John Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in Paris Review, Ploughshares, and anthologies, and non-fiction in GQ, The New York Times, and elsewhere, including Italian journals. The New York Times has praised his work as “dreamlike… grabs hold of both reader and character”. His novel A Tomb On The Periphery is now available as an E Book.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about genre writing and identity.
There has been much ongoing debate about the relative merits of genre writing as opposed to literary writing. Do you think literary writing is just another genre?
A significant question for some folks, and a legitimate one, but nonetheless the issue of genre doesn’t much interest me. If by genre we mean some sort of category, SF or Fantasy or Crime or Spy, identifying that category matters far less to me than identifying whether the book’s imaginative, perceptive, well-rendered, vital… whether it’s, y’know, good work. Fitting William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in some sort of SF slot (and to be sure, the earlier Neuromancer makes a better fit) ignores the sturdier qualities of the 2003 novel: its character richness and insight into the times. Another way to put my objection is to point out that the “literary novel” is a genre cooked up just recently, just over the last couple of decades, for the marketing purposes of major publishers. Promoters and booksellers use it to designate a realistic novel, written with some attention to style (though nothing too freaky, please), set among the contemporary bourgeois, folks with decent money and education, and concerning their life’s quiet challenges and changes. The model in English would be Austen, call it Austen brought up to date, but the larger challenge remains: is the irony and intelligence anywhere near Austen? Alternatively, should John Le Carré, at his best rich in social and personal acumen, be excluded from the “literary” because he tells stories of spy-vs.-spy? On top of that, the “literary” as category suffers further confusion over the place of anything freaky, anything experimental. A novel with some aspect of the uncoventional, even something so familiar by now as long passages in stream-of-consciousness, can be termed “literary” for this aspect of style. Indeed, it can be criticized as “too literary!” I renounce the “literary novel” — while embracing, ever more tightly, literature.
A writer like Donald Barthelme is playful in his fictions, which inhabit what has been called postmodernism and its metafictions. Do you think the fragmentation of identity seen in postmodernist works are connected to the excess of information that characterises the modern era?
In one of Barthelme’s interviews (Paris Review, I believe), he points out that we’ve already got a working list of guidelines for good behavior, ten items only: the Commandments. With Moses and Exodus in mind, continued Barthelme, didn’t it stand to reason that fiction occupy itself with something else? Something other than exemplars of How to Live? He’s got a point, and that’s my point — I’m one of those who sees the storyteller’s job as expressing ancient truths in new, even startling, ways. I’m not sure the “narrative arc” of a life, as they say in Hollywood, will end in a new place, but I’m positive that the “arc” will follow something other than stale B-movie geometry. How about a rhomboid, say? Or the saddle-shape of the universe? I mean, we all know that feeling we had as a child, that scary, meditative moment when we were suddenly aware of infinity, the vastness beyond our ken. A wonderful climax, that, a story moment. Yet too many narrative artifacts ignore that kind of honest awe in favor of reassurance or simple closure. Barthleme devoted a career to the difficult work of resisting closure: “worst of all,” he wrote in “The Dolt,” “is to begin, to begin, to begin.” The storytellers who matter to me always have that quality of beginning. When their work arrives at some conventional wisdom or another, like for instance a coming-of-age, it surprises us by its unexpected form, its new geometry. Thus what your question terms “the fragmentation of identity” is one search for new paths to the old place of awe. It’s not exactly Barthelme’s path, I’d say, he’s more interested in love, but in any case, while his work matters enormously to me, since he was once a teacher a later something (something) of a friend, nonetheless my story shapes can’t be his, can they? Not if they’re to have some absolute value of their own? Still, I’ll wrap up this answer with another of his blink-inducing lines: “The death of God left the angels in a strange position.”
Do you think that those who claim writers should be moral in their fictions are deluding themselves about what it takes to write a good story?
I mean, couldn’t I leave my answer at that? And if I did, wouldn’t it deliver something like a story surprise, here? Surprise seems to me intrinsically bound up with what’s moral about fiction. The integrity that matters is the storyteller’s fidelity to his or her imagination. The imagination opens up surprises, the dream exposes the shadow as well as the light, and, if I wanted to get all Yoda on you, I’d ask, what good would the light be if not for the shadow? Yeah yeah yeah. The point is, stories have to disturb. What shocks and upsets — assuming the teller’s got the gift, of course — is what enables us first to identify with the sufferers or voyagers or whoever and then to take whatever pleasure or profit we get from a narrative. This much was in the nature of drama long before Aristotle wrote his Poetics. But of course your question refers to a more recent work of criticism, a silly, flimsy screed by the American writer John Gardner, On Moral Fiction. Back in 1979, OMF raised a defense of Gardner’s own feeble imagination (his novels, nowadays, get far less attention than this book) by attacking the much richer ones around him. In particular he went after American Postmodernists like Barthelme, though Calvino and a number of other Europeans also put up steep challenges to convention (just think of filthy, fascinating Houellebecq), because Gardner sought attention in the U.S. The book’s single strong point remains its media-savvy title. Otherwise it’s mostly lists, good guys versus bad guys, and witless misreadings. Look, John Barth’s 1960 masterpiece The Sot-Weed Factor is all about morality; the point of of its wild Colonial comedy is the main character’s spiritual trial. But then Barth has a magnificent imagination, an omnivorous thing with a dozen busy tentacles.
In relation to Gardner, do you think that the US is in danger of succumbing to theocracy, and to what extent does Houellebecq encapsulate the ongoing desire in Europe to epater la bourgeoisie?
Two very different different questions, there! The first, I must say, lies well outside my competence. Foretelling the future of American society, whew, that might be a fool’s errand. I can say that what threatens the U.S., just now, isn’t so much the issues with roots in religion, like the right of gays to marry. Far more dangerous is the terrible inequality in wealth and income, which continues to eat away at the middle class and add to the population of underemployed and unemployed, often on the verge of homelessness. Combine that large pool of the disenfranchised with an ever-more-remote Congress, the “people’s representatives” ever more beholden to the very wealthy, and you’ve got the recipe for widespread unrest. I wouldn’t be surprised — though I would be dismayed — to see shantytowns and rioting such as we had in the 1930s, or back in other badly depressed eras. Occupy Wall Street could be a harbinger. Scarier still, these days there are a lot more guns in circulation… But what was your other question?
Right, right. Elementary Particles was the first of his I read, in this I’m like most Americans (though it was an Italian who recommended it to me), and I’ve caught up with the later novels. The first I still haven’t read, I believe the English title’s Whatever, and folks I trust say that’s his most humane. From where I sit, though, the one that matters looks to be Particles, and not just because it jabs the complacent and well-off. The novel’s sex stuff, like its misanthropy (i.e., better to kill yourself than grow old in a wheelchair), isn’t so new or outrageous, really. The smut and sneering are well done, but they’re not the breakthrough. Rather, that novel makes its mark for its extraordinary new take on science fiction. Houellebecq displays marvelous moves as he sneaks up on his brave new world. That’s how the best artwork guts the bourgeois.
Tell us about A Tomb On The Periphery.
Ah, a subject I know! Or I ought to… Hmm, you and I have been talking a lot about genre, and I can say that Tomb has its genre elements, in particular out of the crime novel. A bit of the ghost story too. The crime novel is about a lifestyle, whereas the mystery novel needs to solve a particular bloodletting, and while my Tomb makes room for some bloodletting — at the climax, I’ve got knives out and guns going off — what really makes the story go is a classic internal wrangle for the criminal, namely, how bad is he going to be? My young man Fabbrizio (the name is usually spelled with just one “b,” but I have secret reasons for the second) works on the fringes of the Naples malavita, the “bad life,” the crime syndicate known as the Camorra. He has his reasons, family problems, economic pressures, and from the first he’s nosing into more dangerous risk and exposure. Further prompting him to these excesses is a femme fatale, sure, a devious American girl, and by the end of the first scene there’s a MacGuffin, a piece of valuable contraband. Elements of the crime novel, as I say. And not much further along, the ghost speaks up, or what might be a ghost. Still, I’d like to think that my combination of these elements takes us to character development and social insight. I’d like to think my sentences are open to edgy, playful effects, and free of dead language, opening up fresh perspectives on experience. So. The book has depth of personality (ideally, anyway), plus perceptions about a complicated old city and a moment in history, and unexpected pop in the style as well. If these make my Tomb into a literary novel, so be it. You know, Fabbrizio’s rough-and-tumble also builds, in a rickety way, on the story of my previous novel, Earthquake I.D.
That story, like Tomb, is set in Naples after the next earthquake, and the books are the first two of a loose trilogy, set in that perilous place and time, each with a very different point of view. Given this larger conception, Tomb on the Periphery would seem doomed to wear the scarlet letter of The Literary! But as I said before, the category “literary” comes from the folks in Marketing, not from the creative end of the calling. Did Joseph Conrad fret over whether Nostromo would wind up on the Adventure shelves? Or, God help us, the shelves labeled “Latin-American Interest?” The liveliness, not the label, is what matters.
Graham Greene said that writers have “a piece of ice “in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
Richard, for starters, I’m honored just to appear on the same web page as Graham Greene. Talk about an omnivorous sensibility, even in the books he called “entertainments.” As for ice in the heart, I could again confine myself to a single syllable: Yes. Sure. Word, as they say in Hip-Hop Nation. Greene’s raising another warning, there, about trying to impose a moral while creating a story. That’s what I hear, at least, and the quip goes to the conception of the drama, the need to prize what works as narrative over sentimental attachments. I mean, I brought up Jane Austen earlier, and I hope I showed respect, though I don’t write much like her or think literature should keep put where she was. Still, think about Austen a moment. Her tales show a lot of restraint, don’t they? Everyone keeps their clothes on, and no one brandishes so much as a fireplace poker, let alone a Glock 9. Yet Austen had Greene’s ice in her veins, no question. When it comes to her women’s hard choices, and to the mortal threat they faced, during her era, in a chill or in childbirth, Austen writes with surgical detachment. Of course the natural companion to such a bracing clarity is a profound sympathy. Austen has compassion as well, she knows just how badly her people are hurting, and I’d argue Greene had that compassion too. His understanding embraced, even, the complexities of his villains. And that balance of warmth and cool seems to me why Pride and Prejudice can strike home more poignantly than, to pick a novel that’s far more violent, the splatterfest American Psycho. Easton Ellis, there, isn’t to be faulted for a failure to treat women nicely — homicidal mania has always been a perfectly good option for fiction. Rather, he suffers a failure of imagination. Psycho’s target is such an easy one, the broad side of the American capitalist barn, and the arrows he sinks into it spell out a simple moral fable, another portrayal of the wickedness of greed. Small wonder that book worked well as a movie, within the narrow confines of 90 minutes, where stick figures have their best impact. In a novel, in fiction, the medium of language tends to the multifarious, it works down in the back of the brain where words and concepts couple and uncouple bewilderingly, disturbingly, serendipitously and the hands that seek to sculpt order out of that chaos need to be steady.
Do you think religion has been displaced by the rise of the technocrats?
Again, we’re no longer in my bailiwick, here. I’m no sociologist, much less a soothsayer, though I can point out that the question reveals a cultural bias. Outside our Enlightenment-framed Euro-American gated community, religion clearly remains a driving force for millions. Even as the Navy Seals gunned down Osama, the militant Al-Shabbab was gaining power down on the Horn of Africa. Come to think, wasn’t your earlier question about America becoming a theocracy rooted in the threat of born-again Christianity? The recognition that such narrow-minded believers might become powerful enough to derail democratic systems? I mean, I read the newspapers, even if I they’re on the web. I can see that much. But what I understand better, as a fiction writer, is how the place of religion in people’s lives often proves fruitful, when it comes to developing character. In the opener of my Naples set, Earthquake I.D., my protagonist Barbara may have first come alive for me as a Catholic. When I discovered what I call her “spiritual muscle,” impossible to pinpoint yet undeniably powerful, I got my first concrete sense of her character. Now, Barbara has a lot else going on, of course. She’s in middle age, long married, a mother of five. But her belief has a lot to do with her coming to the earthquake zone — her and the family — and with the hullabaloo that breaks loose once she arrives. That’s the impact religion still has, in the Enlightenment-framed culture you and I share. God speaks in private; he breaks up families, not nations. I can’t help but notice, for instance, that the best dystopian novels (the ones that truly scare me, at least) don’t deal in futures defined by religion. I mean, I just can’t buy Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which an America taken over by Christian militants strips women of all rights. I just can’t buy the premise, though Atwood follows through with great verve. But the shriveling human space of William Gibson, his slow crumble, that I recognize and believe in. Gibson’s mechanistic Purgatory is often compared to the world of Philip K. Dick, but the root pattern, the Ur of the dystopic future, was set down by righteous old George Orwell. The totalitarianism of Big Brother didn’t depend on religion; 1984, rather, is a nightmare ruled by technology.
What do you see as the ongoing influence of Wallace Stevens on poetry?
Oh-ho, someone’s been browsing my blogs and comments for Big Other! That’s a discriminating and heady place, http://bigother.com, and my hat’s off to its administrators John Madera and Greg Gerke; I hope you also got a peek, on there, at my Dante materials. They were doing “A Week of Wallace,” something like that, when I posted my thoughts. Not that they were thoughts you wouldn’t expect, given what I’ve been saying here. I can’t deny that Stevens was a metrical master, always bringing off an astonishing amalgam of rigor and silk, like the yawn and murmur of iambic pentameter in “Sunday Morning,” or the marching in place, marching yet joshing, in the foursquare “Anecdote of the Jar.” But what I celebrate about his work, and what I discern as his “ongoing influence,” is his imagination. Stevens is nothing without those off-kilter details, like the orange peels in “Sunday,” and the expressions from out of left field, like “took dominion” from “Jar.” His formal rigor wouldn’t leave a scratch if it weren’t for his barbed leaps of thought. That’s why the latter-day “Formalists” like Mary Jo Salter generally can’t touch him; they’re on the beat, yes, but the substance rings hollow. But stop me before I sound too much like an old curmudgeon. Stop me, and let me admit, sheepishly, that in fact I’m more a man for Stevens’ radical contemporary William Carlos Williams. Williams’ accomplishment in verse looks to me like the high-water mark of that Stateside generation, no less. The New Jersey ob-gyn man reinvented the poetic line and its vocabulary, using what came “out of the mouths of Polish mothers.” All due respect to Stevens, the great challenge for a young talent now is to come to grips with work like “For Elsie” and “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” and “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital” — and then wrestle their way past. Makes me think of wrestling with Antaeus…
How important is Italy to your writing?
Italy, hmm. Il Bel Paese has tended to endure either feast or famine, when it comes to Italian-American writers. Salient cases would be Don DeLillo and Gilbert Sorrentino, each a magnificent fictioneer in his own way — yet similar in how they turned their back on their heritage. Granted, DeLillo’s late masterwork Underworld sets a section in the old Little Italy of Queens, but for almost half a century the only exceptional Italian-American novel might’ve been Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, lovely New York stuff. But of course Puzo went on to The Godfather — on assignment, for the money — and a large part of that book’s entertainment value, its undeniable scary fun, was the free use it made of Italian clichés. The Godfather played to expectation, which also helped it translate to film (that, plus Coppola’s superb eye). More refined sensibilities, however, wanted no part of such stuff. When Sorrentino dropped in an Italian character, it was a buffoon. Of course I’m leaving out a lot, friends of mine, even. Apologies, guys. Still, I’ll stand by my basic argument, namely, that in my tribe it’s been feast or famine. And I’m trying to follow a more sensible diet. I don’t deny my genetic coding, but I’m not all wrapped up in its helixes either. I’m the son of a man born and raised in Naples, I’ve lived there myself, and why shouldn’t Naples emerge eventually as a major subject for me? Why shouldn’t I rise to the challenge? It makes a lot more interesting material than my love life. Also I can discern traces of an Italian nature in the characters I’m drawn to, in my scenes and sentences — oh, I could bloviate about it for hours! But as I say, I’m striving for better balance. I want a aesthetic that embraces both Pulcinello and the postmodern. If I were to generalize, I’d say my Italian makeup has taken me towards social realism, a lot of history and economics, while my training in the American university (my teachers, the trends of the moment) has taken me the other way, prizing niceties of craft. The amalgam may appear unworkable, but it’s mine, all mine. Why not make the best of it? Isn’t every successful piece of imaginative writing some sort of Rube Goldberg contraption?
What do you see yourself getting up to next?
Hey, thanks for asking! Thanks for all this, really, Richard. Next, well, the Naples-quake set is complete, with the novel from the African point of view, The Color Inside a Melon. That’s out with the first editors now; light a candle. My desk remains cluttered, though, in particular with one more Naples project, non-fiction, a memoir I suppose. God help us! But I’ve published a number of the materials, published them pretty well and won grants with them too. So I’ll see that one through. I have the structure now, the tick and tock of the text, and the full title may be Cooking the Octopus: Discovering Naples, my Father, and Myself. As I work through that, of course I’ll keep the antennae extended, I’ll see if I can tune in another novel. But… and now for something completely different. Now for my own Monty Python, some funny business, or I hope it’s funny. Lately I’ve published a number of stories without a narrative. Maybe a better way to put it would be that these stories both relate a narrative and undo it at the same time, always by way of our moneyed story industry, a/k/a Hollywood. Everything’s “in development,” as they say around the studio, and I’ve got some more of those anomalies in me, a book’s worth. Movieola, how’s that sound for a title? Also, from time to time, poems leak out, nubby meditations on the hard knocks of an academic gypsy. Again, I believe I have the title: The Grand McLuckless Road Atlas. I like that. Then there are the reviews and essays, the criticism. My latest is a long piece on Jaimy Gordon for Ploughshares. I’ve culled through those, and I’ve got a book there too, a selection, everything newly edited and revised, in which I redefine and defend the postmodern. If anyone’s interested…
Richard, seriously: thanks.
Thank you John for a brilliant and informative interview which I hope will draw new readers to your work.
John Domini’s website