Appropriately enough, I finished reading Paul Cohen’s The Glamshack in the middle of a heatwave that temporarily turned Eugene, Oregon into Memphis, Tennessee. My wife and I had traveled to the Pacific Northwest for a wedding and — we’d hoped — some early relief from the oppressiveness of another summer in Texas. (I actually don’t mind that much; temperatures in the low 100s are my briar patch.) Regardless, the lush combustibility that settled over the McKenzie River Valley that long June weekend provided the perfect setting for The Glamshack.
Rarely have I encountered prose like Paul’s: sinewy yet atmospheric, propulsive and probing, and not afraid to risk cacophony for the sake of getting a certain sensation or emotion just right. I’d hesitate to call his style “maximalist,” but mostly because that term connotes its antonym more than its own denotative and connotative parameters. However, I will readily admit that I always enjoy encountering writers, like Paul, who are willing to leave the safe (normalized) path of taciturn lyricism so synonymous with American prose of “literary quality.” Such writers don’t have to be pioneers, or Adams, or Eves. They just have to be willing to let the authority of their authorship disappear into the under- and overgrowth of our national consciousness. After all, that’s where the big, shadowy, beastly questions lurk. Is pathology the natural state of things? What welds us to our attractions? When does choice become privilege? Is love eternal, or is it only as mortal as we are?
The Glamshack represents an audacious attempt to reilluminate these mysteries, but not by means of a paparazzo’s flash, or stagy Klieg lights, or a forensic lamp’s long waves — not to mention without reigniting the tinder-dry detritus that’s accumulated around them. When this novel’s glare isn’t undulating, it’s lurching. Which is to say that it’s never far from a trembling best described as torch-like.
The following questions and answers were exchanged between July and August of 2017.
“Reluctant fashion journalist Henry Folsom is in love with Her, an incandescent beauty whose smile is an Event. The only problem is Her fiancé in New Orleans. And She is going to see him for twelve days, while Henry smolders in The Glamshack, his borrowed Silicon Valley poolhouse and site of their months-long affair. Mesmerized by the American Indian wars, grasping for the divine as he relives this bloodied love, Henry must decide what it means to make his Last Stand. Nominated for a Pushcart Press Editors Book Award, The Glamshack is a lyrical, darkly humorous novel on the nature of love, divinity, the Plains Indian Wars, and the male gaze. A bold, accomplished work set at end of the millennium, the book echoes early prose masterpieces of Cormac McCarthy and Martin Amis, but is entirely Paul Cohen.”
1) In the pages of Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen recently wondered, “What if American literary characters stopped fucking entirely?” Why? Because of what he terms “the post–Great Male Narcissist dilemma” created by “liberated” authors such as John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth. How did you approach writing what I will clumsily call The Glamshack’s “sex scenes”? What pitfalls did you aim to avoid, and what aspects of sexual experience did you most want to make meaningful to the novel’s narrative arc?
Just as the bright white thrusts above a spring river are expressions of its irresistible, down-mountain seethe, so The Glamshack‘s sex scenes, I realized after glancing back over a few of them, are not distinct scenes — the sex is always enmeshed in a broader narrative movement. Henry and Her live in a hyper-sensual world. For them, it’s all, in a way, sex. So an argument on a grassy field ends in Henry saying, “I want to do indecent things to you’,” and Her responding, “I want you to do them,'” followed by a swift heady winding drive through redwoods cutting to a clingy dress dripping semen on a raccoon-infested restaurant deck overlooking “the moonchalked ocean” resulting in the prospect that maybe Henry will “be Her Boo after all provided he learns to dress to kill.” Feeding one another raw “lit-pink” tuna dipped in glimmering soy ends in (mostly) offstage sex which leads to a vision of “this drowsy predator, sated for now,” walking from his bed to the bathroom then sidesteps into a mad, rapturous conversation about incest and Indians and the relative size of truck engines and a kiss, “this kiss, never before such a kiss.” Maniacal motel fucking shifts to a game of pool in a bar wherein She permits another man to slip his quarters into Her table and chalk his stick. While I try not to shy from overtly erotic details like Her rough heels hard against his shoulder blades or their great egg-shaped thrusts, I want nothing to do with the dismemberment of porn, the masturbation of male (or female) narcissism or the “edgy” ugliness of the sex-averse or the ashamed. My goal, in The Glamshack, was to render sex not as “scene” but as that dark and glorious force that conjoins Henry and Her, to allow it to shudder throughout the narrative, to create in this novel my own irresistible, down-mountain seethe. There’s a lusty worship in the sex of Henry and Her, a worship of flesh, of one another, and also of life’s mysterious, erotic core.
2) I’m fascinated by narratives that take up the problem of the “recent past”: eras elapsed, absolutely historical but still just contiguous to and coterminous with our own — and our own sense of present time passing — to be pruned and pressed between the pages of that book we call “history.” Why is it important for this story to span the years right before the new millennium? (I sense an essential 90s-ish-ness in it all, but, then again, I was there, I remember, and the remembering is fresh, i.e., I’ve not encountered a story that has made me remember this time in a long time.)
On a personal level the nineties, for me, was a time of wildness, of acting without “appropriate” concern for consequences, which then shifted into a time of settling, of a sudden fearsome awareness of being existentially (and financially) untethered. In Burma, I blithely followed a local guide into the rebel-controlled jungle at night. At home, I engaged in “athletic” dating, cobbled together several adjunct teaching gigs and freelance writing assignments, safe in the belief that my ship was at that very moment steaming across the horizon. And, truth be told, I was taken with how I appeared to others. And then, toward millennium’s end, I saw how stupid I’d been in Burma, how silly was my romantic life, how absurd the belief in the onrushing ship, how unseemly the concern with appearances. This was San Francisco. The World Wide Web had just spun into existence; brush up against its fibers, its sticky magic, and you were whisked to the world’s heady center. And then came 2000, the underground bunkers of Y2K, the dot-com crash, George W, and it became painfully clear to everyone, including me, that we were not, after all, the world. That real value resided in being part of something greater than our endlessly congratulated selves. In 1999 I saw the the writing on the wall and it read, This moment is over but its ripples will long go on. I am grateful that one of them bore The Glamshack.
3) How would you describe your approach to prosody? Do you always write like you do in The Glamshack? How did form and content cooperate in the composition of the novel, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter?
The effect of great music is at once emotional, intellectual and physical. Add to that a forward thrust that builds in scale and intensity and you’ve got, in my view, the world’s most effective, most beautiful, art form — a full-body, narrative experience. (No wonder Pat Metheny called his greatest album, Travels, or his greatest song, “Are You Going With Me?”) I strive for this music in my writing. Or rather, I am endlessly in pursuit of this. Not because I think musical prose is cool or will win me awards, but because breaking through to the music of a sentence, the rapturous build of paragraphs, pages, and chapters, is thrilling. How else to gauge whether or not you’ve hit the mark except by that stinger of thrill? Without it, why soldier on? So in general, I do always write like I did in The Glamshack, and specifically, I do not always write with The Glamshack’s sustained lyrical intensity. The experience of writing The Glamshack’s first draft was akin to clinging to the hot wet mane of a horse that’s just bolted through the woods (something I did during the pre consequence-awareness years). What emerged from those woods was a beast sorely in need of schooling (as they say in the horse world), but also a thoroughbred, in the sense that this book, more than any other of mine, is powered by raw voice. Which brings me to form and content. Yes, I see the distinction between style and story, and sure I understand that the best fiction balances the two. And yet, I also reject this binary (and very contemporary) view. Because the music of the prose may contain not only a story’s emotional center, but also its narrative thrust. Content can only dive so deep. No way could I have expressed the totality or intensity of Henry’s experience through an essayistic recitation of events, though recite them I did. No, the only way to truly convey his experience — in a full-body sense — was to get at it through that dark, mad, rapturous build that is typically associated with music. In this way, I suppose, The Glamshack diverges from the social realism of much contemporary fiction, and one might call the book something of a classical throwback, though if I’ve done what I set out to do, one would be hard pressed to name it at all.
4) I often thought of Thomas McGuane’s work while reading The Glamshack — specifically, his novel Panama. Something about the humidity, “lovesickness,” ardor for redemption and general combustibility of the prose. But neither of these qualities manage to dampen (as you might imagine) the heaviness of the plot, a heaviness that’s synonymous with the inexorable, I suppose. Often, we call it doom, but I want to avoid the moral connotations of that word. Could you talk about your formative literary influences? As you interact with the novel now, in your capacity as a reader, are any of those influences particularly present to you? How so, to what extent, and to what end?
One of my formative influences is a writer mentioned in the article cited in your first question, one of those mid twentieth-century “narcissists”, name of Saul Bellow. From the first time I read Henderson the Rain King, I was captured by Bellow’s gifts and condemned to strive toward them myself. By gifts I mean his crackling sentences and his virtuosic ability to hit the highest notes as well as the lowest; his compulsion to tease apart, like a philosopher, the tendrils of the universe, while at the same time bowing like a penitent to its awful glimmer; his archetypal characters, the Reality Teacher, the Charlatan Sage (strikingly similar to the Native Americans’ Trickster God), the Flawed Seeker on a quest for “a fate good enough.” Looking back on The Glamshack, I see, or I’d like to think I see, hints of Bellow’s archetypes. Raynard: Reality Teacher. Conquistador: Charlatan Sage. Henry: Flawed Seeker. Goddess: death. Her: fate. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was another powerful influence on me as a writer and reader. First, the brutal majesty of his prose flat-out floors me. And looking back on his book, I’m struck by the apparent contradiction between content and form. The content argues against the existence of God, but the form, with its Old Testament beauty and force, practically manifests the burning bush on the page. The resultant tension between content and form strikes me as profoundly lifelike and also serves to propel the story forward. The Glamshack has been lauded and criticized for a related contrast — the one between Henry’s external world, a shallow existence marked by pool-house lounging and celebrity journalism, and his inner life, which is all about striving toward meaning and a craving for the divine. Looking back, I see this contrast as central to the novel’s subject, and I find the resultant friction helps power the story’s thrust. And then there’s Flannery O’Connor. To fully appreciate what is at stake in her work, one must reckon with her belief that faith in something greater than one’s self is a life and death struggle. As she put it, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” Looking back on The Glamshack, I see that my subject is frighteningly similar. When Henry asks, Is love real?, what he means is, Is God? And finally: all three of these writers create worlds that portray — that affirm — the presence of the epic in our existence. Whether or not I have succeeded, I too, in all my work, am compelled toward this vision.
5) At what point in writing this novel did you know how it would end?
In a previous version, the final chapter in the book had a subtitle: Henry and the Madman. And thinking back on that demon-driven first draft, I believe I knew, after the second madman chapter was written, that I would have to come back to him, in some form, at the end. That the pyromaniac known as the madman held the story’s secret code. That I would have to connect him and Henry and Her in a way that reveals them as one being. As a result, if I’m remembering correctly, the ending fairly flowed on the first go-round. This does not mean, though, that it worked the first time. It didn’t. Because the character of Her had not been rendered in a way that allowed the ending to resonate with the appropriate auditory force. (Again with the music!) Problem was, I didn’t know the issue was with Her. I thought it was a plot thing, and I did some surgery to insert a clever (or so I thought at the time) twist. And was disappointed to find that the ending still did not work as I wanted. At that point, I looked at Her, and knew that if the novel was a bell meant to toll like a cathedral, the clapper had to be smithed just right. And She, for want of a better term, was the clapper. And so I went back into the character of Her, particularly toward the end, and found/created a woman who, despite appearances, possessed the integrity of iron.
6) One of my favorite moments in the novel occurs when Henry is interviewing Raynard, a fashion photographer, for the “Glamrag” that supports his meager existence. Henry asks Ryanrd to define gorgeousness — in effect, to explain why models achieve the status of models. Raynard answer is “a hangnail.” He goes on to elaborate, and what I love about his elaboration is that it is equal parts profundity and equals parts bullshit. (Or so I wonder.) It’s also an important scene insomuch as it highlights one of The Glamshack’s defining dramatic qualities. Identification or loyalty seems impossible here. That is, with respect to all of these characters, readers themselves get caught in the push-pull of attraction and revulsion. As soon as what is most characteristic about Henry et al. is singled out, disassembled from their whole (or personhood), that quality assumes a magnificent nullity. Which, for me, raises the interesting problem of whether The Glamshack’s characters, as carefully drawn as they are, are characters in the traditional sense or models. What, in your imagination, distinguishes the two?
In my experience, both in art and life, profundity comes coated in a thick, fly-ridden layer of bullshit. Particularly in art. See the aforementioned Reality Teacher and Charlatan Sage. Travel back to Royal Fools. Look at the way tree frogs mimic the tree, the utter stillness of a hunted bunny. Bullshit operates as a kind of protective covering. Or camouflage. Naked, unprotected profundity, which is a form of vulnerability, cannot survive in nature, just as it cannot in art. Raynard, the Reality Teacher, is absolutely right, in my view, in saying that if you break a person, or model, down into his/her component parts (dismemberment, as in porn), you find a sameness, or a oneness, in everyone. The bullshit — or shall I say, the failure of vision — is in his interpretation of that sameness. Raynard, as he readily admits, is not an artist (“humble craftsman, me”). He never risked all for a vision of epic beauty because he never possessed that aching vision, that missing thing, in the first place. So he looks at the world as, well, porn. Grunting flesh, animated by vanity. He gets the beauty in the Conquistador’s grasp at glory, the tragedy in his fall, but only intellectually. At heart, his world is a howling absence. The Conquistador, on the other hand (also a profound character coated in crap) possessed the craving for divinity that compelled him to marry his “splayfooted beauty” and to make his film in the jungles of Mexico and bargain for the Conquistador’s helmet with thousand dollar bills on the plank bar and, ultimately, to be betrayed and to fail. He is blessed by this possession, this vision, and also cursed. And Henry’s caught in the middle. Like Raynard, he sees the awful reality of our dismembered body parts striding the earth — of a world composed of “madness particles “— and like the Conquistador, Henry also glories in the beauty of the human form — his blood quickens to the unlikely notion that all of us are composed, as the physicists say, of “god particles,” and therefore that crushing sameness is actually a rapturous oneness. Therein lies the novel’s conflict, and the hero’s choice. The push-pull. As to the question of whether these folks are characters or “models,” I like to think they are both (characters being comprised of swirling elements that at times repulse, at times attract; models as vessels for one or the other). Just as sameness and oneness are both true (contradiction, in my view, being essential to truth), so Henry sees both dismemberment and beauty. And so She operates according to both an amoral utilitarian ethos and also one of pure loyalty and love. Raynard and the Conquistador are closer to models, in that they form the charged poles to which Henry is alternately attracted and repulsed. But even there, Raynard, craftsman that he is, has an intellectual appreciation for the foolhardy artist, and the Conquistador, that unrepentant romantic, crawls to work every day at the Glamrag, and handles his insane boss — now there’s a narcissist — with strategic deference.
7) The Glamshack is a love story. It is erotic. But, especially in its attempts to understand the origins of human desire, The Glamshack is also a novel about transcendence. Henry has intimations of his own divinity, and he is in open conflict with the very notion of destiny. She (or Her) is wrenched between being desired and desiring, or those two states are almost hopelessly confused. Whether in a narrative or “in real life,” can transcendence be earned? Or does it have to be won, i.e., in combat, wrested away from an otherwise indifferent cosmos? Or is transcendence a matter of grace, something more akin to a blessing: a reward bestowed upon us that we will never deserve?
Pardon me if I answer this question in reverse. My gut reaction to the notion of transcendence being deserved is this: it is never deserved by definition. If transcendence somehow lined up nicely with the efforts to attain it, the nature of transcendence itself would be diminished. Grace is otherness. Nothing we can do or strive toward will ever bridge that crack in the cosmos that separates us from the thing we ache toward. This separation defines the human condition. Put another way: look at grace head on and it was never there. That said — and I don’t mean to be tricky — I believe transcendence, in art and life, must indeed be earned. And I love your distinction between earned and won. Henry has this notion throughout most of the book that he is engaged in a war not just for Her love, but a war to prove love is real. If he wins Her, it’s real. If the fiancé wins, it’s not. It’s only after he is forced to abandon the war metaphor, of winning or losing, of conquering, that Henry begins to approach transcendence. So, at least in terms of The Glamshack, Henry’s transcendence — if you accept it as such — is not won but earned. And this I find to be true in the process of writing. To get a book moving you’ve got to have — as Henry does with the war — a way in. But once inside a novel, or a story for that matter, cling to a rigid notion of where you’re headed or what’s at the center, and you will end up with nothing. Surprise yourself and you just might get a pulse. And it is in this way that I understand your brilliant description of Henry’s destiny as being in open conflict with his divinity. Destiny being the war, divinity being transcendence. His sense of destiny is critical, but its fatal flaw is that it’s entirely of Henry, and if it’s not abandoned at some point he will never enter that greater-than-Henry place, or other-than-Henry place, that is grace. She too, “wrenched” as She is “between being desired and desiring,” finally finds a way out of Her hellish two-step by subtracting possession from the notion of desire.
8) How do you define the difference between a story and an event? A scene and an anecdote? It’s a question of moment in the book, for doesn’t love often turn on this definition? “I thought we had something. I thought something happened. But for you, it was just a blip; it didn’t register. Life just kept on moving forward, waiting (I suppose) to be changed.” Or, to put it another way: happenings are often very porous in The Glamshack. Henry may hold a handful of details and perceive in it an enchanted moment, an event, but, in doing so, the narration makes us aware of how we readers are perceiving only perception. In other instances, timelines that are otherwise running in parallel intersect. Time flattens out yet, paradoxically, surrenders much of its unity (I guess I mean its linear integrity) in the process. What is truly eventful in The Glamshack?
You are absolutely right, that distinction between scene and anecdote, event and blip, lies at the heart of the novel’s conflict. And like a lot of things in The Glamshack, those distinctions blur based on perception, and the resultant confusion, for Henry, reaches the level of existential panic, and compels him to ask, over and over, what is real? At one point, what he perceives as moments that “should be entered wide-eyed and bare-headed, lingered in, permitted to become complete and once complete, cherished as begottens,” She sees simply as erotic jolts from an electric source that, one day, like all un-renewable energy, will run out. The difference between his perception and Hers throws him into existential panic, and threatens to undermine his war. Likewise, Her smile, so he senses, is an event, and so is the madman’s fire, and within that fire is God manifest. And yet the event-ness of these things, their value, and even their reality, is also called into question. At some point, Henry realizes that irrespective of Her — irrespective of anyone but himself — he must decide what is enchanted and what is not, what is a scene and what is an anecdote; what, ultimately, is real. He must take a stand without outside affirmation. He must do so in spite of the efforts and perceptions of others to undermine his belief. He must — to anticipate your next question — man up.
9) Who, in your opinion, is the most masculine character in The Glamshack? The most feminine? How so?
My answer is in two parts and, you’ve probably guessed by now, those parts are on some level contradictory. She is the “masculine” one, Henry the “feminine.” Her prodigious sexual appetite, Her libertine weakness for multiple partners and Her focus, at times, solely on the physicality of sex are all typically male attributes. As is Her problematic relationship with intimacy, Her worldly ambition, Her anger that borders, at times, on the murderous. Even certain details of Her physical being—no-nonsense hands, big-rig jaw, large pores—are more classically masculine than feminine. As for Henry, he betrays a host of archetypal “feminine” characteristics. He experiences sex on a deep emotional level, focuses solely on one partner — Her — feels anxious and untethered when separated from his beloved, draws confidence and strength when others notice his physical attractiveness, is affected, to his core, by all forms of beauty. And now that I’ve listed these things under the columns “masculine” and “feminine,” I see clearly how beside-the-point these labels can end up being. Determining who is more masculine, who more feminine, is, in part, a function of focus. Yes, She fucks like a star quarterback, but She also has a sixth sense for the suffering of others — another archetypal feminine trait. And yes sex for Henry is a heartfelt affair, but (to mark their third morning that day) he carries Her upstairs and throws Her on the bed, and She likes it. At a certain point, in the novel writing process, differentiating masculinity from femininity becomes irrelevant as a means of defining character. For me, in The Glamshack, what ultimately became more useful were the old notions of the hero, the old notions of the tragic. Is Henry’s choice at the end heroic? Is Hers? The answers have little or nothing to do with gender.
10) What’s next for you — what are you working on right now? Where has completing The Glamshack put you in terms of your artistic practice?
Right now I’m working on the final plot maneuvers in my novel-in-progress, The Sleeping Indian. I’m researching those little metal plaques on buildings in Paris that mark the spots where resistance fighters were killed during WWII. I’ve got to pluck out a few of those stories and adapt them in ways that will pull tight the plot’s slip knots. It’s a tricky business for a guy like me who’s been known to hold forth on the music of the sentence, but it’s also an exciting business, and one I’m convinced is making me a better writer. I’m also almost ready to start a brand new novel. I’ve been making notes for a while as a way of tiptoeing up to the edge, and I’m sensing it’s almost time to dive. As for The Glamshack, completing it has upped my standing as an author, but temporarily downgraded my work as a writer. Publishing with a small press has been a wonderful experience, but it means I do a lot of the publicity legwork myself. I’m not complaining, and no one but me owns the dip in productivity and I trust I’ll handle this better when the next novel is published. But there it is.
Paul Cohen’s short fiction has been published in Tin House, Five Chapters, Hypertext and Eleven Eleven, and he was a finalist in a Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest. His novel-in-progress, The Sleeping Indian, was named a finalist for the 2016 Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, Details, the Christian Science Monitor and others. Cohen earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a teaching scholarship as well as the Prairie Lights Prize for Fiction (judged by Ethan Canin). Most recently, he received honorable mention in Spring 2017 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Paul lives in Boulder, Colorado. The Glamshack is his first novel.