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Monday, December 28, 2009

Interview with Stephen-Paul Martin on "Cell" — a story that appears in the 2009 Big Bridge fiction section.

[This is a part of a series of interviews of fiction writers who appeared in the last Big Bridge, many of whom are among my favorite fictionistas, and several are close friends. In the name of full disclosure, I do have two stories among them. My motivation in doing this series is to learn more about some stories and writers I admire, and to promote Big Bridge which, along with Jacket and Madhatter's Review, is one of the few web journals that is exploring the possibilities opened by the internet rather than simply transferring print practices to the web.]

1. In this paragraph, how do you see the sentence and phrase that I italicized working with the other sentences:

"The desert was filled with canyons and mesas, ringed with towering mountains. It felt good to walk with my dog in a silence broken only by the cries of circling hawks and the sound of wind. There was no need to think about what I'd left behind or what I might be doing in the future. There was no need to do anything but enjoy what I was looking at. I felt like radio music finally arriving without any static. The more I walked the better I felt. The sky was blue enough to drink. But finally I needed shelter from the sun, so I called my dog and we sat in the shade of a huge rock. I poured water into the small plastic bowl I keep in my backpack and my dog drank it quickly. Then something caught his attention and he took off down a steep slope into a canyon."

Now that you’ve pointed this out, I’d have to say that the italicized phrases suggest that the narrator’s attempt to escape the shallow hi-tech world symbolized by cell phones hasn’t been entirely successful. This also becomes apparent later in the story in various ways, but even in this early paragraph, it’s clear that he’s still describing his mental state in technological terms and still using a plastic object to interact with his dog. And later he still wants cheeseburgers, and fantasizes about becoming mayor of a town that may or may not exist. He’s already infected with the mental pollution he’s trying to escape, and if he ever realizes his absurd dream of reigning over a media-free zone, he’ll probably end up doing many of the delusional things that mainstream politicians do. Sill, I enjoy his attempt. My ironies work in gentler ways with him than with the George Bush world he’s given up on.

2. This story seems to have more explicit metaphors and even symbols than is typical of your writing: "The canyon floor was a labyrinth of tall blade-like rocks"; "stepping into a floor-length mirror, passing through my own reflection"; moonlight, wind, the magician, and so on. Do you agree? Is there something of an allegory going on here?

Again, the alertness of your reading shows me something about the story I wasn’t fully aware of. I don’t like the “A is secretly B” approach to writing, where images are linked to abstract qualities in more or less systematic ways, so I had no intention of generating an allegory. But I’m open to the possibility that an allegorical process may be operating anyway, especially in the sequence of rooms and houses the narrator inhabits. Maybe you could say that all the changes and modified repetitions in the story represent a gradual and tentative transformation of consciousness, a process that’s nonetheless treated skeptically, since the completed pattern of magical presences, the magicians in the final café, are still wolfing down cheeseburgers, and the narrator may have found a long-lost brother but still fantasizes about controlling and ruling. If there’s an ongoing allegory in this story, it’s the kind that slips on a banana peel whenever it takes itself too seriously.

3. When thinking about the mirror that gets stepped through, and the two exact bedrooms that are different only on the basis of time, I wonder about the relationship of this story to current discussions in physics about parallel universes.

As you probably know from my Central Park days, I’ve always enjoyed the poetic/psychedelic resonance of quantum physics, molecular biology, and string theory. As I wrote “Cell” I certainly felt that the mountainous desert landscape the narrator escapes to operates with a different set of laws than the cell phone world he’s so disgusted by. But maybe “set of laws” is the wrong way to put it. Let’s try this: Once the mind starts separating itself from the conventions imposed on it by mainstream reality, time and space begin to look and behave differently, while remaining in many ways a world we still recognize. Is this different world a parallel universe? Or is it just our current universe perceived differently? I don’t know. And certainly the narrator in “Cell” doesn’t know either. So it’s probably best to say that there’s a quantum flavoring in the story, but I didn’t want to insist on a quantum interpretation. Though one reader saw parallels between “Cell” and the first Carlos Castaneda book, there are no shamans and mind-altering substances in my story. Remember that in this story the magicians—if that’s really what they are, once you get beyond their outfits—perform no magical actions. They just sit around eating.

4. You keep returning to the way words "represent." For instance, "words that were passing through me"; "all communication is miscommunication." How does the narrative aspects of this story help our understanding of the issues of representability that many theorists have developed?

The narrator of “Cell” probably hasn’t read the theorists you’re referring to, but the world he’s learning to inhabit as he repeatedly loses his way is a place without maps, where the mental and perceptual limits language creates for us aren’t functioning normally. A scrambling of consciousness occurs, for the narrator and hopefully for the reader, as the narrative eats its own tail/tale. Does the text then function like a mind-altering substance, deranging the perceiving senses, as Rimbaud once proposed? Yes and no. I want my reader aware of what language does, both in the text and in its function as a mediating factor in all thought and social interaction. At one point the narrator realizes that language is a house of cards, that the words he uses to explain to himself what’s happening are inherently unstable: “As soon as I put my thoughts into words, it felt like I'd replaced my thoughts with words, with sounds and shapes that had no firm connection with anything beyond their own sounds and shapes, defining themselves only in relation to each other.” Then later: “If the desert floor was a page in a book, the words were having trouble holding the scene in place, suggesting that the late morning light pressing down on each object might just as well have been peeled off and folded up and used for something else.” If the story is partly about the spell the landscape casts over the narrator, the story’s language is designed at times to break its own spell, if only briefly. I’m not inviting my reader to disappear into a verbal fantasy, even if the story deals with someone trying to escape. At the same time, I’m hoping readers will feel transported. I don’t like experimental or innovative writing when the effect is purely intellectual, when the language is entirely corrosive and self-critical. I want readers to enjoy the text as a vertiginous experience, the dizziness of someone wandering through a maze of shifting sand, which doesn’t always remain exactly the same but nonetheless keeps reconstituting itself as a maze of shifting sand. At the same time, I want my words and phrases to be as clear as possible, inviting readers to remain conscious of what’s happening and to examine it, ideally through multiple readings, just as you’ve apparently done by generating the questions in this dialogue.

5. A lot of the imagery is repeated in this story, frequently word for word. What effects does this create?

It’s part of the mental scrambling mentioned above, a disturbance in our sense of what the words same and different mean. As I wrote “Cell,” I wanted readers to enjoy the sense of not knowing where they were in the narrative, to wonder if they’d already read what they were reading. Part of our mainstream reading ritual is to go from start to finish, grab another book and go from start to finish, grab another book and go from start to finish, consuming consuming consuming. I wanted “Cell” to function as a labyrinth in which readers lost track of this linear process, a self-consuming labyrinth which in the end might be nothing more than a heap of stage props with screenplay pages blowing away in the scripted wind. And in a more biographical sense, “Cell” was an attempt to re-narrate an acid trip I took long ago, during which I seemed to be entering the same room over and over again. It was terrifying at the time—I felt I’d gotten stuck somewhere and might not ever get out—but in “Cell” it’s partially meant as a joke played on the narrator, leaving readers with what I hope is a compelling multiple question: Where is this? When? Is this a place, or a construction of language? What’s the difference? I said earlier that there are no mind-altering substances in this story, but much of my fiction has roots in psychedelic experiences from my distant past. I want to extract what seemed so bizarre under the influence of acid, mescaline, and mushrooms and work with it in texts that aren’t about drugs.

6. Are we to laugh at the main character: "I knew I wasn't a character in a movie. But I did try to live as if I were part of a narrative generated by someone with high aesthetic standards. It was true that I didn't know exactly what those standards were."

My narrators tend to be fools. I feel compassion for their foolishness, but I’m also amused by it. In some of my stories, this amusement has a nasty edge, but in “Cell” I felt fairly close to the narrator, especially in the tenderness he feels for his dog. I often catch myself thinking ridiculous things, and in some of my fiction I carry these things out through my narrators. That was the trigger for “Cell”: What would happen if I just took off into the desert and found a place uncontaminated by the George Bush/cell phone world? I wouldn’t really take such a journey myself, but I like it as an absurdist framework for a text. I think most of the fiction writers published in Big Bridge would share my deep contempt for Bush and my skepticism about the world-view that leads so many people into mindless enthusiasm for hi-tech devices. This is the serious core of the story. But when I write, I give myself the freedom to play in ways that aren’t confined to the parameters of everyday life. I don’t want my words to simply imitate the world. I want my words to make a new world that’s in some ways a joke about the old one, and in some ways a joke about itself.

Thank you, Stephen-Paul

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