A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: A Perfunctory Understanding does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Dana's Twitter, @GuyInYourMFA.
Release no. VIII:
A Perfunctory Understanding by @GuyInYourMFA
We arranged to meet at his apartment—a requisite, he said, given the hoopla that surrounds a public appearance of any sort. He’s been subletting a studio deep in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for about a year now. Every surface bares the mark of artistry: a coffee ring here, cigarette ash there, bodega receipts everywhere. I noticed each clock was set to a different time. When asked why, he laughed, then looked down, looked up, and said: ‘time’. It was as if he’d never said the word before. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
It's incredibly rare for an abstract, nebulous debate like MFA vs. NYC to have any semblance of finality to it, and yet with A Perfunctory Understanding, we seem to at least have a tangible watershed object. If you think A Perfunctory Understand works, you believe an MFA is integral to a serious writer's education (with the reciprocal, inverse and reciprocal inverse statements also being true). Not that the community has reached some sort of consensus, it's just now easier to parse who's on which side of the line. For example, you have a fan in the Los Angeles Times' Jayson Scarborough: "If you want to feel loved by a book, be tickled by it and patted on the head, don't read A Perfunctory Understanding. But if you want to be challenged, that is, confronted from within, it's your obligation to get a copy." Guillermina Rickard of The New York Times plays a clear foil: "If self-awareness has ever destroyed a piece of art across any medium, this is it. Whatever talent inherent in the work has been swallowed by the need to showcase that talent, visible in the book's every seam."
You couldn't possibly have predicted such attention for your long-awaited debut, but you must have felt the latent pressure from the beginning. How did that affect you and your process?
Of course I understand that some writers feel pressure, but I think of myself as an artist. As such, I write without even an awareness that my words will be read - I’m simply channeling the muse from within and attempting to convey some Truth onto the page. With APU, I found the biggest challenge was creating a character that embodied the struggle of the 24-year old white male in New York City while at the same time could serve as an apt metaphor for gentrification. That’s why I went with the nameless character (“The Man”) throughout - in order to convey that my character is not just one man but rather every man.
You've marked a sea change, surely. Past generations have given us the 48-year old white male everyman, the 41-year old white male everyman and even the 33-year old white male everyman—but here you're breaking barriers: the 24-year old white male everyman. In the opening chapter, we find him dealing with universal, global, even time-agnostic problems: paying four dollars for a cold brew, avoiding "The Talk" with his ex, sheepishly asking mom and dad for a checking account injection, navigating his parent's insurance to find out who he needs to see to find out if that thing actually is herpes. How did you do research into such revelatory, grounded character development?
The simple of fact of the matter is that I’m unafraid to confront Reality. For example, when The Man takes his first sip of cold brew, he reminisces about how the bitterness on his tongue reminds him of the cigarette he shared in college (Yale) on the roof of the geology building with the woman whose memory would haunt him for the next decade of his life. That scene was actually developed from a story I originally wrote in a sophomore writing workshop - I was frustrated at the time by the lack of willingness on the part of my cohorts to delve into the complex and difficult issues that surround a young man wanting to sleep with a woman. Some critics have accused me of conflating autobiography with fiction; nothing could be farther from the truth. First of all, I went to Harvard. And second of all, the cigarette I shared with my ex was on the roof of the linguistics department.
Very fair. And I have to thank you for your courage, in admitting your fear of Reality. I may be acting like a bit of a rube here (I grew up in New Jersey), but was the Rubik's cube on your therapist's desk in Chapter 8 a metaphor for Reality? How about the empty guitar case, laid open, in the final chapter? Your mother's unopened box of Triscuits? Do you have a list of all the metaphors in APU? Might be easier just to send that to my assistant...
I don’t blame you for your misunderstanding. My metaphors can be very complex. Any careful reading will reveal that the Rubik’s cube is actually a symbol of my narrator’s confused sexual desire and the possibility of repressed homosexuality. Although none of his homosexual thoughts are ever put to the page, it’s very clear in the subtext. The empty guitar case is actually a callback to the closed guitar case in Chapter 6, in which my narrator visited his parent’s home and found his younger brother had begun to play guitar more skillfully than The Man had. I thought that was an important element to tie in, The Man’s little brother Robbie as an extension of himself; Robbie is the personification of who he was when he was younger, the hope and idealism he had at the time.
I would have to say that the two most important metaphors are The Man’s fountain pen which runs out of ink (a symbol for New York City) and New York City itself, which is a metaphor for The Man. The New York Times review completely misunderstood the premise of the book: it’s not an examination of the relationship between The Man and Eleanor, the girl he thinks he’s in love with. It’s an exploration of New York City.
Some critics—and this isn't to say I agree with them—have pointed out your disfiguring and omission of certain sections of New York. It's clear that you're writing of the city as a whole, and yet: besides a three paragraph chapter that takes place at a party in Astoria, Queens, a few blistering lines on Midtown Manhattan, and a larger chapter that takes place in lower Manhattan (an unnamed radio-themed bar in the Lower East Side, the lost flavors of the Bowery, Chinatown), the entirety of the book is set in Brooklyn. What about Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and the other one? Is this some form of synecdoche? Explain your intentions.
I’m glad you brought up the lower Manhattan chapter- it’s actually one of the most important sections of the book and can be used to understand why so much of The Man’s story needed to be told in Brooklyn. That chapter was actually developed from a story I wrote in a workshop in the first year of my MFA program at Brown - originally titled "Listening to the Off-Key Humming of a Manhattan Melody."
A Perfunctory Understanding is a modern novel, nothing like it or in its style has ever been written before. Brooklyn is a place that captures that masculine, youthful energy of protagonist more intelligent and sensitive than those around him and struggling with the implications of that. The entire island of Manhattan, old-fashioned and feminine, serves as a metaphor for his mother. His final subway ride at the end of Chapter 14 is actually an extended birthing symbol: the subway tunnel is, in a sense, the birthing canal.
I think I'm beginning to understand the title—that is, internalize it. The understanding isn't of The Man, but in fact of Eleanor, serving as a proxy for everyone that judges The Man, as she doesn't take the time or effort to actually understand him. Am I close? Is it just me or was Eleanor maybe a bit too...unlikable?
That’s a very astute observation. The title absolutely refers to not only Eleanor’s perfunctory understand of The Man as a fully-formed human being, but the reader’s perfunctory understanding of him.
A lot of the women in my workshop had the same feelings towards Eleanor as you did but I have to disagree. Just because I didn’t give her a last name doesn’t mean that I didn’t put thought into her as a character. Eleanor is being filtered through the lens of The Man’s experience - she’s more or less an extension of him. Eleanor is also a symbol of the obstacles The Man must overcome in order to achieve self-actualization. Of course The Man is attracted to her, but that’s not the most important aspect of her identity. If I may quote her description from when the narrator first sees her in Chapter 2: “Eleanor was undeniably pretty, but a certain regularity of her features rendered her almost forgettable. Her green eyes were large and set nicely apart, but the slight clumping of mascara in her left eyelashes left him irreversibly aware of just how ordinary she was.”
And many of my female readers seem to forget that Eleanor IS NOT the only female character in the novel. There’s also the barista at Sleeper Car Coffee with the nose ring and rose tattoo and large breasts whom The Man later has a one-night stand with.
What a brilliant line to quote. To have even come up with those words: her eyes "were large and set nicely apart". You can definitely imagine Eleanor with two distinct eyes, the space in the middle for the nose. I'm sure many fans would love to hear this line and others come from your mouth, and yet—you've refused to do public readings. Why?
Like Thomas Pynchon, I shy away from the trappings of celebrity. To hear The Man’s journey through my voice limits the character’s ability to apply to every white 24-year old male who reads my book. I didn’t choose get into writing for the fame, the acclaim, or the admiration of college undergraduate; I didn’t choose to become a writer at all. The burden to tell stories is just that: a burden, and one that will torture me daily until my death unless I make the daily sacrifice of words at my typewriter.
I'm sorry. I understand bringing that up was akin to asking a man about his diseased leg. I'm a bit ashamed to have made you say that, and so I'll ask just one more question. What can we expect your sophomore effort? Have you already started writing? Have you shown it to anyone?
I’m already halfway through my first draft. It’s a novel about a 25-year old living in Bushwick and his string of one-night-stands with women in the publishing industry. I almost have to apologize for leaving you with such an intriguing premise (I’m sure you have a hundred questions) but I won’t be able to elaborate anymore. I can, however, offer you my working title: Boundless Afflictions.
What a delicious teaser! I'm sure it's drastically different from APU, as an artist like yourself is never content in stasis. Thanks for your time and words. It's been delightful.
Cover by Zak Tebbal. Zak is a Toronto based graphic designer and illustrator originally from Algeria. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2015 with a concentration on print design. He is currently working as a full time freelancer on several print projects.
Are you a graphic designer who wants to contribute a cover to A Bit Contrived? Get in touch: editor [at] 0s-1s [dot] com.