Notes on Naïf: An Interview with Antoine Wilson
By Doug BrowneNovember 15, 2012
I FIRST READ Antoine Wilson’s “Notes on ‘Hack’” in this publication. Like Susan Sontag, who in her “Notes on ‘Camp’” identified an aesthetic phenomenon that had yet to be articulated and defined, Wilson takes up a neglected idea, the Hack, a designation we often use but, as he shows, haven’t adequately thought through. The result is both illuminating and entertaining and offers a good introduction to Wilson’s subtlety as a thinker.
Wilson’s new novel, Panorama City, contributes to the secular humanist tradition of the wise fool whose simple gullibility is proof of his incorruptible goodness. His narrator-protagonist, Oppen Porter, is the Don Quixote of the Central Valley, The Man of Madera. Yet Wilson's novel is no simple parody or pastiche. His forms and procedures have their obvious literary precedents, but he adapts them to his own ends. The result is a novel that derives from a rich, personally-selected tradition but is in no way derivative.
What also becomes clear is that Wilson is a California writer who has written a California book, but one that eschews all we have come to expect of Southern California literature: corruption, brutality, anxiety, racism, Hollywood, disaster, pornography. Instead, Wilson tells a quieter tale that takes us from a small town in the Central Valley to a small city in the San Fernando Valley, one you probably haven’t given much thought to, even as you may have passed it countless times in your car.
Borges remarks somewhere that before Cervantes’s great novel in Spain La Mancha was roughly equivalent in stature and prestige to, say, Kansas City (he didn’t specify which one). Perhaps Panorama City will no longer be known as the racially exclusive planned community laid out by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, where Coffee Mate was invented and Kirk Cameron was born, where the largest GM assembly plant once stood and the LA Kings have their practice rink. Now we have Oppen Porter, a six-and-a-half-foot tall, binocular-wearing “man of the world” to finally give this neglected American city a literary habitation and a name.
Doug Browne: The narrator of Panorama City, Oppen Porter, is so preternaturally decent that I’m reminded of what Nabokov said of Don Quixote: “There is no malice in him; he is as trustful as a child.” And like the Knight of the Rueful Countenance, Oppen often misperceives his world, though in a way that makes us see him as innocent rather than insane. What compelled you to create a character with these qualities?
Antoine Wilson: Yes, I've read that line. Is it from Lectures on Don Quixote? I wanted to look at the world, especially in all of its fallen forms, with fresh eyes, or at least not through the veil of reflexive cynicism. It's not only Oppen's naiveté that nudges him in this direction. Being illiterate, he's immune to all the text thrown at us. His is not the saturated media environment many of us navigate daily.
Also, my son was born right around the time I started this novel. When I wasn't writing I was spending an awful lot of time around toddlers. I've enjoyed the company of many illiterate, malice-free, trustful individuals, most of them under four feet tall.
DB: Of course, for Quixote, literacy is synonymous with naiveté. In fact, his reading is directly responsible for the vision of human kindness that saturates the novel.
AW: Yes, Quixote's vision is supremely mediated whereas Oppen is far more about unmediated vision. He is really Sancho.
DB: In what sense?
AW: Early on, when I was working out what Panorama City was going to be about, I came across the notion that Don Quixote was a creation of Sancho Panza’s, that Sancho had dreamed him up. I thought it would be fun to write a sort of Sancho-centered book, something from the point-of-view of a sidekick. This was how Paul Renfro came to be. The earliest drafts had a lot more Renfro. But Oppen turned out to be more interesting in his own right.
DB: I believe that notion that Quixote was dreamed up comes from Kafka’s “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” What were some of your narrative concerns in portraying innocence?
AW: I wasn’t interested in dramatizing how innocence gets crushed by the cruel world. It’s a concern of mine, emotionally, artistically, and so on, but I didn’t want to pursue it here. And I didn’t want the whole thing to devolve into an exercise in dramatic irony, where we know so much more than Oppen does and are charmed by the distance between our view and his. I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I wasn’t interested in writing my own version of it.
DB: Have you read much else in the literature of fools and naturals?
AW: Sure. I love I.B. Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool,” about a somewhat self-aware fool. First person. And way over on the other end of the spectrum, told in a distant third, is “Greatness Strikes where It Pleases” by Lars Gustafsson, one of my favorite short stories of all time. The central character is severely developmentally disabled — more natural than fool. Then there’s Quixote, Being There, Steve Martin’s movie “The Jerk,” Candide, and Bohumil Hrabal’s excellent novel, I Served the King of England. “Forrest Gump” is an obvious reference point for many people, because of the film, but I didn’t really like the film. I was far more interested in knowing what it felt like to be Forrest, and the filmmakers seemed more interested in using him as a vehicle to tell the story of America, or something like that.
DB: I’m not sure how to accurately describe Oppen. His Aunt Liz says he was raised like a village idiot, but that strikes me as wrong. Fool and natural aren’t right either. Savant, perhaps?
AW: I refer to him generically as a naïf. That’s about 75% right, don’t you think? I give myself a C+.
DB: Oppen’s decency prevents him from recognizing most basic forms of human meanness. I’m thinking of how the citizens of Madera greet him sarcastically as “Mayor,” or how some boys encourage him to jump from a high trestle into shallow water (a fall that would surely break his neck), or the ritual game of chicken played between him on his “blue-flake three-speed Schwinn with the leather saddlebags” and the Alvarez brothers — two of his “oldest friends” — who are clearly trying to run his ass off the road in their pickup. Oppen treats every gesture as well meaning and sincere. Are we to find his misunderstandings funny?
AW: You can find them funny if you like, but I would argue that Oppen is more aware of his role than he lets on.
DB: Nabokov was dismayed by how tickled readers were by the violence in Don Quixote. Cervantes is cruel to his man. You are more generous to yours, though Oppen does end up hospitalized and in a body cast after a near-fatal run-in with the Alvarez brothers. Are violence and cruelty necessary to a comedic portrayal of goodness?
AW: Not only a comedic portrayal. Any depiction of goodness needs some kind of badness to serve as a counterpoint, even if it’s only implied. That said, I wasn’t interested in extracting that Cervantean comedy you mention. I was aiming for a more realistic version of Candide’s ability to shrug things off. What really interests me is the ways in which we continue to trust, or hope for the best, despite all the betrayals and cruelties we experience along the way. Optimism as strength rather than weakness.
DB: For a novel that doesn’t rely heavily on narrative description, Panorama City still manages to evoke a palpable and specific sense of place. What drew you to set the book in the Central Valley and the San Fernando Valley?
AW: Personal experience with these places, and the sense that I could use them as a sort of substrate upon which to grow the world of the novel. I lived in Madera, CA, for four years, as a child, in circumstances different from Oppen's, of course, but the place remains in my mind. (If you want to know what Madera was like for me, see "Everyone Else," in The Paris Review.) As for Panorama City, I was drawn to it for several reasons. One, I wanted Oppen to come to the big city, i.e., Los Angeles, without ever entering Los Angeles proper. Two, I love the geography of the San Fernando Valley, the mini-malls and low-slung buildings, the stuff that embodies a frozen-in-amber Los Angeles for me. And three, Panorama City was a masterplan community, one of the first in Southern California, and symbolizes the supremacy of life’s complexities over any kind of ideal or programmatic approach. Plus, the metaphoric power of the name, that was a factor.
DB: In his quest to become “a thinker” and “a man of the world,” Oppen arrives at many insights that might appear commonplace, obvious, and even trite. And yet the secret of the novel resides in its ability to have the obvious become revelatory, not in a spectacular or transcendent way, but in a manner that convinces us of its rightness. It’s as if through his limited understanding Oppen is showing us that the obvious is not just what we continue to miss but all that’s really there to be seen. What are your thoughts on this?
AW: Etymologically, the obvious is what’s in the way. Our minds are excellent at forming habits of thought, or non-thought, as it were, to help us get through our days and social interactions as smoothly as possible. But we lose something in the exchange. This point itself is trite, isn’t it?
How about this: Imagine you’d never heard the phrase “beating around the bush.” It’s a brilliant piece of language. I remember the first time I realized the image behind the phrase, a phrase I’ve used countless times. It was like a little gift.
DB: Though he is illiterate, Oppen uses language in a careful, rhythmic, and rhetorically skillful way. His phrasings are full of repetitions and refrains, some of them charmingly lyrical: “breathing my own air,” “our patch of wilderness,” “doing what men and women do,” etc. Or there’s this beautiful passage, one of the loveliest in the novel: “I am here, I am still here, it is dawn and I am here. The sunrise, it was the sunrise, what I thought was death was the sunrise reflected on the balloon.” How did you come about shaping his voice?
AW: It started with a desire to capture/evoke on the page certain features of spoken language. I was looking for the best language to express the character at the same time that I was looking for the best character to suit the language. The two were inextricable, even in their genesis. Thomas Bernhard's novels were a big influence, vis-a-vis the possibilities of repetition and musicality in the language. But his books tend to be bilious and erudite, the polar opposite of Oppen's particular Weltanschauung.
DB: How do you think about making sentences? Is it cognitive? Musical?
AW: Cognitive first, I think, though it's hard to separate the two. If I follow musicality too exclusively, the sentences collapse in ruts and tics. I was looking at some old drafts for a class on revision and I noticed a number of small ideas making their way through different phrasings, like they were trying on clothes or something, until they found the right fit.
DB: You’ve created some eccentric names for your characters: Oppen Porter, Roger Macarona, Dr. Armando Rosenkleig. What’s in a name for you?
AW: Most character names typically come from variations on real-life people and places. I like a name to be evocative, but I also like to keep things rooted in reality. That said, I could be accused, probably, of the Park Slope Playground Syndrome, you know, where every kid has a unique and precious name.
DB: As a Nabokov junkie you seem to have picked up his habit for illustrative detail, though your use of it is more recreational. The postal worker Wilfredo, whose “arm was like a blimp delivering the mail from his window to the box”; Officer Mary, whose “shoulders drooped like her bones were soft”; Dr. Rosenkleig, whose “thick multi-colored sweater […] looked like some kind of beast that was digesting him,” and who “kept his chin up high like a cat feeling the sun on his face.” What’s your view about the role of detail in narrative fiction?
AW: Illustrative details are hooks from which you can hang other details, emotions, language, and ideas. They need to feel light and alive to work properly. Weighted down with too much meaning, they fail. The best are caught in the wild, the result of a sort of casual but constant people-watching.
DB: Though most discussions about process end up being pretty dull, you have an unusual compositional method. Would you describe how the novel came to be?
AW: I start over a lot. I’ll write a first draft as if I’m actually writing the book, I mean with that kind of pressure on it, and then I’ll end up on the rocks in 30 pages. I’ll begin a new draft, then, and maybe make it to 80 pages before the whole thing goes off the rails. Then 100, then another draft to 130 or so. It’s a terribly discouraging process, but by the time I’ve been through so much groping at the thing, I’ve got a fat ball of novel in my head, rich and layered and generative.
DB: About how long does that take?
AW: This one took four years, solid.
DB: Have you ever gotten deep into the development of a book then abandoned it?
AW: Depends what you mean by deep. I do have a novel in a drawer that took three years to write. 100,000 words. Americans living in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1980s. I suppose that counts as abandoned, but it was abandoned after I had “finished” it.
DB: In reading some of the reviews of Panorama City, I’m impressed at how readers have failed to appreciate the craftsmanship of your prose. One reviewer read all those carefully planned, musically phrased repetitions as “conversational tics.” How do you deal with negative reviews?
AW: I’d want to draw a distinction between critics, real critics, who in their own way contribute significantly to the literary culture, and on the other hand reviewers, who serve a different function, namely to stand in for the general reader and muse about whether or not a book is “worth reading.” The best reviewers achieve moments of real criticism, of course, and serve both functions at once. As far as negative reviews go, I try to figure out first of all whether I agree with the points made. Then it’s dismissal or despair, or a combination of the two.
DB: When did you decide to become a novelist?
AW: I was pre-med in college, majoring in English Literature but planning on applying to medical school. I got as far as taking the MCAT. But before the results came back, I decided I didn’t really want to be a doctor — I wanted to write novels. I had been writing all the time, of course; I was a sort of closet writer, and as soon as I stopped worrying about whether I was going to survive the pre-med experience, it became very clear that I had to put writing first. My mother likes to remind me that it’s still not too late to go to medical school.
DB: One of your themes seems to be the search for originality or authenticity of thought. Oppen has a heightened sensitivity to the words and ideas of others. He is constantly quoting and citing his sources. Eventually, he arrives at a theory about how we transmute the language of others and make it our own. Do you agree with him that authenticity is possible in this age where, according to Robert Hass, everything seems like a quotation of a quotation?
AW: Authenticity is possible in any age. Whether it’s prevalent is another matter. But none of us creates our own language from scratch. An authentic approach requires a willingness to ingest the words of others as deeply as possible, so that they are transmuted within us.
Doug Browne is an English teacher. He lives in Los Angeles.
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