|Photo by Margaret M. Sison|
MICHAEL TOLKIN'S NOVEL UNDER Radar begins with the interior life of a man named Tom who, while vacationing with his family in Jamaica, pushes another man off a cliff to his death. The victim, Barry Seckler, had encouraged Tom's 4-year-old daughter to dance in a way Tom claimed to have found inappropriate; Barry's beautiful wife had become the subject of Tom's fantasies. Yet what moved Tom to murder was nothing so simple as jealousy or protectiveness, but rather a pathological and numbing contempt for himself and the world: It took a murder to shock himself back to life.
Swiftly indicted and convicted, Tom is jailed in Jamaica, and his loving wife and two adorable baby daughters return home without him. “We were having such a lovely day,” his wife complains later, when she informs Tom that she will tell their children that he is dead. “They were such lovely people.”
When it came out this summer, Under Radar was mostly praised by the critics who took it on, with one caveat: No one quite gets it. (“Only the Jewish Journal,” Tolkin told me, “completely got it,” but when I looked up the review I found the delighted critic had written, “I don't have a clue what it's about.”) Like the proverbial elephant groped by six blind men, the book is different things to different people, none of them absolute. Tom hears and retells a story while he lies confined in prison, and it sets his fellow prisoners free — as promised. But it's hard to see exactly how a tale about a Gaia-worshipping priestess named Yael and her Catholic-missionary adversary throws open any prison doors.
Under Radar is no comedy, let alone a black one, yet nearly everyone expects it to be — much to Tolkin's dismay. “Everybody's seen the Robert Altman version of The Player,” he told me, “and they can't see this book as anything other than a potential film.” If Under Radar is funny, it's only in the way Tolkin's stories sometimes are — you laugh because even in a character so abjectly odious as Tom you find bits of yourself. From Sharon in Tolkin's film The Rapture, who suffers from a psychic anxiety she cannot quite define enough to cure, to Frank in his 1993 novel, Among the Dead, who grieves for a daughter and wife lost in a plane crash but at the same time mourns the whole wreckage of his life, Tolkin's blighted protagonists exhibit universal traits of the human condition writ large and taken to extremes. They encourage us to examine ourselves — our faith, superstitions and fears — and to wonder mightily about our own mental and spiritual selves.
With the critical response fully registered, I met with Tolkin to discuss theology, literature, and how it feels to have spent the last decade writing screenplays and novels that, for all their success, no one completely understands.
L.A. WEEKLY: Like a lot of other people, I found Under Radar satisfying, the kind of book you want to go back to at the end of the day, but I can't say I really got it.
MICHAEL TOLKIN: Do you get John Ashbery's poetry?
You do sometimes, but you don't get all of it. There are probably poems you go back to read, too, even though you don't fully understand them. The enigma of them works because there's a form and structure that the writer works from. The actual words are less important than the structure.
Wallace Stevens said that he started poems with the rhythm sometimes. He'd walk — and it was the rhythm first, and then the words. Lennon and McCartney worked that way, too: “Scrambled Eggs” became “Yesterday,” you know. It was the melody first, and then they found the words for it.
David Byrne did the same thing on the Talking Heads' record Speaking in Tongues: He just sang and sang in gibberish until words formed.
He had the melody.
And the rhythm.
And the rhythm is really structure. And that structure is the structure of the universe. That's where we connect to the divine. That's why the story works, and that's why the prisoners become free. They wrestle with this thing that's so difficult they can't let it go. And there's a chance for failure — it's not as though it's guaranteed that the story will free them.
Some kind of spirituality seems to work its way into all your stories somewhere. Do you believe in God?
I think of God as the sum of a whole process. As for the existence of a conscious, supernatural being who knows our innermost thoughts and has an afterlife in some form prepared for us — the existence of such a thing is irrelevant to me.
Irrelevant, but not untrue?
The discussion of the truth of it is a waste of time. Everybody knows they've had moments they consider spooky. We've all had a little whisper of something, a suggestion of something. Most people have had prayers answered in a way that's surprising — and I don't mean the red tricycle. Or there's a continual message the world is giving them that they don't understand, or they do understand it and don't want to acknowledge it; they don't want to accept the implications of that voice.
I've read the story of Yael and the missionary several times now, and I can never figure out which side is right.
What no one has picked up on is that the Yael story is a version of a Bible story — the story of Cozbi and Zimri. It's Romeo and Juliet — Zimri is a Jewish prince who falls in love with Cozbi, who is the daughter of a Midianite priest. And they make a life together. And everything is fine, until they bring their ritual to the Jewish altar, at which point someone called Phineas skewers them at the base of the altar because of what they've done to defile it.
It sounds like one of those stories that pops up in some form in every culture and religion.
Who knows whether there was a real guy named Moses? But for the purpose of the larger myth that ordered society, his was a good story. For the purpose of a social code that puts limits and restraints on people, the Bible serves a purpose.
We need stories. That's what the movies are for, especially the movies that have a lesson.
And we tend to like the kind of stories that teach us how to live.
Right. That's why Star Wars is popular.
That's why The Godfather is popular, too. I know people who have based their lives on it.
Yes. It's got a code. But imagine a time when there were no movies. And there's writing, but stories are passed down, and every time you pass it down you revise it, you rewrite it. And then it's all put together in one place. The generation that put it together knows that it put it together. But two or three or 10 generations down the line — because there's no video, no tape recordings — what the ancestors had done to put the story of the tribes together is lost, and now the stories come down with the baggage of being divine.
It's interesting that you call that divinity “baggage.” These issues of religious stories and their various realities, or their relative divinity, are especially important in the world right now.
I think we've been preached to too much. The world has been preached to too much. So the advantage of fiction — when it's written the way I think it should be written — is that it gives you a way to open the possibility of accessing the divine without being preached to.
What do you mean, “the way it should be written”?
There's a Philip K. Dick novel, I can't remember the name of it, but I remember reading it and realizing that in order to understand it, the patterns of thought in your brain have to change. The Sound and the Fury does that, too. The Sound and the Fury reorders your mind. You can't just read it passively; it changes you. To understand it you have to work so hard that when you make the connections there's a physical change in your brain. Since everything the culture gives us is so mindless, and kills the connection in your brain, real art has to find some way to reorder the mind.
For the secular humanist who can't abide religion, that means that there's still some force in life, which expresses itself through some people — an inspiration that's outside of us. As a writer you become a channel for something you don't understand. I don't think John Ashbery understands his poetry. I don't believe he does. I think he gets a sense of it.
It took me a while to finish Under Radar because I didn't understand what I was supposed to do with the stories that I couldn't get around. The more time I lived with it, the more I understood it.
Do you understand it now?
A little bit more than I used to. And that's something I wanted to do, really — to be able to write something that works without fully understanding it. For me, that's part of the achievement.