Q&A with Gary Amdahl About ACROSS MY BIG BRASS BED

Rhizomatic: Gary Lutz calls the sentence a “lonely place.” William Gass calls it a “container of consciousness.” Mary Caponegro, in an interview I conducted with her, called the sentence a “unit of eros, charting a love affair with the English language.” Ben Marcus has this to say about the sentence:

We should not forget that to be a fine story writer is to be an artist of language, someone who uses sentences to produce feeling. However simple this sounds, there is something extraordinary about it to me, given how few sentences that we encounter in our daily lives can manage to make us feel anything, to stir us toward revelation. The sentence, as a technology, is used for so many rote exchanges, so many basic communication requirements, that to rescue it from these necessary mundanities, to turn it into feeling, is to do something strenuous and heroic. But language is also the way we communicate privately to ourselves, the true code of our inner lives, and to be a story writer is to know this, to tap into and reveal those ways of personal address we reserve for the private, necessary messages we send ourselves, when we think no one is listening.

Your fiction is ever-attentive to the music, mystery, art, and artifice hidden in sentences, the parts and whole of which bring pleasure to the discerning reader’s eye and ear. Would you talk about the sentence as a compositional unit? Any response to the quotes above?

Gary Amdahl: All those writers are right. They couldn’t be righter. They couldn’t be writers otherwise. The pleasure I just took writing those three short sentences is no doubt (from the point of view of the average citizen who reads, say, a book a year) incredible. But I did. The eloquence and wit and penetration of the writers you quoted thrilled me, and the first little steps of my response were the steps of someone who is excited and happy. You can’t beat Gass for pith and vigor—or piss and vinegar, either, for that matter—so I’ll try to address the idea of a container of consciousness. I’m just sobering up from one of my regular Shakesburger binges, and one of the things that’s coming back is Mark Van Doren’s suggestion that the poet of the later plays had become obsessed with syntax. I am a total autodidact: no scholarly training whatsoever, but I am pretty sure I understand why WS was intent on making his poetry accommodate long complicated sentences—not just accommodate but thrive in a way it, and poetry in general, never had before. He was becoming a poet of consciousness, no longer strictly a poet of character and event. In a way, he had exhausted his interest in the world of history and consensual reality; he was far more interested in the universe we seem to hold in our brains, where—and this is my point—orthodox beliefs and practices of how to live and how to write are seen for what they are: as imaginary as magic. If you take the whole of the imagined universe and apply to it the wonderfully flexible “rules” of our syntax, then you do indeed have magic on your hands.

Rhizomatic: Would you talk about the overall form of Across My Big Brass Bed? Why did you choose a series of long, unbroken paragraphs for this narrative?

Amdahl: Didn’t start out with that intention. What I said to myself was: Write very quickly. When there is a reason to break (i.e., for a paragraph), break. But of course that was a subconscious bet: make the next sentence so dependent on the one before it that you can’t break! Originally there were no breaks at all. Then the idea of death being an important break (!) allowed me to divide the text into three parts and a coda. Then I totally caved in: Not even Thomas Bernhard would be allowed 425 unbroken pages. So I added the ticking clock and the wholly unnatural but commonplace breaks of the hours of the day…. I should say as well that my intention to write quickly was based in a desire to make the years of the novel, 1963 to 1983, pass as quickly and seamlessly for the reader as they had for me, the author and fictive narrator, in the blink of an eye, in which, nevertheless, I became unrecognizable to myself.

 

Rhizomatic: The following appears in AMBBB’s front matter: “The characters and events of these stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” What is an “Intellectual Autobiography” and why does this “autobiography” have such a disclaimer?

Amdahl: Never noticed it! You’ll have to ask the publisher. I make a big fuss in my writing classes about “false memoir” and “true fiction,” distinctions that are in Psychology 101 but often news to young writers (who, of course, understand immediately but are slow in application). And I tell the story of the millions of dollars exchanged between the hands of the lawyers for Augusten Burroughs and the lawyers for his adoptive family, the result being a ruling that all subsequent editions of Running with Scissors must be called “a book” rather than “a memoir.” And the story of A Million Little Pieces: Frey’s editor saying the novel was great but would never sell as a novel, and could they call it a memoir? Of course they could! But a couple of details tripped them up, and Oprah had to spank Frey. Why? Because she had been deceived! And I thought, Jesus Christ, woman, if that’s the level you read on, you deserve to be deceived! Of course, she trades in deceits at once more spectacular and more subtle everyday, because she’s a smart businessperson. We want to be deceived and then have the deceivers, punished and repentant, deceive us again, yes, please, quickly, oh! AMBBB, as the story of my, Gary Amdahl’s, life-long love of ideas, of philosophical and religious and poetic expression of that love, is as true and honest as it can possibly be. But I freely invented little dramas where and whenever I felt like it—though it’s all based, as we amusingly say, on real events! I never knew what category to put it in, and I still don’t. This is one very big reason why it isn’t commercially viable. And why it’s hard to read even when the reader is willing and friendly and more than able (like you, say!): we are a taxonomical people. The world literally does not make sense if we can’t name and categorize its parts.

 

Rhizomatic: Early on, the narrator says, “My voice is my soul. I prefer to think in tones rather than words.” Is thinking for him, then, a kind of music? Is “soulful” thinking operatic?

Amdahl: Words are the tip of the iceberg. It’s also easy for me to think of words as the root of all evil—not money, words! I mean, if you look at how ominously they are linked to the rise of the Bronze Age civilizations, whose ideas of religion and power and bureaucracy we have yet to recover from, you can’t help but feel bad, even if you’re just a simple country wordsmith, like me, under the spreading chestnut tree. So yes, thinking, for me and my narrator, is a kind of music, and the struggle is to turn a vice, written language, into a virtue, by blasting through semantic and syntactic orthodoxies into truly creative structures, into what I hope is a kind of written music—not a composer’s score but syntactical music, music that looks ordinary enough on the page but is in fact only hearable in the contemplative, not sensory, brain: the kind of music that a really gifted oral interpreter could bring to an audiobook is not the kind of music I mean. (Although I do indeed value that skill, and enjoy hearing prose spoken aloud.)

Rhizomatic: At one point the narrator posits that “life only just barely balanced death.” What is it that keeps the scale from tipping in one direction?

Amdahl: Relentless dogmatic training from the git-go. We—that is, everybody, but especially we who live in the hypertechno West of the 21st C—find it nearly impossible to get through life if we are too often, too “unprotectedly” confronted by death. We are running full-speed toward it and one day BAM we are going to hit it, but we refuse to think about it, because A, it’s inexplicable and B, it’s terrifying. It’s heart-rendingly sad and bitterly inexplicable and it runs counter to our current religious belief that the universe is ultimately as explicable as a can-opener and death is a can of whoop-ass that can be closed with the right machine. That is to say, death is a kind of heresy. We are trained to ignore it, to “live life to its fullest!” So we load the scale on the side of life: for every pebble of death, a boulder of homily. And that action, of the scale slamming into the dirt of life and flinging the pebble of death into a cheerful blue sky, that diverts us. We learn quickly and easily how to maintain the diversion, and do so with “quiet desperation” and Jimmy Stewart masks. Invisible desperation, subconscious desperation, forbidden desperation. Me and my narrator, though, we see death everywhere: a guy mowing his lawn is perpetrating a holocaust of the grass. Life for us, then, becomes a constant struggle to load the life side of the scale, not because we want to launch the pebble, but because the boulder sits on the death side: if we are not constantly and furiously living, we will be the pebble that is hurled into the sky. After a while, you get tired and think, well, why the hell not? And you step back: only just barely balanced, for the moment….

Rhizomatic: The narrator’s reflections contain philosophical asides, like the following epistemological one:

When you know, as soon as you know, you are in danger. The smarter you are, the more quickly you know. And you cannot cease to know just because you no longer want to know. Ignorance is not bliss: it is a mode of survival you are born with. You can’t buy it or study strategy and tactics and steal one. It is away to stay out from under the hooves of knowledge. It is a way to keep body and soul together as knowledge burns between them, or lays hold of them like a strong man the thick halves of a phonebook and tries to rip them apart. I knew what I knew, and asked my parents to acquiesce to, to honor, that knowledge. I had found a path with heart, a heart that was afraid of nothing.

And the following ontological one:

I think I began to think that body and soul were not incompatible, that the needs of one did not have to ape to satisfy the other, that with emotional and social maturity true love was not only possible but inescapable: if you accepted it all, only then could you have it all. I began to think that in that moment of sex and violence. And what constitutes the beginning of a thought that requires decades to express itself, is, of course, a definition none of us is up to.

Amdahl: The first thing I should say is that these philosophical asides are the product of a much older and much better read man who is trying to articulate what are often childish and adolescent takes on ideas he is only just now at the end of his life beginning to understand. Further: I shall keep the babble-meter turned very low, eliminating 99% of what I’d ordinarily say. One of the most tiresome of the default modes that creative writers are encouraged to adopt is that of “writing about what you know.” Okay, fine: A good writer, one possessed of syntactical bravura, could “know” very little and write in such a way as to make that little knowledge twinkle like all the stars in heaven. But god help the writer who knows too much! God help the writer who thinks epistemologically and ontologically! God help the writer who asks questions the authorities tell him he ought not ask—for his own peace of mind as well as the good of his country! God help the writer who falls without even realizing it from orthodoxy to heresy! God help the writer who thinks “the mind” is a valid a subject for fiction as “the body.” That writer will have another tiresome default mode to work his way out of: “Write about what you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch.” Of course these two modes are the same: What you know is what your brain receives in the way of sensory input. And that might be—often is!—the end of the story! If only we were not conscious of our consciousness. But too bad, whether it’s a trick of mirror neurons and parallel pathways or not, we are conscious of…a self. Once you know that, there’s no turning back. You can take sensible pleasure in the sensuous world, but you can’t not know what you know, and the next step after consciousness of self is to realize there is in real reality no self. Just the littlest bit of thinking shows us how arbitrary and even ridiculous—how violent and cruel!—our divisions and distinctions are. Must really clamp down tighter here, and say the Buddha is the best place for a primer on all this, but the thinking is central to every spiritual mouse ever caught in a physical trap in the history of the universe: the religious-scientific-artistic urge to know and hold what is not known in awe is what consciousness is. And consciousness suffuses the universe. We suffuse the universe. That is where the urge to write comes from, and where it ineluctably goes to.

Rhizomatic: Bob Dylan looms large in this book. From the book’s title to numerous references to songs, song lyrics, etc. appearing throughout, like the following:

With Bob Dylan’s voice, you had to be moved by something that wasn’t readily moved, or which was not on the surface and easily taken advantage of; with Dion, he could have told us we were all sappy shitheads and we would still have wept.

This moment popped out to me, not only because I’m of a dying breed who can say that they’ve seen both Dylan and Dion perform, but because it addresses the idea of voice. Would you talk about Dylan, why he’s important to the narrator and narrative, but also why he’s important as a songwriter, performer, shape-shifter, enigma?

Amdahl: Dylan is not easily talked about! Best just to listen! I will just say that his music was probably my initiation to the world that coheres around the idea that the smooth and regulated surface of ordinary mediocre art needed to be dug into, to be explored, to be indeed troubled. I respond positively to photographs of sunsets, but I much prefer JMW Turner. Hearing Dylan sing “Lay, Lady, Lay” in the middle of the night, in bed with my transistor radio, started all that.

 

Rhizomatic: Love is a major theme in AMBBB. Here’s an example where he questions his own authenticity, challenging it with a kind of violence, the violence of “performance”:

I was as in love as it has ever been possible for me to be and that I could only be in true love if I faked it with a demonstration, could know true love only if I destroyed it with a performance. That I could stand to remain near the people I loved only if that love was a smoking ruin in which we could pretend to carry on without the crippling weight of the real.

Is this self-sabotage, or is he, through violence, trying to achieve a certain kind of awareness about the object and/or event he calls “love” that can’t be accomplished any other way? Or is it some kind of inconclusive muddle? Or what the narrator calls “supreme contradictions in equipoise”?

Later, he describes love as “the readiness to cross the borders of reality,” and then saying “it was for the struggle with reality.” The conflict here seems to be love as a state of being vs. love as a tool or vehicle to achieve a state of being.

Later still: “It wasn’t sex and violence that was necessary; it was sensation and catastrophe.”

Amdahl: Into the blood, sweat, tears, and semen we go—or, as the Mahabharata has it: a glorious burst of sperm! Narrator and me…we just aren’t up to the ideals we have so easily, it seems, and so early in our lives, identified and handed the reins over to. The sex and violence=sensation and catastrophe equation occurs to him in the immediate aftermath of a motorcycle accident. He’s past puberty but only just barely, and is trying to find substitutes for activities he needs more hormones and muscles for. However: this pretentious equation of a teenaged boy has consequences that he cannot as easily shake off as he assumed he would—being the master of mind and body he fancies himself to be. He wants to transcend ordinary teenage passions (because they’re so silly), and thinks his vast intellectual capacity is the means of transcendence. His intellect will transform love and transport himself and his lover(s) across the border to true, spiritual reality. But of course it can only be—especially in a very young man—a means of struggle with “the way things are,” prominent among which is his lover’s determination to not fall in moaning heap and beg him to take her, his prattle is just sooo seductive! No, sorry, being too hard on my young lovers. The narrator sincerely and passionately (learning requires eros) wants to achieve the state of Buber’s “I and Thou” that informs Part Two of the novel, and what he has to say about it, in his pitch to his lover! is very attractive to her dogmatic religious (Lutheran) mind—she is as bookish as he is—but when it comes right down to it, he can’t help but be more interested in the pleasure she can give him than in spiritual knowledge of who she is. Same goes for her. If the novel has a single readily identifiable theme, that’s it. And toward the end he realizes how miserably he has failed in that regard: he knows next to nothing about all the women who have been lying across his big brass bed….

Rhizomatic: The narrator intermittently offers reasons for why he’s written what he’s writing, including the following:

Thousands, millions of people have noted and tenderly received such ministration in the night: you and the dj are alone in the world, and you want nothing from each other but a quiet recapitulation of life. It’s like the relationship of a writer and a reader, too, I think. The idea is what has prompted this writing, anyway…

Who are some writers who’ve created such a continuum for you, this dialogue that includes a “quiet recapitulation of life”?

Amdahl: Honestly, all of them. A bad writer would be someone whose work cannot produce this feeling of contentment and joy in me. I can tell almost instantly who—for me, I emphasize—the bad writers are and I don’t read them. The writers I read are the ones who do, instantly and continuously, produce the feeling. Of course there are some truly great writers who stand out in my mind who produce nearly overwhelming contentment and deep, deep, deeeeep joy in me, like Faulkner and Proust and Joyce and James and Laxness and Lowry and White and Pynchon—but truly, it’s everybody on my shelves. (I have about four thousand books, collected over forty years of serious reading, so that’s what, an average of a hundred a year? Sounds about right.) Something Will Self wrote recently comes to mind, an article/speech that I read in The Guardian. He quotes Yeats—poetry is the social act of a solitary man, but wonders if now it hasn’t been reversed, as we digitize and “socialize” our poetry: each little work becomes the solitary work of social people. I mean: the old model, however social the act is, works in a one-to-one way, I and Thou. Now the model is the solitary I and a billion “its.” I’m not sure that argument really holds up, but it comes to mind when I think about tender ministrations in the night….

Rhizomatic: Would you respond to some of these quotes from the narrator?

There is no better employment for consciousness than contemplation of the soul.”

Amdahl: Those are two of the standard makeshift terms for a quality or condition of being that we cannot explain. The human mind—the only one we’re privy to—came pretty quickly to understand that we can use those things—concepts, ideas, practices, tools—that we do understand to think about what we don’t understand. The physicist David Bohm used the words “explicate order” for the world we can understand and measure and describe, and “implicate order” for the world that is implied in the bottomlessness and toplessness of the measurable world. What we can measure gets smaller and smaller and bigger and bigger but the implication is that there is no end to these measurements! The finite implies the infinite. Bohm liked to use a Necker’s Cube as an illustration. You can see the cube extending in space one way or the other way, but not both ways at once. You KNOW it goes both ways, but you can’t see it.

“Nothing more real than the imagination, said the schizophrenic to the novelist.”

Amdahl: Once again I must point out that I speak as a lay-person. I have no medical training. I—ahem—have spent a lot of time with psychiatrists, but am not one. And my reading has always been skewed toward the “anti-psychiatric” movement, typified perhaps by the discredited and forgotten R.D. Laing. With that in mind, I say that one of basic symptoms in a diagnosis of schizophrenia is hallucination: you hear voices, most famously, and see things that “aren’t there,” smell, feel, and taste hallucinatorily as well. And the point, no surprise, is that these hallucinations are real to the person experiencing them. And my understanding of new ideas in treatment of some schizophrenics is that these experiences aren’t being written off as hallucinations at all, and further, that they are not necessarily “bad,” that they could more properly be associated with art, with spirit, and so on. And of course I have to refer to Foucault and his history of madness: our punitive and isolating responses to “madness” are very new and probably quite destructive. The identification of the “madman” with the “lover” and the “poet” is much older and more helpful. And that’s really all I’m saying. If you take the novelist to be real, then you have to take what he’s doing as real, too; and what he’s doing is imagining.

“It’s hard to parse true learning. It’s hard to follow an orgasm.” 

Amdahl: That’s just me riffing on the Greek idea that eros is essential to learning: can’t learn without love. And I mean love as in making love: embrace, fondle, excite. Again, nothing more real than the imagination.

Rhizomatic: What is so “deeply troubling” about the guitar?

Amdahl: Didn’t I say? I thought about almost nothing but guitars while I was writing the novel… because, I think, I knew that the most blatant “fiction” in the whole story, the greatest dishonesty in what tries very hard to be as honest as honest can be, whether a particular episode’s source lies more in the imagination than the memory—or vice versa, same problem either way—is the implication that I can actually play a guitar. I can’t. I can play the piano and the saxophone (used to be able, anyway), and proper working of those instruments seemed to depend on hitting the right pearly button and ivory key and you could do that with hammer-hands. I am (was) a very agile person, but the agility stopped at my wrists. Delicately touching long lengths of string (or working a puck with a stick for that matter: the playing days of my “Visigoth” are ended when my naked hand is skated on) just seem utterly beyond me. It is “deeply troubling” to me. It’s me and the narrator, Mississippi Mad John, not the guitar! The narrator is fascinated by the guitar from nearly page one, and the climax, the beginning of the climax, comes when he steps on and crushes his friend’s guitar. He is frustrated by his inability to play it well, but reveres and fears it too! (New twist on Guitar God, where the Guitar is actually the God, not the Player!)

Rhizomatic: The narrator is plagued by self-doubt, considering himself merely a mimic, a skillful, even artful one, by a mimic, nevertheless. While this anxiety stalls him in some ways, it also gives him great clarity about aptitude and achievement. What would you say he finally has to do to break out, break free?

Amdahl: Well, first remember that we are talking about a very young man, a young artist, who wants, like almost all young artists, to cause people to sit up and take notice, applaud, pay, revere, understand, and be moved and changed by what the artist has wrought. I think this novel is about how an artist learns that those responses have nothing at all do with art. Those responses are accidents, the product of infinite causes and conditions, over which the artist has no control whatsoever. There is only this brief moment of doing. I think my narrator glimpses the truth of this as he busks Bach’s cantatas with his bandonéon on La Rambla in Barcelona—ironically, as “buscar” means to seek, as in fame and fortune!

Rhizomatic: He claims not to know the difference between a reliable and an unreliable narrator? What would you say is the difference?

Amdahl: I claim to not know the difference either. I do not trust or distrust, believe or not believe, narrators or characters on any stage of life, in any venue or medium. The reliability of the narrator is one of those dopey wrules of wrighting that’s helpful for about five minutes to very young readers and not at all to writers of any age or stripe. Reliability of narration is something that is negotiated every word of the way. It can’t be established until the end, at which point most readers absolutely do not care, having lived the life of the story on another level entirely. Unless we’re talking bestsellers and Oprah’s Book Club, etc., which I am most emphatically not. The regulation, the “making regular” of any aspect of creative endeavor runs counter to and eventually undermines actual creative endeavor, causing it to collapse.

Rhizomatic: Toward the end of AMBBB, a character refers to the narrator as Hinge. Not to reduce him to a symbol, but it reminded me of an earlier passage:

A person, even one as depraved and dégringolade and anomic and addled as I was, cannot help but change because that is the nature of the Universe, but this change was of the kind that memoirs hinge upon: sexual pleasure is unstable? I begged to differ: love was the unstable pleasure.

Amdahl: A play on “Stonehenge” in the improvised spoken-word poem by the character Scotty Ray Wamberg, based on the late great LA spoken-word poet-king, Scott Wannberg, who once greeted me in that way: “Are you stoned, Hinge?” What Wannberg meant, and what Wamberg meant, I can only speculate. In the scene you mention, the narrator has, in a paroxysm of drunken and drugged self-pity, stepped on and crushed a guitar. Since guitars are in an unspecified way iconic, he feels he has crushed his life. Wamberg in his mythic-giant way, suggests/bellows that nothing of value has been lost, that whatever was lost can be easily and swiftly replaced, and that what seemed like destruction was just a door opening and closing. Thus: Stoned Hinge. (In The Daredevils, coming out from ADP next January, the father of the main character takes this basic Stoic precept to a terrifying level, as San Francisco is consumed in the earthquake and fires of 1906.)

Rhizomatic: AMBBB, which might be a kind of confessional book of hours, starts at 3:00am and ends, presumably, the next day at 3:00am, making it a circular text.

Amdahl: Circular, perhaps, in that it has no beginning or end, in that we do not know how we begin as human beings and do not know how we end. Steven Rose, the good old-fashioned brain scientist, illustrates, in his book The Conscious Brain, the hierarchy of brain functions with a pyramid: physics at the bottom, sociology at the top. But what’s really interesting to me is that both the bottom and the top of the pyramid are shrouded in mist…. And here’s Natalya Volokhova (an actor in Meyerhold’s company) writing to Aleksandr Blok: “Joyfully I accept this strange book, joyfully and with fear—in it there is so much beauty, poetry, death. I await the accomplishment of your task.” This could easily be talking to my narrator, as well.

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