A Kind of Common Madness: A Conversation with Liz Harmer

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Destructive desire, a brother so psychically contaminated by his twin sister’s sexual life it’s as though her actions are his, a mother who inflames the mutual enmity between her children, social codes as rigid as they are ambiguous: Strange Loops, the second novel by Canadian author Liz Harmer, has the intensity and drive of classic tragedy. The book opens with the main character, Francine—a thirty-three-year-old mother of two, a wife and teacher pursuing a PhD—having an illicit affair with a former student who just turned eighteen. From there, her life unravels with inevitability so fixed it feels damned, as she casts back to the events that led her to this point. Strange Loops offers a complex, ethically tangled engagement with the reckonings of “me-too.”

Harmer is also a widely published, internationally award-winning essayist and poet, writing about madness, motherhood, religion, and obsession. Her debut novel, The Amateurs, was a finalist for the Amazon First Book Award and has been optioned by Riddle Films. I love her bold, intimate work for how it combines an interest in overwhelming, seemingly unassimilable passions with the intellectual effort to make sense of them.

We have been friends for a decade and spoke over Zoom about tragedy, taboo, unmediated experience, and how we perceive the sexuality of teenage girls.

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The Rumpus: Strange Loops explores the relationship between desire and subjectivity. What interests you about this subject?

Liz Harmer: Two huge things happened to me when I was quite young: I went mad, and I fell in love, in relatively swift succession. I emerged from the hospital at eighteen, and by twenty-two I was married to my first love. These things, of course, formed me, and I’m glad for both. But, for me, the feeling that Anne Carson describes in Eros the Bittersweet—that erotic love can feel like you are finally connecting with the truest truth there is, peering straight down into time, finally seeing clearly—is a kind of common madness. What interested me is how much these peak experiences lead us to compose ourselves, invent a reality to suit the new situation, and also, can cause us to do great harm. When we think we are seeing most clearly, we see most poorly.

 

Rumpus: You’ve said that Loops might be a polarizing novel. Why do you say that?

 Harmer: One concern I have is that it indulges a kind of melodrama. It’s unapologetically melodramatic and larger than life in a way that is not cool. Part of me worries about that being off-putting or seeming unintentional. I’ve also had a few reactions from people in workshops that made me believe we’re pretty confused about what we think a protagonist means. Is a protagonist the endorsement of the author? This character, Francine, who I’m obviously very interested in and fond of, and who is difficult, fascinating, and intense, is making very poor moral decisions and missing something crucial about her own life. But my answer to the problem of likeability has always been that what’s “likeable” isn’t the same as what’s nice or palatable. That what we—what I—really crave is a protagonist that surprises me. 

Rumpus: We think of our culture here in the contemporary West as “permissive” but within the first few pages of Loops you approach the limits of what is permissible and take us into our taboos. What draws you to the forbidden?

Harmer: Yes, we are permissive about some things, and punitive about others, and my long training in the religious community that raised me, also raised me to ask why. As a teenager, I was constantly demanding that my elders tell me exactly why and for what theological reason sex outside of marriage was wrong. Here it says that Jesus will forgive us anything, that we can’t help sinning (even a lustful thought is as bad as adultery), and here it says we shouldn’t get married, and here are a bunch of God’s favorite adulterers. So, I am in the habit of looking at the rules and taboos and trying to ask what their basis is.

When I started to present parts of this novel in workshop, people had very different reactions to the content. One person told me she would never read a novel about a woman taking advantage of a student like this—it was too far (and I understood this, because I found Lolita mostly painful to read)—and then an older man who read it seemed to see that Francine at seventeen trying to seduce her thirty-something youth pastor was in total control. He said the man “didn’t stand a chance.” To me, both of these reactions were revealing. Our taboos and our reactions to the crossing of those taboos shows us something about our deepest beliefs about gender, about sex, about power, etc.

Rumpus: When you said people might find this “not cool,” I wondered, what’s “cool”?

Harmer: Maybe detached, ironic? There’s very little opportunity to have distance in this novel. But I’ve always been interested in the idea that there might be some experiences that are unmediated. This could mean being overwhelmed by art or the sublime; it could mean an experience of madness where you’re approaching something that you can no longer think through fast enough to mediate. Not wanting to have a persona, wanting to be a self that’s really there—this is an old-fashioned desire.

Rumpus: How do you get at unmediated experience in a medium?

Harmer: This is the puzzle I was facing. When I wrote this, I was writing in such a way that I was trying to access something I wasn’t intellectually in control of, which is the closest you can get in a medium to getting at something unmediated. I think I was trying to do something like automatic writing. I was trying to be guided by something that wasn’t clear to me and then in the editing process, to fix it up. I want this novel to feel like there’s less of a gap between the thing and the comprehension of the thing.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the structure you chose?

Harmer: In the first pass I was conjuring feelings and figuring out what was happening. But then when I went back, at a certain point I realized that the novel had three separate time periods and two separate narrative centers and was jumping between loops. I took each section, I made this nerdy infographic where I figured out the number of pages that were devoted to each loop, and tried to balance them out more. There’s a seventeen-years-ago loop where young Francine is having an affair with an older pastor, a present loop where she’s having an affair with her former student, and a section from in-between, where Francine’s family gathers at their country home and have a catastrophic fight during a tornado. At some point, I realized that while the first two loops drove the plot forward to its conclusion, the third didn’t. Instead, the energy of that section is like a tornado—it spirals down in. It doesn’t go forward—it goes deep. This was a very pleasing discovery to me. I placed the tornado loop in the mathematical centre of the novel, which felt like a sinkhole into which all the other events are tumbling. It’s very pleasing to me when the structure of a novel can reflect its themes and content.

Rumpus: Why is it pleasing when form and content mirror each other?

Harmer: Maybe it gets at a very deep pleasure of containment, like being swaddled. Maybe it’s like having a body instead of floating off into space.

My grade three teacher for some reason let me put on plays and cast all my classmates in them. The first play I put on was an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. When we got to the final scene, all the actors were so excited to be acting that we just kept going with no script. Eventually the teacher had to stop us and say this is enough. I think about this moment a lot. You just want to keep playing, you want to give your characters more things to say and do, but then you lose the thread completely and there’s no coherent story. I’ve written six novels and published two. The difference between a novel I can finish and one I can’t finish is the presence or absence of a shapely “container,” I call it. 

Rumpus: I’ve often thought that we give teenage boys the grace of seeing their sexual advances and expressions as awkward or messy. With girls, we tend to give them this first-degree level of intention when it comes to their sexuality. Of course, teenagers want to be seen as sexual beings, but I think we see girls as more controlled than they are. When young Francine pursues an older authority figure, how responsible is she for this relationship? 

Harmer: Francine is this very gifted young person who wants to think she’s in control and older than she is and is treated as though she’s older, which was also my experience as a kid. I think it’s a damaging thing we do to girls. We’re provoked by their sexuality and then our provocation is ascribed to them.

As a teenager, Francine takes this epic pilgrimage to throw herself at this older pastor. She’s determined to go down this path. But there are moments here, which, to me, are the saddest, darkest parts of the novel, where she’s alone in this house with him, trying to conjure up the feeling of wanting to throw herself into this thing, but she starts to feel afraid. Afterwards, she’s shaken up. She goes home weeping, and she thinks it’s because she’s in love. But I think there’s more going on there. This is Francine putting herself in a vulnerable position and then trying to be strong enough to withstand what has hurt her. She wants to see herself as older than her years, and the adults in her life also want to see her that way because then they don’t need to be responsible for her. She’s left to believe that she did this to herself and to this older man. She believes he was a victim to her desire.

Rumpus: Then Francine is the older teacher having an affair with a recent student. Were you thinking of trauma and its repetitions? 

Harmer: I wasn’t thinking about it at all because I was trying to write in this immediate way. Later, I discovered that she believes she had been the villain when she was young, and her re-enactment is clearly an attempt to understand what motivated the pastor. So yes, unconsciously on my part and on Francine’s part, this is about trauma, but I wasn’t trying to offer a clear explanation for her behaviour.

I went through something traumatic when I was young and I didn’t acknowledge this to myself until about two years ago. I was so unwilling to accept that I wasn’t in control of what had happened to me and to see that I had been damaged by this experience that I was resistant to the idea of trauma. And I guess I was afraid to write a trauma plot because, you know, we’re “on the other side of the trauma plot.” But discovering that you have symptoms of PTSD twenty years after something happened and that for all that time you did not know that about yourself makes you ask: How many other things do I not understand about my own experience?

Rumpus: Is that what a “strange loop” is? 

Harmer: The title Strange Loops comes from this book I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, which is a very tender piece of personal, philosophical writing because it’s about his wife’s death and the belief he came to about consciousness and how intermixed our minds are with others. When someone we know well dies, things you love about them live on in your consciousness. So, there’s a sense in which we humans create each other’s consciousnesses. We’re part of a complex system of feedback loops where we take something in, put it back out, etc., and that’s how you create a self. I was thinking about Strange Loops as about creation of a self through others. To me, the main strange loop in the book is between Francine and her twin brother, Philip. They’re so entangled with each other that it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins. They’re like the snake that eats its own tail, or like the staircase that seems like it’s going up but it’s going down. He can’t bear what she’s done as though it’s happened to him.

Rumpus: In a number of essays you’ve written about coming from a Dutch Calvinist Reformed background and the way this impacted your sexuality as a young person. Here you gave Francine and Philip a liberal, secular household. How were you thinking about this obsession with female sexuality but without those traditional overdeterminations?

Harmer: Well, the sections in the past, set during Francine and Philip’s teenage years, take place in the late ‘90s. Even outside of my own stultified, confused sexual education, which was extremely misogynist and sex-negative—the messages were “don’t get pregnant.” “don’t be a slut,” “just get married and go away”—I was thinking of people like Monica Lewinsky and how she had been defamed and villainized even though she was so young, and he was…the fucking president. Our whole cultural attitude at that time was misogynist in a way I hope has changed a little bit, for my own kids.

I felt very unsafe about sex as a young person because, talking about the responsibilities we give to girls, I felt like I was responsible for the effect I was having on other people. For me, one of the grand ironies of my sheltered childhood going to a Christian school was that in order to attend this very conservative school on the other side of the city, I had to take an hour of city buses through the heart of downtown Hamilton. I’d get off downtown and wait for my next bus in front of a strip club. Men were everywhere, and they all thought I was twenty, not fourteen. I had a lot of negative encounters. So, I had a confusing inside/outside perspective on sexuality.

I’d internalized some misogyny but was very interested in rebelling against that so was reading second wave feminism and stuff about sex positivity. I was trying to talk a big game about being open-minded about sex in a context that was completely unwilling to entertain that. I was annoying and provocative to everybody all the time. Even at seventeen, Francine is not coy about her sexuality, and I think it was an intellectual position for her. She is trying on an intellectual position, as I was at that age.

But I also have compassion for Philip. He’s desperate for a meaning greater than his own reality, he’s going through his existential crisis that we do as teens, and he becomes interested in religion as something that will give him that meaning. I made his parents secular, but in a sense, this is a devotion to atheism that I’ve always found similar to being Christian. Even though the family in this novel comes from a different cultural background than my own—they’re also from a higher class than I’m from—I actually feel that psychologically they’re very similar to the more dogmatic, conservative figures I’ve known so well.

Rumpus: The book feels boldly tragic. Is this bucking a trend or are there contemporary works that inspired you?

Harmer: Do you remember The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides? In the press for that I remember Eugenides saying the 19th-century marriage plot no longer has force because domesticity is no longer a place of high stakes for, say, women. We have divorce laws. We have bank accounts. We can own property. But love and domesticity have been places in my own life of high drama and struggle. The minute I was facing my own divorce, I realized how much traditional gender roles had really infected my own life in ways both subtle and very obvious, and so The Marriage Plot inspired me only insofar as it irritated me.

After I wrote Loops I read Querelle of Roberval by Kevin Lambert (the English translation is by Donald Winkler), which is based on Greek tragedy. It’s written in a way that you don’t have anyone to root for, and instead of God or Fate being the inescapable problem that causes the problem for the individual, it’s capitalism. I’m very compelled by the idea that tragedy as a form offers us evidence that there are things beyond our control, yet that we must bear the terrible consequences of these forces we can’t do anything to subdue. This is coming from my deep Calvinist roots, but what tragedy offers is a reminder that you are not your own. A great modern piety is that we believe in our own agency and we believe in our own freedom and we believe that we can make rational decisions.

I think I’m drawn, in most of the art I love, to the kind of ordinary darkness that everyone experiences: that every one of us, no matter what we might aspire to, is capable of failing to do what’s right, and that failure, no matter how we might explain it to ourselves, no matter how sorry we might be, could have catastrophic consequences anyway. This to me feels like the tragedy of the human condition, and it also feels like the source of some of the most beautiful, terrifying stories people have made.

 

 

 

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Author photo by Scott Nichols


Seyward Goodhand's first book, Even That Wildest Hope (Invisible Publishing), was a finalist for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book, and longlisted for the 2020 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. She's at work on two novels. More from this author →