Two Californias (C&R Press. 2019)
Sunsphere (BlazeVOX. 2019)
Andrew Farkas and Robert Glick, both fiction writers, speak here about their books, Two Californias and Sunsphere. Through a conversation that took place over e-mail, the two discuss non-traditional narratives, hyper-objects, as well as formal experimentation and the notion of undeath in fiction.
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Andrew Farkas: When I think of California, I often find myself thinking of writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Joan Didion, and the hard-boiled authors. They give us the glitz, the glamor, and then the underbelly of the Golden State. But I feel like the title of your collection, Two Californias, shows us that you’re doing something very different with California. So, how do you feel like you’re using and perhaps changing the literary landscape you’ve chosen here?
Robert Glick: I’m not sure I’m changing the literary landscape so much as helping to make visible the tremendous diversity of California narratives. Along with so many other writers, I’m subverting or rejecting certain types of stories that California seems to engender: broken dreams, specular glitz, the promise of the westbound, self-invention, apocalypse, the parthenogenetic blossoming of radical counter-cultures.
I was born in Los Angeles to Brooklyn Jews. As a pre-teen, I hung out in the early ’80s at The Galleria, where much of Fast Times at Ridgemont High takes place. I went to high school in Covina, a racially diverse, mixed-class section of the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles – what is often pejoratively called “The Other Valley.” During college, I lived in the most vibrant/notorious co-operative housing at UC Berkeley. So my own experience swerved into cliché and back.
My own history, along with a heavy dose of critical theory (I can’t overstate the influence of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz on me) and California-fiction, quickly made me want to push beyond what the homogenous tropes of California narratives foreclose. And so I started to work (through geography, culture, emotion, structure, and language) against these binary oppositions and the ludicrous compression of this open signifier, this hyperobject that is California.
In this light, the most true thing I can say about the term Two Californias is that it is patently untrue. To state that there are two Californias is as arbitrary as saying there are three, or six.
The glitz-hippie opposition renders invisible the multi-generational cultures and sub-cultures in California; the opposition obscures the presence of very California-ish books as different as Claire Waye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and In the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson.
The project of Sunsphere seems related to that of Two Californias – with its emphasis on literal and figurative explosion of meanings – but more targeted, more focused. In your set of linked stories, the Sunsphere itself is both protagonist and antagonist, exerting a monumental pull around which orbit a set of never-repeating characters in a magical, multi-temporal Knoxville. Yet the shifting function, history, and context of the Sunsphere from story to story resists any attempt to pin it down. Sometimes the Sunsphere emerges in anticipation of a World’s Fair: sometimes, as on the book cover, it’s miniaturized, a disco ball inside a gumball machine; sometimes it’s the mark between sections. What drove you to take on this book as a manifesto of open knowledge? How do the formal structures, the metafictions, and the deprioritization of human characters contribute to how you construct these layers of Sunsphere?
AF: Whereas you deal with your homeland in Two Californias, I only lived in Knoxville for two years during my M.A. Instead of dealing with the familiar (that which is familiar to you, the plurality of California not often seen in movies and texts), I used the Sunsphere to focus my thoughts on various things. (I guess you could say I had to go somewhere else before I was able to distill my thoughts.) For instance, thanks to a couple physics classes as an undergrad, and then my own research into the subject, I had already started to view humanity from the universe’s perspective. Since I’d been an atheist since high school, I already had a fairly absurdist view of our existence anyway. And then, when I saw the Sunsphere, it just all started to come together.
The fact that no one else really seemed to care about the Sunsphere at the time was perfect too. Even Albert Camus said he felt only certain people could truly accept the absurd. And so, here was this tower, the Sunsphere, built for the World’s Fair, but no one really thinks about it. So, I suppose, I made it a monument to the power of the absurd. Consequently, everything it touches transforms. Again and again, the meanings we thought were solid turn to clear plastic and we’re forced to look at what’s holding them up. If only there were turtles all the way down!
But that open knowledge you bring up, that’s another form of the expanding universe. We need all of it, though, because once we start denying that knowledge, once we start blocking it off, we hasten our own decline. And that’s why entropy is such a big deal in Sunsphere. People are constantly racing after their own demise by embracing closed systems that will destroy them. The expanse of the universe is just too much for them, but that expanse is life. So, I guess you could say that my manifesto to open knowledge is a manifesto promoting life over death. Unfortunately, though, people seem to choose death over and over again. Or maybe undeath…
On undeath, I am interested in the repeated use or reference to zombies in Two Californias. One of those common touchstones in California fiction is the fact that people go out west to find immortality (through fame, fortune, the usual). But whereas zombification is a life after death, it’s certainly not the version of immortality people are looking for out in California. So, how do you see zombies and zombification playing into your view of this ultimate hyperobject? And how do zombies help explode previous binaries and meanings people seem to latch on to?
RG: I used to teach a class on zombies and race. Zombies are very dear to me, and they tend to speak eloquently, especially in the middle of quarantine.
So how do zombies connect to California? They both exist as the fantasy of rebirth/immortality and its opposite, its collapse into dystopic nightmare. At some nodes, they both function as morality plays on the excesses of capital/materialism. Most interesting to me, zombies and California both represent complex systems of power and desire, but are generally misperceived as simple machines. It’s essential to not efface the histories of zombies – to speak about them in the context of slavery, race and racism, as well as histories of West Africa and the Caribbean in relation to European and US colonial practices. And it’s necessary to situate them in opposition to the perverse, tokenized, post-identity fantasy common to zombie apocalypses.
I write in Two Californias that zombies maintain their pull on us (in part) because they seem to encourage open signification, which by definition, resists binary constructions. We see this most simply in how people have adjectivized the word zombie: zombie processes (computing), zombie economics, zombie architecture. Or as a human with passive or immoral drives (as sheep, as asleep, as overly money-crunching). Zombies make visible and permeable a few fundamental boundaries, such as that between self and other, subject and object, and life and death. So the zombie has an in-built binary de-fusing unit somewhere in that rewired brain.
Either way, both California, as a concept, and the zombie are great mechanisms for untanglings, especially if you believe, as I do, that it’s one of our main jobs as literary/ innovative fiction writers to make complex systems visible. To me, and I think you share this sentiment, this attitude towards the representation of systems, or of constellations, is a political as well as an aesthetic imperative. It’s a kind of bravery that we all need right now – to really look at our social structures, our relation to otherness, our personal and libidinal structures, our modes of writing.
There’s this amazing moment in the clunky, prescient Land of the Dead where one of the Black zombies, pointedly named “Big Daddy,” comes into consciousness, into collective communication. He speaks, he uses tools. It’s at that subversive moment, when an African-American zombie achieves psychological and linguistic depth, that the zombies can properly mobilize against humans. It’s a baldly political moment which threatens one’s ability to see zombies as truly “other.”
With that movement back into a kind of personhood, I wanted to ask you how, in your work, you conceive of “people.” They are not the center of the book, it seems; they function more like vehicles to tell larger cultural tales. While they exhibit the hallmarks of realistic description, you don’t push them towards Forsterian round characterization or large-scale character arcs. Are you, in fact, rewriting how we conceive of human characters on the page? What are the stakes/ramifications of giving the Sunsphere center stage over humans, and did you have a literary lineage in mind when thinking about this center stage?
AF: I tend to view characters the way stage magicians view patter and attractive assistants: they pull you along, they entertain you, but they also distract you from the performance that’s going on here. That performance is by the author, in the case of writing. Consequently, I rarely think of characters the way I think of people. In my novel, The Big Red Herring, I even have a character explain the extreme differences between characters and actual humans. So, even when I’m reading a realist piece, if I really like a character, I usually say, “The author did a really good job there,” instead of saying, “I want to get a beer with that fictional entity!”
Since I think that way, it’s probably no surprise that metafiction really speaks to me, and is thus the form I use most frequently. Maybe instead of being populated by “characters,” my stories contain various forms of the character-function. As you say, their descriptions make them sound somewhat realistic, and their actions are comprehensible, but I’m not particularly interested in focusing on them alone or necessarily making them seem as real as possible. For that matter, the most popular books and movies out there, which get labeled as “genre,” rarely contain realistic characters. Just about all of them become superheroes of a sort. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t focus on my characters quite as much.
The reason for that comes from the fact that I have been very much influenced by postmodern fiction. I think one of the projects of postmodern fiction was to show that humans all too often aim to act much more like flat characters than like round characters. How many times in our lives do we see people who ought to change, who need to change, but who just don’t change? How many times do we see people who embrace simplistic ideas, fall into the groove of those simplistic ideas, and refuse to come out?
What is important in my work, then? The ideas that the characters, the situations, and the prose get you to think about. I don’t care if the character changes because the character is just words on paper. Maybe the reader might change in reading my fiction, though. Plus, since I said earlier that I have an absurdist approach, I think anthropocentrism comes from the fact that we take ourselves way too seriously. If we’re not the most important entities in a work, that perhaps loosens us up a bit and gets us to think in different ways. How many characters do you care about in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I’d say none. But, man, it does a great job of making fun of royalty, knighthood, our view of the Arthurian era, etc. In the end, through the models (characters) that are used, and through the fact that the ideas are more important than the characters, the absurdity of the situation is accentuated, and we are left comparing our lives to that absurdity, instead of getting lost in a convincing story. So, I guess there’s some of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre in there too.
In your work, whereas the characters are more natural, you often employ fractured timelines, which, in themselves, make it so the reader can’t just settle into the story, following it from beginning to middle to end. Since you focus on decaying relationships and dysfunctional families, on characters who end up alienated to some extent, it seems to me these fractured timelines play into Brecht’s alienation effect (the characters are alienated from each other by their life choices, while the reader is alienated – purposefully so – by the fractured timeline). So, what would you say you’re doing with time in your stories? And how does that play into your project as a whole?
RG: While characters are alienated, and while we tend to read narrative jumps in time as a reflection of this alienation, I see the use of different temporal structures in my writing as part of a larger project: to defamiliarize the conventions of literary realism not simply through character and plot, but through structure, form, and language. Indeed, just about every contemporary and cultural theory complicates our subjective sense of time, yet many writers incorporate into their fiction a 17th century understanding of how time operates.
Two examples from Two Californias: In “In The Room / Memory Is / White,” the story (in conjunction with its shifting focalizations) starts in the juicy time-middle of the story and gradually makes its way forwards and backwards, so that the final two sections are, from the perspective of time, the first and the last. In the novella “Failure Mechanism (Voicebox),” each of the five sections starts with a number of “Much Later” scenes, so that the beginning of each section casts its line towards the end of the novella, and then retracts its cast.
In some ways, linear time is perhaps the least interesting way to consider how one thing in fiction relates to another thing. I want to consider the almost innumerable ways one can organize a text, and how an uncritical adoption of linear time severely limits creative possibilities. When push comes to shove, what’s super important to me is by playing with time, we don’t have to sacrifice a story’s emotional power. Hopefully, undoing the tyranny of (representations of) linear time forces us to build new reading synapses, and to build new kinds of psychic and emotional structures upon which a story is constructed.
I’m curious about what you’re working on now, and how it builds on your previous work. Has the current moment (COVID, George Floyd’s murder, Trump) affected how and/or what you’re writing?
AF: Although I finished writing it in 2015, my novel, The Big Red Herring, seems strangely more about the current moment than the book I’m currently finishing – a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman. The reason Red Herring is so jacked into the moment is because I purposely loaded it with conspiracy theories, since even before now I felt the conspiracy theory was becoming the primary narrative form that people were using to “explain” the world. Of course, my idea is to lampoon conspiracist thinking, while simultaneously showing why it’s so alluring.
As for how the novel connects to my previous writing, it feels like all of the thinking I was doing for Self-Titled Debut and Sunsphere exploded out and became The Big Red Herring. I even feel like specific stories from the two collections point to what I’d do in the novel: “The Last Light You’ll See” from Self-Titled Debut; “White Dwarf Blues” and “Everything Under the Sunsphere” from Sunsphere.
Now, The Great Indoorsman, being creative nonfiction, is very different. After I finished Red Herring, I actually wanted to write plays. The problem I’ve found is that it’s far more confusing and frustrating to submit plays for workshop and performance than it is to submit prose for publication. Since I still wanted to write something different after working for six years on the novel, I decided to go to a form I had sort of dabbled in previously – creative nonfiction. Although I didn’t decide right away, The Great Indoorsman has become a book about how fiction plays so much into our reality, I argue that to ignore fiction is to ignore reality. But, I would say my ultimate goal is similar to what the Amazing Randi used to do: he was a stage magician (somebody good at tricking people) who debunked the supernatural. In other words, I embrace the showmanship of writing, while simultaneously demanding that said showmanship not be used for nefarious ends. Since I already wrote metafiction, I suppose you could say I’m now working in meta-creative nonfiction (when I make things up, I tell you I’m making them up and why I’m making them up). If that sounds overly academic, think of magicians who can tell you how a trick works and still amaze you while doing so.
Of the essays in The Great Indoorsman, only three have been written during the pandemic, so I’m not sure that COVID-19 has been a big influence. I have a feeling whatever I write next, though, will in some way be influenced by our current situation.
What about you? What are you working on now? Has your process changed during the quarantine?
RG: For the last five years, I’ve been working on a print novel with digital components that I’ve been calling The Paradox of Wonder Woman’s Airplane – though now I think the novel has outgrown the title, and maybe I’ll get sued for the title anyways! In many ways, it is an extension of Two Californias, both formally (short, modular, often lyric sections) and thematically (suburban white people trying and failing to deal with their psychic and social residues). I’ve been lucky enough to be on leave this year, and am finishing it up as we write.
From a strictly pragmatic perspective, I’m resisting the temptation to radically change this novel to react to current conditions. I made one major shift: I moved up the timeline of the book so that it takes place in 2016, during election primaries, because I wanted the spectre of our fascist, crimes-against-humanity president to start looming. But I do plan on returning afterwards to zombies and, I think, the underground railroad. Above all else, I want to keep centered a commitment to telling different stories differently.