Gint Aras’s second novel The Fugue is an ambitious, 500-plus page saga about Eastern European families who settle in the Chicago suburb of Cicero following WWII. Both the musical and psychological meanings of “fugue” are explored through a Dickensian array of characters haunted by traumas past, present, and future—both self-inflicted and inflicted upon them. There are guilt-ridden Catholic priests, alcoholics, abusive parents, tormented children, and a litany of melodramas that range from adultery to parricide. The Fugue is unapologetically operatic and aspires toward the classics in a way that is rare in contemporary literature. At its core, the novel is a story about the light and dark sides of community.
After being introduced by our publisher, the Chicago Center for Literature & Photography, I had a very entertaining e-mail confab with Aras about the novel’s long journey to publication, the state of publishing, bombast, and the importance of neighbors.
You’ve written that the novel took you 15 years to publish. How long did it take you to write?
The Fugue grew out of a vignette about a guy fixing a window. I wrote it in 2000 while living in New York. It took on meat, became a novel, and I had a manuscript completed in 2005, tried to sell it. Tried for years.
Eventually I gave up, pretty much hung it up as a failure. In the meantime, I wrote another book, which I intended to self-publish, a picaresque titled Finding the Moon in Sugar. It was my effort to grow an audience and have fun.
I was reading from it in a bar in October 2014 when I met Jason Pettus, owner of CCLaP. He asked me if I had more stuff. I sent him the manuscript and to my utter shock, he offered to publish it. In terms of raw time, it was six years of writing, maybe seven. But for most of the time between, oh, 2007 to 2014, it had just been collecting dust.
Why do you think it took so long to find a home, and do you think your journey says anything about the state of publishing today?
I don’t think it’s any accident that I sold the book to someone who heard me read in public. I’m not very good at pretending to have the book you don’t know you’re looking for, but I am a relatively skilled public speaker, have a nice voice, and can hold the attention of a crowded room.
As for the state of publishing, I’ve worked in a variety of industries over the past two decades, including public education—yes, it’s an industry—whose goal is to funnel public funds to private coffers, hoarded by übermen investing in themselves, all while selling a cut-rate product. That’s the economy we live in. I don’t care who you work for. Unless you run the place, you’re expendable, and more often than not, you’re selling some overpriced cheap thing people neither need nor truly want, something that’s obsolete in a year and turns out to have side effects like hives and hallucinations.
If I’m some acquisitions editor at publishing house #2, and this beast is breathing outside my door, ready to replace me, I’ve got to score big. Right now, billionaire BDSM is all the rage. Here’s a query from some guy: he’s got a 120,000-word manuscript titled The Fugue, and it’s about a sculptor. Fuck me. I may not even bother sending him a form rejection. Doesn’t he know the beast is breathing?
The state of publishing is not some poisoned field in an otherwise healthy estate. This is the bed our culture has made. People with time to read are lucky. Most people are terrified about tomorrow. The rent’s going up, and the boss is cutting costs.
A central theme in the novel is trauma, more specifically the way trauma resonates (like music) across generations. The Dilienko and Laputis families flee Eastern Europe in the 40’s due to violence, and violence follows future generations of the family to America. What inspired you to explore this theme? Were there specific works of fiction you were attempting to pay homage to or were there personal experiences you were drawing from?
I was raised by displaced persons and lived in Cicero, which was full of displaced persons. Cicero borders Chicago’s West Side and is only vaguely different from Chicago. On my block, I remember a single household that was not recently arrived or first generation immigrants. So the migrant and refugee experience is central to my identity.
It always struck me that the narrative of migration to America is dominated by stories of religious persecution or economic improvement. People typically imagine the “person who came for a better life.” I knew few such immigrants in my childhood—my elders weren’t pursuing any American dream. They fled war and death, and ended up in America because, for most of them, they happened to catch passage, and there just wasn’t anywhere else to go.
Americans have really romantic visions of war. I’ve obviously never been in a foxhole, but I can tell you that war doesn’t end when the last bullet is fired, when borders are redrawn, victors and losers declared. War stays in the bones of the civilians who’ve experienced it, and children born to survivors feel it. When you’re the child of refugees, the context of your existence, of your arrival and appearance on Earth is trauma: unfathomable, sometimes unspeakable, but as palpable as heat.
My novel makes numerous allusions to old European and Russian books. It’s also heavily steeped in the traditions of Chicago literature, our stories about transplantation, multi-lingual households, elders’ horrible secrets. Those books are attractive to me because I see my own trauma in them. Sure, they’re inspirations. But they’re mainly a source of comfort, and I learned a lot about writing by reading them.
One of the aspects I admire about The Fugue is the way you write about art (classical music, composition and sculpture). What were some of the writerly tricks you used to ensure that the creative practice translated to an average reader, many of whom are unlikely to have experienced what it’s like to be a sculptor or composer? Were there aspects of the creative practice you tried to avoid describing for fear of inaccessibility to the reader?
I think the way you remain accessible, no matter the topic, is by writing clear sentences and by focusing on the character who’s involved in something, not in the involvement itself. I don’t feel I’m writing about art so much as I’m writing about the artist, his interior state, his point of view.
Granted, I’m kind of announcing my intensions and goals right from the get go. Some people will see the title of the book and think, “Bombast! Who the hell does this writer think he is?”
Art and music are very important to me. But I have no training in visual art and only a year of piano. I’m neither a composer nor a sculptor—for that matter, neither am I a priest or a physician, two important players in the narrative—but I really wish I could be everyone at once and learn everything they know. Writing a novel is, for me, a vicarious experience. Life forces us to pick a limited number of roles. But a novel is an antidote to life’s pigeonholing.
Ultimately, I don’t think Yuri Dilienko is interesting because he can sculpt a wounded bird out of a wrecked bike. I think he’s interesting because he’s in pain, is lonely, struggles to find love, to heal. He has lost most everyone he loved. The guy’s been incarcerated, stripped of his freedom. Who doesn’t fear that?
Catholicism plays a big part in the narrative, especially Catholic guilt. All the main characters are deeply burdened in some way by things they’ve done or wish they could do. Were you trying to make commentary on Catholicism in general or the spiritual state of mind of Eastern Europeans?
Catholicism is very difficult to write about. In certain literary circles (the appeal of Pope Francis notwithstanding), “Catholic” has become its own tragic punch line. My goals weren’t to take shots. Catholicism, as a culture and philosophy, is fascinating, deeply wise. It endures for a reason.
I was raised Catholic. You can renounce, as I have, all the metaphysics, all the rules and rituals, and you can stop donating money, rant against St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. When your protest ends, Catholicism’s effects, like those of war, remain. Mea maxima culpa. Perhaps the oddest Catholic guilt is to feel guilty for being Catholic in the first place.
When I got to college, especially graduate school, it struck me how many people also suffered from liberal guilt. For a lot of people, it only intensified as their education progressed. Liberal guilt comes from a similar place: a desire for social justice, balanced order, and an inflated sense of responsibility.
In the human psyche, guilt is equally an obstacle and a messenger, a cousin of both compassion and conceit. Characters in The Fugue commit heinous acts: deliberate cruelty, murder and worse violations. Some characters carry such enormous weight for things they had no means to control or influence—the outcome of a war, the sexual behavior of a powerful elder—that they destroy themselves and bring down innocents.
If I’m offering a commentary about guilt, it’s to be mindful, sense its relationship to our passions. It’s not just a Catholic thing. Certainly for a writer of my background it’s quite the Catholic thing. I just hope I haven’t treated it like a punch line.
What would you say today to Younger Gint Aras of 2001 about what it’s like to be an author as opposed to a writer?
Oh, man. You know, I love that kid so much more than he loved himself. He used to beat himself up terribly. It was a trip to go back after so much time away from a book, open it up, read it, and go ‘A 27-year-old kid was thinking this shit?”
I’d tell him: “Kid, you’ve got the right idea.” Have the mind of a marathon runner. That’s what you need. In the meantime, don’t be ashamed to love yourself. You’re not going to do good work if you deny yourself comforts. Go out with friends sometimes. You’re going to need them. Buy better coffee. Let yourself sleep. You’re worth a full night’s rest. It’s much easier to keep going when you’ve got energy to spare. Get better shoes. You’ll be walking for a long time, and it’ll take its toll on your back.
Gint Aras will be reading from The Fugue in Chicago on February 18th.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas) is a Columbia University MFA. His writing has appeared in The St. Petersburg Review, Quarterly West, Antique Children, Criminal Class Review, Curbside Splendor, Šiaurės Atėnai, Dialogo, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He’s also the author of two novels, Finding the Moon in Sugar (Infinity, 2009) and The Fugue (CCLaP Publishing, December 2015.) Learn more at Liquid Ink: http://gint-aras.com.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies including one from the MacDowell Colony, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. His first story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS is forthcoming in 2017. He lives in Brooklyn.