David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by María José Ferrada’s How to Turn Into a Bird, a novel that beautifully details the life and lessons of an unconventional man and the boy who loves him. Set in Santiago, Chile, the novel follows 12-year-old Miguel who’s enchanted by his uncle Ramon’s unusual job to take care of a Coca-Cola billboard by the highway, and his even more peculiar decision: to make the billboard his new home. As he visits his uncle in his perch above it all, Miguel wonders if his uncle has lost his mind as everyone in the neighborhood says, or as Ramon, the only one who can see things as they really are. Says Megan McDowell, “With all the brutal simplicity of a fairy tale, María José Ferrada lays bare the blind and violent intolerance that reigns on the precarious outskirts of an unequal society. A deceptively simple tale in a sensitive translation by Elizabeth Bryer—this book is a gift.” How to Turn into a Bird is out now from Tin House. Several episodes back, I mentioned that it is usually only in retrospect that I feel like I noticed trends between episodes, discovering after the fact that I’ve invited many different writers to speak to the same question, whether that be storytelling and climate apocalypse, or more broadly, what art making does and doesn’t do in the world, or questions around empathy or questions around presuming the position of another within one’s work. But that recently, I felt like I was recognizing a trend that I was in the middle of for once; a trend around questions of narrative and storytelling, and the powers and dangers, limitations and possibilities of it. The way it can erase, as well as reproduce harm and the ways it can enact imaginatively a deeper sense of time, a simultaneous connection to ancestral knowledge and to futures that arise from a care we express towards beings that don’t yet exist. Lately on the show, this seems to have gravitated around the novel form. I think of the conversations with Sheila Heti and Billy-Ray Belcourt about their books that gesture toward a new form for the novel. Hernan Diaz, whose books within books, frames within frames look at the ways stories build empires through the erasure of other voices. I think of the conversation with Hélène Cixous where her novel memoirs are less than the tradition of autofiction than a way in language to capture the way consciousness actually happens, its interplay with the unconscious, the interplay between memory and the imagination, history and present-day perception, and more. Daniel Mendelsohn contrasting the Greek and Hebrew modes of storytelling to look at the strengths and limits of language. And even the conversation with poet Dionne Brand about her wariness around narrative, even as she engages with it both within and outside her poetry. Then of course, the Crafting with Ursula series where Le Guin herself is grappling with the inherited forms within narrative and aiming for an as-of-yet realized future for the novel itself, especially in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which I discussed with Lidia Yuknavitch. And also the final episode with Neil Gaiman about the power of stories, and telling stories and how we seem hardwired from a very young age to be able to extract the truth from tales that have been made up. I bring this all up because today’s conversation with Lucy Ives, the final one of the year, I think it’s a culmination of this trend. Her work across time itself grapples deeply with narrative and the novel form, even in her non-fiction and poetry, and itself has culminated in her latest novel or anti-novel Life Is Everywhere. Having just finished the Crafting with Ursula series, it is fitting that this last episode of the year is also a very Le Guin-inspired episode as well, as Lucy’s latest book is not only formally influenced by Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction but the story literally contains a carrier bag within its plot, a bag we spend a great deal of time within during our reading of the book, ourselves reading what is inside the bag of the protagonist as we go. Because of all these episodes before this one, because they’ve been part of this growing swell of questions concerning narrative, we start today’s conversation in a rather abstract and heady space about the novel form. But before long we are parsing all the innumerable ways Lucy Ives in her new novel is mirroring back to us our own expectations of what a novel or story should be and enacting new in different ways of how it could be as she does, it’s a perfect way to end my favorite year yet for the show. Before we start, I should mention Lucy’s contribution to the bonus audio archive. Lucy reads to us and for us a five-part writing exercise, an exercise involving five prompts called Exercise for Writing from Memory. This joins tons of other bonus material from a craft talk by Marlon James called The Nine and a Half Rules of Seduction about the common mistakes writers do at the sentence level and the level of story that can ruin the seduction, and the best ways to remedy them to readings from everyone from Ted Chiang to Daniel José Older from Nikky Finney to Dionne Brand. This is only one potential benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. You can find out about all of them, all the potential rewards and benefits at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Lucy Ives.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is the novelist, poet, and critic Lucy Ives, a graduate of Harvard, then an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, followed by a PhD in comparative literature from NYU. Ives has since taught in the Image Text interdisciplinary MFA program at Ithaca College, as well as in NYU’s Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement Masters program. Her critical writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze, Granta, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Art in America, Aperture, and Vogue among many other places. She’s been an editor at Triple Canopy, a magazine of art and literature. In 2020, she edited the first definitive collection of poet, architect Madeline Gin’s poetry and prose The Saddest Thing is that I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader out with Siglio Press. Prior to her last four books, much of Lucy Ives’s own writing early on was poetry or cross-genre, including her long poem Anamnesis which won the Slope Editions Book Prize and was also recorded and released on 12″ vinyl, and her hard-to-categorize 2016 book from Song Cave called The Hermit of which Anne Boyer said, “Lucy Ives is smart in that heartbreaking way that can make a spare, suspicious, elegant work of anti-poetry out of the silent treatment between ideas and those who have them.” In 2017, Ives published her debut novel on New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Impossible Views of the World of which Wayne Koestenbaum said, “Lucy Ives, a deeply smart and painstakingly elegant writer, wins the prize with this intricate, droll, stylish book–at once a mystery novel, a romantic comedy, a tricky essay on aesthetics, an expose of art-world foibles, and a diary of emotional distress. With sharp phrases, uncanny plot-turns, and mise-en-abymes galore, this mesmerizing tale radiates the haute irreality of Last Year at Marienbad and the dreamy claustrophobia of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this time for adults only.” She followed this with a second novel, a second New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice called Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World described by Kirkus as, “Half gonzo grad school satire, half theoretical inquiry into the nature of writing and reality . . . Wonder Boys meets Cyrano de Bergerac meets Jacques Lacan meets Animal House. Something for everyone.” Her first story collection Cosmogony came out last year with Soft Skull. Booklist in its review said, “Ives has the rare ability to boomerang reality totally out of whack before calling it home in an even purer form.” Lily Meyer for NPR said, “I’d move to her weird cosmos any day.” Lucky for us, we get to now explore Lucy Ives’ latest weird cosmos, her latest book to boomerang reality, her new novel if we can call it that, Life Is Everywhere from Graywolf. Jamie Hood for Bookforum says, “The novel we thought we’d been reading—#MeToo scandal rocks university!—disassembles itself, becomes something else, and something else again. When we return at the novel’s close to The Incident, it is complicated further, left insistently, uncannily unknowable. Life Is Everywhere reminds us that institutions have the advantages of accumulated power and the time to wait us out. But the rupture has happened. The cracks in the system are exposed, opening opportunities—we just have to take them.” For Nina Renata Aron at the Los Angeles Times, “‘Life Is Everywhere recalls in its story-within story form a 1001 Arabian Nights,’ Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ and Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy.’” Jesse Ball thinks of another book when he says, “The superb Lucy Ives slays enemy and friend alike in this multivalent successor to Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution.” Alejandro Zambra adds, “Writing novels is the way Lucy Ives discovers her thoughts about the at once disheartening and marvelous fact of being alive right here, right now. This brilliant and playful novel brims with wisdom.” Finally, Percival Everett says, “If Lucy Ives is as smart as her novel Life Is Everywhere, then I am in complete awe. The novel is challenging in all the best ways and an absolute joy to read. How many books in one and yet one book. This is great writing.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Lucy Ives.
Lucy Ives: Thank you so much, David. Thank you for that wonderful introduction.
DN: There are many ways we could begin this conversation about your latest book but I want to begin it with a question that immediately leaps to the foreground when I step back and look at your life as a writer more generally. Stepping back, you seem to have an enduring preoccupation, dare I say obsession, with the novel as a form regardless of the genre you’re writing in. Your poetry chapbook from 2009 is titled My Thousand Novel. Your 2012 poetry chapbook is titled simply Novel. Your 2015 book The Worldkillers perhaps provocatively places a novel within the same covers as poetry and essay, sitting it between them. In your 2016 book of aphoristic prose poems The Hermit, you return over and over again to the novel as form. Just to pick a few examples, “When I was 13, I swore to myself that I would become a novelist,” or “I want to write an essay about the novel as a site of novelty where the proposition anything can happen is somehow tested.” Your first novel that was put out into the world as a novel is a mashup of genres, mystery, romance, and others but also of reproduced real texts as well as fake novels and fake artworks dropped among real artists and real art. In your introduction to the Madeline Gins Reader, you say this about Gins, “With her group novel, which she also terms a historical novel, an exploration of the nature of consciousness, Gins inhabits the so-called author function without attempting to act as the sole originator of the novel’s meaning. This is profoundly synthetic and polyvocal literary production, presaging and perhaps even predicting contemporary, platform-enabled collaborative writing online.” Then in your limited edition pamphlet from earlier this year, Exercise for Writing from Memory and Other Exercises, you yourself have an exercise for composing a collective or group novel. Before we talk about your latest novel and what it is itself doing to the novel, tell us what’s going on between you and the novel, Lucy Ives.
LI: That’s a great question. It is one I’m excited to answer, in part because the way that you pose it allows me to approach the novel in several different ways. The first way that I want to approach the novel in my relationship to it is to tell you a story about myself. I have memories, as I think many people do, of childhood and seeing bookshelves in the home but in other places too, and seeing books on bookshelves that were novels and feeling that they had a special kind of valence about them, and a special kind of information about the world in them. I was a late reader. I don’t think I really learned to read until I was maybe eight or nine years old which is an embarrassing thing to share but I’ve since over compensated so I think it’s okay. [laughs] Maybe there’s a way in which that gave me some time to think about novels as objects that had received a particular kind of investment from adults, possibly from society that were associated with images and particular kinds of arrangement of text but we’re also treated in a certain way by people. When I was finally able to read novels, and one of the first novels that I read very imperfectly but because it happened to be on a certain bookshelf and I would pick it up and look at it all the time, and when I got good enough at reading, the beginning of it was Middlemarch actually. It was an edition of Middlemarch that had illustrations in it, not many illustrations but some illustrations. I remember looking at these figures, these female characters who are sitting in different places indoors, and just thinking, “Why is this here? Why is there this incredibly detailed writing about what’s taking place in these rooms? Why do we need to know all of this about these people?” For me, that’s probably where my curiosity about novels and both love of them, and a feeling of a certain kind of alienation from them came about. That’s the story about me. Then there’s a story about the novel itself in which, as you mentioned, I see at once a site of novelty or a place where we can find new things and we can find new ways of bringing the world into text. It’s also a side of genre and of conventions. Some of these conventions, which we’re very familiar with, include the arc of plot, the story of the hero, and the story of a kind of development which is of importance to society as a whole. That German word “bildung” can come in as well. There’s also something to do with how we know how to read, so how we recognize something as being readable or legible and how that’s attached to everyday life that’s very significantly at play in the novel. Those are all the things that make me interested in novels and make me want to both participate in the tradition and conventions of novels and also resist them, and also do things like what Madeline Gins did where she tried to go out on the street in New York City and ask strangers to help her write a novel.
DN: Well, as you said at the beginning of your answer, there might be innumerable ways you could have answered and you liked the freedom of how you could have possibly answered in multiple ways. I want to ask the question again in a different way to see if it provokes another true answer from you also. You moderated a panel called This Is Not a Novel named after the David Markson book of the same name. In that panel discussion, there was a really interesting exchange between David Shields and Shelley Jackson. You preface the whole discussion that’s about to happen in the panel with the question that you said was a question also for yourself. Given that the novel historically is a very genre agnostic form, that it has a history of including disparate things within it, you wondered if in today’s environment, it were enough to simply include other genres within it or whether it was vital to say that this is not a novel as part of writing a novel. Then David Shields talks about David Markson’s book Wittgenstein’s Mistress, how for him it is too wedded to conventional forms and that it’s really Markson’s last four books—including This Is Not a Novel, not Wittgenstein’s Mistress—that succeed in the deconstruction or interrogation of the novel for him. Shelley Jackson then mounts what I found to be a really interesting defense of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. She says that what makes it powerful is that it slips out of your grasp in terms of genre because it presents itself as a novel engaging with you in a novelistic way with narrative and something at stake in a conventional sense, but that it ultimately frays into something that feels like pure meditation, philosophy, and non-fiction. She continues to say that the ambiguity puts us into exactly the space Shields was arguing for himself, the space of not knowing where you are. Then speaking about her own work, she says that even though her work often verges on art, performance, or something other than conventional fiction, it has always been important for her to put it in relation to conventional fiction. On the one hand, she’s interested in breaking genre constraints and redefining fiction, but on the other hand, she wants to exploit the expectations that the form creates in the reader, the expectations of a familiar experience that people go in with certain expectations reading a novel, of getting a certain satisfaction and gratification, and that being proximate to the convention sets the reader up nicely for disappointment and that disappointment can be revelatory. That she’s interested in giving readers experiences that they don’t know what to do with and don’t understand, and perhaps most notably, she says in regards to where to place the reader, that starting from thinking that you know where you are is a particularly good place to get the rug pulled out from under you. In other words, Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ conventional elements make it more effective at doing this, not less. Perhaps she’s saying if you go too far away from the novel form, you risk not being engaged with it at all. She doesn’t say this explicitly. But this is my very long way of asking again why you want to be proximate to the novel form, what the pull and allure of it is. In The Hermit, you say, “I can’t describe myself as a poet. I’m the author of some kind of thinking about writing.” Why does the novel seem to be a sort of black hole that organizes a lot of this thinking about writing for you?
LI: I appreciate being pressed about this question. [laughter] I like that you’re getting right into it. There’s no warm-up here. We’re going straight to the hard questions. [laughter] The first thing that I would say is that I think that literary convention and form are our moving targets. They’re not the same over time and they’re not the same across geography and nationalities. I think we all recognize that without me offering examples of it. In a certain sense, saying that you would like to be sure that there are some conventions there so that your reader can be comfortable so that then you can amuse them, surprise them, or awaken them by pulling the rug out from under them has to do also with thinking about the state of consensus at the time when you’re writing which is an important political act. I would really think about it like that instead of in relation to convention as such. I would add there was a little note about pleasure but I think that the novel—and I would need to think a little bit more about this—but the novel is, for me, has long been a sight of a lot of readerly pleasure. There are so many different options that you have for what you can offer the reader in terms of a text to support a prompt, something to read, something to feel in the novel. I’m really drawn to that quality and its quality of providing world, providing voices, providing physical and temporal extent, providing a kind of occasion too, like a kind of event. The novel can be a kind of event. I think that most of all, I love the novel as something that does have this long history of being a physical object and being that doorstop, being that thing that you rest your coffee mug on or you used to hold down some papers, of being this physical presence that’s with people and that you can also do something with that real material substrate of pages that is immaterial and is related to fantasy and projection. Those contrasts are for me just endlessly exciting and generative. Part of the reason that I focus on Madeline Gins’ group novel, which was a project that she did in 1969 as part of this convocation of artists that was arranged by the late Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci called Street Works, I bring that up because I love her thinking about pluralness, about people, and people and novels. Again, for me, yes I set many of my books in proximity to institutions, possibly elite institutions like museums or universities, but I’m doing that because I’m very concerned about people and our status as plural interconnected beings. [laughs] I think that the novel is a form that allows you to be with pluralness and with our state of pluralness in spite of its reputation as a form that’s about an individual.
DN: Well, that’s a good segue to what I want to ask you next because reaching out to you about coming on the show happened in an unusual way for me. I had just done an episode on the Crafting with Ursula series focusing on Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction and about how this one essay of Le Guin had influenced so many people, mainly writers but also social scientists, particularly anthropologists and also visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians. The guest for that episode was Lidia Yuknavitch, whose most recent book Thrust is not only deeply influenced by this theory on a formal level but she also literally makes one of the protagonists a “carrier” within the story and enacts a sort of gathering of disparate things across time and space within the narrative itself. After the episode came out, someone asked on Twitter for some other examples of books written in a carrier bag spirit and I added names to that thread like Bhanu Kapil and Virginia Woolf. I could have mentioned Billy-Ray Belcourt, whose most recent poly vocal book A Minor Chorus would very much fit in this regard. But I was curious if anyone had, like Lydia, not just written in the spirit of this formally but also brought the form in a material way into the story, into the content of the book. That’s when I stumbled upon Life Is Everywhere which is very explicitly enacting Le Guin’s theory. Before we talk about how your book does this and why, talk to us about this essay for you, an essay that asks questions about the novel, the limits of what a novel has been, and which reaches toward a future of novels that might look very different than the novels we’ve been reading up until now.
LI: I like it when you say that it reaches toward a future of novels because that’s also how I read it. I read it as posing a challenge to the writer, especially to the writer of fiction, of speculative writing. When Le Guin tells us that there hasn’t been a narrative to put things in, she does tell us some things about the narrative that we already have, the narrative of the hunt, of the spear, of this conflict with the prey where some people were squished and maybe some people were shot accidentally or some people left but not everybody came back, and that is the source of drama there. It’s a narrative about sacrifice, possibly about the cruelty of fate but it’s also a narrative about violence. One of the points that the essay makes, and it’s a quieter point, is a point about economy, so essentially like how daily life is made and how we have the things that we need to live. She says to us basically that hunting is expensive from the point of view of energy and you really can’t have hunting without gathering. Like gathering is actually the thing that’s making life happen. It’s weird that we don’t have the narrative about gathering, the narrative about the bag, the thing that we put things in because that’s actually our story. I think it’s important to point that out about this essay. A lot of people read it as an essay that’s specifically about gender so that the spear belongs to some people and the bag belongs to other people. I don’t think that she’s going to this easy metaphor because we can put our hands on it easily and we know what that is. But I think she’s actually pointing out there are a lot of things about life that we haven’t spoken about in public and we haven’t found a way to describe. I’m encouraging you to do that, reader, if you may be a writer like myself. That’s the part of The Carrier Bag essay that I feel motivated by. Yes, I did put a very literal bag, like a bag, a baggy bag in my novel but I also wanted to try to use the novel to narrate things that often escape narration. That’s what moves me in Le Guin’s prose in The Carrier Bag essay.
DN: Let’s introduce the readers to Life Is Everywhere in the aura of The Carrier Bag a little more. I know this is the hard book to be caught in the elevator having to explain what you wrote. But talk to us a little bit more about how Life Is Everywhere is a carrier bag novel formally, the way the bag is in the story as a structure that partially organizes. Maybe just give us our first nod into what would you say the story is or give us the first teaser to the story in its broadest sense as a beginning preface to our entering into this world.
LI: The shortest version maybe of the plot that I can give is that it’s a novel about being trapped in an institution. This is something that I write a lot. But to expand a little bit more that nomic description, it’s a novel about a person who’s a student who has not yet achieved full adulthood, let’s say, even though maybe they should have already, who gets locked out of her apartment and doesn’t have another source of shelter available, and so has to use the university library, the university library associated with the university where she’s a student as a place to spend the night and to have a place to rest until the next day. The novel is about that but also about what she has with her which is a bag. The bag has some other things in it which include books and those books have things in them as well, and references to other books, but also to the life of this student as it has been lived. We as readers have to go with this student to the library and have to be in those books in that bag for a period of time until we can leave the library again.
DN: That’s really good. [laughs] I’m impressed that you’re able to wrap some words around this. It’s interesting and it’s funny to say that the bag is bookended by this protagonist’s stories on either side but we do spend a lot of your book inside of the bag, reading the entirety of the things that are in the bag. I wanted to ask you about that in relation to something that you said that I’m really curious about. As a preface to that, in several of the reviews of your book, Le Guin’s essay is described as one that argues for preferencing form over content, a characterization that I’m not convinced is true of the essay, I’m not sure she preferences either but if I were forced to choose, I would say she preferences the opposite. That what she is saying is that the world, as you’ve said today, is full of life experiences that don’t conform to predominant inherited forms, the hero’s journey, the monomyth structure, or to Freytag’s Pyramid, rising tension, climax, denouement. But because they don’t fit this form, they aren’t seen as stories at all and thus often not worthy of becoming stories, and even less so of being published because they aren’t of the right shape or form. That our essay is not preferencing form but instead preferencing listening to the content of one’s life and imagination to find the right form for it, a form that will likely, if you do this, not be normative or conventional, perhaps not categorizable or marketable as such. You describe at the end of this book that Life Is Everywhere emerged as a novel or anti-novel from not being able to write the novel you wanted to write. I was hoping we could spend a moment with that as you’ve written two well-received novels before this. What about this novel prevented you from writing it and when listening to the book rather than the novel form that precedes it, what about the failed book suggested this book that we’re discussing today?
LI: I just want to say something briefly touching on the question of form and form versus content. I’m not in love with that distinction. I think that in talking about The Carrier Bag, I think that Le Guin is also pointing us toward trying something else because that distinction is a bit of a spear-type thing. I think that for me, what’s interesting and challenging is to try to find a way of writing that is recognizable to a reader but that isn’t dependent on form per se, that might be more dependent on gesture, on speech, on habits of everyday life. I think that these can enter into the novel and seem formless in a certain way but as one reads, one learns to read those things and to re-experience them, so in some sense, to re-experience daily life again in the presence of the writer but also in the presence of all the other voices that are collected in this novel. If that’s finding a new form, maybe I’m finding a new form in that way but I’m not sure that I want to rely on the term form. I agree with you that I don’t think that Le Guin’s essay is about privileging form. But to go to the question of the novel that I couldn’t write, in the past, I had some idea that I wanted to write a novel about a 19th-century French man who came to the US and got lost there. I don’t know why I wanted to write this. I think I had some idea that he would have a funny mustache, [laughter] I don’t know, he would have sad eyes, and it would be interesting to think about the scary and weird world of the mid-19th century in the United States. As I was beginning to work on this novel, I realized that the things that interested me were not historical events and locations but eccentricities of culture of that time period. As I write in the afterward to Life Is Everywhere, I got really interested in hair jewelry and other unusual handicrafts. I don’t think people are making a lot of jewelry out of hair now although anything is possible. We can go look that up and find out that there’s a trend for that now.
DN: Maybe there will be after our conversation.
LI: Yeah. It will be big after our conversation. I realized that there was something, pun intended, closer to hand that was concerning me and I wanted to find a way to turn to this and to turn to something having to do with making and making representations of the world. I think it was by putting this character, this 19th-century French poet, novelist character who I was hoping to follow around the US and see what he did at a greater different distance from myself and difference from myself, and maybe miniaturizing him in some way or making him a little bit flakier, a little bit less real, a little bit more problematic and maybe shot through with other time periods, that I could begin to talk about a relationship to reading and writing in the present day, and present-day life in a way that maybe even excited me more than this more traditional, historical novel but I could still engage with these questions around history and the mystery of the past, and how we know anything about it that obsesses me both on a level of knowledge and History but also on a level of personal life and everyday life.
DN: When we were chatting by email, I mentioned how much I felt like your book and Hernan Diaz’s book Trust were animated by some of the same questions about narrative, about the novel, about truth in relation to language and identity in relation to language, and also around gender. That your resulting books both play with frames and framing, and nested narratives with books within books, and they both have puzzle-like qualities. I mean beyond that, the resulting reading experience and the specifics of the book are super different. For one, I think Hernan was right that his book is one big spoiler with lots of reveals that make it hard to talk about much so we talked a lot about form and voice but not a lot about the story itself, even if the story itself is also in some ways about form and voice. I don’t know if you agree but I don’t think spoilers are really a big question with Life Is Everywhere. I think if someone had told me everything about the structure of the book and about the story of the book, weirdly, it wouldn’t ruin anything for me. It wouldn’t really tell someone that much about the experience of actually reading it. It would be really easy to talk the whole time with you about form and frame, and only touch on the story. But because I don’t think we have the same considerations as with Hernan’s book, I’d like to bring the story into the room a little and questions of storytelling within any given form or frame. Perhaps as a first small step in that direction, I would love to hear about gender and relationship to form or ask some questions about it. For Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction was part of her journey of trying to write as a woman, or how she saw it that way with a woman as a protagonist, to wonder and puzzle her way forward to what a book like that would look like for her. I have my own gender-focused question, then I want to talk about maybe my favorite analysis of your book by Jamie Hood for Bookforum called Lucy Ives and the #MeToo novel now, and hear your thoughts about that. But before either of those things, I was hoping you could read a short passage for us where you describe a library atrium to set up my questions.
[Lucy Ives reads from Life Is Everywhere]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lucy Ives read from her latest book Life Is Everywhere. People might think it’s strange that I picked out a passage where you’re describing a library atrium but bear with me everybody. [laughter] This excerpt you just read does make a nod to the proverbial glass ceiling. But earlier in the book, you introduced a concept I really love called the glass mountain, which you say is more infernal because it is uncreated and inherited. When I think of the glass ceiling, of course, you can see the sky, you can see where you could aspire to go and where others, namely men in this metaphor, are able to go and perhaps the cruelty of it is that you can see it but you’re denied access. You know the ceiling is there and you can see what’s on the other side. But what I love about the notion of something glass possibly underneath our feet or in front of us as topography is that, like you say, it is inherited and perhaps even something so part of the environment, literally an invisible topography that we might not know that it’s actually shaping the way we move and shaping the way we might imagine we could move. You connect this to the way we can’t help but imitate pre-existing narratives which links us back to your interest in the novel form but also to Le Guin’s attempt to either smash the glass mountain or walk the other direction. But I also thought about it in terms of gender in relation to nested narratives, nested narratives as a nearly impossible topography and geography to see but also to escape. I thought about this void that you just described, this empty space that is created in the library atrium by a man who finds Nazism attractive in a library funded and named after a man who was a sexual abuser with his own grandchildren within a university that is handling the MeToo accusation of a professor in the main frame of the book and doing so in very familiar self-serving bureaucratic ways. We have our female protagonist moving through the space which has been dreamed into being by layer after layer of abusive men and their systems, and we haven’t even mentioned the questionable men in her own life, the accused professor, what’s going on with her boyfriend, let alone how her writing interfaces in relation to the canon and canon formation, which I think we could imagine also getting constructed like this intangible but very present atrium. But when she goes into the study carrel to spend the night on the upper floors to collect herself, even there it smells like a locker room. Even in the seemingly empty space, there is an invisible but very tangible odor. I don’t know, this is maybe a stretch to connect this to the glass mountain which you don’t mention here but I love the formal architectural notion that seems even more insidious than the prevention of upward mobility by a ceiling where if you’re inside a never-ending nested series of male narratives or any nested series of dominant narratives, how does one begin to find ground to stand on that could feel like one’s own ground?
LI: Yeah, the question of ground will be important. [laughs] Without giving anything away, ground will be found in this novel. One thing I want to note is that the protagonist’s name is Erin and in terms of her personal life, it’s her husband, not her boyfriend that we’re learning about. That’s important because they are together participating in the institution of marriage. We have to remember that frame is there in the book as well and that has significance. One of the ways that I think one can think about the world if we’re going to adopt some of the methods of Life Is Everywhere, of this novel is that what’s good to try to know about isn’t what we don’t know but what we don’t know we don’t know. When we’re trying to find out what we don’t know we don’t know, we have to use eccentric methods, we have to try to catch ourselves by surprise, and we have to try to get new information to enter our world. The way to start doing that is to start noticing things and specifically to start noticing things that are not treated as important to the traditional story. That might mean noticing the smell of a room. Smells are traditionally not included in narratives. [laughter] It’s interesting, the famous Proustian cookie, that’s a subversive kind of thing but that’s a pleasant smell. That’s a comfy smell. There are a lot of elements that are not comfortable and which we choose not to notice because they cause us discomfort. The glass mountain is an entity that comes to us from fairy tales. The glass mountain is something that in the fairy tale—which is a genre for girls I guess, it could be for anybody but maybe we receive it as a genre for girls—the glass mountain is a structure that the hero, I guess the male hero has to climb over, but to me, it’s fascinating in itself. It’s like this incredible monument. It’s like, “Who thought of this problem? Like a glass mountain, really? Wow. That’s a good one. That’s scary.” [laughter] That’s a really scary thing, the mountain of glass. If that’s what’s in your way, man, you’re in trouble. It could get very hot, it could get very cold, certainly very slippery, probably sharp. Lots of problems with the glass mountain but also maybe difficult to see because glass is translucent, at least in theory or maybe in the monumentality of this glass mountain, it’s probably translucent. The glass mountain is an obstacle that’s in the way but also an obstacle that has long been accepted and treated as a kind of matter of course so we might just ignore its presence in spite of its monumentality. In order to write a novel that acknowledges the terrible glass mountain or the formlessness of that problem and that task, the glass mountain isn’t in neat cube shapes, you can’t map it onto a grid, the glass mountain is going to resist quantification as much as it’s going to resist climbing over. It’s going to resist the narrative too. It doesn’t care about that. In order to write a novel that includes the glass mountain, we have to figure out how to describe it and how we can get at its contours. I think metaphorically, at least, of a part with what you’re talking about, about how do we tell a story in a textual space that is defined by a canon that was largely composed by dudes, so how do we bring language in that differs from that language, how do we bring experience in that hasn’t previously been touched by words, how can we begin to do that? Do we just start all over again? Or what do we do? For me, again, to go back to the thing about smell, I think smell is a really powerful way of getting at the kind of sensorial work that I try to do with writing because my writing is very much about sensorial work and very much about getting you to imaginatively see things, smell things, or hear things that aren’t real but which nevertheless require your real senses and your real mind to produce. Getting you to try to do that kind of work using, yes, tools that come from that canon but that I’m putting together in ways in which that canon tells me that I should not put them together, that you’re not allowed to do them that way, we decided that already. It doesn’t work that way. In this book, we have too much writing. We have, in certain ways, too much text and not enough action. But it turns out that text is all action. In reading, we’re really doing something. We’re really putting the events together. That’s a way that I can work within, and this is on a real level, there are a lot of constraints on me as a writer. I actually have very limited space to move in, so what I do in this book is quite calculated with the materials that are available to me. What I can try to show you, what I can try to show to the readers is constrained. I have to try to misuse materials to, in some sense, cast a shadow or create another kind of effect that will bring something into the space of the novel that quite literally hasn’t been in the novel/a novel before. Because I believe that by casting that shadow, talking to you again about a smell or something like that, I’m doing something that isn’t sanctioned by the novel tradition and that is somehow bringing us into a space where we can talk about experience again. We can find ourselves in that very strange space of experiencing something that comes before expression or comes before a convention. If we can do that, we can learn about the parts of us that are maybe not yet overtaken by those preceding things because I believe that there are parts of us that are not yet overtaken. That’s me as an optimistic person. I believe that there are parts of us that fiction can give us access to that have enormous potential for thought, for revelation, and I suppose possibly for action as well.
DN: Let’s stay one more moment with story in relation to the glass mountain and also this idea, I love this self-description of the book having too much text and not enough action but also that all the text is action. Formally, on the macro level, the bulk of the book is literally the content of our protagonist bag which includes our protagonist’s novel and her novella, both rejected by a literary agent, which of course, itself calls them to question the “fitness” of their forms in the literary marketplace. [laughter] It also includes a checked-out library book written by the professor who’s under the MeToo investigation. Just to loop that into what you’ve said previously about the novel you didn’t write and wanting to have more distance or have a miniaturized version of your French 19th-century mustachioed protagonist, that checked-out library book written by the professor who’s under the MeToo investigation is a biography of this person, so he’s in the novel in the bag in someone else’s biography and there’s also a very large and very late unpaid bill that I want to come back to at some point. But one of the thrills is how the book moves, not just in this formal or macro way, but on the level of the sentence and the paragraph too. Especially the opening where we start not with a character but with the history of botulism, its relation to blood sausages, and the discovery of that eventually, the failed attempts to use it as a biological weapon, the development of Botox, and with the bacteria finally landing in the face of one of the professors at the school, a professor who’s proximal to the MeToo scandal, a woman with a pretty immobile face due to all of her Botox treatments. What I like about it is that for a brief time, botulism is how the story moves forward, the way a bacteria ends up serving the function of a protagonist and that we’ve spanned more than a millennia in the opening pages, which is also an interesting way that you’re dealing with time. But also it is interesting as a reader to have our expectations mirrored back into our face, like what Shelley Jackson suggested with Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Because when the bacteria ends up in the face of Dr. Faith Ewer and we stop focusing on Clostridium botulinum and start focusing on her in the world, I immediately think as a reader, “Okay, this is the protagonist,” then I witness my own mind starting to organize its expectations on what that means and what I expect from Faith Ewer, probably because of the uncreated and inherited invisible topography of what’s come before. But she ultimately gets left behind too and it’s not until page 40 or so that we figure out who our protagonist is. But I don’t think we can ever rest easy that it will remain so. Of course, once we enter the bag of our protagonist, all bets are off until we re-emerge on the other side. I don’t know if this provokes anything for you about what you just said but if it does, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
LI: Yeah. Well, the question of scale in relation to the novel is important to me, on the one hand, because novels are “big books,” but on the other, because one of the ways that they work or one of their fundamental mechanisms is to tell us how big the past is, how big the present is, and how big the future is and also to establish things about how other big stuff like the nation or God relate to those other big things. For me, I wanted to begin this book, in some ways, with a very blustery like, “Hey guys, it’s time for history. Let’s do some big stuff.” But then it turns out that we’re actually going to focus on something microscopic which is botulinum toxin, which also is something which has a very big effect in that it is one of the most lethal naturally occurring poisons on the planet. The toxin is something that is produced by this bacteria. It’s funny because it turns out that this bacteria, who knew it, has anesthetics. Well, it doesn’t really have anesthetics but it turns out that it plays this incredible role in contemporary aesthetics in that it is the key ingredient in Botox, this cosmetology technique. In fact, that technique is something we see evidence of on faces around us all the time. On another level, they’re no shade to people with Botox, it’s also just of interest like, “This is interesting.” [laughter] That Botox on its way from being a toxin that occurred in the anaerobic environment of cured meats and that people then ate and it caused a reaction in their bodies that made it impossible for them to breathe essentially, then they died because their brain wasn’t able to make them breathe in the way that it does, that it existed in human history in this state but then it was recognized as something that could be employed as a biological weapon. It was synthesized as a biological weapon in large quantities during the Second World War but then it was never used. It was successfully synthesized into a weapon but then for very strategic reasons, it ended up languishing at Johns Hopkins. There, it was rediscovered by people who were interested in ophthalmology and other applied uses of something that would prevent movement in the face, so prevent inadvertent twitches and stuff like that. It’s from there that it becomes this cosmetic product which then enters into everyday life and enters into the category known as beauty, another very important site for the novel, for literature, and for art. This story is funny on the one hand but it’s also an object less than in the interrelation of these different big things that we often see in novels. I wanted to just get that over with. I wanted to be like, “Okay, here are all the big things that we deal with in novels. Let’s get it over with, then let’s get to people. Okay, we have people. What are they going to do?” But just because we have people doesn’t mean that we’re ready for a protagonist yet. Let’s look at people. Let’s think about that a little bit. Let’s look at affect. Let’s look at how the novel can do affect and let’s also have a kind of inversion of the tropes of suspense at the same time. Usually, when we have suspense, we’re waiting for something important to happen. In the case of this novel, we’re just waiting for the protagonist to show up. You’re like tapping your watch like maybe you think that the protagonist is already here. You’re not really sure. I think getting all of that out of the way, it’s like a first date situation, we get some of that stuff out of the way so that we can really get down to intimacy in the rest of the book.
DN: Well, I feel like as a reader, it’s the opposite in the sense that it doesn’t feel like getting stuff out of the way, it feels like it sets up a range of possible violations that may again happen throughout. Even when they’re not happening, we have this sense that they might happen if we think back to Shelley Jackson’s rug getting pulled out. You’ve demonstrated what this anti-novel or novel might do or not do, who knows what it’ll do next? I mean it has that added valence at least for me. But I wanted to stay one more moment with your notion of the book having too much text and then connect that to something that Jamie Hood said in Bookforum. I’m curious about your thoughts about it. But the first thing it made me think of this too much text was my discussion with Daniel Mendelsohn where in that discussion, we’re comparing and contrasting the Greek mode of storytelling and the Hebrew mode of storytelling. The Greek which he characterizes as optimistic in the sense that it’s motivated by the belief that language, if you use enough of it, can succeed at describing. One example he gives is Herodotus and how for him, in order to tell the story of the Greek victory over the Persian Empire, he first feels the need to narrate the entire history of Persia itself, and in order to narrate the entire history of Persia, there needs to be an entire chapter on the history, customs, and architecture of Egypt since Egypt was part of that Empire. You do this too all the time. For instance, when Faith asks Isobel a question, Isobel’s distracted about a future class—so these are two teachers—she’s distracted by a future class where she will be teaching The Duchess of Langeais by Balzac. And instead of us learning simply that she is distracted—because we’re feeling like Faith might be the protagonist so we also expect maybe to be in Faith’s point of view—but instead of just learning that Isobel is distracted and that’s it, we instead disappear into Isobel’s deliberation about this other thing for quite a while about this Balzac book before coming back to the conversation with Faith. But I think your motivation is different than the Greeks. For one, we really see how much what we choose to describe or not and how long we describe something is really deeply shaped by norms and conventions—and we see this very clearly because you start violating all these norms and conventions—But Jamie Hood at Bookforum also had an interesting take on your book that I wanted to hear your thoughts on. Here are a couple of excerpts lifted out of her review: “What fascinates about Ives’s maneuvering is these interstices and echoic functions are where the psychic and narrative excesses of trauma—its “untellable” too muchness—are reckoned with. To the hero, rape is a data point, but trauma, like story, nests and wriggles, reemerging in unanticipated ways, a wild-oat seed being wrestled from its husk again and again.” “Trauma is a haunting that exceeds the horizons of storytelling; rape severs the subject from her body, disorients temporality. Ives represents this as a formal problem, attempting to narrativize trauma again and again, allowing these attempts to be messy, to falter, to fail. We must allow the novel to be capacious, to hold many different kinds of reckonings, many traumas.” I found that review persuasive. My example doesn’t really connect well with what she’s saying but I love the way I feel like you mirror back to me as a reader what I’m expecting when you do these things, when you switch heads and then linger on something beyond what normally least to happen. But I wonder if there’s this other thing too, this too muchness of the untellable, that maybe all of this extra text is, as you said before, we need to start noticing things like when you walk through the atrium which is invisible and you start unpacking what that atrium is, that maybe the noticing and then the text that results from that noticing is about finding our way out. But did you have any thoughts on that Bookforum review in this regard to too much text?
LI: You’ve said a lot of things that I want to respond to. First, I want to talk a little bit about what you’re saying about Herodotus as a writer of history, a style of writing in which because we touch on the history of a nation and there might be buildings that are associated with that history, then we need to talk about architectural styles and that attempt to be exhaustive or encyclopedic. I want to distinguish my style from that style a little bit where Greek history writers are concerned, I’m more of a student of Thucydides for anyone to whom that distinction has any meaning. I’m very interested in what can be done with a sentence and I’m interested in the ways in which the sentence contains all of the meaning of the text in which it appears because of its outward radiating into the book in which it’s taking place. It’s part of a net, it’s part of a system. I often have the feeling when I’m writing a sentence that I’m working on another part of the book completely even though I’m writing a sentence in one place in the book. I’m interested in the interrelation of different parts but not in a logic of exhaustion of all things, which is also a logic of scarcity I think, but in the logic of rhymes and return and in time travel in a sense, that we can start out in one place and find a tunnel through to another and that you can find yourself reading one part of the book and realize that you’re actually reading another part of the book at the same time that you may have already read but then you’re reading it again in a new way. This book is designed throughout to have these kinds of tunnels that bring you through almost like a hyperlink but I think the tunnel or maybe the root structure, something like that is maybe a better metaphor. In mentioning that, I think there’s also something delicious about that that we can be in one space and find ourselves also slipping into another space at the same time. When we’re given something like the content of Professor Isobel Childe’s thinking about the Balzac story The Duchess of Langeais, that story is a very complex story about masochism, about obsession, about adultery, and about doing something transgressive in one’s life and whether what is actually free to transgress. The questions that Balzac poses in that novel and that we learn about through Isobel’s mental synopsis of that novel will recur in Life Is Everywhere. Everything that we’re offered is a possible translating device so it can be used as a decoder or a way of thinking about other events that we will learn about as the novel goes on. When it comes to the question of trauma, which is to say experience that can never be fully relived nor fully overcome, experience that we can’t fully have and which we can’t fully cease having, there’s a versioning of that question of repetition in this book throughout and a style of reading that attempts to make our tendency to relive events more intelligible. I’m very concerned with that. I’m less concerned with absolute solutions. I don’t know if absolute solutions or eradication of problems are possible but I do think that we can learn to read differently. By having a tolerance for a multiplicity of interpretations and for using what is near to hand to interpret and seeing how things repeat, I think that we can learn something about the parts of ourselves that shy away from being fully known. I’m very interested in showing edges of that in the characters too. Which is why at the beginning of the book, I don’t want to just go straight into the protagonist and be like, “Okay, guys, here’s the protagonist. Let’s go. Everything’s simple. We know who’s important here.” That to me would be a very limited way of addressing what I think an interesting subjectivity to see in a novel is. Even when we are with this protagonist Erin, she’s very porous to other stories and of course, once we see into her bag, there are lots of other stories there as well. I find the description of the writing as echoic, to go back to Jamie’s review, accurate. I guess there’s something that I hope to do and I can’t say for sure that I’ve achieved this but I guess I hope, in a way, to show that trauma is not extraordinary, that it’s bound up in who we are as human beings, it’s something we have in common with each other. I think sometimes the way that term circulates now makes it a little bit more difficult to notice that. The question for me is how are we going to navigate its ubiquity. That’s a question for everybody. It’s not a question for some people, it’s a question for everybody. I hope to, on the one hand, discuss things that I see as part of systems that are in the world as we live it. But on the other hand, to displace the way that we think about events or to move the way that we think about events to different typography so that we have better access to that thinking and that we can really feel it, look at it, and think about how we want to live in relation to it.
DN: Well, I want to take this into the realm of character and self a little bit and into a question I have I guess when you talked about how, say The Duchess of Langeais, among a million other things, could be used as a way to translate the text as a whole, almost this holographic aspect that we could pick any part and shine a laser through it and recreate the entire book. But there’s this notion of masks that seems to echo through the book that you start us out with the botulism, Botox, and this immobile face of the teacher. At the very beginning, when we are with Faith and her frozen face, before we know Faith isn’t a major character, when you said earlier that you’re exploring affect and other things other than protagonists, the book mentions studies about how our well-being can improve when we can’t physically frown. That made me go to Google of course. Even though the quality of the research is still being debated in the real world, in the real world there are psychiatrists promoting Botox for mental health because of these studies. There are these studies that if you can’t frown, your well-being can improve. I think it sets a tone for the novel that this is put forth as something true early on as it orients us to self-hood in a really weird and generative way I think. Her face is a constructed thing but really, it also foregrounds how every character is a constructed figure in the text, that there could be this dissonance between how she feels and what she expresses on her face, but that perhaps what is constructed on her face will ultimately also affect how she feels. That points to something really uncanny and unnerving about the notion of self, which perhaps is an endless series of masks. When you wrote your piece for Frieze about Sophie Calle and your phone call with her where you quote an art historian who describes Calle’s work as undermining the foundations of her person, and “She only gives shape to this mask in order to dispel it as an illusion,” it makes me think about the magic mantra in your book “It does not matter how you feel,” and also the girl Hamlet who has a mask of makeup and how in one of the dream sequences, Mrs. Stick wears a rubber mask over her face of goo and her shapeless body is in a body casing like a blood sausage, and then all of the performances of gender, how Charlus LeGouffre, the 19th-century French man that we have discussed, is called a rare Janus, someone rumored to be a woman before a man, about how Hamlet in this book is a character who is a woman, and about the history of women playing Hamlet, about how fashionable that cross-dressing was in the France of the 1830s in Roger Herbsweet’s book in her bag, and on and on and on. But I think perhaps most amazingly is that Erin’s two rejected books that we get to read in full are both autofiction, so we’re getting the autofiction of a fictional character. When I see all of this and think about the mask in relation to what is underneath, I guess I just want to hear more about your questions or your notions around self and character and anything else that comes up for you as I reflect this all back.
LI: Well, just because something’s made up doesn’t mean that it’s not real. That’s a funny thing. [laughter]
LI: It’s a funny thing that there is a one-way street there. Well, masks are fun. [laughter] So it would make sense that we like them and what you point out about this book containing a pair of autofictions written by a character, I’m glad you say that, indeed, we have two autofictional works there and it interests me to think about what happens when you ask a character to make something. I think that something different happens when you ask a character to make something than when you have a character do something. This might be related to The Carrier Bag Theory, it might just be my own weird obsession, not totally sure. Pale Fire might be a carrier bag fiction. Lots of things are possible here. It interests me that a character could write something that might not be “good enough” to be published. But in the context of a fiction, what that character writes is still very interesting and it’s actually necessary to us as readers because in this novel, in order to find out who Erin is and what has happened to her, we need to read her fictions, we need them. They’re serving a purpose there. That is different from the purpose of other fictions that we might encounter in the world. We really have to find out what happens on multiple levels because otherwise, we won’t know what happens in the book. It’s funny to me to put that pressure on fiction, it’s an absurd kind of pressure to put on fiction because fictions does fiction, it doesn’t matter. It’s made up, it doesn’t matter. But this takes me back to my earlier point that just because something’s made up doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s also a thing about the glass mountain. The glass mountain is a very strange human creation. But just because it’s artificial doesn’t mean it’s not real. As we go around in the world, we largely encounter artificial things. I guess there’s a kind of perverse side of me that’s angry about the fiction designation that goes on the back of the book that’s like, “This is fiction,” and I’m like, “Well, but it’s all fiction so why this one?” But I get it and I also love that mask because that’s a mask too. It’s a mask that’s called fiction.
DN: Do you have a strange phrasing you would put on the novel?
LI: Like a genre categorizer.
DN: Like Billy-Ray Belcourt for his memoir, he said he would have called it poems and essays and he would have called his latest polyvocal book a sociological fiction, which I thought was interesting in both accounts. Obviously, you can understand why those might not land on the book from a marketer’s perspective but perhaps it also points to a way in which he is deeply unsatisfied with the categories that are available.
LI: I mean I might say something like a book.
DN: A book, yeah. This would be a great time to hear something else from the book, the book that is not a novel or a fiction, but a book. [laughter] So I was hoping maybe you would read a short section from the first part of the book, and this would be with us with Erin as the protagonist not yet inside of Erin’s bag.
[Lucy Ives reads from Life Is Everywhere]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lucy Ives read from Life Is Everywhere. I wanted you to read that because of the notion of what’s happening underneath language and I wanted to think for a moment about language and relationship to self and whether language could also be a mask, a mask that eventually shapes the self, much like the Botox research perhaps. I wanted to bring up your recent book of image text with Matthew Connors called The Poetics, which, like so many of your texts, has this inverted meaning in the title, much like your chapbook novel is full of poetry, The Poetics is mainly meditating on narrative and The Poetics is very much a carrier bag book. Matthew Connors is isolating and photographing, object by object, every single thing in his car. We get photograph after photograph of them which are periodically interrupted by essays by you. In thinking about language in relation to these objects you say, “We are ever at the ready to construct objects in certain ways, conceptually speaking, as objects of a story, as tools in a given kind of narrative work. We believe we know where they began and where they end.” And also you say, “How can poetical fictional or experimental literary modes give us new ways of reading and writing history?” And also, “Given the wildly heterogeneous nature of present time, how can we restore to the past some of its former heterogeneity? And how can we grant the discontinuity it once held? Could anyone ever hope to write such a narrative? Would it even be narrative?” And, “The way I began thinking about narrative, it was the problem. The problem was narrative. The problem was narrative as such, did not exist in life as such.” And, “These items from the car were never, I would contend, part of a clearly continuous space and time. How would I establish anyway their proper, exact, correct distance or proximity to one another?” But what really leaped out to me as fascinating was your description of what fiction was for you. You say, “When I write I employ a system of mirrors. It is not that they are real mirrors, that you would ever be able to see them in real life. But they entrap images of the world, all the same. This is the sort of appliance fiction is for me: I use it to look away from something and still perceive it.” “Fiction is a way of seeing around corners. It’s a system of mirrors designed to catch images of what I’m not able or permitted to see in my actual life. I’m not exactly or always telling stories. I tell superimpositions, overlaps, coincidences, delays. This is my thinking. Not diegesis but recurrence, a style of conjunction. An elevation of what remains unfinished. We can only determine how things look if we see them through one another.” This is super interesting to me, this idea of looking away to perceive or only determining how things look by seeing them through one another so that when we read these lines from the Los Angeles Times Review of the book: “We know, for example, that Cody, the philandering husband character in one of Erin’s manuscripts, is very similar to Erin’s husband. We are accessing her grief in another register, one that perhaps should feel more detached but actually is more immediate and sad.” This quote from the review I think points to something very weird about the self in relation to art-making and storytelling. But I would really just love to have you talk more about the hall of mirrors in relation to language and fiction because I’ve never heard this described this way. I’ve never spoken to a writer who’s characterized fiction in this way.
LI: Well, one important thing about Erin’s writing and how it exists as an expression of her experience is that her hands, her fingertips have touched a keyboard and hit keys to make these words come into existence where she wrote them with a pen. But she wrote them with her hand, her fictional hand but she wrote them with her hand. If as a reader, we want to know what Erin lived, we could listen to a narrative about what happened to her, we could listen to a narrator describing that in the third person or the first person, and in fact in her novel, there is a narrator who speaks in the first person and in the third person in her first manuscript, but we have access to what she really wrote. She’s fictionalizing but she’s really the one who is fictionalizing, it’s not me. It’s not me, it’s not someone else or a narrator who’s telling us what happened to her, it’s her. So if you want to know what happened to Erin, she’s going to let you know in her book in her own way. The mirrors that I’m talking about in the poetics and in those statements about how fiction works for me are mirrors that are arranged in the way that mirrors are arranged in a periscope. The way that you’re able to see around a corner or in a submarine, a periscope goes up and you can see what’s outside, what’s above the surface of the water is a system of mirrors, a mirror that is arranged on the diagonal with respect to the view into the world that then reflects downward onto another mirror that is also arranged on the diagonal so that when you look into the periscope, you can see what’s around the corner or above the water. In this novel, I think to get at the experience of the character, we need something like a periscope. In other words, I don’t treat the character as an entity that’s out in the real world whose experience is entirely transparent to me. I as the writer may not know everything that has happened to them but there are technical affordances that I can use in order to learn more. If I have the character right, I can know what the character has written down and I can know more about them. I’m not saying that I can’t write a narrative and have a narrator talk about the character. That’s precisely what I do in two-thirds of the book. There’s a third-person narrator who tells you what goes on with Erin. But I happen to think that we can learn more about her by reading her own writing, again writing that she has written with her own hand, language that she has chosen herself. There’s a way in which metaphorically, this is a series of mirrors or a series of masks that reflect onto each other and so we get something back that has a more intimate view onto this source in spite of that source being fictional in itself.
DN: Your editor who has worked with you on your last three books said that this book proposes a new kind of systems novel and she says, “It’s about how individual selves act, and are acted upon, inside various systems—family, marriage, academia, gender, society—but it also reveals the instability of our notions of selves and of systems, and shows a new way to narrate the relationship between the two.” But I wonder if it’s also about the limits of language. What I mean by this is that you’ve talked in interviews about your sadness about how writing is not linearly related to the thing described. That at one point, you had hoped or believed that language would have a straightforward relation to the thing it refers to and that you haven’t fully gotten over that it doesn’t. Which made me wonder if the system of mirrors is also sort of a compensatory system for that sadness like a prosthetic aid for language itself.
LI: Yeah. In some ways, it might be about trying to look into language’s home or trying to be at home with language if I could get there.
DN: Yeah. Well, thinking of the system of mirrors to reflect and perceive what you can’t see otherwise, thinking about them as an aid to increase what we can perceive, and also Renee Gladman’s description of your story collection as you making her feel like she’s in an alternate ordinary place, I wondered about the role of the imagination, the surreal, and the fantastic for you. Because this system seems to be interested in perception, in mimesis, in representation rather than the imagined and the invented, so does your sadness that language in the world isn’t a one-to-one correspondence. You do play a lot with the fake and the true in other ways, if those are the right words, we get made-up historical figures so much so that when you tell me in this book that the real person Paul Éluard wrote letters to a lover with his own semen, I’m at first sure this is made up until I go and look it up and discover to my horror and delight that it’s true. Or when I read about the German surrealist Hanne Darboven and her form of graphic writing beyond words, I think she could be made up. At the time as I’m reading, I even think she might be inspired by Renee Gladman when in fact she also is real among made-up figures at the same time. But I wonder what your own philosophy around imagination rather than perception and trying to see and represent something that is seeable with these mirrors, what your thoughts are about things that aren’t actually seen. For instance, for Le Guin, the imagination is what makes us most human, that she can imagine not having opposable thumbs but not not having her imagination. When she says, “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books,” she is often saying these things as part of an argument for the fantastic being our primary literature, whether Don Quixote, Hamlet, Beowulf, or The Odyssey, all the way up until the Industrial Revolution, but where or how does the fully imagined fit or not at all into what you were trying to do or the questions that you have that animate your writing?
LI: One way of getting at this is that this book as a whole is offered to readers in a spirit of friendship, and for me, that is where the imaginative act takes place in the imagining of the possibility of someone coming to read this book, a book that is impossible to write, a book that is impossible to write because of its refusal to land on a tone that creates a clear distinction between what is real and what is made up and the book’s endless generation of new ways of reading and new ways of reading its own narrative and the events that have taken place in it. There is, for example, in Erin’s second novel, a series of multiple choice questions that ask the reader to choose between and among various interpretations of what’s taken place offering different interpretations of the text. To me, the act of imagination is in imagining a world in which I can give this to someone and I can say, “Here,” it’s so crazy that anything has ever happened. We can read this book together and laugh at that. This book is, in fact in real life, dedicated to my best friend.
DN: Well, partly the reason I asked this question is because of my own experience as a reader of this text. When I spoke to Hernan Diaz about his books, we talked about how as readers, we give more authority to the outer frame of a story. In other words, if in a book, as happens in Diaz’s first book In the Distance, we begin with someone telling a story around a fire, and then for a long time, we are in that story being told, so long perhaps that we maybe even forget that it is a story being told around a fire, when we return at the end to the fireside, we feel as if we’re returning to a more real place even though that so-called truer place is as constructed and invented as the story within it. Your book is structured this way in some regards with Erin’s world being the “real world” where she’s locked out of her house and we travel into the contents of her bag for the majority of the book and then come out again into Erin’s world at the end. But you trouble the stability of the outer frames. Inside her bag, one of the books, as I’ve mentioned, is a biography of a fictional (though in this world real) French author named Charlus LeGouffre written by the “real professor” accused of sexual improprieties in the world of Erin. At one point in this real world, Erin goes looking for the one book that LeGoure wrote, a book called Passe-partout, which really should be the name of your book, as it both means a master key or skeleton key, a key that gives you access to everything, much as your narrative goes everywhere, but it is also a method of framing a picture. But this is really my long way of saying as a reader, my favorite moment in the book is when Erin acquires this book that’s mentioned in one of the books in her bag and starts translating it in real time for us in the locker room smelling study carrel on the top floor of the void-filled evil atrium of the library. But this book is a magical tale, it’s a fantasy so it’s not just imagining things that could be real but that aren’t, it’s clearly in another realm and it’s amazing and utterly transporting I think. In many ways, because of its fantastical nature, it felt like it goes places around the status of women, around representation of women that the rest of the book is addressing but maybe circling. I guess I just wanted to hear more about this brief dalliance in the fantastical that we get, what you see it doing in the book, or any other thoughts that you have about what I’m bringing up around this.
LI: Thank you first for pointing this out because, for a second, I thought I was very serious. I thought I was a very serious writer but you’re reminding me that I am very silly too. Indeed, I do want the reader to come to this part of the book and put their feet up and be like, “Yeah.”
DN: It was great.
LI: “It’s fun now.” [laughter] Particularly because I’m now asking the reader to read like intertext number six or seven so I have to offer something good. Quickly to go back when you say the title of that Passe-partout or the title of this novella that Erin translates should be the title of the novel, it is the title of the novel.
DN: What do you mean? [laughs]
LI: I mean simply, and this is a spoiler alert, I mean to the extent that this novel can have spoilers, Life Is Everywhere is Erin’s translation of Passe-partout.
DN: Oh, yeah. That’s wonderful. Somehow that flew over my brain. [laughs] I love that.
LI: There’s a lot of textual tennis going on.
DN: It is the title of the novel. Bravo. [laughs]
LI: We met each other there for a second.
DN: Yeah. That’s so great. [laughter]
LI: Yeah. Without giving too much away, this is a novella that’s allegedly written by “Charlie” Charlus Démocrite LeGouffre who is this very esoteric literary figure, amateur photographer of the 19th century who has been studied by Roger Herbsweet who is Erin’s erstwhile academic advisor. His novel, his novella, his one work, like why did he only write one? We don’t know, is a story about a fragment of statuary that goes on adventures. In some way, it’s a chance for me to recover that hope to write a kind of picaresque about something going around in 19th-century America and doing stuff in a kind of miniature style. But I think that 19th-century statues are pretty interesting and they have a lot to teach us about how we see and how we tell stories strangely. They’re pretty iconic and they affect how we see the past. But it was fun for me to think about people becoming obsessed, so this is the Passe-partout, this novella is a story of obsession and it’s a story of a series of people who become obsessed with a severed hand like a statue’s marble hand that has become severed and they think that it is alive essentially. It is about how that statue’s hand changes their lives briefly before becoming reincorporated into the world in a new way, such that you, David, and I might see it as we walk about American cities, we might see that hand again. There’s a fantastical element and a silly element, and there are pirates and a lot of dramatic languages and stuff, but there’s also a little bit of a more serious meditation on allegory, how allegory works, and how it is that we come to have certain kinds of common places that we share both in language and visually in the civic scene as they say.
DN: The other thing I wanted to spend a moment with his Hanne Darboven and her non-connotative graphic writing, and with surrealism, something you seem to be attracted to frequently in your non-fiction writing and your art criticism. I love some of the Darboven quotes, none of which I know for sure are real. The event is a construct of fiction and it was pure writing, always writing but not meaning. This description of Hanne Darboven makes me think of you. Hanne didn’t want to say things, she wanted to show what the saying was doing. Talk to us about why she’s a comfort to Erin in this book, and by extension, what she might mean for you.
LI: Yeah. That’s a hard question because I think that Erin’s obsession with Hanne Darboven is a place in this novel where I’ve given a character a quality of myself. It’s a weird choice because I so want Hanne Darboven to be here in this book because I think her life is amazing and I think her art is amazing as well. One of the reasons that I love her art is that she made rooms, so she made work that in some ways is very minor because a lot of it consists of writing a loop every day that looks like a letter but is not in fact a letter. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. It could be a kind of marking of time and in fact, she was very interested in time, in calendars, in periodicals, and in the ways in which we mark time through publication or mark time publicly. She was very interested in how we parse history and what feels historical. The rooms that she made are often made of these very minor marks repeated over and over again. So when you go into a space that contains her marks, it will include things that have been marked or canceled by her different kinds of print ephemera. They might be postcards or calendars. She also worked with musical notation. She’s a classically trained musician and composed music as well. You see something that’s composed of minor things, cheap materials, and also found objects like kitschy found objects. But you have the sense that you are within something that has a greater import that can become manifest to you if you linger with it. She gives you access to a feeling of historical time. It’s not exactly a grand feeling of historical time. It’s certainly a strange feeling of historical time. Other adjectives I might use to describe it would include lopsided, also funny sometimes, uncanny, maybe mesmerizing, hypnotizing.
DN: And there’s a relationship to these loops and the bombing of Hamburg and these things called radar chaff. Could you speak to the radar chaff? That was so fascinating, among a million details, that you share with us from history, but this was fascinating to me, the writing that is graphic writing and how it’s related to a way to interfere with a certain type of communication during the bombing of the city.
LI: This might also go back to the question about how you can read trauma in this book or in relation to writing in general. Again, this is speculation on the part of Erin in her autofictional work. But Erin associates this very simple, almost graphic technique for jamming the radar systems of your enemy that was used during the Second World War by the Allies specifically in relation to the firebombing of Hamburg which is a truly horrific event. What happens is that it’s like a very simple method which is just to release reflective material into the air so that the path of any kind of echolocational system—and again this is also related to the technique of the novel—is redirected and doesn’t meet the target of another body moving through the air which might be an airplane that’s armed with armaments that it’s about to release on the city. I talk about, by way of Erin, a kind of idea that I have that Erin has about how this technology—which is a technology of disruption and of rewriting—could be related to how one writes about experience that is too big or overwhelming and that we might either have the experience of not having an experience or discover that we don’t know what we don’t know, to go back to what I was saying earlier, and we need again some kind of technique to reach that experience however imperfectly. Paradoxically, there is something about Hanne Darboven’s asemic, not semantically meaningful writing that captures experience very vividly in my opinion and also in Erin’s opinion, because I’ve shared my opinion with Erin. [laughter] And that it’s a way that we can think about the relationship of writing and history, also to go back to some of the earlier things that we can think about. It’s a way to try to look into the house of language too, not to try to make meaning, speaking of surrealism. Trying to make something else might allow us to creep just a little bit closer to meaning.
DN: Before we end, I want to spend a moment with the electric bill in the bag, a very large and very late unpaid bill. Because there’s one passing moment in the book where Erin, who’s in this terrible marriage, who is getting a degree within a department that is wildly, if familiarly, dysfunctional, and where both her books are seemingly unmarketable and where she fantasizes about getting a large cash advance for her fiction, and then she says that if she did have such an advance, she would leave her program and her husband both. It feels like this moment says so much about what the book is saying about how much her choices aren’t real choices as so many of them are attending to avoiding financial ruin more than following desire. This is very gendered within the book as well, intersecting with the status of women, and this also feels like something that interests you in your non-fiction. I’m thinking of your very smart and also very funny piece called Sodom, LLC, The Marquis de Sade and the office novel where, among other things, you argue that 120 Days of Sodom is an office novel. Saying about Sade’s writing more generally you say, “His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office. Sadean sex is, to inject a contemporary term, the fuck of the spreadsheet, in which all markers of identity and sentimentality are like the footlong dildo the eponymous libertine heroine of The History of Juliette uses to impale a nine-year-old girl: detachable, iterable, and sortable by size. Anyone can be a libertine, provided she or he is willing to be systematic.” Also, I think of your essay After the Afterlife of Theory where you talk, among other things, about the number of undergraduate students you’ve had who were homeless or faced homelessness who already had a staggering amount of student debt, who are often gig workers, sometimes sex workers, and who left you unequipped with what to meaningfully say to them. In this light where you question the value of theory, among other things in this essay, you say, “While I remain a bit agnostic on the ‘Theory, Ruining Everything or Not?’ issue, there are two points on which I am clear: 1., it is a mistake to think that you can replace theory’s strong descriptions of colonialism and late capitalism with vague allusions to said descriptions; and 2., the cost of a B.A. Is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism, narrative or otherwise.” Thinking about the titles of the three sections of Life Is Everywhere, which I now know is Passe-partout, and their progression from section one, “Paralysis,” to “Interiors,” to “Lives,” I wondered if and how Life Is Everywhere might be puzzling your way toward a language for something like this, the way this gigantic bill in her bag is maybe like botulism and the tiny microscopic thing is actually really large and affecting so much, something that in your real life left you speechless in front of your own students.
LI: When I said to you earlier that the genre of this novel is book, this electricity, electrical bill, this Con Ed bill that’s in the novel, which is reproduced in such a way so that you have to rotate the novel and hold it up so that what’s normally the side of the novel becomes the top of the novel, and we see something approximating an 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper and there’s also a dotted line on the recto of the electrical bill saying “Tear off here” so that you can remove the payment slip and if you want to pay this bill for the characters, there’s an address you can mail it to, and in fact, that’s a real address so your payment will indeed reach Con Edison if you’re that sort of reader. [laughter] So there is a little bit of a gesture toward inevitably something real that might be underlying this book. But also to the reality of the book and the realness of the format of the book and that the book itself is participating in the narrative and is not just a substrate, a support for the text that is telling us a story, I don’t have—again as I say in that essay After the Afterlife of Theory that I published in May of 2018 around the 50th anniversary of May 1968—a solution except to point out the different forces and styles of representation that are in tension in the present and to say there is tension between the cost of undergraduate education in the humanities and what a degree in the humanities can do in financial terms in contemporary America. I think we can say that that’s a real thing and it’s a question that we should ask about. The answer to that question isn’t “Stop teaching the humanities” or “Do something to the humanities to make it more profitable,” those are not answers that I would propose. But I think that reading and writing is only improved by attention to contradiction and attention also to the places in which we choose not to feel and choose not to attend to experience. Again, that’s something that I’m dealing with over and over again in my novel and to such an extent that I want to call it a book because that’s what it is, it’s a book and that’s our experience of it ultimately is as book. It’s tricky to get to that, to get to book space from fiction space. I think that that’s interesting. That’s also something that we should pay attention to.
DN: Well, let’s go out with one more brief reading, this time from deep within the bag, deep within Erin’s rejected novels fittingly titled Hypergraphia, the opening page of the section called Memories of the Future.
[Lucy Ives reads from Life Is Everywhere]
DN: Thank you, Lucy Ives, for being on Between the Covers with me.
LI: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a challenge and a trip. I’m very grateful.
DN: I hope it’s a somewhat pleasurable challenge and a trip.
LI: They’re the only things I like, so indeed.
DN: [Laughs] We’ve been talking today to Lucy Ives about her book Passe-partout, otherwise known as Life Is Everywhere from Graywolf. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Lucy Ives’s work at lucy-ives.com. For the bonus audio archive, Lucy adds a reading of her five-part writing prompt Exercise for Writing from Memory, which joins supplemental material from Jorie Graham, Dionne Brand, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, Arthur Sze, Forrest Gander, and many others. This is just one potential reward and possible reason to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests. Every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation and you can choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests. From out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin to writing consultations, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.