Keep the Kevlar Handy: The Rumpus Interview with Mark Slouka

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“In America, we tend to think belief trumps knowledge. To tease out the truth from the fabric of lies that surrounds us requires a certain degree of intelligence. Which is bad news for us, alas.”

If you’ve read Mark Slouka’s books of fiction—the story collection Lost Lake (1998) and the novels God’s Fool (2002) and The Visible World (2007)—you know that, in his heart, he’s a cartographer. He maps the relationship between the present and the past, detailing the emotional topography, shading out those zones where the borders between memory and history, fact and fiction, have become porous. The Visible World, which Booklist called “almost unbearably poignant” addresses the almost unbearable need of the living to piece together the stories of our pasts, even as the truth of those stories remains, inevitably, inaccessible. The New York Times called it “a delicately imagined and beautifully rendered novel.”

But there’s another side to Mark Slouka, as any regular reader of Harper’s knows. Here Slouka plays the role of a canary in the coal mine, or a Jeremiah howling into the American bazaar: “Mend thy ways!” In frequent essays and meditations, he provides incisive, sometimes blistering analyses of American politics and culture. He was a blunt and passionate critic of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, and has recently taken aim at the failure of American higher education to produce informed citizens, as opposed to “workers.” The concerns of his fiction—our need to connect past and present, and to distinguish truth from the lie—are just as central to his nonfiction.

Slouka’s new book, Essays from the Nick of Time, collects many of those Harper’s pieces alongside others, several of which were reprinted in the Best American Essays anthologies. He is a contributing editor of Harper’s and a professor at the University of Chicago. Rumpus Books editor, Andrew Altschul, caught up with him last week, just as Essays from the Nick of Time was arriving in bookstores.

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The Rumpus: The title of your new collection refers to Thoreau, and yet these essays are anything but throwbacks or nostalgia pieces. What is it about Thoreau that feels so relevant and urgent to you?

Mark Slouka: In his critique of the basic tenets of capitalism, Thoreau may well have been the most radical writer in American history. I sometimes think that if copies of Walden started really selling, Lawrence Summers would have an aneurism. In this age of entertainment and mindless acquisitiveness, I can’t imagine anyone more dangerous to the status quo, or necessary.

Rumpus: What was so radical about Thoreau?

Slouka: Thoreau, as quaint as it sounds today, proposed a notion of value divorced from the marketplace; today, in the Age of Economics, when everything from cancer medications to the survival of species is subject to cost-benefit analyses, that’s pretty radical.

Rumpus: You quote Thoreau in the epigraph, where he speaks of “standing on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future… to toe that line.” Is that what the essays in Nick of Time are meant to do?

Slouka: In part, sure, though there’s more than one line. In some of my essays it’s the political moment, which I can’t ignore, as much as I’d sometimes like to; in others it’s the line between memory (or history) and narrative, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I guess as a writer I’m drawn to the places where forces converge.

Rumpus: There’s also the line between fiction and nonfiction, or fact, a line you’ve crossed in both directions throughout your career. Sometimes, as with essays like “Hitler’s Couch,” which deals with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, you cover territory you’ve also written about in your fiction. What is the difference, for you, between writing fiction and writing nonfiction?

Slouka: To be honest, I’m less sure of that line than I’ve ever been, not because I don’t believe that there are no facts, that everything is ideology, perspective. To the contrary, I believe that history is as empirical as a brick—certain things happen; the door slams, the fist comes down. It’s just that it seems to me that once the moment has passed, it automatically enters the dominion of fiction.

I can’t tell you anything about myself—why I got married, what I had for breakfast this morning—that isn’t a story. So, aside from certain conventions of voice, a certain stance toward “fact,” I’m not sure the line exists. One side bleeds into the other all the time.

Rumpus: Essays from the Nick of Time is divided into two sections: “Reflections,” which are generally personal in their subject matter, and “Refutations,” which are more political or cultural. Here’s another line to toe—but here, too, it gets blurry.

Slouka: Feels a little bipolar sometimes, but there it is. The truth is that I long to move permanently into the sanctuary of fiction, to breathe nothing but the pure ether of the imagination, but keep getting drawn into the battle by what I see going on around me: By the rise of the idiocracy, by the damage we’re doing to our world, by the increasing role of naked propaganda in American politics… which brings me back to Thoreau, who was once described as being torn between wanting to celebrate the world, and wanting to fix it. As I said in my introduction to the essays, that’s a rack I recognize.

Rumpus: It’s unfashionable on the left to refer to “battles,” isn’t it? Don’t you worry about being mistaken for a member of the Tea Party?

Slouka: Ouch. Hadn’t occurred to me, really. Still, I’ll take the risk because I think there is a battle taking place, and we (those of us on the so-called progressive left) are getting our asses handed to us. Back in 1970 I saw two guys in a fight in Central Park, which left a big impression on me. One guy—a big, handsome kid with long, flowing hair, kept getting punched in the face—hard. He’d fall, bleeding, but before he stood up again, he’d take a pocket comb out of his back pocket and smooth his hair. I was twelve years old. It made me physically ill to watch it.

The kid with the comb, it seems to me, is the Democratic Party, and it makes me no less ill to watch today. Of course, to make the analogy realistic, the guy doing the beating would have to pick the fight, accuse the one on the ground of hurting his fist, then sue him for compensation.

Rumpus: The essays in The Nick of Time go back as far as 1993, before “creative nonfiction” had been fully defined or embraced as a literary form. How did you describe to yourself what you were doing? Were you interested in or aware of working in a new genre?

Slouka: I had no clue what I was doing. I just knew I’d rather run barefoot over broken glass than continue doing the same academic writing I’d been doing. I also knew that some things that had happened to me were things I wanted to write about, and that I couldn’t write about them without questioning their “authenticity”—that is, without making my reading of those events part of the story. Which opened the door, I guess, to certain “fictional” techniques.

 

Rumpus: That’s the tradition of “nonfiction novelists” like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, and also novelists like E. L. Doctorow, who continually works that territory between history and invention. Is the future of literary writing a gradual conflating of these categories?

Slouka: Possibly, though I’m less than thrilled about it, if only because conflating the two can be such an easy out, a sloppy backhand to the problem of history. Done carefully and right, it can point out the inherent limitations of the genres, their instability, make us more aware, for example, of how nonfiction borrows constantly from fiction.

That said, I think more or less “pure” examples of the genres, whatever they are, will be with us for a long time to come.

Rumpus: A number of the essays deal specifically with our concept of time, often suggesting that it is changing or mutating. At the same, um, time, much of your fiction involves the ways we invariably have to reconstruct the past out of incomplete or misleading memories. What do you think is the source of your fascination with time and memory?

Slouka: A lot of it has to do with the fact that I was the only child of storytellers who didn’t like each other; my father would tell me one story—of how he met my mother, say, or how they escaped occupied Czechoslovakia—and my mother another, diametrically opposed. My formative years were spent swimming around in this soup. It’s a wonderful way to raise a writer—or a schizophrenic.

 

Rumpus: Actually, that seems pretty similar to how we all live now—every story has its denial, every explanation or policy gets blasted as a lie by cable news.

Slouka: Precisely. This ghettoization of information—one version for our side, another for the other—is one of the biggest issues we face. It’s getting to the point where certain individuals (Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, et. al.) can say anything at all, subvert any known fact, and they’ll be believed.

I read today that certain individuals aspiring to national office are talking about a “second amendment solution,” should things not go their way on election day. I wish there was a second amendment solution for idiots.

Rumpus: And yet in the essay “Arrow and Wound,” you say that “Every retelling is inevitably a distortion, but… we can’t help but tell the truth”?

 

Slouka: What I was referring to, actually, was emotional truth, the idea being that we reveal ourselves, continually and everywhere, by what we do, what we say, even more importantly by what we don’t, by our silences.

In terms of politics, I’d like to think so, but I don’t. Oh, the truth will rise to the surface eventually, but what troubles me is how much harm can be done before the truth is made visible. In America, we tend to think that belief trumps knowledge—that what you “feel” in your gut is more important than what you know. I don’t agree. To tease out the truth from the fabric of lies and half-truths that surrounds us requires a certain degree of intelligence. Which is bad news for us, alas.

 

Rumpus: You addressed this in “One Year Later,” an essay about the aftermath of 9/11, where you resist the view, commonly voiced after the terrorist attacks, that “everything was different now” and suggest that Americans need to take a hard look at our reluctance to read and understand history. I’m guessing you didn’t get a lot of fan mail for that one?

 

Slouka: Funny about that one. I actually thought, in all due humility, that it was a good piece, respectful of the tragedy we endured but willing to set it in context. As you suspect, not many shared my view then—though maybe predictably, I’ve been getting more letters with every passing year that say, basically, that I got it right. So who knows? What was that about the truth needing time?

On the other hand, there’s the contrarian part of me that says if you’re a writer and you’re getting fan letters, you probably didn’t do your job.

 

Rumpus: Getting back to the “second amendment solution,” when you add to that the recent violence at Tea Party events—Joe Miller’s bodyguards handcuffing a reporter, Rand Paul’s supporters stepping on a woman’s head—it’s hard to understand why there’s not more of a public outcry. To me, this stuff seems uncomfortably close to fascism.

Slouka: Close? The boot to the face—particularly when the victim is in no position to defend herself—is, essentially, a fascist impulse. I make jokes about “second amendment solutions” and such because these remarks are made by ignoramuses who are also capable of arguing that masturbation is adultery, but there’s no law that says ignoramuses can’t be dangerous. Au contraire.

There’s been a fascist whiff in the air for the better part of a decade, maybe more. And it’s been stronger in our past. Hell, my neighbor here in Brewster wants to torture a terrorist—seriously, thinks waterboarding is a joke, never heard of the Spanish Inquisition. He teaches high school.

Be afraid. Better still: Be alert.

Rumpus: Now there’s the Slouka we know and love! In “Coda: A Quibble,” written in 2009, you warned that the public’s apparent wisdom in electing Barack Obama shouldn’t be mistaken for a general improvement in our ability to make good decisions. Already you were worrying that “we haven’t changed at all, that we’re as dangerous to ourselves as we’ve ever been.” Do you see any reason to hope that we are changing?

Slouka: You mean for the better? Christ, I know I should put a happy face on this—hell, I want to put a happy face on it—but I just can’t. Sure, there are signs—the return of some kind of environmental movement over the last decade, for example—that should give us hope. But then there’s the guy I met in the Motel 6 swimming pool who basically ended a conversation about immigration policy by saying, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.”

As a nation, we’ve always had a certain fundamental decency—or dullness, maybe—that we could fall back on. It may save us again. But my fear is that we’ve been sitting in the pot like the proverbial frog, growing hotter and stupider, for a long time. Our eyes are bulging. It will take a massive effort to jump out.

 

Rumpus: Well. Last question: We’re doing this interview on Saturday, but it will run on Wednesday, the morning after Election Day. With that in mind, would you care to make any predictions?

Slouka: There will be some bright notes—here in New York, for example, Andrew Cuomo over “Raging Bull” Paladino—but the overall view from sea to shining sea looks grim. I’m always ready to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m keeping the Kevlar handy.


Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor at The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →