'One of Those Problematic Believers'

An Interview with David Means

David Means, a recognized master of the short story, is the author of four collections of fiction, most recently The Spot (2010). Means’s stories display the compressed intensity of poetry, throwing off little lyrical flares every few sentences, as in his description of a car “roar[ing] off in a rooster tail of dust.” Like Alice Munro, he manipulates time in surprising ways—dilating and contracting, telescoping an entire life, with all its dramas and regrets, into a single paragraph. This effect is especially acute when he writes, as he often does, about events of dramatic import and limited temporal scope: a bank heist, a murder, a police standoff. He reminds us of how flexible the apparently rigid form of the short story can be.

Means was born in 1961 in working-class Kalamazoo, Michigan. As he told the New Yorker, “Our neighbor was a paper-mill worker, and a drunk, and I remember feeling that Bruce Springsteen was making songs about the people in my world.” Most of his stories are grounded in a world of closed factories and desperate crimes, and they are peopled by outsiders: tramps and criminals, prostitutes and war veterans, “these stupid sinning willful men who were dying by their own clock.” Means describes himself as a “problematic Christian,” and he finds in such outcast figures—and, more specifically, in the violence they inflict on one another—a space for thinking about grace and redemption. Baptisms and purgative fires abound; the cross, and the pain it embodies, is a constant presence. Means is a theological writer in the way that Flannery O’Connor is a theological writer: he is attentive to the violence of grace, what T. S. Eliot calls the “pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.”  

In April, Means published Hystopia, his first novel. It takes place in 1960s America, but America at a slant. President Kennedy, survivor of several assassination attempts, has won a third term, escalated the war in Vietnam, and created a federal bureaucracy called the Psych Corps to deal with returning vets. The Corps specializes in “enfolding”—a process of repressing traumatic memory through medication and “reenacting particulars of the causal/trauma events.” Southwestern Michigan has been cordoned off and designated the Grid: “a safe place … in which certain patients, after treatment, might go to have a controlled transitional experience before being released into general society.” Imperfectly enfolded vets roam the countryside, murdering and dealing drugs, driving around listening to the Stooges. The world of Hystopia seems ripped from the punk rock imagination—crazy and druggy and violent and anarchic.

Means teaches at Vassar College and regularly publishes in the New Yorker. I spoke with him recently by e-mail.

 

Anthony Domestico: Why write a novel? That’s a huge question, so to make it more specific, perhaps you could talk about something much smaller: the sentence. Your short stories contain such wonderful sentences, and I’m wondering if you noticed any differences in the kinds of sentences you used when writing a novel.

David Means: The easy answer is that the story I wanted to tell in Hystopia could only be told in a novel. I wanted to grab hold of something big and get deep into it—the Vietnam War, PTSD, a certain family trauma I went through—and find a way to expose an even deeper mystery while answering it at the same time. A story can basically just expose mystery, while a novel gives a feeling of having at least a hint at an answer. But I think the two questions are connected somehow. In the stories, each sentence had to carry a certain (big) burden. A short story is mainly just a small sliver of a much wider narrative, and the sensation the reader get from it comes from that sense, around the edges, that you’re just getting a glimpse into something. With a novel you obviously have a much wider sense of space and time, and the reader becomes immersed in a different way. They’re somehow aware that they’re no longer just glimpsing. They don’t have to provide as much of the contextual work. And they don’t mind sentences that simply must be there—clean and simple—to move the wider plot forward. 

AD: One of your major concerns is time—how we experience it and how we represent it fictionally. How do you deal differently with time in a novel?

DM: With the wider canvas of the novel I felt freer to use structure somehow, to let more than one story—and more than one aspect of the historical moment—play against each other. The short stories feel quick, like a brilliant arc, but the novel could stretch things out—while in a paradoxical way tightening, too. Each novel provides its own technique for addressing the flow of time; in mine I felt myself trying to confront personal memories—my own—along with history (Vietnam, battle scenes), and then those of the main characters. Nobody is really less qualified to talk about these things than the author. But I can say that trauma and memory and history were all at play; traumatic memory freezes time in a way, locks into it, and those who are traumatized feel unable to stay in the present moment because these horrific memories come in fleetingly, suddenly, and destabilize the sense of being present in time. Violence shifts the sense of time; time stretches out in peaceful moments—at least it does for me—and then draws back in tense moments. 

AD: Your fiction often reminds me of a line from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “Where the world was salt there would be greater need for slaking.” Your attention to how we long for redemption precisely because the world is so broken makes you, at least for me, a writer of great theological power. Are you comfortable being described in this way? Do you see yourself as emerging from any particular literary/theological tradition?

DM: I’m comfortable being described that way because it comes from you, at a personal level—which means you’re looking and seeing, perhaps, something symbolic in the work. I can say that I don’t mind being put into a tradition that includes Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor and James Agee. I’m writing, most certainly, out of my belief—although it might, for some, be hard to see because I’m interested in characters isolated from a sense of knowing, or a certain kind of awareness. But it is there, I think. I quote Thomas Merton in the book. I’ve read and I find a great deal of solace in Merton’s thinking: he makes a strong point in his essay, “Seven Words,” in which he digs into the nature of death. I’ll quote him:

In a society of men [and women] who are exclusively intent on their own pleasure and survival, even though it has no meaning, just because they are convinced that their life ought to be interminable, death begins to play a very important part. Death is called upon to nourish and to stimulate the ‘sense of life.’

I happen to think we live in a death-obsessed culture—and the form of our current obsession came, partly, out of Vietnam. Yet the paradox is that we completely try to avoid speaking of death, I mean really speaking about the truth of it, unless it’s in terms of health, of staying alive as long as possible. On the news, they are now saying someone “has passed,” or is “finally gone,” and I think—every time I hear that—that in avoiding the word “dead” we are avoiding something fundamental, some aspect of time itself, and that our obsession with quick, cartoony death is somehow related to an avoidance of the truth. 

In any case, I’m a complex and problematic religious person, but I do believe in the deep humility of the Christ story, in the cosmic story of suffering and redemption. I’d say, and I feel a little uncomfortable speaking about this, that my sense of time—as you pointed out—has something to do with the fact that for me, the only way out of the isolation and pure despair in the face of death comes from my sense of time as it relates to a much wider universe—call it the quantum universe, or call it God. But again, I’m one of those problematic believers—those are the kind that I think Merton respected. I embrace my doubt as much as my faith. And I most certainly have the deepest respect for anyone who doesn’t believe at all. And on some days I see life as a simple absurdity. 

AD: Towards the end of Hystopia, Eugene—the character who has written the novel we just read—describes one of the major difficulties of being a writer: how to “get in there and find a way to show how those tiny, little fucking moments of ignorance provide pure grace.” How do you understand grace? And how do you understand the writer’s task in relation to grace?

DM: For me, grace lies in a paradox: the moment you are fully in existence while also fully aware of the vastness of time itself; so you’re sitting there in a hospital hallway holding a baby and the baby is looking up at you and you’re in the moment but also aware of the hugeness of the moment, the inexplicable forgiveness in the tactile feeling of this newborn life in your hands and the absolute innocent need inside the baby’s gaze. The writer’s job is to be as true as possible, not only in the drafting but the revision process, to the words and the reality that they are representing and creating. That requires an attempt at humility before the material, somehow. Humor and grace, for me, are entwined.

Here’s the interesting thing about your question and the quote you provide: does it take a certain amount of ignorance to find grace? I’d say it does. I’d say it takes a humble admission that at a certain level reality is beyond complete knowing, or understanding. Eugene is frustrated because he can’t provide an awareness of grace, moments of clarity, to those characters who are ignorant of its possibility. But that’s what a writer can do. She can provide a character who doesn’t know that outside the world there is something much larger while, at the same time, allow the reader in on the secret truth.

AD: In Hystopia, you return again and again to the human need for narrative: as one character thinks, we all long for “words clearly spoken. Structure around everything, the lines graphed and solid.” Yet the novel just as frequently animates the many forces—trauma, madness, desire, and history—that frustrate this need for narrative structure. How do you understand the relationship between these two forces, however they are characterized (clarity and obscurity, structure and chaos, narrative and lived experience)?

DM: Shared stories convey the human spirit, the internal nature of being human, and yet all of those things you mentioned—madness, trauma, history—act to keep us from sharing stories, or to erase or diminish or hide stories. I’ve always said that most stories disappear with the dead and only a small sliver remain recorded. It’s the job of a writer to catch stories and hold them and put them into form. I had a particular, deeply personal story I wanted to rescue. I found a roundabout way to get it out there.

AD: Hystopia is a quietly allusive text. A side character threatened with blindness is named Haze—a clear echo of Hazel Motes from O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Hemingway and Heller are ghostly presences throughout, and I noticed several echoes of T. S. Eliot, from an early sentence that riffs on the opening of “The Waste Land” to later lines that recall the conclusion to “The Hollow Men.” What writers or works did you feel yourself channeling, or at least thinking about, during the writing process?

DM: Because it’s a Michigan novel—I grew up spending summers in Petoskey, not far from Hemingway’s Walloon Lake, and I even ate pie at Jesperson’s, a place Hemingway went to as a kid—I knew I was at least in some way in conversation with Hemingway. The Two-Hearted River is in Hystopia. I went up there as a teenager with a buddy of mine. But I’ve read just about all of the Vietnam literature, and the classic war narratives of World War I and World War II. Paul Fussell’s epic masterpiece, The Great War in Modern Memory was a major influence. And I included a little sly reference to Catch-22. That came partly from the freedom I felt writing something longer. The Iliad was a major influence; along with Dr. Jonathan Shay’s amazing study of PTSD and myth, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

AD: Speaking of Hemingway, a character thinks at one point about the relationship between war, fiction, character, and speech: “Hemingway’s war had produced a certain kind of character, a new way of thinking and speaking that came from what was left out, from the things war had demolished and pushed away forever.” What kind of character did Vietnam create? And how does that relate to the kind of character our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating?

DM: The Vietnam War fed rock-and-roll and the American culture, and rock-and-roll fed some of the combat culture later in the Vietnam War. Catch-22 was a novel that was as much about Vietnam as it was about the Second World War, and it was read and passed around and I think the acute attention to the double-speak of bureaucracy and the absurd nature of military language, merged with another, less jaded and less cynical aspect—a hope, a sense of the possibility of change (I mean, James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men was popular with the war protestors.) Then you had Bob Dylan writing lyrics that were honestly lyric; an openness to the poetic—an energy that started with the Beats. Along with that, you had, coming back, imported from the intimate nature of combat, a certain language inspired by African-American usage—what Henry Louis Gates called signification, I’d say that you had this incredible outburst—fueled by the anti-war movement—of new ways of using language, and it wasn’t, as one might expect, ironic. There were serious things at hand; seriousness was important, but so was playfulness as a way to expose the truth. 

But after Vietnam, with Reagan, we were shoved around a corner—looking only ahead—and for some reason, with the exception of Raymond Carver and a few others, a certain kind of irony and pity, the kind that H. L. Mencken mocked, began to seep back to the literature and music—things began to get soft and fuzzy and inane. (But not in punk rock. Punk struggled to clarify, as did women’s literature, and African-American writing.) I don’t want to say this, but I might even speculate that all that softness and silliness, along with video games, eased the way for the Iraq War. Wars don’t simply end. It takes time for them to filter into the culture, and I’m sure that it’s going to take time to fully realize the culture forming out of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

AD: Do you see yourself writing more novels? Do you think that the experience of writing a novel will change how you approach short stories in the future?

DM: Yes, one way or another, I learned a lot in this process and feel freed up to work in longer forms, and I’d like to write another novel, and I’ll certainly write more stories. My method has always been, as much as possible, to approach each piece of fiction one at a time, and to take as long as necessary. If something isn’t going to work, I usually put it aside. I’m working on a longer nonfiction piece, and part of it will be published in Harper’s soon. The scary thing about writing is that with each story you write you’ve done something that can’t be done again; you can’t go back to that story again. On the other hand, I’ve barely touched on my own life—my family in Michigan—and now that I’m older, I feel less restraint in going back.

Published in the September 9, 2016 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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