Literary Subterfuge

By Donald BreckenridgeJune 4, 2016

Literary Subterfuge
CHRISTOPHER SORRENTINO’S NEW NOVEL, The Fugitives, is a dynamic and enigmatic tapestry of cross-pollinated genres populated by some terrifically drawn and profoundly unreliable narrators. The emotionally fried and morally bankrupt novelist Sandy Mulligan flees New York City for the wilds of Michigan in order to salvage a book that isn’t going to write itself. In so doing, he deliberately destroys what is left of his marriage, while his once sterling writing career implodes like a dying sun. The characters pulled into Sandy’s toxic orbit are neither whom they seem to be nor do they know exactly what they are looking, but they all happen to be terrific storytellers and nearly flawless liars. Like in his previous novel, Trance — which reimagined the lives of members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) before a dissolute backdrop of post-hippie radicalism — Sorrentino brings a pristine beauty to every multiple subterfuge, while delivering scene after scene with near surgical precision. His pacing is immediate, deliberate, and simultaneously sidereal. The Fugitives is effortlessly expansive, finely crafted, and an absolute pleasure to read.


DONALD BRECKENRIDGE: Why did you write The Fugitives?

CHRISTOPHER SORRENTINO: It’s a really germane question, because I’m not one of those lucky writers who conceives of a novel and then sits down and bulls through to the end. I’ve had a lot of ideas that just never ended up engaging me beyond 10 or 20 or even 100 pages. Sometimes, these failed projects were completely stillborn, and other times, they were really pretty good but just didn’t click. I won’t write something that bores me. What makes The Fugitives unusual, for me, is that previously I have always had a conceptual framework in place before I’ve even started — the rigid formal scheme of Sound on Sound, for example, or the historical record of the Patty Hearst case and the Watergate-era ’70s to draw on and push back against for Trance. With The Fugitives, all I really had was the germ of an idea: a white man masquerading as a Native American. Why would he do that? What consequences would unmasking him have? I knew that I wanted the novel to be punctuated by some of the native tales he tells. Everything else that came — character, voice, plot, themes, structure, style — arose consequentially, if not organically.

I also was really determined not to write some version of Trance II. For a couple of years, I played with a few ideas that seem laughable now, but which actually occupied some of my time; ideas for books that would be big, polyvocal, historically based novels requiring basically the same compositional apparatus I used for Trance: research, period detail, dialect, parody, set pieces, dozens of characters, and a super-relaxed structure. But I wasn’t interested, ultimately. I’d already done it, and I didn’t think I could do it any better. What I really wanted, I decided, was to write a book that was the anti-Trance — a very small cast of characters, taking place over a very limited period of time in a very confined geographic space, almost completely empty of parody and pastiche, no research. Most importantly, it is set in the present, or 2008, anyway. If there’s one thing about Trance that bugs me, it is the sense I now get that it is being narrated by someone looking retrospectively and with 20/20 hindsight at things that happened 30 years before, basically ridiculing his characters for things that may seem self-evident now but surely didn’t at the time. With The Fugitives, I wanted to get at this really strange social and technological reality in which we now find ourselves living, and I wanted my responses to that reality to be provisional and uncertain, the way one actually responds to things that occur in real time.

How are the themes that you explore in The Fugitives related to the themes that you explored in Trance?

They are both really about the fungibility of identity, the unknowability of others, and the self-delusions that help us cope. Both novels have a kind of central figure who announces and instantiates the theme — in Trance, it’s Alice Galton, the heiress who becomes Tania, the urban guerrilla, while in The Fugitives, it’s Saltino, the gangster who becomes Salteau, the Native storyteller. Both of them are presented as ciphers, whom the other characters interpret as they want. But the other characters are all playing at something too — the revolutionaries in Trance are all middle-class kids who get in over their heads, for example. In The Fugitives, nearly every character who appears is yearning or attempting to change into something else, to adopt or shed some identifying characteristic — especially the main characters, each of whom is running from something, keeping a secret, or willfully misinterpreting the situation. The way The Fugitives goes farther is by extending the subterfuge to the very limits of the book, to where the reader is. By the end of the novel, you can’t do anything but come up with a hypothesis about what really happened, or who was really telling the truth about what. And — unlike Trance — you can’t go to Wikipedia and see what “the facts” are, although to this day the truth about Patricia Hearst’s conversion and subsequent reversion remains a delicious mystery.

Not long after the publication of Trance, your father, the writer Gilbert Sorrentino, died. How is The Fugitives a response to his death?

It’s not a response so much as my presentation, for the first time in a long work of fiction, of a sensibility that I just didn’t have before my father got sick and died. On one level, my earlier books are simply callow and immature. Whatever emotion I manage to get across in them is really just my application of my talent to simulating that emotion — loss, grief, sorrow, whatever. But my father’s illness and death was the first time I’d ever really been undone. I loved him immoderately, and he was many good things — affectionate and funny and present.

However, my father also was very charismatic, and he had a lot of ideas about what was good and what was bad; what was the right way of doing things and what was the wrong or unacceptable way of doing things. His absolute certainty about this stuff would have done a cult leader proud, and he was really ruthless about cutting people out of his life who didn’t meet his arbitrary standards. Into my 40s, I was a good boy who wanted nothing so much as my father’s love and approval, and that extended to my work, my reading, and the way I lived my life. When he died, my reaction was ordinary grief, but also a tremendous sense of liberation. Not only did I not have to please him any more, I didn’t have to be him. I reconsidered a lot of things after he died, both in my career and in my life. Did I even want to be a writer? That one crossed my mind more than once. But to answer your question more directly: if The Fugitives is in any way a response to my father’s death, it’s in the sense of asserting prerogatives. For me, the book is the artifact of the permission I granted myself to write it. For Sandy Mulligan, the main character, it’s about turning his life upside down and then dealing, or not, with the aftermath. He runs to Michigan and drinks. In my case, I wrote a novel that intersects with my own life in many ways.

But to see it as autobiographical, as some have done, is such a damned simplistic way of looking at what is essentially a really complicated piece of fiction. Besides, why would I need to be coy? The roman à clef as a means of disguising what can’t be said in public seems to be superfluous nowadays: I could have written a memoir. I probably would have received a lot more money, but I wasn’t interested in it as a project. I thought it would be exhibitionistic, exploitative of and embarrassing to people I care about, and simultaneously self-servingly dishonest and hamstrung by a need to be faithful to the “facts.”

Why did you spend five years working on The Fugitives — a 300-page novel that portrays an utterly dissipated, self-pitying mid-list author in the process of scuttling his listing marriage and a once successful writing career? Sandy Mulligan whittles away his vapid professional connections and pisses away his remaining grant funding while wintering in a grim self-imposed exile in Michigan — how on earth would anyone find that autobiographical?

Well, as far as perceiving the book as autobiography is concerned, these aren’t exactly great times for subtlety. Use the first person, make your protagonist a writer — ipso facto, it’s got to be a version of yourself: The simple answer that explains everything. As an interpretive strategy, it’s supremely unsophisticated, but what can I say? The interesting thing, and the thing that nobody seems to have picked up on, is that Sandy Mulligan was very, very loosely inspired by David Foster Wallace, who died about two months before I started working on the book. If it were possible to follow my career without being a stalker, some readers might have figured that out — my story “The Cursed,” which appeared in Conjunctions in 2012, features the very first reference to Sandy. That story’s protagonist is preoccupied with Mulligan’s life, death, and posthumous veneration.

As for the rest of your question, I have to reframe a couple of your premises in order to answer it properly. First, I didn’t, strictly speaking, spend five years actually working steadily on The Fugitives: it took me five years to finish it, because I couldn’t find a steady means of support and had to contend with an unreliable and inadequate financial situation. Second, I want to take issue, a bit, with your characterization of Sandy as a mid-list writer — he’s actually a very successful writer. Why these two things are important, and the way they come together, is this: I didn’t want to write a book about a failed writer who doesn’t sell books, gets turned down for fellowships and passed over for prizes, and can’t get a full-time teaching job. I mean, that’s the breaks, and it’s not news that 10 or 20 years in, writing is still basically an unpaid internship for most writers. I wanted to come at the problem from the other side, by presenting Sandy as a serious writer who has more or less been stunned into literary silence by what he describes as “oversatiety” — he can’t write, in part because he’s been stuffed with money and fame, and he’s increasingly disturbed that the work he takes seriously is viewed primarily as a commodity. I don’t mean it in a romantic, “success ruins artists,” sense. I think capitalism ruins artists; in fact, I think capitalism ruins pretty much everything, which is the thread that runs through the book: Sandy’s being encouraged to think of himself as an “entrepreneur” — his reflections at the shuttered, soon-to-be-repurposed mental hospital, on capital’s insistence on rendering value from even the most harmlessly useless things, the corporate bookseller’s glee at shutting down the local bookstore by opening a gimmicky superstore geared exclusively toward promoting best-selling titles, the newspaper’s compromising of its standards to retain a valuable advertiser, and of course trade publishing’s Gresham’s Law approach to acquiring and promoting books, which drives good books out of the marketplace to replace them with schlock that doesn’t even provide a return on investment. Sandy really resists this: he may be a liar and an unreliable narrator, but he doesn’t want to become actually a lie. In the end, Wallace turned out to have been an eerily good model — in death, that complicated figure has become a silent and unwitting accomplice to his own reification as the embodiment of a false and sentimental idea about the drama of the tortured and humane genius.

In The Fugitives, you have effectively synthesized a number of different genres and fired them off at one another, and yes, I can see the DFW influence, now that you’ve mentioned it, and also a Gilbert Sorrentino influence, if I can add that without coming off as simplistic or reductive, but what your cross-pollination of genres really reminded me of, and this happens to be one of my favorite books, is Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life. Have you read Onetti?

I haven’t read him, though I’m aware of his work: Yet another gap in my knowledge.

So why did you choose to underscore the book’s artifice with multiple genres?

Different genres have become more interesting to me over the years, because it seems like they have taken a lot of inventive and imaginative narrative maneuvers and claimed them exclusively for themselves, while discussions of so-called literary fiction have turned to really boring ideas about plausibility, relatability, authenticity, and so on — workshoppy axioms that don’t have much to do with my interests. I wanted to experiment with generic cross-pollination, as you put it, because I was fascinated with the way genre permits itself all sorts of super-useful shorthand and expedients to tell the story and choreograph its various characters. Granted, habitual readers of genre fiction attune their expectations to accommodate these things and probably don’t think of them as disruptive at all. But I like disruption, and I don’t mind emphasizing it for the reader’s benefit. I think that in pretty much all of my work, there is an effort to remind readers that their involvement is part of a game we’re playing, or that I’m orchestrating. The trickster tales are really one key to the book. They’re self-contained and held apart from the narrative that surrounds them, and they are, in effect, genre work: talking animals! Shape-shifting spirits! People turning to stone! They also cue the reader, the careful reader anyway, to the stakes of the game: when we get to Saltino’s supernal monologue toward the end of the novel, can we really say, “That came out of nowhere”? It didn’t; it’s not as if the trickster stories and their magical emphasis are inferior or subordinate to the “real” book, which in any event is being related by three narrators who contradict each other and are more or less deceptive.

The genre that people have mostly noted, though, is the crime thriller aspect of the book, which mostly occurs in the next-to-last section, “Orbital Resonance,” which is deliberately contrived to be the most disruptive. Suddenly, we have been separated from our accustomed narrators and placed in the hands of a dispassionate and omniscient voice that seems to possess all sorts of missing information. But that voice also summarily overwrites the book: when we return to Sandy, 75 pages later, we discover that “Orbital Resonance” has replaced 15 chapters of the novel. I didn’t really have any plans to write a crime thriller; the crime really is just the MacGuffin that holds things together and moves them forward, as is frequently the case with detective stories that use a crime as a pretext to explore other issues. Detective stories are also, of course, exemplary specimens of form, full of the sort of maneuvers and shortcuts I mentioned earlier. 

Which of the four or five narrators in The Fugitives is the unreliable one?

Ah. Going right for it, aren’t you? Sandy’s a liar, but I’ve put a lot of things in his mouth that I think are true and even wise. Kat, our second protagonist, whose narrative is presented in close third person, doesn’t lie to us, but she is habitually dishonest in her conduct, and we have to learn to recognize that. The omniscient narration has a kind of authority to it, but it’s an authority ultimately granted at the reader’s pleasure. And then there’s Salteau/Saltino, whose stories have a certain wisdom to them but are literally fantastic. So, it’s hard to say. I know this is a lousy selling point, but I honestly think it’s the kind of book you have to read at least a couple of times before you begin to get a handle on the levels of uncertainty it entails — in other words, to take a really active and responsive role in the reading and interpretation of it.

I like to think it’s one of those books over which people can argue. One novel that really fascinates me is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, particularly in the way that it never gives up the game. Even as we watch John Dowell, the narrator, improve his story, correct its flaws, in a kind of narrative real time, right up through the last, elegant, intimately interiorized chapters at the end of the book, where he abruptly has access to the state of mind of other characters whom he’s already admitted he doesn’t know all that intimately, we never quite learn the truth — what does he know? Is he complicit in, even guilty of, one of the deaths that occur in the novel? I’ve taught the book a few times and have had some really avid discussions about whether Ford places or intends for us to find any clues to the “truth.” Yet invariably, there are students who just check out; who are against the book. I suppose it might be that way with The Fugitives, too.

And finally, without giving the end away, Sandy Mulligan dodges the bullet and yet we’re left wondering what becomes of him. Would you care to speculate a bit about his fate, does he return to New York City, and will we be seeing more of Sandy Mulligan in the future?

Never say never, but I think I’m probably done with Sandy. And, now that you mention it, I can’t really imagine him going on beyond the final page of the book. He seals himself in. It was really fun to write a genuine “ending” for the book, to allow Sandy very theatrically to tie up loose ends and then lower the curtain on the action, even though we now know beyond any doubt that Sandy has behaved reprehensibly, that he’s showed himself to be a moral and physical coward. The only way I could imagine resurrecting him is by premising his entire role on our awareness of his compromised nature, which doesn’t seem as engaging. Part of my enjoyment in writing Sandy was in making him intelligent and articulate and in many ways very aware, but also in gradually revealing him to be a really dubious character, which is how writers are, I suppose: smart and often charming people around whom you’d better count the silverware, as it were. The thing I said earlier about writing a memoir — about how it would have been exhibitionistic and exploitative and self-serving? That’s Sandy’s version of The Fugitives, and I, as the prime mover, took great pleasure in exposing him.


Donald Breckenridge is a novelist and the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, and managing editor of Red Dust Books.

LARB Contributor

Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail and co-editor of InTranslation. His novel And Then is forthcoming from David R. Godine/Black Sparrow in 2017.


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