"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” the new collection of short stories by David Gates, hell is not down there. It’s not even out there. Hell is in our own psyches, a ’90s version of Dante’s “Inferno.” And the demons are restless.
Know thyself, but — oh, the horror! Gates’ protagonists are, more often than not, spiritually bankrupt middle-class people who live in the suburbs, Manhattan or upstate New York. Most of them are straight couples on the verge of separation (from their spouses, their lovers, their selves). These are people trying to maintain — with a lot of help from dope and alcohol. When those escapes don’t work, self-delusion will suffice. As for self-awareness, well, yes, they’re clued-in, and therein lies a huge part of the problem.
It’s been almost a decade of instant, continual critical success for Gates. His first novel, “Jernigan,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. “Preston Falls,” his second and latest novel (short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998), was one of only three novels selected as an annual Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review. In a publishing environment that revels in packaging writers under 40, this late bloomer — who once said, “I did yoga and still turned 50″ — is a testament to the relevance and worth of age and experience.
A musician’s ear for rhythm, a connoisseur’s taste for detail, a sorcerer’s mind for unexpected twists — all of these culminate in “The Wonders of the Invisible World.”
The title story in your new collection reveals that the “wonders” are demons. Your collection is about inner demons: our failed ambitions, prejudices, anxieties; the lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell others; infidelities, addictions, obsessions and self-loathing galore. Did you ever get depressed writing about this stuff?
Oh God, yes. Oh, God. Oh.
Any particular stories that really got to you?
Willis’ sections in “Preston Falls” were more disturbing than anything in the story collection because I was with him for so much longer. But it’s obviously very claustrophobic and disagreeable to be in the head of that character in the title story. That poor son of a bitch is so far around the bend that he’s watching himself behave very, very badly — almost at the point of enjoying how bad it is, but not quite able to take any pleasure in that. He might be the farthest down in the circles of hell of this book. But since this is a short story, my sentence was commuted much sooner than in a novel.
Where does your contempt for overeducated people come from?
Within. [laughs] No, I like other knowledgeable people. And I don’t think I have contempt for knowledge. I think these are the people that I understand the best.
And they’re interesting to write about because, rightly or wrongly, they see themselves as somehow at the apex of the human enterprise, with all their wonderful taste — which is my taste. They know just what music to listen to. The narrator in that title story is impressed because in a bar they’re playing the Decca Billie Holiday rather than the Columbia Billie Holiday, which is earlier, or the Verve Billie Holiday, which is later. You know, Columbia is kind of a clichi by now, and Verve is just a little too depressing, a little too shot to hell. But Decca … All this is horseshit really. But finely tuned, finely calibrated, well-thought-out horseshit. I think this sort of stuff all the time myself. That kind of wildly overeducated decadence. The pursuit of taste is so seductive and it feels so ennobling. It goes back to the Romantics, back to the Augustans, back to the Greeks. The cultivation and pursuit and appreciation of the most excellent. And you know, there is something very noble about that. But it can also be a form of pathology. Anything to avoid more serious issues in our lives.
Self-awareness is the predominant demon for your characters. They know a lot, they know themselves, but a lot of good it does them: “I know what I’m doing. I know I’m a shit and I’m still a shit and I’m not going to change from being a shit.”
Yeah, exactly. “And I’m going to feel terrible about it. And I know it’s a mistake to feel terrible about it.” And so on and so on. It can just feed back and feed back and feed back like a guitar shoved up against the amplifier. I think of that woman in “Saturn” whose intention, she states to herself, is to stop smoking dope, stop having this affair, but in fact the way she behaves and sees herself behaving, she’s smoking more dope and continuing the affair. So she’s along for the ride somebody else is taking her on, but that somebody else is herself.
A number of critics refer to your “pitch-perfect” ear for dialogue. That’s an appropriate choice of words considering you’re a musician and music critic. Both of your novels and every one of your short stories make references to music: musicians, lyrics, song titles, etc. How else does being a musician influence your fiction writing?
Rhythm. Structure. But those things are hard to talk about with any exactness. There’s something musical about the way people speak. You can hear it in anybody who writes good dialogue. You can hear it in Hemingway’s stories. You can hear it in Carver. You can hear it in Robert Frost’s poems in which people talk; he’s a wonderful writer of dialogue. My God, he’s great at dialogue. There’s a wonderful little turn of phrase that has obsessed me for the last couple of days, from Frost’s poem called “The Pauper Witch of Grafton.” The woman who’s speaking — it’s a dramatic monologue — says, “I’ll tell you who’d remember.” It’s a small, tiny, tiny thing but it’s so typical of the way people speak. It’s just so direct. It’s just so dead on, so perfect.
Many of your characters read Dickens as a means of putting off what they’re supposed to be doing. Actually, I should be keeping track of what exactly they’re reading. Maybe the complete works of Dickens will be read in the complete works of David Gates. What’s your attraction to Dickens?
Those novels are so inhabitable. You begin to read them and you sink into that world. And he’s so good at characters. He’s criticized for creating caricatures rather than characters, but I don’t buy that at all. I think that he achieves that ideal that I preach to students all the time — when you’re in a scene you have to be able to experience that scene from the point of view of each character and you have to know what each character wants out of the scene, out of the exchange. With Dickens — Jane Austen, too — in every scene, it’s crystal clear what each character wants, and it’s crystal clear what each character’s consciousness is like and the way they collide with each other. Sure, he’ll give characters little quirks that he trots out every time he trots the character out. But that’s all right with me. There’s a book by Robert Garis called “The Dickens Theater” which talks about Dickens as an entertainer, his books as plays almost, characters being stagy and theatrical, as if they’re enacting themselves. That’s really true. Dickens’ characters almost do impersonate themselves. It’s like Silas Wegg in “Our Mutual Friend” — he puts on a hell of a Silas Wegg act.
Put it in those terms, Dickens has influenced your writing: your inner monologues, the self-criticisms, here I am and I’m going to do myself better.
Right. You get figures like Eugene Wrayburn, again, in “Our Mutual Friend,” who’s a very contemporary-feeling character. He’s a guy who finds himself on a sort of half-assed path to seducing Lizzie Hexam and he knows he shouldn’t be doing it, and he knows that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he knows that he’s not thinking, but he’s still continuing to do it, and he doesn’t really have any strong sense of himself, and he’s conflicted about that, but he’s also very funny and charming. He’s like one of my characters. Amazing that Dickens could create a character like that and also create a Sarah Gamp or a Mr. Pecksniff or a Mr. Pickwick or a Sam Weller — what you think of as traditional Dickensian characters. He’s truly second only to Shakespeare in terms of characters, in terms of the size of his world, the scope of his world. Compared to Dickens I’m very small potatoes. I have a very small range. Linda Wolfe says that actually.
In the Boston Globe. She quotes Wilfred Sheed, “People talk about talent as though it were some neutral substance that can be applied to anything. But talent is narrow and only functions with a very few subjects, which it is up to the writer to find.”
Yeah, she’s not knocking me. What she’s saying is something like what W.H. Auden is saying about Nathanael West in a wonderful piece of his called “West’s Disease,” where he talks about West as a specialist in a certain type of pathology. My stuff is about a certain group of people. It’s not about the whole world.
No. It’s obviously very American.
Very East Coast. The geography is important to me, but it may not be important to anyone else. I know the landscape. I know the towns. I know the look of things. I know the weather. That’s the area that I feel comfortable in. For me to write something set in Northern California — which is just a wonderful part of the world, I love to go there — would be just … what for?
You are a king of one liners — adept at the razorblade comeback. This takes a lot of practice. It’s a defense mechanism.
Is there anything that’s not a defense mechanism?
You see. Where does this lack of confidence …
Maybe the lack of confidence is a very subtle cover for arrogance. And maybe that arrogance is a very transparent cover for insecurity. If you’d like to go to the bottom of this, where the fuck is the bottom? There’s no end to it.
You write about various manifestations of spiritual bankruptcy.
[Laughs] Spiritual Chapter 11! Maybe in my next book I could give every chapter the number 11. It could be a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy. Yeah, I like that.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
No. I mean I went to Sunday school, First Congregational Church of Connecticut, sang for a while in the junior choir, so I knew the hymns and all that stuff.
And you use that in your work.
Sure, yeah. I use a ton of it. I see the attraction of some kind of transcendent certainty, some kind of truth. There’s someone to take care of you. It’s a beautiful vision, if you can buy into it. The other thing that got me thinking about it a lot was doing a stretch as a religion researcher at Newsweek. It was a great beat. I’d read the National Catholic Reporter and I would read America — that’s the Jesuit magazine — and also a bunch of fundamentalist stuff.
I remember you saying, “I did yoga, and I still turned 50.” You can’t put the clock on hold, but it seems to have worked to your advantage. Your twilight is certainly sparkling bright. The ’90s have been a good decade for you. What now?
I’m on a leave of absence from Newsweek. I’m supposed to be writing. I haven’t actually written for a few weeks. I have a bunch of spiral notebooks with scenes and fragments of scenes and ideas and characters. I’m still in search mode. It’s possible that an inspiration could descend on me and, in a mad fit, I’ll see the thing unfold and just dash it off. It’s also possible that I’ll wake up some morning and the elves will have put it all together.
Can’t give yourself a break?
Nooooo. No. No. No. No. No mercy. No mercy. Hold the son of a bitch’s feet right to the fire. Make him give. What else is he here for? To raise carrots? And I’m sure that makes it harder in the long run. But maybe all that bad feeling is good for me. Look, if any writer knew how to manage his or her own consciousness … well, there are people who do, I’m sure. Trollope would assign himself a certain number of pages a day. Say it was 10 pages. If the first seven pages he wrote were the last pages of his novel, he’d get another sheet of paper out and write “Chapter 1″ and write the first three pages of the next novel. That’s even more insane than I am, but who’s going to end up with a longer shelf of books? This is a weird time in my life now, not having anything on the stove. Always I had a novel in the background and maybe some stories in the foreground and I could go back and forth, but now I’ve got nothing at all.
It’ll come to you.
It will or it won’t. The other day I went out and bought a bunch of little single-subject spiral notebooks in all different colors. The idea being to write a story in each one. You know, here’s the red story, here’s the magenta story, here’s the blue story. It’s like “The Masque of the Red Death” — all the different colored rooms with colored windows to match. Except in the seventh and final chamber, the walls are black and the windows are blood red. Yeah. So I’ve got the notebooks. Got the pens. All I need is the stories.
Excerpts from Michele Scarff's novel, "In-Between," were selected by Mary Gaitskill for the New School MFA Chapbook Award Series.More Michele Scarff.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)