Mary Akers: Hi, Robert. Thanks for letting us publish your wonderful (serialized) story American Epiphany and for agreeing to talk with me about your new novel TUMBLEDOWN, which I loved. This book is satisfying on so many levels: art, craft, story, character, movement, and most interesting of all, its narrative point of view. Could you tell us a little bit about the particular brand of omniscience that you have opted for here and what prompted you to employ it?
Robert Boswell: When I was in my middle twenties, I worked at a rehabilitation center as an evaluator. Counselors sent me clients (some with physical disabilities, some with psychological issues, some with mental limitations) and I put them through rigorous two- or three-week evaluations, measuring intelligence, aptitude, interests, and so on. In addition to the tests, the center had simulated workstations, and I could measure more abstract matters, such as the psychological endurance necessary to work a forty-hour week, the ability to get along with coworkers, and so on. My reports were exhaustive and exceedingly useful to counselors putting together training programs for their clients. However, I discovered that the test results were sometimes treated as if they were omniscient measurements, and that made me uncomfortable and led to trouble.
I left that job to study writing, but I didn’t try to write about that period in my life for a very long time—twenty years. As soon as I began the novel that would eventually evolve into Tumbledown, I understood that those reports were important. Eventually, I came to believe that the reports represented a kind of unreliable omniscience. And once I began thinking about it, I discovered that there was a great deal of unreliable omniscience in my life, ranging from the GPS system in my car to the nightly news. At some point, about eight years into the writing of the novel, I decided that I needed for the novel to employ the point of view of unreliable omniscience. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to exist. At least, I could find no useful models.
So I made it up.
MA: That’s a far more fascinating answer than I was expecting. Wow, unreliable omniscience. That’s really brilliant. Once you point it out, it makes perfect sense within the world of your book. It also makes me want to read the novel all over again and study it. Oh, and that’s a great new oxymoron: military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, and unreliable omniscience. You have single-handedly enriched the creative writing lexicon.
This narrative sleight-of-hand makes for a really refreshing and surprising read. I imagine some readers could find it disturbing, some exhilarating. And within the narrative, you opt to address this concern directly (p. 395), pausing at a critical juncture to offer this:
“Readers encounter the impossible in vastly dissimilar ways. Some throw the goddamn book across the room and curse the author by name. Others imagine the snide comments they’ll post on a book review website. Still others keep the faith, shaken yet willing to continue. But every reader wants the impossible addressed: a big brother’s sudden and permanent and utterly inexplicable disappearance—how is that possible? A son’s baffling descent into madness? A husband who one day cannot lift his coffee cup? A woman who discovers she has put a price tag on some part of her soul?”
Can you describe your decision to “break the frame” and acknowledge the reader and his or her potential response? Is this your way of addressing the impossible?
RB: The passage you refer to is, indeed, the product of that unreliable omniscient point of view.
Novels with unreliable narrators are traditionally in the first-person, of course. In such novels, the reader has to understand that something has been omitted or obscured, intentionally or unintentionally. Ultimately, the reader comes to see that the narrator’s story simultaneously masks and reveals another story—the shadow story. To fully comprehend the author’s narrative, the reader has to apprehend the story the narrator is telling as well as the shadow story that is evident only if one reads between the lines.
If you make the narrator omniscient, as well as unreliable, this dynamic becomes complicated in any number of ways. For example, does omniscience require the shadow story to become explicit? I have a lot of opinions about this, but I don’t want to overly influence how the book is read or defend my point-of-view decision. I tried a number of other strategies, and choosing to invent unreliable omniscience was far and away the boldest. If for no other reason, that makes me feel it was the right decision.
And yes, it is my way of addressing and defining and defying the impossible.
MA: Within any field, there are practitioners who inspire those still toiling in the trenches. Writer’s writers, in this case, and I feel like you are one. I’m interested to know who you would consider to be a Writer’s Writer?
RB: The difficulty of answering this question is that I fear I’ll omit writers that I admire, so I’ll name just one: Alice Munro. Everyone knows that she is an astonishing writer, but few give her credit for being an experimental writer. She conducts radical experiments with form, and yet her stories still seem like traditional narratives. She is the kind of magician who does not reveal herself to be a magician, and so the magic seems like something else entirely, and the stories gain the power of lived experience.
MA: Yes. I never thought of it in quite that way. Alice Munro, closet magician.
And speaking of magic, in TUMBLEDOWN there is something completely magical about Pook’s paintings. I love how they grow out of his comic book superhero Same Man. They speak to me about grand ideas. What makes Art? What is True Art? Does the impetus behind art matter? (And if so, to whom? The artist? The patron?) Does it expose us (as artists) in ways that are intolerable? Is this still somehow necessary? And perhaps most important, what is the relationship between art and artist? I won’t ask you to tackle those questions here—you spent a whole novel tackling them, after all. But how about a related question: What is the relationship between book and author?
RB: It’s something of a marriage, one that you initially work to get going and later work to conclude. The relationship changes over time, and keeps changing, threatening to become something utterly strange, and you may ultimately decide to let that happen. At some point, after many grueling nights of labor, you understand that you’re through with each other, but you hope to remain friends. It is an irony that the honeymoon (book tour) comes after the breakup, but there is almost always another novel involved, one that you’ve been seeing on the sly, and whose siren song is irresistible for all the ways that it is different from your ex.
MA: Hmm, and then resentment builds against the needy ex for taking time away from the fresh, new relationship, and everywhere you turn people keep talking to you about your wonderful ex and asking you to relive your past relationship. (Ahem.)
Let’s move on to the relationship between book and reader (and by extension, between author and reader). Margaret Atwood has said that a book is a Brain Transfer. The author puts symbols on a page, symbols assigned meaning over many centuries, and then the reader takes those symbols, processes and interprets them, and creates a new, slightly altered (or vastly altered) meaning/story in his or her own brain. Transfer Complete. Do you agree with that interpretation?
RB: Books exist on shelves much the way that humans in sci-fi movies exist in a cryogenic state, and they don’t come alive until they’re read. (And some age better than others.) Novels exist in the reader’s mind. It is a shared act of creation, and each novel is at least a little different according to the reader. How much of the novel belongs to the writer and how much to the reader? This varies depending on the individuals involved. Some of us are high custody authors who insist on specific interpretations of our narratives, and some are low custody authors who prefer to leave much of the creative work up to the reader. Chekhov was a very low custody writer and Tolstoy (especially in the late stories) was a high custody writer. James Salter is a low custody novelist who demands that readers engage and interpret the actions of his characters. Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road displays the virtues of a high custody writer, revealing characters’ desires and motivations down to the smallest detail. Salter and Yates are both great writers, but Salter wishes for the reader to fully share in the creative act, while Yates is working to keep the reader from slipping away from his vision, to force the reader into the self-indictment he feels is necessary. The danger the low custody author faces is reader bewilderment (recall the first time you ever read Chekhov), while the high custody author risks over-controlling a narrative to the point that the reader feels excluded or even redundant.
MA: I love this. I’m going to use this in the classroom. (Concept Credit: Robert Boswell.) I might use it for readings, too. Say, when an audience member asks me what I meant by writing such an evil/lascivious scene, or castigates me for leaving the ending unresolved. I’ll just explain that I’m a low-custody author. Thank you for that.
RB: Actually, I’m writing an essay about authorial custody. I’ve given a lecture about it as it relates to meaning in fiction, and now I’m working to turn the lecture into an essay.
MA: Oh, even better–official text on the subject! I look forward to reading it.
The character of Same Man is very intriguing. (Is he a character? What term describes a fictional character created by a fictional character? A character-once-removed?) I love that he keeps appearing in the story. Same Man has impeccable timing. I feel that his existence in the story speaks to the idea (the curse?) of seeing ourselves in others. Plus that whole sinister shadow…the trading places…the father taking the dead son’s idea and creating a pale forgery. It’s all so rich, so good, so damned interesting. That self-depicted version of Pook, duplicated over and over, proves too much for him, and I get that. It makes sense to me. Have you ever shared in Pook’s sense of vertigo?
RB: One of any artist’s most important talents is the ability to forget a previous work while in pursuit of a new one. Now and again I find myself with someone who just finished one of my novels, and she wants to talk about a character or incident, and she thinks I’m being coy when I can’t quite remember what goes on in the book. But it’s a gift not to remember—not to be discouraged or intimidated or otherwise hindered by past creations. Writing requires a combination of remembering and forgetting much the way that seeing requires both acuity and the ability to ignore the inessential. To be focused requires forgetting. To be a writer requires forgetting. What was your question?
MA: Perfect. I agree. Especially about not being hindered by past creations—whether they were wildly successful, universally panned, or largely invisible. I think a lot about this. The ability to move on in any artistic pursuit is crucial for growth and exploration. Letting go is a type of fearlessness. But I digress…
…and in writing workshops, digression is often frowned upon. But I’ve long felt that a little digression can be a beautiful thing or certainly can lead to beautiful things. In TUMBLEDOWN, you are a master digresser. Do you plan your digressions? (Can a digression be planned?) Or do you follow wherever your mind leads you as you write? How the friction does that work?
RB: One way of thinking about the writing of literary fiction is that one pursues a character through a narrative to a point at which the character acts in a manner that is free of the past. In workshops and the like, we typically say that the story pursues a character until there’s some kind of change in the arc of her life that the reader can recognize, but it is useful to have other ways of thinking about that familiar paradigm. I write rather obsessively about the influence of the past on the present, but I am usually pursuing the moment when that influence is sloughed off in an act of desperate freedom. To be free of one’s past is the greatest freedom possible, and, of course, if it lasts more than a moment or two, it becomes a form of annihilation.
I don’t plan digressions, but I work through many drafts, cutting and moving the digressive bits about, and by the time I’m finished they exist within an overall narrative plan—or I cut them from the book.
MA: Interesting. I feel like (your character) Karly Hopper is the embodiment of what you describe—both free of her past and annihilated by it. Speaking of Karly—and really your whole large, variously impaired cast—there are plenty of opportunities for your omniscient narrator to have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge with the reader over the heads of your characters, but you don’t go that route. You deal with them fairly and I admire that. In one of your craft essays (“On Omniscience” from The Half-Known World), you offer this passage:
“[David Foster] Wallace fans know that he has written about his opposition to irony. Here then is one of his earnest strategies: his omniscient voice works to display the satire while simultaneously refusing to see it. In this way, Wallace’s narrator does not get irony, even as the story is shaped by it.”
Is this similar to what you’re doing in TUMBLEDOWN?
RB: What I argue in that essay is that all omniscience in literature is limited, and the limitations always exist on the horizontal plane (one can investigate the hearts and minds of only a certain number of characters) but may also exist on the vertical plane (the narrator doesn’t comprehend specific mental states or human constructions that make up the typical person’s world view). Wallace’s narrator in “The Suffering Channel” (Oblivion: Stories) does not understand irony, and that inability is crucial to the ultimate meaning of the novella. I also refer to John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8; the omniscient narrator in that novel is blind to social class.
I don’t think I should analyze Tumbledown beyond repeating that in my conception of the novel the narrator is at once omniscient and unreliable. The novel itself is my articulation of this premise.
As for Karly and the other characters, I feel my job is not to describe them but to inhabit them. In a novel like Tumbledown, which has many points of view (I don’t even know how many) and in which the characters all know one another, the difficult task is to convey not only how each sees the other but also how each misapprehends the other. For example, most of the men in the book cannot see beyond Karly’s beauty, but a few can at least recognize her kindness, and one or two can see something more still. I felt I had to include Karly’s point of view to suggest dimensions to her life that those observing her cannot imagine. I like to think that the characters become rich because of the many, slightly erroneous, visions of each that the novel presents.
MA: Now I’m curious. Do you consider yourself a low-custody author or a high-custody author? And has that changed in any way over your writing career?
RB: I think I rack up points on both sides of the divide according to the novel or story in question. There are definitely stories in my last collection—The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards—that are low custody (“A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain,” for example, which some readers find perplexing) and others that are high custody (“Supreme Beings,” among others, which seems to me now as a test drive of unreliable omniscience).
A big part of my effort as a writer is to keep from repeating myself, to continue trying new forms, occupying new characters, and so on. When I was just starting out, I had no way of repeating myself. I just spat things out and worked with them. Now I consciously try to avoid doing again what I’ve done before. It’s one of the ways that I keep myself interested in the overall project of my writing life.
MA: And finally, a question that I often ask, given the theme of our journal, but that also seems quite appropriate given the themes (as I perceive them) in TUMBLEDOWN. What does “recovery” mean to you?
RB: There are certain events from which one never recovers, in the conventional sense of the word; rather, the events become inextricable from one’s manner of inhabiting the world. It may mean that your vision becomes multi-dimensional when it had been flat, or it may mean that your bafflement is more deeply pronounced than ever. Usually, it means both of these things, and many more such things.
As I see it, one does not recover, exactly. One re-becomes.
MA: Nice. Thank you so much for talking with me today, Robert. I enjoyed it immensely.