Photo: Jason Fulford
In Hernan Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance, Håkan Söderström, a Swedish immigrant, traverses the western expanse of nineteenth-century America on his way to New York to find his brother. Along the way, he gains the reputation of a terror and a legend, much to his bewilderment. Håkan is an atypical Western protagonist. He is a foreigner inhabiting a space typically reserved for American desperados, and, though a figure of physical prowess, he is emotionally and psychologically unsuited for life in the American territory—he kills, but he is haunted by it, “overwhelmed by an active, all-consuming hollowness … a stillness that had nothing to do with peace.”
I met with Diaz last month at a café in Chelsea. He described the café, with its kitschy diner-like booths and railway-themed decor, as “irresistibly hideous”—a characterization perhaps apt for his protagonist, a figure of endless intrigue whose form provokes others “discovering what a man could be.” Diaz was candid, eager to discuss his work (and share his cheesecake). We talked about the usefulness of considering his book in light of the Western tradition and the American experience for immigrants today.
Håkan Söderström comes to the American West without any knowledge of the English language. Before he learns English, your narrative is told in such a way that the reader experiences spoken English in the same way Håkan is experiencing it, given no dialogue that Håkan himself wouldn’t be able to understand. How did you decide on that technique?
It was the result of working within very tight constraints. I was worried about abusing archaisms and relying on a hokey Western vernacular. I didn’t want the book to sound like the transcription of the fake dialect in some bad Western film. How do I make these other characters talk, then? Oh, wait a minute—Håkan doesn’t understand what they’re saying! To me, one of the most fascinating formal problems in literature is point of view, because taken to its ultimate limit, I think it’s also an ethical problem, since it’s related to power. How much about your characters do you know? How far into situations or people can you see? Is it right, just to solve a narrative problem or achieve an effect, to break the laws you had set for yourself? I stuck with Håkan’s point of view in a very drastic way, in that regard. If he doesn’t understand, neither do we.
In depicting Håkan’s perceptions of language, along with his perceptions of the world he encounters, such as his first sight of a buffalo, you are frequently required to describe what it is like to be ignorant, what it is like to encounter something for the first time. How did you inhabit that place of ignorance, of unknowing?
That place of ignorance is genuinely my place. I think I’ve seen a buffalo once, at a zoo. And I made it a point not to travel to any of the places in which the novel is set. It was important to me that this was all imaginary, that the landscapes and people and situations were, as much as possible, purely literary, free from any referential anchorage. So in many cases, what you read is the effort of picturing a place or a thing in my head. The description of the buffalo, for example, is me laboriously conjuring up, out of thin air, a buffalo. I’m honestly more ignorant than my protagonist in this regard. He had the advantage of firsthand experience.
How did you balance that freedom from referential anchorage with the need to accurately represent the setting?
My effort at all moments was to be inconspicuously accurate. I would always take believable over precise. And I tried very hard to make the novel not feel researched, a word I distrust when applied to literature. It’s awful when a novel feels googled—I didn’t want to know the exact name of the exact spur someone would have worn in Nevada in 1869. My intention was to convey a sense of pastness without fetishizing that past. I didn’t want to use props as magical objects that by merely being mentioned would summon the past into the present. That was a major concern.
Having said that, I read widely in writing this novel—travel and nature writing from the nineteenth century, a very robust diet of nineteenth-century novels, even guides to gold fields. I read mainly for little objects, little quotidian situations, little tactile moments. A big concern was to keep the language as closely to the nineteenth century as possible—again, in an inconspicuous way. For example, as I was reading the proof, I found the word massage—I almost had a meltdown. I worked a lot with the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the earliest recorded appearance of each word, and I tried not to have anything whose first use had been recorded after 1850. I hoped that over 250 pages this would create a certain atmosphere the reader would involuntarily feel, almost like a scent. This seemed more interesting than simply bribing the reader with little lexical tchotchkes from the past.
I feel an urge to categorize In the Distance as a Western, but it seems that you might object to that.
Is it a Western? To some extent, because, of course, it takes place in the West. However, the novel is set, for the most part, in antebellum America, and most Westerns are post–Civil War. That’s a big difference. And then the protagonist is not going west, he’s going east, against the big westward push, following a reverse Manifest Destiny of sorts. There are many fossilized moments of the Western genre that appear throughout the novel, but I tried to disappoint and go against them. I wanted to write a book that relies on the Western tradition but ultimately subverts it.
As a literary genre, the Western is a great riddle to me. Because it whitewashes American history and offers a very attractive myth of the birth of this country, it should have become the national genre. Vigilantism, greed, racism, and plunder are all romanticized in the Western. There is a very American obsession with space and exploration, but in the end, nature tends to be debased to a mere source for the extraction of wealth. Also, the genre usually favors the individual over the law. And there is the gun fixation, of course. The list goes on. In short, even if the Western should have become our national genre, it has a marginal place in the literary canon. It is only codified in the early 1900s, several of its foundational texts are out of print, and the most interesting Western novels tend to be from the second half of the twentieth century. Compare this with another American genre, detective fiction. It was born in the 1840s! And its steady influence goes well beyond the realm of literature—it taught us, for instance, that reality is not given but needs to be deciphered. So I saw in the Western a slightly derelict genre that was ready to be taken over. And because of its ideological connotations, it seemed like hijacking the Western was a perfect way to say something new about the United States and its history.
Were there parts of writing this novel that you found particularly challenging?
The protagonist is alone for most of the book—I had to learn how to convey repetition without being repetitive. How do you write emptiness? How do you make a story move forward when nothing in it is really moving forward, when there are no reference points to see the progress that you’re supposedly making, narratively? How do you stretch and dilate the present without distorting it? Those were big challenges—the solitude and the stasis of the character.
Another problem I faced was the trivialization of violence in Westerns. That was a major hurdle, to the point where I thought of not writing the book at all. I have enormous problems with the high death tolls in Westerns. But a moment of violence was required by the genre and by the story itself, because I wanted to drive Håkan to a place of radical isolation. So he’s forced to commit an act of great violence, but it shatters him completely. He’s devastated and can never recover. Most Westerns treat violence with indifference and brash frivolity, and one of the hardest things to do in this book was to convey Håkan’s enormous feeling of responsibility for his actions.
The book’s synopsis says that it offers “a portrait of radical foreignness.” Is that what you set out to do?
Yes. That is very much intentional and has to do with my experience of foreignness. I was born in Argentina, and I left when I was two years old—my family moved to Sweden. I grew up in Stockholm, with Swedish as my first social tongue, until my family moved back to Argentina when I was about nine. I didn’t feel quite at home in Buenos Aires, so as soon as I could, I left for London, where I lived for a couple of years in my early twenties. From London I moved to New York, and I’ve been here for almost twenty years now.
The experience of foreignness has determined my entire life. I wanted to re-create that feeling. In doing so, I tried to transcend the obvious fact that the protagonist is a foreigner. I tried to make genre and even language itself feel foreign. But at the same time, this is a very American story, which makes us remember that foreignness is part of the American experience to begin with. All of that is weaved into the book, and it’s central to what I was trying to say.
What does a novel like yours about an immigrant to the United States in the nineteenth century, and the foreignness that haunts him, have to say about how we regard immigrants in the United States today?
It took me a long time to write this book. I started it late into Obama’s first term, and I finished around his last Fourth of July in office. So, of course, nothing of what is going on now was on my mind as I wrote it. What was always at the forefront, however, was the importance of immigration in this country’s history, from the very beginning—of immigration often coexisting with exclusion. Who has a voice, and who doesn’t? Who gets to tell their story, and who is silenced? Is there really room for everyone in a country as vast as this? All of these questions are part of our history.
Then, of course, this awful thing happened—DACA was repealed yesterday—and this touches me deeply. My parents were political refugees in the seventies who went to Sweden fleeing a dictatorship. I obviously care very much about this, and I feel lucky that this novel is coming out now. I couldn’t think of a better way to say what I think about this country—which I love despite its enormous flaws—than through this book.
Joel Pinckney is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
Last / Next Article