A. B. West is the author of Wakenight Emporium from FC2. This interview was conducted by Jacklyn Attaway for FC2 upon the publication of Wakenight Emporium in 2002.
Are you originally from Belgium?
No. Born in Evanston, Illinois, about a block, as it happens, from Northwestern where WE was published. Raised in various nearby suburbs. Left for Brussels three weeks after completing a BA … supposedly in “Literature and Languages” although I was quite unilingual at this point.
I read in your bio that you are heavily involved in the avant-garde theater company Théâtre Laboratoire Vicinal. Can you tell me a little about the theater and how you work with it?
I worked and toured as an actor-director with the Vicinal from 1971 to 1980, since when I have had no further theatrical involvement.
In the period from ’66 to ’71, when I was attending college a few hours from NYC, the experimental theatre was an increasingly tangible cultural and political presence in the US and abroad. The climate of social protest and disaffection for received values made the cultural establishment astonishingly eager to host an alternative culture. There was a press interested in reviewing it and an audience willing to follow it.
I accepted an acting offer in Belgium simply because I felt drawn to Europe. It wasn’t until I got to Brussels that I realized what a superbly intelligent experiment the Vicinal was. That it was also quite successful was no doubt partly a gift of those intrepid times.
My years of collaboration with Frédéric Baal, the Vicinal’s
animateur, writer and senior co-founder, were a privilege. We were both writers looking for a new space and feeling unripe.
In the meantime, we were interested in creating a scenic presence and gesture that was eloquent in its own right … not constrained to recreate a plot, fixed characters and a scripted dialogue in a box of lit stage sets and sound effects. The Vicinal considered the simple physical scenic presence as the primordial stuff of the theatre; it was firmly actor-based. Nevertheless, it provided each of us a way of moving towards a new sort of narrative discourse. You get amazingly precise feedback from an audience at very close range.
On your experience with the Vicinal, you had previously mentioned to me, “[…] I don’t want to have to talk about my involvement with the theatre (’71–’80) without making it clear that it grew out of a dislike of the theatre … It was an important platform for weighing issues related to my writing, which likewise grew out of a dissatisfaction with conventional writing.” In the previous question, you mentioned how the Vicinal’s success was “a gift of those intrepid times” and how “the climate of social protest and disaffection for received values made the cultural establishment astonishingly eager to host an alternative culture.” Can you tell me a little bit about how your writing grew out of dissatisfaction with conventional writing and maybe how working with the Vicinal may have influenced your writing?
I think Wakenight has generated too little interest to merit the unraveling of my opinions on any subject: and especially on matters beyond the book, such as … well, everything in the world I wanted the book or the Vicinal not to be. That’s a lot of stuff. But roughly speaking, I was never interested in adding to the body of literature or theatre whose meaning depends on the depiction of people walking in and out of rooms in the interests of plots and interpersonal relationships. It’s true that the dramatic works that have had the most enduring theatrical and literary influence on me do precisely that: Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, The Threepenny Opera, The Bald Soprano, just about anything by Beckett, etc. But these are all works that, in their several ways, explode, by their intensity and intention, those same conventions I am referring to. I don’t mean to suggest that the theatre should (or could) adopt as its conventions the techniques of these singular authors. Nor did the Vicinal set off in that direction. Our concern was … what to do with the extraordinarily forceful scenic presence that remains once you disengage the theatre from its dependence on the director, the dramaturge, and above all mimetic “representation.” A similar revision in painting … the revaluation of the stroke in the space of the canvas … was an impetus for the emergence of modern art at the turn of the preceding century. The Vicinal drew on modern figurative painting for part of its inspiration.
Unlike the theatre, literature has never been wholly harnessed to stage set realities. The case of poetry is obvious. But in prose fiction too there have long been writers … Sterne, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Kafka, Michaux … the usual list, who, to varying degrees, rely less on the paraphernalia of realist causality than on the physics of their narrative stance.
This said, the entire history of Western literature defines and inhabits the “space” in which the writer discourses today, and invests it with its incredible richness and intensity. And I happen to be one of those folks who is more interested in exploring what “else” might be done in that extraordinarily charged space, besides using it to tell stories about life … ours or whoever’s. I understand those who, quite apart from my own Lilliputian endeavors, criticize this approach as remote and rarified. Certainly the fact that it is a genre not promoted by the present culture, if only because it has no box office, helps perpetuate this impression. But in its defense, I would say utterance must be among our most humanizing behaviors. And the impulse toward fictional utterance, though not necessarily literature’s subject matter, is arguably its quintessential objective matter, and undoubtedly at the subjective core of any act of writing. Or something like that. Undoubtedly.
How did you get connected with FC2?
When Wakenight was finished in ’97, I sent it to ten UK editors. Most expressed what may have been genuine interest, but rejected it as too short and eccentric for their lists. A few invited me to send a longer work. I stuck WE in a drawer.
A few years later, Frédéric Baal insisted we translate a few chapters into French and submit them to the Paris literary review Le Nouveau Recueil. Editor Jean-Michel Maulpoix accepted them for publication and gave the English version to Marc Chénetier, a specialist in American literature at the Sorbonne. He sent it to FC2, who responded favorably. A circuitous route back to Evanston.
While utilizing poetic elements and containing a sense of narrative, your FC2 publication, Wakenight Emporium, also reads almost like a science book (leading the reader from one point to the next, each building on the other). What is your inspiration for this style?
More important to me than any given subject and its ramifications was the nature of the line traced by the narrative voice in the mind of the reader. I was interested in the rhythms, modulations and impetus of the discoursing voice. It was less important that utterances “made” sense, then that they be more or less breathtaking configurations of sense.
If you want to avoid the conventional narrative engines, first you flounder. (That is, if you’re me you do.) Then at some point, you might distinguish a certain number of texts in the junk heap that seem to announce possible departures. You bring them together and just hope your book will walk. You’re grateful if it does. Wakenight’s chatter was inspired by the discursive, nocturnal style of the Goldberg Variations, though the reader needn’t be aware of this. The book was intended as thirty variations for a fit of insomnia.
Have you read, are currently reading, and/or are moved by scientific literature? If so, can you name some of your favorites?
I do read a fair amount of scientific literature in the few branches that interest me. I don’t particularly enjoy scientific fiction, still less science fiction, which is generally even more fastidiously plot-driven than less exotic realist fiction. I have a great admiration for Vonnegut and his use of science as irony. He’s one of those rare writers, like Brecht or Orwell, who, with immense stylistic virtuosity, effects a moral revaluation that moves beyond the literary. I sneak in a tribute to him on page 106.
Furthermore, on your interests in scientific literature, the back cover of WE says that your book is the love-child of Einstein and Heidegger. Do you read or have you ever read any scientific works as such?
A great deal of scientific reading preceded the writing of Wakenight … but perhaps not of “scientific works as such.” I confess I don’t quite know what you mean by that. I prefer concise, bare-boned, theoretical descriptions written by people in their fields to communicate the most recent thinking, and am of course quite incapable of penetrating the stuff the insiders read.
The blurb that characterizes Wakenight as the “love-child of Einstein and Heidegger” was composed by FC2 in response to the book without any input from me … which is as it should be. As it happens, because Heidegger — who had lost credibility owing to his Nazi connections — was still alive and not “authentically” apologetic when I was in college, we examined phenomenology quite without him (as ticklish as that may sound). When I wrote Wakenight, I was still not familiar with Time and Being despite the intervening years. However embarrassing that admission is, now that I am, I think Heidegger’s compelling philosophical method may have made writing the rather ethereal Wakenight considerably more difficult. There were enough big kids in my sandbox as it was.
Incidentally, when I read the jacket, I thought perhaps some grounds for rehabilitating Heidegger had been found. But it seems there are none. As I see it, his Nazi involvement is impossible to square.
One of my main interests in reading Wakenight Emporium is the voice of the narrator. I find myself really wanting to believe her “one-eyebrow-raised” statements, yet I question her authority and am constantly asking myself, “Who is this narrator? I know she’s not a martian, but is she human?” At one point, I thought the narrator could quite possibly be a “palindrome moth.” Can you tell me a little bit about your narrator and the process by which you developed her?
I would say there is no narrator as such in the book. Wakenight is not a fiction in the sense of being a rationally structured narrative. It retains only the narrative habit. There are many narrative viewpoints adopted … none of them essentially gender-specific. Science is a misdirection, as are the martians … they are strategies for talking about the mystery of … or our anxiety concerning … our position in the universe. A string of deadpan loosely bound discourses, each seemingly about one thing, while probably about another — the purpose of the prose being less in the substance of the discourse, than in the style of the discoursing mind and its anxiety to know, and to seem to know, and to not lose credit with itself or the reader.
In Wakenight Emporium, you speak of martians: their mating rituals, birth, development, even skin chemistry. On page 101, you describe a martian as having “genius for expressing […] obscurity irksomely” and “that curiously martian heroic stance, where the individual standing stalwart at the prow, rides the crest of inexorable contingency.” If a martian were to take the Keirsey Temperament Sorter test for personality types, what would the results be? INTP? ENTP?
I think the reader has to draw his/her own conclusions about the temperaments and virtues of the martians. But I wouldn’t trust the value judgments of the crank who pontificates in chapter 25. I intended the chapter as a caricature of that abhorrence of the unknowable that often comes with exhausted knowledgeableness. So that speaker’s erudition is probably more reliable than his prejudices. Personally I tend to think of the martians as “numinous and strange” versions of ourselves … intimations of our future selves should we ever evolve into time-faring beings (chapter 26). It’s not inconceivable that such a fundamental existential mutation would render meaningless the categories proposed by the Keirsey Sorter. God knows I hope so.
From your book, I get the sense of that beautiful side of medieval science, the mystical love and desire for the endless possibilities of science. It is like science with a soul or without a loss of hope in humanity. Although this is a work of fiction, once the reader factors in what your narrator so wittily calls his/her “QIXOTE” (one’s perception of now), fact and fiction are relative. Do you feel that so many scientists (as understandably part of their profession) disregard that fifth dimension known as mind? And are they like the martians, subscribing to “Arbitrarianism” and answering our question of “How are things?” with the flat reply of the “current Novel-gravity index …”?
Wakenight has no quibbles with scientists per se. To its credit, science heightens our sense of underlying unknowns, and is thus a useful aid for getting ourselves into perspective. And cosmology and quantum physics may be inching tantalizingly close to some glimpse of the origins and nature of “mind.” Our brains are itty bitty bottle tops compared to the complexity of the systems in and around us that science elucidates (or just plain makes up) … beginning with a singularity the size of a Planck length, extending to … oh say … “a” universe, assuming that there is only the one. It seems increasingly unlikely that a vast system of universes, unfurling and collapsing in a choreography measurable in untold zillions of years and light years, is confined to dancing in these same three Neanderthal-brain-sized dimensions, on this meager knife-edge of time we perceive as “now.” Science may be accused of many things, no doubt, but probably not of ignoring dimensionality … Still, one might be more inclined to nitpick scientific values, were we at liberty to view them in a context other than that of the trash celebrity culture that everywhere prevails.
Alright … if not bottle tops, then Swiss army knives. And we never use most of their “features.”
I think I should have said “unbendingly scientific minds” instead of “scientists.” I think I come off as attacking scientists in that one … something I didn’t want to do at all.
Not at all. I think your question points to a significant reversal. From the Romantic period onward, literature was wary of science. It was perceived as a menace to the workings of the human soul. Now it seems that, whatever the role played by technology, we were pretty willing to forfeit that anyway. Ronald Sukenick suggested in 98.6 that we live in Frankenstein. And science now appears increasingly isolated in its ability to offer, without some slapdash sentimental wrapping, glimpses into the nature of our existence in this dark sky.
What have you enjoyed most about publishing with FC2?
Most things. If I had to pick one, their existence.
I’ve heard that Wakenight Emporium is also to be published in French. Did you originally write the book in English or French?