Bruce Bauman’s Broken Sleep is a Pynchon-esque shaggy dog of a novel spanning nearly eight decades of American history, from World War II to the not-too-distant future. Centered around the exploits of the Savant family, the novel explores the seedy undersides of high art, rock and roll, and national politics with freewheeling zeal and bitter, satiric bite.
Often funny, occasionally heartbreaking, and always revelatory, Bauman puts deep character-driven narratives through their proverbial paces, playing with conventions of form, genre, and conceptions of history. His writing has appeared in the LA Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and Black Clock, where he has served as Senior Editor since its inception, in addition to numerous other magazines and anthologies. His work has garnered him the City of Los Angeles Award in Literature, the UNESCO/Aschberg Bursary in Literature, and grants from the Durfee Foundation and the Jewish Communal Fund, among others. He teaches fiction and criticism in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts. His first novel, And the Word Was, and Broken Sleep, are both published by Other Press.
The Rumpus: One of the things that comes up again and again in the press around Broken Sleep is its size. While long literary novels are still something of a rarity, it does feel to me like they’re having a kind of resurgence and words like “saga” and “epic” have begun to signify the promise of a certain kind of blockbuster literary experience. While Broken Sleep does span decades, it feels like a much more intimate story to me than the terms of art that hang around longer books often imply. Do you feel like there’s been a collapse in the distinction between an epic novel and a long novel, and, if so, where do you think Broken Sleep fits?
Bruce Bauman: First off, when I started the book, I had no idea how long it would be. I consider that kind of preconceived notion verging on the foolish. Only after maybe 100-150 pages did I realize how long it would be. And only then because I was about to sign a book contract and the publisher had penciled in 100k words. Not wanting to be locked in, and realizing I already had about 35k words and had a lot more to go, I changed it to 200k words. Others started using the words you mention. I rarely did. Mostly, I jokingly called it my “Magnum Opus aDay.” I was just writing my damn novel. A book is as long or short as it tells you it should be. If the author is in tune with his or her characters, he or she will hear from them when you’re done.
The book is intimate. All books should be intimate. The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Moby-Dick, and 2666 are intimate books that are also books with big ideas, human insight and serious themes—you know, great novels. I’m a victim of using categories as much as anyone but I hate categories. They are too reductive. And art should not be reduced to categories beyond good, bad or great.
I put the ‘an American Dream’ at the opening, to steal a phrase from Thomas Mann, as a serious jest. I was and am damn nervous that people will miss the jest part. But fuck it. I liked it. And enough people have gotten the humor in the book, so maybe it’ll work out ok.
As to a resurgence. Who knows? I tried not to pay attention to what was going on. Of course, I had some ideas. I don’t live in a bubble. But once you start even mildly caring about that shit when you’re working, you’re fucked.
Rumpus: There’s a death that takes place early on in Broken Sleep that sets the tone of the whole novel. It’s a disturbing scene, but the occasion—a confrontational piece of performance art built around a silly pun—is wickedly funny and the motive is actually kind of sweet. Can you talk a little bit about your sense of humor and how it’s informed your approach to fiction?
Bauman: Humor has informed my life in ways that life without it would seem unbearable, so it is inconceivable that there wouldn’t be some or at least an attempt at humor in my work.
Among my favorite humorists are Nietzsche (“A joke is the epigram of a death of a feeling”), Groucho Marx (“Humor is reason gone mad”), Lenny Bruce (“In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls”) and Kafka (“War in the morning. Swimming in the afternoon”).
Humor should make you laugh, cry and hurt. There is truth in the best humor. It is a weapon, and in the first chapter I hope I used that “wicked” and “silly” humor as a weapon. I want my readers to get an idea the book is funny, silly, dark, can be “sweet” and that the jokes and puns—which are often goofy and sometimes disturbing—all have a serious purpose and are necessary for the story and character development of the novel. I had many excess bad jokes. All, or almost all, are gone.
This is key—irony is so fashionable, and there is irony in my work, but like all humor, irony, even cleverness with nothing behind it is lazy and cynical bullshit. I’m sure I’m guilty of it sometimes, but I try at all costs to avoid one-dimensional jokes. Even the chapter heading “Maybe We Ain’t Us,” which comes from The Little Rascals/Our Gang—is goofy when you watch the kids say it, but you know, in another context it is funny and kind of profound.
Rumpus: The Insatiables are a band it seems everybody can agree on in the world of Broken Sleep. But more than being widely popular, they’re a huge cultural force in a way no rock band has been since maybe Nirvana. Do you think it’s still possible for rock to be so potent, politically or culturally? And a quick follow up I’ll ask now: what do they sound like?
Bauman: The answer is yes and who knows.
Yes, because rock music has been declared dead since the 1970s when The Who sang “Long live rock, be it dead or alive…” American history—cultural and political—is always unpredictable. In 1953 no one saw the rise of rock ‘n roll and Elvis, in 1961 no one saw the Beatles and the “60s generation,” no one saw Nirvana. Before them, the last truly big thing was the Sex Pistols around ’76. And no one saw Obama coming in 2004. (If someone can prove to me they thought in 2004 Obama would be president in 2008, we need to meet at the track.)
What would it take?
Donald Trump becoming president. Or maybe even Ted Cruz or Rubio. Implementing a draft, which I support by the way, would shake things up quite a bit.
As much as a sound, rock music was and is a state of mind. In the book I quote the Spoonful’s “It’s like tryin’ tell a stranger about rock n’ roll.” Now, for me that “is-ness” has been lost. I hope it can return. Taylor Swift doesn’t have it. U2 once had it, but the Edge is now an asshole trying to build mansions in Malibu. Pearl Jam still has it, but it’s too late for them. There’s plenty of good music around, but it’s more than music.
And yet music, more than film or sports, I think has the power to unite people. The transcendent music performers have the power to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people. If Hilary Clinton had a smidgen of Bill or Oprah Winfrey’s charisma—no matter how the Republicans slander her (and I’m a Sanders supporter)—the election would be a fait accompli.
What would the music sound like? That’s the “who knows?” part. Probably some hybrid of great Americana, which now includes everything from Stephen Foster and Lead Belly to Philip Glass and Public Enemy.
Homer described Helen of Troy as the face that launched a thousand ships. He never got more detailed than that. She was everyone’s specific ideal of beauty. The Insatiables should be everyone’s ideal band.
Rumpus: Okay, I can’t let this one go. Why do you want to reinstate the draft?
Bauman: The United States has been in a state of continuous war for almost 75 years. After WWII those wars—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan not to speak of invasions of Granada, and Panama—range from perhaps necessary to absurd to immense folly. In 1973, Richard Nixon changed from a draft to an all-volunteer army—basically we have a professional, highly autonomous military. Eighteen percent have a college degree, 12 per cent less than the average population. Since 9/11 only .5% of the population has served in the military. Probably the lowest in modern times. I think that all makes for a dangerous combination. Historians point out that after the end of the draft college campus unrest declined significantly.
Americans think we have a free press. And for the most part there is truth to that, but not when it comes to the military—it’s like a closed state. After Vietnam, when reporters swarmed over the battlefield, the media has had no access. There is no nightly report from the war zones with people being shot, blown up and screaming, bleeding to death on your screen as there was during Vietnam. The American public and media bought the bullshit that that kind of free access and movement was somehow aiding the enemy. No, it aided the American military so we did not see the tragedy that is the carnage in Iraq. If we had, that war would’ve ended a lot sooner.
And if the middle and upper middle class college kids were in danger of being drafted—the rich, from Henry James during the Civil War, to Bush and Cheney, were always going to buy their way out—I believe that Iraq never would have happened. Middle class parents are not going to allow their sons and (now) daughters to get shot for a war started by a bunch of chicken-shit chicken hawks who’ve never served themselves, especially against an enemy that’s not an existential threat. Those kids are going to college, not the battlefield. To end the apathy on campuses we need a wake up call. Failing a damn test is not a threat to your life. An IED, sniper fire, or a suicide bomber, dying or being maimed at twenty-one, now that is a trigger warning to fear. As long as the kids and their parents can go on about their lives our leaders will continually go to war.
Rumpus: Talk to me about your feelings on the art world. I feel like the character Salome is kind of a case study in both what’s alluring and contemptible in contemporary art.
Bauman: I’ll give a brief answer—art and the art world have nothing to do with each other. There is wonderful and fascinating art that is unrecognized and not getting shown, or not getting shown in the ‘blue chip’ galleries. Of course there is great art that gets recognized. I saw the Agnes Martin retrospective in London and she is even more masterful than I’d previously known, with tremendous control of color and form. Then I went to the Venice Biennale and the ratio of dreck to good art was appalling. Immense amounts of amateurish video with loud soundtracks and poorly written screeds. Too many self-indulgent installations lacking in subtlety and grace. And although there wasn’t much painting, what I saw was mediocre to terrible. The truly memorable pieces were Xu Bing’s “The Phoenix,” an old Bruce Nauman installation, and my favorite, “The Key in the Hand” by Chiharu Shiota, which was mind-blowingly beautiful and filled with resonance and historical and personal meaning. My wife and I stood there for a long time immersed in the sad serenity of her creation that, at the same time, could both disturb and comfort. That is what I want from art.
It’s hard to argue because taste is so subjective—but if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are great artists then I’m a tuna fish sandwich. Yeah, that makes no sense but neither does paying millions of dollars to con jobs.
Rumpus: Broken Sleep has a big cast and several narrators. Is there one in particular you identify with most, or had the most fun writing?
Bauman: I can identify with all of them. When I am writing from their perspectives, I hope they are speaking through me and I am just a vessel. Depending on the day, my favorite character changes, but I had an immense of amount of fun writing the book.
The first character I had and who spoke to me was Ricky McFinn/Ambitious Mindswallow. I had his voice early on and it never left. His last name changed. I chose McFinn as a sort of homage or whatever to Huck Finn. Ricky is uncivilized. He’s confused. And despite, I hope, sometimes being funny, he says and does awful things but is very, very smart and really wants to do the right thing. The absolute hardest section to write in the entire book was when he flips out on Alchemy. I literally could not write some of that. My body just didn’t want to physically do it. I rewrote it many times until it sounded like Mindswallow because I kept fighting it. But it was right for the character. He was the guy that I needed to explore the ugliness and stupidity of prejudice and how complex it is. It’s easy to despise a character like Malcolm Teumer. Mindwallow is different. He loves and looks up to Lux Deluxe too. But I hope and believe one can overcome what in Mindswallow’s case was a combination of learned, ignorant, and unconscious behavior. I also wanted to recall, in some tangential way, the Huck and Jim relationship, which I think is one of the most important and complex in American literature.
Words, all words are loaded, some more than others, and have meanings and connotations that can change and resonate and be interpreted many ways, which happens I think often in the book, but none is more loaded than that interaction. If there is one theme in the book it’s this—words matter.
Author photograph © Suzan Woodruff.