This is an excerpt from a much longer conversation. The full text can be found here.
Michael Lipson: First of all, let me say that I think these three novels are amazing. I reread them in a whoosh in preparation for our talk, and it was a delight. When Adrian in The House Beautiful finally reads his dead father’s journal, he says, “This is the book I’ll never stop reading.” That’s how I felt about this trilogy.
Allison Burnett: Wow, that is very sweet. You’re probably the first person in the world that has ever read them back-to-back like that.
ML: So what is the literary heritage of these books? What kind of books would you say they are?
AB: I think they are the descendants of a kind of storytelling that the English Victorians knew well. So much modern fiction has long detours into what are virtually essays. Philip Roth can engage you in American Pastoral with a compelling story, but then he thinks nothing of spending 30 pages discussing the history of the tanning industry in Newark. I want what the author has to say to be embedded in story, if that makes sense.
ML: Sometimes you manage in just a single line to accomplish what we might want from an entire essay. I found myself separating your witty moments in the vein of La Rochefoucauld, from your more profound moments, which are in the vein of William Hazlitt. For example, when you talk about a silence that would make Helen Keller squirm. Or when you describe a guy with scarred eyes taking off his dark glasses and B.K. Troop says, “Seeing his scars I was flooded with compassion for anyone who had ever seen him this way.” Those are both on the La Rochefoucauld side. A line more reminiscent of Hazlitt: “More heroes had perished that day in the sands of the Middle East, and some of our own troops too.”
AB: John Gardner wrote about it really well in On Moral Fiction. He talks about these places where the novelist leaves the story and diverts into an essay. “He cites the example of Tolstoy interrupting the spellbinding story of War and Peace to pontificate on the nature of history. In abridged versions of the novel, these sections are reduced or simply removed. And for good reason.
ML: There are other less plot-oriented elements that you do include, though. I wanted to mention one particular stylistic flourish that links the books: B.K. Troop’s hilarious descriptions of wine.
AB: Oh, yes.
ML: Here are some of my favorites: “A Kenyan Chablis renowned for its slow start and marathon finish.” “[A] cup of Lacryma Christi (a cedar ladle of vinegar tannins punctuated by three hard thumps of iron).” Or a Napa Valley Cabernet described as “A spritz of diesel tour bus; whiff of retired investment banker.” You’ve taken absurd wine review descriptions to a depth that no one has ever dreamed of.
AB: I have a couple of wine lovers who every now and then send me outrageous descriptions that they think rival B.K.’s. It’s a world so absurd that it’s tough to parody.
ML: Getting back to what you said earlier about desc...read more