“I’m interested in flaws because I am a flaw”

Greg Gerke discusses the qualities that make art meaningful

This is part two of a two-part interview with Greg Gerke. In the first part, Greg discussed his approach to the creation and evaluation of art.
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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. See What I See, which Christine Schutt has described as a collection of “generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art”, is published by Splice and available to order now. A collection of short fiction, Especially the Bad Things, was published in September; it has received praise from writers such as Gary Lutz, Sergio de la Pava, and Sam Lipsyte, and is also available to order now.

In this two-part interview focusing on the essays in See What I See, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Greg first about his approach to art — its creation and evaluation — and then discusses the works of art that have meant the most to him.

So, then, I wonder how you see your egalitarianism dovetailing with your gravitation towards beauty, the aesthetic construction of beauty. I’m working towards the second instance of your looking at beauty that really strikes me, so bear with me. Here we are in the #MeToo era, and I could imagine some readers of See What I See looking at your remarks on Michelle Williams and thinking this is a textbook case of objectification. And the book contains passages on lust, desire, sex, and so on, which might give weight to the complaint, if one were to want to embark on a point-scoring exercise.

I’m against hypocrisy in all of its immense to itty-bitty incarnations. If what I’ve done is objectify in the sense of degradation (and doing so would go against my principles), that is for someone else to judge, an invitation that never needs to be sent. I’ve attempted to be as honest as possible; yet, of course, I’m using my own language, which certainly has a knack to corrupt. With this book I have indicted myself and my own failings much more mercilessly and consistently than anyone else. This maneuver is very true to my forms, both in writing and in the world. The book is part-memoir and to make myself look good would be to lie. Many of my mistakes are in relationships — I think one would be hard-pressed to find people who, every time out of the gate, don’t fall in love with someone’s image of another, rather than the person themselves. I’m interested in flaws because I am a flaw.

Right. And if I were to come across a reader who disputed that — who, for instance, took issue with your interest in the beauty of Polley’s images of Michelle Williams, without registering your interest in Polley’s beautification of Michelle Williams via the artful creation of those images — I’d be inclined to point back to ‘All Naked, All the Time’, where you have this to say about the spaghetti meal scene in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence:

[The scene] contains close-up after close-up of regular guys, most of whom never appear in the film again. It presents individuals and it doesn’t judge or condescend to them, especially when Mabel’s pale white hands are splayed around Billy Tidrow’s round, black, beautiful, smiling face and she says, “I love this face. I love that face. Nick, this is what I call a really handsome face.” The actor is non-professional, the action is startling, accomplished so matter-of-factly, and for a few minutes one could cower at seeing race not being an issue.

Here’s your egalitarianism again, pointedly not gender-specific. You’re as attentive to Cassavetes’ artistic construction of male beauty as you are to Polley’s construction of female beauty, and as appreciative of it. There’s further evidence of this in your discussions of Polley’s framing of the attractiveness of the men in Take This Waltz, and in your impressions of the male characters in the films of Eric Rohmer and Stanley Kubrick. It’s elsewhere, too, including in the more explicitly personal essays. In ‘On or About’, for instance, you even investigate the origins of your artistic preferences in your younger years, where a sort of social ostracisation has its own origins in your body: “I went outside. I had a flicker of how I was being viewed by the others when trying to stand eagerly, but unable to be a party to anything. Myself: tall, very overweight, morose. Who did they see?”

Is this egalitarian approach to beauty the result of a conscious effort to extend your gaze to the aestheticisation of masculinity, to not only play the game of female objectification? Or does it come to you more in the reflection on art and the act of writing, without premeditation?

I think if all films and possible copies of films were obliterated, and aliens were only left that spaghetti meal scene from A Woman Under the Influence, humanity would be represented well. Watch how everyone, while still following up on instincts, is trying to be nice to each other. It’s this bizarre and sublime confluence of decorum and improvisation. I’m sure everyone has had these bejeweled moments in life where people just click with each other — and also that sometimes, someone goes too far and someone else gets mad. But the vulnerability is there and the key is Cassavetes, who said, “It’s when you’re really saying something that people can hurt you. When you’re not saying anything, no-one can hurt you” — wisdom the Buddha or Dante couldn’t have nailed better.

The whole thing is about vulnerability, and I assume that when you talk about male attractiveness, it is more the degree of vulnerability in them that makes them beautiful or pitiful, but mostly some mixture of the two. In writing about the men in these films, I’m probably writing about myself because I see myself in them, even poor and conniving Barry Lyndon. But that’s funny, because when growing up and first seeing the women in Bergman and Antonioni, I identified more with them, but simply because I hadn’t lived enough — plus, I eschewed males; they teased and made fun of me, while women and female friends gave me succor. So it was easy to swap in Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Monica Vitti as my ideals and, even more, as the poster images for my anima, the unconscious feminine side of a man. Men are harder to talk about because they speak less, mostly keep their feelings inside, and often define themselves by their athleticism — which is like a psychological desert, for me, though A Fan’s Notes is pretty good. I don’t care how many miles you biked today. Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say. Vulnerability.

When you realize at the end of A Woman Under the Influence that Peter Falk’s character, who threatens to kill his kids, should probably be in an institution before his wife, you understand how chaos will come and come again. Maybe 1974 isn’t so far from 2019 as many people think. There’s much work to be done.

Can we use this as a good point to turn from cinema to literature? I’d like to make the transition by picking up on a couple of aspects from what you’ve just said.

First: “Men are harder to talk about because they speak less, mostly keep their feelings inside, and often define themselves by their athleticism.” This comment grabs my attention because it males me notice something I’d sensed but not seen in See What I See. Throughout the book, there seem to be a few major literary lodestars for you, whose work you read aloud in the presence of another person in a way that creates and sustains (or not?) a relationship. In prose, the two most prominent are Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro. In ‘Living Words’, you say you’ve “read three of Cormac McCarthy’s novels to three different lovers”, and McCarthy reappears in the centrepiece essay, ‘Highlight’. Munro also gets a mention in ‘Living Words’ and an embodied reading in ‘Highlight’. But — significantly — the gender roles are switched: it’s the über-masculine McCarthy who you read to your lovers, and it’s Munro whose words you read aloud in an extended exchange with another man, in a friendship of extraordinary tenderness and sympathy. Why? What is it about these writers that lets you create bonds with these particular people?

Well, we were young and we had time. As to the difference in gender, it’s probably just a coincidence; plenty of Munro passed between women and myself. McCarthy’s last two books came out back to back in 2005–2006, a time of many transitions in my life. I think what is at the taproot of all of it is the human experience of people passing time in a much more ancient and imaginative way than just watching TV. To share a human voice with someone is an incredibly enriching experience.

I remember I was at this huge event in Utah many years back, with the friend in ‘Highlight’, and I’d brought along some books — Austerlitz, actually, and others. We were camping at 8,000 feet and people sat around talking, playing music, taking drugs, and falling in and out of love — and in the midst of a late morning, I just started reading aloud William Gay’s awful, violent short story ‘The Paperhanger’ to a few people. Then a few more people appeared and a few more — and pretty soon there were a dozen people. I don’t think the story had any great interest for everyone; people just wanted to be close to the voice that shared — one might say a few wanted to fit in or not be left out, but I think it was something much deeper than that. We all wanted to be together on some plane of electricity, which is often language or eros — and how often can you keep telling your own stories? We needed something to reflect on.

I would guess that’s why book clubs are so vital — or ‘salons’ that still exist. We have to know that not talking to each other is ruining civilization. And email is wonderful — hell, we’ve never met and we’ve made a whole book together — but there is the live-quality, the face to face, which has no substitute. That’s why I’m nostalgic for bars without TVs. Yes, people were drinking, but at least they were talking and watching each other to learn about themselves, not looking at their phones to sop up their minutes of vulnerability.

When it comes to Munro and McCarthy, I guess we are talking about age and time. I haven’t had the desire to look at Munro for some years and I think that has to do with the language — how it is not a musical feast as in James, Patrick White, Gass, and Hardwick. I’ve similarly relegated William Trevor. It’s accomplished, it’s adept, but that cycle of writing where one leaves things out to suggest more has run its course for me — I would include Carver in this, but not Schutt, because of her uncanny music. The only writer I’ve discovered in the past few years who does this in a much more interesting way is Penelope Fitzgerald, more in the later historical novels, with The Blue Flower as the zenith. There’s too much to read, but I want those things that take a pick-axe to my brain strata like Proust, The Cantos, Moore, Musil, Stein, Ruskin, Emerson, Valery, Dante. With McCarthy, I’ve read all the novels multiple times — and I would not hesitate to read Suttree again — but I guess we pass in out of writers. I believe in an email we were writing about McCarthy’s blind spot: women. Which is, let’s face it, a pretty big blind spot. To see women only in terms of Madonna, whore, or suicide is as ridiculous as his saying, in one of his interviews, that he didn’t get Proust and James because there is little death in them. When you read White’s Voss, you get Blood Meridian and Mrs. Dalloway — at the same time. That’s a much more interesting proposition for me. And Faulkner knew how to portray women much better.

Second: why does it seem that Wallace Stevens succeeds, where neither McCarthy and Munro have the power to last?

Stevens still entrances because of the music and because the images he created avoid any easy apprehension. He was keyed into something, a spiritual realm of creativity, that only a limited number of people ever access. His Cuban correspondent, José Rodríguez Feo, said it the best upon meeting him and observing, “I realized then that to him a piece of fruit was more than something to eat. … It was good enough for him to look at it and think about it.” And the book of essays called The Necessary Angel is exquisite. ‘The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words’ essay is as important as Barry Lyndon and Gruenwald’s Issenheim Altarpiece in Colmar. It’s one of the few works of literature that could just as well be philosophy, telling us why language so supremely affects us.

So then, how much, finally, does sense matter to you? How much does it or can it attract your interest in a work of art — or compensate for deficiencies of style — to make the work worthy for you? In your appreciations of Gertrude Stein, Stevens, and in cinema Terence Malick, I get the feeling sometimes that words and/or images are enough for you — almost that you crave a literature of ‘pure’ word-sound and a cinema of ‘pure’ image-and-audio, with no regard for its making sense. Or would that be overstating it?

Narrative probably has to have some vestige of sense just by its nature. Maybe if something is too sensical, it is too staid, too TV-series like — and here’s where the executive or money-minded editor corrupts art, as in the case of Robert Gottlieb, editor of Gaddis’ JR, who obviously didn’t understand the book, and recently wrote, “The problem was… the book didn’t sell.” JR is arguably the greatest English-language novel since Beckett’s trilogy — does anything in the last fifty years top it? These are the forces for “sense” one fights. The words of Stevens and Stein, or the images of Malick, and let’s bring in Stan Brakhage: the made objects of these artists are enough, but only because they are grounded in the action of their personality clashing with technique — to return to that Hill quote above — where you find the alien objects after giving your personality to the art. And likewise in Gaddis’ “Compositional Self”, who he said is the self who endures all the revisions. The clash of Malick’s personality with his technique is documented in a Jim Caviezel interview about The Thin Red Line:

“One day Terry asked me, ‘What do you think of Sean Penn?’” Caviezel recalled in the Rosy-Fingered Dawn documentary. “I said, he’s a rock, one day you can go and talk to him, the next day you go up to him and he doesn’t even know who you are — that’s Sean Penn. When we were shooting that scene, Terry said, ‘Tell him that. Tell him what you told me.’”

You can see here how Caviezel uses the line, while keeping in mind that Malick likes to shoot a scene at least twice, once with and then without words (just blocking), as you can see Caviezel walk in twice. In this sense, the literal one, Malick’s personality creates the story, but also the form — he could see the antagonism (and more from Penn) between these two men (the real people, not just the characters) and then, in his improvisations, he knew what button to push. Look at the last shot of Penn’s shrunken face after this encounter — one can believe more than the character has been cut down to size, a testament to Penn’s acting.

This is not too far from the process in writing — for me and a few others at least. I think one asks oneself, maybe mostly unconsciously, what do you think of your father, your wife, about the friend who betrayed you — and then it just bubbles out, this communing with the Muse. How this ties into “sense” is like a chain reaction train crash that should ideally leave little visual carnage, because if all writing is autobiographical (I think it is) it is all transformed into beauty. In a sort of addendum to the book, in a piece I wrote on Korean director Hong Sang Soo (published just as we finished the book), I wrote this: “It’s incredible that artistic filmmaking can really have little to do with the story or the form employed, but all to do with the biography of the person in charge — the ‘what the artist has to say’ bromide.” That bromide is repeated by Ingmar Bergman in the book, and I believe for the past years I’ve been revising what I’ve always taken it to mean — that it’s really all about form and not content. Having something to say is not about having words of wisdom or even ‘wisdom’ at all; it’s how attractive the form is made to engage, move, and upset others. Shirley Hazzard wrote of Patrick White:

Imputing “inspiration” to novelists is as dangerous as discoursing on Nature with farmers: but each of White’s novels has been blessed and quickened with a center of narrative power — large meaning in which the author seeks to create our belief. Without at least some measure of this mysterious ignition, which is utterly distinct from ‘content’, the most diligently wrought book remains stationary and merely professional. White has always been able to command it in abundance: his novels, plays and stories are irradiations from related central themes in which the author participates no less intensely than his characters.

One takes their personality out on the art, so it is transformed into the raw tools of the art — the film frame or sentences, Moore’s “radiograph of personality”. To get back to the beginning, those made objects are the form the personality takes after the escape. The form itself is the sensical matter, the narrative is something else — and as I say in the review of Gass’ Eyes, the sound is the story. So yes, the purity of word-sound or imagery, but only as it is nestled in that “mysterious ignition”, which, when you are in its presence, you might follow anywhere.

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.