There’s no other way to say it: D. Foy is the real deal. His first novel, Made to Break (Two Dollar Radio), just dropped and it’s a lovely sucker punch. The book is at once poetic and raunchy and dangerous and poignant. I read it in one sitting because the damn thing demanded that’s what I do. And so, I chatted recently with Mr. Foy about all the wonderful things that can be found in a gutter and how to take those ignominious life experiences and turn them into art.
The Rumpus: One of the things I most admire about Made to Break is its incredibly nuanced language. It’s nothing like A Clockwork Orange, but there is that reliance on language constructs that I’ve never seen before on the page, which is no easy feat in 2014. Can you talk about the piece’s style, its rhythm, and musicality?
D. Foy: It’s funny that you mention A Clockwork Orange, because both Burgess’s book and Kubrick’s adaptation of it are two of my favorite things. In fact, until I saw Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on the big screen last year—twice, two days in a row, at whose end each time I sat in the dark, destroyed, gladly, thankfully weeping—Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was my all-time favorite film. I’ve seen it at least forty times, if not more, and certainly more than any other. But whatever its rank, it’s also by far, in my opinion, the best film adaptation of any book. And both of these things—my love for the book and the film—say a lot. Both are huge in my pantheon of influences, for all sorts of reasons, their language not least among them (the film’s language, too, being every bit as penetrating and inexplicable as the book’s).
As for the book, my experience reading it was the experience I had reading Moby Dick and The Collected Works of Emily Dickinson and Absalom, Absalom! and Lord Jim and To the Lighthouse and The Duino Elegies and Leaves of Grass and Malloy. None of these works could’ve been otherwise. All of these writers created worlds they could only have created with words. The last thing any of them had in mind was whimsy. Each of these works I’m sure, that is, was for their respective creators, in the time of their creation, tantamount to their salvation.
Zadie Smith speaks to this in a recent interview, the relationship between language and the necessity for some of its peculiar articulation. “You have to give me a reason why you have written this down,” she says. “Some of the most simple books…you could make into a movie, but you would be losing something. It had to be in sentences. The sentences were necessary. That’s all people want…the feeling of it being necessary.” Barry Hannah, too, says something similar. “The language still strikes me as a miracle,” he says. “I think of the moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture when the words seem absolutely final, bodiless, detached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity.”
But however anyone says it, regarding my own work, the way I write isn’t merely necessary—it’s imperative. I can’t explain the rhythm and musicality in Made to Break, for instance, as less than imminent to its conception and composition alike. I conceived of the thing as a score in prose. Its working title was Mud Song. And its language was for me the sole entry to the world it depicts. More simply, though, the language of Made to Break—what I call “gutter opera,” the distillation into a single mode of the countless voices in my head—is the only language I knew that would suit my ends. It expresses a worldview just as surely as the book it speaks. My mother tongue was trash. I learned it on the street. Over the years, though, in school, and in a host of workplaces high and low, I learned all sorts of other tongues, as well, so that by the time I got to writing Made to Break, gutter opera was the only way I knew to say what would kill me if I failed.
Rumpus: Gutter opera! I absolutely love that. It reminds me of the argot in Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, trying to capture the voice of street. What makes Made to Break so successful is that you don’t simply rely on this idiosyncratic language. It’s a piece of the whole, meaning you spend just as much time creating riveting characters and a plot structure that reads like a stage play. Most of the book takes place in one locale. How did you use this fixed setting to your advantage?
Foy: The setting is as critical a component of the work as anything. It might even be the most critical component of all: the book’s every moment hinges on the setting, because every moment is determined by it. Like many of us, the story’s five principal characters are very, very sad. They have some inclination toward the best parts of themselves, but those parts have been buried so deep for so long that they no longer know how to access them. So instead of making themselves vulnerable, they make others vulnerable by wounding them. In a very twisted way, this is how they reveal themselves.
Rumpus: That’s very true, and I wonder if because of our human emotional slop—the human emotional slop in your book—can your characters reveal facets of themselves they’re not consciously aware of?
Foy: The messiness they expose in others—they would concede on the rare day that they could drop their lies—is their messiness, as well. “Look at you. You’re a mess,” is really only: “Look at me. I’m a mess.” But where typically they have the freedom to commit their petty crimes against one another—the space to run away, that is, in the wake of their commissions—once they’re trapped in this remote cabin in the middle of the biggest storm of the last quarter of the 20th century, the focus on their victims, their relentless cruelty, is, like a laser in a mirror, thrown back on themselves.
Confinement is the key to this dynamic. Confinement is the plinth, as it were, that bears the story’s onus. The cabin becomes a sort of existential matrix from which none of them can escape without confronting the truth of themselves and the brutality that’s been their lives. Were it not for the radically limited setting, none of what happens would have stood the chance. The jokes they make and the stories they tell they would never have likely thought to make and tell had they had other places to go and other things to do. Their stories and their jokes are born of desperation. And the fear that consumes them more and more is the army of ghosts they continue relentlessly to conjure with their stories and jokes.
Rumpus: Which is what we’re always doing, right? Deflecting with narratives, jokes, digressions. I wonder if your characters are dangerously honest due to the way their armies of ghosts co-mingle as the book pushes on. Would they even be able to articulate that?
Foy: On the whole, I think they’re blind to the nature of their malice, that it’s actually only their struggle to escape the truth. Nor do I think they have the least conception that their truth is a knot that grows tighter with the struggle. AJ, the narrator, is the only one who senses that this particular moment in their shared history amounts to a reckoning of sorts. No one can escape, himself most of all, he sees, without complete surrender. And while his surrender may have begun that night with his buddies in the cabin, his final, ultimate surrender doesn’t come until he’s told the story that is the book.
Rumpus: I like what you’re saying about your characters, and I dig your willingness to put them on stage, warts and all. You’re not some pageant parent, dolling them up, hiding who they are, trying to make us “vote” for them. You let your reader draw her own conclusions about them. Was this something you set out to do from the get-go, or did it evolve naturally as you wrote ahead?
Foy: I knew from the start I wanted to show these people in their complete humanity, perfect as they are. This is not a joke. We hear all the time that “nobody’s perfect,” but I believe, in fact, that just the opposite is true: we’re all of us perfect, all of the time, from birth to death and on. Our notion of perfect has very little to do with the perfection that is the universe and everything in it, including every human ever.
It sort of blows my mind that this doesn’t stand to reason on the face of it. Is there a non-human creature alive that we judge for its so-called imperfection? We don’t say of a tree, for this branch or that leaf, that it’s good or bad or right or wrong or better or worse than the tree beside it. This tree is this tree. That tree is that tree. And neither is doing anything but precisely what it’s supposed to do, which is treeing. And certainly the trees aren’t judging themselves for anything this way or that. This holds for everything—giraffes and porcupines and chimpanzees and whales.
Think about it, really: reality—what reality is. Reality—all things everywhere—is an infinitely abiding, self-regulating perfection. There’s nothing more perfect than reality, nothing purer, nothing clearer. Nor is there any way to argue with it. I mean, do salmon rage against the river they must run to spawn? Do polar bears dismay, from iceberg to iceberg, their swim in search of seal? Does grass brace against the storm?
Next to man, not one living creature has ever perceived something wrong with itself, not one living creature has ever tried to be other than it is. Imagine the difficulties if fish were to spend their lives trying to fly, and birds to swim and breathe under water. The inanity of either hope is plain. Neither of them could succeed at anything but suffering, and their suffering would be in proportion to their struggle to be what they aren’t. I honestly believe that nothing “should” be other than it is. All things are as they are because all things are as they should be. I love the section in “Song of Myself” where Whitman talks about exactly this delusion. The animals, he says:
do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
But despite the evident truth of reality—there’s nothing to hold onto, change is all there is—most of us, like Whitman says, spend most of our lives in that clichéd state of “quiet desperation,” demented with this mania and that, and trying, as a result, some more and some less, to crush others for it. I wanted to address something like this in Made to Break. I wanted to get at the absurdity of our condition, in a sense—how miserable most of us are in our struggle to live according to so many of the ludicrous codes we’ve somehow taken for truth—by showing these characters in a state of endless resistance, first, to themselves and, second, following this, to everyone and everything around them.
We resist ourselves, and then we judge ourselves, and from there we resist and judge the world. But paradoxically—right?—this is itself perfection, in the cosmic scope of things. We’re all doing just what we should be doing, even if we don’t know it, which most of us don’t. We only tell ourselves we do, and through the dark plod miserably along.
Of course I’m not saying misery is the point of life any more than happiness is. I’m not saying, that is, I think we should be happy we’re not happy. What I am saying is that life isn’t about “who” or “what” we are at any given point, but about our acceptance of what life’s given to us, and, far more, about what we do with what we’ve been given, how gracefully we deal with our lot. No matter what the universe hands me, I believe it’s the best thing I could have. The brutal, inexorable fact of it is: if I weren’t meant to have it, I wouldn’t have it, because I wouldn’t have been given it. I’m one of the least graceful people there is, I know. But in the midst of my boobish stumbling, one of the things I’ve got going for me is the periodic awareness that my stumbling is my gift. How then, I have to ask in these few moments of lucidity, can I stumble with more grace?
Probably my biggest ambition, when it’s all said and done, is to die with gratitude and awe. Reality is the greatest thing. Life is the greatest thing. For all its cruelty and madness, this world is amazing, and amazing, and amazing, and I’d like nothing more when the time comes for me to move on than to remember these things and to thank the powers that be for granting me a small place in it. Probably everything I write reflects in some form or other this basic concern. If it turns out it doesn’t, now that I think of it, I can pretty much conclude that I’ve done something wrong.
Rumpus: “My stumbling is my gift.” That’s amazing, D. I’m curious how your answer there plays to that interesting balance between writing from our imaginations—strictly making stuff up—and fictionalizing life experience—using our own system of memories to generate material—and if there’s really any difference between the two. Can you speak to that? Are they concentric circles? Are they indistinguishable?
Foy: That’s a great question, actually, which I think about often, because it seems nearly everything I do starts with things I remember—with “real” life, that is—but ends up, nearly always, something very other. The characters in Made to Break, for instance, began with “real” people but ended up with people nothing like those who inspired them. I’ve said before that I once ran with a group of people whose essential mode was one of cruelty. When at last I escaped them, and realized I’d escaped them, I became a bit obsessed with what it means to bond with people like that—people who are so desolate and afraid that their only way to express themselves is a form of anti-expression, if you will. Their behavior is a constant simulacrum. They strive either to act like they have what they don’t, or to act like they don’t have what they do. As for my writing, obviously I never really knew the motivations for anything any of those people said or did. I could only see the what and the how, but rarely ever the why. I could merely conjecture. And that’s where things get murky, where the “real” becomes the fictional, in the process of conjecturing—which is imagining, right? I have to imagine how things might’ve been. But then, in that imagining, I have to conjecture and imagine more and more.
And the more I conjecture and imagine, the farther I get from the “real” thing I used as the basis for my musings, at which point everything, for all intents and purposes, is fictional. I’m no longer dealing with the territory itself, so to speak, but only a map of it. From this perspective, to my mind, the same applies to “nonfiction,” too. Ultimately it’s no less fictional than fiction: despite the so-called accuracy of our recollections, in every case there are holes. But that’s the nature of memory. Memory is little more than imagining how a thing you experienced was, which is never—and I do mean never—what it was. From this perspective, I sometimes think none of my life has ever really been my own, even if it has been my own. Goethe said, “I can claim nothing I have as my own except energy, strength, and will.” Borges said, “Life itself is a quotation.” Emerson said, “What I quote”—which, of course, with his every word must always be both his life and the lives of others—“I fill with my own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of my table talk is presently believed to be my own.” And all of this, again, circles back to the inescapable truth that to remember my life, which is to quote my life, at every turn I must imagine it.
Or, to put it your way, despite their seeming nuances, remembering and imagining—for our purposes, at least, for the purposes of the artist, at least—are indistinguishable. And the dual indistinguishable processes of remembering and imagining are what my writing pretty much is, a continuous if mostly vain effort to see the world and my life in it such that my life has maximum meaning and maximum potential. And, hopefully, the more meaningful my life, and the fuller my life—or rather the more the clearly I can see how full my life actually is—the fuller and more meaningful I can help to make the lives of others. Art is not art if it’s not in the service of others. By that I mean that if what we do as artists doesn’t have, as its basic motive, generosity, then I don’t feel it right to call it art. It took me a long time to realize this. I’m here to give, first, and then, only after I’ve given, to take what others in their turn have to give, in the spirit with which I give, so that both giving and taking amount in the end to an ongoing act of generosity. Taking, and nothing but taking, is for the birds, man.