Finding Comfort in the Discomfort: Talking with Juan Martinez
In an often-quoted passage, the writer John Barth remarks that “heartless skill has its appeal; so does heartfelt ineptitude; but what we want is passionate virtuosity.” That phrase, passionate virtuosity, kept suggesting itself to me as I read Juan Martinez’s debut collection of fiction, Best Worst American. Martinez’s stories remind me in many ways of Barth’s work: playful and daring in form, with an occasional metafictional knowingness that reads as sincere, never smug. Martinez’s stories are voice-driven, embracing the absurd and the quotidian in equal measures. And, over the course of this collection, Martinez retains the ability to surprise: as soon as you think you’ve figured out what he’s up to, you’ll come across work that feels achingly autobiographical, or a story that takes a sudden sharp turn from comedy to horror.
Juan Martinez was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, and has lived in Orlando and Las Vegas. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Sarah Kokernot, their son, and two cats. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, TriQuarterly, and Conjunctions, and has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and in the anthology Sudden Fiction Latino. Best Worst American, published earlier this year by Small Beer Press, is his first book.
The Rumpus: The novelist Milan Kundera, in an essay titled “The Depreciated History of Cervantes,” asserts that “it’s possible to imagine a whole other history of the European novel.” Such a history would avoid becoming tied to “the imperative of verisimilitude, to realistic settings, to chronological order.” It seems to me that such an alternate history in fact exists, traceable from Cervantes through Lawrence Sterne and into contemporary literature via writers like Barth, Pychon, and Nabokov. Recently, the mainstream literary world has taken notice of writers working in this tradition with the label of “strange fiction,” which has been applied to writers like Kelly Link and George Saunders and Karen Russell, among others. The stories in Best Worst American seem to place themselves quite consciously within this tradition of fiction—there are references, both direct and formally, to Barth, Kafka, and García Márquez, among others. Do you see yourself and your writing as coming out of a particular literary tradition? Who would you include in this tradition, and how do you see your work within it?
Juan Martinez: I think the answer is very much a yes, and a vigorous yes to all the writers you cite, but I suspect the way I place myself in a tradition is in the way all other writers do. Like, I feel both part of the party and off to the side and uneasy about fully belonging. I guess everyone builds their own tradition. Mine is built very much out of everyone in the list—it’s hard to overstate how crucial Link and Saunders were, plus so much of Jack Pendarvis—plus everyone I’ve read and loved and felt intensely about, even if the mark isn’t as obvious. I’m hugely indebted to Gogol and to Leonard Michaels and Charles Portis, and to Patrick McGrath and Peter Straub, but also to Shelley Jackson, Angela Carter, Deborah Eisenberg, and Lydia Davis. Kundera’s right. I feel like there’s this strain in fiction that bends toward the strange and the weird—and sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s horrific, often it’s both—and that when you fall deep into that well you can’t help but respond to the echoes of others deep down in that well. But I’d also say that there’s so much back and forth in literature. You mention Sterne, and one of my favorite Tristram Shandy references occurs in Austen’s Mansfield Park, which I wouldn’t have known about without Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature pointing it out, but then Nabokov himself makes the same reference in Lolita—“‘I cannot get out,’ said the starling.” So Austen’s deep in the well too.
Rumpus: You’re very much a Nabokov fan, as I understand. For a number of years you wrote a blog devoted to Nabokov sightings in pop culture, and you’ve published scholarly articles on Nabokov and Nabokovilia. How does he fit into your tradition? In what ways has he influenced your work, and in what ways, if any, have you found yourself resisting his influence?
Martinez: To Nabokov I owe an immense debt. He was one my first English-language loves outside of horror and science fiction, and one of the first to truly make me aware of the power of a sentence—the true weight of a sentence, the way it pulls at the pleasure centers in your brain when it lands just so. He fits insofar as he’s deeply funny, highly intertextual, super playful, and a master of voice-y narrators and of narratives that privilege the voice. He’s heavily in the rule-breaking tell-as-much-as-you-can side of the show-don’t-tell spectrum. He’s also someone for whom English was not his first language. So there’s this whole other side to my Nabokov-love, this sense that you didn’t have to be born here to wield English in ways that were masterful and unique. So, yes, there’s just so much about Nabokov that is awesome.
That said, he ruined my writing for years. I was so obsessed with getting down these Nabokovian paragraphs, this playful intertextual exercises in metafiction, and they were loads of fun but super show-off-y. None of them made it to the collection, and few were ever published. I became a better writer the moment I abandoned any attempts at sounding like him. I went, whatever, I love Stephen King, loved him since I was twelve, and I can do short funny bits, and here are the things I’m afraid of, let me just write about those. And let me just write about the weird and sad bits of my life and trust people to find some common ground, some real sense of empathy and compassion and understanding. Which of course is what Nabokov himself did, what every writer does.
We’ve been watching a lot of Chef’s Table at home—this gorgeous food-porn thing about celebrity chefs—and like ninety percent of the episodes has a bit about the chef going to France, learning from the masters and from the original French tradition—a whole Kem-Nun-ish Tapping the Source deal—but then the chefs get to this point where they’re producing technically excellent but sterile dishes, dishes with no soul, and then they get back to their roots, the food of their home and their childhood, Brazilian or Japanese or Argentinean or whatever, and they fuse the French technique with the soul and heart of their childhood flavors, their most essential selves, and then boom. So Nabokov is my French-technique master-chef dude in this analogy. You need him. But you can’t be him.
Rumpus: I can’t help but think that part of what makes Nabokov Nabokov is something you alluded to, that he was working in a language that wasn’t his first. That he had the sort of distance from the language itself that allowed him to see it more clearly. You were born in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Were you raised bilingual, or did English come later for you? And how does your relationship with English affect how you approach it as a medium?
Martinez: Spanish was my first language, but one of my dad’s first jobs was working for a multinational concern in Venezuela, so I grew up hearing some English. And we lived in Ohio for two years when my dad was working on his Masters in Engineering. It was the language of the kids with the coolest toys—they had the Millennium Falcon and the AT-AT and that giant-ass GI Joe aircraft carrier. I learned English when I was relatively young, though it was a gradual, patchy process, and much of my relationship with English hinges on what felt, for a long time, like an intense unrequited love. I loved everything that came out of the States. Every show. Every comic book. Every awesome movie. It was weird because I felt like I had a pretty good handle on it, but I never lost the accent, never lost the sense that I was playing with someone else’s toys. That the language wasn’t quite mine. Not owning the tools of your trade can be freeing, I suppose. And enjoying the freedom of being in-between—from not fully being comfortable—that’s a lot freeing, because it short-circuits the fear, the freak-outs we all have when writing. The Oh-God-I’m-getting-this-wrong-I’m-not-doing-a-very-good-job jitters. Because I trick myself into writing through, and fixing it later, and it was a relief to learn that everyone feels this way, and that we all have to trick ourselves into navigating the unnavigable. I love English. I love what it can do. It’s insanely pliable, and it’s capable of swift shifts in register, and it accommodates so much. I’ll never speak it without an accent. And I’ll never quite lose the sense that English doesn’t love me as much as I love it, but, like I said, I’m pretty sure that’s a universal constant with all writers in all languages, the whole Flaubert and music-on-cracked-kettles-for-bears thing.
Rumpus: I like the idea of “the freedom of not fully being comfortable.” Do you find this freedom playing out in other ways in your work, in the forms your stories take or in their content? Many of the narrators of your stories—the failed film director Machulín, for example, or the unnamed essayist-narrator of “Hobbledyhoydom”—seem to be trying to come to terms with their own sort of fundamental discomfort.
Martinez: Yes! I find that discomfort is a wonderful engine for stories. If there’s one thing I learned, one lifesaving element of fiction I’ve learned to be attuned to, is that I can get characters moving if they’re uncomfortable, and particularly if they’re uncomfortable in ways both physical and existential. So like eighty-five percent of my stories have this tendency toward the essayistic, which can be fun but only if the mind of the narrator has an itch, if there’s this uneasiness troubling the prose. I mean, I’m saying all this but the honest answer is that I’m someone is always a little uncomfortable—like, never quite at home in my own skin—and I find the stories therapeutic because it’s where I get to let that uneasiness breathe and be productive. It’s a way of finding comfort in the discomfort.
But another way to talk about that discomfort, I suppose, is to acknowledge my impatience with narratives that insist on tidiness. I like messy things. I’m one of those people whose aesthetic is a little packratty and a little grimy and maybe also a little loose. But also it’s just a mode that feels close to lived experience. You pack a narrative, and you edit, you hone, you get the elements of the story spun till they’re coiled into each other, but part of the fun is letting it get a little sloppy. Sloppy but not boring. Or sloppy but not too sloppy. So it’s not just this existential, internal discomfort for the characters but an aesthetics of discomfort for the story as whole, which I think can be too much unless you’re willing to also go for funny, and also to seriously engage with the stuff that can free you from discomfort and loneliness and the rest—love and kindness and joy and beauty.
Rumpus: This collection isn’t quite a story cycle—at least, I don’t think it is—but connections pop up unexpectedly between the stories included. Machulín, the failed film director protagonist of “Machulín in L.A.,” reappears towards the book’s end, working in a failing Orlando dinner theater in “Big Wheel, Boiling Hot.” And at various points we hear about the workings of the Old Men in Pinstripe Suits, an Illuminati-like group that comes to obsess several of the side characters in these stories. How did you conceive of the connections between the stories in Best Worst American? Do the stories on the whole share a world, beyond the examples cited?
Martinez: The truth is that the connections were mostly accidental, as in there’s a couple of bits I tend to love and can’t help re-using, like the Old Men in Pinstripe Suits and Machulín. But I do feel that the world that they share is the low-rent side of destination cities, the bits of Orlando and Las Vegas I grew to know well, and the people who live there. The odd linkages occurred mostly organically, which is nice. And they’re mostly all in service of what you point out about Machulín, which is failure. Most of the people in the stories are going for something, usually going for it pretty hard, and they tend to fail, but I really like the people in the stories because they tend to keep going.
Rumpus: Describing himself, Machulín says, “I’m five foot four—like all short men I have grown a beard. I weigh two hundred and fifty pounds. Like all fat men I wear a cape. Like all fat men who have failed I wear a cape or a cloak.” He’s the director of one feature film, seen now only in reruns of Mystery Science Theater 3000. What was it about this character that called you to return to him, specifically?
Martinez: Machulín is a version of me I carry around, can never let go of—I wanted to do movies when I was younger, and I was fat when I was in my twenties, and I was trying to get all these things off the ground and it felt like nothing was going to work. I like him. He’s this crabby obsessive whose sense of his own failings is pretty exact but who nonetheless has this wonderful sensibility. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like me too much, but that’s OK. He’s my Ignatius J. Reilly, my Pnin, and my shadow self, but he’s also his own creature. In the secret unwritten story of Machulín’s life, he’s doing fine. Still crabby, still fat, but prospering. He’s got a killer film library. He’s still wearing a cape.
Rumpus: Is it strange to say that I’m glad to hear he’s doing well? I am.
The cities that serve as the settings for many of these stories do seem of a certain type, characterized by sun and parking lots and strip malls. Obviously this is partly a matter of material at hand—you’ve lived in Vegas and Orlando—but I wonder if you could talk more about these “destination cities” and what they mean to your work.
Martinez: So I’m not a hundred percent on what the cities mean, like I’m not even sure of what they mean to me, other than they’re places that can be pretty harsh and difficult to navigate, particularly on foot, but also full of kind and interesting people and also surprising in their beauty. OK, so maybe that’s what Orlando and Vegas mean to me.
But I also think that I got lucky, because I got to live in cities that were already so pre-loaded with signifiers, Walt Disney World and the Strip and this whole thing about one being the happiest place on earth and the other where whatever happened there stayed there. And you could make a case for flipping those, where people genuinely found fleeting happiness gambling and drinking away in Vegas, and where Orlando was this place where so much cultural memory was erased, where history and place were malleable. They’re terrific places for stories, because you have the advantage of all these networks of connections and meaning, and of course you get to write your stuff as a kind of grumpy corrective. Like, Well, Orlando’s not…, or There’s life outside the Strip! Or whatever. But that’s not even the argument you’re making in the stories. You just get to have this argument built into the story you want to tell regardless. It thickens what you’re doing, like some magical delicious mix of MSG and corn starch.
Rumpus: One of my favorite stories in this collection I’ve mentioned already, “Hobbledyhoydom,” which takes the form of an essay on Anthony Trollope’s idea of the hobbledyhoy, or awkward young man. It reminded me in certain ways of John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” particularly in how the story mirrors the protagonist-narrator’s sense of his own awkwardness through an, at times, extreme metafictional awareness. How did this story come about? Was it originally intended as an essay? Do you think of it primarily as an essay still?
Martinez: So there’s two stories in the collection that are just straight-up essays. “Hobbledehoydom” is one. The other’s “Souvenirs from Ganymede.” I debated for all of like no minutes whether they belonged or not. They totes belonged. The voice and the mode all meshed well with the other pieces, and I thought it’d be fun to put them in there. I’m a huge Sebald fan, so some of the temptation to blur came from too much Sebald, though I think “Debtor” is even more so. My only regret is not getting to put some photos and illustrations in that story. I’m glad we found a suitable public-domain photograph of Anthony Trollope for “Hobbledehoydom.” And thank you for liking it! I like it, too. And it’s also just nice to give Trollope a shout-out.
Rumpus: I suppose I have the fiction writer’s reticence to reading narrators into their creators and vice versa, even when something looks like an essay. Both definitely make sense as part of the collection, and get at the feeling you brought up earlier, of being not quite at home in one’s own skin. Do you think there’s something about that sensation that’s particularly conducive to being a writer? Writers, particularly fiction writers, spend a lot of time trying to inhabit other people’s heads.
Martinez: I think so. And I see that tendency, generally, as the kind of potentially negative trait that can prove hugely beneficial—the peculiar restlessness of a fiction writer, this need to escape the self. If that’s indicative of a bunch of insecurities and self-absorption, it’s really cool to see how that can be turned around into a genuine curiosity about what’s going on in other people’s heads. But I find that it’s a trait I most associate with my most rewarding experiences as a reader, the hours, the days I’ve been lucky enough to be fully immersed in the life and experience of someone who is not me. It’s such a blessing. It happens all the time. I just finished There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and the poems were just transporting. And I’ve been dipping into Goethe’s Journey to Italy and, like, Goethe is into so many things, he is such a polymath, and he nerds out on rocks and minerals so hard, and the geology stuff is so magnificently boring, and it’s somehow still a hugely pleasurable experience, finding yourself in the head of this German rock-nerd. And of course so much of the letters are just genuinely interesting—he describes hobos living in the Colosseum. And Goethe himself was trying to escape his old self. He had this pretty solid life at this point and it freaked him out, he needed to figure stuff out, and so he sort of left everything behind and found himself doing an Eat, Pray, Love in Italy.
Rumpus: You recently became a US citizen, primarily, as I understand, so that you could vote in the most recent election. I couldn’t help thinking about that in connection with your book’s title, Best Worst American. How do you view that sometimes-tricky connection between writing and politics? Have your views changed with the change in administrations?
Martinez: I’ve had so many views on that writing and politics question, and the only one that has satisfied me so far is the giant agglomeration of self-contradicting impulses I’ve accumulated. My views have absolutely changed now that we have a manifestly incompetent idiot in charge, an idiot with zero self-control or sense of propriety or any sign that he’s thought anything through. Which reminds me, here’s what I believe:
1. Writers have no business getting involved in politics. We’re not political scientists and all we do is call presidents idiots, and how is that helpful?
2. Writers absolutely have to get involved in politics, and so does everybody else, otherwise we’re going to end up with more idiots in office.
3. Writing shouldn’t be political because then you end up with angry screeds that will age poorly and nobody will read.
4. Writing is always political and to choose to keep politics out of writing is an inherently political act but
4a. Nothing wrong with that particular act if that’s your thing. Seriously.
4b. Seriously, we’ve got an incompetent idiot in charge so think about how you can resist and push back and help out.
5. Writing—and reading, and all forms of art—is an inherently good and freeing thing, and even struggling with the writing and politics question is a good and freeing thing, a sign that your brain is fighting against cynicism and the weird fatigue from having to wrestle with this administration’s catastrophic stupidity, and so it’s absolutely necessary. It’s always necessary.
Author photograph © Sarah Kokernot.