Dancing in Chains: An Interview with Alan Singer

George Salis: Your new novel Play, A Novel features Pan Fleet, a writer-director who “plans a new experimental play for the off-Broadway stage: Killer Killing Killers, a montage of murder scenes, aiming to provoke his audience’s ire with a work apparently amorally predicated on senseless violence.” What are you experiences with plays, as an audience member, perhaps a playwright or even an actor, etc.?

Alan Singer: What I appreciate most in theatrical works is the economy with which a line of dialogue can overturn a circumstance instantly and demand of the audience a revision of their sympathies. I immediately think of Beckett and Pinter. There is no need for elaborate scene setting, no need for laboriously recreating social context. Sociality is as malleable as words spoken abruptly, interrupting the scene, pointing up the fragility of the all too recognizable scenic backdrop, pointing up the all too often overlooked menace of time passing.

Oddly enough I’m probably a bigger fan of movies than plays, with the exception of the many great playwrights who use the language as decisively as Beckett, Pinter, and of course Shakespeare do. Yes, I am leaving out too many other playwrights for whom language is what gives substance to the dramatic world. Movies of course produce an effect similar to what I am ascribing to dramatic dialogue in plays. Cinematic montage is, at its best, a shocking articulation of the knowledge that things change. That’s the essence of narrative plot, linear or otherwise. So I confess that my weakness for orchestrating what many readers may see, (only initially I hope) as confusing juxtapositions in my own narratives, arises from my affinity with movies.

GS: What movies in particular do you have an affinity with?

AS: These days the filmmakers who involve me most urgently in the viewing experience are Terence Malick, especially in The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, Paul Thomas Anderson, especially in There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, and Jane Campion, especially in The Piano and Portrait of a Lady. Recently Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite have impressed me. Each of these filmmakers uses every feature of the medium to intensify our sense of things happening without our fully knowing what’s going on, but without exhausting our faith that something is going on. We’ll catch on. We’ll learn from watching. I suppose the filmmaker I admire most in this regard is Peter Greenaway. He fills the frame with an unprecedented density of experience.

GS: Was Hamlet’s play-within-a-play in your consciousness at all while you wrote Play?

AS: No. Strictly speaking I don’t see the novel as a play within a play. I was more interested in the way playing is already a feature of the world in which the characters act (in the agency sense). My protagonist, Pan Fleet, is writing the play and rehearsing it while the novel tracks his actions and those of his collaborators revealing the theatricalization of everyday life. Of course “life” takes on a new meaning in the context of such knowledge.

GS: Do you agree with David Lynch’s notion of the beauty of using intuition in the face of the abstract or deceptive? Do you actively attempt to deceive or mask or occlude when writing fiction?

AS: I suppose I agree with David Lynch that one always begins with intuition: a voice, a fragment of speech, a sound, a smell, a visual object of attention. I don’t deliberately try to occlude. But I do take it for granted that occlusion is the medium in which we find ourselves to be always negotiating the inescapable blind spots of experience. So despite the fact that I am guided by whatever intuitional or perceptual catalyst launches my narratives (usually an image), I’m immediately most interested in what I am not immediately seeing.

GS: I discerned a heavy dose of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy in The Charnel Imp, aside from the equally generous dose of surrealism, which is not nearly as common in their work. Do you accept these comparisons, this sort of gritty southern flavor amid the myth?

AS: I had not read McCarthy when I wrote The Charnel Imp. Faulkner has always been a buzz in my head. I am a great admirer of the ways in which Faulkner’s sentences are experiences unto themselves. McCarthy, now that I know his work pretty well, is a newer inspiration. Both have in common a capacity for abrupt imaginative leaps. I wouldn’t necessarily call them mythic so much as compulsive entanglements with the most contradictory elements of experience. Daring the impossible to yield to possibility, enticing the inconceivable to be livable, feeling compelled to live out the worst consequences of one’s action—these are conditions that both Faulkner and McCarthy impose upon the reader.

GS: How do you view your use of the surreal in your work? Is it an attempt at employing dream imagery to mine the subconscious?

AS: I know why my work is often called surrealistic. My imagery and scenes of dramatic action often defy an easy grasp of what would otherwise count as realities. And I feel affinity with artists like Dalí, Magritte, Man Ray, Bunuel and Lautreament. But I am uncomfortable with surrealism insofar as it risks being self-pre-emptively absurd. I like compositional juxtapositions that challenge intelligibility without nullifying it. I resist the temptation to consign any aspect of experience to occult regions like the subconscious, dreams, the mythic. For me everything is real in the sense that we are attempting to make sense. It is the sense-making, with emphasis on making, that counts most. For me writing is an action, a doing, a circumstance of constraint that intensifies experience. I’m a great admirer of Nietzsche’s phrase about the artist as “dancing in chains.”

GS: This is a guest question from Ben Lieberman: “Carlo Emilio Gadda’s great novel That Awful Mess on Via Merulana came to my mind when reading Dirtmouth and though your styles are very different, I had this idea of a “language of discovery” when reading it. The crime in both works becomes almost secondary to the world that is being shaped around it. This creation seems very explicit as it runs counter to the usual realism of novels that are about crimes. What is your motivation for exploring this genre?”

AS: I appreciate the phrase “language of discovery,” and the association with Gadda. Yes, I’m very committed to the idea that everything can be made sense of in the same way that every object can be used. “Sense,” “use” are features of human imagination not aspects of the world per se. So it seems perfectly natural to me that the crime in Dirtmouth does not so much invite a solution but an elaboration. Not coincidentally, evolutionary biologists talk about the body as something that is continually adaptive with respect to changing circumstances. Those circumstances inevitably become indistinguishable from the physicality that they challenge.

GS: You’ve received at least a couple of blurbs from Joseph McElroy, including this one for Dirtmouth: “Here is an archaeology of the dismembered and reawakened body, a tale, a tongue, that unearths love and thought and makes you breathe mortality itself.” Conversely, can you tell me what you love about McElroy’s work?

AS: Well this is of course an easy one. I first came upon Joe’s work in Plus. Everything was there for me. McElroy writes sentences that surprise us with the quickness of our own minds, our capacities to know ourselves on more than one register of recognition at the same time. The multiclausal metabolism of Joe’s sentences in outward bound novels like Lookout Cartridge, A Smuggler’s Bible, Plus, Ancient History, Women and Men, The Letter Left to Me, and Actress in the House is a potent life force of contemporary fiction. It utterly refigures all we have to work with when we go looking for ourselves in the work of fiction. McElroy is of course often called complex as if to daunt the undaunting reader. But this complexity is no stylistic fetish. McElroy’s sentences are more than a fascination with systems that defy their own complexity, more than an adequate anatomy of consciousness, more than a mania to connect. McElroy’s sentences take us to another place: they are an engagement with what we don’t yet know that we know.

I read Plus and then I read everything else. At the time I was directing the MFA program at Temple University. So I invited Joe to be a visiting writer.

GS: As McElroy alludes to, your novels are, in a way, dismembered, combining different narrative threads and employing original structures in general, rather than the tired, crumbling story arc. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with anything other than that arc, such as a story ouroboros or a story fork? Where does your penchant for seemingly eccentric structure come from?

AS: Eccentricity is not my aim. But I am aware that the structures of my novels are not easily pigeon-holed. Predictable outcomes are ironically what readers of fiction are too often seeking in the guise of communing with unfettered imagination. I don’t think readerly expectations for stories ought to be so different from expectations about everyday life. They seldom pan out. This is what makes life difficult but vibrant. Facing up to the proposition that anything can happen—and something must happen—seems to me the strongest warrant for reading fiction. As a reader I enjoy the constraint of having to accept what I would otherwise be blind to or would resist as an impossibility. I want my readers to feel that constraint. This is the way it is. What happens if I simply accept that fact and all that must ensue from it? New knowledge, generally speaking, arises on the threshold of this question. So it is very much the compositional threshold for me as a writer.

GS: There have been large gaps between your novels, almost a decade between most of them. Is this creative gestation, reprieve, a time to work on other projects, life getting in the way, or all of the above?

AS: The answer to this question is all too mundane. I write very slowly. For most of my career I have worked simultaneously on creative and critical books (mostly in the field of aesthetics). This slowed the process even more. I do think I have benefited from the synergy however. It is all creative work inasmuch as one wants to find out more about what is the case for oneself and for the world in which one works.

GS: You have decades of experience teaching literary theory as well as fiction writing. What lessons have you learned after all these lessons?

AS: Formal lessons don’t come to mind. The operative word in your question for me is “experience.” For me teaching and writing are elided. When I’m teaching I’m also learning and what I’m learning finds expression in everything I write, which is in turn grist for more teaching and ideally teaching myself how to live on beyond the page. I don’t compartmentalize. A writer I very much admire, William S. Wilson titled a wonderful essay on the work of the writer “Learning/Writing.” He is eloquent about what one is doing, in the most rudimentary sense, as a writer: “The point of the story—what one is learning about—is change, and change usually reveals that what somebody thought was going on wasn’t the whole story…” There is nothing romantic or heroic about this work ethic. I find it to be simply true to the experience of writing.

GS: When it comes to an MFA program, do you believe a person can be taught to be a great writer or is it about nurturing a talent that already exists in a nascent form?

AS: I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the writing workshop. No, I do not think one is taught how to be a strong writer. But one can be disciplined to be self-conscious, not in a theatrical sense, but in the way that reflecting upon one’s limitations can illuminate the resources inherent to them. I think the workshop is good staging ground for this kind of self-consciousness.

GS: You have written about sex in the literary and visual arts, how its depiction “broadens the scope of our knowledge about how feeling reciprocates with reason-giving.” What would you say to writers and readers who claim that sex is an inherently humorous and awkward experience and that most if not all literary depictions of sex cannot escape this without resorting to, say, almost alienating or simply alien metaphors that void anatomy and bodily functions, etc.?

AS: Well of course sex is inherently humorous and awkward but no less so than any encounter of the mind with the intractability of the physical world. The imaginative resourcefulness of the body in sex is however the best hope for realizing our capacity for an inexhaustibly self-improvised identity that by definition eludes all fear or embarrassment. I’ve said something similar about the writer. One writes to make use of the world. One does not write to explain it.

GS: I recently spoke with someone who asked me why I would give 5 stars to a novel with a slaughterhouse in it, referring to The Charnel Imp. You’ve written about the cognitive benefits of aesthetics. How would you summarize the necessity or the impulse to praise works that have sinister or immoral elements in them, whether animal cruelty or murder or rape, etc., even if the book doesn’t explicitly have a moral critique of the immorality in question? Assuming you’re familiar with the John Gardner/William H. Gass debate, how would you place yourself on this spectrum if at all?

AS: I think it was Robbe-Grillet, in an essay on pornography, who said that you can’t possibly offend the morality of a reader by depictions of what might be judged immoral, or even criminal, because everything is already in the mind as a possibility. So clearly I’m on Gass’s side with respect to the moral consequence of writing/imagining. If everything is imaginable then taking responsibility for that fact is the only way of knowing what consequences one does not want to precipitate in one’s otherwise thoughtless acts.

GS: What is a novel that deserves more readers?

AS: Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H.

GS: This comes from the perspective of Dr. Face as he watches Moertle in The Charnel Imp: “The act of releasing one steer [from death in the slaughterhouse], in addition to its flagrant illegality is worse yet because it succumbs too shamelessly to the temptation to transform the world merely by manipulating the scale of things: a temptation that for the most worldly-wise of us is simply the palest puff of smoke from the genie’s dented lamp and unworthy of notice.” 2020 was a particularly turbulent year. What do you think is the best way to transform the world? Does literature have a role in this?

AS: I’m with Hegel on this. World transformation is self-transformation. This has been a year of catastrophes. The word catastrophe itself, at its Greek root, means overturning. We’ve long acknowledged that the circumstance of a turning from pain to knowledge at the end of a tragic drama is what vivifies our experience as readers, our experience as an audience. I think I’ve already said that change is de rigueur in literary work. Working through change is essentially the best effort we can make to honor what we have been and what we are becoming—with the advisory not to fetishize either identity. I think strong literature coerces the reader to do this work.

Alan Singer is the author of six novels, The Ox-Breadth (New Earth Books, 1978), The Charnel Imp (Fiction Collective, 1988), Memory Wax (FC2, Black Ice Books, 1996), Dirtmouth (FC2, Black Ice Books, 2004), The Inquisitor’s Tongue (FC2, 2012) and, most recently, Play, A Novel (Grand Iota, 2020). He also writes about aesthetics and the visual arts. His most recent work in this area is Posing Sex: Toward a Perceptual Ethics for Literary and Visual Art (Bloomsbury, 2018).

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

2 thoughts on “Dancing in Chains: An Interview with Alan Singer

  1. Thanks for another rich interview. They never fail to teach me how to read, think, see. I love the phrase “compulsive entanglements with the most contradictory elements of experience.”

    Liked by 1 person

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