Go Forth is a series that offers a look at contemporary literature and publishing, read more of the series here.
David Hollander’s first novel, L.I.E. was published twenty years ago to near universal critical acclaim and this new one, Anthropica, is his latest. A novel that is hard to categorize, let alone put into a synopsis, it’s probably best to say that it is a world unto itself – high concept, high-comic. Beyond the staggering formal innovation and dense philosophical intellectualism, at it’s heart this is a book that displays the linguistic virtuosity of a mind and soul on fire. David Hollander has always been an important writer and vital part of our contemporary literary conversation and we’re lucky to finally have his next book in front of us.
THE BELIEVER: The world has been waiting twenty years for your next book, the follow-up to L.I.E. What have you been up to in this interim? I think this sort of interval between books creates mystique. What do you think?
DAVID HOLLANDER: It is kind of you to suggest anyone has been waiting. twenty years is a long time, and it’s hard for me to connect these two books along any sort of continuum. One thing I can tell you is that when L.I.E. was released by Random House—with no small amount of fanfare—at the turn of this new century, I felt certain that I had “made it,” that I was The Next Big Thing, that I would publish many books and be considered a Serious Artist by many people. Twenty years later a second novel is coming out from a small publisher, during a global crisis and without any of the fanfare. I’m grateful for the opportunity to publish again and Animal Riot Press has been incredibly good to me, but I also can’t help thinking about all the ways in which my career might have been more prosperous had something broken a little differently for me. I’m trying to write an essay about this right now… about the strangeness of publishing books twenty years apart, and the bewildering and often crushing nature of my self-perceived failure. The fact is the road between these two novels is rocky and overgrown and strewn with the carcasses of completed novels that no one wanted.
BLVR: Why do you suppose this twenty-year gap happened to you? I’m sure it’s attributable to the fickle, myopic, and wrongheaded gatekeepers of the literary establishment.
DH: I think there are two narratives here. One is that I didn’t listen to all of the industry professionals—agents, editors, publishers—who tried to altruistically steer me toward writing more commercial (or simply more readable) books, and that I paid the price for my stubbornness and refusal to face the realities of the market and the reading public. In this narrative, my books didn’t get published because they were too challenging or strange or simply bad. But there is another narrative in which “the fickle, myopic, wrongheaded gatekeepers of the literary establishment” have failed, for twenty years, to see that my work has a potential readership, simply because the work confuses them or makes them uncomfortable. They are, by and large, a risk-averse lot. Why take a chance on something unorthodox when there are hundreds of more mainstream books on your desk, books that you have in a sense seen before and that you know you can sell? I do not know which of these narratives is more correct. Have I been a stubborn and pretentious asshole who wouldn’t listen to sound advice? Or have I been an artist with integrity who’s refused to sacrifice his vision to slaves and drones?
BLVR: Which leads us to Anthropica. How did this novel come together? What did you start with? Did you always want this book to play out on such a large, sweeping canvas?
DH: After I couldn’t sell my previous novel, I started writing what I was calling a “g-chat book,” where I’d paste bits of text into the status box of my Gmail chat box for my most frequent correspondents to see. I was devastated by the fact that the previous novel was not going to see the light of day, and making the psychological investment in yet another big project was proving difficult. So this silly “Gchat novel” conceit made it possible for me to write without pressure or the fear of further rejection. But after these bits of text started to amass and I suddenly had like, one-hundred pages or something, I realized I’d been kidding myself. A novel was happening, and it had to do with human consumption, artificial intelligence, and a man determined to eradicate the human species for the good of the universe.
When I recently looked back on my writing journals, I saw that very early on in the process—even when this was supposedly an anti-novel, a Gchat project that I intended to show to no one—I was making diagrams and plotting out the motions of a book with many moving parts. One of the first things I wrote was the initial Stuart Dregs chapter. He’s a natural-resource scientist who has discovered that human beings completely exhaust the earth’s resources every eight days. From this discovery he hatches the “Anthropica Theory,” which suggests that everything is here only because we want it to be. Human desire creates and sustains the universe. I started thinking about ways to toy with this idea, to test it. I guess one thing led to another.
Another narrative, and the one that feels truest, is that the book just started happening somehow. When I look at it now, I cannot figure out how it could possibly exist. You probably know how hard it is to describe your process to people. It seems like I wrote the book in some intense fever-state, and then it was finished and the fever broke I had no real memory of doing it at all.
BLVR: The process is always impossible to articulate, but the fever-state makes the most sense for the best books. Let’s move into language and the book’s scope as both high concept and dark comedy. Anthropica is way out there and almost impossible to put into a synopsis. You touch on the process and some of the elements of the novel already, but let’s hone in on language and comedy and sensibilities. The sentences are torrents of syntactical acrobatics, always musical and rhythmic, long, looping and devastatingly funny. L.I.E. is also devastating and funny as a portrait of suburbia and it’s vacuous denizens, but the sentences are shorter and more pointed. Would you say the Hollander sentence has evolved over these twenty years?
DH: Yes, I’m really glad you asked about this. You know, after L.I.E. I got into this mode where I was out to prove, with every sentence, that I was the greatest writer who ever lived. I think this was in part because no one talked at all about the language in L.I.E., but instead focused on its depiction of suburban malaise. In other words, most of what I liked about L.I.E. didn’t get discussed, and I was a little irked. Also I was in a period where I was reading a lot of John Hawkes and Cormac McCarthy, wanting to write something with that kind of linguistic gravity. Anyway, it was a mostly unhappy time and I was writing this lyrically dense prose and having almost no fun whatsoever. I would agonize over individual words, the sounds they made and whether or not there were other words that meant something similar but made better sounds. A “good” writing day might have resulted in half a page of work. It was like that for years, actually… short sentences densely packed with descriptors. Then about five or six years ago—this was around the time I was giving up all hope for my writing—I wrote this fifteen page story in one sitting, in these long sentences that more closely resembled the way I actually think. Lots of switchbacks, thoughts within thoughts, advances and retreats. It was so easy. I knew something had happened that had never happened before, and I began to suspect that I’d had everything backwards, as I so often have in life. Something had to break inside of me, some notion I had that writing was supposed to be deadly serious and really difficult, otherwise it couldn’t be art.
Anthropica feels like a book that had to get written. It demanded to exist. Which goes back to what I was saying about the fever-state. Writing for me now feels like a dam breaking, a dangerous and thrilling outpouring of language. And if it doesn’t want or need to pour out, I honestly just don’t write that day, or that week, or that year.
BLVR: The same evolution question applies to narrative—L.I.E. is more of a realist take on familiar terrain, whereas Anthropica is absurd and a potent send-up of the awful people who pollute this otherwise lovely planet. How did you move from point A to B when it comes to subject matter?
DH: I’m not sure that L.I.E.was more realist, though it was certainly drawing more on “real life,” and more specifically on my terrible adolescence. Also, it was more inward-looking. I was really young when I wrote it and was driven by ego and a belief in my own specialness. Look at me, listen to me, I am smart, I am sad, I am angry, and so on. I think that erodes over time for all of us. Being married, having children, having a career as a teacher, these things create a sense of duty.
I guess the sense I had while writing L.I.E. that my life was somehow important and of great substance created a more stable kind of narrative, a closed loop, if that makes sense. Anthropica, on the other hand, is wildly unstable and flirts with chaos. Maybe when I was done thinking about myself and started to think about the world, I couldn’t make any sense of it. The book is meant to narrativize my struggle to hold onto belief—in something, in anything—despite feeling perpetually at sea. (You can decide that everything is meaningless and we are doomed, but your demons won’t care and they won’t go away.) The best way I could think of to do this was to toggle between the small-scale suffering of individuals, and something more anthropological or even cosmic.
BLVR: Who is your ideal reader? Do you see yourself in conversation with other writers when it comes to this particular novel?
DH: I came to fiction from a weird angle. I don’t really care so much about storytelling. If you believe, as I believe, that we live in a cage built of language, fiction becomes a way of rattling the bars of that cage. You’re using language to try to rail against the limitations of language. My ideal reader is someone who is basically bewildered by everything and is looking to explore the contours of that bewilderment and maybe feel a little less alone. Though in the end we are alone.
But yes, there were some writers who were in the proverbial room with me while I was working on Anthropica. First and foremost was the Hungarian master of the apocalypse, László Krasznahorkai. The arguable protagonist of Anthropica, Laszlow Katasztrófa, is named in homage to him. David Foster Wallace was here, too. And David Mitchell, with his trick-box structures and recursive logic. And then writers who seem to make a playground of bewilderment. Robert Lopez, for instance. Anne Carson. Clarice Lispector. I want my books, like their books, to seem like they could only be written by one person on earth, earth be damned.
BLVR: What’s next for you? Other than emptiness, despair, torpor, rage? What it means to be an artist, an American, a human?
DH: Emptiness, despair, torpor, and rage will no doubt take up most of my time. I’d like to think I could write another book, but I don’t know. We seem really close to the end of everything. Paying attention to the daily disaster we call the world isn’t very good for me. I’m sure you’ve felt this, too… we would like to think that things can get better, but deep down we all know they’re only going to get worse. There may come a time when I suddenly feel the need to write something about it, and then I will. For now I want to be a good person, and be present for the people who need me. I’m not sure I have anything to say as an artist that I haven’t already said in Anthropica, but then I’ve quit writing “forever” at least half a dozen times. We’ll see if the dam breaks again.