Everyone is a comprehensive mess: The Rumpus Interview with Robert Lopez
Robert Lopez once told me he felt kinship with everyone and no one all at once. This duality also characterizes the nameless protagonist of A Better Class of People, a novel-in-stories published by Dzanc Books and the second of a trilogy that began with Good People (Bellevue Literary Press). In A Better Class of People, Lopez juxtaposes gun violence, police brutality, sexual harassment, mental illness, and the twinned degradations of our society and planet to illustrate “the point of fracture at which we find ourselves, where reality and perception are indistinguishable.”
The Rumpus once called Lopez “a sentence crafter, belligerently curt but marvelously poetic,” and I would be hard pressed to improve upon that description. One of the kindest curmudgeons I have ever met, Lopez retains a belief in humanity that has not yet been eclipsed by his knowledge of our failings. Appearing in Bomb, New England Review, The Sun, and the Norton Anthology of Sudden Fiction – Latino, his fiction explores, submerges, and obscures the intentions and histories of extremely damaged men. In their patterning, we see startling absences which are also sociocultural. And yet, somehow, hope wanders the gullies of the psyches he constructs, line by line, his prose style toughened by unspoken longings for connections that are there, even if we can’t see them, even if they are broken bits of what could have been.
If Lopez gave even one rat’s ass about being famous, he would create a sympathetic (read: marketable) narrator and gather his accolades. As it is, whether in short story collections like Asunder or novels like Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, he shows how depraved it is to offer empathy only to those who wear the masks that society demands we don to receive care and kindness. His characters are both brutal and brutalized.
Simply put, Lopez is one of the most lyric and formally challenging writers in the US. Refusing the minstrelsy occasioned by performing one’s identity, Lopez risks himself to make art that disturbs the consciousness and compels transformation.
The Rumpus: I admire your dedication to the marginalized, whether your misogynist and misunderstood narrators or the beatdown worlds in which they walk. How did you find your way into the deeply traumatized mind at the center of A Better Class of People?
Robert Lopez: I see the narrator of A Better Class of People as a misanthrope. As such, I think labeling him a misogynist might be a little misleading, but that’s fine. We can call him misogynist and misandrist. That seems fair.
If you live and breathe and work in 2022 and have been paying attention the last five thousand years or so it’s pretty easy to access trauma. To my way of thinking this beatdown world is our beatdown world. This mind is our collective mind. I’ve talked to a lot of people in my half century on this planet and I haven’t met one single person that isn’t totally fucked up, that isn’t traumatized. Perhaps this narrator doesn’t try to hide his damage and trauma. Maybe he leads with it.
Rumpus: Over the course of your last six books—now seven, as I eagerly anticipate Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere (forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in 2023)—you have honed a style that is both lyric and economic. There are no wasted words in your work. Your sentences operate on myriad levels, providing an entrancing and disturbing ambiguity that serves to disorient readers in a society that seems to be following the wrong compass.
How much do your stories change from first draft to published form? What do you find yourself taking out? What, if anything, do you add?
Lopez: I wind up cutting a few words here and there, maybe a whole sentence or two, but nothing too drastic. Anything that doesn’t feel necessary, whatever that might mean. I’ll add sentences or phrases to further the overall narrative, the book as a whole, to create rhymes and echoes. I’d like for the reading experience to be uncanny, a kind of disorienting feeling that a particular passage or action or image feels familiar somehow. Other times I’ll add a piece of business that makes a story come together in a new way. The first time “Even the Moonlight is Blinding” was published, the friend character didn’t have a gambling problem, but there’s a line at the end about people that might be horse thieves or loan sharks. Seeing that line made me want to put language in the first part of the story to have that line at the end make more sense. So, I gave the character a gambling problem and I had a kid steal another kid’s hobbyhorse. No one, I’m sure, would ever notice this sort of thing, but I derived about five minutes of satisfaction from doing it.
Rumpus: Recurrence is one of your craft tools. In A Better Class, you make glancing references to hot spots in your character’s past. Usually, you undermine what he has told us right away. In those moments, he is aware of the telling. He will say something like, But maybe it wasn’t like that at all. And then it comes up again. What do you find that recurrence makes possible?
Lopez: I think it goes back to the uncanny. It also speaks to the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time business. I suppose it’s an attempt to capture the experience of living an everyday life. I can’t imagine a longer narrative without recurrence or recursion. It’s also an opportunity to explore or exploit the fallibility of memory and narrative.
And, alongside these highfalutin theoretical answers that feel like some kind of post-mortem justifications, I have a limited imagination, so having events or images or language recur is one of the few clubs in my bag. I remember reading or hearing members of The Band talk about their much lauded strange and haunting harmonies and they said it was born out of their limitations. So, due to this lack of imagination, I’m forced to craft the hell out of each piece.
Rumpus: You once advised me to “use what you give yourself all the way through.” It’s great advice, and I have passed it along to my students. At the time, I understood your guidance as a way of building, conserving, and dispensing narrative energy throughout the course of one book. But now, considering the spectrum of your fiction, I think it might be just as relevant to a writer building their oeuvre over decades. When you look back at the concerns of A Better Class of People in relation to the emotional, intellectual and craft lineage that you began with Part of the World and continued with Kamby Bolongo Mean River, what do you find that you’ve been relying upon repeatedly? Why is the fugue state so appealing to your imagination?
Lopez: Thanks. I do think about the whole body of work. I want each book to be a slight departure in some way, which probably manifests itself in form more than anything else. Each book does its own thing, but I also want all the books to be in conversation with each other. I’ve also enjoyed resurrecting certain elements of past books in later books. The car in Part of the World appears in All Back Full, and the action of drawing stick figures on walls that happens throughout Kamby Bolongo also happens in one of the stories in A Better Class of People. Maybe it’s the same guy, maybe it isn’t. There are also certain phrases that appear in multiple books.
The fugue state you mention is probably due to my own unsatisfying relationship with memory. I sometimes pose a question to classes: What’s more valuable—a turkey sandwich or a memory? To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of memory one needs to survive in the world. Remembering not to touch the third rail when you’ve been jostled onto the subway tracks. That sort of thing. I can recall events from my past and relay them in stories or anecdotes. But I’m not sure I feel anything when doing so.
Rumpus: I am curious about the notion of departure. Absence, hauntings, and exile are pervasive in your work. Why is leaving so central to your characters? And what do you leave behind when you begin a new book?
Lopez: I’m not sure the characters leave themselves, but they are certainly left behind by others. Phases and stages, people coming and going, leaving and staying or drifting in and out. Most people leave us, few remain over an extended period of time. Absence is often more interesting than presence. The curtain raises and we see three chairs on the stage. Two of them are occupied, one is empty. That empty chair does a lot of work, raises a lot of questions, creates mystery.
I rarely begin a new book. What I mean by that is most of the books have been collaged together. I never sit down and say, I’m starting a book. I write some stuff and some other stuff and then years later look at that stuff and see if it might fit together. Then the work of putting the book together happens and that takes time and effort. So, I’m not sure anything is ever left behind. I’m dragging everything with me as I go.
Rumpus: One of the more poignant aspects of your nameless protagonist is how people step around him, avoiding his pain and leaving their complicity behind. Whether convulsing on a sidewalk or standing in traffic or allowing himself to be fucked when he does not feel desire, he seems to have an inchoate longing that he cannot express, and which nonetheless remains too much for this world. Of course, the anonymity and danger of his urban and institutional environments magnify the stakes of his disconnection, but I found myself wondering if there had ever been a time in history where he would’ve found more welcome in the world. Was it something particularly broken about this place and time that made him what he was? Or is his condition somewhat eternal, akin to that of the man lying in the desert in Anselm Kiefer’s The Renowned Orders of the Night?
Lopez: I think the condition you describe is eternal. The other problems he encounters and rails against seem to be a commentary on our present moment. There’s a lot of immigration, gun violence, police brutality, sexual harassment, climate change and other issues in the book. But his fundamental disconnect from people—his being the product of a questionable upbringing, that ever present damage—all of that is as old as the species itself.
Rumpus: Is that why you turned toward the speculative?
Lopez: I have to confess that I don’t quite know what speculative fiction is or what speculative means in this case. Is it that there’s mention of an ice age or police shooting people who cross against the lights and other horrific occurrences? Does that make it speculative? It feels like we’re living in this kind world right now: the absurdity of climate change denial and state sanctioned violence against its citizens. I’m not sure it’s actual speculation.
Rumpus: In the story titled, “How to Live, What to Do,” you depict a community caught in a thrall of forgetting, growing crops underground to survive the cold, and holding meetings haunted by a body on the sofa in back. The sinister and shadowy confines and freedoms of this makeshift society felt speculative, in that you selected elements that characterize our existence today and set them in an uncertain, but perhaps not unfathomable, future. This story also remains caught in your chosen Bermuda Triangle: the battered psyche of a man, the chosen amnesia of our society, and the resultant nausea of an era.
While your protagonist remains nameless, he is surrounded by the named—Roy-Boy comes to mind, but most particularly Esperanza. Our knowledge of the protagonist increases, but Esperanza remains beyond his and the reader’s comprehension. Why did you name her?
Lopez: I like the sound of all this, so yeah. That works for me. I could provide some kind of ex-post facto response that might sound clever and intentional. But she was always Esperanza and she turned out to be out of reach and unknowable. I suppose this is a reflection of a lot of people I’ve encountered in my life, but I never thought about that while I was making all of this up. I don’t remember how Esperanza first came to me or where, as a name and then as an elusive character. I wanted a character that was distinct from two characters introduced in Good People and who also appear in A Better Class of People: Tanya and my Sofia. Esperanza is more of an actual character in the follow up to A Better Class of People, the last of the triptych [which will be called, The Best People]. The Best People has Esperanza as a main character in a few pieces. And of course, I like the sound of the name, Esperanza, and the definition [hope], which runs the risk of being obvious, but I decided that was okay.
Rumpus: When is The Best People coming out? And Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere comes out soon as well, doesn’t it?
Lopez: The Best People should come out sometime in 2024. And the new pub date for Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere is March, 2023. I’m making one more pass on the book then it probably goes to a copyeditor. So, bound galleys are months away, I should think.
Rumpus: In my own reporting history as a journalist, I have found investigating recurrent episodes of systemic racism, government malfeasance, and environmental degradation to be the hardest endeavor. Few who are in the know are surprised by the revelations, and yet if you were to ask any one person how to pinpoint the rot, it gets tricky. The tentacles of the thing just extend in every direction, and such interlockings of bureaucracies, laws, and individuals are proprioceptive and so move away from one’s grasp in tandem. When you think about the larger ills that this trilogy proves, or provides evidence of, what comes to mind? How can you get at such ambiguous and yet damning truths through the mechanisms of fiction?
Lopez: One of my best friends, the brilliant writer David Hollander, has had me as a guest for his classes at Sarah Lawrence College a few times over the years. Once he relayed an anecdote to his class that went something like this: “He came to talk about his book but wound up not talking about the book at all.”
All of which is to say, I’ve never set out to prove anything. I remember when Michael Jordan retired from the NBA he said he had nothing left to prove. I thought that was sad, that he felt he had to prove something rather than playing the game he loved because he was great at it and it fed him something nothing else could. The softer side of the question about evidence is another I’m going to avoid. I don’t think of the work in those terms. I let other people decide what it means to them.
I’m a person on the planet and I’ve seen what’s gone on in this country and what’s gone on all over the world and what goes on and what will continue to go on and on. It’s had an effect on me and it has spilled into the work. I’ve had intimate conversations and relationships with dozens of people, maybe hundreds by now, and everyone is a comprehensive mess. That has had an effect on me, too. I’ve never set out to do or prove anything when I’ve written fiction. These hard truths, as you call it, have tumbled out of me sideways and I’ve gotten lucky. I’m glad that the work has this kind of effect on readers like you, all twenty-eight of you. But I also think it’s as much a credit to you and the other twenty-seven as it is to me.
Author photo by Jenna Stern