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Posts Tagged ‘shame’

Nothing Happened: An Interview with Joseph O’Neill

October 3, 2014 | by

oneill

Photo courtesy of the author

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 »

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The Man with the Companion Animal

March 10, 2014 | by

This week, we’re presenting five vignettes by David Mamet.

Unknown_man_by_I.Makarov_(1880s)

Detail from Ivan Makarov’s Unknown Man, c. 1880s.

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.

 

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