“Strenuous Acts of Attention”: A Conversation with Emily Hall

July 7, 2022   •   By Angelo Hernandez-Sias

EMILY HALL’S DEBUT novel, The Longcut, takes place over the course of a single walk. The narrator, an artist with an office job, has spent her life trying to answer one question: What is my work? But the stakes on this walk are especially high; she is on her way to a meeting with a “gallery person” (she rejects the term “gallerist”) who may or may not exhibit her art.

In a hilarious and self-lacerating torrent/torment of prose, the narrator burrows her way to this question’s core — if there is one. She recalls, as she walks, her forays into photography and video art — which she embarks on while at work, despite the “slant look” from her boss — and her hypothetical excursions into other media (painting, recording). Her friend, a printmaker, tells her that she is “dicking around and should pick a technique or medium and master it.”

Emily Hall has written for Artforum since 2003, and she currently edits exhibition catalogs at the Museum of Modern Art. Shortlisted for the 2020 Novel Prize, The Longcut is among the first books to be published as part of the relaunch of Dalkey Archive Press this spring. I first encountered the text in excerpted form in the fourth issue of Socrates on the Beach. Hall and I met and spoke at a bar in Brooklyn on April 9.

Author photo by Mungo Campbell.

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ANGELO HERNANDEZ-SIAS: You mention in an interview with Beyond the Zero that you like to diagram sentences. How come? Are there any examples you’d be willing to share?

EMILY HALL: I’m diagramming a beautiful long sentence from my favorite Thomas Bernhard novel, Correction, translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins. Is it okay if I read it to you?

I’d love to hear it.

Here it is:

But I had seized the opportunity of my pulmonary infection, meaning simply these months of reflective illness, to concern myself at once, without postponement, with this legacy of Roithamer’s, afraid as I was originally to plunge into Roithamer’s papers, because I knew how vulnerable I was, in my uncertain state of health involving not only my body, I was too weak to confront Roithamer’s mental world head on, knowing that I had never been a match for Roithamer’s ideas and what he did with them, but had, in fact, sometimes succumbed entirely to these ideas and actions of Roithamer’s, whatever Roithamer thought I also thought, whatever he practiced, I believed I also had to practice, at times I had been wholly preoccupied with his ideas and all his thinking and had given up my own thinking even though it had been, after all, like every line of thought, an independent, autonomous, self-propelled line of thought, I had become quite incapable of thinking my own thoughts for long periods of my life, especially in England where I had probably gone only because Roithamer was there, all I could think was Roithamer’s thoughts, as Roithamer himself had frequently noticed and found inexplicable, and consequently also unbearable, he said, to have to see me so subjected to his thinking, if not entirely at the mercy of his thinking, that I tended to follow his every thought wherever it might lead, that I was always to be found in my thinking wherever he was in his thinking, and he warned me to take care, not to give in to this tendency, because a man who no longer thinks his own thoughts but instead finds himself dominated by the thoughts of another man whom he admires or even if he doesn't admire him but is only dominated by his thoughts, compulsively, such a man is in constant danger of doing himself in by his continual thinking of the other man’s thoughts, in danger of deadening himself out of existence. 


What drew you to this sentence?

The way it takes up the content in its form. This feeling of succumbing to someone else’s thoughts and to their rhythms is written right into the syntax. And so, I started to diagram it, trying to figure out where Bernhard was breaking rules. What do the splices mean? What’s being carried over? Is it and, and, and, or is it but, but, but, or is there another form of dependency among all these clauses? I started putting the words I thought were missing inside parentheses. Then I realized I had to invent symbols for the different relationships. I wanted to see them.

The connective tissue?

Right, whatever was knitting it together. I should say that what’s allowable in German in terms of the comma splice is different from what’s tolerated in English, which is basically nothing. Still, there’s all this ambiguity — does this appositive modify this antecedent or that one a few lines back? Does this clause contradict the clause before it or the sentence as a whole? It’s so intricate and deliberate. This isn’t just a writer out of control who doesn’t know when to end a sentence. I’ve learned about elements that feel like the far reaches of syntax — the elliptical concessive and the concessive absolute — which is just the sort of obscure thing I love. Covert grammar, forensic grammar, deep grammar.

I’m an editor in my day job, so naturally I think about syntax all the time. How does it create meaning? How does Bernhard create meaning? I had this feeling that if I subjected his sentence to this structure that accounted for every rule of grammar, then the element that had no rule — his elemental chaos — would drop out into my hands. I would have in my hands the pure essence of Thomas Bernhard, the thing that makes his writing work.

You’re digging beneath the surface for structure. It seems to me the sentence is digging too.

Like Beckett — circling something and not saying it. But Beckett is circling it and not saying it through nonsense. Bernhard perseverates, around and around, almost telling you. And then the meaning slips away through a comma splice.

Beckett said, “To bore one hole after another in [language], until what lurks behind it — be it something or nothing — begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.”

There’s a nice double reading there: boring.

One thing that strikes me about the passage you just read is that the narrator, who has been obsessively observing Roithamer, is suddenly observed by him. It’s a shock and a violation of the sort that I noticed in The Longcut. The person doing the measuring inflicts change on her object of study. In physics, they call it the “observer effect.” How do you make those turns back to the self?

Do you have an instance in mind?

Let’s say when the narrator is on the train thinking about “job garments” and studying the young man across from her, wondering why he looks disturbed. She’s going through all these reasons and then the narrative takes a turn —

He’s disturbed by her staring at him.

Which is hilarious.

I’m glad you thought that was funny! I thought it was funny too. We sit on the subway philosophizing and don’t realize — or I don’t realize — that we’re staring right at someone’s crotch. But we’re not seeing it.

The narrator of The Longcut describes this state as “mental darkness.”

Right, in my “mental darkness,” there’s nothing in front of me. In writing The Longcut, all these flights of thinking, it was important to me that there be certain anchors in the physical world. A line of pure thought is thrilling, but the way to peg it forward is to have these Velcro moments where the brain and the world attach. Where you realize you’re not just a brain moving through the world but a person moving through the world having an effect on other people.

One of the book’s hinges is one of these outward moments, when the narrator’s printmaker friend makes an observation about her work, so the narrator then sees herself through someone else. I absolutely don’t believe that you need outside approval or appraisal to know why you’re an artist. But someone else’s thinking can give you a way out of the loop you’re stuck in.

The narrator spends the bulk of the novel trying to figure out what her work is. Late in the novel, the gallerist puts it to her very simply: “Your work is solving for x.” This comment devastates the narrator.

The gallerist slips the knife in.

Exactly. The gallerist’s comment strikes us as a sort of epiphany from the outside. When you’re writing, how do you arrive at these moments of insight? Do they hit you in real time?

That comment got written into an early draft, and at first it felt right. It felt like a good answer to the narrator’s question, and the narrator found some satisfaction in it.

But I realized over the course of a few revisions that the answer ruined things. It deflated the whole pursuit. I realized that when you solve for x, you’re solving an equation, and when you solve it, it’s over. And you don’t want it to be over. Maybe it’s why I haven’t finished the Thomas Bernhard diagram — I don’t want to solve him. There’s an instability to him that’s really important to me.

It sounds like you arrive at insight through revision. You push yourself as far as you can go, then you set the work aside and come back to it to see if you can push it further.

There was a long period when revising The Longcut just meant pushing things around a bit. I’d been stuck on this idea that the point of the book was the way it came out, all in a rush. Which is so bush league, if you think about it. And eventually I understood it needed organizing, that the disorder of thought needed a structure to support it. I made a timeline along a wall in my studio, and on top of the line I put all the narrator’s physical actions, and on the bottom, I put all the recursion, all the thoughts that grow out of those actions.

And from that timeline the walk that shapes the book emerged.

So, the constraint of the walk gave you some order that allowed for the narrator’s chaotic, meandering thought.

The walk spatialized the narrator’s line of thought. The thought is anchored in the space. And because I had this anchor, I could let the thinking part go wherever it was going to go.

It’s interesting that the narrator’s thought is actually happening in a previous plane. The only thing that’s technically happening in the present is recalling. Is this what it’s like when you walk? Do you remember thinking about what you’ve thought about?

There are street corners where I always have the same thought. The first time it came up organically, the second time I remembered the first time, and after that it just arrived and arrived and arrived.

Some people walk to discover new places and to have the “mental darkness” obliterated by new stimuli. I’m the sort of person who walks through the same park in a loop and finds it pleasant to delve into that “mental darkness.” What kind of walker are you?

Why not both? I used to walk to school and back — 20 blocks, the same walk every day, the same guy from the deli saying hello — it’s good to know the deli guys when you’re a small kid walking around alone in New York. Those walks were good for mind wandering. I felt so free, no one knew precisely where I was between the points of home and school.

Not walking produces a sort of mental darkness, though. During the pandemic, I didn’t leave the house that much — usually I was at home sitting next to my son and making sure he was on the right Zoom call and doing his work. I shut down over those months, I mentally shut down. Of course, there was the trauma of what the country was going through and what the world was going through and all those pointless deaths. But I couldn’t snap out of it even a bit because I wasn’t walking, I wasn’t moving. Without moving, I can’t think.

You’ve written art criticism for 20 years, and you edit exhibition catalogs. I’m curious about your journey toward writing fiction. How do these different spheres speak to each other in your work? Are they extensions of a broader project?

I started in art history, as an art history and Italian major, if you can believe it. I thought I wanted to be a curator of Renaissance art, but I was exhausted in advance by the idea of more years of school. And how many Renaissance curators does the world need? After a few years of menial publishing jobs, I ended up in an MFA program in the mid-1990s.

Afterward I was writing book reviews for a weekly paper, through a friend. And doing temp work, so much typing, so many spreadsheets, to pay the bills. And then I started writing about art for a different paper, throwing myself at contemporary art the way I had thrown myself at the Renaissance. For about five years I was lucky enough to be a full-time art critic, which meant that I got to look at and think about and read about art all the time, to think about what it was. What I liked about it, too, was that art is hard to write about. I remember walking around a sculpture made of paper, like of interlocking polygons that caved in and spiked out in cone-like shapes — like a big complex paper boulder. That’s not a good description, and this was 20 years ago! I still can’t describe it! And that seemed to me so exciting: having to describe things that are not only hard to describe, but that don’t want to be described, or to have their meaning formulated in words. I can only describe this as an extreme cognitive pleasure.

So now, editing exhibition catalogs, I’m facing this question of difficulty all the time, in this case texts that are often academic and abstract. It’s made me aware of how slight changes can steer a sentence toward or away from clarity, or of how a phrase without an agent in it can bring a line of firm declarative thought to a halt. People like to joke about art jargon, but I think if you pay attention to how a term is being used, I mean if you pay really close attention, down to the prepositions around it, you can give specialist language clarity and continuity.

And so, this — maybe even more than the years in the MFA program? Should I say that? — is how I figured out how to write, by bringing that sort of attention to bear on syntax but instead of trying to clarify it, trying to break it. Can I clang one gerund on top of another until you hear ing ing ing ing in your ear and suddenly the sentence isn’t functioning anymore? That’s a Beckett thing. That’s a Gertrude Stein thing. Teasing the edges of functionality.

Bringing language into that noise-like state which then forces the reader to double back.

Yeah. Read the sentence again! And of course, you don’t know everything until you get to the end of the sentence — read to the end! This is true in Proust, and even then, sometimes you have to go back and remind yourself what the subject of the sentence was. But there’s nothing wrong with having to read a sentence a few times. A good sentence will give you more each time you read it.

James Wood says that the advantage that literary critics have is that they’re working with the same medium they’re writing about. As an art critic, you put language to visual art. In The Longcut, you put language to circuitous thought, which I imagine is a similar challenge. It’s like you’re taking a photograph of the psyche in burst mode. 

Burst mode — that’s brilliant!

Some of the narrator’s words describe objects, and some of them become objects themselves. “Hither and yon” is one such recurring phrase.

The phrases are like prefab architecture — you can just shuttle it in and do a bunch of fancy footwork around it.

You’re engaged in a kind of a juggling act. Let’s start with the egg to which the narrator becomes attached early in the book. Let’s say that’s one. And then we have the ledge she places the egg on to photograph it in the slanted light. That’s two. And then we have the slant look the boss gives her when she photographs the egg on the ledge instead of doing her job. You seem to be testing how many objects you can keep in rotation at once, so that nothing that appears comes from nowhere.

Who was it that warned against the pointlessly specific detail? I wanted every detail to feel utterly deliberate, none of it just sort of tossed in there to give the story texture. Because the egg, the ledge, the slant look come around again and again, they insist on themselves. You can will an object into meaning through repetition.

It’s a paranoid way of reading: seeing meaning everywhere. I am reminded of a passage from Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas —

I have Aphasia in my pocket! It’s brilliant. I love his work. Anyway, you were saying —

In the chapter where Antonio reflects on his relationship to nature, he remembers a quote from W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo: “I sat at a table near the open terrace door,” W. G. Sebald writes, “[M]y papers and notes spread out around me, drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order.” Your method lends itself to that kind of reading.

Yes, although sometimes it doesn’t work! When I started the book I’m writing now, there were all these disparate elements, and I couldn’t figure out how they came together. Where did they converge? How did they converge? The best I could come up with was that they converged through me — that would have to be enough. The power of my interest in them would be enough.

It’s like you’re a prism: because all the beams of light come through you, they have a similar quality.

And that’s total artistic autonomy. And for a while it felt like the right answer, but I continued to be unhappy with it. Finally, I realized there were two book projects that simply weren’t going to converge.

At the Greater New York exhibit at the MoMA PS1, which I visited today per your recommendation, there was a quote that reminded me of your work. It was from zip: 01.01.20 … 12.31.20 by Yuji Agematsu, who collected litter on daily walks in 2020 and stored them in transparent cigarette wrappers.

The array of them is gorgeous, but some of them are disgusting if you look up close. [Laughs.]

It is visceral art. Some of it is even perverse. He makes a bouquet out of weeds and gum and —

Phlegmy-type things.

Exactly. Agematsu said, “I see each object as a notation in terms of music. Each has its own sound and rhythm.” Do you think in terms of music?

Absolutely. There’s absolutely an aural component to The Longcut. When I was revising it, I read every sentence out loud. I’ve been working with my piano teacher on reading out loud from the book, in preparation for reading in public, so that I’m not gasping by the time I get to the end of one of those long sentences.

I sent him the part about the narrator listening to the Bach fugue, in order to give structure to her thoughts but ending up so distracted by the fugue’s component parts that she can’t think at all. We talked about the text in terms of phrasing, repetition, and interjection, how these things become rhythm, how to create a rubric of breathing and pacing so that it flows.

At one point he asked me if I thought the fugue might be the beginning of modernism — which I wasn’t expecting, but which opens up so many ways of thinking. Could the fugue be the beginning of postmodernism? It’s self-generating, it’s self-referential — it fits the bill. All the time I was thinking, of course! Of course! Why hadn’t I given it to a musician earlier? I could only have had this conversation with someone as resolutely musical as he is.

Musical notation is just fascinating — these emotive vibrating frequencies condensed into dots. But I wonder: Are there other ways to see what music looks like? What does a fugue look like? Can we see the spatial relationship between theme and variations? There’s some puzzle there that I want to see, some way of giving form to a formless thing.

Visualizing audio.

Spatializing thought.

In your interview with Beyond the Zero, you say, “I sometimes find that art in books is made to do a lot of work. […] It doesn’t seem to me to rise naturally out of what the book is.” Could you say more about this?

Artworks in fiction end up more or less doing one of two things — either carrying heavy symbolic weight, full of theory and significance — something you have to read, in the interpretive sense. Or they stand in for the idea of greatness, confer greatness on the great artist, even if it’s never evident what the greatness of the work is.

That’s not always the case, though — some writers do it beautifully. In Isabel Waidner’s Sterling Karat Gold, there’s a courtroom scene that brilliantly takes place in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, as contemporary performance.

I felt so alienated — pleasurably alienated — from language in The Longcut. Clothes are “job garments.” Going for drinks becomes a “drinks appointment.” What motivates these phrases?

I’m sure that as a writer you know this already, that there’s reflex phrasing everywhere you look. For example, the word “own.” “My own writing,” “my own body.” It’s always there, and it doesn’t have the feel of a deliberate choice: has the writer weighed the difference between “my body” and “my own body” and come down firmly on the latter? My own, my own: it’s a little precious.

The critic William Giraldi calls that sort of reflexive phrasing “at-hand language” — whatever’s easiest to reach for, whatever’s not too much work, and it makes writing slack. The writing just dies — and that’s not a pleasurable way to be alienated from language: when it’s just taking up space, when it’s so tired it can’t do anything.

For me the pleasurable alienation you describe is a way of giving meaning back to words through strenuous acts of attention and will, like repeating a phrase so often that it starts to mean something else. Maybe after a while you want to tear your ears off, but you’re definitely not hearing the same old tired words. It’s like waking up.

You’re trying to make it new.

So, let’s make it new.

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Angelo Hernandez-Sias is an MFA candidate in fiction at Syracuse University. His story “Heart Reacts” appears in the third issue of Socrates on the Beach.