Christopher Sorrentino is the author of Sound on Sound and most recently Trance, a coruscating and cerebral retelling of the Patty Hearst affair. Peter Wild spoke with Christopher about history, writing and being mates with Jonathan Lethem.
[Pic. Greg Martin]
Peter Wild (PW): Trance inhabits history like a shadow, much like (say) DeLillo's Libra does. Is there a strange feeling that accompanies sitting down and effectively making stuff up about real people? Or is it all just part of telling stories?
Christopher Sorrentino (CS): I think it’s just part of telling stories. All writers make stuff up about real people, it’s just that with books like Trance or Libra they happen to be people everybody’s heard of. All the characters in my first novel, Sound on Sound, are based on people I knew very well when I was growing up in Manhattan. And, writing it, the process for me was just as it is now: I’m interested in the voices of my characters, the ways they sound different from one another, the ways they sound different from the narrators. When I get the voices right, that’s the point at which the characters become mine, when what I have them saying and thinking and doing becomes purely literary, stops having anything to do with history or fact. The source material, the research, becomes increasingly irrelevant, almost to the point of putting it aside. It wasn’t until after Trance was finished that I began thinking again about the people my characters had been based on. That’s when I decided to change all the names except those of the SLA dead and their victims. And also Sara Jane Moore, because I didn’t want to pull a cheap surprise in having her turn out to be Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin. I wanted readers to see that coming. Anyway, I hadn’t intended to change them but some of the characters had journeyed so far from their models that it didn’t feel right to have them keep the names, even when legally it would have been perfectly OK.
PW: The deliberate and serious way in which much of Trance unfolds is very much at odds (for me) with much of what contemporary American writers (your Eggers and Safran Foers etc, those caught up in wave upon wave of what has been deemed 'hysterical realism') are doing. Do you see yourself as part of an older and weightier tradition?
CS: I’d like to back away just a little from the term “hysterical realism.” Suffice it to say that I don’t completely agree with James Wood on this one, though in some ways I do. To the extent that it’s meant to describe a sort of maximalist fiction, rich in digression and play, then I’m not at all at odds with that sensibility, and I don’t think it precludes seriousness and deliberation. Certainly, like the work of Wallace and Foers and other alleged hysterics, Trance is full of polymathic departures and disruptions, things that don’t “belong” to the story. But there is a species of contemporary fiction that has a sort of amphetamine flavor that I don’t particularly like. Is that what you’re referring to? Reading it is like watching Robin Williams at his most arduously manic: exhausting. But that’s really a matter of taste, not a per se objection to a form or a genre.
Any tradition I’d be part of could only be the sum of my influences, and my influences vary wildly. I don’t see myself as having any devotion or loyalty to a particular way of writing. I make use of what’s appropriate, what works, for the occasion. Doesn’t matter to me whether I copped it from Kathy Acker or Flannery O’Connor. It’s a very postmodern way of working, I suppose, and so “tradition” has to be defined within that context. The writers whose influence I see most clearly in my work now are those who’ve shown what a novel can accommodate, who reject limitations. At some point in their books they make it evident that the author and his choices are part of the narrative.
PW: Following on from that. The figure of Patty Hearst. What draws you, personally, to her?
CS: Franz Kline had a great comment about his big black-and-white paintings; he said, “I paint the white as well as the black.” Which was of course his way of saying that the absences, the blanks both around the edges and at the heart of his canvases, are deliberately conceived and executed. With Patricia Hearst, or rather with the character Alice Galton, it was a matter of painting the white. I assiduously left her blank, or at most ambiguous, and a good portion of the rest of the book is others seeing in her whatever they want to find. (I should mention parenthetically that to me this is probably the most obvious of Trance’s conceits. But some reviewers, at least here in the USA, have seemed especially annoyed that I don’t “deliver” Patty Hearst.) To me this total identification with the inaccessible, this delusional comprehension of the unknowable, is the quintessence of nth degree fame. I’ve always been interested in fame, in celebrity, and in the effect of mediation; our submission to that little window through which we see the tiniest portion of the story and convince ourselves that it’s the whole thing, or that from it we can accurately extrapolate a whole truth. I think sublime fame is the withheld presence Patty Hearst perfected, the “blank renown” I refer to at the end of the book. The examples of the living who’ve attained that are few and far between. Garbo, Howard Hughes, maybe J.D. Salinger. Even in her own memoir, Hearst’s an enigma.
PW: Sound on Sound was your debut novel - and it centred (if it can be said to 'centre' at all) primarily on a band performing on Reagan's inauguration night. It was published almost ten years ago. A decade on, how do you view the book?
CS: I think it’s the best kind of first novel: try everything. Go all out. Fall on your face. I was twenty-seven when I wrote it, immersing myself for the first time in serious literature. It was an exciting time for me. I was staying in a sublet apartment on North 6th Street in Williamsburg, living on my savings, having just quit a job working as an insurance adjustor. I wrote at the kitchen table all day and then read all night. My own personal MFA program. Whatever I admired, went into that book. I view it as a very successful pastiche. Structurally and technically I accomplished just about everything I set out to do. It strikes me now as a very young book; it certainly has problems. But I still maintain whatever ideas about literature the book may embody, though I express them differently now.
PW: Did Trance then take a decade to write? Or is there a bottom drawer of unpublished Sorrentino books waiting (Salinger-like) to be unleashed on the world?
CS: After Sound on Sound I sort of lost my footing. One problem with pastiche is that it’s a dead end. There wasn’t any way, really, to extend all the borrowed techniques and ideas. Sound on Sound was sort of like “Eleanor Rigby”: great, so you’ve scored a rock song for a string quartet. Now what? It took a while to find my way to a voice that seemed like my own. There’s a bottom drawer of several unfinished manuscripts that I still cannibalize from time to time. There are a number of short stories that I wrote and published.
I also had financial concerns. Sound on Sound was so thoroughly ignored that I wasn’t really a candidate for the awards and grants that help to keep young authors working, and I certainly wasn’t publishing anyplace that actually paid me money. And I’ve never really joined the “literary auxiliary,” as Tom LeClair calls it; I don’t teach, I’m not an editor, I’m not a journalist. So I had to take whatever jobs came along, mostly temp work, or stints in mailrooms. About the closest I came to literature was doing some fact-checking. My wife and I had our first kid; for a while I was taking care of her. It’s hard to overstate how much time everyday life steals from writing.
Around 1998 I had a serious crisis. I’d published the book, but my career hadn’t gone anywhere, I was still getting rejected by shitty little journals five or six months after submitting to them, my then-agent was totally AWOL. I felt completely isolated. It wasn’t self-pity, it wasn’t like I felt like nobody cared: nobody did care, and it was stark recognition of that. I was ready to quit. One reason why I so earnestly thank Jonathan Lethem in the acknowledgments of Trance is because he had a lot to do with getting me going again. He pestered me for work, he sent stories of mine to editors he knew, he got me gigs writing reviews--he really did a lot to keep me from going off the air. It was with renewed self-confidence that I began Trance in 2000.
PW: Like Jonathan Lethem, you grew up in an artistic environment. Your father Gilbert Sorrentino is a hugely respected novelist and poet. Do you think that has had an important impact on your writing?
CS: Generally, it was a great milieu. Downtown Manhattan in the 60s and 70s and 80s was the most exciting part of what was still an exciting city. My parents’ friends were painters and poets and composers and critics and endless fellow travellers, and my friends were their kids. And the era was different. People, at least people in New York, didn’t treat children as if they were these perishable little dainties. To be exposed to adult things was considered part of growing up, not something to be avoided at all costs. Ours was hardly a radically bohemian household--my parents are both orderly creatures of habit, and they did shelter me from some things, from many things, really. But this arose from their engagement with the world, not from some fearful reaction to it. In that sense, yes, it had a very important impact on my development as a writer. Nobody ever tried to protect me from ideas.
With regard to my father in particular, the permeative effect he had on me when I was growing up is immeasurable. I paid very close attention to him. He’s widely knowledgable, engaging, charismatic, authoritative, charming, funny, and I’ve always loved him immoderately. I’ve both hewed closely to his thoughts about art and wandered far away, but I’m pretty convinced that he’s right about 99% of the time. He never taught me writing per se, but he’s pointed me in the direction of countless terrific books, and he definitely taught me about reading; about how prose lives and dies at the level of the sentence. I try to carry with me his conviction that writing is an adventure, something that emerges from the imagination, not from within some set of limitations imposed by the Guardians of Quality Literature, those crabbed apparatchiks. This pervasive sense nowadays in popular literary criticism that there are certain baseline attributes that a work of literature needs to possess and if it does we can all agree that it’s good is pure horseshit. It’s a description of cabinet-making. My father’s taught me that the artist presents what he makes and the reader says “yes” or “no.” That’s the extent of the transaction. The naked ambition implicit in the plea for accessibility that a Jonathan Franzen makes in tearing down a William Gaddis and by extension the whole of postmodernism is nauseating.
PW: I'd like, if I may, to talk about the SLA, a little. Was one of the things that attracted you to the story the resonance that much of the tale has with modern America? I mean, there are definite parallels with some of the things that are being said by residents of New Orleans now about the American government (which you couldn't possibly have known about at the time of writing but bear with me) and the money that the SLA got from the Hearst family and distributed to the poor. There is also (and I think this MAY have played a part in your writing) that link between the uselessness of the FBI in tracking the SLA down and the apparent uselessness of the American government in laying hands on Osama ... Anyway. The question is this: was there a resonance between the history and the present for you as you wrote?
CS: Most of us don’t see it this way, but we live along a continuum. We tend to compartmentalize the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and so on, to market them as the sum of their various fads and consequences. But to immerse yourself in another era, to write seriously of history and its implications, to write something that transcends mere nostalgia or the fetishistic desire to showcase the haircuts and cars and song lyrics, is to experience that sort of resonance. Examining the past should have the consequences of detonating your preconceptions about that past. The resonance with the present should grow the more you explore your subject. Otherwise you really are just doing Happy Days, or Far From Heaven for that matter.
For example, when I started writing, the violent anger of middle class revolutionaries of the ‘60s and ‘70s struck me as inexplicable. I understood the roots of such anger, I certainly was not unsympathetic to their feelings on the Vietnam war and on other issues that from my perspective are strictly historical. Yet to me the desire to make a bomb and plant it somewhere seemed unfathomable. To me that sort of impulse had more to do with Timothy McVeigh and the wacko right wing than with any identifiably righteous cause. My initial approach to the material definitely was influenced by this incomprehension. But since the election of 2000 and Bush’s installation in the White House, I can understand it. I don’t agree with it--despite everything I still believe it’s the institutions and laws of the US that’ll have to set things right--but I can understand it. A bloodless coup put a group of ideological pirates in power, free to put into effect regressive, divisive, destructive, illegal policies that very few wanted or asked for.
I didn’t really think about Al Qaeda and Osama much at all when I was writing. Those parallels are remote for me. The SLA were chuckleheads, pickled in their half-assed ideology and rhetoric. Their job wasn’t to make revolution, it was to be Famous Revolutionaries. Now, there’s your resonance. Patty Hearst is Paris Hilton, another rich nobody who begins to inhabit everyone’s minds, moving from one variety of fatuity to another to the fascination of millions. Famous for being famous. Anyway, Al Qaeda are a motivated group of opportunists taking advantage of the grievances and fears of millions to put forward a vicious, destructive, hateful, ignorant agenda whose successes, sure as shit, somehow will end up enriching the ones who run things for them. Their views on religion, the major part of their program, appeal to the dumbest, most punitive, most superstitious beliefs. Actually, thinking about it, I see far more parallels between the Bush administration and Al Qaeda than I do between the SLA and Al Qaeda. If you ask me whether Bush or Bin Laden has had a more deleterious effect on the security, welfare, and spiritual cohesiveness of the United States, I’ll have to go with Bush. And I’m not alone. I’ll bet that somewhere in this country there’s a recrudescence of that kind of organized violent radical leftist thinking. The violence itself is always spilling out at the edges, chillingly systematic and premeditated: the guys who wander into their former workplaces and start spraying gunfire at their ex-bosses, the disaffected high school killers with their diagrams and timetables, the women who methodically drown their babies one by one, the solitary ideologues like Ted Kaczynsky, the scientists who drive each day from their pleasant suburban homes to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and design the individual components of vast weapons systems. There are the McVeighs. It percolates up to the surface; as a matter of fact it is the surface. Field Marshal Unabomber, General Columbine, and Comrade Paris Hilton. Suppose someone established a pipeline to channel all that spilling and percolating, via organization, training, indoctrination, even a little cash.
PW: I'd like to draw out your answer about Lethem. How did you guys get to know each other?
CS: Jonathan and I attended the same school in New York, the High School of Music and Art, which was (it’s since merged with another such school) one of several specialized public high schools in the city to which you gain admittance by examination. At Music & Art there were several overlapping groups who formed a greater crowd of maybe a hundred kids whose shared bond mostly had to do with an interest in new music and going to nightclubs and other lofty pursuits. Probably still works exactly the same way. He belonged to one group and I belonged to another and so we saw each other at clubs and parties and that sort of thing. After school, he and I each headed to the west coast, where we settled and lived unbeknownst to one another for about nine years, me in San Francisco and Jonathan across the bay in Berkeley. And so it came to pass that I was invited to a reading he gave shortly after his first book came out--I recognized his name and so I showed up. It was an interesting night in a lot of ways. I caught up with Jonathan, I met my friend Shelley Jackson for the first time, and I was reunited with the woman who became my wife--also an alumna of Music & Art and with whom I’d had a fling ten years beforehand. I’ve always held Lethem responsible for a good chunk of my personal life.
Since then we’ve grown much closer. He and I returned to New York around the same time and for maybe six years we’ve lived about three blocks from each other in Brooklyn. We’re in agreement on many things, and there are some really uncanny congruences in our backgrounds, our obsessional siftings through the available culture, that make me think we probably would have been close friends in high school if we’d known better.
As I said before, he’s been a real post for me. The literary world can often be very mean-spirited, a place where people sometimes seem to be afraid of expressing generosity or extending help, as if somehow enhancing someone else’s status diminishes your own. Lethem has always been generous and helpful, both when he was relatively unknown and since he’s become a star. As I said, he encouraged me to keep working when I was really down. He basically was Trance’s first agent, submitting it to about four or five editors, including Lorin Stein at FSG. Then he introduced me to a real agent, Ira Silverberg, with whom I’ve happily worked ever since. You’ve heard the phrase “sine qua non”?
PW: I'm interested in where you go from here. Have you started sizing up your next project? And has the success of Trance helped you approach things in a more relaxed and confident way?
CS: Relaxed maybe isn’t the word, but I think I’ve made an impression and that some things will be easier, that Trance gives me some breathing room. I’d love to continue with the current publishers I have--FSG has been great in the US and I’ve really enjoyed working with Cape in the UK--but the commitment doesn’t go beyond this book. We’ll see.
When I finished Trance the tank was really empty, and I declared an informal moratorium of about a year on any serious or extended projects. I’ve been doing some short stuff, working out some ideas I have, that sort of thing. I’m zeroing in on a novel. I’m not approaching it so much as letting it arrive. It’ll be a smaller project. I’m taking my time. Something tells me that I’ll never be a particularly prolific writer. But I don’t think it’ll take ten years this time.
Trance is publishd by Jonathan Cape