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December 6, 2016 | The Art of...

The Art of Fiction Lists

an interview with Chris Bachelder, by Aaron Burch

The Art of Fiction Lists photo

I've been a Chris Bachelder fan since I walked into Book Soup with a friend nearly fifteen years ago and an employee nearly shoved his first book, Bear V. Shark, in our hands, all but requiring us to buy it. I'm not sure if there was something about us that convinced him we'd love it, or if he'd just read and loved it so recently himself that he was putting it in every customer's hands. I've loved each of Bachelder's books since, and his newest, The Throwback Special, is my favorite yet. I've been recommending the book to every- and anyone who will listen to me since I read it earlier this year, not too unlike that bookstore employeed who first turned me onto him.

I emailed him a bunch of months ago, and we took turns taking forever to get back to one another. In the interim, the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I proposed an Intro to the Short Story and Novel class themed "The Sport of Fiction," at least in part to get to teach this book, which I'm excited to do here this coming semester.

 

When I first emailed you about an interview, I mentioned wanting to focus it on lists. The book's use of them is one of its (many) joys, and I think you at times allow them to go on and on (and on and on) in a way I found really hypnotic and can't think of too many instances I've seen. I certainly wouldn't ever let myself, I don't think. I wonder just how conscious you were of the technique, I guess. Did you know, really early on, that it would be one of the book's moves? Did it happen once and it felt like something clicked into place in a way you knew you wanted to repeat? 

Thanks for this terrific question.  In interviews I’ve received questions primarily about subject and theme, and far fewer about specific technique.  As a teacher and reader, my favorite activity is linking up a book’s idiosyncratic techniques—its “moves,” as you say—to its larger intentions and effects, so this is fun to think about.  Questions about technique may start small, but they almost always lead somewhere significant and essential. 

I didn’t know early on that listing would be a prominent technique and I wasn’t necessarily looking for ways to do it.  Without trying to sound too mystical about it, I think there is a way in which “moves” can be called into being by the overall project of the book.  So while it’s true that the particular technical strategies of a novel create the big picture—its overall impressions and intentions—it’s also true that the big picture can help generate techniques on the page. 

Here I have twenty-two men gathering in a confined space for a short period of time.  My pace is slow, my range of setting is limited.  I understood early on that my approach or stance for the book was essentially anthropological.  The men are fastidious and exhaustive in relation to this ritual, and thus I would also be fastidious and exhaustive in representing them.  I want to indicate who these men are, how they behave, what they value, what kind of tribe this is.  There is no protagonist, no distinctive lens, no central process of selection.  So it’s not just that I’m using lists, but as you say I’m using long lists.  I want a sense of coverage, completion, catalog.  I wanted to see and include everything.  The main idea here, I think, is that the items on the list are not as important as the list itself.  The form, or container, is what is essential (just as the hotel and the weekend and the ritual are more important as containers than the individual people they contain).  There is a similar concept at work with paragraphing, I think.  The long paragraph as container, a unit of meaning that is distinct from what the actual subject matter of the paragraph.

It’s not enough to tell you about three of the men’s t-shirts—I felt I needed to report about all twenty-two t-shirts that the men wear while sleeping.  We see that while the shirts might vary wildly, what is ultimately important is that they are all wearing a t-shirt.  The similarities that exist among tribe members are perhaps more important than differences.  This is a risk, certainly.  Some readers find this absolutely exasperating and dull—sort of aggressively tedious—while others find it interesting.  In general, I tend to be anxious about boring readers, so it surprises me now to see how fully I committed to this strategy.  I’m definitely interested in lists as a comic device, but the effect here is not essentially comic.  I guess what I’m hoping for is, as you say, a kind of hypnotic effect and perhaps a kind of tenderness or poignancy that can occasionally be achieved through intense observation of mundane objects.  Doctorow once wrote that “excess in literature is its own justification,” and this novel, like almost every novel, is committed to a certain kind of excess.  I think ten t-shirts would be too many to write about, but I’m perversely hoping that twenty-two is somehow not too many.  A writer can, I think, pass beyond “too many” or “too much” to a sense of rightness or aptness.  The paradox:  More than too much is sometimes not too much. 

I couldn’t necessarily have articulated any of these thoughts about lists while working on the book.  As you know, we work by instinct and intuition and feel, trying to discover the tics and techniques that each particular book requires.  When I started thinking about your question, I was surprised to see just how many lists (and in different forms) there are in the book.  It’s definitely more prominent than I imagined.  So it’s not something I was keenly aware of and not something I planned.  I think I was locked into an approach, an anthropological stance, and when I entered deeply into scenes—I imagine a vertical dive here as opposed to a horizontal skim across the timeline—I found that these lists seemed a natural and appropriate response.  I had adopted some serious constraints, and I found once again that constraints in fiction are generative.

I’ll just add that I’ve been interested in lists as a literary device for some time.  I’ve always thought the six-paragraph guest list in Chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby is beautiful and mesmerizing.  I used a long list in a chapter on Abbott’s dog’s fears in Abbott Awaits, but this is the first time I’ve committed so fully to it as a technique.  The reason, I suppose, is that in this novel the list hooks up to something larger.

So... One of the first time I really started noticing the lists, or at least the first one I highlighted, looking back now on my marked-up copy, was in the first chapter. The men are starting to get together, and there's this sentence:

The men had reached an age when they gained and lost significant things in relatively short periods of time, and it was not unusual for someone to show up in November having acquired or divested weight, God, alcohol, sideburns, blog, pontoon boat, jewelry, stepchildren, potency, fertility, cyst, tattoo, medical devices that clipped to the belt and beeped, or huge radio-controlled model airplanes.

It's so great. In both its simplicity and complexity, in how it feels like almost a throwaway aside and also like it's getting at the heart of this book.

I said before that I probably would never have allowed myself to go on for more than a list of, say, three. Maybe, at most, six, probably broken down into two different sentences of three each. One of the things that I like about such a long list is it can range from the kind of abstract to the super specific, from the grand to the minute, from the somewhat expected to the totally not. Any group of men getting together, once a year for many years, it feels natural to say that they'd likely gained or lost weight, hair, stepchildren. To have gained or lost God is such a large life change, but here it gets no more mention than having gained weight. Potency and fertility feel funny, both also at the heart of this book's zooming in on a very specific kind of manliness. And then radio-controlled model airplanes feels so specific.

I think the long lists, used all throughout the book, feel not only like an advantageous outgrowth, but also requirement, of having so many characters, but then those kinds of lists (like what t-shirt every character is wearing) allows you to keep using the form, to do things like the above.

I guess I wonder which happened first, did the lists connected to characters happen, and then they started popping up everywhere, or did it feel like it all happened at once, like that was just the voice of the novel... 

I think it came all at once, a kind of surprise discovery of one of the specific techniques of this particular novel.  In the next novel, I doubt that list-making will be a relevant or useful strategy, but here it does the anthropological work of the book.  Again, as with the t-shirts, I’m attempting to show that while the men gain and lose a great diversity of things, the important issue here is that it’s quite common—universal, even—to gain and to lose.  The men are more alike than different. 

There’s something to be said here about the category mistakes in the list.  It’s wrong to place a pontoon boat in the same list as God, right?  As you suggest, there is some comic incongruity in the mix of abstract and concrete, in the mix of spiritual and material.  But in placing them together in a way that seems indiscriminate, I can also suggest the ways in which the categories might rub off on each other.  That is, the men might attach a spiritual fervor toward the acquisition of a pontoon boat or radio-controlled airplane.  Or maybe they have been as nonchalant about marriage as about a haircut.  It’s as if there is a kind of empty placeholder for acquisition or loss, a space for yearning or grief that can be filled in any number of ways.  And that’s important to the book, as well, this kind of blind feeling.

And I need to say that is pacing is very important here.  It’s almost as if pacing can be generative.  I’m committed to moving very slowly through this weekend, and I’m as interested in lateral movement (elaboration and description) as the forward movement of plot and story.  The long lists slow my pace, yes, but they also grow out of the slow pace.  The ground I’m covering is not narrative ground—it’s descriptive or ethnographic ground.

 

And, secondly, I wonder if you could break down that specific list at all. Like, how much thought or tweaking goes into what does or doesn't get included, the order, etc.?

It’s standard to include just three items in a list, but if I were limited to three here, I would be in trouble.  I could go with potency and family and religion, but those are conventional and expected, and thus not very funny or interesting.  Or I could go quirky—pontoon boat, model airplane, sideburns—but now it feels superficial and ostentatiously zany.  I sort of naturally came to the large, sprawling, capacious list that suggests that a specific human trait or state might be expressed in any number of ways.

The list came together quickly—a rapid brainstorm—without too much consideration.  What else could I have included?  A financial planner, maybe, or a portfolio manager.  A certificate from a cooking school.  A sub-woofer.  A life insurance policy.  A futon.  I read through it many times to test it for rhythm and length.  I like “pontoon boat”—that’s funnier than other kinds of boats.  And I like how the list kind of unravels a bit at the end.  You can feel it fraying and becoming messy with the last two items:  “medical devices that clipped to the belt and beeped, or huge radio-controlled model airplanes.”  Those items, I think, could not have been placed earlier in the list.  The list begins with a clean, precise pattern—a catalogue of nouns—but then I begin to admit some chaos there at the end.  Here, the form and pattern of the list have a meaning and feeling that are distinct from the specific contents of the list, just as the form of a novel creates meaning and feeling.  That is, I think in a very small way readers can feel the pattern breaking down, falling apart, losing integrity.  It’s comic, but perhaps it’s also slightly unsettling.

 

This is fantastic. "It’s comic, but perhaps it’s also slightly unsettling" feels like a perfect end. So perfect, I kinda can't help but to ruin it and use that perfect ending for one final Q...

"It’s comic, but perhaps it’s also slightly unsettling" feels like a perfect encapsulation of that list, but also maybe the novel itself? In fact, it fits many of my favorite novels, and certainly all of yours; actually, I just today listened to John Hodgman's "flight vs. invisibility" segment of This American Life, and it has so stuck with me in part because of the expert way it moves from comic to slightly unsettling. 

I am sometimes frustrated there aren't more great comic novels, and I think it is in part because it is such a delicate balance. It can be hard to move toward "slightly unsettling" in a way that may leave the novel to "just" be humorous, or maybe it is unsettling but strives for comic in a way that isn't actually funny. I wonder if you're aware of this mixture at all, if it's purposeful in your writing, or if it just happens? And, too, I wonder if you have any thoughts on if one end of that formula is the trickier of the two, or maybe the transition is the trickiest of all?

Our exchange has me wondering if maybe there is some fundamental anxiety that is formally intrinsic to a long list.  A list maker is trying to be exhaustive, trying to include everything, trying to throw arms around all the items in a category.  It seems that failure and desperation are built in, right?  You’re trying to see all, know all.  This desire for order and completeness seems full of anxiety and unease.  So there’s the apprehensive dance with the reader—Are you bored yet?  How far will you go with this?—and then there’s the built-in apprehension about coverage.  So even though I’m almost always trying to exploit the comic potential of these lists in the novel, I do think they contribute in some small way to the more pervasive tone of uneasiness and anxiety and dissolution.

The balance that you mention is important to me.  At one time I was content to be (or try to be) merely funny, but as I get older I want the humor to do more work.  My favorite kinds of humor are the comic alloys – humor mixed with other grave emotions.

I don’t think about this much as I write.  I just try to trust my feel for tone.  There are a lot of jokes in the book, but there are also strong underlying feelings of bewilderment and nostalgia and grief and sorrow and longing.  There is an inexpert but genuine groping for connection and intimacy.  I took the men and their feelings seriously (even when they themselves didn’t quite understand those feelings).  The premise of the novel is silly, as are many of its episodes, but the underlying feelings are real.  I have a guy out at night searching for ginger ale to ease his upset stomach.  That’s not a grave, high-stakes quest, and yet his animating desires—for comfort and care, perhaps for love—are substantial, and I don’t make fun of them.  I trust that if I respect and honor the characters and their desires and fears, then I can employ humor to express (rather than evade) complicated emotions.  There are a lot of emotional alloys that we don’t really have names for. Sometimes I think laughter is just this strange sound we make when we’re up against something that is deep and not quite nameable.

 

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