Names Are Always the First Lock on Any Cage: Talking with Dolan Morgan

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I first met Dolan Morgan at a literary event in New York City. We were probably at the Franklin Park Reading Series, one of my favorite Brooklyn readings, when we first had a conversation. I thought he looked really cool wearing a leather jacket.

Since then, Morgan has released two story collections. At the launch of That’s When the Knives Come Down, I ended up talking to his parents about the horrific traffic on Interstate 95 in Connecticut. He had distilled a copy of the book in a bottle of vodka and offered shots of the mixture to attendees. I declined. His latest collection, Insignificana, includes an odd assortment ranging from absurdist to essay-like fictions derived from historical fact.

Among his many contributions to the New York City literary community, Morgan helps maintain the Mellow Pages Library, a lending library in a camper parked at the artist collective Silent Barn in Bushwick.

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The Rumpus: I’ve attended events where you read a few of these stories aloud, and when I read them over as part of the collection I couldn’t help but hear your voice. Is the auditory impact of your writing something you think about often? Is the performance of your writing a consideration during your editorial process?

Dolan Morgan: Yeah—that summation seems roughly on the mark. Or, wait! Hmm: I’m not sure if I really think about the performance or “auditory impact” so much, but I do read my work aloud while I’m in the process of writing it. Almost always. Doing so helps me locate where ideas have become muddled, where sentence variety or structure has gotten too redundant or intractable, and where the pace needs to be reduced or accelerated for concepts to come across. Obviously, not every story needs to work as something that can be listened to (I have a lot of work that I almost never read aloud publicly, and I adore much writing that would scarcely make for enjoyable listening), but I generally find that the traits that undergird engaging performances also translate well onto the page. That is, pieces which I enjoy listening to are often defined by: a mix of clarity, brevity, directness, and humor that work together to provide firm ground for irrationality, lyricism, lying, and anxiety. It’s even easier at a reading to get bored of what someone is saying than it is to get bored when looking at the actual text, so the injunction to not drone on and on in endless description is even stronger in performance. Likewise, it’s so easy to get lost while listening without some clear sense of place and articulated tension, so the need for each is greater. In other words, the humdrum problems of writing in general are amplified in performance—but, luckily, so too is the soundness and reliability of any subsequent solution. So, yes, I rely on performance as a kind of barometer (as opposed to maintaining it as an end-goal or ambition), if that makes sense.

It’s worth noting: I also enjoy it! As a physical act, reading work aloud (not just one’s own but anyone’s; pick any book from the shelf and just start saying the words one after another—any book at all should do, but if you need guidance, I’d say Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias) can be a meditative, therapeutic, or religious exercise—because reading aloud is a kind of trance-like and automated process (or at least a “scripted” event) that briefly frees you from any kind of decision making about what to do or not do with your time or energy or thoughts. You enter a place where the question of whether or not you have any kind of free will or agency is irrelevant. It’s great. Dishes, dinner, time, money, shame, whatever: forget everything because now you’re doing this thing, and you don’t exist, and neither does anything else, or at least it doesn’t matter if you or I or anything exists or not. Which is what we want, to some degree, and are trying to express at all times. We are endlessly trying to conjure some kind of sorcery that will erase ourselves or the world, and literature is never more like casting a spell than when it is read aloud. And then you are swimming, somehow, without water. Believe me. Or something is swimming in you. I can’t say—because honestly I hate swimming. Always have. So this is maybe as close as I can get, and probably even better.

Rumpus: You’re highly active in the New York City literary community not only with the Atlas Reading Series and the Mellow Pages Library, but also simply by attending literary events. Do you find participating in the community and attending events influences your writing?

Morgan: Not really. Years ago, I left a jacket at a reading venue in NY (I can’t remember which reading or where). It was a really great jacket, too! One of a kind. Good in all weather. And that’s pretty much the only reason I try to attend so many events these days. Still looking for and hoping to find that missing jacket. Everything else is incidental.

One such incidental impact of looking for that missing jacket, though, is the blessing of having met and learned from so many wonderfully warm and kind people. Warmth and kindness have definitely had an unexpected influence on my life and my writing. So, in short: I’m going to keep looking for the jacket, and I hope I never find it.

Rumpus: With “Google Place Reviews (newly abridged)” you are interpreting a very modern kind of narrative, one taken from the Internet, of user generated content and the idea that anyone can be a critic. So I guess the first thing about that is: do you read and write real Google Place reviews?

Morgan: Yes and no. Or, more accurately: no, I don’t write Google Place reviews. Or any kind of reviews, for that matter. But! I did. All of the reviews included in that piece were originally written as actual business assessments via Google’s now-defunct “Google Places” platform. Many of the reviews are somehow still up, having magically survived the transfer to the company’s newer enterprises (“Google+ Local” and “My Business”). But I must admit: I’ve never been to, nor do I know anything about, the places that these reviews evaluate. So, I’m not even sure they are reviews. At least, they’re no more reviews than any other story about anything at all. In fact, I wrote them in a blind rage while selfishly trying to win a free computer. As per usual. Except, in this case, there really was a computer to win, and not just a vague feeling of being captive to the whims of a faceless probability. Anyway, this computer was to be given away (by Google itself!) to the one hardworking person who wrote the greatest number of business reviews in the days leading up to a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. That’s the first time I’ve explained that fact, and it sounds ridiculous. But, yes, there was something about the marriage of these two things—a celebration of experimental literature, organized by a leftist political magazine, bisected by a consumerist tech-world competition and marketing campaign branding blitz—that I just couldn’t resist. So I wrote as many reviews as I possibly could. Which was a lot. I mean, I have nothing to do, really. But, in the end, it was not enough. I did not win the computer. (The marathon reading was fantastic though. Glad I went. Couldn’t find my jacket.)

A consistent thread throughout the whole collection, this piece included, is useless garbage. A lot of “user generated content” is garbage. Comment sections are garbage. Which is fine. Garbage is great! I’m committed to writing as a place of empathy (empathy for anything really but garbage especially), and it’s in that spirit that this piece and others are made from what might initially seem like useless crap. Because there’s real human feeling, real life and suffering, in that trash. Always. (Stephanie Barber’s fantastic Night Moves comes to mind as exemplary of this, perhaps in the purest sense—it’s a book comprised entirely of actual comments from the YouTube video for Bob Seeger’s song “Night Moves,” and it’s a surprising monument to both the intimacy and enormity of human experience.)

And! Before these reviews made it into Insignificana, they had a whole other life, too—a life which marks what I believe is the last time I wrote a review (to bring this long-winded tangent back to your initial question). I collected each piece into a small e-book that hinged on a single promise: if you bought the book, the money you spent on it would be, immediately upon receipt, thrown away in the street or the woods. No questions asked. And then the money would be photographed. And mapped online (accompanied by a review of the place where the money was tossed aside). And finally the money would be available for retrieval by the original buyer, if they felt enterprising enough to go get it using the map and photograph. So, in some ways, the book was free, if you just believed in yourself. I maintain that the only answer to the absurd question “Why didn’t you give this money to charity?” is the following: “Michael Bublé’s Christmas record was once the best selling album in America.” Anyway, that book doesn’t exist anymore because I smashed it with a hammer at WORD Bookstore a few years ago. A small number of my favorite reviews made it into Insignificana, and that’s all that remains. I haven’t written a formal review of any business since, and I never will.

Rumpus: I only write negative reviews of places. I think it’s easier to be negative. Do you think these types of websites that ask for ratings and opinions are making us more critical as consumers or just another mode for us to consume?

Morgan: Let me first say: I don’t know. There are very few things I know, and anything related to “who we are” or “what we’ve become” is probably not among them. So there’s that. But. Once, when I was in San Francisco, I took an Uber. I know that much at least. And when I got in, the driver presented me with (and eagerly pressed me to enjoy) a bounty of water bottles and treats and perfumes and tissues and hand-sanitizers and mints and wipes, all arrayed in a beautiful and well-organized pull-out tray by my knees. He had created a small simulacrum of paradise and wanted me to partake in it right there in his car. It was beautiful and it was awful and it was the culmination of a kind of quiet arms race I’d watched accelerate over a few years of staggered visits to San Francisco. Uber wants you to rate your ride and driver, and I’d noticed an increasing flow of amenities with each passing year. First it was just a great smell. The best smell. A car cannot smell so good. And then it was a mint, or some gum. And then a water bottle. On and on, amenity after amenity, until I met this smiling man waving helplessly toward his cornucopia of pleasure and delight. And as thankful as I might have been (free stuff, great, sure), I was also pretty uncomfortable, and I’m sure he was too. This was not his job. And it’s unfair, I think, if he felt like he needed to do all of that extra crap in order to safeguard the prospect of a positive review. I felt then like we were both at the edge of some kind of terrible precipice. What was next? I get into a car and there’s a whole restaurant inside? A Six Flags between the seats, carefully maintained, managed and built by the driver? My every want and need, satisfied, finally, here in the Uber? No. I just needed to get from this high school to a place across town, and this guy just needed to make a living. Meanwhile, the rush for “market pressures” to force hardworking people to accept less and less money for more and more work while they “voluntarily” do a bunch of useless crap for free because they’re scared witless of being left behind in a broken, algorithmic meritocracy that eats money and shits misery? I don’t like it one bit. I hear it’s good for customers, but I’m pretty sure labor is also the customer. Like, this isn’t the meeting of two alien worlds, and finally the customer can defeat labor with the space-age Uber app. They’re one and the same. So, here’s what I want instead: let’s make ourselves a full-body suit that is capable of releasing chemicals into our head—chemicals that make us feel joy, or contentment, or rage, or anything at all—and let’s have this suit connected to the Internet, to a database, a database that takes the cumulative sentiments of all of the comments and ratings from everyone in the world at any given moment on every website and app and then averages them out into one last feeling, a feeling which is translated to the suit, and finally to you, which you are made to feel, no matter what. And when that’s done, we can move on. This suit is my answer to your question.

Rumpus: In “Hijacking Myth #1,” the narrative switches format and feels more like a nonfiction essay. First of all, it left me with the uneasy feeling of not knowing whether I was reading a fake news story or a nonfictional narrative. In a way it reminded me of Adrien Bosch’s Constellation, a French novelization about a real plane crash. Bosch explained at a reading that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is a uniquely American conceit. Were you intentionally trying to play with that concept of truthiness, of what is real and what isn’t?

Morgan: Yes. First off—the hijacking pieces were first commissioned as nonfiction. As essays. Which they are. Or: the research is real, and each individual hijacking piece details actual events. That is, they are in a short story collection, yes, but they are not, strictly speaking, fiction. “Hijacking Myth #1” stems from a genuine and enduring mystery: I discovered that there exists a historical uncertainty over when the first airplane hijacking took place. And I found this uncertainty sort of mind-boggling and decided to dig deeper. I have a database of every single officially recorded airplane crash, accident, and hijacking backed up on my home computer, organized by plane type, origin, destination, and date. All of the individual crimes listed and discussed throughout “Hijacking Myth #1” did in fact happen (or at least are alleged to have happened in reputable newspapers), and “Hijacking Myth #1” has now, somehow, been cited in at least one scholarly paper on the legal history of airplane hijackings (especially in reference to the earliest instances of such crimes). That said, the pieces are not news reports and they take many liberties in defining their own function for informational writing. At the time of their initial conception, I was fascinated by the proliferation of “realism” in media. Not just reality television, but the onslaught of fiction that increasingly resembled nonfiction. It was everywhere. And I wanted to do the opposite. To imbue nonfiction forms with the logic of myth and fable and the impossible. To abandon empiricism to the same degree that fantasy (at the time at least) had embraced it. Not as a game or a gimmick. But because I honestly believe that magic is real (or is at least as real as anything else), and that we have a gravely limited understanding of the world around us, and that the line between fiction and fact is largely arbitrary and more a matter of position and velocity than anything else, and because I believe entertaining absurd alternatives is necessary to the broadening of our scope of reasoning and sense of wonder. There may be a name for this line of thinking, but names are always the first lock on any cage, so let’s not learn it. I guess there’s a certain irony in the fact that I took these pieces (which were initially crafted as nonfiction rotted through with story) and presented them in the end as fiction disguised as nonfiction (but which are actually nonfiction disguised as fiction) in a short story collection. But, whatever they’ve become now, these pieces were a lot of fun to write.

Rumpus: What was behind the decision to split the “Hijacking Myth” series into not just separate stories, but also within the collection?

Morgan: In terms of breaking them into separate sections (1–6), that’s merely a result of the way they were initially created. I wrote them as a series, with a new episode coming out every few weeks. So they were always constructed as individual parts in an ongoing investigation. Spreading them out across the book (rather than keeping them all near to one another) was a practical solution to two problems. First, I felt that the language in the hijacking myths was a little too “in the clouds” at times to really endure for longer than a few pages. The leaps of logic wanted some breathing room, and so too might anyone reading the book, I figured. Second, I felt that a few of the other “sillier” pieces in the collection might feel overly glib when taken one after another. Interspersing everything helped establish a kind of balance across the board. Also, I knew I wanted to end the entire collection on the last line of the final hijacking piece, but didn’t want #1 to appear late in the collection. So, splitting was a natural conclusion.

Rumpus: When I got to “Hijacking Myth #2” and suddenly there was a Lost reference on the first page I couldn’t help but think the sense of verisimilitude you created was just another illusion, like a lot of that show. Also I think it’s a great segue into talking about narrative and J.J. Abrams. Was it fair to the audience that J.J. Abrams left so many unanswered mysteries?

Morgan: I don’t believe in fairness to the audience. At all. Rather, it’s about fairness to the text itself. So, yes, to answer your question: I think it was totally “fair” for J.J. to have done that to viewers. The audience isn’t owed anything. But! The text is owed something from its creator. Always. Thus, audience members with any amount of empathy should feel bad for a text, not for themselves, when a book or show goes awry. An audience is fine, mostly. Their lives are mostly their own. But the text is truly helpless. And that’s why J.J. Abrams blew it on Lost. He forgot to give the text what it needed. He refused to feed it and hung it repeatedly from a cliff nobody cared about, swinging wildly. Never shake a baby!

Rumpus: There is a lot of eating happening in your stories. In “Stable,” a huge amount of food is consumed. There are other instances, such as Audrey Hepburn eating herself, and also “Politicians I Have Tasted” is about a narrator literally tasting politicians like Joe Lieberman. One character eats an entire airplane. What’s the obsession with eating? Is it an oral fixation?

Morgan: I love food. And people eat food. I don’t have faith in much in this world, but I have faith in this fact: pretty much everybody eats food at some point in their life, and typically they do it every day. So, in a story, it’s an easy in. Common ground. If fiction endeavors toward any kind of real empathy (as it often does, and should), then it demands a familiar foundation from which to grasp at the unknown. As in: you can help a story reach toward the, uh, “cookie jar of the initially unrelatable” using the, er, “stepstool of the universally familiar.” Yeah. Which is food. Food is that step stool. Also, a lot of the stories in this collection were originally written in the form of fake blogs. So, fun fact: a lot of blogs are about food. (Every blog is about food.) Also, that “character who eats an entire plane” is a real person, and he really did eat a whole plane. No joke. He’s dead now. Natural causes.

Rumpus: Plenty of these moments end up with a total disconnect from realistic expectation such as Audrey Hepburn eating herself and becoming a turd. Actually quite a number of your stories end up taking a turn for the absurd. Do you worry about finding a way of grounding absurdism for your reader?

Morgan: No. Rather, I think absurdity is the natural outcome of anything close to grounded. I am more concerned about the hazards of presenting or justifying ideas that might come across as rational or assured or fine or self-satisfied. That shit’s crazy.

Rumpus: A lot of your stories are weird, but in a way that is dark and cynical. Is it fair to say cynical? Or if not cynical, than skeptical: skeptical characters, skeptical narrators. And do you see yourself as cynical or skeptical?

Morgan: I don’t. In fact, I barely see myself at all, probably, despite my best efforts.

Rumpus: I should probably ask about the artwork that accompanies each story. I really liked the sinking Titanic. Also “Hijacking Myth #3” looks a bit like a mushroom cloud, which seems frighteningly appropriate now. I would argue distilling your first collection of stories in a bottle of vodka is another form of visual art. Are you regularly making visual art or is it just a byproduct of writing?

Morgan: First, thank you! Glad you liked the sinking Titanic. And, hmm, not sure if I regularly make visual art. I mean. I draw all of the time. But not in any official capacity. Or, maybe, only in an official capacity? I don’t know, you be the judge: I have many journals for my job in which I take “notes” during meetings, but they are filled almost exclusively with illustrations of people and trees and monsters and mountains. For fun, I sometimes make video collages from archived promotional footage, but that feels more like playing a videogame than art. And I have a big, cheap replica of “The Last Supper” on which I scrawled in enormous, gold spray-painted letters, right over Jesus and his crew: “TRY HARDER.” But that’s not art. That’s a to-do list.

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Photograph provided courtesy of the author.


Ian MacAllen is the Rumpus Deputy Editor and founder of English Kills Review an online literary magazine focused on books, authors, and New York City. His writing has appeared in Joyland Magazine, The Billfold, Electric Cereal, Thought Catalog, and io9. He holds a Master’s Degree in English from Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →