They Aren’t Even Characters, They Are Words

Greg Gerke discusses writing Especially the Bad Things

This is part two of a two-part interview with Greg Gerke. In the first part, Greg discussed the art of short fiction and the “aural” approach to writing.
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Greg Gerke is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been publishing short stories and essays for more than a decade now: his work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of BooksTin House, and many other venues. Especially the Bad Things, which Gary Lutz has described as a collection of “swift, swervy, nervous fictions”, is published by Splice and available to order now. An essay collection, See What I See, will be published at the end of October; it has received advance praise from critics including Steven Moore, Curtis White, and Vijay Seshadri, and is available to pre-order.

Earlier this week, Daniel Davis Wood spoke to Greg about his body of work and his inspirations. Here, the discussion continues with a focus on the composition of the fictions in Especially the Bad Things and Greg’s writing process.

Okay, so you’ve given me a lot of names of the “aural” writers who you respond to: Gaddis, Wallace, Elkin, Lipsyte, et al. That’s your catnip as a reader. What about when you’re writing a piece of fiction? The inner sounds…

Sometimes it’s easy to pick up on the sounds that are motivating you to write, because as I read your work it feels to me that you’re hearing a sequence of sounds in your head, in your mind’s ear, and finding words to notate them, almost musically, as in the alliteration or rhymes of some of your titles: ‘Denise, Dogs, and Me’, or ‘Bach, a Beard, Two Women’, or ‘High on the Thigh’. Sometimes, though, it seems more — I don’t know how to phrase it, exactly… Maybe orchestral? You have sentences that roll on, rising and swelling over five or six lines, and then a break — an emdash, maybe — and then two or three staccato phrases, chopping up the rhythm. Or it gives you sentences like the five or six that make up ‘Careful’, where the ending, the climax, is deferred and deferred and deferred by clauses and subclauses, until finally it lands with a punch. Are these, too, elements of the sound that you write towards — sounds of strings of words, beyond the words themselves?

In this case, the work is done intuitively before the reviser comes along, who tries to still leave some things to seem like they were improvised with that energy. But really it’s like a John Cassavetes film — all of it has been painstakingly scripted and the improvisations only seem so because the camera is blurring and shaky. I work on a section at a time in revision, a few pages, going over and over, then reading aloud, then going over and over again. The fiction book is kind of far away from me, so it’s easier to talk about the essays, but the process is no different: both are made of sentences.

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I read the beginning of a long essay from See What I See, the Eric Rohmer piece, out loud in front of an audience some years ago. There is just something about reading in front of people that can’t be duplicated when alone or reading for one. Even if the listeners make no sound (most don’t) I can usually tell the temperature of the room — there are more ways of portraying silence than any other posture. So I could hear things wrong in the sentences, at least three major impressions for every minute I read. For instance, suddenly a word in the first paragraph sounded too much like one in the ninth paragraph — something I could only hear if I read out loud with many pillars of judgment before me. Too much friction, the number of beats was off — and this may lead back to Lish and how the reading out loud in his classes was key. In the best interview with him, by David Winters, he said, “The span of our life, if construed in relative terms, may be no longer than four beats. And if you say ‘I mean I think’, you’ve used those four beats to say nothing.”

As for alliteration and consonance and assonance — that pretty much comes as meted by The Muse. I never sit and wonder what d-word will go with dog — it comes in one slough. There is a lot of chatter about the plain style versus a more ornate, hypnotic, and vivid style. A lot of the literary scene’s current gatekeepers favor the plain style and many of the most promoted fiction writers have relaxed into it or chosen it — there is an unconscionable fear of alienating the reader in a good portion of that work, which also translates into not taking chances. There is less to say about someone who knows what to leave out — a maneuver I’m not sure is always a good thing. But then, why would something aching to be realized want to be left out? In Gass, as in James Joyce, Patrick White, and William Gaddis, there is a replete feeling, one gets to the heart of the sensation, no matter awing or foul, not by winks and nudges but by full orchestration — the Sistine ceiling itself, not a postage stamp size .gif on the internet.

So “orchestral” may well be the right word for it.

I think there might be something occurring that may be “orchestral”. It is how all of our experience and impressions get broken down into language. It seems as if something like ‘Careful’ and many of the short fictions — because they are one page or less — came in one clump and it was more a matter of when to cut out, when the rhetoric seemed to be getting out of hand. In the essays, one wants to convey a different sort of impression and so often the music is gentler and purling, a day in the country, but with allowances. The sound I use there may have been born out of accretion — reading Guy Davenport’s essays over and over again. The first sentence of his ‘Dictionary’: “Some years ago, on a particularly distraught evening, the drift of things into chaos was precipitated by my consulting Webster’s Third International for the word Mauser.” So much is going on here and it’s not all ornate or all plain but a synthesis of the two. It certainly is hypnotic. It could be the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it quickly becomes Kafka, with “the drift of things into chaos” — something so beautiful, you think Keats wrote it and you want more of that beauty, that voice. Then the humor of the ending, and ending on that particular word. Yet there is also the time frame — you find out things drifted into chaos before you know the source of said chaos. In Davenport and the others, one gets sentences which have it all.

It’s serendipitous that you make this point about Davenport’s sentence, that there’s a sort of cleft between the narrator and the reader: knowledge is withheld, so we’re conspicuously not all on the same page. Serendipitous, because this is a situation I notice prominently in your work — the difference being that you’ll have it between two characters rather than narrator and reader. By this I mean that your characters tend to inhabit the same space as one another, being in the same place at the same time and being involved in the same basic experiences, but their impressions of all those things — the way they interpret them, understand them, make them meaningful — are often not at all overlapping, so that your people effectively end up inhabiting different and irreconcilable worlds. Or different sides of a Venn diagram that will never overlap.

I notice this time and time again in Especially the Bad Things. It’s there, front and centre, in the first story, ‘The Wrong Things List’, but also in ‘Or So’ (which uses white space to emphasise the separation of the perspectives), in ‘Bach’, ‘Issues’, ‘Mother’, and with a twist in ‘Descant’

That seems the best reading of the book I could ever imagine, Daniel. Thank you. It is certainly a dour book and one probably only possible at that time in my life. There is a Stanley Kubrick quote I often toss around: “I don’t think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel.” I think this should be emblazoned everywhere. So the feeling you describe — the no overlap — that is all the feeling, the mirroring of society or autobiography or what have you. I’m sure after being married and having a child that these feelings are ghostly vestiges that sometimes bubble up, but often revitalized or more fuzzy, as something else. Yes, writing is therapy — in this case.

I’m not sure I want to foist a worldview on you, but would I be on the right track if I said that in this aesthetic tendency — the repetition of this situation — there’s a hint of a broader philosophical or humanitarian outlook?

I think it’s too soon to say; I have a load of work to do. But I do recall walking in the forest with a friend, who turned me on to Cormac McCarthy years before, as we discussed McCarthy’s outlook — one I don’t truly jive with. But the beauty with which he renders that world — and I know it exists in certain pockets — is still quite fulfilling.

Well, but maybe there’s a fissure between one’s habitual outlook on the world and one’s conscious response to the outlook. In Especially the Bad Things, the corollary of the situation you return to again and again — two non-overlapping impressions of a shared experience — is that there’s a strong vein of pessimism running through the book: everyone is always alone, stuck in their own little non-reconcilable world, even when in company. There’s the outlook. But in spite of this, it’s striking to me that the pessimism of the situation isn’t matched by cynicism on the page, in the consciousness of your narrators: for all the irreconcilability of their worlds, your characters keep trying to reconcile with others, Sisyphus-style — not always gently or generously, sometimes trying to shove reconciliation down another person’s throat, but trying nevertheless, striving for an impossible connection.

I wonder: when you’re writing with an eye towards characterisation — which I know is not the primary thing you’re doing when you’re writing, but you shape your characters nevertheless — do you feel an urge to redeem them somehow, on some level? Or is it more about making sure that the prose leaves off with a certain tone — however minimal, an ascent rather than a plunge into greater darkness?

I think because the darkness is already there, at least for my money, there is no need to go into more of it. Though ‘Descant’, simply because it was written years later, does, and the book ends on a different note. I believe that, more than anyone else, John Cassevetes would sit on my shoulder during construction of the book, and his words ring especially true: “I guess every picture we’ve ever done has been to try and find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film, and so that’s why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, and do all that stuff. … [T]he rest of the stuff doesn’t interest me. … [T]hat’s all I’m interested in… love”. And maybe because the characters are inside of what is so-called “flash fiction”, their characterization is very minimal. They aren’t even characters, they are words, and because words are so sparse they take on so much more weight, like in a poem. I might be in a minority of one in feeling this, but most of the book is full of “I”, “he”, and “she” — no names. The people are words and also feelings, thinking back to the Kubrick quote above — maybe they are just more parabolic. Whatever they are, I think by the fact of me being alive, I have no choice but to redeem them, but better yet, to let them keep searching for the truth, with all the power of that ironclad cliché.

One last question. You say: “I have a load of work to do”. And you suggest that this would take you in different directions to Especially the Bad Things, perhaps wildly so. What more do you have underway, or planned? What more are you hearing from The Muse?

Well, there is the aforementioned long novel — a few excerpts from it will be showing up soon in The Kenyon Review and on Splice. There seems to be a stream of essays on various topics that keep coming. Reading the poetry and essays of Geoffrey Hill has seemed to add another cog to the wheel, along with John Ruskin. I’ve only discovered Hill this year, but to me he is the most Poundian poet since Pound — the verse, not the politics. His critical essays, soaked in study of Baroque Era prose and the OED, Hopkins, and Coleridge, have provided more solace and study as I continually view askance our “current” moment in which language is so debased and pulverized it has become a fine-grain powder in the trails that people’s egos continually stomp. A key quote he keeps returning to from Coleridge: “For if words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized.” It seems we need a language refresher, and Hill and his ilk provide that. Ruskin, who Hill also leans on, I’ve been circling around for a while. His disquisitions on painting, architecture, stones, and social issues (in Fors Clavigera) are exquisitely packed in slow-release sentences that hypnotize.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.