Photo by Michael Kupperman
On a recent evening, Allan Gurganus, author of the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, appeared at the Los Angeles Central Library to read from his most recent novel, Plays Well With Others. The book is set in entry-level art-world Manhattan before, during and after AIDS. Gurganus was interviewed onstage by Bernard Cooper (Truth Serum: Memoirs and Maps to Anywhere). The following is adapted from their discussion.
Bernard Cooper: I recently read a quote by Edmund White in which he discouraged writers from using humor when writing about AIDS, saying that it somehow trivialized the epidemic. Which I don’t find to be true at all. What do you think of that particular statement and about the kind of minefield that writing about AIDS has become?
Allan Gurganus: I admire Ed White, but here I disagree with him completely. To look at the eclipse, you’ve gotta have a piece of smoked glass. In the long run, humor and compassion are really about all we’ve got going for us. You have the pleasure of eating, and the pleasure of sex, of liking where you live, and surrounding yourself with people you enjoy, and loving your work, and laughing at yourself. It seemed that to write another novel that began with a diagnosis on Page 1 and had a funeral on Page 212, that ended with the eulogies on Page 230, was too much like life, which, thank God, art is not. Fiction should not be life. It should not be a case history. It should offer a vision.
One of my impulses in writing the book was to remember the great party — as somebody who arrived in New York in ’79 and surrounded himself with gorgeous and gifted people, some of whom lived through to tell the tale with me, thank God. It was pure party from the time I set foot in the city until the time I left it. And the party, alas, came to include a lot of funerals. We took the balloons and we took the jokes and we took the outrageous campy behavior into St. Vincent’s Hospital. We cheered each other in the middle of it all. Some people left, but those of us who stayed managed that because we could joke about what was happening. There was nothing else to do.
Listening to you talk about humor, I’m also reminded of something I heard Lorrie Moore say when she was asked what the purpose of humor was in her work. She said, “To be funny.” All facetiousness aside, it sounds like you do think there’s a purpose in humor.
Oh, there is a purpose. All of art is a series of tensions and releases. And the faster you can build an arc of tension and release it — the more arcs you can have per page — the more interesting and alive the prose is. I’m not interested in reading soggy, solemn prose about a soggy and solemn experience. I want a series of recognitions and detonations, and, for me, that beautiful mechanism is a joke.
I admire Life Is Beautiful. It’s extraordinary partly because of the sheer nerve of imagining that a comic vision can be brought to bear on a subject as awesome at the end of the century and as horrifying to all of us as the Holocaust. We see a 1930s frothy, awful-truth kind of Irene Dunne/Cary Grant white-telephone-comedy comic vision get a running start in the ’30s and then run into the ’40s and terrible Holocaust camps. I admire the will of the director and the writer to sustain that comic vision in order to protect the innocence of one child. That’s the right impulse for the truth teller in history. Nothing is sacred, because everything is.
One of the things that strikes me about reading your work on the page is the way you sometimes play with spacing, punctuation, the sort of visual effect of the language which seems to take into account some of the considerations of poetry. I mean, not only metric considerations, but also visual considerations. Are you a reader of poetry? Or were you ever?
I was a painter. I went to art school for a year. I always thought I would be a painter, but the war in Vietnam put me on an aircraft carrier with 4,000 other guys, and they didn’t exactly encourage arts class and easel work.
No easels on the aircraft carrier?
No, but there were books. And I was so bored that I actually, you know, read one. I’d been a student in high school who could bullshit his way in and out of classes, but as for sitting down and actually reading a book front to back, I was really not a reader. I was a painter, I was drawing constantly. I also grew up in a very blessed time when we had the woods. Do you remember the woods? There used to be these things called woods and there would be a house and then there would be acres, and nobody knew who owned the acres, but if you were a little kid you could go out and build camps. Somebody once said to me, “Who was your greatest teacher?” And the phrase that came out, “The privacy of the woods.”
A 5- or 6-year-old kid alone in the woods without enough playmates (because there’s all this woods between your house and the other houses) has to invent and populate the world. That’s really what writers are constantly doing. We, as novelists, are very blessed because we get to invent company even when we’re 50 years old. We get to continually make up our ideal playmates, folks we can praise and blame. And it’s magical. It’s an extra dreaming, it’s an extra form of legal dreaming.
How did the transition from the visual arts to literature take place? And what do you think you’ve retained from the visual arts?
I’ve been very lucky in being extremely well-served by filmmakers. Partly, I think, because my work is essentially, extremely visual. I believe, along with Kafka, that every interior state can be reflected in an imagined gesture. I mean, it’s all choreography. Kafka has a marvelous little epigram in which he says, “It was one of those evenings when one thought one wanted to go out and put on the coat but heard the rain against the window, took off the coat, sat down at the desk, stared at one’s reflection in the window, wet the tip of one’s right small finger, and moved it repeatedly over the right eyebrow.”
One of the things students do is: “Anger bristled from her every pore” or “Repression clogged her inner being.” Can you show it to me? And part of the way you fake students out — you must never tell them that it’s extremely difficult. You say, “All right, what are the three things that would show how repression clogged her?” I mean, she’s wearing clothes. What are the clothes like? She lives in rooms. How do the rooms look? She has an address book. What shape is it in? How did her mother teach her toilet training? Show me. It’s like being a detective. It’s all traceable and retinal. And how does she talk?
It takes so many years to figure out that people don’t speak whole sentences. If people communicated with each other directly in narrative prose, we wouldn’t need psychiatrists. We wouldn’t need divorce courts. We wouldn’t need art. We would all be able to just look at each other and sing like canaries into each other’s mouths and ears. People rarely tell the truth to each other. And to find a way to honor that while concurrently showing the reader what’s really going on takes 30 years. It makes you crazy when a copyeditor goes and puts in all the words that you’ve spent your lifetime condensing and deleting.
Your description of trying to impress students with the necessity of making abstractions and emotions manifest reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Flannery O’Connor, who said that she thought the sense of sight was the most important sense for a writer. She once tried to explain this to a student by saying, “Which is more interesting? ‘She was crazy as she can be.’ Or, ‘She plucked at her hair as if she heard a sound in it.’” Whooo. That pretty much says it all.
Isn’t that divine? I think O’Connor belongs in the pantheon of the 10 greatest American writers ever. I wrote her a fan letter when I was 15. She published a story called “Parker’s Back” in Esquire. I still remember the illustration, I remember everything about it. When you’re in the presence of the greatest work, your hairs stand on end. You know it even when you’re 15 years old. You don’t yet have a context. You don’t know how it got there, but you know it when you feel its force. And I wrote her, “Dear Mr. O’Connor . . .”
It was 1963, and the idea that a woman could write this story about getting a tattoo of God on your back was unimaginable. She answered me, I still have the letter somewhere, the sweetest reply, you know, thanking me for my energy and consideration. She had just moved back to Milledgeville, Georgia. That’s where the state nut house is, so if you’re acting funny anywhere in Georgia, people say, “If you keep pullin’ at your hair like you hear a sound in it, we will send you to Milledgeville.” That’s where she was living. It seems that, one day, a tenant farmer’s wife, just the poorest of the poor, knocked on the door and O’Connor with her crutches appeared and the woman said, “Is this the house of the lady that writes books?” And O’Connor said, “Yes, it is.” The woman said, “Can I borrow one?” And O’Connor said, “I’d be delighted.”
So she gave this woman the book, expecting to never see it again but hoping. And four days later there’s a knock, and O’Connor comes to the door, and I’m sure she thought, “It’s gonna be covered with sticky Coca-Cola,” or, you know, “She won’t like it. She’ll think I’m an intellectual snob and she’ll hate me and I failed to reach my audience, and blah, blah, blah.” But the woman hands the book back and says, “If you let ’em, that’s just how people will do.”
So, the goal as an artist is to let ’em. That’s why there are no great Republican artists.
To circle back to what we were talking about originally, when you were writing Plays Well With Others, were there models out there of writing about disease or about AIDS in particular that you wanted to emulate or avoid?
The fact is, I was so busy with the disease that I didn’t have time to read novels about it. Which turned out to be a damn good thing. Imagine if you were in the trenches during World War II and you were simultaneously reading The Naked and the Dead. I think it’s essential to live it and then “do it your way,” as Frank told us. To look around and see what’s left, you know what I mean? My book was criticized by some who feel you’re not supposed to write comically about dying people. I mean, what other subject is there? And what other way is there to approach that subject? This is part of the joy, of course; you make a shape and you send it out into the world and, as Conrad says, “Every book has its own fate.” I’ll just wait, thank you very much. I’ll take my chances.
I do know that while I was writing Plays Well With Others, I felt that I had . . . help. All my dead and living seemed to stand behind my desk chair. And when I did something right, I felt this “Ahhh yes . . .” You know, I really felt that I was . . . Shirley MacLaine would call it channeling. There really is something to all that. And when you’re lucky, you stop being an ego and you start becoming pure windowpane. That’s when you know you’re doing something right. I hardly remember writing the book. When the editor said, “I think you’ve got a novel and it’s almost done,” I said, “What?” It just didn’t seem possible.
It’s very much a book about caretaking and about the heroism of caretaking, an immense subject too seldom addressed. Literature is mostly about the ginger man. Literature is mostly about the people who borrow the money and never pay it back. It’s about the strip miners. It’s about the glamorous loner who comes to town and impregnates and devastates and cons and we all love him anyway and he’s gone. Fuck him. I mean, I really want to write about the people who appear after the traffic accident, after the car is dragged away, the ones who have the brooms and sweep up the green glass. The real drama often starts after the carnage, the glamorous carnage, has been taken away. Surviving, I found myself in precisely that position.
You recently had an essay in Harper’s magazine about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and there was a section of this that I think is so incredible: “When young, we feel unique in human history. Age teaches you how permeable are the boundaries between us all, how essentially and consolingly alike we are. Literature is predicated on the radical notion that we are more similar than different. Literature tells us that imagining one another is not just a luxurious feat achieved by the rare artist but a daily necessity for us all.” That is really wonderful. Why do you think this notion of similarity among people is a radical notion. Radical as opposed to what?
Political rhetoric of the past 15 years has told us that our gender, class, race and nationalistic identification remain the pre-eminent fact about our lives. We’re told that gay people must write only about gay people, for and to gay people. Gay people now have magazines just as slick and silly and hollow as straight people’s magazines. We’re told only black people have the authority, the moral invested authority, to write about the history of slavery, that only black people can know what black people have suffered. We’re told it is impossible for a man to assume the identity of a woman and say, “mine” and mean “hers.” And, you know, that’s just not true. Bullshit, in fact.
How do I know it’s not true? There’s this living entity called literature. Literature has become more and more embattled. Literature for me and many readers has become even more precious and holy. It’s not commodified, it’s not bottleable. It’s participatory. How often have you rented videos — you get the great films, or the not-so-great films that you’ve been meaning to see, you had the flu, you were out of the country, you’re catching up, blah, blah, blah, blah. You rent two or three for the weekend and you’re taking them back to the video store and you look down on the seat and you can’t remember anything you saw this weekend? Am I alone in this? Thank you.
But if you read 70 pages of a great book, you will have not a moment’s doubt of what you did this weekend. Why is that? It’s partly because film, for all its unbelievable multimegaton power, does everything for us. With books, we have to have a place, open it up, put the phone machine on, get the kids asleep, make a little sanctuary, a little safety. All of this is extremely important to our psyches. It’s the only time we really have the TV set off. We’ve made this kind of igloo sanctuary in which to think. We briefly know what we’re doing. Our vision and imagination is meeting more than halfway the vision and imagination and wisdom of somebody like Plato who lived a long, long time ago and was smarter than any of us will ever be — and we get to enter that. Or we commune with somebody who’s alive in California or North Carolina right now. Take you and me. I mean, I know your work. Your work was your messenger. Our books are letters that we didn’t even know we’d sent. Though this is the second time we’ve ever seen each other, I feel we’ve known each other for years.
It doesn’t matter what conglomerate is now publishing the books, so long as they’re real books. It doesn’t matter even if the book is something you plug into the screen as long as it’s on the page and you have to read it and you have to invent it and you have to add water to powdered eggs to make them real. But that’s the holy recipe. And to have written a book and a half, three, five books in a lifetime that invite into them all the wit and imagination and sexiness and hunger and spiritual ambition of people who are not born yet, our great-great-grandchildren who will maybe find these, that is a mission that is so pure and hallowed that it’s worth working 9 to 5 in shit jobs; we’ll do anything to keep in contact with it. Can we talk here? Yes, we can. We can talk to each other and we can talk through books and we can talk to the ages. It’s a beautiful transaction.