The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #199: Stuart M. Ross
Stuart M. Ross’s debut novel, Jenny in Corona, introduces a brilliant new literary voice. Set in Queens and Manhattan in the aughts, the book is narrated by Ty, a half-Jewish, half-Catholic twenty-something who works for a business consulting firm on Wall Street. He’s in love with Jenny, a fledgling writer from his Queens neighborhood, but she finds ways to keep her distance. He’s also smitten with his co-worker, Krista Kaplan, but she’s his supervisor and skeptical of Ty because of his relationship with Jenny. His mother has recently died, his father spends most of his time watching movies from the Rocky and Superman franchises, and a senior boss wants Ty to fire his office’s only male African American team member for nebulous reasons.
While the underlying plot elements of this novel are well-charged, the real star of this book is Ty’s voice, which is by turns hilarious, poetically observant, psychologically incisive, and always off-beat. The novel questions our culture from a hundred directions, sometimes with sly allusions or double-jointed ironies, leaving readers in the exhilarating but uncomfortable position of having to think for ourselves about our collective plight. Regarding Jenny in Corona, Rebecca Makkai writes, “Stuart Ross has one of the strangest minds I’ve ever encountered: I say this not as a warning but as an enthusiastic endorsement.” She’s on to something.
To find out more about the workings of Ross’s mind and art, he and I spoke recently over email, discussing his aesthetic influences, the relationship between writers, revision, and rejection, and the role of humor in this first novel.
The Rumpus: This is one of the most stylistically inventive and tonally complex novels I’ve ever read. The writing is dense with poetic detail, jokes, paradoxes or outright contradictions, bursts of social and aesthetic analysis, and free association. Can you talk about Ty’s voice and some of the effects you’re hoping to accomplish with it?
Stuart M. Ross: First off, thank you for writing the above, and thank you for conducting this interview. There are few greater pleasures for a writer than being read.
Cuts and nicks are important to me. Shaving against the grain with all five blades. Voice is blood and the Band-Aids come later. Maybe Ty’s voice is Salinger’s Zooey Glass sinking into the too-full bathtub, cigarette in one hand and shaving mirror in the other. “Although he looked into the mirror while he lathered, he didn’t watch where his brush was moving, but, instead, looked directly into his own eyes, as though his eyes were neutral territory, a no man’s land in a private war against narcissism he had been fighting since he was seven or eight years old.” Those italics are mine. Much virtue in that as though. If I ever looked for Ty’s voice in books, I would’ve looked into Zooey’s bathroom eyes, and found a steamy Switzerland staring back at me.
Rumpus: Is Ty’s sensibility “just the way he is” or were you thinking of it as a consequence of what he’s lived through and seen? In other words, to what extent did you want to “psychologize” the narrative voice and Ty’s behavior, if at all, as a response to these early experiences?
Ross: I’m not sure any of us get to be “just the way we are.” These traumas shape Ty’s “responsibilities,” as he announces in the second sentence. Ty’s responsibilities include seeking approval from women while craving their criticism, the inability to form and sustain male friendships, enabling his father’s drug addiction, enabling the racism and misogyny of his boss, his unfortunate desire for the no-nonsense Krista Kaplan, the perverse pleasure he seems to take in watching Jenny suffer, and his dream where his mother turns into a mouse hopping like a bunny. Ty is, you know, tied in a knot. On a very old shoe. He attracts those who wish to harm him. If you continue hurting him—if you call him a meathead, the way Jenny does, if you call him a nightmare, the way Heidi Mann does—he will be your responsible friend forever.
The novel’s gravelly structure welcomes the reading you hint at. The first chapter covers twenty-two years of Ty’s life and offers the reader an almost parodic accumulation of psyche-shattering events. The death of the mother, soiling your pants and getting beat up at school, the death of the young artist, the anthologizing of poetry, two instances of abuse—or I might say the diaphanous intimacy of the “best student/best teacher” power relationship—and, upon meeting Jenny Marks, hetero first love. The abuse, in particular, is cruelly tied up in the idea of creation, of creating or finding voice. The remainder of the book can be read as Ty’s inability to locate that voice. Later in the book, Ty says he enjoyed being abused, just to seem cool. Even later, Ty buys a notebook, and says he “hopes to get to it.” You assume he won’t. Because it seems there is only discarded, permanent language, no dynamic critical apparatus, for Ty’s fate. So I tried, with this book, to white some of that permanent language out.
Rumpus: At one point, Krista says to Ty, “You’re funny, Ty. But you don’t know when to stop being funny.” How did you manage the balance between humor and pathos in this novel?
Ross: Humor is energy. I hear the rapper Princess Nokia in one verse unraveling her ethnicity like Carla from In the Heights, and in the next repeating for eight bars: Don’t you fuck with my energy. That’s funny. As a writer I am interested in the way humor moves from the old place and into the new place. That is a source of pathos.
Rumpus: Ty says, “Words don’t matter… Money matters.” What issues in the relationship between art and commerce, or between the individual and the economy, were you interested in exploring in this book?
Ross: Well, we’re up against a word limit here. “Money is the reason we exist,” Lana Del Rey claims in her song “National Anthem.” Is Lana’s “we” Americans or American women? I stick up Bellow’s admonition, too, that New York is not the artistic capital of the world, it is the administrative capital of the world. People hit the big city and fall off into fancy’s dream. They arrive in Act V and now they’re married off, no prenup.
Jenny in Corona is fed up with this. The novel is fed up with flâneurs because flâneurs get whacked for having a smile on their face. The novel is impatient with noiseless city figures weaving gossamer threads. The novel alludes to the close of Teju Cole’s Open City, when the quiet figure escapes Mahler’s gallows to twirl on the fire escapes of Carnegie Hall, but the novel also knows, as Ty fails to instruct Michael Mann, that gazing at the skyline means labor, means “seeing nothing but your client’s next request.” That’s the reality of everything being fair when you’re living in the city. “The young are not so young here,” as Morrison’s narrator writes in Jazz, “and there is no midlife.” The rest, thankfully, is the myth of Eileen Myles.
Rumpus: In many places, the novel seems to chafe against the pretensions or constraints of political correctness. How were you trying to frame the issue of political correctness in this novel?
Ross: Great question. As a human being, I believe in political correctness. If someone is telling me how they feel, some small thing they need to feel respected, I listen to them. But I also, as a person and a writer, don’t believe in atomization. It’s pretty to think the monoculture is finished, but that’s a cybermyth, enriching Twitter’s shareholders and empowering its most famous user, the orange atomizer. Rather, I believe that all of us are, in DeLillo’s eschatological formulation at the close of Cosmopolis, “waiting for the shot to sound.” While we wait, why not write our way out of politics and grow up. Many have written about the weak novels celebrated authors are piecing together, all of which fail to “tackle our time.” Joseph Brodsky warned against this in his Nobel lecture. “The real danger for the writer is finding oneself mesmerized by the state’s features, which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary.”
Rumpus: Ty’s romantic relationships seem to be characterized by intense intimacy, both physical and verbal, and a high degree of detachment. The characters don’t seem to be exclusive with each other and occasionally fall out of touch to varying degrees. What relationship dynamics were you most interested in exploring in this novel?
Ross: Falling out of touch is a nice idiom, isn’t it. Jenny in Corona is about well-fed twenty-somethings with nuptial agency—it’s not The Other Boleyn Girl. Sally Rooney is much better at your question than I am. My novel’s relationship dynamics crash. Suddenly piano, quickly forte. In Rooney, there are diminuendos and crescendos. She also claimed Salinger’s Franny and Zooey as a source for Conversation with Friends, speaking of a character’s transition into a new social world, to become a new kind of person in a “compound, or multiple, love story.” What could be left today but the compound, multiple love story?
Rumpus: I understand that the final version of this book is quite different from the first full draft. Can you talk about your revision process?
Ross: The fiction marketplaces demand so much revision that an author’s “final draft” can end up unrecognizable. So you’re an amateur. You get interest. Amazing! But change one thing! You change everything. And they never email back. But you grow as a writer in this game. It’s one reason no writer can recreate the defeat of their debut. It’s one reason I don’t often self-publish. When have craftspeople not craved the rejection of their gatekeepers? Writers are “self” enough, especially in our anti-modern age when there’s no Pound revising Eliot anymore. There is community, of course, better than ever. But most of us do everything ourselves. Maybe this is a romantic notion, but art is created through the inspiration of inhaling the black breath of rejection, not merely its inboxing and indexing.
In his Handbook of Inaesthetics, the French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that the work of art “sets itself up as an inquiry into the question of its own finality.” For me there is something thrilling about how many times and in so many different ways Jenny in Corona was revised, rejected, accepted, discarded, rejected. And how it ended up so close to home when finality finally came.
Rumpus: The novel includes a lot of comments about art and references to various art forms, especially music and painting. What are some of the keys to your own aesthetic as a writer?
Ross: My cultural upbringing was very similar to what Ty experiences at his uptown music school. We were minded by Lena Dunham types, distracted downtown teenagers whose parents were professional artists. When I see Hannah Horvath, I see our babysitters. Forever I’ve been told how to act, how to behave and dress, what to consume, by downtown hipsters. You shouldn’t listen to Billy Joel; you should listen to Siouxsie and the Banshees. More broadly, most of my teachers were underpaid, over-caffeinated radical white Jewish women, vegetarians announcing the genocide of indigenous peoples before Thanksgiving break. This is all to say that writing that doesn’t engage on a highbrow level, writing that offers false hope, or really any hope, writing that doesn’t push language and moral limits, is not my cup of tea. Crisis managers have a phrase: Run to the trouble. Those are the books I run to.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Authors that have meant a lot to me the last few years include Greg Baxter, Megan Boyle, Eve Babitz, Amiri Baraka. Always Don DeLillo. Erin Osmon’s Jason Molina biography is magical, as is Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. I cried for like an hour when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Nathaniel Mackey and Eileen Myles are grandmasters. Last winter I read all those Anthony Powell books. A winter I will never get back. Books do furnish a room.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Ross: I’m trying to publish a new novel about a Gold Coast Chicago couple who go to mystical lengths in the conception and delivery of their first child. It’s a parody of “fertility journey” books and a heartfelt addition to them. I Love Our Cyclops is what I want to call it, but I also wanted to call Jenny in Corona Almost There, 57th Street. This new book has a smoother structure and a more discerning narrator. I’m excited.
Photograph of Stuart M. Ross by Anise LeAnn Photography.