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Two nibs


Aaron Kunin
in conversation with Ben Lerner

Date: 2009

The Mandarin

Aaron Kunin in conversation with Ben Lerner

The Mandarin, by Aaron Kunin. 209 pp. Fence Books. ISBN: 1-93420-00-93. Paper.


Ben Lerner: Let’s begin our dialogue about your novel by discussing dialogue in your novel: “The Mandarin is written almost entirely in dialogue” (ii). And it’s written almost entirely with one dialogue tag—“said.” No matter the kind of speech being attributed—question, exclamation, whatever—it’s typically and flatly ascribed to a character with “said.”

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Aaron Kunin: I learned that from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves. During Woolf’s lifetime, this book was considered her crowning achievement and one of the glories of modernism, but recently it has been replaced by To the Lighthouse and by Mrs. Dalloway—which are also great, but they don’t go as far. In The Waves, Woolf discovers that speech in quotation marks can be both dramatic and lyric. What happens is that the quotation marks isolate the speaker from the flow of conversation. (This doesn’t happen as much in earlier novels with their fine modulations of direct, indirect, and free indirect discourse; the earlier books aren’t as paranoid about attaching verbatim quotations to somebody, some voice, some name.) Also, because novels process dialogue serially—we don’t have a lot of good techniques to indicate overlapping dialogue—when one voice is speaking, the other voices tend to fall silent and thus to disappear. The result is still theatrical, because of the dramatic situation of the novel, and because the character is usually talking to another character. But it’s also lyric, because the addressee doesn’t seem to be there for as long as the speaker is talking. It’s a beautiful effect, and Woolf pushes both the drama and the lyricism as far as they can go. It sounds like someone rehearsing an important speech in front of a mirror.


This isn’t just Woolf’s secret. One thing I had in my head when I started writing the novel was the group The Shangri-Las. Think of Mary Weiss’s voice in the song (in which she doesn’t sing a note) “Past, Present, and Future,” the way she’s sort of talking to you and sort of to herself. Or think of the way the singers sing together and talk to each other, and the dialogue itself is so stagy (people often describe it as melodramatic) but the tone is more introspective. That’s the vocal quality I was going for.


BL: As in The Waves, the speech of various characters in The Mandarin, while clearly delimited by quotation marks and dialogue tags, can be difficult to differentiate stylistically. There are lots of speakers in your novel—even some inanimate objects speak—but I’m not sure there is more than one voice. Indeed, this is something your characters discuss—the inability to distinguish or maintain a distinct voice: “‘I hate the way you behave in restaurants,’ I said. ‘And on the phone. You stand in front of everything I want to look at, and your voice intrudes in every conversation, until I start to answer you in your own voice and wonder who is speaking when I speak’” (125).


AK: Yes, that’s fair to say. The ideas of the characters are different, but voice isn’t used to differentiate them. Instead of being an element of personal style, voice is formalized, an organizing principle that holds together what the characters say, to which they are granted equal access, like the alexandrine couplet in Racine. Voice works pretty much the same way in James’s novels: the characters are quite different, but most of them speak in the same voice, which is James’s voice. James acknowledges the formalization of voice in the first chapter of The Bostonians, where he says that the character Basil Ransom is a southerner, and speaks with a southern accent, but the language of the novel will do nothing to register the colors of that accent and differentiate it from the Bostonian accent.


Speech is a mysterious thing that no one really understands. I’ve already mentioned the postmodern cliché about how only one of us can have a voice. So if you’re talking, that means you’re taking away my voice, silencing me. That’s a misunderstanding of the influences and mistakes and possessions that occur in conversation. (A beautiful and productive misunderstanding--practically all of Jabès comes out of it--but it’s wrong.) Actually, it happens all the time that many voices are speaking simultaneously. The forms of writing just haven’t gotten very good at representing simultaneous speech, or at representing the silences that frequently occur in speech. My novel makes no advances toward solving this problem. In order for the novel to continue, someone always has to be talking, which means that the characters experience a constant pressure to perform.


At the same time, that misunderstanding, that postmodern cliché, is an attempt to get at a real problem, another mystery of speech that no one understands. We don’t know where our voices come from. That’s why the English novel is so paranoid about partitioning speech into paragraphs bounded by quotation marks. The paranoia is completely justified. The quotation marks mean that someone else is speaking, which is true. They are a device for marking the fact that I am demonized by language. I’m talking, so it looks as though this voice is coming out of me, but it’s really coming from somewhere else, and I can’t control it.


This is easy to show on film. Borges writes about “the new monster of the twentieth century” that becomes visible in film, which is the actor in postsync. What voice is speaking in 8 ½? No one knows, because the Cinecittà studio was incredibly careless about dubbing and kept no records. We know, at least, that it isn’t Marcello Mastroianni’s voice, although it’s roughly synchronized to look as though it’s coming out of his body. I once heard Raul Ruiz give a lecture about synchronizing dialogue in different languages, in which he claimed that the Chilean way of pronouncing Spanish words is postsynchronous. He even measured his own accent, which is “four photograms late!”


BL: And yet speech is typically treated as the primary marker of personal style.


AK: An aphorism from Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries says that “language most shows a man: speak, that I may see thee.” That could be the motto of personal style: my voice produces an image of me. In fact, my voice is the best possible image; it “most shows” me. My sentences could all be lies, but my voice can’t help telling the truth. The concept of personal style is based on an incredible confidence in talk. You can see that confidence in Jonson’s poems and plays, especially his interest in terms of art. Each character comes with a dictionary, a grammar, a tone, a rhythm. An extreme example of this would be Nockem’s tendency to replace every word with “vapours.” The hallmark of a style is that it can be imitated, but styles in Jonson remain the signatures of particular characters even when other characters pick them up. When Mistress Overdo complains about her husband’s “enormities,” that word still belongs to Adam Overdo. “Mine own words turned against me like swords!”


Compare Gertrude Stein in “Composition as Explanation”: “Everybody knows it because everybody says it.” That could be the motto of period style. All the moderns are working on the same problem, using the same tools, which, sadly, are antiques. (Like trying to make sentences out of boards and hinges.) Stein detaches style from biography—that’s how she can write someone else’s, or everyone else’s, autobiography—and makes it a historical process. Her aphorism declares a confidence in talk that is at least as incredible as Jonson’s. The temptation would be to reverse her formula: nobody knows it because everybody says it. How well does what “everybody says” represent what anyone knows? Received ideas aren’t knowledge, are they? For Stein, what “everybody says” represents the deepest, most valuable kind of knowledge precisely because no one has to think about it. Her problem, which is the subject of “Composition as Explanation,” becomes explaining how change is possible when historical voices are suspended in the commonplace of period style.


BL: Jonson and Stein are both legendary talkers and the models of style they advance indicate a great confidence in speech. You don’t seem to share this confidence in talk.


AK: When Jonson came to visit William Drummond for a week at Hawthornden, Drummond made an effort to write down every word Jonson spoke. Stein’s talk has been memorialized in numerous books that are cherished documents in modern literary history. Put it this way: these are not people who expect to be humiliated by the sound of their voices. I’m a shy person. I have no confidence in talk. Especially my talk.


A few years ago, my old teacher Stephen Foley heard me give a lecture. Later he asked me, “When did you learn to talk?” Because he remembered that I never spoke in class as a student, and he also probably remembered my inarticulate attempts to talk to him outside of class. “I learned just this afternoon.” The joke of my life is that my job as a teacher is mainly a kind of public speaking, and it does not come naturally to me. I talk too quietly and too quickly, sometimes so quickly that my mouth accidentally makes a kissing or smacking sound between words. I don’t have a lot of control over what happens to my voice, and there is occasional slurring, stammering, odd emphasis, and even breaking. Unless I’m thinking about it and trying not to do it, my eyes compulsively snap shut when I open my mouth. Then there’s my habit of transcribing all talk in a binary hand-alphabet, although I’ve learned to hide that pretty well.


So that’s what I have to work with. And in a sense I realize that this is partly a kind of personal myth, a story I tell about myself that maybe used to be true but doesn’t quite match the person I have become. I mean, I’m a lot better than I was fifteen years ago, but still! My voice is a constant reminder of the limitations of my ability to transform myself. I’m confident in writing. I feel that I can be basically anything in writing. But when I talk, I’m stuck with inferior tools, and there isn’t much I can do with them. I expect to be humiliated in speech, but not in writing. This is probably why I became a writer. My first inspiration for writing The Mandarin was the realization that speech and writing are different. Speech and writing are two things I do with words, but they offer completely different conditions of possibility for transformation. So I wanted to see if I could use writing to transform speech. What is this talking thing that seems to happen so easily for other people, and how can I control it? What happens when you transcribe speech as writing, or put writing in quotation marks to represent it as speech?


Lewis Carroll understands this. Maybe it’s because of his stammer? Anyway, he knows that talk is very difficult. In Wonderland, every time Alice opens her mouth, her voice comes from somewhere else. The sound of her voice is “hoarse and strange,” and she is never able to recite the lessons that she has dutifully memorized. Her voice is postsynchronous in that its sound doesn’t match her body-image, and it’s acousmatic in that its source is unknown. In the Looking-Glass world, voices are attached to plants and to food; detached from bodies so that the sound of the voice is objectified; and even detached from sound itself in the scene where the railway passengers are “thinking in chorus.” (Even Carroll throws up his hands at that last one and asks whether his readers understand what he means, because, he confesses, he doesn’t.)


BL: Dialogue in The Mandarin doesn’t strike me as transcribed speech. It “sounds” more like writing than talking. Or it seems that the characters are delivering lines, following, or rewriting, a script as they go:


“You were bored by any script that you knew by heart,” said Hallamore, “and because you were also a gifted writer, you would write new dialogue for yourself. Often the lines you invented were a kind of commentary on the lines they replaced in the original script. For instance, in a production of State Fair, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, you altered the line ‘sitting in the kitchen, talking to women,’ to ‘I can no longer pronounce the word women naturally’” (35-36).


It’s as if much of the dialogue in The Mandarin has undergone the process of substitution Hallamore describes. Your characters don’t deliver their lines “naturally.” What they say seems like commentary on their situation, not like speech that would arise within it (and in this sense the dialogue is postsynch; it isn’t coeval with experience). “They awaken in the same bed,’” said Mercy, “and their memories are momentarily confused” (37). That’s a weird thing for a character to say! Mercy is talking like an omniscient narrator, or perhaps like a literary critic describing a passage in a novel.


AK: One of the mysteries of speech is that it usually appears to be improvised. People know their lines, but they were never given a script. When speech is required, they are able to produce it spontaneously.


But not always. Like many shy people, I rely on formulas to participate in conversations; and people who don’t consider themselves shy use the same formulas. Ordinary conversations can include moments of high artifice. One can plan out a conversation, for example, and then perform it. Or one can pretend to have a conversation while actually performing for someone else who’s listening in. One can even recite poetry in conversations. Monsieur Jourdain’s lesson, that we have always spoken prose, is at least debatable.


So I want to emphasize that there is an element of documentary realism even in those moments you quoted. People really do use speech to distance themselves from situations. Mercy narrates an experience that Willy and Hallamore are going through, so she becomes an observer or maybe a director, and they start performing because she has put them in a frame. Narrating what’s happening to someone else can easily have the opposite effect. When you put people in a frame, they may become self-conscious, which disables performance—that, in a sense, is what has happens to Hallamore in your first example.


I admit that there’s one very weird quality about speech in The Mandarin, something that makes it completely unlike speech in history and in most novels. This is the weird part: the characters in my novel never lie. The lack of this most basic form of artifice makes them sound as though they have been hypnotized or given a truth serum.


BL: But, as you write in the synopsis, “it’s never certain that their speech accurately describes the situation in which they’re speaking” (ii). We can’t trust the characters’ descriptions of their actions. The synopsis says of chapters 38-42:


Mercy seems to be persistently phoning Willy at home. And, in a practical sense, that’s what’s happening, as long as the characters agree that it’s happening (although these chapters leave open the possibility that the characters are all gathered in the same place to play a game in which they pretend to be talking on the phone) (ii).


Don’t all the chapters leave open this possibility?


AK: Yes. I’m very interested in opening a space between what the characters say and what they might be doing. In other words, I don’t treat lying as a formal limitation on dialogue.


Let me back up and explain that. The speakers never lie in Plato’s dialogues for the same reason that letters never lie in Richardson’s epistolary novels: because lies would be corrosive to the form. If nothing can happen except through dialogue, and the dialogue lies, then nothing happens. Other activities that would tend to halt the dialogue are also sometimes treated as formal limitations. For example, in Erasmus’s colloquy on marriage, the speakers, Pamphilus and Maria, are unable to kiss because they need their mouths to keep the dialogue going. In D’Alembert’s Dream, when Mademoiselle de l’Espinasse says something so brilliant that it makes Dr. Bordeu want to kiss her, the kiss becomes a huge technical problem requiring at least three speakers. First Bordeu asks to kiss her, then de l’Espinasse says okay, and then d’Alembert narrates it while it’s happening, and the other speakers comment on it afterwards. Diderot is testing what at first appears to be an absolute limit. The boldest experiment I’ve seen in the form of the classical dialogue is Oscar Wilde’s Decay of Lying. Wilde is interested in lying as an art precisely because of its corrosive effects; he wants to chart the progress of decayed form.


Now recall the form of The Waves. This book isn’t a dialogue; it’s a novel, which in this case means that the speeches are introduced by dialogue tags and separated by quotation marks. There’s an outside. There are even some inter-chapters. The form of the novel opens a space around what the characters say; in that space, there could be tensions and contradictions between their speeches. They could even tell lies in that space without breaking the form. However, Woolf isn’t interested in taking advantage of that space. She doesn’t construe lying as a formal limit, but she avoids representing lies because she wants to keep the lyricism pure.


My novel exploits that space. I don’t go as far as Wilde and try to eat away at the form, but I introduce a lot of tensions between the speeches. Sometimes the characters agree in what they say, and they collaborate on constituting a world; at other times they disagree strongly, and the world changes with each interruption in the dialogue. In two places, the dialogue tags swell to chapter-length; in fact there are some lies embedded in the indirect discourse of Willy’s narrative. But, no, as long as they are speaking in quotation marks, the characters never tell lies, although the space around what they say makes lying a constant possibility.


One troubling example would be the passage where Mercy asks Willy why he closes his eyes when he talks, and one of his explanations is “because I’m lying, because what I see contradicts what I’m about to say.” That could be an expression of the liar’s paradox, and if you read it that way, it’s pretty close to Wilde’s experiments in the art of lying. I think of it somewhat differently. This speech isn’t a lie; it’s more like a theatrical aside or choral response to the lie. It’s exactly like the passage you quoted earlier, where Hallamore’s script is replaced by a detached commentary. In my reading, the speech has a tertiary, choral relationship to whatever lie Willy might be telling. Still, I see that’s debatable. My reading may not be the most obvious one.


BL: Voices are attached to a variety of objects in The Mandarin—a television set, toenail clippings, a red carpet, a Christmas cactus, etc. The Christmas cactus reminds me of Doug Allen’s comic, Steven (which you introduced me to), in which an alcoholic potted cactus endowed with the powers of speech competes with Steven for prominence in the comic strip. I also think of Steven’s struggle with the cactus because you mentioned the cliché that only one character can speak at time—which suggests that characters are always competing, crowding each other out in the effort to be the “main character.” Would you say more about how you conceive of character? Apparently it’s not primarily a biological category.


In the chapters where things speak in The Mandarin, character is on everybody’s mind. The objects misidentify (or attempt to re-characterize) Willy as Flavio, their long lost brother. In chapter 52 the narrator muses on how characters are formed: “It’s a funny thing about language. Start running, and you slowly become a runner; run away, and you become a runaway. Does it really happen like that?” (159).


AK: Most people think that the job of a character is to individuate, to ensure that there’s neither more nor less than one of a person. I think that character is a device that collects every example of a kind of person. It’s a social formation. In collecting examples, character doesn’t distinguish between things that are biologically human and things that aren’t. It doesn’t care whether the things are fictional or historical, living or dead, or whether they were ever alive in the first place. Nature, furniture, insects, rivers, stars, concepts—all these things can be part of the society formed by a character.


I should say that I’m working on a book about this idea of character. It’s an idea that I only partly understood when I wrote The Mandarin. (Except in the sense that I understood it intuitively, in the way that everyone understands it, because it’s the truth about character.)


A society needs things. Well, that isn’t always true. Bruno Latour and Shirley Strum have found one counterexample: baboons are able to make society using only their baboon bodies. And (Latour and Stum argue) they show all the work that goes into founding a society. They don’t have things, so they don’t have institutional memory. Whenever the baboons want to do anything, they have to build their entire society from scratch, out of their bodies. Not even social insects are willing to put themselves through that ordeal; the bees build a hive to keep their society together. Our society includes other stuff (buildings, shoes, books) so we don’t have to do that hard work all the time. Hannah Arendt says that people make things to maintain a world, so that it doesn’t disappear. Works of art, the most worked-over things, are especially good for this purpose because they resist the corrosive effects of time.


In The Mandarin, because the focus of reality is conversation, everything has to have a voice; someone either has to speak for the thing, or it speaks for itself. If the sidewalk doesn’t talk, then you can’t see how it participates in the community of the novel. This isn’t really so strange. Lots of things have voices in reality. Televisions, phones, radios, computers. Books, of course. All the other things talk too, but this usually means that someone else is speaking for them. “Don’t sit on that bench! I just painted it.” “My phone doesn’t get good reception in this apartment.” It’s a mistake to think that a thing doesn’t matter and that only the spokesperson matters, which is like saying that the telephone disappears when you talk into it. No, there’s a very close personal relationship between you and your phone. (Look at all the nurturing that phones require, all the care people bestow on the little phones they carry around!) That isn’t to say, on the other hand, that only the phone counts and you are merely its puppet. Sometimes the phone rings and you don’t pick it up. It can take a huge effort not to pick up a ringing phone, because the phone has trained you well, but you can resist. Then at other times you have to force yourself to answer the phone.


At one point in the novel, in the bedroom scene, the things take over and the other characters are manipulated by them. Natasha’s bedroom is a felicitous space, an arrangement of things that encourages a certain action. The things in the bedroom form a primitive society. They have their own religion in which they worship St. Peter, a sort of household god—but he isn’t the god of the whole household, just the bedroom. They have a rudimentary legal system in which some actions are criminalized, but it hardly matters because punishments are distributed equally. There’s some sexual difference in the bedroom—the T.V. set is male, and the toenail clippings are female—and there are family relationships, but there’s no incest taboo, maybe because furniture doesn’t reproduce sexually and has no use for exogamy. Willy, whom they call Flavio, has a history of being in Natasha’s house, and thus a place in their mythology. They see him as a thing like other things, but his mobility makes him special. He’s the one thing that left the bedroom and then came back.


People don’t count for very much in this society. But this doesn’t mean that the other characters make no difference. Hallamore has a romantic, iconoclastic quality, so he’s always banging his knees and stubbing his toes on things, encountering all the sharp and pointed boundaries of the world as he moves through it. And of course all the pieces of furniture despise him completely. Willy, on the other hand, has a more fluid relationship with objective reality. He keeps forgetting whether he’s supposed to be subject or object, and so he naturally falls into a familiar relationship with the furniture. He’s hailed by the furniture as a brother, maybe because their relationship to him is determined by Natasha’s. Mercy, meanwhile, is atypically quiet and spectatorial in this scene. She interacts mainly with her brother, and it isn’t always clear that she sees the furniture as actors.


This is a real difference, by the way. Some people are much closer to the world of things than others. It’s similar to the way that not everyone is able to cross-dress convincingly, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has pointed out. (And there are degrees: one man puts on a dress and looks like a woman; another man puts on a dress and looks more attractive, but like a man wearing a dress; another man puts on a tie and looks like a woman in drag.) On the Muppet Show, only some of the guest stars know how to interact with the muppets. Diana Ross can smile condescendingly, and that’s as far as she goes. But Danny Kaye has a long history of rivalry with Miss Piggy, and he’s brought to tears by the cruel remarks of Statler and Waldorf. (It’s the only time Statler and Waldorf refuse to attend the show; when they find out that Kaye is the guest star, they have to leave because watching him is even worse than watching a muppet.)


BL: You say it’s irrelevant to character if things are “living or dead.” Are the characters in The Mandarin—I mean the ostensibly human ones—alive? The novel is, after all, set among places that don’t exist; “they haunt, or are haunted by, these places” (i). And the ambiguous relationship between characters’ speech and their activity in the world of the novel can make them seem like ghosts.


AK: I can see why you would ask that. It’s a question the characters keep asking about Natasha. Is she still alive? If death is a sleep without waking, then the answer is, probably not. Willy’s novel was so boring that it effectively killed her. Then what?


These are sincere questions in the novel. The characters are not sure how to answer them, but they think and argue about them. One of the first things Willy says is that he doesn’t support civil rights for the dead. But this position is belied by his own experience, in which there is no discernible difference between life and death. He is killed by an invisible car, and the other characters remember him and feel sad for about a second, and then he gets up and starts writing novels again. Shouldn’t he still have the rights of a citizen?


What position can a dead person occupy in the community of the novel? The characters tell a number of stories about what happens after you die. In Willy’s story, you die and nothing happens. In the story told in Natasha’s bedroom, you die and St. Peter punishes you and makes sure that you get the normal punishment. Mercy is traumatized by the idea of death. She has sort of a diet or, really, a taboo in which she only eats things that are still alive. This taboo is also a feeling of horror at the idea of putting dead things in her body, and a constant suspicion that she might be doing just that. Both she and her brother have an almost ancient Egyptian attitude, that you should live in preparation for the condition of death, but for Mercy this entails eternal vigilance against contact with death. Whereas Hallamore wants to die well, which means neglecting the trouble and business of living (or letting his sister take care of it) so that he can concentrate on having a good death. Hallamore also has a lung condition, which isn’t just a reminder of the fact that he is going to die; this sound that his body makes is his death. It’s such a personal thing for him that no one else can hear it. When other people hear his cough, they might hear their deaths, but they don’t hear Hallamore’s.


But your question was really about something else, the places that don’t exist. Mercy works in a bakery that isn’t in business any longer, and her apartment is a very sketchy squat in an abandoned vending machine warehouse that may have been torn down. When the characters splurge on a meal at a restaurant, there’s no service and no food, because the restaurant is closed. There’s a sense in which the characters are touring Minneapolis and closing out life. I don’t see it quite that way. The places aren’t exactly dead, just empty.


Michael Clune, who, you know, is a very good reader, told me that the book operates on sudden pivots from mild social awkwardness to total emptiness. It’s something I hadn’t managed to articulate to myself. I knew that I was interested in awkwardness, but I didn’t realize until talking to Michael that emptiness is an important concept in the book. The empty containers of molasses, for example. Or all the wasted space in Willy’s head. The characters keep having to confront the emptiness of the world they inhabit. They get glimpses of an empty space around them, and they panic, because if there’s nothing else in the universe to exert some pressure on them, then what’s keeping them together? What’s to stop all the valuable stuff inside them from bursting out and flying away? Then it turns out to be all right, because the feeling that there were some pressurized contents inside them was a mistake. They’re empty inside too.


BL: Is that why they’re always talking about food (and coffee and tea)? One reason your characters can seem dead is that, while they are obsessed with food, it’s unclear if they ever actually eat anything: “Are they living on invisible molasses?,” I said. “Traces of molasses? Essence of m.? Because there’s no other food in the apartment” (96). And, as you mention, the bakery and restaurant are empty. I’m interested in your thoughts about food in your novel, and also about food as an aspect of the novel in general. How do you conceive of the relationship between food and character, or of food as character?


AK: Most of my thinking about food is influenced by Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power, a total account of human civilization based on food rather than sex. Canetti makes a lot out of a sentence that he finds in a text called the Shatapatha-Brahmana: whatever food you eat in this world, by that you will be eaten in the next world. Partly this speaks to eating as a model for power relations—the “entrails of power,” in Canetti’s phrase. He thinks that people are always eating one another, or trying to eat and escape being eaten. The other, less obvious idea that he takes from this sentence is that eating is reversible. On one hand, when I incorporate something into my body, I’m assuming that I can take it. I think I am so superior to my food that I can transform it into myself. On the other hand, I’m exposing my most vulnerable, secret, interior parts to a foreign body, and maybe I can’t take it. Maybe my food will change me in surprising ways. Maybe it will eat me from inside.


That’s why tea in The Mandarin is consistently mixed up with, or offered as an alternative to, masturbation. Because it’s a loss of control. You open up your body to tea, and tea creates another opening in your body that lets in—something else, something that doesn’t originate with you. And (but this happens more in my novel than in life, perhaps) tea also hooks up to your fantasy mechanism.


Most foods in The Mandarin—tea included—are technologies of consciousness. The question is, what kind of consciousness? The cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch has documented the careers of coffee and tea as agents of rationalism, enlightenment, and the Protestant work-ethic. I put coffee in my body, and my faculties are awake, alert, goal-directed, etc. This account is confirmed by Jurgen Habermas’s classic description of 18th-century English coffeehouses as the privileged site of Enlightenment consciousness, where ideas are exchanged and debated. But are coffee and tea correctly allied with reasoned argument? There’s a passage in Lichtenberg’s notebooks where he talks about the experience of having drunk a lot of coffee. He’s hopped up on coffee, and every noise makes him jump, and sometimes he jumps before he hears the noise—which proves, he says, that we have more senses than the five we know about. This suggests that coffee isn’t entirely on the side of the rational. There’s a big difference between a coffee that wipes the slate clean and makes your faculties (the ones you know you have) especially receptive, and a coffee that stimulates some unknown sixth or seventh sense! The latter kind of coffee sounds more like a case of inspiration or possession.


As for tea, the definitive book on that subject is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll is obviously interested in the reversibility of eating, and it’s notable that whenever Alice eats or drinks something, the food changes her suddenly and radically. The one possible exception to this rule is tea. In chapter after chapter, Alice eats and drinks the things that are offered to her, and she grows and shrinks, or becomes a flexible, snake-like creature, or has to send a Christmas card to her own foot. Then she takes tea with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare—and nothing happens! Her body doesn’t open up or close “like a telescope”; not even her voice changes. Here tea seems to be an instrument of enlightenment consciousness, merely enhancing the faculties you already have. But it’s also called a “mad tea-party.” We’re left with this question. Is tea on the side of the rational or not?


BL: We’ve discussed the strangeness of place in The Mandarin, how characters inhabit non-existent locations, but I’d like to hear you talk about the city in which your novel is set: Minneapolis. Or maybe I should say the Twin Cities, as the characters seem to be lost in St. Paul at the beginning of the book. The immediate spaces your characters inhabit are indefinite (they don’t seem to know whose house or room is whose, the businesses are abandoned, etc.), but the book is definite, almost insistent, about the specificity of its urban setting: “All this happened in Minneapolis” (188).


AK: Both of those things are true. The sense of place is iffy, but it’s definitely the Minneapolis of my childhood. That’s the important point: I am the child of a Minneapolis that no longer exists. Maybe the implication is that you never outgrow the map of the world that you draw as a child, so that every new place you encounter gets improperly annexed to the one map you have. On the sidewalk in Los Angeles, if I stop paying attention, my body assumes that it’s somewhere on Hennepin Avenue. Meanwhile, Minneapolis has become quite different from the place where I grew up, so if you put me on the actual Hennepin Avenue I would be lost.


It’s been a long time since I lived in Minneapolis, and I rarely visit. Still, I think it may be wrong to move far away from the place that produced you. The human body, or my body at least, wasn’t meant for so many moves and shocks and adjustments to distant places. Then again, you have to live with the same shocks and adjustments just by staying in one place, if that place is a city and the city is living and prospering. To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, the city is always trying to create new interesting things to look at, and at the same time trying to put you in a place where you can see them.


My book sometimes treats Minneapolis as a place without history or culture, where art is feared and ridiculed, which is not true at all. In fact it’s where I learned culture. For example, when I was seventeen, the Walker Art Center screened a retrospective of films by Raul Ruiz; I saw all the films in the series and became very passionate about them. At some of the screenings, I was the only person in the theater, which could have felt lonely, but instead it felt special, as though the films had been made just for me. There also seemed to be a lot of adventurous theater and music in Minneapolis when I was growing up. There didn’t seem to be very much poetry then, but maybe I wasn’t ready for it, didn’t know where to look for it. Also, there used to be, and there still is, Garrison Keillor. Yes, I know, and forgive me all you poets out there—I don’t like his ideas about poetry either—but he was part of my initiation into culture, and I would be ungrateful if I did not acknowledge this influence. From listening to his radio show, I learned something about shyness—remember his sponsor, powdermilk biscuits, which give shy persons “the strength to do what is necessary.” I also learned from him that Minnesota is a fiction. “I invented it,” he said in one of his best routines. “A lot of people invented it.” That’s probably where I learned the trick of pretending that Minneapolis has no history or culture. If Minneapolis doesn’t have a renaissance, an enlightenment, an empire, a resistance, a revolution, then all these things have to be invented.


I didn’t invent any of the places in the book. (In general, I’m not very inventive, and if I ever do invent something I tend to smother it through overuse.) Gelpe’s Bakery was on Hennepin, not far from my mother’s house—then it was replaced by the Wuollett Bakery, and I don’t know what’s in that space now—and the Sri Lanka Curry House was further uptown, near Hennepin and Lake. Jimmy Jingle, the vending machine warehouse, later used as a performance space, was to the East, off Franklin. There still is a John Ashbery Bridge connecting Loring Park to the Walker Sculpture Garden, emblazoned with the poem beginning “And now I cannot remember how I would have had it.” (It’s formatted as a prose poem in Hotel Lautréamont, but the supports of the bridge seem to break it into lines.) I did invent the subway at least.


BL: The urban proximity you described is often associated with the newspaper, which Phillip Fisher has characterized as the city’s “small, temporary, hand-held image.” Fisher was thinking about Ulysses, a very different novel than The Mandarin, but it does occur to me that, in both books, the newspaper is used for a variety of purposes. Bloom wraps soap in his newspaper, he kneels on it, hides his letter writing behind it, etc. In The Mandarin, the newspaper is described as a “device for concealing information,” for “eliminating centipedes,” and for “masturbation,” among other functions (203).


AK: That’s a nice phrase from Fisher. The newspaper is a portable image of the city. And then, because the newspaper is on the streets and goes into the houses, it’s almost part of the infrastructure.


I feel that the investigation of the newspaper is one of the most successful parts of my book. I wanted to turn the newspaper into the “spiritual object” that Mallarmé says it could never be. In practice, this means a centipede’s-eye view of the newspaper, very slow and sticky. There’s a wonderful line from The Front Page (spoken with particular relish by Adolphe Menjou): “You forget the unseen power that watches over the Morning Post!” I wanted to activate this uncanny power.


Today it may seem banal to point out that the newspaper is a device for concealing information and that it intends violence. Everyone knows that, right? The newspaper asks you to learn as much as possible about things that you can do nothing about. Frances Ferguson has a perfect formulation of this problem in her essay “On Getting Past Yes to Number One,” which I will paraphrase in the voice of the newspaper itself. The newspaper calls to you: “Get ready, hurry up, you will be called on to act, you will have to make a decision and act, no, wait, your call has been delayed, you will be called on later, you will be called on never.”

Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin is a poet, critic, and novelist. He is the author of a collection of small poems about shame, Folding Ruler Star (Fence, 2005); a chapbook, Secret Architecture (Braincase, 2006); and a novel, The Mandarin(Fence, 2008). He is assistant professor of negative anthropology at Pomona College and lives in Los Angeles.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s books are The Lichtenberg Figures (Copper Canyon, 2004, see review in Jacket 25) and Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon, 2006, see three prose poems from the book in Jacket 25). He co-founded No: a journal of the arts and edits poetry for Critical Quarterly. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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