Ben Greenman’s new novel, The Slippage, is a book about marriage and its discontents—not to mention the suburbs, charts, driving in the suburbs, and the limits of language. The Slippage urges the reader to examine the relationships in their life based on love and friendship.
I recently met up with Ben at a busy Starbucks near the Condé Nast building in Manhattan’s Times Square, where 3 hours quickly sped by over a cup of coffee, dizzying taxis and a constant ebb and flow of tourist chatter. We spoke about technology, suburbia, the craft of writing, the life of the writer and of course, his new book.
Leah Umansky: So, let’s start with the basics: love. Your protagonists are a married couple in their 40’s who are childless and stuck in the suburbs. What motivates them?
Ben Greenman: I think they’re driven forward by a mix of inertia and hope that the inertia might abate. It’s never easy to know why we move forward in life, beyond the basic need for survival. Are we motivated by new challenges? Maybe, but then those challenges are revealed as empty. By the prospect of new conquests? Perhaps, but what happens when the mountains are scaled? By the presence of new questions? Maybe.
LU: What I think people will enjoy in the book is your use of black comedy. There are things that are funny, that shouldn’t be funny. For example, when Louisa locks herself upstairs during her house party, or when William observes how his brother-in-law, Tom, treats his girlfriend, Annika. Black Comedy helps us find the humor in life. I think that’s what I like best about William. He’s laid back, and he’s funny.
BG: Thanks. He’s laid back in part because he doesn’t know what to do with what’s around him. He isn’t Robert Moses. He can’t shift the world to look the way he wants it to look. What’s left to him is reaction, and sometimes slow reaction. In that he’s more like everyone than he is like anyone in particular.
LU: The Slippage is a book about marriage, but I really see it as a book about survival and about choice.
BG: Yes, it’s a book about suffering. The main characters, William and Louisa, don’t have a way to escape their lives. I made the choice, when writing the book, to leave them in their world to suffer. Other authors have done this, of course, Moore and Updike and others, but in my mind, Louisa and William are stuck. They can go off and come back, drift from one another and reconvene, but they can’t escape their lives, not really.
BG: They’re not in tremendous pain. Many people have it worse. It’s ordinary pain.
LU: Through William and Louisa, we also look at Louisa’s brother, Tom, who is an opposite kind of character. He’s a conceptual artist and in some ways the counterweight to William. Is he the kind of person we all wish we could be?
BG: William is in the middle, in what I think of as unencumbered reality. He’s not Ahab and he’s not Ishmael: he’s not the one out there on the edge, living life to its fullest, but he’s also not the one who gets to observe at close range and analyze and become changed vicariously. William just is. Tom lives more the way you think a traditional “literary” character should live.
LU: What do you mean “should live?” Do you mean the other characters envy him? William seems to. When Tom asks him for a favor, William is sort of on-edge, wondering when it will occur and what it will be. He rides the fence of being giddy and being scared.
BG: Partly that, but partly he just moves along, does the favor, doesn’t belabor it in conversation or in his mind.
LU: You keep saying William is ordinary, but he doesn’t seem to live a stereotypical boring life. I think he experiences many of the unexpected elements of life and that’s what makes all of our lives interesting: the unexpected.
BG: There are odd happenstances. There are plenty of things that you don’t expect to happen. But the vast majority of life is about order and inertia. There aren’t any grand gestures in William’s life. And so I had to ask myself, are readers okay with a book full of nuance; are readers onboard?
LU: I was. I think the book is full of nuance in a very natural sort of way. You capture that well in the domesticity of Louisa and William. Their fights are common and real, even sometimes mundane, but so is what they omit to each other. The fact that reader gets a little bit more character development out of William is interesting as we see some of his internal thoughts more clearly. At one point, they’re fighting, and Louisa criticizes William. “’ It’s a bed you made—lie in it. I can’t stay out here with you when you’re being a child.’ She forced capital letters onto the last few words.” Having been married, I know that you sometimes have to pick your battles. You have to know when to bring something up and when to rant about something at the workplace. William and Louisa’s relationship is painfully real. It’s almost uncomfortable at times.
BG: I like the discomfort, but more than that I like the pushing together and pulling apart, the isometrics that might still bind a childless couple in their 40s. William and Louisa can essentially say, without consequence, “We could unmake this choice.” And yet they stick there.
LU: Yes, they don’t have anyone else who is dependent on them.
BG: Right. But freedom is also a horrible concept. They are known to each other. Is that the issue, that something invisible holds you close to the person who knows you the best?
LU: What’s also interesting about the novel is the time period. The book is modern, and there are some glimpses of Internet or social media, but William and Louisa are not overrun by it. How do you think that affects your characters? Clearly, our lives are deeply affected by social media.
BG: They’re a little older than me, even, which means that they have evaded that moment when everything got converted to Internet. Maybe they’re playing catch-up a bit. But I do think that technology is a dodge and a patch. Most people now are disconnected and bored. Most people nowadays lack that sort of one-on-one connection. The writer Joseph Brodsky once gave a commencement address at Dartmouth where he praised boredom, or at least identified it as a central part of adult existence. Life has shifted somewhat as we’re able to entertain ourselves all the time, though not in meaningful ways.
LU: Do you think the characters in The Slippage are bored or disconnected from life? I think part of what keeps William connected is the collection of rare moments in which he takes care of Christopher, his ex-girlfriend’s son. There’s a moment where he thinks, “The boy was a line of warmth running up the center of his chest.” (133) There’s a real one-on-one connection there. Christopher gives him something that no one else does.
BG: For me, children were a big difference-maker. I have two boys who are twelve and nine. They reshape your brain so that you don’t see the world through your own eyes only, which is also the skill you’re supposed to have as a novelist. They are accelerants.
LU: Let’s talk about the suburbs. I read an obituary recently about a man named Roman Blum, a Holocaust survivor, who died with a substantial fortune and no heirs. He and his ex-wife lived comfortably in one of those Queens suburbs–not sure if you even call those suburbs–somewhere like Forest Hills, and Blum was described as a slight-hedonist. Blum’s friends said that a lot of them had this mentality that if they survived Hitler, they could survive anything. How do you think this relates to The Slippage, family, and suburban life?
BG: Well, William is sort of on a metaphorical morphine drip throughout his life. He suffers in a sort of boring way until he has this domestic rebellion: he hits his boss, gets fired and has an affair with a girl named Emma, who later moves into his town and neighborhood, pregnant (not by him) and with her husband, Stevie. I wanted William to sometimes act on instinct, like an animal. If we were bears, we’d fight each other. Adults rarely get in fights. The days of fistfights as a kid are gone. But, William punches his boss in the face and as a result gets fired.
LU: Right. William’s fate unravels because he acts before he thinks. Here’s the scene where he hits his boss: “William stood his ground. His fist was still out in front of him, a reminder no one needed. Then he began to sink down slightly, as if he had suffered a slow leak. He opened his fist into a hand that might help Hollister up, but Hollister did not want his help; instead his hand still out in front of him, William turned and walked down the hall, where he used it to press the button for the elevator and then press the button in the elevator.” For much of this book, he doesn’t have much of an active role in his own life, right? He doesn’t really make anything happen until this moment. Does acting in this way elevate him?
BG: In a way it does. William doesn’t really have an outlet. He writes financial material. He isn’t self-aware. He sort of has no infrastructure. Time passes. Other characters have ways of marking time, or intervening in its passage.
LU: I really enjoyed your use of figurative language in the novel. A lot of the nuanced sections are quite lyrical. And this is especially true, for me, as Tom and William develop their friendship. In Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage,” his protagonist says, “The one person who can relieve us is of course the sole person we cannot go to: the one we love. So instead we seek out allies, even among strangers and wives, fellow patients who, if they can’t touch the edge of our particular sorrow, have felt something that cuts nearly as deep.” Does that sense of allies make sense? Do you think William seeks Tom out? Is their friendship one that is forced or is there a real connection there?
BG: They do become allies, and one thing William learns is that Tom is dealing with a great deal of pain. Maybe that’s predictable—I don’t mean within the novel necessarily, but within life. When someone acts a certain way, often they are processing pain. Tom is there as a kind of inspiration to William, which is a difficult thing to find in adult life. You have made all your choices. You’re in your groove or your rut. How do you get out of it enough to be inspired by others?
LU: Writers have a sort of writerly way in which they live their lives.
BG: I guess so. Or we just live it like everyone else but glorify it with language.
LU: Have you glorified William’s life? I’d think it’s a good thing to “glorify” one’s life. It makes it more bearable, no?
BG: There are moments of lyricism, because it’s a novel rather than a transcript. There are moments of hard-fought, barely perceived victory over circumstance. But the way it’s glorified, primarily, is that it’s remembered. The life he leads, which places him squarely in the crosshairs of what is forgotten, is instead remembered. That’s a tribute to him, and to Louisa, and to everyone who goes through what they go through and emerges largely unchanged and unwiser.
LU: Well, I was struck by your acknowledgements at the end of the book. You say, “ I’d also like to thank all married men and women for living rewarding, frustrating, comforting, and disconcerting lives that they are frequently in flux and too infrequently in focus.” Care to comment?
BG: Marriage, as a thing, is investigated all the time by popular press and radio psychologists. It’s also in fiction, all over the place, but sometimes ordinary life—just scene succeeding scene without major epiphany or revelation—is treated dismissively. It should be elevated.
Leah Umansky’s first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, is available now from BlazeVOX Books. She has her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a live twitterer for The Best American Poetry Blog. Her poems can be found in such journals as: Barrow Street, Catch-up and Cream City Review among others. She is also the Host/Curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series in NYC. Read more at: http://iammyownheroine.com