Erik Anderson’s Estranger, the third book from Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series, begins with a memoirist’s problem: the suppressed story of a grandfather’s death on the south side of Chicago in 1984. But Estranger is not simply a memoir; it shifts through techniques familiar from novels and different types of essay, as one family’s story comes into contact with an intricate constellation of subjects—animal intelligence, museum architecture, films by Werner Herzog and Michael Haneke and Hou Hsiao Hsien. In the tradition of writers such as W.G. Sebald, Michael Ondaatje, and Rebecca Solnit, Estranger pushes against the limits of both everyday thought and literary form to explore the types of estrangement that are inseparable from contemporary life. In the following interview, Anderson discusses genre, parenting, and what one does when neither fact nor invention is enough.
ZS: Estranger is largely propelled by a ruminative momentum, what an introductory creative writing course might call “interior action.” At one point, the narrator’s wife remarks that “rumination is a dangerous thing”; he quips that it’s the “only thing [he’s] good at,” yet he knows that this tendency, while helping him think about the book’s varieties of estrangement, also separates him from the life in which they occur. Most glibly, I’m curious if you’d consider all action in this book to be interior, since even the narrator’s more worldly adventures extend from thinky crises. But I also wonder about your thoughts on the topic more widely – it seems connected to the ways in which the book’s reflections on (and recounting of) non-literary art works simultaneously bring a reader toward a work and create a kind of personally involved distance, which perhaps suggests that rumination is not solely dangerous but can be key to an empathetic experience of art. Did you know, early on, that the book’s action would often be the action of ideas?
EA: Close to ten years ago, before I even started Estranger, I had this conversation with a fiction writer friend. I wrote poems then and thought I always would, so I said to this friend that I had zero talent for narrative. What she said in response struck me as both wise and bewildering in the best possible way. Narrative is a condition, she said. And though I don’t exactly remember her saying this next part, I remember hearing or thinking that the trick was to find a way to enter and embrace that condition. A few years after that, someone else, one of my teachers, asked about my first book, The Poetics of Trespass (which was written around the time I stopped writing poetry), had I considered that the essays contained a narrative progression, if only a progression of ideas? I hadn’t, of course. In much of the poetry I was then writing and reading, narrative was practically taboo. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while the short answer to your question is no, I didn’t know what the book’s action would look like, the slightly longer answer is that Estranger itself is, in some sense, a belated, inadvertent response to these earlier prompts.
As for whether all action is interior, within and beyond Estranger – what a fascinating question. I suppose I would argue that all meaningful action is interior. For me, it’s tough to overstate the importance of Joan Didion’s central insight from “The White Album”: not just that We tell ourselves stories in order to live, but also the accompanying caveat that, for a variety of reasons, there are times when the story doesn’t make any sense – when its meaning consists of our inability to see what it means – but how, even then, we keep at it. Because we are narrative creatures. And inlaid in our language, as in our sense of ourselves, is a linearity that begins, in this sentence, with “And” and ends with the following period. Where does that action take place? A reader internalizes the physical page – as a viewer does a painting, say – and to the degree that she truly inhabits or shares in its content, which is not to say trust or love or even agree with it, yes, the writing becomes an empathetic experience. Or maybe it’s an alimentary one I have in mind. Rumination comes from rumen, after all.
ZS: If we view language so experientially – when I read your sentence, I live it – that could trouble the distinction between fiction and nonfiction; even the imaginary, as soon as I think about it, becomes nonfictional. I hesitate to ask about Estranger’s genre, its combining of modes from the novel and the essay, because of the sometimes tiresome discussions from the last fifteen years about fabricated memoirs, lyric essays, reality hunger, and fiction’s role in a data-drenched world, but maybe that hesitation points toward a question: given the rich lineage of writers who blend fiction and nonfiction, why do you think this division between prose genres can feel so fundamental? It makes sense for works of reportage in which veracity has an undeniable ethical import, but, in cases when writing could be labeled simply “prose,” it nevertheless shapes book awards, academic writing programs, readers’ perceptions, writers’ ideas of what can or should be permitted. What did this approach to genre make possible for Estranger?
EA: There’s a funny story about a celebrity chef who, in a magazine interview, recommended that readers eat a plant called henbane, which can be fatal. The magazine immediately printed a retraction: the chef had been thinking of another plant with a similar name. So categories can be useful. They can even mean the difference between life and death. But I think it’s also fair to say that they are often a way of establishing and maintaining power.
I’ve just read Eula Biss’s excellent essay from the New York Times Magazine, “White Debt,” in which she makes the claim that whiteness is a morally corrupt and biologically vacant category, founded on injustice, to which one can and should, despite one’s appearance, refuse to belong. The trouble with genre categories is obviously not equivalent to the brutal, shameful history of racial ones, far from, but the question of who gains, and who loses, through their application is worth asking. Because genre is restrictive. It sets up exclusionary boundaries, dictates what’s allowed and what’s not – your choice of the word fundamental is quite apt.
Etymologically, gender and genre are the same word. And if gender is fluid, with individuals arrayed along a continuum, maybe genre is equally fluid, with literary works distributed in similar fashion. I’m tempted to call Estranger a genre-queer book, though I use the word queer advisedly. As a straight, white man from a middle-class background – and therefore a de facto product of enormous privilege – I don’t want to coopt a word that doesn’t belong to my experience of being a body, but at the same time, rethinking genre along the lines that people have rethought gender may make other realities possible, ones that aren’t beholden to the binary distinctions that are, in many cases, both vacuous and a trap. What does one do, where does one turn, when neither fact nor invention will suffice, when experience is more complicated, more nuanced than either/or?
I could go on and on about this, but there’s one other angle worth considering. Recently, I heard a well-known writer, someone I quite like in person, refer to what “the reader would allow” a writer of nonfiction. Only in a culture in which the market dominates everything, I thought, would the consumer have such power, but that this power should shape how a writer produces his work is, when you think about it, pretty cynical. Since when has art been about simply kowtowing to the market? Since when has it been about following the rules?
ZS: Yes, to speak of what a “reader would allow” in nonfiction seems as suspect as circumscribing what we might “allow” ourselves to perceive in our nonfictional lives. In some scenes, Estranger depicts the market’s comparable impact on higher education, particularly by exploring the personal and social conflicts surrounding universities’ reliance on contingent faculty. (In contrast with this depiction of universities, the scenes involving museums – that other cultural institution – tend to offer more heartening exchanges.) Adjunct faculty, who often are not granted the privileges and prestige of “real” professors, could be viewed as working similarly “between” genres.
And yet, for all the book’s interest in troubling boundaries, it’s clear that the narrator views his work in poetry as belonging to an earlier life. Above, you mention your own past as a poet. Why did you stop writing poems? Are there poets who have been especially influential for your prose?
EA: There was a long period, from about eighteen to twenty-eight, when I lived and breathed poetry. It was my apprenticeship in and to language, and I learned so much from it. But poetry can be a hard way to live, and by that I don’t mean the obvious economic difficulty of making a living as a poet. My own poetry was so abstract and academic. It was as though I’d forgotten that language communicates, that it’s social, that it names actual things instead of always only naming itself. There’s a line in a Wells Tower essay, “The Old Man at Burning Man,” that pretty much sums up the way I feel about much of the poetry I wrote: “If this music is not about robots fucking, then what in God’s name is it about?” The truth is that I never had a good answer to that question, because I never learned how to be a body in a poem. And as time went by the divide between my intellectual life and my physical one grew larger and more painful. In poetry, language estranged me from myself, as it does for the narrating self in Estranger. The self may not be worth much in the end, it may be a total fabrication or construction, but as a wise friend once reminded me, it’s all we’ve got.
What I’ve carried from poetry into prose has less to do, as far as I can tell, with individual poets than with what I’d call the logic of the poem. Of course what a peculiar phrase that is, the logic of the poem. To talk about what it could mean you would have to talk about what it doesn’t, i.e., it’s not the rigorous, systematic reasoning of analytic philosophy. Instead, it’s a logic of sharp turns and quick breaks, of resonance and juxtaposition – a logic driven by intuitive impulses, originating somewhere other than the head but filtering through its cherished mechanism, language. Realizing that a thought can break like a line opened new avenues for me, premised on the poem but not obligated to its conventions. I love the leaps a poem can make from thought to thought, image to image, word to word to word. Those leaps often omit key pieces of the narrative – I arrived at z from x via y – even while retaining those routes implicitly in the text. I may be circling back here to something I said earlier about narrative, reprising it slightly. Yes, this sentence begins with “Yes” and will end with a question mark, but what about everything it doesn’t contain and yet without which it would be impossible?
ZS: Who are some of your favorite writers who employ this kind of logic in prose? What books did you have close at hand while writing Estranger?
EA: Ah, I thought I’d dodged this question, avoided naming names, but now I can see you won’t let me! Very well, I give in. A partial chronological ordering, pre-Estranger, would put Fanny Howe’s essays near the very beginning, along with Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. These were probably concurrent with W.G. Sebald’s novels, much of Georges Perec and Julio Cortázar, as well as books by Roland Barthes and Giorgio Agamben and Joan Didion. When did I read Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello? Auster’s Invention of Solitude? Probably in the heart of the writing. More recently, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Teju Cole’s Open City. I do love the Ben Lerner novels, although I read them after I’d written Estranger, which is also true of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby – I feel a deep kinship with that book. But her Field Guide to Getting Lost was, by necessity, much closer to hand. There are many others working such logic along other lines – Lia Purpura and Amy Leach and even Francis Ponge come, somewhat unrelatedly, to mind – but they had less of a direct influence on the text.
ZS: Auster’s book shares with Estranger its close and tender thinking about family members who, for the most part, are absent – except in memory, reflection, traces. Still, your book is probably more concerned with forms of the family than with forms of prose, and on subsequent readings I’ve noted the depth of care in the narrator’s relationship with his wife, glimpsed through a text message here, a snippet of conversation elsewhere, and his regard for his son. What did you learn from writing about family in this way, at once directly and at a remove? Is this tension central to the book’s vision of contemporary fatherhood, to your broader thinking about family?
EA: There’s a well-known, possibly apocryphal story – I’m sure you’ve heard it – about a certain famous male poet, married with children, who once barricaded himself in his office, declaring to his wife, also a writer (and eventually a divorcee), that there was only enough room for one writer in the family. A man behaving badly, sure, and I want to be careful not to excuse him, but I’d like to think it would be far tougher for a spouse or partner to get away with something like this today. And while that’s a good thing, it’s also tricky if you’ve unconsciously absorbed that earlier set of roles – and if those anachronistic values are still being peddled by, say, your television. You have to learn not to be the writer who barricades himself in his office, physically or figuratively, the egomaniac who puts his work before his life. I had to learn this. I had a lot to unlearn.
Writers have a tendency toward self-involvement, although this may just be a human tendency, and for a certain kind of writer it was, maybe is, easy to partition his life and his work (note the male pronoun), to say these are my books and those are my people, and the way I involve myself with one is separate from the other. Before I was a father, this was an easier stance to maintain, but kids have a way of shattering their parents, mostly for the better. Between the years my son turned one and three, I worked as an adjunct but was mostly a stay at home dad. Not coincidentally, this was when I started Estranger. What I learned from that time, and from the writing, is that the art we create and the people we love are messily interwoven with one another. I can’t separate the way I love from the way I write. They’re the same. Maybe everybody already knows this, and I was just slow to figure it out. And yet the writing is and always will be at a remove. There’s no way around that. The best I can do is narrow the gap, asymptotically.
It so happened that a number of domestic crises arose in quick succession after I read your question yesterday afternoon. My son, for instance, who’s turning seven this week, got upset about the party favor bags he’d labeled in blue marker for his friends, who are coming to the house today. Apparently, he’d started writing his own name on the first one, but, realizing his mistake, crossed it out and wrote the right name instead. For consistency’s sake, and I think this is pretty funny, he did the same to the other bags, but my wife, seeing what he’d done, said something sharper than she’d maybe meant to. There were tears and reconciliations. I’d written the first paragraph at that point, and wouldn’t it have been great, on one level, to keep writing as all of this was going on, to close my office door and work through it. That wasn’t what happened. There was a time when I would have really resisted this – and to be fair there are times when I probably still do – but I know that my response to your question, for me at least, is richer because of the interruptions, not in spite of them.
Zach Savich’s most recent books of poetry are Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2013) and The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016). He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. With Hilary Plum, he edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.
Erik Anderson is the author of The Poetics of Trespass (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010) and Estranger (Rescue Press, 2016). He teaches at Franklin & Marshall College, where he directs the Emerging Writers Festival.