Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode III: "Indulge your mischief, forgive yourself your pettiness, covet the extravagance and impracticality of your imagination"
In this installment, Greg Jackson talks about the influence of Calvin & Hobbes.
Today I’m with Gregory Jackson, whose debut collection, Prodigals, came out in March through Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Perhaps hindsight is the best psychological primer, but the book was seemingly destined for FSG, reminiscent of its backbacklist’s brand of unabashed erudition, a tendency kept afloat by characters who actually do things—who regret and strive and live their best ego.
It’s a certain problem when the only superlative you want to label a work with is so overused as to feel like a backhanded compliment, but alas it isn’t in this case, and that word is “fresh”. Greg plays on a plane of reality closer to ours than normal; so little does he seem to care for prepackaged feelings and emotions and scenes that his characters are rendered just a hair sharper than most, getting in a few more frames per second than the agreed upon 24.
He gave me a laundry list of influences we could speak of today, and we finally settled on Calvin & Hobbes, perhaps hoping an initial injection of bathos would clear the air for the eventual pathos, and time will tell.
So let’s start as (I imagine) the Freudian analysts do: what was your earliest Calvin & Hobbes memory?
We'll go from Eros to Thanatos to, I imagine, civilization and at least a few of its discontents . . . My earliest memory of Calvin & Hobbes, which I'm going to abbreviate C&H from here on out, is receiving one of the books as a first- or second-grader, just a bit too young to get it, or get its full genius. I started reading the comic for the baldest slapstick humor on offer and then grew with it, over the next few years, until fourth grade when I refused to read anything else and my parents and teacher had to stage an intervention. I think it's safe to say I didn't read anything but Calvin & Hobbes (just violated my rule - Calvinball!) until I was 9 or 10.
So let's get it out of the way: what is its 'full genius'?
Can I summarize anything I would characterize as "full genius" period, much less in a short paragraph? The genius of Calvin & Hobbes, simplified horribly, is that of speaking to the spirit of any audience, of any age, and - I am projecting here - of any temperament. It is, in this one definition, a perfect art: it has the widest possible appeal without in any sense compromising its values or pandering. Its moral perspective is strong and unapologetic, but it doesn't preach or turn away those who disagree. It treats motivation, in the broadest sense, as suspect: self-excusing, self-flattering, self-interested, self-deceiving. I think it treats its own motivation with this same humorous and ironic skepticism. This comes across as warmth and open-mindedness, and for young people especially it teaches a healthy sort of self-doubt and self-interrogation. That's too many "self-" constructions, but we're doing Freud here. C&H gave you permission to indulge your mischief, forgive yourself your pettiness, covet the extravagance and impracticality of your imagination, open yourself in an unguarded way to experience, strive to disdain what is unimportant and love what actually is important, and to take the ironic stance necessary to forgive yourself and others when you all fail to live up to your values, as you inevitably will. Watterson was also a master of concision. Me, less so.
Well if you weren't prepared to summarize impossible concepts into short blurbs, you chose the wrong door. But this was good, and such an easy glide into your work. When I read "Wagner in the Desert" in the New Yorker two summers past (the story also leads Prodigals), I struggled to describe it without centering my words around morality or its absence, as is so often done when the characters are a bit depraved or fast or whatever. Because the truth is talking about immorality doesn't do it justice, and if a story can be said to be about anything, it isn't just that these characters are just as indecent as we all are; that fact is baked into them, the question is: what do they do next? So what I'm getting now is that C&H was sort of a permission for you, to know we all struggle with self-this and self-that, and then to walk from there. Hot or cold?
Warm, I think. We have a tendency to equate moral discourse with moralism, to see fun as decadence or indecency and duty or ethics as joyless dull self-abnegation. I think this is all wrong. It's practically Calvinist, Hobbesian. Our hunger for moral discourse - I'm just going to propose we have one - is not for moralism or decency: it's for meaningful life. Life guided by a sense of purpose, life in touch with the mystery and magic of simply existing. These are the values of Calvin & Hobbes. They are what many of the characters in "Wagner in the Desert," and in my collection as a whole, are looking for and looking to draw closer to. Have these possibilities disappeared with time, been eroded by age? Have we lost access to them outside of drugs and other contrivances that return us to a less mediated, less seemingly compromised state of existence? I don't know, and I don't want to say. What's certain is I don't regard my characters as decent or indecent, good or bad. I have no intention of parading bad behavior for the spectacle of it. I take adult "play" as seriously as children's "play" and try to listen for the truth of the longing. How could we judge an honest human longing? C&H looked at the child's life with an adult seriousness and exposed the adult's life to a child's wisdom. I don't think the values or the impulses change much with age, but I do think a lot of adult life is a form of talking ourselves into knots to convince ourselves what we knew to be true as children isn't. This is why most adults are so childish and naive.
That last idea—creating knots to obscure what's too true when pulled straight—rings very true to me, and I appreciate the sentiment. Any true writer cannot take their characters as decent or indecent; if they do know them, they know the experiences that brought them from the simplicity of a child at play to whatever moral pretzel they're wriggling out of (or into) before being baked solid. (Excuse the second baking metaphor; it's soon midnight snack time.) Let's move on from C&H but stick with these ideas. Can you think of other writers who have both influenced you, and could possibly have also graduated from the C&H school of thought?
There's sort of a neat transition here because if I claim that Watterson was the great narrative artist in America between 1985 and 1995 - and I'll claim this to be provocative, to suggest that the way he transcended the traditional scope of his genre shows the terrific accomplishment of his art - we can say that in 1996, when he stopped making Calvin & Hobbes, he passed the torch to David Foster Wallace, an ur-C&Her if there ever was one, who published "Infinite Jest" that year. There's doubtless a strain in American literature, a through line that picks off Wallace and Watterson, that earlier ran through Salinger's work and earlier still the James of "What Masie Knew," which tries to turn the language of adult convenience and expediency on its head, subjecting it to the dogged straightforwardness of childish, adolescent, rube-ish, or faux-credulous observers. I don't think this is what I do, but I do think these writers (less so Salinger) had a deep influence on me. The novel that has longest endured as my favorite, "Lord Jim," is basically the story of Calvin as a young man in the late-19th-century British merchant marine. It's the same questions: How much must you compromise with the world? What happens when your imagination cannot sustain the fictions you're wedded to any longer? What is the proper role of dream life in adulthood? Will we ever escape telling ourselves the stories that populate reality with ghosts and imaginary friends?
It strikes me that those questions at the end require fiction for its precision; nonfiction can only speculate in those arenas, can only trade in physical actions. I first want to ask which essayists (let's not count Wallace here) or nonfiction writers you count as deep influences on you. I also want to know—and perhaps this is off-topic, perhaps not in the fact I'd expected it and find it absent—if you count Fitzgerald as an influence. He is, after all, what critics like to serve as an aperitif to your writing, to prepare the reader for what? Sharpness? Perhaps the connection is more on a sentence level, but I think he was also deeply concerned with what you're saying here.
Not off-topic at all. I'm glad to address the Fitzgerald question because, while on one level it's very flattering to be compared to him, I don't really count him a major influence. Maybe I'm deluding myself. Certainly his interest in certain subjects and in the sentence as a lyrical vessel overlap in places with my own preoccupations. But, sacrilegious to say, the last time I revisited Fitzgerald I found him overwritten. It's a delicate balance to strike: the beauty of the sentences adds to the work - to a point - but then the sentences start upstaging the work itself and the reality gets lost in the glitzy ornament of the language. We're probably in narcissism-of-petty-differences territory here, but abandoning the project of writing ornate sentences, or at least no longer asking The Sentence to be the basic unit of the work, was the beginning of what seemed to me a marked improvement in my writing. To sidestep the nonfiction question for a minute, I just want to add that not only are you right about what fiction permits in terms of interiority and storytelling - the dramatic irony available when the narrative view can move inside and out - but there are also simply things that nonfiction can never do (and most fiction doesn't even try to do) because they involve capturing states of being for which we have no words, for which straightforward language cannot suffice. I do love nonfiction, some essayists and critics, but nonfiction's fidelity to so much fact means it never really has access to much truth.
But of course saying what cannot be said in words is the mission of fiction, is why reading is worthwhile, is why the challenge of writing is so hopelessly terrific, and oranges and sardines and all of that. Your reluctance of sentence maximalism (Fitzgerald's and then your own) is, in a way, what humor in writing ruins when it does ruin; when you pull away from curiosity to demonstrate your own talents you are, at the most basic level, ruining story, truth. And that is Fitzgerald's shiniest trophy: talent. The innate being the toxic. But avoiding all of this for fear of doing too much can also maim, which makes me think of Ben Lerner, who seems to never stop himself from saying what he wishes to say, who you (to my surprise) cited as in influence. I told you I found it surprising for some relatively inconsequential reasons, but also guessed you found his sort of 'I write how I think' freshness liberating. I'm still curious if this was right or wrong.
I do think you often see a progression in writers as they get older in which they move from more maximal or showy prose to simpler prose, more and more refined and subtle ways of evoking and expressing. But I don't think the equation's simple. Sometimes the streamlining in writers' styles veers for me into the mannered, the clipped, the gnomic. Everything can become a tic. All I meant to say about my own experience is that at some point the maximalist goal or impulse - to get every last nuance, complication, and switchback down on paper - not only seemed tiresome to me, it seemed rather that the most interesting things to gesture at would be those you could never quite say in the first place. I love Lerner's "Leaving the Atocha Station" because I think its writing, the aesthetic quality and continuity of its prose, transcends what is on the most literal and concrete level a terribly intelligent, funny, and sensitive story. The book did some of what Wallace and other flood-of-consciousness writers did but in the economy of a very finely wrought novella. It meant a lot to me as I began writing "Prodigals." But the more time I spend writing, the more convinced I am that the finest properties of literary work are those that approach poetry, that create an effect we can't locate in any sentence or word. The problem I have with Fitzgerald is, most simply put, how close he stood to the canvas. It's easy to create spectacular effects on a localized scale, but horribly, maddeningly, tricky to create them across the broad span of story, to say nothing of a novel.
And you're writing one of your own, aren't you? I read that somewhere I believe, and if I'm wrong tell me. But assuming you are—and this seems like as good a spot as any to end a conversation which has only run from its origin—what are you willing to say of it?
I am supposed to be writing a novel. Instead I've been writing a very long essay on Grace Paley and political fiction, which has grown into a strange book braiding literary criticism, philosophies of art and language, personal narrative, and much nonsense besides. I hope someone, someday wants to read it. As for the novel, I don't want to say much, but it looks like it's going to have something to do with the phenomenology of simulated realities - of which novels themselves are roughly the oldest sort . . . But I find myself now wanting to end by pulling together the strands of this conversation, which has spun off in so many directions and diverged so far from the place where it began! We need a cardboard box to turn into a time machine, to dial back to the beginning. I'm not sure how it all connects. What I want to say, re Lerner and Fitzgerald, Wallace, nonfiction, and the state of the novel generally, is maybe just that the novel has more to learn from poetry at the moment than poetry does from the novel. Maybe that's why so many terrific recent novels were written by poets. Or maybe not, I don't know. The exciting language out there, for my money though, is the sort that's trying to return us to some of the strangeness with which we first encountered the world, to break experience free of the dull frames and stultifying categories of conventional, habitual, "adult" speech. Maybe that's as C&H as you can get. Thanks, Andrew. It's been fun.