Writing middle-aged men in crisis: Novelists Lindsay Stern and Andrew Ridker in conversation

The authors of "The Study of Animal Languages" and "The Altruists" discuss failed fictional patriarchs and more

Published February 20, 2019 4:10PM (EST)

"The Altruists" by Andrew Ridker; "The Study of Animal Languages" by Lindsay Stern (Penguin Random House)
"The Altruists" by Andrew Ridker; "The Study of Animal Languages" by Lindsay Stern (Penguin Random House)

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel, "The Study of Animal Languages," unfolds over a few chaotic days in the life of Ivan, a philosophy professor who has devoted his life to the study of knowledge but completely fails to understand his wife, Prue. Andrew Ridker’s debut, "The Altruists," is a family saga centered around Arthur, an engineer-turned-academic, his late wife Francine, and the money she left their two estranged children.

They met at Pels Pie Company in Brooklyn to talk satire, solipsism, and the charitable-industrial complex.

Lindsay Stern: Both our novels center on middle aged men in crisis. Did Arthur’s character spark "The Altruists," or did he show up on the page further into the writing process?

Andrew Ridker: Arthur’s daughter Maggie came to me first, actually, then her brother Ethan, and then Arthur. I always begin with character; I find it difficult to write if I don’t know who I’m writing about. But there’s no doubt that it was Arthur who got the story in motion. I grew up on novels by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike, and was curious how a character like Moses Herzog or Rabbit Angstrom would fare in the twenty-first century. For me this necessitated multiple points of view. The endearing, bewildering, infuriating, self-centered, self-destructive patriarch would have to share the spotlight with his family, not as a solo act but as the member of an ensemble. What about you? Where did Ivan come from?

Stern: In college I studied with a few philosophy professors of Ivan’s vintage, trained in the analytic tradition, and I became fascinated by their approach to language and life. One of them in particular had received a major grant to try to refute an idea known as “the problem of solipsism”: the view that the external world is a delusion. This man was trying to prove, by way of logic, that other people were real. I was very moved by that. What someone would have to feel in order to undertake that--to see the intimacy of consciousness as a problem to solve, syllogistically: that’s one of the questions that inspired Ivan. His maleness isn’t incidental. The further I got into the drafting process, especially as the 2016 election unfolded, the more interested I became in the damage patriarchy does to relationships. I think we see some evidence of that damage in Ivan’s inability to view his wife’s professional success as the boon it could have been for their marriage. Within The Altruists, I see traces of it in Arthur’s heartbreaking attempts to relate to his son Ethan. Which leads me to wonder: did Arthur always have it coming? Even when he’s at peak hubris, the book’s polyphonic structure prevents him from dominating the narrative. This suggests to me that you had designs on him from the get-go. Or am I wrong? Did his unraveling take you by surprise?

Ridker: You’re absolutely right that his fate is baked into the structure. His failures (as a husband, father, academic, philanthropist) are not limited to the narrative itself: he also fails to dominate the novel as its sole voice. You can almost feel him straining against that limitation. So, yes, a perfect triumph was never in the cards for him. But outright catastrophe didn’t seem to make sense either. Our culture hands men like Arthur second chances time and time again; I wanted to dramatize his last second chance, so to speak, when some of the havoc he’s wreaked in his past catches up with him. He’s a mess, but he’s not without a conscience, and part of him understands the privilege he holds as a white man of a certain age and position--the privilege to fail. At one point he tells Maggie that he’s been waiting to be punished all his life. This is a long way of saying that I wanted Arthur to get what was coming to him, while leaving the door to redemption cracked open. The light that got through would keep him somewhat honest. Because on some level, he does want to connect.

This idea of missed connections--of miscommunication--colors "The Study of Animal Languages" at every turn. Ivan misunderstands everyone around him, namely his wife Prue, whose scientific work centers on “decoding” birdsong. Where there is language, the novel (hilariously, tenderly) suggests, there is miscommunication: between spouses, colleagues, and even different species. Were these ideas with you from the start?

Stern: 100 percent. I read a lot of later Wittgenstein before putting pen to paper, and as I was writing the first draft of the novel’s (long abandoned) first scene I stumbled on an article in New Scientist titled “First evidence that birds tweet using grammar.” It was reporting on a 2011 study out of Kyoto University, demonstrating that Bengal finches respond differently to different configurations of the same sounds. This idea—that the apparently meaningless twittering of birds could have something like syntax, thought to be the hallmark of human language—electrified me. (What could they be saying!) At the same time, it led me to wonder if the question of whether other animals can speak and think is one that science can answer. Is the difference between a word and a meaningless noise really measurable, empirically, or is it more like the difference between a citizen and a barbarian (the word comes to us from the Greek barbaros, onomatopoeia for the babble of foreign tongues)? Do we manage to communicate because of syntax, or despite it? Writing the book was my way of exploring the possibility that language and logic might lead us away from, rather than toward, the truth about ourselves and other beings. Ivan lives that possibility quite literally over the course of the novel, given that his solution to “The Gettier Problem”—the epistemological puzzle to which he devotes his career—fails to prevent him from drastically misreading his needs and those of his partner.

Arthur is also someone who devotes his life to an invention that ends up causing more problems than it solves. His doomed project is such an inspired parody of the fraught history of Western “altruism” abroad. At the same time, it’s a genuine expression of his all-too-human predicament—his compulsion to do good as a way of distancing himself from his loved ones, and hurting them in the process. A social critique rooted in a character-driven drama strikes me as enormously difficult to pull off. Were there particular aspects of modern life that you set out to satirize through "The Altruists," or did that dimension of the book evolve as you wrote?

Ridker: I grew up in a community in which privilege was always brushing up against good-faith commitments to social justice. The intersection of these forces — privilege and progress — is perhaps the central animating tension in everything I write. In high school, kids would go on service trips to what we called “developing countries” to build houses, in part because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were doing good, and in part to have something to write about in their college application essays. The complexities and hypocrisies of the distinctly American impulse to go abroad and “fix” things (read: make them over in our image) were appealing to me as a writer interested in ethical gray areas. It would be easy to simply mock these allegedly altruistic (and not infrequently destructive) efforts, but I wrestle with the earnestness behind the impulse. Empathy, and a concern for the suffering of others--these are good values, especially in this political climate. The problems lie in the execution.

I don’t see the novel as satire, but I’m certainly drawn to comic absurdity as it manifests in the world. I spent four years of high school and then four years of college doing improv comedy (I know, I know) and grew up ingesting what you might call a Jewish tradition of humor--Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry David, Sarah Silverman. I was thrilled to discover comic writers like Lorrie Moore, the poet James Tate, and especially Fran Ross, whose novel "Oreo" absolutely floored me. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be laugh-out-loud funny and literary. As far as social commentary is concerned, I grew up in a highly opinionated, politically-engaged household. To this day I have a hard time understanding people who don’t have strong feelings about the world, or the wish to express them. It’s an instinct that I have to keep in check sometimes. A good novel, after all, is irreducible, but social commentary isn’t.

I have to ask you about a particular chapter from "The Study of Animal Languages." After living in Ivan’s deliciously neurotic mind for four chapters, in Chapter Five we get the unadorned text of Prue’s speech, a lecture that will earn her tenure if she pulls it off. What follows is a brilliant, lucid, academic presentation on the grammar of birdsong and the ethics of studying animals in captivity. Far from being dry, it’s one of the most riveting sections of the book, and the only section in which Ivan is not in control of the narrative. How did this chapter come about? What was it like to write? And, crucially, how did you pull it off?

Stern: Fictional lectures were on my mind, because I’d just encountered J. M. Coetzee’s novel "Elizabeth Costello," whose protagonist delivers a series of incandescent speeches about humanity’s relationship with other animals (the lectures were republished with critical commentary in the 2017 book "The Lives of Animals"). I had also recently learned the story of Ota Benga, the man who was coerced by colonists into coming to the U.S. in 1904 and then imprisoned in the Bronx Zoo. The horror I felt, reading Times letters-to-the-editor from that period in which readers bickered about the ethics of the “exhibit,” for me raised the perennial question of what seemingly normal practices in our current era will shock and repel future generations. If you look at the way the word “animal” has been used historically, you see that it’s played a starring role in perpetuating racist and sexist myths. That got me interested in the central role of “animals” today in both the production of knowledge about ourselves and in the testing of the pharmacological drugs that keep us sane. Because I was so interested in the topic, early versions of the speech came fast, before most of the characters had shown up. It was a joy to write and rewrite and revise, in part because it was an opportunity to take a hiatus from Ivan’s mind, which as someone who cares enough about him to have spent 5 years in and out of his head I can guiltlessly say was a relief. It felt important to frame the lecture as a direct address to the reader because, in a novel whose organizing question for me was the difference between communication and language, I wanted to provide an example of direct, unmediated speech and to trace how its meaning ramifies in contradictory ways through the people who hear it and through Prue herself, who eventually comes to realize that its entire argument was an elaborate way of saying, “I’m unhappy in work and love.”

On the topic of structure, there’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you about "The Altruists": how did you keep the book moving forward so propulsively while weaving back and forth in time? If you map out the novel’s chapters, you find that they overlap, temporally, quite often. We move forward in one of the characters’ lives only to step to the side, or backwards. But that movement never feels choreographed. It’s integrated seamlessly into the driving thrust of the plot. How did you do that?

Ridker: I’m so glad it doesn’t feel choreographed--because, of course, it is! The structure was all about balance: balancing the forward-moving, present-day plot with all the chapters set in the past; balancing the four rotating points of view; balancing the long line of tension and the shorter ones; and so on. Organizing the chapters took careful consideration. The whole process was an experiment in tension, movement, and pressure. I wanted to maintain narrative propulsion while allowing for maximum ranginess. The solution ended up taking on that hopscotch-like approach you mentioned: two steps forward, one to the side, etc. In the editing process we cut one whole chapter, which my editor and I decided had veered too far out-of-bounds.

In a sense we’re not talking only about structure here, but plot, which still occupies a slightly degraded space in the literary landscape. It’s no coincidence that all the craft books on the subject are for screenwriters. (What, Graywolf, no "The Art of Plot"?) In "Aspects of the Novel," E. M. Forster sneers at an imaginary audience of “cave men” or “their modern descendants, the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘and then—and then—’ They can only supply curiosity.” But I’m interested in the and then. I think we all are. There are natural laws that govern the reading experience, some chemical process in the brain that responds to suspense and mystery, generating attention until those mysteries are solved, or subverted. The inheritance plot--or rather, reverse-inheritance plot--at the center of "The Altruists," in which Arthur schemes to get his late wife’s money back from his children, hopefully supplies that intrigue. Forgive the simile, but I often think of plot like a clothesline: ideally, you don’t really notice it, and your eye falls on the colorful, billowing clothes instead. But without that taut cord, all you have is a pile of rags.

By Lindsay Stern

Lindsay Stern is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the recipient of a Watson Fellowship and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers magazine. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at Yale University. "The Study of Animal Languages" is her first novel.

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By Andrew Ridker

Andrew Ridker is the author of the novel "The Altruists." It will be published in 17 other countries. He is the editor of "Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics" and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Guernica, Boston Review, The Believer, St. Louis Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

MORE FROM Andrew Ridker