Jeffrey DeShell Interview
Jeffrey DeShell is a genius. Whatever else I say here before getting to the conversation I was lucky to have with him I want that said. From his first book, which I think would be The Peculiarity of Literature, his dissertation and an allegorical approach to Poe, through to his newest, Masses & Motets, which is a language-heavy look at the sinewy reach of Catholicism and crime, and abuse, and again language, DeShell has been doing something that I don’t think any other writer has been doing, and because of that he’s easy to categorize under the term of genius when it comes to contemporary literature, or all literature rather.
The dissertation does something that’s incredibly useful for anyone with any skin in the game of literature, it pushes back against the notion that literature ought to “do” anything, and tries instead to embrace an approach to Poe’s fiction that models this pushing back, finding out what writing can do when we stop trying to extract things from it that possibly are extractable but which nevertheless impede the first thing or even the second or third thing a work of literature might be for any one reader or writer. Sift through recent NYTimes Books pieces and you’ll find lots of “this novel predicted Trump in 1970!” or “finally a novel that articulates how it feels to live on the internet!” Lots of looking for things literature might be doing, because surely the thing there could never be enough on its own.
That, in my opinion, would be sufficient for any one writer, to write an academic work that does what I’ve just described his academic work to be doing, but that was just the very beginning of what has been a long academic and artful life for Mr. DeShell.
His first published fiction, In Heaven Everything is Fine, does what Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla books do (I can’t escape the “do”) way back when in the 90s. It’s a fragmented look at the life of artists or art-adjacent people, but told through what they’re consuming, listening to, reading, watching, etc. I remember first reading it and suddenly thinking about Paris, Texas, seemingly for no reason, until I realized the quote from Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis in Wenders’ film about living someplace “without language” was plopped right there in the novel, decades before ambient literature became a thing, or Reality Hunger became a bestseller. I even mistakenly quoted DeShell’s “A story? No. No stories. Never again,” without realizing it originally came from Blanchot. Now again, this was in his first published book of fiction, the first of many such experiments that either follow through on promises lots of writers have made or come up with new promises most writers wouldn’t even think of.
What I’m mainly trying to assert, then, is that Jeffrey DeShell’s relationship to his work, and his work itself, is some of the most vital stuff happening in fiction right now. I’ll leave it at that then and let the interview speak now for itself.
I’m very glad and honored to be speaking with you about your newest book. To my mind you’re one of the most adventurous writers of fiction working today, and after years of reading your work the chance to ask some questions is something, I’m very excited for. Each of your books, to me, represents a completely new experiment, followed through to its finish that’s exhilarating to witness as a reader. I wanted to start, then, by asking what they’re like from your perspective as the writer. In Heaven Everything Is Fine is sort of the inverse of an autobiographical, ars poetica novel. Arthouse is similar but focused around cinema. And these most recent books, Expectation and Masses and Motets are set up as mysteries following a detective in Francesca Fruscella. Do you need the overall concept before you get working? What’s your relationship to genre when you’re writing?
Grant, thank you for the kind words. I’ve read your work with admiration and interest, and I’m very much looking forward to this conversation.
Ligeia huh? One of my favorite Poe stories. I’ve always wondered what their lives were like after she returned form the dead. Thank you Ligeia.
I’ve always avoided the word (or concept) of “concept” or “the conceptual.” To me that implies something that remains on the level of thought, of theory. I find writing more visceral than that, more physical if you will, more of a struggle on many levels—emotional, physical, mental, historical (and often hysterical), subconscious, theological, imaginative etc. I never find writing just thought or concept: the image or story I might begin with in my head is always transformed by the act of writing, so that what ends up finally on the page is very different, unrecognizable sometimes from what I might have initially “conceived.” For better or worse. That’s part of the joy for me, of the experiment if you will, discovering what (it is) I am writing.
For me, the word “concept” or “conceptualism” carries with it a certain whiff the naïve and violent suppression of difference, of a naïve and violent indifference to (the problems of) language. And it’s often not as smart as it thinks: “I’ve got this great idea for a novel. . . all I have to do is write it.”
That being said, I do often start with a problem, often a technical question, and this problem sooner or later evolves (devolves? mutates?) into a second problem, that of how to tell the story, the story that has developed from the technical question. The technical question often takes the form of a what would happen? question. What would happen if I wrote a novel where every chapter was influenced by a different film? Arthouse. What would happen if I wrote a novel trying to tell my mother’s story as she was losing language to dementia? The Trouble with Being Born. What would happen if I didn’t use punctuation, and rewrote The Bostonians? S & M. What would happen if I used a lot of punctuation, and rewrote Pierre? Peter: An (A)Historical Romance. What would happen if I write a novel where I took serial music technique to prose? Expectation. And so on. I start with a compositional question, and eventually that gives me a story. Which I then pursue. I certainly don’t, can’t, separate stories from the technical questions, or technical questions from their stories. I’ve always been amazed by fiction writers who think they’ve moved beyond plot: I’ve never been that clever.
As to genre, I am certainly interested in genre per se, in the fact that genre comes from outside the particular writing project, pre-exists the writing project, and determines, to a greater or lesser extent, the form the writing takes. I don’t find this determination inhibiting, quit the contrary: I find great freedom in having at least part of the game predetermined. The questions arise as to where genre begins. Is prose a genre? Is fiction? Is grammar as such? And then, of course, where does it end?
As to particular genres, I’m not interested in all genres equally. I’m not particularly interested in horror, as I think the world is truly horrific enough in reality, nor do I find fantasy engaging or compelling. But I realize that some do, and I also realize that there is some important and beautiful writing within these categories: Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Evenson come to mind, and I admire their books greatly. I do love melodrama, and I would put Douglas Sirk, Thomas Bernhard and Flannery O’Connor in this category, along with Percival Everett. And, of course, I’m heavily invested in the mystery story, especially those of Poe, Patricia Highsmith, Jo Nesbo and recently Walter Mosley.
I find the mystery genre useful for a host of reasons. Here are two. First of all, the mystery genre exposes the close relationship readers have to the detective: we’re all reading clues to find out what happens. I think fiction, especially self-conscious fiction, is a certain crime. And so, who better to “solve” it than the reader/detective? Secondly, this momentum, of trying to find out what happens, allows me the freedom to explore the technical problems without, as it were, losing the plot. The mystery is like the bass line, it provides the forward momentum in time over which I can follow some of my interests and obsessions. In Masses and Motets, the whole of Catholic mythology and pageantry became fair game, and I felt the somewhat pressing question of who killed the priest and why gave me the ostinato below so I could investigate some of those images and questions. But, like many writers, if I write within a particular genre, I like to fuck it up.
This is fascinating to read. I’d known about the Pierre connection but hadn’t remembered reading about the Bostonians connection to S&M. I wanted to ask, since we’re talking about your work, what the experience was politically with that book? Aside from Gilles Deleuze on Brian Evenson’s Altmann’s Tongue I think it’s got my favorite blurb of any book: “We’re concerned about the level of judgment that’s been exercised by the people responsible for its publication … such materials are a violation of what most people in Iowa would find prudent. REPRESENTATIVE KENNETH VEENSTRA, R — ORANGE CITY, IOWA” With Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s recent passing I’ve been thinking a lot about what a contemporary situation like that with Howl might look like, and this seemed like a decent example. What, if you’re comfortable talking about it, was the whole situation with S&M?
I wish I had a bunch of stories about fighting the man, speaking truth the power and being persecuted for my art. Truth is, I was living in Turkish Cyprus when the book was published, with very slow internet. And so, whatever controversy the book stirred up, well, I pretty much missed.
The quote from Veenstra was in reaction to an excerpt from S&M published in the Iowa Review. I doubt that he or his staffers ever picked up a copy of S&M. And then a couple of years later, the US House of Representatives published a congressional report on the sex life of Bill Clinton. So much for obscenity.
With Masses and Motets it became clear to me that one of the writers you’ve got perhaps the most in common with might be Umberto Eco, in terms of your similar obsessions, and the ways in which you’re able to remain inventive and curious when many writers are often at a standstill as to how significant a book can even be. Is this something that’s on your mind as you’re working? When you mentioned the priest I was put in mind of Eco’s “I felt like poisoning a monk” which he said led to The Name of the Rose. In this regard would you say your work as an academic overlaps with your work as a fiction writer? Are you able to hold onto the, I don’t know, mission of this sort of work with things as they are?
I must admit to being flattered by your assertion that I’ve remained “inventive and curious.” Part of what gets me interested in a project is a technical problem, one that I haven’t previously solved or addressed. Again I return to the “what if’: what it I put in hardly any punctuation (S&M)? What if I used an abundance of punctuation (Peter)? What if I rigorously applied a sort of twelve-tone system to sentence structure (Expectation)? I don’t always start with these questions: sometimes it takes a while to discover whatever it is that I’m actually doing. For me, the one of the real joys of writing novels is finding out what form I’m worrying, and then to revise the writing in order to bring these questions into relief. I think there are more problems than I have novels in me, and so I likely won’t repeat myself. That’s the hope anyway.
I’ve not read Eco, but there are a number of writers/thinkers I find myself in conversation with who might be exploring the boundaries of criticism and fiction. I’ve always been drawn to the work of Maurice Blanchot, and lately, especially since Masses and Motets, I’ve been taken with Simone Weil.
I’d like to change your terms, as I really have a negative visceral reaction to the word “academic.” I’d like to substitute the word “critical” if I may. And yes, I agree with you, I’m very interested in the points of contact between what we may term the critical and the fictional. I think they critical and fictional can share a great deal, as both are discourses that tell stories about stories, and both are discourses that seek to have some effect on the world at large. And both understand, or should understand, that their effect on the world is unknowable, uncontrollable. It’s always impossible to know how any writing is going to work in the world, and that impossibility is literature’s greatest power. But then all those words, like “literature,” “impossibility” and “power” must take on several different meanings. And I like that very much. I’m drawn to ambivalence more than anything, I think.
I kept thinking about a sort of odd reference point for this book, embroiled as it is in the world of crime, religion, and the crimes of religion, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels. In part because of your preoccupation with the language of religion, and really language itself, and how that’s treated, and then too because Masses & Motets seemed to take the themes of Dan Brown far more seriously, and engage them the same way you’ve engaged existent texts in previous work. Is there anything useful to glean from positioning those books alongside your work here? I found myself wishing the whole way through that mass market paperbacks of crime fiction and the like were treated so seriously, while also being relatable and human.
I don’t know the Dan Brown novels, but I’m a big fan of detective and mystery novels. I wrote my dissertation on Poe, and I’ve been reading the genre since grad school. I just finished Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, and before that I read all of Wallander, Harry Hole, Beck, Jack Reacher, those Pizzafalcone Bastards, the Marseille trilogy, and Wexford, of course. If I like a book, I’ll usually try to read the series, in order. That usually makes me really want to visit the locales.
I learned a lot about fiction writing from some of those books. At least I think I learned a lot. The importance of setting; the sense of narrative momentum that a crime and its “solution” seems to provide; the reliance on dialogue as a form of character presentation and conflict development. In some, there’s the very real pleasure of seeing some sort of equilibrium restored: a crime threatens the moral universe, and the detective works to re-establish some sense of balance. I’d put Wexford, Reacher, and Wallander (to a certain extent) in this category. In others (Hole, the Continental Op, Easy Rawlins etc.), the “solution” to the crime or mystery is really no solution at all. It might solve the more immediate problem of whodunnit, but the more interesting questions of race, culture, gender and existential violence, pain and yes beauty, become all the more immediate, and all the more impenetrable. While ideally I’d like readers to feel some satisfaction from the story, I don’t think Fruscella really solves anything. On many levels, I think, she’s not a very successful detective.
I see I answered the second part of your question first. Pierre de la Rue’s music is so beautiful and pure—everything, even Bach, sounds almost cluttered beside it. This got me to wonder how such absolute purity and beauty could co-exist with the unimaginable horror of priestly pederasty. It’s this extreme, unspeakable and insolvable opposition, that intrigued me from the beginning.
It’s a condition that neither western philosophy nor western psychology can begin to articulate and explore. The oppositions are too extreme for Hegel—they can’t be synthesized. And Freudian cause/effect thinking also falls short—there’s really no reason or rationale for these two poles to co-exist: this original and originating schism can’t be approached through thinking in terms of the human, the human psyche that is psychology. And so what then could provide the language to develop my story? What kind of detective can work outside both Hegel and Freud?
I turned to the language of theology. Specifically the language of negative theology. Negative theology insists that in order to take God seriously, in order to take God at all, he cannot be human. He can’t just be a BIG man, a supreme father. And since language is human, then we really can’t say or imagine what God is like. At all. And so we must rely on articulating what God is not. I found that negative theology is he only language that respects the Other as other, that doesn’t try to make the other into the same. Which is the project of both Hegel (the other as the world) and Freud (the other as self). And so the language and thinking of theology was a way of exploring these fundamental differences of beauty and horror. It’s an open-ended language: one has no idea who or where or what the other might be. Belief is an openness to an other. Theology, which is at is root a series of stories, was a good way for me to think about how to tell this particular story.
This is the second in your series of detective fictions starring Francesca Fruscella, and it feels like this character, and this setup, has so wonderfully clicked with the various forms your previous books have taken, and yet there are many distinctions one could draw even between the first Fruscella book, Expectation, and this one. Is this something you’re planning to continue mining in further books? Was there anything liberating about this construction to you as the writer?
I’m planning at least a couple more—the Miles Davis/Thelonious Monk one I’m working on now, and perhaps a final book listening and thinking about Beethoven, and his late, deaf works. I really like stories—I haven’t come close to solving narrative yet.
Jeffrey DeShell, novelist, professor, and literary critic, is the author of six novels: Expectation, S & M, Arthouse, The Trouble With Being Born, In Heaven Everything is Fine (FC2), and Peter: An (A)Historical Romance (Starcherone), as well as a critical book, The Peculiarity of Literature: An Allegorical Approach to Poe’s Fiction. He has co-edited two collections of fiction by American women, Chick-Lit I: Postfeminist Fiction and Chick-Lit II: No Chick Vics (FC2), and was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Budapest, Hungary, 1999–2000. Currently, DeShell is a Professor of English, where he has served as the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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