"My narrator is starving, both literally and metaphorically”: Teddy Wayne and Alexandra Kleeman on anxiety and alienation in their new books

Kleeman on reading Wayne's "Loner": "I felt like the person who turns away first in a game of chicken"

Published September 13, 2016 6:13PM (EDT)

Teddy Wayne; Alexandra Kleeman   (Kate Greathead/HarperCollins/Graham Webster)
Teddy Wayne; Alexandra Kleeman (Kate Greathead/HarperCollins/Graham Webster)

Teddy Wayne ("The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," "Kapitoil"), author of the new novel "Loner," and Alexandra Kleeman ("You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine"), author of the new story collection "Intimations," interviewed each other recently by email about their new books.

Teddy Wayne: The scope and variation of the stories in "Intimations" is broad. There are some more straightforwardly realist stories, like “Choking Victim” (which features a recurring protagonist named Karen); highly experimental work, such as “Weather,” which contains many short, often abstract sections about weather; and then some that split the difference, like “Fairy Tale” or “Fake Blood” or “You, Disappearing,” that use semi-conventional narrative techniques but whose worlds are anything but conventional. Given that you have an affinity for more than one form, what draws you to a particular aesthetic for a given story?

Alexandra Kleeman: Every story I write begins with a different distribution of knowns and unknowns, which I try to assess before I begin writing. I ask myself how much can I know about this world without feeling like I'm making it false, putting things in that I can't be confident come from the idea rather than my ideas about the idea. This determines the gappiness of the world, how complete or incomplete it is, how much blurriness there is in it — and that gives the story form too! Lately I've been having a lot of fun giving myself permission to have limited omniscience, like in the realist Karen stories — because they're all based in her life, I get to know everything that came before that point in her life, and anything I want to access in the lives of other characters, but I find out more about her in each story I write.

But creating a long-lived, rounded character is something new for me, and only possible because Karen is built off my own fears and neuroses. You've done it so well in each of your novels, and the characters are so different — how do you decide what kind of character is going to be at the center [of] a book? Why were you drawn to David Federman, the title "loner" of your new novel?

Wayne: For each of my novels, I’ve had something of a eureka moment of deciding what world I want to set it in — Wall Street, the pop-music industry, Harvard — and what the very vague contours of the narrative might be (which typically get changed a lot through the writing process). The voice of the first-person narrator has then followed somewhat naturally, also subject to revision. I’ve never gone through the paces that writing textbooks sometimes recommend, such as writing out a character’s biography, or determining what his favorite food is, or most traumatic memory, etc. — that’s always seemed like a fraudulent way of assembling a fictional person. It’s through the voice that I tend to figure out the character (and through dialogue that I come to understand other characters).

The previous two narrators were more sympathetic and lovable protagonists. For David, I was drawn to portraying a ruthless, remorseless manipulator, somewhere on the spectrum between Tom Ripley and Humbert Humbert, who nevertheless makes a few, faint claims on readerly sympathy. I also wanted to write about the contemporary white male who perceives that the world is changing around him, that his privileges are slowly diminishing, and who, rather than embrace the progress, is threatened by it and reacts with anger. We see this playing out very conspicuously on the political stage right now, but it felt like more of an interesting challenge to describe this aggrieved phenomenon within David, who could easily pass for a sensitive, enlightened young man.

One of the recurring themes in "Loner" is David’s highly subjective, persecuted sense that he is being silenced by the culture around him (combined with his own timidity and fear of speaking his mind), in part because of his gender. In “Choking Victim,” you write about Karen’s desire to expel and express what’s inside her. Many of your other stories revolve around anxiety over the idea of imprisonment within the body, especially the female body, and notions of domesticity. Is Karen’s predicament simply a historical one, or is there something specific to life as a woman now that you were trying to explore?

Kleeman: I think the way David registers this "silencing" in your novel is so interesting: he tries very casually to assert himself in various college situations, and when his bids at expertise, fluency, whatever are obstructed he's puzzled or frustrated — he can't reflect on how he's behaved, he can't even see it. It's so different from the intense, sometimes overwhelming self-awareness that I think of as being a part of femininity, a thing that forcefully shapes the experience characters in my stories. Sometimes it appears as farce, as in "Fairy Tale" (where the narrator negotiates her relationship to a houseful of men she's never met before who all claim to be her boyfriends, fiancés, paramours, etc.) and sometimes as a more realistic, identifiable thing, like with my recurring character Karen, for whom the everyday processes of living also involve trying to ignore the dozens of different ways others are perceiving her.

Being "trapped in a body" seems like a sad thing to associate with femaleness, so I wouldn't call it that — though there is a certain sadness to noticing, again and again, that others are finding messages in your physiology that have nothing to do with you. But I feel that being asked to reflect so much upon your physiology — what it says about you, how it looks, how you want it to look, how it feels, whether it feels improved or disimproved since you last checked on it — can make being feel unfluent. So can the idea that your own appearance and presentation are deeply alterable, fundamentally plastic rather than fixed. For me, it gives the physiology a sort of gravity, a presence of its own, which sits alongside consciousness and feels uncanny. It's like a fish-eye lens, magnifying some things and making others difficult to perceive. Which makes me want to ask you: how would you describe the lens that David views his college surroundings through? What is he sensitive to, what is he unable to see?

Wayne: Maybe the “trapped in a body” question was projection, since it’s David’s concern — not the physical “trappings” of corporeal self-consciousness, but of being locked within one’s self and wanting either to break out of it and connect with another, or become someone else altogether. In his case, his desire to have Veronica is at times continuous with a desire to become her, to merge with her and lose his own identity (an idea you played with throughout your novel with the main character and her roommate).

Yes, David is a little blind when it comes to analyzing his interactions with others, though not completely. He’s skilled at malevolent manipulation for the most part, less so at being charming, which can be a form of benign manipulation. He can sometimes tell when he’s rubbed someone the wrong way (usually when a joke goes wrong), but if the other person is herself masking her real response, he chooses not to see through it. He’s attuned to status and power, and ignores the pain or vulnerability others are showing or trying to conceal.

These are not very laudable traits in a person, and I expect some readers will be turned off by David. Something that impressed me about your characterization of Karen is that, while she’s certainly not monstrous, you also didn’t go out of your way to make her the most “likeable” protagonist of all time, either — she’s pretty ambivalent about being a mother, for instance. This question has come up a lot in the last few years through a gendered lens, where female authors writing female characters seem to have more market pressure to write them with more relatability, and male authors writing male characters largely get a pass, in a reflection of real-life expectations. Because David does such horrible things and thinks such terrible thoughts, I had to consider this and find a few spots where the reader has a chance to empathize with him, lest he become a cartoon villain. Did you sweat over this in your creation of Karen — not so much likeability, which I expect you don’t care about, but empathy, a chance for a wide swath of readers to find an emotional foothold in the character? (I’m assuming that a certain amount of readers will relate to things like the previous example of maternal ambivalence.)

Kleeman: Is it odd that I found myself empathizing with David several times? You write him so convincingly as an underdog, or as somebody who thinks of themselves as an underdog, and when he steps out of that role the first few times it's difficult to see the darkness for what it is. That and it's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the nods to the genre of the campus novel — just as it's easy to be lulled into that same feeling on a college campus, where everything is so nicely kept and looks so collegiate, like nothing truly bad could ever happen there. I love colleges, but I've always found it strange how they try to minimize the visibility of physical money with plastic cards and point systems, and tuition funds transferring silently through invisible channels. Resorts are the other place where they do this, immerse you in a fantasy of moneyless existence, and it has always felt very eerie to me.

This is a good segue into one of my Karen stories ("Jellyfish") that takes place at a beach resort, where she does the unlikeable thing of getting onto a good-looking stranger's motorbike and going with him to an unknown place, while her fiancé waits in the tropical bungalow. (This, I want to emphasize, is something I have never ever done!) They had gotten engaged earlier that day. I don't know what people find easy or impossible to empathize with — people are always surprising me. But I think that empathy doesn't operate as decisively as a faculty like judgment does — we empathize with more than we judge to be acceptable. I feel as though all of Karen's actions have an emotional logic to them, a coherent emotional structure. She ultimately does a very inadvisable thing because of a whole heap of factors: her bad feeling about the water surrounding their particular resort, her fiancé's strangely casual attitude to her after an Important Event, his weird eating habits, and the fight they have over her anxiety, which is linked to her felt inadequacy as a vacationer and more generally as a partner.

I don't think that Behaviorism was wrong to think of people as stimulus-response units — Behaviorism's mistake was thinking that stimuli and responses were simple . . . and of course to put subjective conscious experience under erasure. I think that people react to stimuli with a response that is the summation of everything they've experienced, a very full response, and that it's only in special situations that they invent an entirely novel way to react. In these Karen stories, Karen is continually funneled toward an action she'll later regret — but if you know what she's feeling in each preceding moment, and why, I think it becomes difficult to judge her too harshly. But when I say this, I think of your novel, where the narrator eventually does something that's impossible for the reader to accept. It's even difficult to read, and I've read "Maldoror." How, [without] giving anything away, did you calibrate the plot so precisely? Reading it, I felt like the person who turns away first in a game of chicken — I could follow David, up until the point I absolutely couldn't.

Wayne: I constructed the plot much like Mike goes bankrupt in "The Sun Also Rises": gradually and then suddenly. I wanted to make David somewhat relatable at the start, as you point out, but with hints of something darker to come, and likewise had to make his actions increasingly hard to stomach. If he were monstrous from the start, there would be no complicity from the reader, who could distance himself too easily from David. I taught a class on plot mechanics as I was revising "Loner" in which we read a number of tightly plotted novels — "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Blindness" being two that especially helped in this regard, as models of portraying an incremental descent into malevolence.

I can no longer think of dining hall “points” without thinking of “Kroll Show”’s use of them in its collegiate-WB-show parody “Madison Chooses.” But it brings up another corollary to both "Intimations" and "You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine": the depiction of consumerism, both metaphorically and literally, in the form of food consumption. Other than the implicit pun on consumption, what attracts you to focusing on food and its connection to consumerism?

Kleeman: I’m fascinated by eating because it seems to me like a perfect example of the entanglement of nature and culture, or nature and capitalism, or the place where a true internal need mixes with the external and becomes difficult to trace. The friction that happens there is interesting to me because it goes unnoticed most of the time, but when it becomes visible it speaks to our status as creatures moving around a system that we can’t change but only choose within. In "You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine," my narrator is starving, both literally and metaphorically, and is looking around for something better to desire that will either solve her existing problems or change them completely. Ultimately, the new thing she finds to desire turns out to be an exaggeration of the old thing, eating itself is the problem, in that it’s only a temporary solution to a congenital mismatch between the stuff of the world and the stuff of the entity.

Eating works this way in many of the stories from "Intimations," too. There’s a story called “Rabbit Starvation” that refers to the fact that a person will eventually die if they eat a diet entirely comprised of rabbits, even if there are plenty of rabbits. And I feel like the same idea is there even in the more realistic Karen stories — her problem is essentially that the emotions she has inside can’t be solved by her surroundings, in fact her surroundings usually make her feelings of loneliness and alienation sharper.

But alienation is a major theme in "Loner," too, and in your novel it seems deeply linked to intelligence, or a certain type of intelligence. Are there dangerous forms of intelligence? What would you say your novel has to say about pedagogy?

Wayne: David’s alienation doesn’t necessarily stem from the fact that he’s so smart, but that he thinks he’s so smart — smarter than everyone around him, which was academically true in high school, but is no longer the case at Harvard, and certainly not accurate when intelligence is considered as a more holistic set of skills than essay writing and test taking. This sort of intellectual narcissism and grandiosity often afflicts gifted and talented young men before they’ve been dealt any significant setbacks; they are blinkered in both their ability to see outside themselves and to regard themselves with any objectivity.

As for pedagogy, David’s interest in school simply functions as a means for status; he’s not truly passionate about anything he studies. This is its own kind of alienation: to be indifferent to the thing you’re best at, a close second to hating that which you excel at. He does, at least, start tangling with literary criticism quite a bit in "Loner," and something that’s interested me in your work is its convergence with literary theory. You were previously pursuing a PhD in rhetoric. How much did or does theory have an effect on your fiction?

Kleeman: It has less effect on my fiction that I had initially thought it would: most of my theory interests had to do with post-human theory, science studies, and media theory, and fiction only showed up in these texts as allegory or example. Except for a little Bakhtin, a little Butler, and a little Derrida, I don't think much strictly literary theory has stayed with me. And where my studies intersected with literature it was focused on experimental poetry and poetics, not fiction — which I sometimes think might have been a protective measure, since I feel there's nothing more detrimental to the process of writing fiction than being explicitly, consciously aware of the mechanisms that you want to guide your writing. Writing with a firm theory of how fiction works/should work is a guarantee that you'll get only what [you] already imagine you'll find in your writing, or less.

But reading Haraway, Latour, Deleuze, have influenced the way I see the world, my body, and my humanity, which yield a deeper but less localizable influence. I think that integrating theory or philosophy into your viewpoint, where it actually becomes organically usable in your work, is a temporally extended and meandering process. When it's really a part of you in such a way that it can drive the crafting of narration, scene, character, it becomes something you perceive in the physical composition of things, it's no longer "tagged" to a specific author or reading. I think of this as a sort of deep metabolization of knowledge: an idea is transformed into a new, organism-centered material, it's built into the body and the senses — but then it's unextractable, it's lost in some sense.

That said, I'm working on a new novel now that draws on ideas about ecological disaster, a topic that I taught a class on during my theory years. I'm in the process of reading and researching, trying to remember the right ideas and forget the unhelpful ones. What are you working on now?

Wayne: You put it well — the theory has become the way you see the world, rather than just highfalutin' jargon. That’s the feeling I get reading your writing: that of someone whose viewpoint is naturally colored by (though not exclusively) the academic texts you’ve read.

I’m working on a novel that — currently — stretches over a couple of decades and follows a couple of people, as opposed to my last three, which all take place in a limited temporal frame (no more than three or so months) and are rendered in the first person. It begins in graduate school, so I guess I’ve progressed from the undergrad setting of "Loner."

By Teddy Wayne

By Alexandra Kleeman

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Alexandra Kleeman Authors Books Fiction Intimations Loner You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine