Podcast: The Wonders of the Audible World

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 14 –
The Wonders of the Audible World

“One day, I was on the train to work and I had a terrible anxiety attack and a crisis of whatever, and began just scribbling on a yellow legal pad that I had. It was basically my complaints about my own misery. I was terrified that if I even lifted the pen from the page, I would just be carried off that railroad car screaming, past all the commuters.

“I did that for about three days, just a therapeutic venting on the page. In a little while, I began to become cold and calculating and worldly, and I thought, ‘Shit, this is pretty interesting. What if I just gave this a little quarter-turn to the left? Maybe this would be fiction.’ So that was it.

“Having nothing else to do, it was, hey, let’s dedicate the life to this.”

This episode of the Virtual Memories Show features a conversation with one of my favorite contemporary authors! In June, I drove up to Bennington College to talk to David Gates, author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, the short story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, about owning his niche (once described as “smart-but-self-destructive-white-American-middle-class-male-in-crisis”), teaching fiction and non-fiction writing, why he left the east coast for Montana, how he feels about the end of Newsweek, what it was like to make his start as a writer in his 30s.

You’ll also find out why he doesn’t want to write another novel, whose books he rereads every year, the status of his next collection of stories, the lineup for his country-rock band of writers and critics, and why he’s not exactly as enamored with Jernigan as its fans are.

As a bonus, our very first guest, Professor Ann Rivera, rejoins us for a quick conversation about what she’s been reading lately and why! (Hint: she’s down on postmodern lit.) Why, here we are at Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ, recording away!

Annriveraandme

Enjoy the conversations! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Others conversations with contemporary literary writers and critics:

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About our Guests

David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls and a collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. His fiction has appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House and Ploughshares. His nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, where he was a longtime writer and editor, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, GQ, Rolling Stone, H.O.W., The Oxford American and the Journal of Country Music. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and his books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is an Assistant Professor Fiction and Nonfiction in the Creative Writing Program at University of Montana.

Ann Rivera is a professor of English at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, NY, where she teaches courses in writing, narrative and literary genres. Her current project investigates the influence of digital media on narrative, reading networks and social structures. She attended Hampshire College along with your humble podcast-host in the early ’90s, which may help explain our mutual dislike of postmodernism.

Credits: This episode’s music is Guitar Man by Bread. The conversation with David Gates was recorded in the back yard of the Dog House residence on the Bennington College campus on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ann Rivera was recorded Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ with the same equipment. (Sorry about all the door opening/closing noises in that segment!) I recorded the intro and outro with that gear, sitting in a comfy chair in my library. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of David Gates by me, photo of Ann Rivera and me by Amy Roth.

Finishing the Dance

I first encountered A Dance To The Music Of Time in the mid-’90’s. A Borders bookstore had opened at the West Belt Mall in Wayne, NJ, and as was my wont, I inspected the fiction section — or was it “literature”?

At the time, my points of reference were the beginning of the G’s, where I’d look for Williams Gaddis and Gass, as well as David Gates, and the late P’s, where I’d check the selection of books by Richard Powers and Thomas Pynchon. It was in the latter section that I discovered Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press had recently released a four-volume, slipcased edition of A Dance To The Music Of Time.

In college, I focused on “the encyclopedic novel” for my literature degree. I had a vague idea of what that term meant, and wound up conflating it with “really long novels with which I could impress/cow my contemporaries.” As such, this 12-novel cycle looked like it was right up my alley. Still, I’d never heard of Powell and the internet in that period wasn’t as awash in fan pages for obscure artists as it is today.

Further, I don’t recall there being any “flap copy” or anything else involving a plot description on the slipcase, which was shrink-wrapped to prohibit singleton sales. So I had nothing to go by, in terms of knowing what this series was about. The case was adorned with Poussin’s eponymous painting of the Dance, and the spine of each volume was a detail of one or another face of the dancers. I knew nothing of Poussin back then, still a year away from reading Arcadia for the first time.

The dance to the music of time c

Sixty or so dollars was a large sum to me in those days, so I held off on buying the Dance. It slipped off my radar shortly after. When Powell died in 2000, I read up on the Dance a little. I considered tackling the series, which is a sort of roman a clef of British literary & society life through the eyes of a crypto-Powell narrator over the span of half a century, but never got around to it. I noted at the time that it seemed like a book to tackle in my 40’s. I used to say that about Proust when I was young, but I got around to him before turning 35, and should’ve done so sooner.

It wasn’t until last December, when U of Chicago Press announced that it had released all 12 novels as e-books, that I returned to the notion of reading the Dance. Like a good drug dealer, the publisher was offering the first e-book free. I had just finished My Year Of Gin, in which I would try a bottle of a new (to me) boutique gin each month of the year. I had planned to write about the project, but both overachieved (in terms of bottles) and underachieved (in terms of coherence), and so scrapped my chronicle of the project. You can, however, find photographic evidence here:

A Dance To The Music Of Time, it seemed to me, would make for a fine followup. The two projects were of a piece with what I now realize is a life of dilettantism. Why not give my amateur passions some degree of structure by organizing them around the calendar?

And so I decided to read one book of the Dance each month throughout 2011. Besides allowing the pace to mirror the seasons themselves, around which each novel was (subtly) organized, I was also protecting myself from burnout. I know myself well enough to know how easy it would be for me to roll through 3 or 4 of the books in the first 6 weeks of the year, before allowing the distractions and derailments that characterize much of my life to lead me away.

This morning, I finished reading the last of the 12 books, Hearing Secret Harmonies. My wife still asks me, “So, is it good?” and I don’t know exactly how to answer her.

I certainly enjoyed reading the novels, and I’ll be the first to admit that Powell’s prose can be quite tortured at times. I was also amazed at the reticence to reveal anything about the narrator’s own life or feelings, to the extent that one never learns Jenkins’ children’s names nor much about the books he writes over his 70 years (his volume on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy notwithstanding).

At times, the sheer volume of coincidental meetings can be maddening (coincidence being the author’s point, I know). Another type of coincidence, during a bombing raid of London, strains all credulity. But then, perhaps that’s because my own life doesn’t have much room for chance meetings nowadays. In the early books, bumping into old friends takes the place of the narrator having to commit any real activity. While the stories and the interrelations of his friends and acquaintances are engaging, I found the “autumn” novels — those covering WWII — much more entertaining, because the narrator was largely removed from his society surroundings and had to become much more of a participant in the world. Paradoxically, the level observation is much sharper in these books than the preceding ones. There’s a wonderful comedy of manners of Jenkins’ superiors at dinner, highlighting the absurdities and hierarchies of military life. (There’s also a great moment when Jenkins, who remembers everyone over the years, encounters his brigade from earlier in the war, and discovers that his old cohort has no recollection of him whatsoever.)

I think Jenkins also undergoes a maturation process during the war novels. By book 9, The Military Philosophers, his literary persona really blooms as his military duty begins to draw to a close. There’s a wonderful passage where he realizes his assignment has taken him to Cabourg, the town that Proust fictionalized into Balbec. Maybe it’s a sort of clue into the roman a clef of the whole Dance itself, but it’s also some of the most gorgeous writing in the books.

As I look back over the scope of it all, a story beginning in 1920 or thereabouts, carrying on to 1971 (the year I was born, coincidentally enough), and flashing back to Jenkins’ childhood in the naughts, I’m struck by the vividness of so many minor characters. Just like life, I didn’t think much of some of them at the time and miss them now they’re gone. (Speaking of which, Powell is merciless in his characters’ ends. So many figures are simply reported dead as the years carry on. I was under the impression that the whole cycle of novels would revolve around the four schoolboys introduced in the first book, and then found myself thinking, “Well, they didn’t actually show us [x]’s body, so maybe he’s still alive and will be back in a later novel…”, as though Anthony Powell was writing The Fantastic Four or something.)

But I won’t write too much about the goings on of the Dance. I do think it comprises a wonderful tapestry of the transformation of a certain class in British society throughout the century, but it’s also the sort of thing that no one (I know) reads anymore. In harmony with my college self, that’s probably a big part of why I stuck with this project all year.

Just as Jenkins sees patterns and echoes throughout the generations (and there are plenty of echoes in the last novel), I know there are echoes of myself from that pretentious college kid to this pretentious trade magazine editor. But there are also substantial changes, both internal and external. That Borders was demolished a few years ago, before the chain itself went under. Pynchon and Powers? I don’t read them much anymore.

I’m not sure if I’ve changed all that much since beginning A Question of Upbringing last January. It’s been a complex year, and I think reading The Leopard had more of an effect on me than these 12 novels. Perhaps I’m underestimating. After all, the clarity of the first 800 words or so of this piece — written in the morning after finishing Hearing Secret Harmonies, driving my wife to the bus stop, and walking the dogs in a frosted-over field — and the sense of bliss I had all morning long could be telling me that I’ve been feeling a subtle anxiety about completing the Dance. Maybe my hesitance and depression of these past few months has stemmed from an anxiety about coming to the end of something so long and continuous. (Everything after Anatomy of Melancholy was written following a long day at the office.)

0-fer of the week: Pulitzer edition

Evidently, this year’s Pulitzer Awards come out soon. In fact, they may’ve been awarded already. I’m not really sure, because I don’t give a crap about awards.

But, so, hey, I came across a link to this AbeBooks list of the Top 10 Forgotten Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novels, and guess what?

I haven’t read a single book on this list! In fact, I haven’t read any other work by any of the authors on the list, except for one!

That would be Steven Millhauser, because David Gates recommended one of his books to me. This recommendation was from our first conversation a dozen years ago, and I realize now that I never actually read more than a couple pages of that book, although it looked promising.

It’s Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, and now that I think about it,  it might make a good post-Salinger read for me. I’ll try to get to it this summertime and let you know.

What It Is: 9/15/08

What I’m reading: The Long Goodbye, which I haven’t read since 1992. I gotta read more of Chandler’s stuff. For some reason, 9 of his novels are available for the Kindle. So . . . any suggestions? (Also, The Last Musketeer, by Jason, and still with Montaigne’s essays. . .)

What I’m listening to: Beck’s Modern Guilt. And REM’s “Ignoreland,” which shuffled up recently on my iPod and will probably be in heavy rotation through the election.

What I’m watching: Your mom. There. I’ve said it. (Amy had a pretty busy week, so we didn’t get around to finishing up the last season of The Wire. Two episodes left!)

What I’m drinking: Red Stripe! Hooray beer!

What Rufus is up to: Accidentally showing up at a greyhound meet & greet! The admin of the Greyhound Friends NJ list dropped our e-mail by accident, so we didn’t know that our local pet store was hosting an event on Saturday. Coincidentally, we took Rufus up there to buy his pet food (we could’ve done it without him, but he loves going to the store), and discovered 4 or 5 greyhounds & owners in the parking-lot. Rufus, of course, was very happy to make some new friends.

Where I’m going: To the GFNJ Annual Fall Picnic/Greyhound Planet Day on Sunday in Bridgewater, NJ! My pal/co-worker Jason & his wife are picking up their grey at the picnic, so we’ll find out if their girl gets along with Rufus before we set up a playdate.

What I’m happy about: Having a quiet weekend, between pretty busy weeks.

What I’m sad about: David Foster Wallace’s suicide, even though I hadn’t read a book of his in around 10 years. (I suppose this title is a bit ironic now.) Here’s a terrific appreciation of/meditation on DFW by David Gates. Gates & I talked about Wallace in our first conversation, c. 1996, when I called him through the Newsweek switchboard because I was bored at my office and thought maybe he’d be around and willing to shoot the breeze. He was. (UPDATE: Gates suggests I/we read Laura Miller’s DFW piece on Salon.) (UPDATE 2: Michael Bierut has a good post on DFW viewed through a design/marketing lens.)

What I’m pondering: How SiteMeter made so many poor decisions when it “upgraded” this weekend.

What It Is: 4/21/08

What I’m reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, as suggested by David Gates (not the guy from Bread).

What I’m watching: NBA Playoffs, except for most of the Nuggets-Lakers game.

What I’m listening to: not much. I haven’t played a lot of music lately, partly because I can’t (work-)write when there’s music on, and partly because my mom is visiting for a week and it’d be rude to play my music as loud as I like to. But I did just fall in love with Academia, off the new album by Sia.

What I’m drinking: G&Ts with G’Vine, a fancy French gin that my associate editor bought me for the holidays.

What I’m happy about: That Rufus was impossibly well-behaved (well, sleepy) during our Seder on Saturday night, despite the presence of 5 people he’d never seen before.

What I’m sad about: All the games we could’ve played. (oh, and these, too)

What I’m pondering: Going back to Montaigne and writing more of those Monday Morning Montaigne pieces that you hated.