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Episode 23: “A Strange Way to Live”

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Episode 23, our Season 3 finale, opens with “The Trick Is to Pretend,” a poem by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, read by the singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers: “I climb knowing the only way down / is by falling.” The actor Jessica Hecht plays Joan Didion in a reenactment of her classic Art of Fiction interview with Linda Kuehl. Jericho Brown reads his poem “Hero”: “my brothers and I grew up fighting / Over our mother’s mind.” The actor, comedian, and podcaster Connor Ratliff reads Bud Smith’s story “Violets,” about a couple who makes a suicide pact but then turns to arson instead. The episode closes with Bridgers performing “Garden Song.”
To celebrate this last episode of the season, we asked Bud Smith if there’s a passage from a book that he returns to more than any other. He chose the first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:
Early on, the narrator describes the late-night, drunken phone calls he makes to old friends. He asks the operator to connect him to a long lost sweetheart, but the operator cannot find the right listing and the call never goes through. It’s as if he has to settle for us instead.
He has something very painful to talk about that he can’t get to directly. He gives us all these diversions: limericks about Yon Yonson from Wisconsin, anecdotes about taxi drivers, an elevator fatality in Chicago. And there’s that brief recounting of a journey with his young daughter, Nanny, and her friend, Allison Mitchell; they stop at the Hudson River and look at carp as big as “atomic submarines.” The plot of the novel still hasn’t started, we don’t know the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, or his dilemma, that he has come unstuck in time. The first time I read the book, I didn’t get that the narrator was showing us his search for a way to write about the atrocities of the Second World War, that he was adopting this casual, digressive style for his protection, and ours.

What attracts me most is Vonnegut’s willingness, as an artist, to let the air out of the tires of what he had good reason to believe would be his masterpiece. On page two, the narrator calls the novel his “lousy little book.” Who is this guy? I thought. Why is he trashing his own book before I’ve even read it? Is this an author’s note I could have skipped? No, it says right here, it’s Chapter One. “I would hate to tell you,” he writes, “what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time.” These are my favorite twenty-something pages written in our language. The man, “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown,” saying that he is a failure, and his greatest accomplishment is a failure.

Vonnegut had to open his masterpiece with a bit of self-sabotage. I can understand that.

Linda Kuehl’s 1978 Art of Fiction interview with Joan Didion, also featured in this episode, begins as follows:

INTERVIEWER

You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.

JOAN DIDION

It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

INTERVIEWER

Are you conscious of the reader as you write? Do you write listening to the reader listening to you?

DIDION

Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.

Listen now at theparisreview.org/podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. All five episodes of Season 3 are now available for your listening pleasure. We hope you’ll download all three seasons before your holiday travels.

The Paris Review Podcast is produced in partnership with Stitcher.