“Stories, both my own and those I’ve taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I’ve become,” Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner readsand writeseverywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee shop in Albania, or a crowded bus in Haiti. The result is “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” Among the many writers Orner addresses are Isaac Babel and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom told their truths and were silenced; Franz Kafka, who professed loneliness but craved connection; Robert Walser, who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a Swiss insane asylum, “working” at being crazy; and Juan Rulfo, who practiced the difficult art of silence. Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, John Edgar Wideman, William Trevor, and Václav Havel make appearances, as well as the poet Herbert Morrisabout whom almost nothing is known.
An elegy for an eccentric late father, and the end of a marriage, Am I Alone Here? is also a celebration of the possibility of renewal. At once personal and panoramic, this book will inspire readers to return to the essential stories of their own lives.
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About the Author
Peter Orner is the author of two collections of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Stories, and two novels, Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. His stories have appeared in many periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, as well as in The Best American Short Stories 2001. He has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bard Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Orner has received Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation fellowships, and two Pushcart Prizes. He lives in Bolinas, California, and is a member of the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department.
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Am I Alone Here?
Notes On Living to Read and Reading to Live
By Peter Orner, Eric Orner
CatapultCopyright © 2016 Peter Orner
All rights reserved.
SOMETIMES I BELIEVE WE ARE BEING TESTED
Hadn't my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?
— Yasunari Kawabata, "Silence"
CHEKHOV'S WAY OF DYING
I'm in the cafeteria of San Francisco General Hospital. I come here once in a while. It's a nice place to be distracted. I've been thinking about Chekhov, or trying to. I keep getting distracted. I have also come here today because I'm following up on a notion that in a hospital I'm closer to death than when I sit distracted in other places. I've seen no death today in this cafeteria. I've seen salads. Pudding. One of the doctors across the table from me is eating a bowl of strawberries while she tells another doctor about a third doctor's relationship with, it seems, a fourth doctor. Married, kids.
"She's so hard to talk to sometimes because her logic is so flawed. The crap she puts up with boggles the mind."
"Where's he based, this promiscuous pediatrician?"
"Apollo on his mountain. Should have guessed. Prick. Comes down and slums it at General."
Some patients down at the other end of the table keep high-fiving each other. I can't make out what they're celebrating. There — they did it again. High-five! There's also a man doing laps around the cafeteria, shouting into a cell phone. I've seen him here before. "I'm telling you," he shouts, "it's the military industrial prison complex. Eisenhower warned us of this in his final State of the Union. Ike, who would have thought he'd be the one ..."
Chekhov is sometimes called with, to my ear, a tinge of dismissal a "realistic" writer. As if Chekhov was merely the sort of writer, a realistic sort of writer, who merely records what he sees. He does it pretty well — if you like that sort of thing. Realism (or realisticism?) is what is, plain and simple. I wonder if this idea doesn't give short shrift to experience itself by suggesting that there is some kind of objective reality that is the same for everybody.
And I don't just mean the guy talking about President Eisenhower. Another lap. Here he comes again. No, wait. Now he's talking to Eisenhower. No, sir, they didn't heed you, sir. Not Lockheed Martin, not McDonnell Douglas, not Congress, nobody; they took your prophecy and stuffed it down the throats of we the people, plunked down another $3.5 million for a fighter jet — how many meatballs is that? Johnson said guns and butter, but he lied, while you, sir, you had the courage to call a spade a spade and nobody ever gave you a speck of credit because of course you helped create the mess in the first place, but at least you spelled it ... No, sir, please, no false modesty, it was you ...
His reality (though pretty lucid, seems to me) is clearly different, somewhere far away, and though I would love to hear the grandfatherly voice he's communing with on the other end of that long-dead cell phone, what I'm trying to say is that your way of experiencing the world is subtly and vastly different from mine or the strawberry-eating doctor's or the high-fivers', and that these alternate realities — the world seen through the muck of billions of different brains — encompass much of the wonder and freakishness of being alive.
Chekhov is as realistic a writer as Kafka, and vice versa. I read "The Metamorphosis" not as an allegory but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa, you might want to call in sick today. Yet Chekhov, in his unobtrusive way, is often gloriously weirder. It's all in the things he notices about human beings, and there is nothing Chekhov does not notice. Few writers in history have been as gifted a noticer.
In 1890, Chekhov traveled to Siberia to examine and document conditions in the vast prison archipelago. It was a trip that biographers argue was terrible for his shaky health. The thirty-year-old Chekhov was already suffering from tuberculosis. Most likely nobody knew this better than Chekhov the doctor, but Chekhov the writer, Chekhov the citizen, was determined to observe firsthand the largest prison ever created. He'd go to Siberia if it killed him. The book-length investigation that resulted, Sakhalin Island, disappointed contemporary critics because it wasn't "Chekhovian" enough. But here, too, the man's eye is peerless.
Traveling with me on the anchor steamer to Sakhalin was a convict in leg irons who murdered his wife. His daughter, a motherless little girl, aged six, was with him. I watched him when he came down from the upper deck to the WC, the little girl and the soldier with his rifle waited outside the door. When the convict climbed back up again, the girl clambered up behind him, hanging on to his fetters.
Chekhov is on a stated mission. Still, what rivets his attention is this tiny drama — tiny, but monumental — a little girl waiting outside the bathroom door for her father, a man who killed her mother. Chekhov makes no judgment about this moment, and we never meet these two again, and yet here they are, for all time, a prisoner and his little daughter.
The range and depth of this allegedly realistic writer is so vast, and so unprecedented, that if you feel as though by reading a bit of Chekhov you get the idea, you are missing out on a universe. It's like reading the first few lines of Genesis and thinking, Yeah, yeah, Eve eats an apple and all hell breaks loose for mankind, I think I got it. I'm no maverick. Who doesn't love Chekhov? Woody Allen once said:
I'm crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn't! People may not like Tolstoy. There are some people I know that don't like Dostoevsky, don't like Proust or Kafka or Joyce or T. S. Eliot. But I've never met anybody that didn't adore Chekhov.
But isn't there something inherently suspect about being the writer everybody professes to admire? My theory is this: Easy to love from afar. Chekhov would be considerably less beloved if he wasn't so underread. You can't read "Lady with the Pet Dog" and call it a day. I'm thinking about the stories, the hundreds of lesser-known stories — not the five plays — and specifically of his incomparable late stories, when his work became considerably denser, often more sober, never without humor, yet wider in scope. It was as though, in his few remaining years, style itself became less and less important to him. These last stories seem, at first, almost to plod forward, until you realize — I'm not sure how to describe this exactly — that the pacing of the story has begun to match the cadence of your own breathing.
In 1902, the year Chekhov finished his second-to-last story, "The Bishop," He wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper:
There's a frenzied wind blowing. I can't work. The weather has worn me out. I'm ready to lie down and bite my pillow.
He was forty-one. He had three years left.
As in many stories I can't live without, on the surface at least, not all that much happens. An important man — a bishop — reunites with his old mother, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Soon, as the reader knows from practically the first sentence, the bishop will die, and when he does, he passes without commotion in the course of an ordinary day. We'll all go the same way. You and me and the strawberry-eating doctor and the guy on the dead cell phone will die on a day when other people who haven't died will spend the morning answering a few e-mails before brushing the hair out of their eyes and thinking, Damn, it's already time for a haircut? I just had one the other —
So no, nothing earth-shattering occurs in "The Bishop," except that another human being leaves the scene of his life.
Dying, as opposed to death, you don't need me to tell you, is an isolating experience. It will separate us from those we love and those who love us. Nothing like a hospital visit to a dying parent to illustrate the demarcation line from those on the way out and those still here.
And when I think of my own death, I think of the people I'll leave behind, but I also mourn the impending loss of my routines. What struck me most today when I reread "The Bishop" was all the inconsequential things I won't do after I am gone. I won't wander the Mission District and rant stupidly, in my own head, about gentrification. The horrors never cease. The techies reap destruction. What? Roosevelt Tamale Parlor is gone? It's over. San Francisco is over. I won't sleepwalk into the kitchen for a Granny Smith in the middle of the night, and then eat it in bed, listening to the loudness of my own crunchings. I won't scratch the dog's pink belly and watch her go, erotically, apeshit. And this is the most tender and sorrowful aspect of "The Bishop." I would like to say terrifying also, but the bishop's dying days aren't scary, nor are they especially calm. They're plain normal. On Holy Thursday he officiates at church. He reads the gospels. He participates in the washing of the feet. He visits the widow of a general. He is driven in a carriage back home to the monastery. He drinks tea. He answers mail. He resolves a couple of petty disputes. He looks over some other documents. What documents they were! They came to him by the hundreds, thousands. He takes to his bed. He dies.
Next day was Easter Sunday. There were forty-two churches and six monasteries in the town; the sonorous, joyful clang of the bells hung over the town from morning till night unceasingly, setting the spring air aquiver; the birds were singing, the sun was shining brightly. The big market square was noisy, swings were going, barrel organs were playing, accordions were squeaking, drunken voices were shouting.
But let's back up a little and linger longer with the man while he's still with us. And let's not be so deferential, either. If there is tension in this story, it's the fact that everyone, including his old mother (whom he has not seen in eight years), kisses the bishop's ass. Nobody will just talk to him like a regular guy. He wants a mother, not another fawning congregant.
His mood suddenly changed. He looked at his mother and could not understand how she had come by that respectfulness, that timid expression on her face: what was it for?
The only people who treat him like an ordinary person are old Father Sisoi, a man the bishop appreciates but at the same time dismisses as tedious and nonsensical, and his young niece, Katya. It's Katya who finally levels with him about why his mother has shown up out of the blue like this after all this time. The family back home needs his support. She's come for cash.
"Your holiness," she said in a shrill voice, by now weeping bitterly, "Uncle, Mother and all of us are left very wretched ... Give us a little money ... do be kind ... Uncle darling ..."
The kid's candor deeply moves the bishop and he agrees to help. After Easter, he says, we'll talk about it, child. The present action of the story revolves around the last mortal days of the bishop. But what makes this story so vivid, so alive, so celebratory, aren't the things the bishop does but the things he remembers.
I'll give a single minor, yet remarkable example, and then I'm leaving. I've had enough of hospitals for today. While lying in bed, the bishop has begun to retreat to the safety of his childhood back home in the village. But not in a way that you might imagine. Chekhov knows how this actually works, that what we remember is often as much an invention as any story we make up out of whole cloth.
He remembered the priest of Lesopolye, Father Simeon — mild, gentle, kindly; he was a lean little man, while his son, a divinity student, was a huge fellow and talked in a roaring bass voice. The priest's son had flown into a rage with the cook and abused her. "Ah, you Jehud's ass!" and Father Simeon, overhearing it, said not a word, and was only ashamed because he could not remember where such an ass was mentioned in the Bible ...
Hold it, that's not so strange. On first glance, maybe not. Would you take another look, though? This is a dying man, remember, and he's recalling an old priest from back home in his village and his oafish pig of a son, a divinity student who once — eons ago now — yelled at the cook. This is not epic deathbed stuff. These are peripheral characters that the bishop encountered early in his long and consequential life. These are the people who steal his attention in his last hours? And how does the bishop know that the upshot of that incident was not that Father Simeon defended the cook from his son but the comedy of the priest kicking himself for not remembering where in the Bible Jehud's ass appeared? Maybe Father Simeon once told the bishop this? I doubt it. Besides, the story marches on. Father Simeon is never mentioned again. A forgotten priest's brief shame over a detail he doesn't remember from the Bible is simply a part of another man's parade of memories. Two sentences and Father Simeon is retired from literature forever. I've spent more time on him than Chekhov does. I pause at the moment because I believe the bishop invented the detail, beautifully, out of whole cloth. Like his creator, the bishop himself is a fiction writer to the end. Even his own final memories have more to do with other people than himself.
Imagine yourself in the hospital. Maybe it's this crowded, noisy, fascinating mayhem of a city hospital. You've got plastic oxygen tubes stuck in your nose. You're wearing a catheter. Your family, at least those members of it that are still speaking to you, have solemnly gathered. With the drugs they've got you on, you hardly have the strength to open your eyes. Imagine you reach back, way back, and think about someone you hardly knew, an old neighbor — say, Mr. Chevy Millard, who lived down the block, a man you haven't thought about since 1977. Now say you dive into this Mr. Millard's head and give voice to one of his passing thoughts. Something like: "The sad truth is, if I hadn't inherited so much money, I might have followed my dream of becoming of a pianist like my idol Oscar Peterson."
See what I mean? Isn't this a bizarre thing to think about when you yourself are leaving the scene for good? But this is what happens in this story about a dying man — written by a dying man.
Tolstoy, who (generally) adored Chekhov, once inferred that he might have been an even better writer if he had not been so dedicated a doctor. With all respect, Count, that's bullshit. Chekhov's being a doctor may well have been the key to how well he understood the connection between our ailing bodies and our ailing minds. To concern yourself with the hidden lives of others, including the long dead, especially at a time when you are trying to endure your own pain — is there a more generous act in life, in literature?
The night my grandmother died in a hospital in Chicago, she kept asking for someone named Jed. For hours it was: Jed, Jed, Jed. My mother finally figured out that Jed was a childhood neighbor in Taunton, Massachusetts, who died of hemophilia in 1918. It comes down to this. When we die, not only will our bodies be gone, but so will the people we remember. We live in the world, and we recall the world, and one day we won't do either anymore. The church bells will ring and the drunks will drink. A mother will bring her cow to pasture and tell the other women that she once had a son who was a bishop. She'll say this timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.
And indeed there were some who did not believe her.
As I've been taking these notes, the two gossiping doctors have been replaced by a couple of much quieter nurses. One is reading the San Francisco Examiner. A moment ago, she began to read to her friend from the obituaries. "Glenda Hildebidle was ninety-seven. It says her parents preceded her in death. You think!"
"There must have been no next of kin. They had to write something."
"Right, no husband, kids, et cetera."
"The obit writer figured Glenda must have had parents."
"Stands to reason."
"Does, doesn't it? And now look, they've made the paper."
A BACHELOR UNCLE
Call this a Chicago story. It's true, though I've never understood why this matters so much. It seems a cheap way of looking at a story, to judge it by whether or not it actually happened. For me, all stories are fiction. The only question is: Does it rattle the soul or not?
We had a bachelor uncle, Uncle Harry, and my brother and I loved him. He wasn't really our uncle. He was my grandmother's first cousin. She always said she'd never had much use for the man herself, but, my grandmother said, we were the only family Harry had. He'd materialize sometimes, with much fanfare, on holidays.
I think of Uncle Harry bursting through the back door of my grandparents' house on Pine Point Drive (nobody ever used the back door of that house; nobody even knew where it was beneath all that ivy) in a wet trench coat, rain pouring down from the brim of his hat to the kitchen floor, shouting, "Hallo! Hallo! Anybody ashore?" My brother and I would sprint to the kitchen, and Uncle Harry would kneel down and offer up his nose. "Honk the schnozz, go ahead and honk it!" A monster of a nose, flabby and riddled with poppy seeds, and when we squeezed his nostrils together, he'd honk like a frantic goose. I've heard geese since who had nothing on Harry.
Excerpted from Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner, Eric Orner. Copyright © 2016 Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsNotes for an Introduction,
1. Sometimes I Believe We Are Being Tested,
Chekhov's Way of Dying,
A Bachelor Uncle,
Winter in September,
The Lonely Voice,
Stray Thoughts on Kafka,
Eudora Welty, Badass,
Walser on Mission Street,
On the Beauty of Not Writing or An Unnecessary Homage to Juan Rulfo,
2. Let Me Cook You an Egg,
Upper Moose Lake, 1990,
My Father's Gloves,
While Reading Imre Kertész,
Under All This Noise,
Hit and Run,
Carter on Borden,
The Infinite Passion of Gina Berriault,
Since the Beginning of Time,
Surviving the Lives We Have,
Every Grief-Soaked Word,
A Black Boy, a White Boy,
A Small Note from Haiti,
3. And Here You Are Climbing Trees,
Mad Passionate True Love,
Frederick the Great,
An American Writer: Victor Martinez,
Cheever in Albania,
All Lives Are Interesting,
Sisters and Brothers,
What Feels Like the World,
Virgie Walking Away,
Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab,
All Fathers Are Fictional,
Ronald A. Orner,
Letter from New Melleray, Iowa,
A Palm-of-the-Hand Story,
Night Train to Split,
Father's Death: The Final Version,
Sources and Notes on the Notes,
Free eBook Companion,
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Peter Orner
Though reading is at best low-impact exercise, we tend to describe our strongest responses to a book in physical terms. Bad books are flung against walls; thrillers have us at the edge of our seats or sitting up straight in bed; our arm muscles must be strengthened by all sorts of engaging books, unputdownable as they are.
Peter Orner isn't nearly so demure: He's the reading equivalent of a P90X enthusiast. In Am I Alone Here?, a collection of essays on the writers who've moved him, he literally moves: He describes how a sentence by Gina Barriault "brought me to my knees" and how a Richard Bausch story was so breathtaking that "I had to lie down on the floor and just breathe." When he finished reading Too Loud a Solitude, a collection by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, he recalls leaping off a park bench and "running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I'd experienced some religious illumination." Even sitting still as a reader is intense for him: When his copy of To the Lighthouse got dunked during a canoe trip, he writes, he did nothing but sit and wait for the book to dry on the shore so he could get back to it.
This kind of enthusiasm is infectious across Am I Alone Here?, because though he's upbeat about his favorite story writers Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, Imre Kertesz, Isaac Babel, Breece D'J Pancake he's not blurbing or selling so much as locating the places where a well-made story snaps to the emotional shape of his own life. The essays in the collection typically interweave criticism and memoir, as Orner author of two story collections (Esther Stories and Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge) and two novels (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love) recalls his patriarchal father, a failed marriage, and his own work as a writer against the books that kept him company all the while.
Small wonder, then, that he once longed to get his chest tattooed with a few lines from The Lonely Voice, Frank O'Connor's 1962 study of the short story: When words matter that much to you, you want them as close to the skin as possible. In this edited conversation, Orner talks about that physical relationship with story, reading, teaching, and the perils of trying to squeeze in some reading while waiting at traffic lights. Mark Athitakis
The Barnes & Noble Review: This book started out as a column about the short story that you wrote for The Rumpus, "The Lonely Voice." What appeals to you about the short story, as distinct from the novel?
Peter Orner: Stories are this weird lifeblood. I don't know how it happened, but I can't live without them. I need that compressed intensity every day. The book and column were sort of a response to that, to try and figure out why I am so attracted to this form. Short stories will always be declared dead, and then suddenly they rise again. That was the impetus for my originally writing the columns in The Rumpus, which is basically just private thoughts to myself that The Rumpus published without question. I didn't have to answer to anybody; I just kind of did it. But the initial column was a response to the idea that story has once again been "resurrected." I resent that idea, because they've always been here and always will be. But they'll always be for a certain kind of reader. I don't think that's a bad thing, I just think it's the truth.
BNR: Do you have a different mind-set when you're writing a novel versus writing a short story? Your novel Love and Shame and Love has a short-story punch to it. It's mostly written in brief chapters.
PO: I love novels that have the same level of intensity and compressed language as a story does. So I try to do that myself. I wanted to have a chapter be almost as self-contained as a story. But they're totally different animals, completely different to me, even a novel that does have a storylike element to it.
I'm always writing stories; I'm never not writing a story. What would happen with both novels I wrote is that the story started to . . . not quite end. They just grew and they started to relate to each other and I was like, Oh, this isn't a story. I stumble into things. I never have any idea, really, what to do.
BNR: In the book you write that Bernard Malamud can do in eight pages what it takes Dostoevsky 700 pages to do. What can Malamud do that Dostoevsky can't?
PO: I think he can break your heart. Dostoevsky can break your heart, and The Brothers Karamazov can do a lot of other things too. But "My Son the Murderer" would touch anybody. To read that story and to see the disconnect between that father and that son and the love that can't be, that there's just no bridge to connect the love with the son anymore it's just simple and heartbreaking. And Malamud, who doesn't get enough attention, can do it pretty much like no one else can. Except for all the other people I would say do it too.
BNR: There are numerous cases in the book where you repeat a variation on "Am I alone here?" You seem to feel some anxiety that your feelings about the short story or your enthusiasm for the short story leaves you isolated.
PO: I think it's true. Talking to people about a short story, you often get shrugs. "Oh, yeah, I like short stories because they're short and I don't have a lot of time and I can read them." But you need almost more time in your life for them. You need absolute silence for a story, I think.
BNR: It seems like every week or so I see a news story that says, "A study says that reading fiction makes us more emotionally empathetic or capable of empathy." Do you agree?
PO: It's a funny idea that fiction has to have some utilitarian purpose. "That's why I'll teach my daughter to read, because she'll become more empathetic and that's a good thing to have, I'll put that in her toolbox." That's not why I look at a painting. I don't think human beings learn empathy from a story. I think they, hopefully, learn it from existence. What a story does is amplify it and condense it and remind you, maybe. Remind you what you've forgotten. But if we need stories to teach empathy, we're really fucked.
BNR: There are a few cases where you talk about a frustration with the limits of the short story. That Isaac Babel's short stories didn't stop tyranny, didn't save Breece Pancake's life. (He committed suicide in 1979, at twenty-six.) So what is its value if it can't actually change something concrete in the world?
PO: That's a great unanswerable question. I think we can ask it about all great art. I think it just reminds you of what you've forgotten about who you were. Like a look that your mother once gave. I was thinking about my mother today, her folding blankets. When you put the blanket under your chin, because you need to hold it in place to fold it a short story is something like that, capturing those small gestures. What a beautiful thing, I thought, I should put that in a story. I'm just not sure that it tracks automatically in terms of what you gain. Even in terms of what I gain, all I know is that I need it, I need it.
BNR: You write very viscerally about the emotional impact writers have on you. Can you pinpoint the root of this very strong emotional reaction that you have to a story?
PO: I think it goes way back. I think of a book like A Cricket in Times Square, which was always my favorite book as a kid, I've carried that book around with me. I think I'm attracted again and again to writers who take what's very familiar and show that it has something without making a thing about it. And what we don't see, what we don't have time to see. Stories slow me down, that I know, and I desperately need that, because I'm always going too fast.
I think part of writing this book is I was just coming clean about being a complete geek. I love this stuff way too much and take it way too seriously. My favorite thing in the world is to meet a writer who feels the same way, and then we have these conversations that indulge in this. I do find others, and not just writers. When you find a reader, a non-writer who needs it the same way that I do, that's the best.
BNR: What directs your reading? There's a lot of wandering in your reading choices.
PO: I like to read that stuff that I haven't heard of. I'm constantly searching bookstores, used bookstores especially. I'm always looking because I think there are so many writers that have been forgotten for the wrong reasons.
Americans tend not to read as much in translation as in other countries, and I think that's too bad. I read a lot in translation, and that's one way especially to enter another place that I'm already interested in trying to get to. There's no agenda. What I resent most is a book I have to read for work and teaching. I love teaching, but I always have a book that's private to me, that I'm not discussing with anybody except in my own head. It's just really what this book is these days, just conversations with myself about books that I don't have with anybody else.
A few years ago I came across Gina Berriault. My teacher and mentor was Andre Dubus, and Andre wrote a blurb on the back of one of Gina Berriault's books saying how much he loved her work. I was working with him at the time, and I found the book in a used bookstore. I called him up and said, "Andre, how come you never mentioned Gina Berriault?" I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of, "Because she's somebody you find on your own." Maybe that was a little too perfect or a little guru-ish. But because he dearly loved her, I feel I'll always remember that idea. Sometimes, they're not going to be the things that your mentors and your friends or the newspapers tell you about. They're going to come to you in some other way.
BNR: What do you focus on when you teach?
PO: I'm at San Francisco State, teaching what I call literature classes for writers. The last couple years I've been doing big books, which is contrary what I love truly, truly. But I wanted to test that out, so we read Don Quixote together, we've done Moby-Dick. We're going to do The Brothers Karamazov. One book, one class.
I had students literally weeping at the end of Don Quixote. We'd been with him so long. For so many weeks we'd been riding around with him in these circles. Moby-Dick was similar. Though we talked about how modernistic the narration is, the best thing is when you forget about all the narrative tricks or whatever [Melville's] doing and just whether Ishmael is going to get off this boat alive. But I do think that there are moments, especially in Moby-Dick, where all of a sudden the narrator pops back, way, way back, and he's a guy sitting at his desk looking at Mount Greylock out of his window. That was Melville. Melville's not Ishmael, but there's this moment when he kind of melds. I love it when he takes those crazy risks with the narrative. We would pause on moments like that.
BNR: We're in this era where the lines between fiction and nonfiction and criticism and memoir are blurring quite a bit, and your criticism is fused very closely with autobiography. Who are your models for that kind of writing?
PO: I love reading bookish essays. I've been reading Roberto Bolaño's collection of his nonfiction pieces, Between Parentheses. I'm not the biggest Bolaño fan, but his book of these tiny pieces, it's so infectious. I imagine Bolaño waking up in the morning, he's just read a Javier Cercas book, and he just needed to talk about it. I took a lot of solace in the way that he did that. That book was very influential throughout this. And I like writers who blur the line like Borges, where it's an essayistic kind of fiction I'm always looking for people that do that. Sebald. Gina Berriault. Joseph Roth I don't know how Joseph Roth did it. In his letters, he's broke all the time. How is it possible that he produced these incredible novels while at the same time this beautiful nonfiction that was basically journalism to him but not really covering anything contemporary? He's just musing about things.
BNR: Your family, and more specifically your father, is a presence in this book intermittently, you use it as a springboard a lot of time for talking about how you engage in fiction. Do you think that there's a more dedicated memoir to be written about your family?
PO: I think this is it. The only way I could speak about these things was through reading and playing off of reading. I don't think I'm going to go back to nonfiction after this. I just felt like this was my nonfiction book, at least for the moment. I found it painful enough to do it this way, to be honest. I felt like I went where I needed to go.
BNR: Like a lot of serious readers, you never go around without a book handy to keep you company. But you're the first person I know who's mentioned reading at traffic lights. How long is this been going on, and how do you do it safely? I lived in San Francisco and I know San Francisco traffic.
PO: My daughter is on my case a lot about this. I do do it, probably too much, and you're right, it's not safe. But I feel like there's all that downtime. This is maybe a psychological problem I have, it's not a good thing I can't sometimes just look around, I have to be reading. There's something wrong with that, I'm not proud of it. But a long red light, there's nothing like a few pages that or paragraphs if you can get that in. I try and be careful. One day I will be pulled over for reading and I wonder what the cops will say.
November 16, 2016