- New York in the late seventies was not exactly a utopia: crime was soaring, graffiti was ubiquitous, mace was a must-have accessory. But a certain set of novels and films has made the era something to yearn for: “This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status … these works express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic … where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city.”
- Today in writing advice that isn’t total shit, even if it’s about shit: “I preach the radio. I do not preach thinking you must know what you are about. Faulkner had good drugs and a big radio. I recall having heard my own little radio at times. It is rare, yes, and it is, now, rarer. But you are young and have your juice, you’re still full of poop, which is the necessary requisite to tuning the radio. Got to be some poop out there, on the airwaves, or in there, in you, for you to tune it in. Cherish the poop you are full of, and work on excreting it with sound fundamentals.” That’s Padgett Powell, being correct.
- On procrastination and art: might there be something heroic, or at least admirably resistant, in the idea of putting off one’s writing? “Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he—along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them—is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough—I’m hung on a peg.”
- Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is “a compressed, unflinching portrait of the turmoil that envelops Bird, an alcoholic, after his son’s birth.” The novel has a new champion: none but Jonathan Franzen, who adores its disturbing elements, its comic elements, its vomit elements: “I don’t know of a more compelling description of throwing up than the ones that occur in this book. He’s sweating, he looks at himself in the mirror, and there’s bad sex. It’s partly that—the really, really tight focus on Bird’s body. There’s nothing like a microscopic view of your body to evoke shame.”
- While we’re on shame—it’s time for men to cry again. They have much to cry about, being men, and yet they shed no tears … why, when male weeping has been treated as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history? In fact, it was exalted for a while: “ancient Greeks saw it as a model for how heroic men should behave … 20,000 knights swooning from grief were considered noble, not ridiculous … there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears … They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.”
The narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s new novel, The Dog, decides to move to Dubai. Transitional places make more sense to him than those in which “everything has been built and all that remains is the business of being in buildings.” He sees his own life, in the aftermath of a recently disintegrated relationship, as somehow “posthumous” and shameful. And meanwhile his legal training, instead of arming his intellect, merely alerts him to the inadequacies of the language he’s forced to use. “Lost in a fantastic vigilance of ambiguity, obscurity, and import,” caged in by the feeling that “the very project of making sense [is] being mocked,” he drafts endless disclaimers and other corporate documents that he only slenderly understands. His new apartment tower is called The Situation. His preferred spa is called Unique. But even recreation is an exercise in compromise—“there’s more than one Unique.”
Javier Marías, paraphrasing Faulkner, once told an interviewer that “when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.” The Dog isn’t much interested in bright epiphanies. Instead it shows the extent of one man’s ignorance—his helplessness in a foreign world. The evocative sentences that helped to win O’Neill’s previous novel, Netherland, the 2009 PEN/ Faulkner Award and a wide readership, are largely absent here. With its deadpan existentialism and playful corporate-speak, The Dog is perhaps closer to a book like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. It is bleakly, unexpectedly funny.
I met O’Neill in Manhattan on an afternoon in mid-September. We talked about the fact that Netherland “very nearly didn’t get published at all,” the relationship between his work and that of Louis C.K., and why he is “deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels.”
It’s been mentioned by various reviewers that The Dog is a very different book to Netherland, at least in its tone. What sort of sentences did you find yourself looking for as you sat down to write, and what kinds of sentences did you find yourself striking out?
Generally, I want sentences that are both conscientious and surprising. For me, plot happens most of all at the level of the sentence. As I reader, I want to start a sentence and then be surprised by what happens to it, or intelligently happens. To be surprised by the conscientious movement of emotion and attention over the course of the sentence. I used to write poetry, and I think good poetry does that—captures a movement of intelligence. Still more generally, I want a verbal landscape that’s unusual—that I haven’t read a million times before, and that isn’t easily replicable in other forms. This approach animated the writing of Netherland.
In The Dog, my main character is a theorist—he is disposed toward theorizing and rationalizing, as well as to deep emotion, and is only occasionally given to recollection. To my mind, this makes him a comically urgent character—a man who is constantly caught short by this thoughts, who constantly needs to take a mental leak. That being the case, it wouldn’t have made sense to reuse the highly particular, contemplative voice of Netherland.
I’m not interested in writing stuff that’s indistinguishable from other stuff. I’m trying to avoid that deathly sense that here’s something you’ve read before, but with different characters, or with one situation replaced with another. I’m also deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels. Read More
This week, we’re presenting five vignettes by David Mamet.
The fellow down in the front row of the auditorium was around my age. He was massively obese, and he was overdressed in many layers of wool. He held an oversized pet carrier which, one presumed, held a large dog. He was permitted to carry the dog to the concert, then, as it was designated his “companion animal.”
What did this mean? That his mental state was such that he could never be without his dog. The dog was his security totem.
But it was in a bag. And his look was furtive. He glanced right and left, never making eye contact, as he settled himself into his seat. What was he looking for? He was looking for nothing. He was merely drawing focus. It was a performance. He was performing exemption. The pet carrier was his badge, and it indicated he had been certified as exempt, and so, beyond criticism.
But one saw that he felt he had also been certified as pathetic. He had traded his self-respect for a societal indulgence, and he loathed himself for the choice. He was caught, for the daunting price he thought he had evaded in adolescence—that of matriculation into the mature world—was still being paid at age sixty.
He was a man without friends. How do I know? He was at the concert accompanied by a dog in a bag. He loathed his life. He had, perhaps, at some point, been “injured,” who has not? And he suffered as he’d never found someone or some idea from which he could take courage. I felt I was looking at myself.
David Mamet is a stage and film director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His latest book is Three War Stories.