Nam Le – a ‘responsive’ interview
The Boat, Nam Le, 2008, Penguin - Hamish Hamilton (
Oct 31, 2008
The Boat, Nam Le, 2008, Penguin - Hamish Hamilton (
Sentences – LiteraryMinded
Responses – Nam Le
The terminal point, point of contemplation.
The idea of terminus is critical to narrative: what (and where) is the point that occasions the narrative? What needs finishing in order for articulation to start? Because a narrative, no matter how it’s structured, is a linear thing – word comes after word comes after word – one at a time – and on the whole we read conventionally, that is, from one side of the word to the other, from one side of the page to the other, from one side of the book to the other. From start to finish.
A dizzying array of cerebral and experiential assumptions are embedded into such a teleological mode of reading. I’m interested in time. Narrative time and time in narrative. I’m interested in the techniques of temporal manipulation; how we – as writers as well as readers – can map the movement of consciousness, and its experience of time, onto the page. What’s that line from “Little Gidding”? – We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.
Stillborns and stagnation.
From the start, physicists have set aside ideas of the existence of other kinds of matter – ether, dark matter – to account for empirical systems of understanding that seemed demonstrable and relatable in other respects. From the start, biologists and chemists have been unable (or unwilling) to steer fully clear of vitalism, the doctrine that posits the existence of some vital principle, some élan vital, that distinguishes ‘life’ from ‘non-life.’ Theologists and philosophers are arguably referring to some version of this principle when they speak of the ‘soul.’ For me – from this vantage – the argument seems persuasive that nothing of real worth comes into being without a determining mystery at its heart.
Per Marilynne Robinson, in a Paris Review interview: “If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.”
Who knows what it is that brings a narrative to life? Who knows what it is that separates something flawless, polished, perfect – but stillborn – from something else that, despite its imperfections, breathes? I’m convinced it’s unknowable, this something. I’m convinced that that’s what makes its manifestation valuable, even primal – and maybe – like ether, or dark energy – even extra-human.
We all know Forster’s exhortation: “Only Connect.” But the rest of it: Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, / And human love will be seen at its height. / Live in fragments no longer. Not passion to passion, nor human to human, love to love – but prose to passion. See previous. What a heroic (if quixotic) idea. Live in fragments no longer. This seems to me particularly apt now, and the word as instrument of ligation – of human love – particularly important. What an idea.
It was E.L. Doctorow who likened writing to driving a car at night – you never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I was on a plane the other day, flying from Hong Kong to London, when a man opened the port window over the wing (I’d scammed an emergency exit row seat) and woke me up. “The Himalayas,” he announced. And it was incredible – to think that there was a correlation between the mountains out the port-side windows and, to plagiarise a phrase, the mountains of my mind. Such moments – coming smack-bang against real-life referents – are simultaneously epiphanies (“They exist out there – these places housing so many happenings of my inner life!”) and impositions (“How dare these places exist? How dare they crowd out my imaginings of them? And what trumps what?”). Geography in fiction, of course, is almost always interactive with human concerns. Its variations are governed by human discriminations (see, eg, this map, which I like because it both highlights and diminishes our stamp on a basically unchanging surface. (An aside – is it just me or does Australia seem still to be stuck in the mostly dark ages?)). As a result, the proper apprehension of geographical variation in fiction ends up being much more than an exertion of the imagination – it’s nothing less, to my mind, than an epistemological discipline, a constant coming home, as we talked about above, to a different place.
‘Seated at a table in full sun outside the Ferry Building and sipping pineapple juice, Le retraced his unlikely path to a widely heralded early success.’ (San Francisco Chronicle) ‘He lifts a forkful to his mouth. “I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what panna cotta was,” he says, his Australian accent stretching out each vowel like Silly Putty. He tastes. “It’s quite good.”‘ (The New York Times) ‘But his capacity for the self-puncturing insight is frequently on display.’ (The Age) ‘I write because I read’ (You).
I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what Silly Putty was.
The human mechanism. Old man stands up in the bath.
When people talk about what it is we all have in common, they tend quite naturally to focus on anthropological or cultural rather than biological characteristics. See, for example, this list of ‘human universals’ – one of the most interesting and provocative lists ever compiled (by Donald H. Brown, collated by Stephen Pinker). Of course Brown’s interest is primarily anthropological, but I think it still speaks to my point that our greatest commonality is so self-evident it’s often overlooked. Namely: our bodies. No matter where you fit on the materialist spectrum, you can’t refute the proposition that we exist with – within – because of – and not without – our bodies. Thought, character, conditioning, impulse, situation – all these, as human characteristics, are contingent on first-principle physicality – and the perishability it presumes. And it’s precisely that physicality – the machine and not the ghost – or, perhaps more accurately, the machine impelled by its own ghosts – that sites our greatest, most enduring, most relevant mysteries.
Inside other people’s pages.
According to Wikipedia: “Metafiction is a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.” I’ll take it.
‘…pixellated it and everywhere turned it to plastic.’ (Meeting Elise)
Now you point it out, this is probably a clumsy elision of metaphors.
Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo.
John Paul. Funny, I never intended that papal reference but I guess it’s quite at home in the scheme of the story.
Kafka 1920: ‘8 December. Spent Monday, a holiday, in the park, the restaurant, and the Gallerie. Sorrow and joy, guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood, and bones to part them.’
That’s a great quote. One of my favourite quotes also comes from Kafka; I’ll try to remember it off the top of my head: “You can stand aloof from the sufferings of the world. That is your right, and it may even express your nature, but perhaps that aloofness is the one suffering you could have avoided.”
I want to talk about David Foster Wallace. I thought he was one of our best. One of our brightest lights. An incomparable mind lashed to a mighty heart. I thought he was unfailingly brave and, to me, of late, that’s become the real yardstick. It’s so sad to read back over some of his stories – everything takes on a pall of anguish and prescience and portent now. To know what we now know – that he was living in hell – renders his work the fruit of almost unbearable generosity. May we make the most of it.
The person sitting next to you on the plane. Waiting for luggage. Smiling at the hotel desk. Sitting in the hotel room. Talking in front of many faces.
Apparently, 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Station in New York every day. I once saw sped-up footage from a camera situated above the main concourse; what was most remarkable was that all these people – many moving at a fast Manhattan clip – fell into an eerie, communal rhythm wherein they barely touched each other. Almost the whole floor was filled with people, yet there was an elegant, evolved choreography at work that, in keeping people from each other, I found a thing of great beauty and sadness.
Not describing bombs.
‘Kids believe in Santa; adults believe in childhood’ (from A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear, Cate Kennedy).
I wish I had my copy of Dark Roots with me – I left it in Australia – it’s full of lines such as these, steeped in humour and wisdom. I’m hanging out to read her novel.
Sarah and Parvin, two parts of one whole?
So much is bundled up, isn’t it, in this idea of ‘one whole’?
Ending with loss.
Explanation: I deliberately chose an unconventional interview method with Nam. One reason is that he has done many wonderful interviews elsewhere (many present on his website) – I wanted to give him a chance to just have fun and be creative in reflecting on his work and writerly self. Another reason is that I think the blogging medium allows for experimentation, originality and flexibility. I instructed Nam to respond to the sentences however he wished. I derived them from The Boat, my reactions to it, and from things I heard Nam speak of at Byron Bay and Melbourne Writers’ Festivals – such as writing, short fiction, and more. He could also choose not to respond, or use links, other’s words, and/or images.