Laurie Sheck is the author, most recently, of Island of the Mad, and A Monster’s Notes, a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry for The Willow Grove, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Granta, the Atlantic, and The Nation. She has taught at Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers, and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the New School. She lives in New York City.
The Rumpus: You began as a poet, but have now gone on to publish two wonderful hybrid fictions. I wonder if you explicitly consider your prose works to be novels, or does poetry continue to indirectly shape your writings and worldview?
Laurie Sheck: Part of what I hope comes through in the new work is that it resists categorization. Island of the Mad and A Monster’s Notes both evolved out of a deep longing, and a fierce but somewhat inchoate resistance to the strict borders of genre. There was a level of expressiveness and vitality I felt I wasn’t reaching when writing pieces that were clearly identifiable as poems, even as my poems were changing in ways that interested me. And then I developed a painful neurological condition that shook me to the core. As too often happens in lives, before I could get my bearings, my husband was diagnosed with a genetic illness which progressed with shocking rapidity—soon he could barely walk or even stand, his mind slowed, he couldn’t manage a pen, could hardly write an email. This was the context in which the slow-building change in my writing finally became manifest.
After a number of years we both recovered, but I was seeing things differently from before, and my mind actually felt different. I felt this partly in a physiological sense I have no good way of explaining—as if the brain itself had changed, that there were actually different neural pathways. The visceral sensation of thinking felt quicker, sharper, in many ways less patient and in others much more so. Of course I was also still very much the person I had been since childhood, a somewhat precarious mixture of intense determination coupled with a recurring, interruptive fragility. In any case, I wasn’t writing in lines anymore; a different guiding impulse was at work, though years of poetic practice, of experiencing each individual word as a discrete entity, never left me. But I simply wasn’t thinking in terms of genre anymore—poetry, fiction, non-fiction—the rigid boundaries had burned down. What remained was a greater porosity. I didn’t know where it might take me. All I knew was that I wanted to find out, felt compelled to. It mattered to me more than almost anything.
Rumpus: So this surge in creative energy that you are describing resulted in a very different writing process?
Sheck: Yes. One difference that particularly stands out is that suddenly it seemed crucial that research be central to the work. Not just in the sense of informing it, but that it be directly embedded in it. I wanted the almost physical presence of fact. Facts seemed suddenly beautiful to me—challenging, dangerous, impervious, dignified, solid.
All of this coincided with my reading of Frankenstein—a book I sought out shortly after my husband’s diagnosis. His stiff, labored movements reminded me of Boris Karloff’s monster in James Whales’s iconic film of Frankenstein. I hadn’t read Shelley’s book. When I did it blew me away. It was nothing like I’d imagined. The monster was deeply thoughtful, sensitive, a reader. For four years my husband was very diminished; I’d lost him in a sense, lost much of what we had, our conversations, etc., and into that gap came the monster. I felt his presence very strongly—his hurt, incisive questioning, his loneliness, his outsider’s perspective. He seemed always beside me, part double, part companion, part neither of those but just as palpable.
Samuel Beckett said, “To find a form that accommodates the shape of the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” The monster was speaking and I was listening, researching, filling pages. I didn’t really know what I was doing or where it might take me or if it might suddenly just stall out. All I knew was I wanted to keep going, that I was laboring at a level of precision that felt faithful to the complications of language. Those pages became A Monster’s Notes. I never felt such pleasure as I did writing that book. It was very hard, demanding, but completely thrilling and absorbing.
In that book the monster is still alive in the 21st century, and he takes note on all matters of concern to him—genetic engineering, genetic privacy, robotics, the Geneva accords, space travel, John Cage, Zhuangzi, Agnes Martin. I was also reading everything I could by and about the Shelleys, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont, etc.
Even several hundred pages in, I didn’t tell myself I was writing a novel, didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t with Island of the Mad, either. I thought of each as a kind of project, a set of investigations, ongoing processes with formal elements and constraints and room for wild, surprising breakages.
Rumpus: It seems like the illness and the enforced mental slowness and disintegration it brought somehow paved the way for a kind of liberation afterwards and perhaps an intuition about the artistic integration of all your different creative impulses.
Sheck: Yes, writing, for me, has to do with liberty of mind. The liberty to intuit, assess, be surprised, even to be ashamed and reconsider. To feel the integrity and generosity of words, but also their disruptive violence and volatility. To even begin to do them justice requires a radical letting go and stringent attention. I was interested in following that impulse toward liberty.
Any written work involves decisions and acts that are essentially architectural. After the sense of disintegration you refer to, this felt more pressing—the basic issue of structural integrity, and of how structure is distinct from genre.
If you think of “genre” as a sub-set of “category,” well, “category” is defined, in part, as: compartment, cubicle, cell, class, brand, division, rank, caste, slot, stall, pigeonhole.
Those are all words I wanted to get away from.
One of the beautiful things about writing is that it offers an inner life that’s disciplined and at the same time wild. Not in any way servile or submissive. It exists outside of institutional and other forms of authority even when being affected by them. On what almost feels like a cellular level, it’s anathema to labeling and enforced divisions.
Maybe the books I love most are the linguistic equivalents of Mary Shelley’s “monster” or Dostoevsky’s Myshkin. Beautiful odd-balls, irregular, mis-shapen, or otherwise troubled into difference. I’m thinking, too, of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Of Susan Howe’s work. Proust’s. Dickinson’s. Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber.
Rumpus: Your latest fiction, Island of the Mad, is richly intertextual. Personally, I was most interested in your references to Russian literature and philosophy. Why have these authors proven so influential for you?
Laurie Sheck: I see my two most recent books partly as homages and investigations into the books and writers who most move and challenge me. In Island of the Mad the writer involved is Dostoevsky and the book is his great novel, The Idiot. In a sense Dostoevsky re-defines reality; re-defines even, the familiar feeling of tenderness. He investigates with a steely eviscerating eye while at the same time bringing to everything he touches an exquisite tenderness, a raw openness to suffering. There’s a page in my book where he’s starting The Idiot but also hesitating. He’s in Geneva and he writes to his friend Apollon in Petersburg, “I think it is impossible to know what goodness is until it is reduced to complete powerlessness… There is a Prince I need to hurt in order to reveal his goodness, in order to begin to know him.” That Prince is Prince Myshkin, of course, who suffers from epilepsy, like Dostoevsky.
I love the way his work disrupts and unsettles itself over and over the way Prince Myshkin’s epileptic attacks bring him to a certain kind of seeing as they set fire to any sense of continuity, complacency, safety.
Dostoevsky stressed the radical nature of reality, how it’s inseparable from extremity. To feel deeply is to feel, in part, transgressively. And in the specific case of The Idiot I get to hold in my head one of the greatest scenes from all of Western literature—the long night toward the novel’s end when Myshkin strokes and comforts the murderer Rogozhin. He does this at great expense to himself. By morning he’s mute, his eyes seemingly unseeing.
Rumpus: Several of the characters in the book have some form of disability—the protagonist is hunchbacked, one character is going blind, another suffers from epilepsy. For Fyodor Dostoevsky, intellectual and physical disability were often a gateway to a unique perspective on the world. Does disability play a similar role in your works?
Sheck: Disability strips away complacency. Affliction is brutal, but it can also push vital questions to the fore. The afflicted body becomes a site of otherness, confusion, isolation, watchfulness, longing. One becomes keenly aware of the impersonality of brute matter, but at the same time there is often a raw, mistrustful desire for gentleness, connection.
I don’t for a minute want to romanticize damage or affliction. But certain problems cast one out of the mainstream and onto margins where seeing is wounded, re-arranged, altered, where words move differently, where even the mind’s blindness is of a less familiar order. Those margins are places of unsafety, the thresholds Bakhtin refers to where it is clear each one of us is exposed, and no more than a minute ant of history, our shared predicament one of vulnerability, striving, isolation. Writing involves an acceptance of being on the margin, the threshold, a galvanization out of received notions into a more activated, kinetic, often perilous, seeing—
Rumpus: Connections that interrupt individual isolation and produce empathy seem very important in Island of the Mad. Although characters do not experience togetherness in an obvious way, they derive great solace from seemingly tenuous ties. Is this struggle with and longing for connection a reflection on our contemporary world, the inherent isolation of modern life, and the ways in which we are simultaneously connected and disconnected through social media?
Sheck: Images work on so many different levels. As a writer you feel them, try not to get in their way or narrow them down to anything other or less complex. A writer is a curator of sorts—once you’ve brought the images together you try to stand at a respectful distance and let them speak for themselves. Try not to mess with their ambiguities and contradictions. They are what they are, irreducible. This is their integrity. I’m a creature of my time and to a certain extent so are the images available to me. They’re not “symbols” of anything. So when I look at Island of the Mad I can see how its voices—some of which come as visitations— and its hurt bodies and the many fragile, vulnerable connections and misunderstandings that occur throughout its pages, resonate with the things you’re mentioning. And how sometimes the selves within the book seem almost to be dissolving, like skin that’s partly virtual, partly solid. In his entire life, the narrator has barely ever touched another person, yet the voice of a dead woman, Frieda, feels as real and close to him as anything. The intermixture of near and far, of “virtual” and “real” is irresolvable, ever-present.
I can hardly begin to wrap my mind around how we’re processing millions of pieces of data every day—signs, vibrations, gestures, tones, textures, fluctuations. We move through a mixture of the virtual and the seemingly more solid, the near and far, we see strangers blown up on screens. The writing-self takes this all in, intuits and absorbs much more than, and differently from, the assessing, reason-making mind. It enacts a questioning that doesn’t believe in answers but is about movement, angles, multiplicity, changeability. It travels away from such notions as answers and closure, away from the known, the settled.
I’m thinking now of Edward White, the first astronaut to walk in space. When it was time to return to the capsule he didn’t want to go back in. He was out there all alone and he resisted. There was a tether connecting him to the space-ship and finally his co-pilot pulled him back in. White said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
Author photograph © Nina Subin.