-middle-class. Ours is an era of unconscionable inequality, divergent pay scales, and stagnating wages. It seems increasingly hard to find jobs that speak to the spirit and validate a hugely expensive education and contribute meaningfully to society and grant the tokens of outward achievement through which, unfortunately, we often come to interpret our success. I have sympathy for those caught in this crucible. I may be one of them.
More specific to this story is the relatively new class of jobs that try to square the circle described above, attempting to meld idealistic values with business interests. While corporate responsibility and progressivism are surely better than the alternative, I have to wonder whether jobs of this nature don’t induce a slight schizophrenia in how one understands what one is doing, and whether a degree of co-optation isn’t inevitable. Is there really a way to hijack, kludge, “hack” (what a terribly overused bit of trend-fluff) the corporate model and make ethical and sustainable behavior profitable? Or are we seeing the abilities of smart, enlightened young people be purchased by corporations that would otherwise lose this talent pool, at the price of one or two hundred thousand dollars a year? I have my own opinion, but I don’t pretend to know. The answer may hinge on whether we see business—the market—as the best (though imperfect) institution to mediate self-gratification and the public good, or whether we see it as a hopeless Faustian bargain with capital—with, that is, entrenched privilege and preexisting wealth. In Thomas Piketty’s terms, it may all come down to the relative sizes of r and g.
The narrator of the story is, as he says, like Voltaire in the court of Frederick the Great—both participating in the debauchery and sitting in judgment, or at least observation, of it. How much of a challenge was it to maintain that implicated-yet-apart tone in the writing?
The story is in many ways about complicity and implication, and so it seemed to me vital, from the get-go, not to privilege any one viewpoint or set of values. I think art succeeds most fully when it engenders a sense of freedom in us, when it allows us to envision the world remade through our moral imagination. This can happen only when the audience goes along with the artist of its own free will, and, to allow for that, a work must maintain tremendous respect for its audience and that audience’s autonomy. The surest way to rob a work of this sense of freedom is to insist on certain moral hierarchies, which is why, I think, so much “political” art fails. I don’t mean to say that I succeed myself. I may often fail, and either way it’s not for me to judge. But I strive for it, and I always look for it in art myself.
Who likes raising the possibility that one is wrong in one’s convictions? Who likes taking the true measure of one’s own implication? I do think, however, that you earn the right to be critical of others only when you have been more critical of and honest about yourself. And the truth is that we are virtually all implicated in the moral compromises of the status quo, whatever our choices. We may not be to the same degree—and degrees matter, don’t let anyone say they don’t—but the narrator in this story, for instance, is a writer who has presumably supported himself through institutions that rely on the charity and profits of corporate wealth; in a jam he wouldn’t hesitate to sell his creative talents to ad agencies, marketing firms, or the like. We can opt out of direct patronage by those entities we find unpalatable, but the very existence of these other options has no doubt been underwritten by the practices and business models of the exact entities from which we seek to disentangle ourselves. Ours is a condition of inescapable implication. To write from a different perspective would be harder, because it would involve deceiving myself.
The story is both a sensitive portrait of its characters and a comic social commentary. Do you have any models (other than Voltaire) for this style of writing?
This is the sort of question you love and dread because it raises the possibility and hazard of so much egotism-by-association. I didn’t have any specific voice or example in mind when I wrote this story, but I don’t doubt that many of the writers I have read and admired over the years have helped to model writing of this sort for me. At this point, though, it’s just very hard to distinguish when I’ve drawn from or simply been drawn to writers who write in this vein.
My three longtime exemplars of penetrative, empathetic, self-implicating, and often satirical writing are Conrad, Bellow, and David Foster Wallace. (I taught a course on Wallace for a few semesters, and his influence on me is probably far greater than it’s cool to admit.) More recently, I’ve found especially brilliant, sharp, and funny social commentary in the work of Sam Lipsyte, Rebecca Curtis, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti. I came late to the (underappreciated) work of Gregor von Rezzori, one of the bravest explorers of self-implication I know of, and to the work of Norman Mailer, whom I can hardly stand, but who deserves more credit, I think, for ushering in the blow-by-blow self-excoriating fictionalization of personal experience that is now so common. Writers in other genres and media have been inspirations, too: the plays of Wallace Shawn, the monologues of Spalding Gray, films like Paolo Sorrentino’s magnificent “The Great Beauty.” I always find radical honesty, the sort that turns its gaze inward as much as outward, a gift and a blessing. To that end, Roberto Bolaño and Elena Ferrante have been personal heroes of more recent years. Their books freed me to go places in my own work that I felt compelled to go but was wary of, anticipating criticism.
There, I’ve just listed many of the writers I most respect and managed, in the process, to put myself into some relation to them. Let’s just forget this question existed.
The motif of a royal court keeps coming up in the story, sometimes in the most unexpected places—as in the financier Wagner’s speech about courtiers. Do you have an interest in the history of monarchy? Is Hollywood the closest social structure we have in the U.S. today?
This is an interesting observation because, while it’s certainly true of the story, I didn’t give the matter much thought when I was writing. I don’t know that Hollywood is more monarchical than any other American industry culture, be it Beltway politics or Silicon Valley or Wall Street. In some sense Hollywood may be the most honest in its late-modern royalism, given that royalty has always been as much about performance as about the exercise of power. I don’t know Hollywood well enough to know just how seriously it takes itself—quite, I’m sure—but I suspect that the daily business of manufacturing spectacle forces one to countenance the inseparability of power and the performance of power—if not to go one step further and understand power as never more than a two-dimensional edifice, as substantial as Main Street in a Spaghetti Western. Power is only ever other people’s belief in it.
We live in a political era, meanwhile, that saw two families pass the Presidency back and forth for twenty years and that may well see those two families vie again for the Presidency in 2016. John Boehner recently announced his intention to introduce legislation suing the President for overstepping his onstitutional authority in taking executive action to bypass a stalled Congress, Boehner justifying himself by noting that we did not elect “a monarch or king.” (Forget that the whole notion of a “strongly unitary” executive gained traction under the second Bush Presidency, when the speed of unfolding world events seemed to outstrip the response time of a deliberative—charitable word—Congress.) This is all to say that the appeal and threat of monarchy are very much alive. And this can only be a failure of democracy. The idea of unilateral leadership—enlightened despotism, benevolent dictatorship, the noblesse oblige of “Downton Abbey” and its spinoffs—appeals to us when collective action seems impossible. We turn to the spectacle of British royal weddings and births, which should be anathema to our civic imagination, because … well, for a number of reasons, surely. But among them, I think, is a kind of relief at the idea of distinction independent of achievement. Achievement is difficult, unstable, ephemeral, often tainted by unacknowledged luck. It is also, always, comparative: measured against other people’s relative lack of achievement or outright failure. Royal distinction, on the other hand, is accorded by birth, isn’t subject to the whims of fortune, and appears to be an end in itself. There is something perversely honest in this, when so much “meritocratic” achievement is just the opposite.
The last thing I’ll say, having gone, again, fairly far afield of the initial question, is that one experience pretty common to many so-called upwardly mobile people in the early stages of their careers is that of being, in fact, something rather like a courtier. You attach yourself to people more powerful than you in your field or business, you assist them in often menial, sometimes substantive ways, and your own career and livelihood come to depend, to an extent, on your ability to buoy their egos and provide them with sympathetic and attentive company into which they can retreat from the “combat” of their high-powered jobs. This is ubiquitous, as far I can tell, and I’m not knocking it. It makes reasonable sense. Clearly it has existed in some form for millennia. The evolution of today’s “courtier,” however, seems to me to parallel the rise of therapeutic culture, broadly speaking, as this has expanded ever outward into the worlds of personal trainers and paid companions, stylists and hygienists, formalized mentor-mentee pairings and widespread calming practices (yoga, meditation, jogging—that exquisite torture), which are surely responses to the psychological degradation of ambitious urban work lives. First-world problems, as they say, and in this case perhaps the definition thereof, but therapy of any sort strikes me as the mediation of a schism between private, interior life and public, social life—how we want to feel and how the world makes us feel. Treating the symptoms always runs the risk of letting the deeper causes to go unaddressed.
Wagner’s diatribe on the nature of power, envy, and happiness is a metaphysically depressing one. What do you think your narrator takes away from it? Does he ever find that moment of transcendence he’s looking for, or does he accept that the quest itself is flawed?
Moments of transcendence are bittersweet things. They can’t last and so are infused with a sense of their own impermanence. At the same time, the possibility of transcendental experience is something we spend much of our quotidian lives working to allow. Most of us, I think, find the idea of a life that is about no more than perpetuating and propagating ourselves unsatisfactory, even as our increasingly secular and materialist interpretations of reality make it ever harder to say what exactly transcendental, or simply meaningful, experience consists of. An affective state? A subjective feeling? A chord strummed across the wiring of our brain? If so, drugs are an equivalent, although more dangerous, avenue to transcendence.
I’ve often enjoyed drugs; my point isn’t to criticize them. And certainly the division between illegal and legal drugs, whether medicinal or recreational, is slimmer and more tenuous than we allow. What’s most interesting to me is the way we pretty much all constantly use drugs to put ourselves into psychological states that we feel the moment demands but that we cannot achieve, as it were, organically—to combat fatigue, anxiety, introversion, moodiness, apathy, hormonal change, etc. We take drugs to fine-tune our mental and physical state to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. When it comes to recreational drugs, non-addict users are often trying to manufacture transcendence at times that fit their schedules. It may be a long weekend, or you may have a week’s reprieve, after dozens spent grinding away at your job, and if you’re worried that you might not get to that place of spiritual lift or experiential saturation or whatever it is that justifies all the brutal work you’ve been doing, drugs are available to more or less compel your brain chemistry into a simulacrum of the sought experience.
Wagner’s speech is something of a corrective. Not the view he espouses, which is—I would hope!—a depressing one, but for the negative wisdom of his words. His is a cautionary tale, I think, because it suggests that power, money, and fame necessarily distance a person from authentic experience. People may pretend to care for you and perform all the outward manifestations of love, but you can no more command someone’s true feelings than that person can control them. The more one can compel or buy, the more valuable become those things that can only be freely given. Wagner’s straits are so dire because any expression of affection for him is corrupted by the possibility of self-interest, which means the only emotional responses he can trust are those that denigrate him.
The broader point here is about the limits of power. The things most important to us in life, I’m convinced, depend on our getting them the right way. Love must be won, success earned. Friendship must be independent of position and fortune or else it’s just a quid pro quo, an arrangement of convenience. Likewise, as fun as drugs can be, they are transcendence compelled, purchased, and manufactured. I doubt they can be a lasting source of spiritual nourishment on their own.
This is your first story in the magazine, and you’re in the process of putting together a first story collection. I’ve seen some of the other pieces and they’re quite different from “Wagner in the Desert.” Will there be an underlying theme to the book?
I think the collection—entitled “Prodigals”—revolves around many of the themes and situations broached in “Wagner.” I also think you’re right that this story is different in certain ways: it is more immediately rooted in the contemporary moment, the cultural artifacts and social fabric of TODAY, and I permit myself more explicit reflection and commentary here than I do elsewhere, where similar concerns are filtered, to a greater extent, through situation and metaphor.
On the most superficial level, the stories have at their center characters in their thirties or forties (less often their twenties), who are navigating issues we’ve talked about here: the desire for personal success versus the allegiance to nobler, perhaps collective, values; the many competing notions of how to justify one’s own existence, whether through mammon, influence, celebrity, an idea of personal fulfillment, spiritual enlightenment, making a “difference,” or meaningful relationships of another sort; the lure of bourgeois life versus the compromises and complicities of bourgeois life. In short, the conflict, the many conflicts, between spiritual and material need.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, as everyone knows, concerns wasteful living, extravagance, and the squandering of privilege. In the Bible, we aren’t given an account of the son’s motives or of the decadent years in which he exhausts his inheritance. I suppose I like to think that he couldn’t bear the plodding labor of working on his father’s estate, with only the staid and predictable continuation of the family line and business to look forward to. He wanted something more. Perhaps he spent his years away trying to write a novel. …My interpretation of the prodigal spirit is a broad one—yes, at times it’s wasteful and disloyal and insensitive to others, but it’s also driven by unanswerable longing and by an inability to fit neatly into the life that was limned for you at birth. The squandering of privilege and inheritance is owing not only to poor planning and excess but also to the nagging sense that privilege and inheritance are unearned. The psychological effect of having or receiving more than one deserves may be guilt or repression, but it seems inevitably to involve an attenuation of one’s sense of self. This response may not be entirely healthy, but it is honest.
I see all the characters in my collection as prodigals of some stripe: spiritual seekers, struggling with their simultaneous need for other people and revulsion at other people, confronting some part of the deconstruction of identity that rigorous self-honesty entails. The lesson in the Biblical story is one of radical compassion. If we ask that life stage for us the moral drama in which everyone gets his or her own karmic deserts, not only will life fail to deliver, but we will live, moreover, in a state of continual resentment. The story of the prodigal son encourages us to aspire to a degree of compassion and forgiveness that is unnatural to us. The father in the parable rejoices because his son, who in absence was “dead” to him, has, in returning, come back to “life.” Apartness in this reading is a kind of death; togetherness, life.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 19:09