As someone who has written about Gabriel Blackwell’s work before, I feel oddly unqualified to discuss his latest, and perhaps most accomplished, book, Madeleine E. (Outpost 19). Few writers are as ingenious or as incisive on the subject of contemporary America’s relationship to its own industries of the imagination. Madeleine E. demonstrates as much, but it also does considerably more, and by simultaneously widening and narrowing its scope. The very idea of a novel, as both an entertainment and a social enterprise, disappears into the decidedly noir-ish back alleys of a different kind of storytelling in Madeleine E. Philosophy, the natural sciences and film studies are but a few of the discourses expositing and arguing away between the book’s bindings. Zizek only wishes he were as Benjaminian as Blackwell is here, or that he could erect such graceful arcades out of culture’s fracture and babble. The result is a work which reminds us that the Singularity happened millennia ago, and that we call it by another name: “narrative.”
One last act of prelude: special mention should also be made of Gabriel Blackwell’s incredible work curating The Collagist. If this isn’t a journal you follow regularly, please update your preferences at your earliest opportunity. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to The Collagist, and have benefited greatly from having worked under Gabriel Blackwell’s generous and expert editorial direction.)
The following questions and answers were exchanged between June and July of 2016.
1) In multiple ways, Madeleine E. presents itself to the reader as a continuum of failure. Scotty’s and Judy’s inability to achieve their desires within the scripted universe of Hitchock’s Vertigo; the movie’s own disappointing initial box-office performance; the failure of the narrator to write the book his agent wants him to write; etc. Why is failure such a compelling literary subject?
There’s this scene, a little over midway through Vertigo, where Scottie goes up the tower after the woman he believes is Madeleine Elster. Though he starts up the stairs, he can’t make it all the way to the top. Now, if he had, we, the audience, know, he would have found not only Judy, but also Elster and the “real” Madeleine waiting there for him—the mystery would be solved, the story would be resolved. And to Scottie, getting to the top is the difference between saving Madeleine and letting her die. No matter how one sees it, then, Scottie’s failure to make it up the stairs is quite serious, so serious that thinking of it sends him to some sort of rest cure. Even knowing how serious the situation was, though, Scottie could not make it up the stairs.
In the film, it is Scottie’s acrophobia that prevents him from reaching the top—he gets some way up, looks down into the stairwell, and the camera tracks back and zooms in at the same time, Hitchcock’s Expressionistic way of visualizing the effect of the sight on Scottie. He is so disoriented he cannot move from the spot. In the novel on which the film is based, though, he does not stop dead in his tracks at the sight down the tower. In the novel, there is a locked door in his way; he comes to this locked door and can’t go any further. If Hitchcock had simply filmed the novel, the audience would have seen that, for Scottie to save Madeleine, he would have had to climb out of the window and around the outside of the tower to the next window to keep moving up. Hitchcock would not have needed to impress upon us the extent of Scottie’s acrophobia, his vertigo—everyone in the theater would see that it is impossible for Scottie to follow Judy. The very first scene in the movie is Scottie not making a jump from one building to another. Scottie is not John McClane. He is not even Buster Keaton. He’s us. He’s powerless.
Now, the locked door—that whole scenario, the one in the novel—is easily represented on film. It barely requires thought: you show the door locking behind Judy and Scottie coming up to it, trying it, and then banging on it while Judy keeps climbing. We’ve seen variations of that a hundred times. Hitchcock, though, didn’t choose to do things that way. Instead, he had Scottie’s vertigo—an interior effect or condition that is sort of impossible cinematically, that really can’t be filmed—stand in for the locked door. If you think about it, it seems almost perverse: the novel presents something visual, and the film substitutes something internal.
But then we know that Hitchcock chose to do things that way because he wanted to get that effect, that simultaneous tracking back and zooming in, into his film, plain and simple. He’d tried it before but couldn’t get it to work, and now, with Vertigo, he wanted to try it again.
Anyway, I suppose I could say that failure makes for interesting effects. It does, doesn’t it? Success, being by nature the outcome one has expected, or hoped for, or at the very least imagined, can’t truly surprise us. Failure, on the other hand—
2) What happens when memoir drops its mask and reveals itself to be the allegory is has been all along?
I’m uncomfortable with both memoir and allegory, I think because they both suggest a deceptively simple answer to the question of why the text exists. I really think that should be a more difficult question to answer.
I agree with that last sentiment, and I would classify Madeleine E. as a genreless or “intergenre” work. Nevertheless, the book engages in a search for meaning, and interacts with patterns and shapes that some readers might associate with specific literary genres. How much were you giving (or trying to avoid giving) consideration to genre as you composed Madeleine E.?
Sure, no question. I actually began with the idea of writing a work of suspense (thus the choice of Vertigo), which—suspense—is itself a strangely shapeless genre, albeit one with more constraints than, say, “fiction,” or “poetry,” but once I’d found the form of the book, even that relatively loose constraint receded. Form is—to me—very important.
3) This book represents something of a departure from your previous work. Not so much in the sense that Madeleine E. is fluid with respect to genre, but more in the sense that, in Madeleine E., the tight counterfactual spirals of fictional experiments like Shadow Man and The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men here unspool into structures more or less collage-like. I suppose the more accurate term would be montage, as that method and aesthetic are native to a linear medium not unlike literature. Nevertheless, the movement in Madeleine E. between various mise-en-scène isn’t really about temporal displacement. How much was your work on Madeleine E. a self-conscious engagement with form, and, if so, what were you hoping formal experimentation might do to and for you as an author?
Oh, I think form is important in all of my books. Madeleine E. isn’t an exception. I do think it’s interesting that you say that the movement “isn’t really about temporal displacement,” since I think Madeleine E. may be the most concerned with temporal displacement of the three books you mention, at least in terms of its narrative—the temporal displacement is explicit, though maybe somewhat disorienting. “Unspool,” though, is a good word; I didn’t feel particularly obligated to be seen to “tie up loose ends” in Madeleine E. For that matter, no one does in Vertigo, either. Life is cruel just where art is at its kindest.
If it is even possible for you to approach it as a reader, where do you feel temporal displacement most acutely in your own book?
Honestly, I don’t think I should be trusted as a reader of the book. As the writer, though, the fact of the book, I mean even just the physical object on the shelf in the next room, is a temporal displacement.
You know, in Vertigo, both Elster and Scottie attempt to impose a sense of order on their own lives at the expense of the lives of Judy Barton and Madeleine Elster. Both of these attempts take the form of a kind of time travel, as I think do all attempts to impose order on the disordered—Elster’s scheme reaches further back than Scottie’s, of course, but they both attempt the same thing, really. They go back in time to abduct the body of a woman, and their attempts to bring that body forward in time, those jarring displacements, inevitably result in that woman’s death. Their attempts are attempts at reversing entropy, and like all such attempts, they’re doomed to failure. (They’re also of course horribly selfish and unthinking and cruel, but I hope that goes without saying.)
And then, in I guess a more literal sense, there’s time travel in the book, too. No time machine, though.
4) What sort of body (or corpse) does citation delineate?
I’m not sure I understand the question, but I will say that the form of Madeleine E.—a commonplace book, a collection of quotations—is indivisible from its subject. It’s important that the things the woman Scottie believes is Madeleine says are things that he also believes are things “the real Madeleine” said or would say. So much so that he forces Judy Barton to become a kind of quotation, even while recognizing that she is a quotation.
5) If I think about my twenties—and I prefer not to—I recall years in which whatever malaise compassed me was inseparable from movies. Cinematic experience alleviated some of the existential pain of that malaise, but it just as often exacerbated it and elevated that pain to the level of agony. I’m not sure precisely how or why the heightened representational power of movies was one I experienced as so double-edged, but I do know that whatever enthusiasm I once had for cinema atrophied as I passed through my 30s. Would you consider Madeleine E. a record of a similar relationship with film?
I don’t watch many films. I don’t often find the time and the concentration required of me; I suppose I’d rather spend that time and concentration reading, or, more rarely, writing. That wasn’t always the case—like you, I spent a lot of time in my twenties watching movies, but then I also spent of time in my twenties listening to music and playing music. Really, I did lots of things then I sort of never do now. I suppose what I mean to say is that any malaise in Madeleine E. comes from my relationship with the book itself.
That’s fascinating. Of course, I’m guilty here of conflating the narrator of Madeleine E. with the Gabriel Blackwell answering these questions. In my defense, perhaps, the cinematic references I’ve encountered in other examples of your work suggested to me that Vertigo, the film, is a real obsession of yours. On the scale of “arbitrary” to “calculated,” where would you place your choice to build this particular book around “the cinematic”?
I’m a terrible—maybe just a stubbornly reluctant—self-analyst, so I’ll politely resist searching myself for motivations or explanations for past decisions.
I will say that I set out to write a work of suspense or a thriller—it was what my thinking at the time suggested, and, anyway, why not?—but I couldn’t find a book in those genres that interested me enough to sustain the kind of attention I’d need to then write something worth anything. I mean, I liked plenty of things I read just fine, but I couldn’t see myself rereading The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example, a dozen times, or spending a few years thinking and writing about it. I read lots of books, from Rogue Male on up to Gone Girl, but nothing quite connected. I even considered writing a thriller under a pseudonym and then writing about that, but that seemed needlessly limiting. Then I realized there was really no reason to restrict my search to books—the Master of Suspense is Alfred Hitchcock—so I started watching movies instead, and pretty quickly found Vertigo.
(Maybe I should back up a bit and say, for people not familiar with my work, that I don’t have much interest in writing fictions that pretend they are, on their own, sufficient as fictions. I prefer to write fictions that reach out to other works, that complicate or enstrange those works in the process of telling their stories, or else in some way lean on other works to accomplish their effect.)
As for Vertigo being an obsession of mine, I don’t think so. I’d seen it before I chose it, of course, but, just in terms of Hitchcock, I think I’d probably seen North by Northwest more times than Vertigo, and there are many, many other movies I’d seen more often than either of those. That’s not to say I regret the choice—Vertigo remained interesting, no matter how many times I watched it. In any case, Vertigo was the film that fit the story I seemed to be trying to tell.
6) Is murder an inherently misogynistic crime? That is, why is the murder victim almost always female?
In literature, in art, murder may be misogynistic, yes. Certainly there is a great deal of misogyny in the two or three murders in Vertigo (Madeleine and Judy, of course, but also, I think, Elster/Scottie’s soul-murder of Judy, in that famous scene in the Empire, the one where Judy comes out of the bathroom once more dressed and made up as Madeleine). In life, though, something like 75% of all murder victims are male. I don’t think it will come as a surprise that nine out of ten murderers are also male, but, just in the abstract, I suppose I mean it certainly seems like the crime isn’t inherently misogynistic, though not being an expert on the subject, I think it’s probably irresponsible for me to speculate. Hitchcock, anyway, is famously reputed to have been a misogynist, and those tendencies certainly manifested themselves in Vertigo (also in basically all of the films he made after Vertigo, often in rather lurid fashion). The film gets uglier—in respect to its misogyny—the more one thinks about it.
7) Doppelgangers, fakes (or forgeries) and derivatives (knock-offs, starter kits, those who Penny Stallings, in Flesh and Fantasy, reminds us Hollywood’s Golden Age typecast as “also-rans”) fill the pages of Madeleine E. But rather than feeling liberatory, a testament to the human individual’s capacity for self-invention, the profusion of identities in Madeleine E. tends to constrict. How anxious is this book about originality; what does originality even mean within the context of Madeleine E.?
I don’t know. I think we may value “originality” for the wrong reasons. There is a certain passion that seems to ride in along with what we call “originality,” a passion for the work maybe on the part of the maker and maybe on the part of the audience and probably on the part of both. I have to believe it’s that passion we value, not what we call “originality.” That passion is also, I think, the thing one ultimately ought to be anxious about lacking.
I guess I should also say that “originality,” as I understand it, is incredibly common. Vertigo is original to Hitchcock—he made the first Vertigo. Nobody’d made it before him. He based it on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a novel called D’entre les morts. D’entre les morts was original to Boileau-Narcejac. Nobody had written that book before they did. Did D’entre les morts spring into being without influences? I can’t imagine anyone thinks that. Nor do I hope that anyone thinks less of Vertigo for it not springing fully-formed from the imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. It is nonetheless original. It is his in some way.
And then how can one not think of Borges’s Pierre Menard when one thinks of originality? (Or Gus Van Sant and Psycho.) Originality, on its own, is a coordinate in time, that’s all. There’s absolutely nothing creative in it.
The anxieties of Madeleine E. are those of identity, maybe also of time, so I think you’re onto something with your question, but originality has never made me anxious. It’s too common. Theseus’s Ship. Heraclitus. We’re all original, at every moment.
8) If you could ask Alfred Hitchcock one question about Vertigo, what would that question be?
I’d probably decline; I think Vertigo is the answer to any question about Vertigo.
9) One of my favorite episodes in the book revolves around “Gabriel Blackwell”’s idly obsessive mining of the internet for other “Gabriel Blackwell”s. Even though he ultimately does stumble upon a vaguely disturbing resemblance between himself and another author writing under the name “Gabriel Blackwell,” the narrator declares that he isn’t willing [CORRECTION: isn’t initially willing; JM, 07/26/16] to pay $30 to a “people finder” service to learn more about this individual and others like him. The detective work in which he’s willing to engage begins and ends with free Google searches. Are there any detective stories you’ve encountered recently that do a particularly good job of squaring the tropes of “the mystery story” with how online experience has transformed our notions of privacy, secrecy and paranoia?
Well, in his defense, he does spring for the $30 report, and his searching not only extends beyond Google but well beyond the boundaries of the internet, into the world of the book. He goes to San Francisco, goes to the apartment.
The only book I can think of that sort of meets your description—and this may just reveal my lack of imagination—is Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, which I remember really enjoying, though it’s been seven years since I read it and remembering does of course change the thing remembered. I’d be happy to hear recommendations, though. I don’t read a lot of detective stories, I guess.
Indeed, Madeleine E. maps out a kind of continual passage back and forth between the real and the virtual. Perhaps that is the very definition of obsession, both at its most banal—the Internet itself constituting a new ne plus ultra of this banality—and its most spectacular, as we so often witness in detective stories (from Oedipus to Raymond Chandler to the first season of True Detective). Detective stories thus also depend upon shamanistic notions. The detective, like the shaman, can communicate between realms (for the detective, perhaps more moral than ontological), and the shaman’s gift is also a stigma. The shaman is marked by power, and serves the community at the price of having to remain relatively excluded from normative community relations. For your narrator, who is not a detective, does his allegiance to the virtual or to the real grant him more of this same kind of shamanistic power?
That’s interesting, your idea of obsession as passage between real and virtual. I think, for me, thought is passage between real and virtual, language is.
While reading for the book, I somehow came upon something called the “clambering hypothesis,” which is the idea that primates developed a sense of self through leaping from tree to tree, or maybe, to circle back to your first question, through failing to leap from tree to tree. The idea, I think, is that if the primate does not ask itself, “Will that branch support me?” before jumping, at some point it will jump to a branch that cannot support it and crash to the forest floor and die. (Without reproducing further, obviously; I worry that simplifying things as I’m doing risks making the hypothesis seem a bit Lamarck-ian, but there’s nothing to be done about that now.) That question, that very basic question, “Will that branch support me?” represents the first glimmering of a self—the primate has to know there is a self, and has to be aware in some sense of its self in order to ask the question.
At the very beginning of Vertigo, Scottie projects himself forward in time, a virtual Scottie living in a possible future, sees himself make the jump to the next roof, and then, coming back to the present, the real, he attempts the jump. Later in the movie, he climbs up the tower and again projects himself forward in time, this time seeing himself not making it to the top, in fact, falling to his death over the railing, and so, coming back to the present, the real, he stops in his tracks. The “clambering hypothesis” might be thoroughly discredited—I’m not an evolutionary biologist and I don’t keep up on these things—but it seems clear that our virtual selves have an impact on our real selves nonetheless, even down to those things that might seem instinctual or instantaneous.
Anyway, I might add to your definition of obsession the idea that obsession is an excruciating awareness of the relationship between the virtual and the real. Which, for that matter, describes the kind of fiction I most enjoy reading.
10) Under what circumstances is a plot hole exactly the thing that makes the plot cohere? Is it fair (or appropriate) to be on the lookout for plot holes of any kind within Madeleine E.?
I guess I don’t think about plot holes as a plot device, so maybe I’m not the best person to answer your first question. Hitchcock said “If the audience ever thinks about logic, it’s on their way home after the show, and by that time, you see, they’ve paid for their tickets.” He was interested only in what he called “effect.” I think I’m with him there, since I can’t pretend to sell books in the way Hitchcock sold tickets.
I would say that, for me, “plot holes” are interesting because they draw attention to the process of creation, and that can be inspiring. I think, though, there is this idea that plot holes provide a kind of handle on a certain sort of narrative art—a valid basis of critique, I suppose we could say—but in fact I think they really do something else entirely. There is this thought that the audience sees a plot hole and says to themselves, “Aha! I know something the artist doesn’t,” but the discovery’s not really satisfying in any way, and that’s because no matter how big the hole, it won’t explain the effect the movie or the book has had or has failed to have. What the discoverer has really learned is either that life in general is chaotic and senseless—and it is—or else that art is artificial—and, yeah, again, it is. I mean that announcing “This plot has holes” is really just another way of saying “This man-made thing really seems to have been made by a human being.” We don’t need to reach out to the phenomenologists or cognitive scientists to understand that there are holes in what we perceive, in how we understand what we perceive.
All of which doesn’t mean that I don’t strive for a kind of unity, a kind of wholeness, in Madeleine E., just maybe that it’s of a different nature, with a different goal. Molloy’s sucking stones look smooth, but then you put them under a microscope and they’re not so smooth. Still, if you suck on them, they’ll seem smooth enough, and after all, they’re sucking stones.
Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Madeleine E. (Outpost19, 2016), The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H. P. Lovecraft (CCM, 2013), Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi, 2013), and Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM, 2012).