Patrick Nathan’s first novel, Some Hell, is a searing story of a mother and son who suffer a tragic loss and must come to terms with their new identities.
Riveting and original, Nathan’s work announces a new literary talent unafraid to take stylistic and thematic risks. The novel, wrote Alexander Chee, is “a canny and terrifying moral fable about our new and old American ways of both being together and missing each other.”
Nathan, whose essays, interviews, and book reviews have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Bookslut, lives in Minneapolis.
We met not that long ago in New York, to discuss Twin Peaks, queer suffering, and how much masturbation is too much masturbation.
The Rumpus: Where did this story come from? Some Hell is an unusual story, stylistically, and very daring.
Patrick Nathan: I actually had just finished watching, for the first time in the summer of 2008, the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, and the prequel, Fire Walk with Me. I was captivated especially by Fire Walk with Me in the sense that it’s the last seven days of a character we know is dead from the very beginning. We’re essentially going through her choreography of dying. It puts together a lot of the pieces we don’t get from the show, and I was struck by that idea. I thought: What would it be like if I wrote a story with a character who’s dead from the very beginning?
Of course, the story changed a lot: it was first a short story, then it became a novel, and then it became a very different novel. I always joke that the kernel of inspiration for my novel is a single GIF of Laura Palmer after she wakes up in the waiting room in the White Lodge, when she looks up and sees the angel. Her expression as she goes from sobs to laughter is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, that sense of total relief.
Rumpus: My husband and I have this debate about Twin Peaks being considered queer perhaps because the way that I respond to the series is the way I respond to things that I would code as queer.
Nathan: It’s certainly easy to fangirl out over the show—Sarah Palmer, the screaming, the hair.
There are so many drag-like details. The things as a viewer you’re meant to notice that are incredibly ostentatious but rendered casually. In Pete Martell’s house, there’s a mountain goat mounted on the wall, and then right below its head are its hooves holding the gun that presumably did the job.
Rumpus: There’s so much surprise in Some Hell. The tone was consistently bleak while also hilarious. The way that you’ve captured the strange sadness of being a burgeoning teen is so wonderful, and I really appreciated your incredibly accurate depictions of all the jizz of adolescence.
Nathan: I can’t remember if I kept the passage about “pearls of lamplight on his stomach.” I know he’s always jizzing in Kleenex. That’s what being a teenage boy is like. There’s just jizz everywhere.
Rumpus: You know many straight readers will wonder why you’re focusing on the body so much. I also can imagine—and this comes from experience—people saying that your protagonist’s relationship with the predatory teacher was consensual, that he wanted it.
Nathan: It’s been very interesting to see men in particular reacting to the character of Victor, the teacher. A lot of male readers have had very different responses to him. Some think he’s supportive, and I’m like, What? Did you read the book? Victor senses a weakness in Colin and initially provides what Colin needs, but eventually takes that much further. There’s a passage in there where we realize Victor knows exactly what he’s doing.
Rumpus: The thing that was so disturbing about Victor was the scene where Victor is driving Colin home, and he says, “We should stop before one of us does something stupid.”
Nathan: “One of us.” He was disturbingly fun to write as a character.
Rumpus: When you were writing Diane, was it intuitive to start writing in her perspective? Because we stay with Colin for so long, at the beginning.
Nathan: I knew from the very beginning that she would have to be another focal character. The book originally started as a short story about Colin, and it very quickly pulled in another story I was working on at the same time, which was about a mother with an autistic son who refuses to be touched. That became Diane and Paul, swept into Colin’s story. Right away I knew that I could not write an entire novel around a fourteen-year-old boy. It wasn’t going to be enough. There was actually a third focal character—the grandfather—and I quickly realized that he had to be cut because he couldn’t sustain his own magnetism the way Colin and Diane could.
Rumpus: I love how we see multiple gay characters in this family. I was really happy to see that guidance from another character who didn’t want to rape Colin. But while we’re on healthy vs. aberrant behavior in your novel, I’d like to talk a little about the incestuous undertones in your writing.
Nathan: The part with Colin’s brother Paul is meant to be troubling because Paul is technically a vulnerable individual, being autistic, and Colin takes advantage of him at a couple of different points, blurrily, in the way that a child takes advantage of another child. It’s not something that should mark him for life or anything, but something he would and should feel bad about. I think that’s another one of those societal things that is instantly labeled as disgusting, but when you’re going through that transitionary period of discovering your sexuality, and you’re kind of horrified that everything turns you on, well that’s all part of that. Paul is essentially the first grown male Colin has seen naked, and he’s turned on by his brother having a big dick.
Rumpus: I thought it was honest.
Nathan: Even with straight boys, there’s a point at which they see their mother naked, and they don’t know what to do. Because your family is such an intimate unit, they’re usually the first people you’re exposed to. A lot of people fool around with their cousins, straight or gay. There’s a huge erotica market for stuff like brother porn.
Rumpus: I love that this book includes so many things no one is talking about in fiction, and it doesn’t shy away from what other people might consider clutter. The mere fact that we see more than two times someone raise a gun to their temple is fascinating. Do you think this book fits into a tradition that depicts queer suffering and/or queer shame?
Nathan: What I hope I’ve done is queer queer literature, in the sense that ultimately this is a novel about a queer character, but at the same time it queers the traditional arc of queer literature by introducing so much more into his narrative, most of all depression. He and his mother are both deeply depressed characters. I also felt a little uncomfortable setting up the character of Victor, in the sense that Colin’s friend Andy is incredibly homophobic about him, and you’re initially feeling a little sorry for Victor, who could just be a teacher and not a predator. I felt a little icky writing a character who fits a stereotype bigots have often placed on gay teachers. Initially I had misgivings about writing him that way. Politically I should say that all gay teachers are perfect. So then I thought, No, it’s queering the queer narrative to put that in there. I wanted to make these characters much more complex than the individual boxes we normally see.
Rumpus: How do you square the fact that there are so many readers who wouldn’t get what you’re doing? Or the readers who would say that what you’re doing is irresponsible?
Nathan: I knew there were people who wouldn’t get where I took this book. If you are okay going into fiction, you should probably be okay approaching the limits of what fiction can do and explore. Fiction and literature in general carry the expectation that you’ll be made uncomfortable, and I hope that’s what I did.
Rumpus: I want to talk a bit about your obsession with bleakness. The journal entries in this book are so bleak and depressing.
Nathan: I often have difficulty connecting with that, when people tell me that. I look at them like, Oh do you think so? One of the most disconcerting responses I received from an early reader—long before Graywolf offered to publish it—was someone who said, “I know you’re capable of being funny, but the book isn’t really funny.” And I thought, I don’t know if I can be funny in my fiction in the same way I can be on Twitter.
Rumpus: People don’t always realize that your book is intentionally going down paths of intense suffering.
Nathan: Right? A narrative requires that so much be excised, in the same way that everything that’s not part of a photograph exists outside of its frame. We know it’s out there, somewhere, but it’s just not part of it. We’re not meant to look there.
Rumpus: What led you to your odd ending?
Nathan: In the revisions, I was getting bored every time I approached my ending, so I realized that I needed to do a different ending and completely abandon my original vision for the novel. Once I did that, I realized I could do the kind of ending that I love in a lot of other works, especially in film, wherein the last minutes of a film change the entire film. You think you’re watching one thing, and then suddenly you’re like, What the hell just happened? Fiction writers don’t often take the risk of letting the image do the work. They don’t take the risk of letting the scene transmit the emotion they want to transmit. A lot of writers have come to rely on putting a feeling in context, whereas you can really just go for it and cut it there, and let people feel that. I wanted to impart a feeling upon the reader rather than a thought. There should be something happening, something you keep reading, in that white space that follows a book’s final lines.
Rumpus: This is a novel that stays in my brain.
Nathan: Ugh, thank you. That is the best thing for me, to stay with somebody, to linger. Really great art is an opening of a cavity of anxiety, something that you don’t understand, and you wish deeply to close this cavity because you want to make sense of it. Because it disturbs you, in some way. The human need to narrate and tell stories is born out of a desire to make meaning, and at some point we found deep pleasure, spiritual pleasure, in withholding that meaning from ourselves, and I think that’s not cultivated in art enough. I want to keep the rupture open for as long as I can.