Before our office adjourned for the holidays, my cubicle neighbor described the hygge-heavy German Christmas Eves he experienced abroad. The tradition of exchanging gifts of books and thick pajamas, and suspending the gatherings to be alone with new stories, made an impression. So much so that I was late to work the next morning after pressing the snooze button three too many times, desperate to stay in the Alpine yuletide evening that I dreamed into being. The rest of the day I couldn’t shake the faint “memory” of the trip to a place that was only suggested.
If I were actually celebrating Christmas in Munich, everyone on my literary gift list would be unwrapping The Brick House by Micheline Aharonian Marcom. The suggestive, immersive, unshakable power of dreams is one that the novel wields with a ferocity we rarely lend in our waking hours. It invites the reader to indulge in lyrical visions, and the galaxies contained in the smallest details. The book is as a winter’s night, richly dark and pinpricked with countless glimmering delights.
Marcom was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and raised in Los Angeles. The Brick House, her sixth book, follows novels with honors including being featured on the New York Times Notable list and a PEN/USA Award for Fiction. She is an MFA faculty member at Goddard College’s creative writing program.
Over the week of Solstice in December, I interviewed Marcom via email on transcendence, life cycles, apocalypses, and evocative settings.
The Rumpus: I’m curious as to when you originally drafted The Brick House. The suffocating, crushing hive of humanity seems so precise to our current era. When did you begin the book?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom: I started the book over a decade ago, and had it fully drafted by 2007. For the past intervening years it has spent considerable time in “the drawer.” Occasionally I would pull the manuscript out, read through it again, and submit it somewhere only to have it rejected and so back into the drawer it went! W.G. Sebald remarked once, apropos of writing, how the drawer is one of a writer’s greatest resources. Time, in other words, and what it allows for: a renewed “seeing” of a book (and perhaps, one hopes, the ongoing evolution of the writer) so as to finally lift a book to its final form. In rereading the manuscript and finishing final edits on it in early spring, I was surprised, in a way, by how what ten years ago struck me as urgent and under-reported, at least in the mainstream—plastics filling up the oceans, for example—had become more widely known and discussed. And then there is a dream in the book about building walls around cities and states, which a decade ago seemed like an unimaginable (for practical and ideological reasons) idea for the United States and today, no matter how silly or deceptive that idea might be, it has become part of the national discourse.
Rumpus: It’s more than a little eerie that a shelved manuscript became prophetic. At the same time, it seems as though the moment was right for work that may have been ahead of its time. How did the book find its final publishing home?
Marcom: I became acquainted with Tatiana Ryckman, the editor at Awst Press and a writer in her own right, many years ago through the wonderful journal that Taylor Davis-Van Atta founded called Music & Literature, where she wrote an essay about an earlier erotic novel of mine that Dalkey Archive published called The Mirror in the Well. She and I stayed in touch and once she began to work with Awst she approached me and inquired if I had any work and that was when I pulled The Brick House out of the drawer once more! I worked on the book for months, editing and ‘lifting’ it; both Tatiana’s and Wendy’s (the publisher) support were vital.
Rumpus: Were you inspired by any specific dreams you’ve experienced, or dreams that were shared with you? I personally had moments of unconscious recognition while reading.
Marcom: The book’s biggest inspiration, in terms of my dreams, had to do with its initial spark and origin: eleven years ago, I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for work and spent a night in a building somewhat like the brick house on something akin, at least later in my imagination, to a moor. That night I had terrible nightmares: violent, bloody, horrible dreams, mostly about a man stabbing various women, as I recall it now. And in the morning when I woke up not only was I frightened by the long night of dreaming violently, but I also just knew that those were not my dreams. That somehow they were the building’s, the house’s, or someone else’s who had once resided there perhaps. In any case, this sparked eventually this book, because it got me thinking about potencies and places and how buildings and locales ‘hold’ energies of a kind. And the brick house of The Brick House is, of course, a place where people go to receive a dream.
Rumpus: I find it interesting that The Brick House is one of several recent books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, alongside Wendy C. Ortiz‘s Bruja and Szilvia Molnar’s Soft Split, that bring the unfiltered world of dreams into daylight. What do you think is driving us to dreams—and how did you arrive in this emerging tradition?
Marcom: I’m not familiar, yet, either with Molnar’s or Ortiz’s work, but I think there has long been interest in dreams as serious areas of study, observation, information, inspiration and even prophecy. We spend so much of our lives sleeping and then some of that ‘so much’ is spent dreaming: how could dreams not be as important and as much a part of “reality” as waking life? In the oldest book on record, the Sumerian tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, there are several pivotal dreams, so you might say that dreams have been a part of literature from its inception! One of the books that inspired some of my keen interest in dreams as a font of the imagination, and as a serious and important part of psychic life, and also a defense, you might say, against what Carl Jung called “the disease of rationalism and doctrinairism” was his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections. In it he said, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” I think of so many books of imaginative literature like small lights, which cross both space and time.
Rumpus: In your own writing tradition, The Brick House follows The Mirror in the Well, which was also praised for its depiction of sexuality, pleasure, and loss with a candor that many writers are unable or unwilling to employ. In the almost-decade between the two books’ releases, have you seen any changes in the way female sexuality has been depicted in fiction?
Marcom: I did read all of Elena Ferrante’s books a few years ago—and loved, in particular, her depiction of female friendship and its complexities. I also thought she wrote one of the worst (because there was no pleasure!) and hilarious sex scenes I’ve read in her novel The Days of Abandonment. And I just am finishing a small book called Not One Day by the French writer Anne Garréta about the narrator’s many erotic encounters: so far it’s wonderful.
Rumpus: A reoccurring image in the transitions between dream and transcendence is that of sex as a portal. There is much phallic imagery, and yet so little violence or coercion. Do you feel that The Brick House demonstrates the pleasures of consent?
Marcom: I’m not sure about the pleasure of consent; that seems like something on people’s minds at the moment for certain, but sexual ecstasy, sex as a ‘stepping out’—both as connection to the lover, and connection to the higher realms, which some ecstatics would call god, or the gods— that’s seems as old as human history and literature. Sex can be solipsistic, violent, debased—and it can be extraordinary, something which exceeds itself—much, I suppose, how life itself can be, with a capacity for the “high” moments and the “low,” love-filled and hate-filled.
Rumpus: I am obsessed with the word “moor,” which you use to describe the kind of purgatory, or transitional place, between life and death where The Brick House stands. It evokes such a dark idea of place, and indeed you describe The Brick House as a place where light is incapable of existing. However, I found the way that shadow was presented as a positive versus the “evil” that is so commonly used as a crutch in stories, to be fascinating.
Marcom: I probably first heard the word ‘moor,’ or read it, as a teenager reading the Brontës, but in me it still invokes mystery, the interstitial places, the crepuscule, the in-between day and night, the sea. The dark? It’s not evil, but it is the unknown and the unknown is generally frightening, like the ‘Great Unknown’ we will all face of our death. But is that negative? I don’t think so. No more than the transformation of any living form to un-living and then, in the way of life on earth, to living again in different form: through eating, through decomposition, metamorphosis of one thing to another—the earth recycles all of us!
Rumpus: I have had this same concept on my mind recently, the idea of recycling energy and the cyclical nature of our personal and shared histories. It feels as though we are, collectively, being ferried into a Brick House reckoning. What advice would you give on surviving our nightmares?
Marcom: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how a continuing psychic and physical investment in separation (vis-a-vis our ideas, actions, feelings) will claim calamity for homo sapiens, and for our planet. This is not to say, as the poet Tsvetaeva said, we should “understand the unacceptable.” No. I think we need provocative art and literature which allows for a deep and complex understanding of the world we live in today, which includes our shared and not always acknowledged stories in history. But as all the old teachings and religions say, in one way or another: we must love one another. Or as John Lennon said it best in a song: “love is the answer and you know that for sure.”