Revelation is Absurd: A Conversation with Adrian Nathan West


My Father’s Diet is Adrian Nathan West’s new book, his first to be published explicitly as a novel. It is many things—a fictionalized memoir, a bildungsroman and a body-bildungsroman, an uproarious portrait of life crisis, as well as an affecting chronicle of stasis in the American South and the fantasies a mind might fabricate in order to escape it. It reminds me of Luigi Pirandello, his idea of the masks we wear and his concept of humor as a feeling of incongruity, a brand of irony that conjures laughter and compassion from everyday human folly and tragedy.

I first encountered West’s work when I picked up his translation of Juan Benet’s The Construction of the Tower of Babel and, around the same time, his translation of Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things, both, significantly, projects of his own initiative that speak to the tenor of his intellectual curiosity. The most popular of his many translations is the International Booker finalist When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamín Labatut’s novel about the inner lives of some of history’s greatest scientific minds; and yet the perspective that emerges in West’s own work eschews the prelapsarian nostalgia evoked in the titular line, and takes lack of understanding as its point of departure and raison d’être.

West generously entertained my questions over videoconference, where we spoke about living and writing from abroad, superficiality, and literary convention.


The Rumpus: I saw that My Father’s Diet was billed as a debut novel, but your hybrid novel/memoir/essay about the ramifications of pornography, Aesthetics of Degradation, is your first book. What’s the continuity between these two works for you?

Adrian Nathan West: The idea of the debut is a bit odd in the sense that in some ways Aesthetics of Degradation can be described as a novel. It floats between novel and essay. I wanted to see the ways in which an essay format could illuminate fiction and fiction could illuminate essay, whereas My Father’s Diet is certainly a novel in the straight sense. Anyone can look at it and say, “Okay, this is a novel.”

The continuity might pertain to a sense of adventure, to wanting to see if I can do something different. I don’t want to be one of those people who just writes the same book over and over. With Aesthetics, I had written something that did test certain boundaries and looked at certain issues you might consider ethical or political. After that, I said, “Okay, I want to do something completely different. I want to do a story, people, plot, or at least the shadow of a plot, and see how that works.” And hopefully I’ll do something different next time, with the next book.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say “shadow of a plot” because I think My Father’s Diet is very plot-oriented but in the way that a book like Catcher in the Rye is plot-oriented. I don’t want to say it’s conventional, but it reminds me of American classics. Do you feel like you’re writing within that tradition or some sort of lineage?

West: “Conventional” seems like a bad word, but conventions exist for a reason and at their best, they imply canons and pattern and craft and things that aren’t necessarily worthy of disdain. I did want to try and tell something straight, and there are a few reasons for that. One is that what we tend to call experimental fiction often isn’t that good. And there are writers who rely heavily on—and this is a word that I love that I first heard from Don King—”trickeration.” In many cases writers resort to trickeration because they’re not good at building characters, building sentences, building tension, and that sort of thing. And I wanted to try to do those things.

Rumpus: I was dying when I was rereading your novel because there’s just so much of these world-building details that evoke setting and period and even nostalgia for other people of our generation. Like, Hungry Man dinners, French onion dip, things that no one thinks about but were omnipresent. Was this an organic aspect of the text from the beginning?

West: I worked a long time at TGI Fridays and the Olive Garden and places like that. So all that stuff is very driven-in for me. There’s a part where the narrator is at a chain restaurant with his father and the father’s new wife. And he says every dish was either molten or smothered, and all of this melting and smothering and so on and so forth somehow was what disgusted him about this place.

Rumpus: You started writing this book a long time ago. Did you start it when you were in America or already living abroad? Thinking of the tradition of émigré literature, do you think that distance from home made writing this book possible?

West: Actually, I started writing it the first time I was ever abroad, but I was still living in the States, and what I wound up with was a short version of it that then just sort of sat there for a long time. I do think living abroad helps. It’s nice to get a serving of the US and then come back to Spain where it’s boring and nothing ever happens, and chew on all the weirdness and try to figure out how to digest it. And being at home in a second culture permits you the distance to look more critically at the first and you start to realize just how American you are.

Rumpus: Would you say it’s a critique of America or a certain American way of life?

West: I wouldn’t. When you’re young, it’s so easy to say, “This place sucks. These people are idiots. Look at these people not recycling, or driving around in these big dumb SUVs.” But if you travel and you get some experience of different people and places, at least in my case, it’s made me much more of a determinist. And you see how so much of what we do is rooted in American history and in an idealism that can be quite beautiful. In the book, the father’s entire response to a life crisis is, “Well, I’m super depressed, but I’ll get ripped, and then everything will be great.” It’s ridiculous, it’s hollow, but also very poignant. And one thing you do often come across in America is people with these nominally absurd visions or ambitions that are nonetheless moving.

Rumpus: The book is always riding that line between the poignant and the superficial. On the part of the narrator, there’s a detachment or disassociation, thinking of speaking without speaking and any expression that comes out is premeditated. Whereas when it comes to his perspective of his father’s actions, everything is conceived as a posture.

West: “Superficial” is one of these words that we throw around without having a good sense of what it means. One of the great examples from the history of literature is “A Simple Heart” by Flaubert. What Flaubert really did in “A Simple Heart” was set himself a challenge, taking this absolutely ridiculous kitsch object, a stuffed parrot, and trying to imagine a poor, dumb woman having a truly intimate, almost religious experience in relation to it. And I think that he pulls it off. Some people consider the story comic, but I find it very tender and insightful. Is Félicité’s adoration of the parrot superficial? I don’t know; I don’t think we can judge the depths of these sentiments by their object.

In the same way, is the father’s quest superficial? I don’t believe his depth of feeling is. I do think his goal is preposterous, but what goals aren’t preposterous? There’s a great quote from Thomas Bernhard when he gets the Austrian state prize, and he gets up and says, “Everything is laughable in the face of death.”

Rumpus: A diet can be seen as a superficial thing, too. It’s cheap, but one of the etymologies of the word “diet” is from the Greek δίαιτα, meaning a regimen or way of life.

West: You may say it’s cheap, but I think it’s a germane point. Because what is the sense of the diet, really? This is the problem with every telos. Eventually the excuses run out. It’s like when a little kid goes, “Why does it get warm during the summer?“ And you say it has to do with the Earth’s rotation around the sun. And why does it rotate around the sun? And you say, “Well, because the sun exerts a gravitational pull.” They keep asking why, and after a few rounds you’ve exhausted your store of knowledge. The same holds true of our plans and ambitions. If you ask the father in the book, “Why are you doing this?” he might reply, “Well, I just need a radical change in my life.” “So why this particular thing?” “Well, I thought it was a good idea to get in shape. Besides, they say exercise is good for mental health.” There are answers, but in the end everything is a tiny bridge between two absences. And that is the sense of the diet. It offers the pretense of answering life’s questions for you. But of course, it doesn’t. It’s just a thing that you do, instead of doing another thing or nothing, and its value doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the fact that by doing it, you cease to think about those questions.

Rumpus: It’s also about the body, and the body as a form of expression. The book constantly includes all kinds of bodily functions, people pissing and so on, but there’s a focus on the body that’s structural and also thematic. Because as the father in the book does, as you need to do to become a pro athlete or bodybuilder, you need all these supplements and drugs, and it’s not about health. And to say it’s about an ideal of male beauty doesn’t seem right either.

West: I also thought of this when you asked earlier about the relationship between Aesthetics of Degradation and this book. There’s a part in Aesthetics where the philosopher-artist-character mentions seeing bodies coupling where you think, “This is an erotic scenario, which means this must be related to sex.” But then what you’re seeing gets weirder and weirder and the masses start to change shape, and it starts to become less and less human. And he asks, at what point are we fetishizing this pure interaction of forces that has actually ceased to be human?

This is interesting to me in relation to something like bodybuilding, because it begins as a pursuit of muscularity, but you end up looking like an alien. The banal justifications—getting in shape, attracting chicks—quickly fall away. We adopt an ideal and tell ourselves we’re striving toward an ideal form of humanity, but it’s not enough because nothing is ever enough. So then the goalpost gets moved until you’ve transformed yourself into some bizarre object that only tangentially relates to anything anyone considers to be a human being. I don’t remember the exact quote, but Vladimir Jankélévitch says whoever loves the pure detests humanity, and it’s true that we often end up victimized by these ideals that are contemptuous of the imperfections and inadequacies that are essential, not accidental, to human nature.

And then there’s the question of the initial way and you have a contrast between the purity of the father’s impulse and the weakness of his justification: He’s got this feeling that if he does this thing, everything will be great, and then he does, and there’s an emptiness. How do you treat that? You move forward, you say, “Now I have this feeling that when I do the next thing, everything will be great,” and on and on forever. That ties in with what you mentioned about America, because in America this is a fucking syndrome. “I need to get the granite countertop and then I’ll be set.” “Well, no, I need to get the vitroceramic stove and then I’ll be set.” Then you see a cooking show and some chef says he only ever cooks with gas and out it goes. And since everything is construed to connote a lifestyle, you have to multiply this by thousands—sporstwear, mommy gear, glassware—all of it has come to take on a narrative valence and the story you tell yourself about yourself, which you’re constantly writing but also constantly reading.

Rumpus: That makes me wonder if there’s an underlying class anxiety motivating the narrator, too, but one that’s resolved by place, a longing for geographical mobility. It’s an update of the American dream, which for much of our generation has become the European dream. At the start of the book, too, the father, leaves the South for the Midwest to make something of himself.

West: There’s some truth to that. The son’s idea, “Oh, I’ll major in French and go to Paris,” is really the same as the father thinking, “I’ll get ripped, and then everything will be great.” And it’s something I felt at a certain age. I don’t think I really ever grasped what you’re supposed to do as an adult. I had this very elementary schema: You go to college and then become a businessman or an investor or a professor, but these were just names of jobs to me, like fireman or boat captain; I didn’t know how any of this worked or what steps I was supposed to follow, and for that reason it was much easier to cultivate a fantasy like just going to Europe. And that’s the case for the narrator, particularly because he’s in-between: He has this father who has an upper-middle-class job at an insurance company and has gone to graduate school and so on, and then his mother works in a dental office and has this weird boyfriend who lays tile. And he hasn’t grown up close to his father, so he doesn’t know how the father became this professional who buys wine and swishes it around in a glass and talks about it having notes of violet and all these other class markers. And instead of trying to figure it out, he just comes up with a fantasy that doesn’t require him to think.

Rumpus: I would say it also expresses a broader generational anxiety about work. You describe so beautifully what one could call a “bullshit job,” thinking of the restaurant scene and the whole dishwashing sequence. And that, too, I think, is really rare in fiction, to see people working. You’ve included so many of these aspects of everyday life where in most contemporary writing, you don’t see things like people farting, or taking a shower, or eating. Or just people fucking doing work, which is what we spend most of our lives doing.

West: This drives you crazy when you watch movies, right? How the things people spend their lives doing are often treated so cursorily because films are made by and large by people who don’t do those things. You see something where the main character is supposed to be a high-powered lawyer, and they just walk around an office saying, “What’s going on with such-and-such case? Find me those files!” and you’re like, “Give me a break.” The situation feels so fake. So even though it’s a tiny thing, I did want to put something about work in there because you don’t see it that much in fiction, and when you see it, you often don’t feel it. If you see a job, you see it in genre fiction. It’s a lawyer, a detective, or something that just comes across as a pretext.

Rumpus: I wonder if there’s a kind of analogy to translation as your day job. You’ve translated a number of important books, some on your own initiative, some on commission, but it’s also just your primary profession. And whenever anyone talks about literary translation, there’s none of this occupational aspect to it. Does your translation work feed into your writing?

West: Let’s be honest, nobody wants to talk about this, but for a lot of people, translation is basically a hobby because they have money from somewhere else. And . . . I don’t. Often I’m just staring at my inbox waiting for something to come in so I can get some money. It’s not always that way, but in the early years especially, I did stuff that would make your hair stand on end.

But translation is a great education in what not to do, because if you don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing, you wind up working with texts that exhibit every flaw you could imagine. I have a file on my computer called “What bad writers do” where I was keeping track of them for a while. Even if you’re translating someone really good, you still learn to see the seams in their work, what they lean on, what their crutches are, as you say in Spanish. And that helps educate you about how you want to write.

Of course, mass scale exposure to literature from another language is inevitably going to change things. My Father’s Diet is a very American novel, and even though I think writers in English need to look to American and English models for their prose, there’s no way that spending hours untangling sentences by writers like Juan Benet or Hermann Burger doesn’t leave any kind of print. I’m sure it has.

Rumpus: What strikes me about your work, the aspect I most admire, in your books as well as your translations and criticism, is that it’s fearless. You’ll address things that other people won’t, you’ll delve into humiliation or disgust or mere awkwardness with absolute candor. You don’t shy away from negative critique. Where does this fearlessness come from?

West: It’s strange you say that because I wouldn’t want to be any type of provocateur. I don’t think I really even like provocateurs, unless they’re funny. But it is upsetting when people won’t talk about things. One of the things that pushed me to write Aesthetics of Degradation is how little the discourse about porn ever talks about what porn actually is. You can have a conversation, watch a documentary, read an entire book about porn and never get a detailed description of what’s taking place on the screen, who the performers are, what their lives were like before they started or when they go home at the end of the day. All that is skipped over in favor of clichés about free speech or empowerment or misogyny or patriarchy, depending on where one falls ideologically. Whereas what I want to talk about is what people do, how they really live, what are the words they actually use?

There’s this phrase, “Grown-ups use grown-up words.” And this has stuck with me because we live in a culture that’s at once euphemistic and profoundly hyperbolic, where people try as hard as possible to not actually be saying anything so that they can never be accused of holding any position. Whereas it’s important to me, to talk about what people really do, what they really feel. My Father’s Diet got rejected upwards of fifty times, and everyone who turned it down said, “Oh, the writing was beautiful, but I couldn’t connect with it,” and I think part of the reason for that is just that it’s not nice. It’s maybe sweet or empathetic, but it’s not nice. And it’s not nice because I want to talk about what these people are really like. I don’t want to say things like, “And that was when I realized my father truly was a good man,” or “I finally understood what my mother saw in her boyfriend,” or any of the other horseshit people say. One of the things I hate, I mean that I fucking detest in books, is when people have revelations. Who ever really has a revelation? And when people do have revelations, they’re always completely risible. And when they have them, they should be portrayed as risible, and they need to be skewered because the whole concept of revelation is absurd.



Author photo by Beatriz Leal Riesco

Jamie Richards is an American literary translator based in Milan. More from this author →