In the heart of the Rocky Mountains lies one of Canada’s best kept secrets: The Banff Centre for Arts and the Writer’s Guild of Alberta annual retreat—ten days of high altitude writing, reading, and revising—open to writers from all over the world. And baby, it’s cold outside: minus 32˚ in the sun. In this iconic Canadian scenery, author Bradley Somer finished the final copyedits on Fishbowl, his second novel.
The best part of the Banff retreat is a nightly gathering in writer’s lounge where, after a long day of pushing pens or hammering on keyboards, fellow authors gather to regale triumphs, lament frustrations, and converse all things literary.
In February, Bradley left winter behind in his hometown Calgary for a few days to come read at a salon in San Francisco and to talk with The Rumpus about Fishbowl, which had just released in the UK and Germany and was set to launch in US and Canada in summer 2015. Early on a foggy Sunday morning we sat on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and continued where we left off in Banff.
The Rumpus: I read Fishbowl last night, but I’ve already forgotten what it was about. Can you remind me?
Bradley Somer: Fishbowl is the story of Ian the goldfish’s plummet from the 27th floor of a downtown apartment building called the Seville on Roxy. The whole novel takes place in the span of about a half an hour and Ian’s four second fall has him witnessing the culmination of the resident’s intersecting stories. The whole idea is that, if you take a life and turn it sideways, people’s major life events are happening all the time in a blink of an eye, kind of like a collective life story happening every second with the intertwined narratives showing how we don’t live our own life, we live each other’s together.
Rumpus: I was joking, but really, in my defense, the narrator of your book is a goldfish with a five-second memory. What advantages and constraints did the literary device of anthropomorphizing a goldfish provide?
Somer: Ian was a fun thread to tie the story together because, without memory, all you are left with is the present. The story plays a bit with the perception of time and creating a character that was free of this construct meant I could tie both future and past events together into a unified present thread that was a lot deeper because of these links. Using Ian to do this, time became a geography as much as the physical setting did. Ian was also great to write because he was a completely impartial, nonjudgmental observer—as only a goldfish can be. This leaves more for a reader to take in and process without the narrative voice imposing its opinions. The hard part was keeping Ian from becoming too human a character.
Rumpus: I confess I am struggling with how we can talk about Fishbowl because it’s very quirky. Let’s start with Marjorie Garber’s treatise “The Use and Abuse of Literature.” She asks the ancient question of pleasure versus use: is literature valued because it feels good or because it is good?
Somer: My first reaction is that anytime you create a dichotomy like useful or pleasurable, it is very false because why can’t it be both? In my opinion it is both. It has to be pleasurable otherwise you are not going to struggle through it and that means being entertained or maybe getting some theoretical or educational need from it but you’re not going to do that unless there is some pleasure.
Rumpus: This year Canada Reads had a theme: literature that changes the way you think about something. Is the experience of Fishbowl going to change anyone’s mind?
Somer: As a writer you have the pleasure of hijacking someone’s mind for a short amount of time but you don’t have control over their mind. I don’t think it is a writer’s job or power to go out and change someone’s mind. Maybe literature is a little more subversive in that it tries to bring what people already know to the front. But why do we do anything in life? Coming from an archeological background, an artifact found in the dirt always has a functionality and there is often some sort of decorative meaning. But to distill it down to a pleasure or purpose defeats the purpose.
Rumpus: What is your archeological background?
Somer: For sixteen years I worked as an archeologist in Alberta; regulatory work, in oil and gas. I have a combined degree in archeology and anthropology.
Rumpus: At the salon yesterday, when you read I surveyed the room—one person was laughing so hysterically, so hard, tears were running down his cheeks. Now, I giggled at some parts, but this guy was practically on the floor. Is it a coincidence he too is a scientist—a geologist? Can you explain this?
Somer: I don’t know! The themes in that section—living in the moment, not the past not the future. Ian the goldfish is the primary character and as we all now know—a goldfish has a five second memory span. Five seconds of memory retention means you have to think of everything going on around you in a new way. So as Ian falls in those few seconds there is an entire life lived but it’s lived in snippets—to relate that to geographical time, there is a sense of time that is not always comprehensible.
Rumpus: The name of the man who was laughing is Jeremy. I went with him and his wife to Carmel for a Stanford-sponsored weekend studying Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. On the last day, the group walked around the seascape of Los Lobos, a stunningly beautiful area, stopping here and there to read Whitman aloud. Many of us got all romantic and gushy and said things like, “Walt stood right here, on this exact same spot and drew inspiration from this exact same view.” But Jeremy opined about the rocks around us, how old they were, in terms of gazillions of years, and said where we were standing was once under the sea, then it was ice, and he noted, prehistoric creatures were first to see the view. I was struck how we humans can see the same world quite differently. Jeremy’s sense of time and perception of romance was more logos than pathos.
Somer: I get Jeremy. We live in the same world.
Rumpus: So can we discuss whether Fishbowl has something to say about the moral content of its characters, or the isolation of urban living, or the complexity of language? Of course, if we do we are making claims about a goldfish’s ideas of that which lies outside of itself. But Garber claims asking literary questions about the way something means rather than what it means is how we fully understand meaning.
Somer: Good lord. Well let’s start at the beginning. The moral content of the characters: I think morality is a sliding scale; there are definite rights and wrongs but there is the grey area in there. In the novel there are moments of infidelity, there are untraditional new loves blossoming and all are treated with same flat line narrative.
Now let’s tie in the words the editors had trouble with: ‘fuck belly’ and ‘tranny.’ Fuck belly is a word I heard on a construction site with a bunch of, you know, dudes.
There was one fellow in particular who was socially very abrasive, seemed deep down a good guy if you could get past the abrasive language of his. My editors balked at first, but allowed it to stand.
Tranny is interesting because it was actually changed by the publishers. There is a transvestite character in the book and that character wants to be seen as a strong woman as opposed to a “flashy nightclub tranny” who this character felt was one step lower on the scale of evolution. The interesting part to me was the first round of edits that came back asked for that word to be removed because it was seen as offensive. It is a character who is a transvestite saying it and I think authors are sometimes judged for what they write as opposed to the characters that they create. So here we have a character who looks down on ‘trashy nightclub trannies’ and I argued it was in keeping with the character. But it was highlighted again, by a second editor. By that time, I was thinking about it more, and by the final draft it changed. I agreed because in the larger scheme of that chapter it was really not a focal point, and if it was going to become one because it was seen to be an offensive word then I think it would detract so why not take it out. I don’t want the reader to have to stop and think ‘what the hell is that?’
Rumpus: Words and context are important: Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes was renamed for an American audience to Someone Knows My Name. The publisher (HarperCollins) said putting Negro in a title would not sell in America. The problem was both the word and the context of America.
Somer: And it’s even more interesting because the “Book of Negroes” is an actual historical document with that name. It makes me wonder after the whole transvestite debate came up with my editors what other cross-cultural references are going to be misinterpreted? It is being translated into at least six languages: English, French, Polish, Taiwanese, Korean, and German. Like what is ‘fuck belly’ going to become in those languages?
Rumpus: William Deresiewicz wrote a scathing critique of Garber’s pleasure versus use theory at Slate. He claims:
Literature is “useful” because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement—of plans, anxieties, resentments, habits, the fog that clings to our eyes as we stumble through the day, stumble through our lives—and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all.
Does that fit with a story about a goldfish falling from a hi-rise?
Somer: Yes. The way Fishbowl is told, the interaction of the characters, there are eight separate story lines that come in fragments, so you might forget the previous character’s story. It brings immediacy to the story. I think by the end of the book a reader will have only a foggy memory of what happened at the beginning.
Rumpus: That was exactly my experience reading it. So you were consciously mixing form and function?
Somer: Sorry, I was distracted by that rollerblader in the gold g-string with a Viking helmet on. It’s too early in the morning to process something like that. I apologize, can you repeat your question?
Rumpus: Fair enough, San Francisco can be a very distracting city. I forgot what my question was. Oh yeah, I read Fishbowl last night but I’ve completely forgotten what it was about. Can you remind me?