Ruthless Levity: An Interview with Our London Editor, Adam Thirlwell


At Work


Photo: Eamonn McCabe

“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”

Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.

At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”

Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?

Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry.

One of my favorite conversations in the novel occurs when Candy, the narrator’s wife, suggests that the narrator get a job, or make his movie, “a movie about a massacre,” to which he simply responds, “I don’t think you can show it—”. He’s wearing a bloodstained T-shirt at the time.

Yes, for me, there’s an unusual amount of violence in this novel—hyperviolence. The narrator and his sidekick in crime, for instance, are very good at violence performed as if altruistically or gently—and I think with that kind of paradox or joke I wanted to describe a certain way of thinking. In Lurid & Cute, I wanted to remove world history from the picture. I had this idea of Debord’s at the back of my mind, that a generation with no sense of history is a generation without a strategy. I was imagining the narrator as a colonizing power, or someone born into a colonizing power, and I wanted to find a form for the way absolute innocence becomes maniacal, the way mania so fervently can protest its innocence.

Is there something inherently English in that combination of niceness and gore?

I guess so. I’ve always been interested in that tradition—De Quincey, say, or Charles Lamb—where the essay becomes this weird, almost infected thing, aesthetically and ethically. One of the essays I was reading was De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” With De Quincey, the irony is always so extreme that it defeats any summary, but the rough argument entertained by the essay is essentially, Why can’t we aestheticize murder? There’s this lovely line where he writes, “Murders have their little differences and shades of merit as well as statues, pictures, oratorios, cameos, intaglios, or what not.” It’s that idea that actually anything can be aestheticized if you only look at it in the right way, which may not be the moral way.

Colm Tóibín, interviewing you at a recent reading in New York, said that when he first read an early essay of yours about Sebald, he thought you were a malicious little prick.

Well, I guess I did enjoy a certain lightness of tone for subjects whose seriousness was everywhere approved but which I doubted. There was a kind of sprezzatura narrative voice I developed, in both the fiction and the essays—a ruthless levity. One thing I love about the Central European and Latin American traditions—writers like Gombrowicz or Kundera or Borges—is the way the essayistic and the fictional are merged forms of each other. That’s the experimental area that most interests me. So I’ve always been interested in making criticism artful, allowing it a range of tones it isn’t usually allowed. I wonder if that’s why I like this essayistic form. It allows the inclusion of what seems off, inappropriate. An essay, like a novel, is a small collage, really.

I was struck by the number of “miniature” things in the novel—paintings, butterflies, blueberry cakes, even pets (“not quite possums or small lemurs but almost”). Where do they come from?

My private terrors? The sweet landscape around me?

The setting constantly draws attention to itself as a kind of absurdity—like that moment when the narrator tells us that “above us koalas or pigeons were playing in the jacaranda trees.” How did it develop on the page?

Definitely it was intended as a non- or impossible place. I had in mind this trick of Nabokov’s in Speak, Memory, where he goes butterfly hunting in Russia and emerges looking at ponderosa pines, which are only American. The locale kept getting stranger as I wrote and rewrote it, inserting more and more of those crazy juxtapositions. I think partly it was an homage to that Latin American tradition, in particular the way the Tropicália artists came up with this idea of “cannibal art”—that if you grew up on the so-called periphery of a world system, then you had to stop worrying about what was yours and what was other people’s, that you should just steal whatever you can. I liked the idea that London, which now feels to me like this broken-down, peripheral place, was essentially São Paulo fifty years ago. It’s in the language, too—the narrator is constantly stealing phrases, Hispanic or Russian or Chinese. He’s taking anything he can to describe his hallucinatory situation. Like sentences from his many “gurus” and “holy men,” who are really Proust, or Kafka.

The narrator describes marriage as “the largest urban sprawl in the world, so that whenever you think you have left it you are just in another concentric garden suburb.” Could the idea of suburbia also apply to the novel’s structure, as well as to its relationships?

I think you’re right—the novel’s decentered structure was a way of trying to replicate this suburban kind of foliage, or spread. Early on, I was reading and thinking about that brilliant book Learning from Las Vegas, with its defense of the sprawl, or strip. But I also think I associate suburbia with my childhood, and a sense that there’s just too much time there, that time is endless—and especially for our generation, so many of whom are unemployed or only partially employed. Also that the usual family units or sexual boundaries might ever so slightly disperse, in a way that might seem either utopian or frightening, depending on your perspective. As a way of organizing space and time, the suburbs seem to me like an almost metaphysical state, one that isn’t represented fully in what we think of as the suburban novel, which is brilliantly precise and all about social placing. I was interested in a novelistic structure that was suburban in a revised way, like a kind of cloud that would coalesce for a moment and then disperse—I guess because that felt more truthful to experience. There are so few scenes in everyday life! Why else would we go to parties? They’re desperate attempts to create the idea of a scene.

9780374292256I’m reminded of my favorite “scene” in Politics, which begins with the warning that it will contain sex, then proceeds with much emotional analysis, and then ends—“But why was this a sex scene? Because while I have been explaining what Moshe and Anjali were feeling, they have been touching each other, quietly.” Are you aware of doing two things at once, of writing this essayistic, digressive voice, and then, underneath it, the action?

I think for me, plot is always spectacle. It’s a form of gravity, to give weight to the otherwise endless thinking. I suppose the link between that moment in Politics and Lurid & Cute is this obsessive wish to notate consciousness or to investigate how much thought spills over. Somewhere in Lurid & Cute the narrator talks about trying to accommodate the miniature outside to his giant inside, and I think that’s an everyday problem of arithmetic. There is something incommensurable with living about thinking. It melts all over the picture. Which is, after all, the original Kafka problem. “The outside world is too small, too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.”

I think that’s why the orgy scene is so good—it’s more thinking than doing.

My poor narrator! And his desperate attempt to make an orgy look normal. He has to pretend that he has never had sex with his best friend, with whom he has been having an affair, in front of his wife. It takes an infinite amount of minute self-consciousness. Which I suppose is not the ideal orgiastic state. Those moments where suddenly the internal clock of the narrative has to match the imagined exterior of time always fascinate me. It happens in the interior artists I love, like James or Proust or Gertrude Stein. But also some of the films I most enjoy become actions in real time—like that old French movie Rififi, which includes twenty minutes, if I remember this right, of just a gang trying to open a safe.

The narrator tells us at one point that “More and more I was convinced that the most urgent task, in every megalopolis, was how to use your time—how, in other words, will you reveal it as grander than it seems.” How do you feel about your own time while you’re writing?

Oh, it’s constant fidgeting. With the momentary relief of total absorption. I suppose, sadly, my other main occupation is reading. This time it was a mixture of architecture books—Learning from Las Vegas, or books on LA’s ecology—and a miniseries I developed of narrative voices—Machado de Assis, Hamsun, Hrabal, Svevo, and especially Proust. I only began to read him properly while I was writing Lurid & Cute. I think I’m still trying to ingest him. But that worry of my narrator, that’s a wider worry. Where is seriousness located? Is there more of it elsewhere? I think I share that worry—metaphysically, politically, you name it.

The narrator shares other things in common with you—he has the same elfin look, he’s Jewish, interested in charm, interested in drugs, gifted. Why did you do that?

In an earlier draft of this novel, the narrator had a name—because I very much didn’t want him to be identified as me, given some of his less alluring moments—and then I remember quite far into the writing having a conversation with two writer friends in which I triumphantly announced that at last I’d got the voice, and then they both said, Now you need to drop the name. Their basic reasoning being that the name gave me the shield to write wildly, and now the further requirement to keep the wildness going was to drop that name, to risk that kind of identification. So I did that and made him small with big eyes and spiky hair.

What’s interesting for me isn’t that surface similarity, it’s what that similarity allows for—because the more you reduce the gap between the narrator and the novelist, the more you also reduce the gap between the novel and the reader. I’ve often wondered why I’m so drawn to the novel as stand-up, and I think it’s because it flaunts the fact of its performance—and yet at the same time flaunts its possibility as truth. The dream is to inhabit the voice entirely, but also use the character as a form of evasion—at the same time. Again, the model is Proust.

Your narrator eventually writes the novel we’re reading, having almost persuaded us that he could never do such a thing. You recently almost persuaded me that you wouldn’t write another novel. Would you ever try to make a different kind of art?

I wonder if I am trying to think myself into a different kind of mode. As if a novel could become performance art. Some kind of pure literal experience. But most of all, I perhaps have this dream of a film. Something where the real could take over even more thoroughly. But maybe that’s just the power madness of the woebegone powerless novelist talking. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do something where everyone has to sit in the dark and be forced to watch continuously whatever you put in front of them?

Emily Stokes is a senior features editor at The New York Times Style Magazine: T.