Chris Bachelder’s ebook Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography was McSweeney’s first ebook with 45,000 downloads by 2004. He’s best known his scrapbook style novels, Bear v. Shark (2001) and U.S.! (2006). Now, Chris Bachelder has struck out into new territory with Abbott Awaits.
Sam Lipsyte calls Abbott Awaits “another triumph, a sly and soaring novel about fear and tenderness and family,” and Paste Magazine observes, “The immersion feels so powerful… that one is strongly tempted to assume Abbott is really the author, Bachelder, speaking directly through the pages. But Abbott is, of course, a construction, if one with such a fully-formed psychology that he makes the book seem real, honestly voiced. That’s just what good writing does.”
The Rumpus: So this book is a departure from the U.S.!/Bear v. Shark mold in so many ways—lack of formal play, one-paragraph chapters rarely longer than two pages, consistent close third-person present tense—but the book’s biggest stylistic shift is its unwavering interiority. That is, we never leave Abbott’s head. What made you want to write such an interior book? And who are your heroes of interiority?
Chris Bachelder: The book shifted as I worked on it, but right from the beginning it was a book that was about a single mind interacting with the world. That’s where the drama was in this project. I knew the novel would in fact barely be a novel. I knew it would be episodic, relatively plotless, pretty flat dramatically and pretty mundane in terms of subject matter. A novel is a system—if certain elements are not prominent, other elements must compensate. In the case of this book, the compensatory element (or one of them) is deep point of view, immersion in Abbott’s thinking, which I hope seems both idiosyncratic and familiar. I hoped to create movement and energy and emotion through the mind of Abbott. His consciousness becomes, in a way, the subject of the novel, what it’s about. All writing is problem-solving, and this was my solution to the problem of how to write about very mundane and ordinary domestic matters. I could only hope to make these matters extraordinary or noteworthy by routing them through an overactive cerebral cortex.
Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts were two useful models. Both books use limited third person to create both distance and intimacy.
Rumpus: Abbott is a pleasing name to encounter so often. It’s got that monastic connotation, and Abbott’s life is monastic in many ways. I heard somewhere that you didn’t name Abbott until you were pretty far into writing the book. Why wait? And what changed for you when you did allow him a name?
Bachelder: When I began this short book, in the spring of 2007, the main character’s name was—are you ready for this?—The Obsolescent Satirist. That’s right, every time I referred to him, I referred to him as The Obsolescent Satirist. And of course that means I was also writing The Obsolescent Satirist’s Wife/Daughter/Dog/House/Yard etc. I had intended never to admit that to anyone because it is so stupid. But I’ll go ahead and confess here to you, and perhaps I can make a pedagogical turn. I think it shows how dumb and blind writers can be if they try to be too conceptual, if they try to control a project too forcefully. I began this project with a notion that I was writing about satire, or the death of satire, or the dead end of a certain kind of ironically derisive worldview. You see, I knew what it was all ABOUT. And I wrote ten or fifteen chapters, but a funny thing happened when I got down low on the page, down low in Abbott’s life. The book took a turn away from the notion of satire.
So my wife, who is a very fine editor, read some early chapters and said, “This book is not about what you think it’s about.” Of course she was right, and I gradually relaxed my conceptual stranglehold and just let myself write domestic episodes about a guy. I changed his name to The Assistant Professor of Satire, which is very, very bad. Then I shortened it to The Assistant Professor. And this was his name (and it was the title of the book) for a long time. It’s not terrible, but it’s not very good. The book was completely written, and it was circulating with this title. In years of work, I had never thought of this character as having a name. But then Michael Griffith, my eventual editor at LSU, read a draft and very gently suggested I might think about the name. I think I spent a week or two trying out names during every waking hour. I knew I wanted something vaguely religious. When I first thought of Abbott, it seemed perfect, but of course I didn’t trust myself very much at that point. But I continued to like the name, and I still like it very much. That was a strange day, though, when I conducted a find-and-replace with my character’s name. It was something like 900 instances of The Assistant Professor that were replaced with Abbott. It shouldn’t have worked—I shouldn’t have been able to write the entire book without his name—and yet somehow it seemed to.
Rumpus: The book takes its structure from the three months of summer so that each short chapter is a day in Abbott’s life, and it’s also the third trimester of his wife’s pregnancy. How did you land on this structure? How did you go about sequencing these ninety-four short pieces? And are there many others on the cutting room floor?
Bachelder: When I began, I was just writing pieces. Abbott at the pet store. Abbott on the roof. Abbott’s Dog. I had a sense of the form of the book as a collection of very loosely connected episodes of domestic life, but I didn’t have a temporal scheme. I knew I was going to have to figure out some way to provide structure, to create a sense of shape and movement. There wasn’t anything holding everything together. I’m always interested in the dialectic of part and whole, episode and structure. As a writer, you can’t really think about both things at once. It’s like hiking and looking at a map—you do one or the other. About halfway through this book, I was hiking, staying down low, and I found my way to chapter-a-day summer scheme, which also coincided nicely with the final trimester of the wife’s pregnancy (as well as Abbott’s break from teaching). That gave the book a clock, a shape. That provided a subtle sense of movement, an implied ending (birth, semester). It was a way for me to impose some sense of drama on the episodes, to gather up the pieces into something that might feel larger than the sum of its parts. And I like the calendar, the focus on days, one hot day after another. That seems right.
Sequencing was a challenge, but also really fun. I made big calendar pages—June, July, and August—and I taped them to my wall. Then I wrote the chapter titles on color-coded sticky notes, so that I could move chapters around. Some chapters naturally needed to be early-ish, middle-ish, or late-ish. Some had to be very specifically placed (Longest Day of the Year, Father’s Day, July 4). But many really could go anywhere. When sequencing, I had to think about the length of the chapters, the characters involved, the setting, the tone or mood. I didn’t want four consecutive basement chapters, for instance, or four consecutive tiny chapters, or four consecutive dark ones. I also had to think about sequencing repetitions and jokes. The hermit crabs and the petition to ban hermit crabs, the series of jokes about tragic folk songs, etc. When I had the book up on the wall, I began to understand it differently, and I sensed that each month had its own subtle mood. I wanted this to be subtle—it’s a book of being, not a book of becoming, and so I didn’t want an artificial sense of epiphany or transformation. But it was fun to think about quiet currents in the book. So even though this book is short and spare, I worked harder on it than any of my previous books, and I came to know it much better.
There were a number of chapters that got cut, either because they couldn’t fit into the scheme of time or place. Others were just did not remain interesting to me, so I wrote new ones late and swapped them out. I do have some B-sides on my computer.
Rumpus:You told me a few years ago that you’d moved on from formal invention. (“I’ve had my fun with form,” I think you said.) Do you feel the same way now? If you suddenly found yourself writing a short story in the form of a Groupon, would you kick it out of bed? Or is that not even a temptation now?
Bachelder: Not to get all Abbotty on you, but “I’ve had my fun with form” is kind of an ambiguous statement. It could mean, “Damn it all, I’m through with it!” Or it could just mean, “I’ve done it and it’s a blast!” But it’s true that I’ve grown weary of my old tricks. If I found myself writing a story “in the form of X” (where X equals some non-narrative medium or mode tossed up by our inane culture), I would become bored and perhaps disgusted with myself. The problem is that I’m forty now and I lack the youthful energy and conviction to really make the form buck and mew. But it also just seems too easy. Like a story generator, a mad lib. Writing probably shouldn’t be torture, but it also shouldn’t feel easy. I still enjoy reading such things if they’re done extraordinarily well—if the tone is complex and the form is pushed nearly to breaking—but I just can’t do it anymore. Which is not to say I’m done with formal invention, per se. I would still be happy to be formally inventive, but I’d just want to define invention so that it is broader than merely infusing narrative content into some non-narrative archaic form or pop-culture form. Formal invention can be more interesting and vital than merely formal borrowing. Form will always be of primary interest to me, but now I’m just as interested in tone. And if I do borrow forms—and I very well might; this is not a manifesto—I’ll try to earn it through tonal complexity.
What I feel strongly is a narrowing of fictional possibility. You’d think that as you got older and more experienced, as you read more books and had a better sense of craft, your creative possibilities would expand. But I’ve felt just the opposite is true. I don’t really go in for traditional narrative structure, but I’m also weary of easy formal play. Barthelme has a great passage about this in an essay. Something about how the more serious you are as an artist, the more problems you take into account, and thus the more difficult is the way forward. Then there’s something about how appealing it is just to be silent. For the first time in my writing life, I really get that. But you, Gabe, are young and energetic, and I would not want you to be allured by silence.
Rumpus: One of the lines from the book I’ve been carrying in my head with me these last couple weeks is from a chapter in which Abbott is baffled to discover his wife has for months been buying tomatoes not from the supermarket but from some neighbors. Abbott observes, “What must be most disconcerting to a spouse about a private investigator’s manila envelope of telephotographs…is not the demonstration of infidelity but the demonstration of separateness.” My wife and I are often baffled by one another’s “shocking autonomy.” Sandwich leftovers will appear in the fridge and I’ll grill her for an explanation. At the risk of turning this question into an advice column, why is it so hard to imagine a spouse’s independent life? Ego? Solipsism?
Bachelder: Sometimes I walk our dog at about dusk, and when I’m coming home the lights in the house are on and I can see in. And I can see my wife through the window, reading or cooking or helping the girls. And I think, Who is that person in there? What in the world is she thinking? Because I’m outside looking in and because she is not aware of me, I can see her as this completely separate person, and the thought is kind of thrilling and terrifying. So much of the time we live in such close proximity that it’s difficult to achieve this view. I think this shock of the other’s autonomy, the separateness and largeness of another person, is more pronounced with regard to a partner, someone very, very close. It’s easy for me to grant separateness to casual acquaintances, but my wife is so close that it’s easy for me to think of her as part of me. And she’s not! You get closer and closer as time goes by, and yet you simultaneously realize—perhaps in shocking moments—how big and deep and unknown they are. This realization can be achieved in startling episodes (accidentally running into your partner downtown), or it can be achieved through logic or syllogism. That is, I know my own mind feels large and very private, and my thoughts roam wildly. Well, my wife has a mind, too, and it is only logical to assume it’s just as big and private and active. In a way, I guess I’m talking about something kind of sad. Other people, even dear ones, are separate, unknowable, vast, and private. But it’s also exhilarating in a way to see—really see—that others exist independently. It makes them even more lovable. In Abbott I wanted to explore this a bit—the closeness and the separateness. We live in a house with other beings—just who are they? Abbott’s wife doesn’t have a name. She’s just Abbott’s wife, and yet the book pushes against this solipsism and this relational dynamic. Abbott occasionally sees that his wife is not simply his wife. He’s trapped in his mind—and so is the reader—but he is actually able, in small moments, to get outside of himself. It’s like he’s solving the mind-in-the-vat problem. And it strikes me that this is pretty much what fiction does, and why fiction is valuable.
Rumpus: I’ve been thinking about semi-disowned first novels: I finished David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System a few weeks ago. At first I was really excited to be reading a novel by this brilliant young guy who was not yet obsessed with interiority or morality and was just enjoying discovering his linguistic powers, but then it became a slog for the same reason: clever man spinning his wheels.
He eventually distanced himself from the book, as you did from your first novel, Bear v. Shark. In your 2004 Believer article, “Soldier Upon a Hard Campaign,” you said, “Don’t get me wrong, I think my out-of-print novel has some funny jokes in it and I wish it were still in print… But I see now that it is not a foundational work in the construction of an American poetics of engagement. It seems, in fact, as disposable and ephemeral as the popular culture it derides.” Now, a decade after your first book’s publication, how has your relationship to Bear v. Shark changed?
Bachelder: I love the energy of Bear v. Shark, the naked exultation and exuberance of a first-time novelist, the unchecked invention. It’s like looking at a picture of yourself from a long time ago—how wonderful to be so young and ignorant, how terrible to be so young and ignorant. I remember clearly the feeling of composing the book, this vast sense of possibility. I had so many ideas for chapters and tricks, and I could do them all. Why not? I envy that younger self’s freedom and wildness. I just didn’t know much, and didn’t know enough to get in my own way. So in the book there are terrible excesses and youthful indiscretions and things I would never do now, but those things are inseparable from the book’s energy and, dare I say, charm. So I’m proud of it. I claim it! It’s welcome on my shelf. On one hand, I think it’s important to develop and evolve as a writer, to get better, to acknowledge limitations, to refuse to write the same book twice. But on the other hand, I understand that it’s unseemly and defensive to disown a book. What if a reader happens to like Bear v. Shark? Now the author says it’s no good, and so if you happen to like it, then you like a bad book. That’s no way to treat the very, very few people who care about my books.
Rumpus: To me, Abbott Awaits feels political, but in a way that comes entirely from Abbott’s character. Abbott fears the worst for us all and takes a lot of momentary comfort in events that seem to imply that humanity is basically good like an honor system tomato stand where people just leave the money in the can. You’ve already begun to hit on this a little, but how do you see Abbott Awaits as integrated in (or a departure from) your commitment to “an American poetics of engagement”?
Bachelder: The political dimensions of the novel as they exist could only emerge once I had abandoned my notions of a conceptual and more overtly political book. Once I realized (with my wife’s help) that I was not writing a novel about American culture and satire but instead a novel about a guy with a family, I stopped imposing ideas and thematic threads upon the character and the episodes. My mission and responsibility then became to write well about a specific character as he goes through his days. I just had to get the character right, get the tone and voice right, and not interfere or interject. This is of course what most novelists do, but I tend to be vexed and distracted by ideas about what I should be doing, what “the novel” should be doing. If Abbott was legitimately interested in or worried about something, then the novel could be interested in and worried about it. Bear v. Shark and U.S.! are both novels about families, but the family dimensions are situated behind the cultural/political stuff. With Abbott, I reversed this background and foreground. The house is up front, America is in the background. In a way, it’s my least political book, but in a way it’s perhaps my most genuinely or organically political book. And I’d say that some of the book’s questions are more moral or philosophical or spiritual than political. I see the novel as more of a break from, rather than a continuation of, my other books, and I guess I honestly don’t know whether the break is temporary or if I’m off in a new direction.