CROW JONAH NORLANDER: Teasing out Kierkegaard’s youthful accusation that Hans Christian Andersen was not a real novelist, you write, “The wrong questions made novels that bled out into life, and lives that bled into novels: everything a lukewarm soup of fragmented, poetic moods.” Are there real novelists and right questions?
JORDAN CASTRO: The short answer is yes. Of course, it depends on how you define the terms, but the way I’d define them, yes. When I was younger, teachers would try to encourage students to speak by telling us that “there are no stupid questions.” This was meant to make us feel comfortable, but of course it was totally untrue, and everyone knew it was untrue. If I had raised my hand and asked, for example, “What if the sky is actually a dog?” everyone would immediately know that I had asked a stupid question. I think these are the kinds of questions that can be tempting for so-called novelists to “explore.”
What was useful about couching metafictional preoccupations in The Novelist’s narrator?
It gave me a way to interpret and incorporate my own sense of artistic doom. When I started working on what became The Novelist, it was essentially a reaction to another novel I was working on, which sucked and wasn’t going anywhere. The Novelist was in some ways my “anti-novel.” I didn’t really believe in the project I’d been working on, and was feeling a lot of disillusionment with the “autofiction project” overall. I wanted to demystify and flesh out what had started to feel so false about the whole endeavor. Yi-Ping Ong’s The Art of Being helped a lot with that.
The Novelist recoils at a section of his manuscript in which his stand-in falls down the stairs while projectile shitting, finding it vulgar, fearing he won’t be taken seriously. Did confronting the failure of the embedded text redeem it?
The first time I talked with my editor she was like, “There is a lot of poop.” She wanted me to cut it down, and we did, but it’s still pages and pages of poop. To be honest, I think it’s sort of the key to the whole novel. Every major theme is contained in the poop and poop-related parts of the book.
I do think that confronting the embedded text redeemed it, although I hadn’t thought of it that way until now. Even the most abject horrors can be redeemed, I believe this, but the fact that anything gets redeemed is a miracle. This includes even things like projectile shitting all over the walls and trying and failing to write a novel about it. Things like that can become a catalyst for something better; or they can just be more evidence that the world is messed up, another excuse. People say you can’t change the past, but the past changes all the time — it’s entirely dependent on the rest of the story.
That being said, in terms of The Novelist, it is still sort of an open question. I’m trying to resist the urge to go back and neatly interpret my own novel. The embedded text and the novel itself are both, in some sense, fragments — one of a work, one of a life. For the Romantics, fragments were complete in themselves, evocative of the infinite imagination, even the Absolute. For the existentialists, who rejected the Romantic view, fragments were incomplete but realistic: if life is a process of becoming, then incompleteness is a precondition of life, and any attempt to render life “realistically” in a novel must formally include this. I don’t think these views are irreconcilable.
Speaking of fragments, your narrator agonizes over the hold Twitter has on his attention: “I felt hopelessly at the mercy of Twitter; I scrolled while feeling numbly doomed.” Has using Twitter — by any redemptive miracle — helped you become anything?
I watched an interview with Riff Raff a while ago, and he said that, in the past, fans would tell him that his music inspired them in their daily lives — like, “Your music motivates me to go to my post office job” — but now, fans tell him that his music inspires them to become a rapper, to be like him. He attributed this to social media, and I thought that was profound. In my early teens, I loved literature, but was only reading old books, and it felt like something beyond or above me. When I found online literary journals and blogs, then Twitter, I started to feel like I could actually publish writing, and I did.
The thing that makes Twitter good is the same thing that makes it bad, which is that, essentially, Twitter is a distinction-leveler. It puts us in closer proximity to others, which causes us to want what they want. This allows us to take different people as models, but it also causes conflict. The distance between us is smaller than ever. On Twitter, the distance between me and Riff Raff is the same as the distance between me and my wife. This leveling has had negative effects on me, like getting distracted by having imaginary arguments in my head with random writers I’ve never met about some political thing I have no control over or something. But it has also opened me up to new possibilities at a time when nothing in my offline life reflected those possibilities, when I was 16 and delivering pizzas in Ohio.
The narrator bears some influences with pride (Nicholson Baker and Thomas Bernhard), while embarrassedly concealing others (Bret Easton Ellis). Is there something inherently fraught about creative inspiration?
We still have this obsession with authenticity and originality, but originality is, paradoxically, always imitative. There is truth in that cliché, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I think it could be translated into something like: “Good artists lie to themselves about where their work comes from; great artists see the role of the Other.” Everything involved in the creative act has to first be learned through imitation, and this can feel fraught if the creative act is primarily an attempt to differentiate oneself. Scott McClanahan sent me a story about how Hemingway denied his debt to Sherwood Anderson, despite Anderson helping Hemingway and the influence being obvious. According to Hemingway’s biographer, both Hemingway and Anderson wrote stories about boys and horses, but they wrote about boys and horses, says Hemingway, “very differently.” Later, Hemingway satirized Anderson and ended their friendship. Artists have never been able to solve the problem of the Other, whether it’s their model or their audience. Many products of so-called “creative inspiration” are like tricked-out cars with tinted windows — the driver obviously wants others to see him, but he pretends he doesn’t want to be seen. However, you can always see the author crack the window just a bit.
I’m as guilty of all of this as anyone, probably more so. In any case, this might be what the narrator in The Novelist is dealing with when he oscillates between frantically searching for models and feeling embarrassed that he has them, or that he has the wrong kind. A part of him wants to be God, so to speak, but he can’t create ex nihilo. For him, there is no autonomous creation. But there is also no God. There is only the Other. He resents his inability to differentiate himself and lashes out repeatedly.
He’s existentially anguished over his creative ambitions but takes genuine delight in his material conditions, from a complex and fulfilling romantic partnership to the small joy of a favorite mug. He seems to cherish even his suffering. The restlessness of his worldview feels as spiritual as it does philosophical. Does The Novelist need God?
Your narrator strives for that differentiation you mention by judging, and despite lacking authority, it comes off as nearly righteous. I imagine it was fun to lay into composite villains and dire cultural forces through his unaccountable voice. He even turns it on himself. Is that an impulse you indulge with caution?
It’s fun, but ultimately I think that this kind of judgment, where one places himself above another and takes it upon himself to condemn him, is doomed. Envy, spite, pride — it’s impossible to avoid that stuff, and it can’t just be repressed, because then it turns into ressentiment, but it also shouldn't be indulged, because then it leads to violence. This was basically Nietzsche’s answer: “Overpower and crush your enemies.” But in real life, Nietzsche was an example of someone who could only ever do the opposite. He fell in love with the same woman as Wagner, and she chose Wagner, and then Wagner made Parsifal and Nietzsche attacked him like crazy. Nietzsche ostensibly hated Parsifal for its Christianity, but in private journals Nietzsche wrote effusively about his adoration of the play. So often in judging we want to be the übermensch, when the truth is that we are the übercuck, and we are hurting.
Seraphim Rose goes to the other extreme: “Don’t criticize or judge other people — regard everyone else as an angel, justify their mistakes and weaknesses, and condemn only yourself as the worst sinner. This is step one in any kind of spiritual life.” This makes me uncomfortable, even though I suspect that he’s basically right.
The funny thing is that harsh judgment doesn’t even result in differentiation. Conflict makes us look increasingly the same. I remember, before the January 6 thing, seeing that one of the Proud Boys organizers wrote about their plan to dress like Antifa: “We will be blending in as one of you. You won’t see us. You'll even think we are you. […] We are going to smell like you, move like you, and look like you. The only thing we'll do that's us is think like us!” During the event, there were videos of “Blue Lives Matter” guys fighting cops, and Antifa was calling for people to be arrested. They were literally indistinguishable.
I’m thinking of a meme … I don’t know how to describe it … Maybe LARB will let me put it here. It’s sort of what happened to me while working on the more rant-type parts of the novel.
Have you come to inhabit your own body in a way that has changed your thinking and writing?
I do think that lifting weights has helped my writing. In a very basic sense, it makes me less neurotic, so I can actually sit down and focus for extended periods. When I started working on the novel, it was very chaotic, and I worked on it in a totally unstructured way. I’d drive to the library, then feel too wigged out to actually go in. Later, after I’d gotten into lifting, when I was finishing the book, I’d wake up early, go to the gym, write for an hour or two, then start my day. There is something to be said for discipline, having a schedule, etc. I’ve wanted to teach a “writing workshop” where I just teach writers how to exercise. People can become lopsided by too much of a certain kind of literature.
More abstractly, I think one way lifting and writing are similar is that you have to do them over time, and you don’t usually see the results right away. Often, we think we have to do some big thing, when in reality we just have to do many small things consecutively. I like that idea in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, that the meaning of life isn’t some huge abstraction, but is latent within each choice right in front of us. Novels and succulent physiques get forged the same way. I kind of learned how to do both simultaneously.
Crow Jonah Norlander lives in Maine with his family of humans and hounds. His work appears in BOMB, Hobart, and The Rumpus, and he edits for X-R-A-Y and HAD.