IFOA 2013 Diary #1: Shape Shifters, Rachel Kushner, and the Three Cs of Literature

Shape Shifters
Sunday, October 27, 2013 
Participants: Siri Agrell, Nadeem Aslam, Jami Attenberg, Peter Bagge, Sam Lipsyte

I’ve got an extra ticket, so I bring a guest to the morning panel. The room only ever half fills up; we sit in the front, and my date asks if I’m going to write about what he called the “tasteful dinner jazz” that filters into the room before the panelists take the stage. I tell him not to tell me how to do my job.

Soon Siri Agrell enters and introduces the panel: Peter Bagge, a short, grey-haired cartoonist who looks much less gruesome than the graphic self-portrait that appears in the program; Nadeem Aslam (top left), whose face seems as open as a window, features built around eyes that widen in a way that seems almost spring-loaded; Jami Attenberg (top middle), whose face I’ve seen so may times on Tumblr, where she keeps a delightful, selfie-ful home online, that it feels for a second like we’re good friends and I get a bitter gut punch of nerves on her behalf when she walks out; and Sam Lipsyte (top right), who looks exactly like Sam Lipsyte.

Agrell opens with a short statement on what, throughout time, shape shifting has meant. Like many IFOA panels, there is a general sense that the programming’s idea is simply to get some different writers on the stage and have them chat about whatever, but Agrell makes a valiant effort to gesture toward the purported theme. In fact, she proves to be a perfect host, clearly well prepared but encouraging of a loose, natural conversation.

When asked about the places that writers must inhabit to do their work, Nadeem Aslam describes his compulsion to write towards a literature of conscience, where by some trick the novelist enables the reader to listen to that world-loving voice inside of each us that makes us better than our circumstance, better than who we otherwise are. Jami Attenberg picks up the thread, describing how in her most recent novel, The Middlesteins, she tried to write the story of a family and the sense of obligation that arises out of love and blood to take care of each other even when it’s hard as hell. Her aim, she said in echo of Aslam, was a literature of compassion.

The room was eating it up, myself included, and having got off to a serious start I think there was genuine delight when Sam Lipsyte cracked that his essays and stories were all in the service of the literature of commiseration. Aslam said that all stories are love stories; these three Cs were different ways of loving, but it was all to the same end. Later, in the Q and A, a local cartoonist challenges Aslam. “I don’t buy that all stories are love stories,” he says, but Aslam has it under control. “Oh, well all my stories are love stories,” he jokes. Everyone laughs. Peter Bagge goes toe to toe with the cartoonist question-asker, saying that all stories arise out of some kind of love—passion on behalf of a character or a writer. Sam Lipsyte adds that the only thing we’ve got other than love is the fact that we’re on a clock. A big laugh jumps into my throat before I can politely suppress it. Death haunts every page of every book, and I suppose that’s what we all have to commiserate about.

Another person asks a question about heroes, and why we don’t seem to have any in our literature anymore. Bagge steals the show by saying that a hero is made up of their vulnerabilities. It’s impossible to think of Superman without Kryptonite, without his double life and his feelings for Lois Lane. A hero is only as interesting as their Achilles’ heel—the point at which they might break. “Without these vulnerabilities,” Bagge says, “Superman would be even more boring.”


Artist Talk: Rachel Kushner
Sunday, October 27, 2013 

I am shocked and sad that the room isn’t overflowing with people. There’s a person at almost every table, but I really thought that Rachel Kushner fans would come out of Toronto’s art enclaves, out from the activist jams, out from the universities and the drum circles and the film socials and that it’d be standing-room only. The community I’d imagined rallying around Kushner stayed mostly imaginary, but it was probably for the best; if there had been insistent readers hanging from the rafters and people straining to catch her brilliance in laps and on shoulders, the talk may have gone a little differently.

Rodge Glass, our host for the talk, tells the not nearly enough of us about the format for the event, which is meant to foster discussion and welcome audience comments at every turn. Kushner begins by reading a brief section from her new novel, The Flamethrowers, about how strange it is that white bread, once “the bread of the gentry” has gone out of bougie fashion. She charms us all by commenting on the dystopian street scape at Harbourfront these days, where the roads are closed and have been churned up by unseen machines, half of every street fenced off and desolate. “The future is going to be an experience of navigating unmanned construction sites,” Kushner predicts.

Glass begins the interview, pulling quotes from the book and pushing towards some sort of comprehension of Kushner’s project and process as a novelist in the 21st century. A man that Kushner’s 22-year-old narrator loves tells her that there are conditions under which the truth is useless, and it seems almost like the right kind of cruel. Glass asks about the character, and Kushner thinks for a millisecond before she answers. “The way novel characters form and develop—you get to synthesize and pour into one person traits that bring up so many questions for you, the writer,” she says. Fascinated by the artists that were working in New York through the 1970s, Kushner felt that the novel offered her the opportunity to explore her attraction to the scene, to the kinds of people making art in response to the sudden pervasiveness of advertising and images. Through writing the book, she says she was empowered to “build my own version of an artist.” Later, she’ll describe the artists of the time working on undocumented performances, confronting a challenge to make works that could never be sold.

Returning to the idea of the truth, and of the usefulness of it, Kushner recalls Proust, saying, “it’s not always useful to know what other people think.” Everything that happens in the mind of another is veiled, enmeshed in so many layers of the world and our individual experiences of it, and there are only so many moments when the honesty of a given situation, or the truth of a person’s thinking, are useful. “Maybe I subscribe to the idea,” Kushner says, “that love’s true object is absence.”

Perhaps because the room is cold, or because I want to follow along so desperately with the incredible pace of her thinking and have been over-vigorous in my note taking, I’ve by now practically pulled the entire table cloth into my lap. Most likely, it’s an unrepressed and possibly puerile urge to get closer, to crawl into what Kushner is saying about art and the novel’s form and the twinned threat and promise of revolution and her life and remove whatever veil there lies between us.

Kushner mentions her fascination with Italian Futurism, and an audience member asks her to elaborate: “Why are you so interested in Futurism?” Without missing a beat, she deadpans, “Because I hate women.” She adds a “just kidding” just in case, but in a single, carefully wielded bit of sarcasm Kushner’s made clear her position that she’s fine with pursuing complex intellectual pleasures. She’s always been drawn to the fetishization of speed, she says, as I try to chase her lightning-fast eloquence with my pen. One thing she finds particularly fascinating about the art movement is that the Italian futurists, for all their glorification of metal work and machinery, had no real ties to Italy’s many industrialists and manufacturers. Their machines were created from impressions gleaned at a great distance; they themselves never laboured over an assembly line or developed specialized technical skill by virtue of completing nerve-damagingly repetitive tasks.

“The early futurists,” Kushner says, had “a very intense engagement with the new vanguard logic.” This logic metabolizes everything that came before and hunts for something truly new; it’s an attempt to explode what is known and rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.

When an audience member asks about what all this means for the novel, the form and its future, Kushner doesn’t want to rush her conclusion. She tells us that the novel is a much more conservative form, and doesn’t adhere to the rules of vanguard logic; “the novel,” she says, “doesn’t have to be new to be relevant.”

I sit with the tablecloth in my lap, staring at her, unsure if I agree totally with everything in me, or if I want to rip this last thing she says up and start again.