There’s a saying (I think) that goes like this: A man climbs a mountain for one of two reasons — because his father did, or because his father didn’t. (Or something to that effect.) There are a lot of sayings about fathers and sons. The relationship is one of literature’s oldest topics, and one that continues to saturate contemporary audiences. Novels, television, movies: any narrative seeking to provide the thinnest bit of motivation will give a character a dead, deadbeat, or overbearing father, knowing that such relationships are so foundational that a fraught one can explain away any sort of aberrant behavior. It takes a truly talented writer, then, to whip new dynamism into the old father/son archetype (let alone to write an entire book in which that archetype is tackled over and over and over again.)
Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s INHERITED DISORDERS, released this past May from Regan Arts, contains 117 short stories that each riff on the dysfunctionality that exists between fathers and sons. If that sounds like a novelty — something flat that would cease to be interesting 30 pages in — rest assured that it is the opposite. Sachs comes at every story from a new angle, and while they share certain commonalities (theme, narrative voice, and a lean parable-like structure) the amount of variation Sachs manages to wring from that formula is remarkable. This is one of those rare books that provides such an exhaustive treatment of its subject that future writers are simply left with nothing else to add.
Plus it’s very, very funny. Sachs is a former writer for the Harvard Lampoon, and stories from this collection have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and n+1. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email, sharing his thoughts on the importance of comedy, the shamefulness of fiction, and the influence that Thomas Bernhard has had on him (and everybody else).
I read that this book came about because you were attempting to write a traditional, realistic novel about a father and son, and you were stymied by the demands of that, so you turned to these brief, largely non-realistic parable-like stories. Which surprised me, because these feel so effortlessly constructed that I’d assumed you’d been writing this sort of thing for a long time. Had you written much short fiction before this? Do you think of these as short stories, or do you see them as being part of a different tradition?
I had written a few aborted short stories before, but really I specialized in aborted novels. My genre was shapeless novel beginnings ranging from 25 words to about 3,000, and it was after dozens or hundreds of those that I decided to try it in this fragmentary way. Which (pretentiously and optimistically) is how I thought of it, as a fragmented novel rather than a collection of short stories, though the market seems to have disagreed with me.
I have no particular affection for the short story, especially the well-made Anglo-American realist short story, which I wouldn’t know how to write even if I liked it (though perhaps I would like it if I could write it), and I prefer to read and write in book-length chunks. I like the feeling of a writer obsessively chewing a single thing over for 250 pages without getting any closer to understanding that thing, which usually means a novel, though extremely narrow, monomaniacal sets of stories work, too. In writing this book I was thinking about certain monomaniacs who sometimes write in fragments: Kleist, Kafka, Kharms, Jack Handey, Lydia Davis, etc.
Yeah, I read that you wanted to call this book a novel, but that your editor advised against it. Which must be the first time that’s ever happened in American publishing. I’m inclined to agree with your editor, as far as it not being a novel. How do you see it working as a novel?
Yeah, you (and he) are right, of course. I guess I care less about a unified plot than about the sense that the author is engaged in a unified psychodrama. If a book has fifteen completely separate stories, but it seems like they all came out of the same very specific mental breakdown on the part of the author, I’ll usually think of it as a novel. I think Wittgenstein wrote novels, for example. Whereas most things that are marketed as novels don’t seem like novels at all. So I’m probably just using the word “novel” to mean something like “I like that thing.”
You seem to have pretty forgiving parameters when it comes to genre. Do you see a distinction between fiction and humor writing (of the Shouts & Murmurs variety, for example)? I’m maybe revealing my own prejudices here, but when I saw that your book had a Simon Rich blurb, and that you had written for the Harvard Lampoon, I sort of wrote it off, thinking that it would be of the B. J. Novak/Jesse Eisenberg variety of story collection. Your book is very funny, but it also has other ambitions. Do you think writing needs to do more than just be funny to be considered Fiction with a capital F?
Just to turn that question around first, I think that writing has to be funny, at least, in order to be Fiction with a capital F. (It’s necessary, if not sufficient.) There is a well-known process by which writers suck out the comedy of better authors, and then become more famous and better read than those better authors. I’m thinking of Sebald sucking out the comedy of Bernhard, leaving only the themes and the syntax, and then becoming more famous than Bernhard, and Coetzee sucking out the comedy of Beckett and becoming better read than Beckett. You take a great author, you suck out the comedy, and then because seriousness is so prized by critics, and comedy so misunderstood, you immediately become famous — it’s very straightforward. So the clear and present danger for me in the literary world is always too much seriousness, not too much comedy. The problem with serious writing is that it assumes there is something intrinsically meaningful about the world, which I think even bad comedy understands is totally mistaken.
On the other hand, to your question, if the comedy doesn’t come from pondering the meaninglessness of the world, it’s probably not worth doing, either. Fiction in my view should just be a machine for converting the meaninglessness of things into laughs.
Why do you think that process happens, the Bernhard/Sebald process? Do the powers at be in the literary world have no sense of humor? Or is it that most people want there to be something intrinsically meaningful about the world and, as you said, they don’t get that from comedy?
Yeah, I think it’s partly that — that there’s redemption in Sebald, the sense that there’s something meaningful about remembering various 20th century horrors and recording them on the page, whereas there’s no redemption in Bernhard, just horrors and cackling. I think it’s also, relatedly, about prestige. The (tiny) role literary fiction plays in culture seems to be mainly about prestige, not pleasure. Signalling this or that about yourself by what you read. (I do it, too, obviously.) And it’s easier to tell you’re in the presence of something prestigious when you’re reading one of Sebald’s elegiac sentences about the Holocaust than when you’re reading one of Bernhard’s ridiculous sentences about how Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders instead of a head. Eventually enough people started to notice Bernhard was prestigious, too, so now he’s just as prestigious in America as Sebald, and now you can also signal your good taste by reading Bernhard, as I am here, but it took longer, and I think it took longer because of the jokes.
You said in an interview with Karan Mahajan at Bookforum: “I have a pet theory that Bernhard—either directly or through W. G. Sebald, his glum disciple—is the hidden influence behind a huge swath, maybe the main swath, of contemporary fiction.” I really love Sebald, but I have to confess I’ve never read Bernhard. It does seem that certain writers — certain international writers removed from their original contexts — have an outsized influence on American literary fiction. I think it might vary a bit which of them you, as an individual writer, happen to glom onto, depending on when you were in school. Like, I think I’m young enough that by the time I got to college people had mostly stopped obsessing over Nabokov, but by that point they were obsessed with Beckett. (I went to a state school in Philadelphia, so we might have gotten to him later than other people.) Calvino and Sebald were the guys when I was getting my MFA. And Bolaño had a moment in there, and now it’s maybe Lispector, or maybe Walser. But what is it that you see specifically as the Bernhard footprint?
Ha, yeah, I think that’s the right fashionable-international-late-modernist progression. It was good news for me that Nabokov went into quasi-eclipse when he did because my few years of aping his style were not good. He’s a tough one. I’ve found it much more productive to rip off other writers.
As for Bernhard, whom, by the way, I really need to stop talking about every chance I get, for purposes of concealing my influences better — you should read him! He’s great. And as soon as you read him you’ll start to see him everywhere in contemporary lit, in slightly different modes, from Geoff Dyer to Rivka Galchen to Ben Lerner to Lydia Davis to Knausgaard, etc. Bolaño, I think, is Bernhard plus Borges, etc. Other people have described the Bernhard footprint better than I can, but you know it when you see it. And there are different footprints: the daisy-chained dialogue-attribution footprint, the exaggeration-to-the-point-of-madness footprint, the solely-internal-landscape-no-nature footprint, the single-paragraph footprint, the relentless-conceptual-critique-turned-somehow-into-fiction footprint, and so on.
That’s really interesting. Those are definitely prevalent trends in American fiction. I might have to start name-dropping Bernhard myself. The parable/fable, which your stories could be said to fall under, has also become a pretty popular mode for literary fiction in recent years. Your work stands out from a lot of other work that could be called parables or fables, however, in that it isn’t really surreal or absurd. It’s very logical, very easy to follow, to interpret. You said, in that same Bookforum interview: “I hate non sequitur in fiction. Anything random I don’t like.” Do you think there’s a lot of randomness in fiction nowadays? Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure we have an epidemic of randomness. After all, we’re preceded by Dada art, David Lynch films, and Donald Barthelme novels. Probably the heyday of randomness was 1977, or possibly 1924. And even though I’m not a huge fan of that stuff, it’s still fighting the good fight against ponderousness, so if I were an insane art dictator I would first ally with randomness to eradicate all the ponderousness, before suddenly turning on randomness and eradicating that, too. In the end there would be nothing left but extremely logical absurdity. What I agree with in surrealism is the idea that art should show us demented things. But just showing them to us, without any logic, like surrealism sometimes seems to, feels like playing tennis without a net, or whatever that Frost line is. What is great about Kafka — and good philosophy, and good sketch comedy — is that you begin in the realm of normalcy, by accepting one little inoffensive premise (I am thinking of, like, The Trial rather than “The Metamorphosis,” but there it’s the same idea in reverse), and then everything proceeds logically, but you wind up at something totally demented. A surrealist would just start right off with two men being whipped in a closet, but what’s the fun in that? Even though, again, two men being illogically whipped in a closet is still infinitely better than the latest big ambitious social novel.
Are you disinterested in the social novel as a concept? What do you think of satirical novels of the Paul Beatty/Nell Zink variety, which are directed very specifically at contemporary American society?
I haven’t read those two. They might be great. But if I want to read something about society, history, or politics, I’d usually rather read a sociologist, historian, or political theorist. (And for ultra-contemporary, ultra-sarcastic cultural critique, nothing beats Twitter.) Fiction is already so shameful in its way, I think it should avoid every domain where some expert can cover it better. And for effecting political change it’s extremely inefficient.
Interesting. Could you elaborate on the way fiction is shameful?
I’m not sure, most of my time at my computer seems to be spent fighting back various forms of embarrassment — probably just the fact of making up imaginary people, making them interact with each other in imaginary ways, then shoving my writing in the faces of my friends and family when I’m done and asking for applause. Although I think shame about writing has also spurred a lot of good writing (Kafka’s diaries, Malone Dies), and I think it lurks in the background of most of the writing I like; usually I want to see some kind of subtextual plot involving the author battling his own disgust over what he’s doing and how incredibly inane it is. When it seems like the writer’s pretty confident he’s engaged in something heroic, or good, like Joyce, I am usually less into it. (I’m sure this is not a healthy attitude for life.)
I’ve never encountered that take before. So, to paraphrase, the ideal writer for you occupies a Goldilocks zone wherein she has enough shame that the shame makes its presence palpable in the prose, but not so much shame that it keeps her from writing in the first place. Is that right? There must be a lot of potential geniuses out there who have just a pinch too much shame and therefore never start writing.
But you must feel proud of your own work, right? This book has 117 stories in it. Weren’t there occasions when, after finishing a piece that really came together, you felt compelled to give yourself a high-five?
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Though there are also a lot of non-geniuses out there with too little shame who never stop writing — that’s at least as much a problem as the stifled geniuses, probably a much bigger problem.
The only slight modification I might make to your Goldilocks zone theory is that instead of a happy medium between thinking you’re a genius and thinking you’re an idiot, and between thinking writing’s important and thinking writing’s pointless, I’d describe it as a sort of very high-frequency hurtling back and forth between thinking yourself a genius (and writing important) and thinking yourself an idiot (and writing pointless). I think you have to believe both those things completely and at the same time, somehow — the first just to write at all, the second to write anything honest. A phrase I mutter to myself a lot is “the energy of delusion,” which is Viktor Shklovsky quoting Tolstoy describing what he lacked on a certain day when he was unable to write. You have to delude yourself into believing in yourself, and in the value of writing, while keeping in mind somewhere in the back of your head that these are in fact delusions. That’s hard for me. Usually the thing I mean to keep in the back of my head slips around to the front of my head. But also, yes, of course, there are days I think I’m a genius, and I strut around all evening and envision in detail the acclaim to come.
So what’s next for you? Are you going to stick with the parables? Are you going to try again to write a novel in fragments?
I’m trying to write a novel, a real one, something I can call a novel without lying to myself and others.