Show #441: Hari Kunzru, Part Two

Show #441, which runs 49 minutes and 28 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. It completes the epic two-part conversation we had with Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men. (You can listen to the first part here.) This conversation gets into the publishing industry, Kunzru’s early life (in which Kunzru and I realized that we both had nearly the same first computer growing up), and issues of faith and religion — among many other topics.

Additionally, the first few minutes feature a regrettable retraction that is certain to cause some controversy and thousands of op-ed columns rearticulating the same basic points in the literary world. 

Here’s an excerpt from the show:

Correspondent: So what then, Hari, do you make up when you write a novel? I mean, I also detected, for example — I saw at least two David Mitchell nods. Not just “Segunda,” which of course I have also plucked. But also there is an early incident with Nicky in which he complains about the waiter not understanding that he’s saying “water,” which I’ve heard David say a couple of times.

Kunzru: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah. And I was thinking, “Oh! Now I know they’re friends.” (laughs)

Kunzru: Yeah.

Correspondent: But I am curious about this idea of plucking almost everything from other incidents. Is this something you can help? Do you make shit up to combat that in any way? To keep it real or to keep it authentic? Or do you not even care?

Kunzru: I simply think that you’d be lying if you said everything — let’s see. There’s various positions. On one end of the spectrum, it’s that people like Kenneth Goldsmith and Tom McCarthy would say, “We’re at the end of this tradition. We’re playing in the ruins. The only valid artistic act is a kind of reconfiguration of existing material.” You know, I frankly that’s much easier to say as a straight white guy. Because you’ve had two thousand years of airtime.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kunzru: Maybe you feel that’s all there is. But actually I think we’re in a moment where there is a lot that’s genuinely new and there’s a lot that’s genuinely unsayable. So, however, my experience of the world isn’t of this kind of wonderful, sort of romantic notion of the primary creation out of nothing and that the extraordinary poetic mind of the creator shaping raw material into art — that simply is not an accurate description of the pragmatics of making literary art. Is it important to distinguish one kind of thing from another? Only when the lawyers turn up. I think any literate person these days is literate in a way which encompasses the notion of source and secondariness. And in words: bad writers borrow, good writers steal. You can make something your own. David Mitchell’s project is interesting. We are friends. I’m friends with Tom as well. And I have productive conversations with these guys about it. I mean, Dave is a much more orderly character than me, I think. A lot of people — mostly because Dave’s blurbed my book; so that’s very nice of him. But Cloud Atlas, to which various people have connected Gods Without Men, is a very different project. That’s a response to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, where Dave just could not stand the fact that all these stories opened and then didn’t close. And he made this very beautiful, nested structure, where the stories open, open, open, open, open, center, close, close, close, close, close, end. And that’s one way of seeing the world. And it’s a very formally perfect thing. And it allowed him to show that he’s head and shoulders above most other people working today. As I said before, I’m more interested in breaking that formal perfection and allowing silence. A model I had for this book was Bolaño’s 2666, where there are these very big — three, four very big slabs of narrative. They seem as you read to have no damn connection to each other at all, but gradually, in this almost ineffable way, they start to vibrate in harmony with each other. And it becomes clear that this is a work. I admired that so much.

And also, I think, given that plot at this point is taught everywhere. I mean, I’ve been in some screenwriting lately. You know, this world of the three act structure and this has to happen at this point. It’s those wonderful little clockwork things that you can make out of plot. And the only way of breaking out of that slightly clockwork feeling is literally by breaking out, by making openings, by making strands where things are not functioning as they are expected to function. And it’s been quite a pleasure to see that, in both the US and the UK, the reviewers who have not fundamentally liked this book have all, despite themselves, basically — I mean, Michiko Kakutani did this in the New York Times today; I was just reading her review. They all say, “Why was this not tied up properly? Why did he not concentrate on the straight story of this couple and their child? Why is this imperfectly integrated material been introduced in the book?” And that’s the project. And that’s where I find interest.

Correspondent: The Millions also accused you of doing too much style.

Kunzru: I mean, fair enough. I will never be a kind of cool writer in a certain sort of way. I don’t…

Correspondent: In a literary sort of way?

Kunzru: In an affectless sort of way.

Correspondent: A plain, hardboiled realism degree of fiction?

Kunzru: You know, I feel I have a reasonably nailed down and possibly even cynical view of human relations. But just in terms of writing prose, I like the idea of pretending to be an 18th century Spanish dude. And I like to do the different voices. And that’s the opposite of a certain sort of literary call. I read a lot of post-writing school American fiction in particular, which I find painfully self-conscious because it’s very scared of being uncool. It’s very scared of what might look like style, what might look like showing off, or what might actually look like fun. And it adopts a kind of Carver, who’s obviously the big — you know, all the sentences are stripped down. The most emotional moment is the downfall at the end. I mean, this stuff is now being put out by the yard. Because it’s become a kind of MFA staple. I think it’s what happens when a bunch of hyper-conscious 25-year-old MFA students critique each other in a room for too long. It’s that acute self-consciousness, which I think you’ve got to lose. You need to basically be able to make yourself look slightly ridiculous to be a writer. You need to ideally make yourself look a bit ugly. I mean, there are writers I admire because they can be unlikable on the page and because that’s interesting to me.

Correspondent: I agree with you. But I think we’ve seen a shift — especially from the agents and the editors. I mean, I have heard this. Editors are saying, “You know, all the novels that I get tend to hit these same notes.” This problem we’re talking about. This fear of offending. This diffidence when it comes to chronicling unlikable characters or unlikable perspectives. On the other hand, when you have agents as gatekeepers, who are preventing those types of desired perspectives from actually hitting into publishers and you’re also dealing with the need to get a return on revenue, I mean…

Kunzru: It’s structural, isn’t it? You can’t just blame the writers. You have to blame the way the industry is structured. And there are many, many ways which make books — I haven’t read Chad Harbach’s book yet. But it’s very interesting to me that that book was given the keys to the kingdom very immediately. My partner, the novelist Katie Kitamura, is reading it and, at the moment, has found it very unsatisfactory. I mean, there’s a kind of prose that is deemed by the gatekeepers to play in the Midwest.

Correspondent: Yes.

Kunzru: And hence kind of gets through. And this structural stuff — I can’t have a book that looks like I want it to look. I mean, the physicality of my book is not under my control because the publishers have certain job descriptions. There’s an art director. There’s a designer. I mean, my books would not look like the published objects that they are. Those objects should be considered as compromises. You know, you fight for the kind of cover that you feel you want. I mean, my visual taste is not always the visual taste of my publishers and my editors. In terms of font. In terms of spacing. Let alone if you were to point to really fooling around with formal stuff or you wanted to try and open your book in some way that wasn’t the traditional novel. All these things exclude certain types of things you can do with writing and make the novel look like the novel looks now. And I don’t know whether it’s fixable. Because in a way, I’m kind of into the idea that, as a writer, you’re in this very impure situation. My gallery artist friends are shocked by the lack of control I have over the presentation of my work. Because they’re able to control minutiae. Because they’re just trying to sell six things to six very wealthy dudes. You know, I’m trying to sell six thousand — hopefully more than six thousand — to many, many people. So there is this point. You’re in the market. You’re in this very, very different kind of aesthetic world. And yet you’re trying to make art in this situation. And it’s an interesting one.

Correspondent: But what do you do? Do you pull a Mark Danielewski? Do you go to Random House and sit in a carrel for three to four weeks and say, “I know exactly how this novel should look”? I mean, if you have to compromise on these levels, I’m curious also — narrative-wise, textually-wise — what compromises do you make to keep this real?

Kunzru: I know. I think that’s really a very personal question for each writer. You have different things that are redlines and things that aren’t.

Correspondent: But what are we talking about?

Kunzru: Well, I mean, I give completed drafts to an agent, an editor, a couple of other people, and I listen when they say, “I don’t understand why this is happening.” So even if I think something is clear, and I think it’s not communicating to that extent, that’s when I’ll change. I don’t know if that counts as compromise. I dug my heels in structurally on this book — in that there was a point of view that I should cut certain sections and that I should give more help, tie up more neatly. And that was precisely what I didn’t want to do. Same with previous books. I mean, I was asked to put a glossary into The Impressionist. But I figured that would be a way of saying that this book is for non-Indian readers rather than for Indian readers who will already know these words and I had written in a way where I thought that all the Hindi and slang words and stuff would be understandable from context. So I said no to that. Where do I compromise? I have ended up compromising on all the visual stuff. I’ve never really beyond a certain point tried to impose. I mean, publishers have house styles in terms of fonts. I’ve never really tried to fight my corner very hard in that.

Correspondent: Can you ever be happy with the final way that the book looks and feels and is?

Kunzru: I like some of the books that are out under my name. The objects that are under my name. I mean, I’d say that there are editions that I’m embarrassed to carry around.

Show #440: Hari Kunzru, Part One

Show #440, which runs 40 minutes and 23 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. And it’s the first of a two part conversation with Hari Kunzru, author of the rightly well-regardedGods Without Men. I won’t even atempt to summarize what we talked about.  Because frankly we talked about damn near everything.  But needless to say, we gabbed for so long (both unknowingly) that I had to split the show into two.  The first part has a lot to do with the book.  The second part gets into Hari’s early days as a journalist, and even gets into geeky territory (computers and Michael Moorcock are both brought up).  Here’s the excerpt from the first part:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.

Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.

And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.

Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.

Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.

Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.

Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)

Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.

Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)

Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.

Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.

Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.

Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)

Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.