Book of Lazarus by Richard Grossman

The Book As Biomorphic Object:
An Interview With Richard Grossman
by Mark Amerika

Mark Amerika: The Book of Lazarus is the second volume of a project called the American Letters Trilogy. The widely-read Alphabet Man was the first volume. Can you talk to us about some of the reasons you've chosen to pursue a trilogy, why you call it American Letters, and what's in store for volume three?

Richard Grossman: My intention is to parallel Dante's project in the Divine Comedy, creating a three-fold vision of America that, like the medieval work, bridges the political "on-the-ground situation" and the sublime. Whereas Dante's triple structure, incidentally, was conceived on another structure of threes, terza rima, my organization is based on the broader contemporary threesome of poetry, iconography and prose.

The title "American Letters" is actually a double pun. All the novels are in some sense epistolary, hearkening back to the earliest English fiction. The clown chapters, for example, in the Alphabet Man are really letters released into the interior of the brain. Secondly, there is the notion of letters in the literal sense: in The Alphabet Man as contoid sound (the c as a sleep-induced stutter in the clown chapters), as homophone, the b standing for bees, or simply as cabalistic curse (the x in the cunnilingus chapter). In The Book of Lazarus, letters are used as a different form of identifier, mixing the notion of name and icon. I'm thinking of using letters as symbols of battling languages in the third book, matching up Yiddish and Latin on opposite pages, a flow of words, two stories, moving toward the spine, reflecting also the notion of a book as biomorphic object, as something with backbone. Thirdly, I mean "letters" in the sense of belle-lettres, proclaiming in my own perverse way my belief that writing is a defense of the highest standards of literacy and civility.

Book three will be my Paradiso, a story about heaven. All that I can say for now is that it will carry forward many if not all of the leitmotifs of the first two books: the presence of the Archangel Michael and Hank Williams; an alcoholic killer, part Catholic, part Jew, whose significant other is murdered; sexual perversion in a basement; a clerical trickster figure whom the protagonist meets on an airplane; the same organizational considerations, the book as a virtual document in the form of a farewell; a long poem to cap the work, and so forth.

MA: I'm intrigued by this notion of the epistolary form embedding itself into the interiorized, time-released language-capsule of, say, the clown in The Alphabet Man or in The Book of Laz too, especially as evidenced in the diatribe written by Marty at the beginning of the book and that reads even more bizarre than The Unabomber Manifesto. Do you see a kind of sickness in what I'll call The American Psyche that is best expressed in the ur-forms of written language and that only certain writers or artists can pick up on? I'm thinking about something Cocteau once said about writing itself being a kind of sickness and, to stretch it a bit, that only certain writers, out of absolute necessity, can trigger the kind of mediumistic self-cleansing that a society needs to balance itself out. Would this be another high standard of activity for the one whose role is the composition of belle-lettres?

RG: The problem with answering yes to your question is that it plays into the hackneyed sixties notion of poet as shaman. But the answer is still a qualified yes. Writing is not a private exorcism of demons, however; it's a communal role, a form of citizenship, with another nod to Dante. And the act of writing is not a sickness at all: it's a form of doctoring, where the medicine is beauty. The proper focus of novel-writing is the mind, and the puncturing of the illusion that there is a coherence, other than spiritual, to the world we operate in. The essential wildness and chemical constituencies of human emotion, mitigated by plot and tamed by the necessity for rational and quintessentially selfless solutions, is where it's at for me. It is in this particular sense that writing is a ritual or cleansing activity: it is the most potent ritual that we have, and the staleness and inanition of the world culture, and its lack of perceptive writing, endanger our survival. A culture without proper ritual will certainly self-destruct. We see this as the operative notion within the global entertainment culture, with its nutritional and excremental channels. It was this week's news that archaeological DNA research reveals that for an extended time there were three distinct types of human on the planet, like brands of monkey: Neanderthal, Erectus and Cro-Magnon. They traded with each other, but they didn't fuck each other, and two of the three species didn't make it. The Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. They had their rituals; but the rituals weren't powerful enough. They eventually went down.

MA: The first two volumes, The Book of Laz and Alphabet Man, experiment with what I'd call "the visible word" -- that is, the material of the letters themselves are developed as "characters" (excuse the pun) by way of innovative typography and the way the print gets distributed over the page. There are also all sorts of photos, handwritten scrolls, totally black pages, etc., that suggest a connection with the visual art world which I know you have. Could you talk about how you integrate these features into your narrative structure and what connections, if any, you see between narrative & visual art? Between letters as transpaernt linguistic signs that are meant to lose the reader in the author's world and letters as material objects that an artist uses to create meaningful effects?

RG: Visual art is, in one sense, a form of subitization, which is the mind's ability to instantaneously gather information. This mental process in the visual realm, moving "into material," has a different vector from temporal embedding, the false sense of time, of being carried through the hours by narrative. It's vertical contrasted with horizontal effect. The reader moves in and out of the page, as well as across it. This movement in two directions at once creates a fifth dimension. Within this new volume, everything floats: plots, characterization, images, icons, letters, photos, an endless sentence, shards, thematic material like loosened DNA, because the mind is forced to register information on a momentary as well as on a continuous basis; so that, from a certain point of view, my novels appear as layered thought, depending on the page on which the eye is trained. If one is looking at a page that is simply black or blank, one receives the smallest conceivable amount of information, information that is literally nothing but context; if a single letter appears on a page, the amount of information increases significantly, because the letter is always iconic or phonetic. Then there are areas of "walk and talk", or photographs, or incantations, or songs, or whatever. In other words, each of these layers exists at its own depth, and has its own top and bottom, its own bandwith of meaning within this new, noetic space. At the end of each book and within each book are areas filled with poetry, the deepest and most propelling of forms. The disjunctive use of letters fits within this context like letters in alphabet soup. And overall there is a sense of seamlessness, because the various elements fit together snugly into the most conventional possible context: a story with a simple surface, with plot, plot twists, and nothing that doesn't contribute to the totality of meaning.

MA: The plots in the first two volumes sometimes seem formulaic, as if the reader were being set-up for some well-rehearsed moment of resolution or closure. Keep them on the edge of their seats type of stuff, a kind of Hitchcockian trickery. But then there are all of these radical departures from what we all know to be normative narrative structure that bring us back to the artificial construction you as author are creating for us. This sort of practice is generally not accepted in the so-called "quality-lit" scene that dominates the mainstream publishing industry and, in many ways, would be easy enough to avoid (self-censorship disguised as smart editing), such that, it seems like, with your skills as a writer, you could just do away with the "radical" aspects and hone the more conservative side of your writing to the point of composing a book with even more commercial potential. But that's not your gig, is it? And assuming it isn't, how does this sort of position you're taking as an artist, to go against the dominant writing/publishing models, relate to the political battles some of your characters wage against the mainstream culture?

RG: My "gig" is to reach out to the most perceptive minds that I can, quality, not quantity. There is a small confraternity of starving souls in America, and that is my audience. I have nothing against conservative writing, by the way. There is no rule-book, and the rule-book that contains all the rules is as good a working model as any. I actually have great admiration for a simple tale that is told with style and finish (Chekhov for example is a favorite of mine) and a natural suspicion of the self-reflexive and self-consciously experimental, which smack to me in most cases of flatulence and ego. I just go where I have to go to do what I have to do. It's a calling, not an enterprise.

As far as the politics of my writing is concerned, I am quite simply an incendiary, which explains to an extent why, as a middle-age man, I am just beginning to reach an audience. I don't fit in and I don't want to fit in. I've never gone to a writer's conference, I've never applied for a grant, I've never had lunch with an editor. I've never had a mentor. No gravy trains or medallions. I do not consider myself to be a part of "literature," and I think that no true poet is. Poets have to create their own footpads.

The corporate culture demands corporate writers, in the same way that the academic culture demanded academic writers after WWI, which produced the carbuncles of Pound, Williams, Joyce, Eliot, and the moronic types who looked good on course-lists. Today, almost all serious writing is inept and wan. Where is a powerful style? Everybody is trembling snug in their niches. In poetry, it is free verse that is way too free, mixed metaphors that are way too mixed, and the fetor of utterance. Utterance is what swings from the belly of a cow. In the novel we have prose without music, an inability to create strong and indestructible structure, the metallic bones of plot and character. We have very very little. It's not only a cultural defect; but more frighteningly, it's an accumulation of individual defects. Most writers are cowards.

MA: That's some pretty harsh criticism of the Modern Poetry canon. Would you put, say, H.D., Stevens, Moore, Crane, Olson and Ginsberg in the same "moronic" category? What were the redeeming qualities (if any) of the Modern Poetry movement? Is your work, in part, an attempt to challenge that canon or are you beyond that now, creating something that you think has no vital connection to the poetry produced in the first 60 years of this Century?

RG: I apologize for the hyperbole. And I wouldn't call the people on your list "moronic" by any stretch of the imagination, although I don't understand what can be squeezed from the work of H.D. or Charles Olson. As for the Modern Poetry movement, I have no desire to challenge it, and as a young man, I studied it carefully and learned from it, but modernism in all of the arts has been a relative failure--a tempest in a sea of half-filled teapots, and the literature of the period is unusually bad. Some work of great value has come from modernism obviously--for example, the strong history of post-war abstract painting in this country--but the positives are far outweighed by an over-arching impoverishment of individual talent. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the aesthetic, which is extremely interesting, but modernists, and especially the modern poets, just aren't particularly good at what they do. Going back to painting for example, Picasso and Matisse are far removed in abilities from the likes of Velasquez, Leonardo, Giotto, et alia, or even from the mass of painters who immediately preceded them. They are third-raters at best. We make knee-jerk excuses, as if we don't expect to have any Leonardo's prancing in our midst, but in a society as vibrant as our own, why have we lowered our expectations so? What is the explanation for this? I believe that a society creates its own geniuses. It demands artistic genius, because it needs artistic genius, and genius then appears. No demand, ergo no genius.

To answer the last part of your question, I build upon early twentieth-century modes from time to time, but I don't consider myself to be a post-modernist. My principal concerns have evolved from different ideas.

MA: What role, if any, does absurdity play in the construction of your stories?

RG: Quite a bit, in both my novels and my poems, although it tends to be an overlay rather than an underlay. Existence isn't absurd. People are absurd.

MA: Let's talk mechanics for a moment. A major section of the Book of Lazarus is a 70-page run-on sentence that is about as outrageously imaginative as I've ever read yet, again, very controlled so that even if reader senses that they're caught in the mad flow of a creative genius streaming language-consciousness into the story-structure, there is still this presence that dictates the need for this sentence to be there, to resonate with the rest of the mixed media that is embedded within the narrative. How did you go about creating this sentence? Is it improvised? Straight from the brain or part collage/appropriation?

RG: It's straight from the head, followed by a prodigious amount of editing. I mess with the notion of what a sentence is by creating a sentence on hormones, something that evolves on the basis of an indecipherable patterning, a multiplication and mutation process: there is a lateral accretion of elements, and yet it is impossible, because the sentence is in fact only a portion of a sentence, to determine whether this process is cyclical or linear. One senses that the fixations of the bemused, self-destructive narrator are becoming more extensive and complex within the structure, less clipped thought, more relational logic and story-telling, but I provide no evidence of where this is all going. The sentence is a brain-impacted monster, a form of syntactic biology.

MA: Did you take all of the photos yourself and design the handwritten pages of the novel or is this part of a team-collaboration? Do you see a future, especially with developments on the Web, for more multi or mixed media collaborative-storytelling?

RG: There are three instances of others' participation in my book. The ransom note was written out by a child, Oliver Omura; the prostitute's New Year's resolutions are in the hand of my wife, Lisa Lyons; and design was a collaboration with Robert Jensen, who has worked with me on all my books, with the exception of my first, Tycoon Boy. The photos, drawings, other handwritings, all of the texts, and the conceptual layout of the book and each of the pages are mine.

As for your question about the Web, when we develop a new tool, such as Internet communication, we must ask ourselves what we're losing, because for all the fanciful jargon surrounding computers, or the advent of any other helpful mechanism for that matter, a tool is still a prosthetic device, pure and simple. It replaces something weak within us. Therefore, tools can render us much more vulnerable at depth than we need to be. This is the danger of the Web. We can make powerful ethereal fabrications in cyberspace, but we will have to adopt a rigorous discipline of sorts--by bonding with people in new ways, independent of computers-- before we can collaborate on-line successfully; we'll have to take the time to prepare ourselves properly for change. If we stumble forward, if we just try to work the machinery, we won't get very far.