Against all 'decent restraint': Jack Ross talks about EMO
But it is not only political discussion which has suffered from the decline of the offline media in the West. As many periodicals either go tabloid, jettisoning any intellectual pretensions, or go under altogether, the spaces available for the discussion of literature have also declined. It is not surprising that many of the most interesting book reviews and literary interviews now appear online.
I'm certainly pleased to be able to publish an interview with the venerable Jack Ross which has apparently proved too long for any of our local offline literary journals to host. The interview was conducted by Richard Taylor, a man with a longstanding and well-deserved reputation for digression, and moves through subjects as different and differently interesting as life on Mars, the future of the book, the last days of the Roman poet Ovid, the 'socio-sexual extremism' of Kathy Acker, Auckland's 1998 power blackout, and the political consequences of the suppression of emotion.
As they chat, Jack and Richard return again and again to EMO, the large and strange novel Jack published in September 2008. Jack has a vast private library, which he has catalogued in disconcerting detail on a website named A Gentle Madness , and EMO, with its multiple layers of text, multiple plots, and slips between distant times and places, often seems like an attempt to fit a whole library between the covers of one volume. Precisely because of its improvisational, wide-ranging nature, Richard's chat with Jack makes a good introduction to the book.
Richard: EMO – what does it mean and why is it the title?
Jack: Well, it’s a musical style – and a kind of lifestyle choice. “Emo” stands for “extremely emotional” (or so I’m told). It’s rather like the Goth style, only Goths tend to see Emos as very suburban and spurious. When I heard about it a few years ago, I thought it perfectly summed up what I was trying to do in this book – both the excessive emotionalism and the faint air of the spurious. After that, though, I started making up a whole series of puns as retrospective justifications: E/ Earth – M/ Mars – O / Otherworld; and E/ Eva – M/ Marlow – O/Ovid. That gave me my core cast. The mood preceded the material in this case.
Richard: To what extent is or are your three books, Nights with Giordano Bruno, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, and EMO in some way to be thought of as a trilogy – I mean not so much a trilogy in a narrative sense, but perhaps in sense that they share similar experimental locations, as well as certain common ‘themes’ or ideas. One would be surely the exploration of various states of consciousness, and or of physical states?
Jack: This one was written consciously to try and complete a pattern which I could see starting to work itself out in the other two books, even though the first of them (at any rate) was written as a completely stand-alone text. Since that first book used Insomnia as its central image for alienation, and the second used Amnesia for its own set of concerns, the idea was to move one step deeper in this final book and focus on Blindness. A very hopeful set of tropes!
Richard: I note that in fact EMO itself is, or could be seen to be, a trilogy (or has three sections) and your quote at the start of EMO is: “According to certain Buddhist schools of thinking, three rebirths are the minimum to reach enlightenment … one for the harvesting and liberation.” Is EMO, or the third chapter of EMO, rebirth that reaches enlightenment? If so, how does this happen? What is this enlightenment?
Jack: Yes, EMO is a trilogy: a set of three novellas, revolving around all the false starts and misunderstandings which cripple communication between people. Mostly, I suppose, it’s about relationships. I suppose I hoped that by working through the three narratives, the reader might be positioned to think about what “enlightenment” might be. That’s the best I can do, myself. There’s an attempt at a sort of poetic resolution at the end of the book, but I’m not in any way thinking that that could be enough. A step in the right direction, though, hopefully.
Richard: How much do you ‘owe’ to postmodernist theory? What writer or thinkers are “behind” what you are writing? (Of course Jack Ross is “behind” all the books)…
Jack: I guess when I first started reading Derrida and the other poststructuralists much of what they were saying seemed self-evidently correct to me. They pointed out that all of our metaphysics and analysis was based on extremely shaky ground – that each web of meanings was used as justification for the next web of meanings, but there was no solidity or certainty beneath it all. But then, that was obvious to me already. Isn’t it obvious to everyone? The only real question then becomes how to function in such an uncertain universe, and some of the ideas they had about that seemed quite sensible as well. Derrida used the language and methods of metaphysics to deconstruct traditional metaphysics. Why not? He was quite conscious of the paradox involved in doing so, but what alternative did he have? I guess my style of writing fiction (and “novels” in particular) is a kind of use of fictional tropes to question the nature of fiction itself. It can be an absorbing occupation. Do we really need an overarching theory to make sense of everything before we start thinking and analysing things? I’m not sure that we do, and Derrida gave me a kind of starting-point for continuing to assert that.
Richard: I read some essays by Walter Benjamin – one in particular on translation seemed to me to say, more or less, that translation, if it was really worthwhile or significant, in fact transformed a work into a “higher” work.
I know you were interested in Benjamin – I don’t know much about him – but how much has the idea of translation, or transformation, been a significant aspect of your work and in particular EMO? For me it seems that you are pretty much “obsessed” with many variants of various works and tales (the Tales of the Arabian Nights of course and also, via Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are transformations of various kinds (echoing the strange world of nature itself in fact), as well as Greek mythology, sexuality etc And EMO is, it seems to me, a constantly shifting, changing, transforming work…And you yourself are quite conversant with many languages – and have translated much literature. (Such as Borges and much else…)
Jack: I guess I see Walter Benjamin more as a poet than as an historian of culture. His ideas are interesting, but it’s mainly the harmonious sense of a mind finding beauty in unexpected twists and turns of thought that’s really inspiring, I think. His essay on the role of the translator is a classic, but it’s totally over the top at the same time. He sees it as inherently involving a kind of transcendental act. My own ambitions as a translator are rather more humble. I do it because it’s a useful way of bringing in a kind of complex cultural apparatus without having to feign or manufacture it yourself. It’s yours and not yours at the same time. The idea of transformation or metamorphosis is (you’re right) at the heart of these books because it interests me intensely, but then it interests most people, don’t you think? Ovid, Apuleius, the Nights, these are all texts which use it as a central metaphor, but then transforming oneself, and thus (hopefully, by example or contagion) transforming society is surely such a basic poetic device that using it needs little justification. We need to transform ourselves in order to avoid the errors of the past (our own and others’) – by definition.
Richard: Am I right in that EMO is also quite different because now you are yourself quite vigorously using the Internet and Blogs to allow the reader to follow the various "strands" of the book?
- And further that this adds a multiplying or magnifying effect or potential to EMO so that by implication and de facto it is all texts done by Jack (who is amusingly found missing – that is on page 98 a blurb to another book (another text inside a text by the way!?) says: “Ross has disappeared…” and thus again there is a wry “Death of the Author” (etc) question…or am I wrong?); and all texts are thus interacting - I am trying to express the Barthesian and Derridean aspects of your work - the endless chase of signifiers and the "Death of the Author" are subtexts I guess at. Clearly the author is not dead! Never was wanted to be as such! But it is implied by the many stories - especially when I read in your notes that run transverse to the "main story" where you discuss, in relation to 1001 Nights, the fact that no one is sure who the author of that work is. Now this text, with all its many stories and comments on stories, "feeds" into the main text and thus, as I suspect that EMO is in fact another story inside what is effectively a Borgesian or Escherian endless loop of stories in Jack's, or the Non Author's, endless book, it seems to me the text is "authored” by all other texts. In particular by your own reading and learning in life and in literature, art etc. In fact this all reminds me of Jealousy or Voyeur by Robbet-Grillet (and the poem of that name by Manhire).
Jack: The internet and the idea of hypertext and shifting plains of reference is certainly a gift to the aspiring labyrinth-builder. Joyce and Escher seem to have got along okay without it, but I guess for me the world-wide-web is a kind of democratisation of the impulse: everyone their own Borges, with a tithe of the effort. As far as the death of the author goes, well, there is another Jack Ross – a hard-bitten desert-loving Reno detective in the works of a guy named Bernard Schopen (and actually, since EMO was published, yet another Jack Ross has surfaced: a Scottish crime-writer who wrote a book called Requiem) – so maybe I am dead after all, and just don’t know it … I deliberately fail to name the protagonist in all three books of the trilogy. Which makes sense to me because they’re all focussed on a central male figure undergoing some kind of extreme turmoil (they might all be versions of the same person, in fact). But actually all three books are by me, and I’m a male, resident in Auckland (where all three books are set), sharing many experiences with these central figures, etc. So of course they are all me. But then they’re not, either, because they’re fictionally-projected personages in mysterious mirror-worlds. These seem to me unavoidable accompaniments to the whole business of writing fiction. You could say that I was deconstructing fiction by undermining certain aspects of the projection – pointing out the paradox of pretending to be someone else when everyone knows it’s just you in a funny wig. But then Cervantes did all that in Don Quixote and it didn’t stop his characters seeming real –or believable, which isn’t quite the same thing.
I guess EMO takes this lack of verisimilitude pretty far. It’s hard for me to believe that many readers will be comfortable with such naked and perfunctory scaffolding I provide in various parts of the story. But then I’m not particularly interested in making people feel comfortable. You’ve got to go pretty far nowadays to wake them up at all – to break up the frozen sea within them, as Kafka said.
Richard: Regarding influence again – I know you once emphasized your debt to Kathy Acker.
What of her (or other writers) have influenced you and what in particular about her… I know she dealt with certain “shocking” things as sex and so on, and like Burroughs tended to cut and paste and so on. And the cut up, the breaks and divergences, etc, have all become a part of most “cutting edge” writing …
Jack: I like Kathy Acker’s use of cut-ups. I like her political and socio-sexual extremism. What’s not to like about her, in fact? I love how badly she writes at times. She’ll repeat the same paragraph twice on one page – she shoves in anything that comes into her head. It takes real guts to do that. So many people will just assume that you lack the talent to write “beautifully.” You could say that it’s because I’m so jaded, searching for fresh kicks all the time, that I go for deviants like Kathy and Burroughs (or J. G. Ballard, for that matter), but really it’s that I feel that “beautiful” writing is inappropriate to the kinds of horrors we face at present. I read that thing The Road by Cormac McCarthy – beautifully and stylishly written and all – and was completely unmoved. Way to make post-nuclear holocaust sound dignified and restrained and even manly in a weird sort of way! Give me some ravings from Kathy any day.
But I guess the most straightforward thing she helped me with is her complete refusal to acknowledge the conventions of genre. “Essay” – “story” – “novel” – “poem” – they’re pretty much all the same to her. You literally can’t tell which one she’s setting out to write most of the time, and that also enables her to get away with a lot. Her publishers and editors label them one thing or another, but there’s little intrinsic evidence to support their choices most of the time. Basically, she hates decorum – literary or any other kind. That’s not hard for most of us to sympathise with.
Richard: I have pencilled some notes on the f.e.p. etc of my copy of EMO. Here they are – these are possible themes and connections - perhaps not only questions per se
Language [significant, central to this book, Jack’s writing or world view/] – intersection of narratives generating new forms [I meant of e.g. 1001 Nights and “Eva Android”] – then all is translation, transformation (or even transgression?)
- labyrinths, dreams
- states of consciousness
- transformations and (de facto and by implication the role of translation in all senses of that term
- books and reading – collections – knowledge
- language and philosophy
- magic, witches, transmigration, arcana, “horror”
- sci fi and fantasy
- The Writer, The Book (questions of the nature of what a book or text should be
- hence – the ‘magical’ role of stories
- sleep, REM (dreams again) and sleeplessness
- Benjamin wanted to write a book completely composed of quotations –Jack also – or almost?
- book titles as chapter titles
- Illuminations – hence “seeing” and not seeing
- blindness – sleeplessness – forgetting
- Blindness – of a ‘seer’ – but also ‘moral blindness’ to the ‘truth’
- Evil v good (and other oppositions or “contrasts” e.g. Hitler has a dog, Joyce fears dogs, Eva has or had a cat, Hitler v Ovid of the Third Reich or Augustus’s Rome and so on)
- “high” v “low” culture – Britney Spears and comics v Ovid, Celan and Mandelstam etc
- Eros in all its guises
- exile – hence the state of the poet – the alienated artist and so on
- love, compassion, seen particularly in the opening section between Eva and her “master” and paradoxically between Eva von Braun and Hitler – BEFORE he was clearly the monster we now, perhaps too automatically, think of him as.
How do you respond to my musings here?
Jack: I like it. Clearly on my wavelength. I guess all the stuff about slaves and dictators makes it obvious that I’m interested in power relations and how they deform (and inform) personal relations. And – I hope – that I’m interested in these things not because they’re “central to my work,” or any other wanky artist’s cliché but because if you’re not interested in these things then you must be crazy. We really are in trouble. We really do need new ways of thinking about these things. And anyone who starts scoffing and saying, “Oh yes, of course that’s all been done – the idea of silence as expression, that’s in von Hoffmansthal, and that idea of reforming the world with your writings, that’s an old cliché from the thirties” is basically just braindead. It’s really the equivalent of saying, “Oh yes, that idea of breathing in and out – that’s been done, you know – or that idea of not beating the shit out of every second person you meet: that goes back to Kierkegaard, you know …” Sorry to rant. I think I spend too much time in the company of comfortable, well-fed, know-it-all academics.
Richard: Do you think that there are too many “strands” or “themes” in EMO?
Jack: Well, there’s a lot of stuff in there, certainly. I make no apology about that. Too much is a value judgement every reader will have to make for themselves. I’d say there were too many plots and stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, myself – it’s not a particularly unified work. Is EMO so overpacked as to be incoherent, I guess you’re asking. I’m sure some readers will think so. But I suppose the readers I want are the ones who like to read into things – who don’t expect everything to present itself elegantly on the surface so they can move on to the next thing as rapidly as possible. Nobody’s obligated to dive into EMO. I hope, in fact, that only the people who get a kick out of that kind of thing do. It’s hard to see it seriously comparing with the Cantos or Finnegans Wake or Maximus or those other twentieth-century whales when it comes to being packed with material, though. Even Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy, for that matter.
Richard: I don't see EMO as only a novel. In fact I don't see it fitting into any particular genre. (Although I would argue it is a narration, if not a typical, or "popular" narrative, whose purpose and meaning is complex.) I would say that EMO is multi-textual and involves (like Nights and The Imaginary Museum) many visual elements. It also connects to popular and high culture and so on. While it has an objective purpose it has "subjectivity" to the extent that your passions (for 1001 Nights, for Ovid, (and hence for books -for use and collection - and thus for writing itself), for Science Fiction, for other writers such as Borges, Poe, Apuleius (who links via his The Golden Ass and his Metamorphoses*), to the 1001 Nights and Ovid, for translation, for stories, and so on, are intermixed here in what is a complex weave.
Jack: I’d certainly concur with that. And again, I don’t claim any great originality there. It’s got a lot of competing generic elements (as do Kathy Acker’s “novels”). I chose the designation “novel” for it for various reasons, I guess:
1. because it sounds more approachable (and therefore salable) than calling it an “experimental text” or something like that.
2. because I’m in love with the idea of the novel form: a genre so debatable, so potentially all-inclusive that it can straddle bourgeois fiction, magic realism, Apuleius, traditional Chinese & Japanese forms, and virtually anything else you can throw at it. Where are its limits, in fact? We haven’t reached them yet.
Richard: Did you deliberately place the text that is “horizontal”, which I call the “subtext”, and which contains all the stories and other texts on your other Blogs etc, in such a way that it obscures the “main text”? This “slowing the reader” down, making the reader pay attention to the process of your writing? Jack: Yes, that was one reason. A literal metaphor for the contextualising we all do when we try to make sense of one text in terms of another. Really, though, it was because I saw some letters written in the early nineteenth-century, around the Jane Austen era, where the writer had crossed the text – written first horizontally, then vertically, on the same piece of paper – with every confidence that their correspondent would make sense of it. That was done purely to conserve paper, of course (at a premium during the Napoleonic wars, I understand). But it just looked so fantastic – so impenetrable and mysterious. I immediately started to wonder how one could reproduce that effect in a printed book.
Why should one bother is I guess one valid question, but the answer must be because it enables you to literally incorporate many texts in one. There are, then, three books contained within the one book of EMO. There’s the principal text on top, the three novellas, but underneath that there’s a complete book of critical essays on the Thousand and One Nights (written by me, of course, but attributed in context to the main male character in the Eva Ave story – insofar as that isn’t me. I created him, and he wrote my book, so in a sense he is me, but of course he’s also fictionalised and gifted with a lot of ideas, opinions and character traits which I certainly hope aren’t true of me, since I find them quite abhorrent). As well as that there’s a book of 15 collage-poems (mostly published in brief magazine at various times) called Jack’s Metamorphoses, which includes a set of 15 short essays on the numerous English verse translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So that’s three books in one: fiction, poetry and essays all bound into the one cover. But as well as that I include the Latin text of Ovid’s exile-letters from the Black Sea underneath the third section of the book, Ovid in Otherworld.
All of that is there. But of course there has to be a fictional justification for it in the world of the book itself as well. And that is basically that the (blind) almost-invisible protagonist of the whole narrative, who’s presumably dreaming up all these stories and printing them out, has accidentally started to use a set of pages which already had writing on them. He can’t see the effect, but we do. That’s also why the texts underneath are running backwards, in reverse to the flow of the top, “executive” narratives. That’s what would happened if you picked up a stack of Xeroxed pages and run it through a printer backwards.
Richard: Further to this – the subtext either adds or subtracts to the reader’s response to the main text almost as if we are looking at two waves or weaves of ideas. And thus the reader is challenged to either “give up”, or to fight on in what is literally an even more obscure book. I mean obscure in the sense of literally not being easy to even see especially for such as myself with relatively diminished eye site (no problems - just age and I have lost my glasses – I need a new set). In addition, like you other books, I found I had to turn the book. This "forcing " or challenging the reader, and this use of open form and writing at 'angles' etc, goes back at least to Mallarmé and then Apollinaire, through to Olson and later to such as Susan Howe. To read some of the last part of the Maximus Poems I saw Creeley rotating the whole book at lecture here in 1996.
Jack: Books are physical objects. They have many other manifestations as well – in the minds (and hearts?) of their readers; in oral/ aural form at a reading or on a CD – but I think it’s important to remind people of that. The last thing I want is a complete opacity of form that defeats potential readers, but I don’t want an (apparent) completely transparent interface of form and content which stops them asking questions about the relationship between the two. I think the top-text of the book is almost completely legible throughout, except on one or two pages – the crossed-texts below are a different story. Those are only occasionally legible. I hope that helps to make them seem more intriguing, but I was aware that some readers might find that frustrating. That’s why so much of their content is available online. For the curious who want to follow up on the other books within this one.
Richard: There are hundreds of comments and questions I could ask but this would get too long for now. Lastly, a couple more – the images, photos, symbols, diagrams and the font changes and alternations; together with trace of the subtext “behind” the main text make this book quiet visually and conceptually exciting for me. Apart from all else the very layout of the book has a kind of beauty.
Jack: I hope so. It took an awful long time to achieve some of those effects, I must say. I was on the edge of my seat till the very last minute to see how the printers would deal with that bleached-out subtext and deliberately boldened top-text. It had to be at least potentially readable to work …
Richard: You are quite interested in codes and symbols? I gathered that by the text and the book Arthur Gordon Pym – the first novel by Edgar Allan Poe? A book that ends with a revelation but then is added a preface (at the end – I only “know” this thanks to Wiki!) which is by Pym! And Poe could or boasted could, crack any code…one thinks of “Gold Bug”, and his “who dunnits”. And we have also an echo here of EMO itself? Perhaps also a book where the author keeps shifting…it seems that once we are “inside” the narrative we are not sure who the protagonists is. You “quote” other books. Poe copied out whole sections of another book into Pym. Expectations of genre are “violated” by the author or authors? The visions seen at the end of the Otherworld [and other world is a book by a certain F S Flint who apart from other things was of Pound’s circle a great translator as pound was] or Mars section is the second rebirth? The first “Ovid” is executed (we are not sure) in part one.
Jack: Yes, I guess that “being interested” in codes and symbols is putting it mildly. I’m a huge admirer of Poe’s work. The nineteenth-century French (Baudelaire and Mallarmé principal among them) were entirely correct in their assessment of his genius, in my opinion. What I like best about him, though, is not so much that wowing-the-public-with-his-own-cleverness stuff (though he was undoubtedly very clever), as the way he can write intensely seriously in one mode while simultaneously taking the mickey out of it. Compare (for instance) “The Pit and the Pendulum” with the much-less-well-known spoof “How to Write a Blackwoods’ Article.” Arthur Gordon Pym is his only novel – if you can call it a novel – and it’s bizarre almost beyond description. The second section of EMO, set on “Mars”, is the one which seems to have caused most difficulties even to sympathetic readers. I’m not sure I’d want to take self-consciousness as far as Poe does, but I do feel my own bizarreries rather pale beside certain aspects of Pym (Jules Verne actually wrote a sequel to it in which he tidied up and rationalised a lot of the strangeness – I’m not sure he really understood what Poe was getting at in the first place, but then, does anyone?)
Richard: I haven’t talked about the writing – the interviews and the translations often have writing that is in my view quite brilliant. Ovid’s Tristias work well by restraint as well as the strange one-sided conversations, or e-versations, of the psychologist nurse who is supposedly looking after Ovid-The Author. (We, the readers, are not sure of anything as, indeed, there are so many riddling transformations and “translations” in this book. It is not clear even within the narrative, which narrative is the true one or who is dreaming and who is in fact simply mad!)) And much is quite moving. Also of course there is a “cold level” and a lot of “diurnal grind” (to ostentatiously quote Geoffrey Hill who wrote – of course, King Log, whose rather dark but beautiful opening poem you quote!); there is the mundane. This seems to interact by contrast, or resistance, to the more “epiphanic" moments”. Jack: Yes, a novel needs a certain duration to achieve its effects of contrast. There must be a diurnal grind of sorts, but I think you’ll agree that I’ve been pretty sparing with it. My rule of thumb is that if it bores me, it’s likely to bore a reader. Personally I love intensely-detailed realist texts, but I’m not sure that I see a serious need for more of them to be cranked out at this date in time. I have no problem with people writing them, just as I see no reason why people shouldn’t paint photo-realist landscapes and portraits still, but advances in technology inevitably do have an effect on the logic of artistic practice. Has a century of stories told in film changed what we can expect of written narratives? Some would say not, but I think that there’s no need to write in the same old way when other genres can handle certain aspects of traditional fiction better – or at any rate differently. I think a book should need to be a book. EMO could only be a book. It could perhaps be filmed, but all that would mean is that certain aspects of it inspired a film-maker. The result would be closer to the relationship between Cronenberg’s film and Burrough’s book of Naked Lunch, or (for that matter) Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books alongside The Tempest. Traditional “adaptation” from one medium to another seems a pretty odd idea to me anyway. In this case it would be quite simply impossible.
Richard: Doubles? Symmetries? “Ovid v divO", "Eva avE", Dog v Cat, (Hitler loved dogs, whereas Ovid like Joyce – also near blind most of his life - is frightened of dogs.)
Jack: Oh yeah, if you want to hunt them out, there’s quite a few. I like excessive patterning (you might have noticed). I like it because it’s excessive, perhaps – surplus to requirements. It’s a characteristic of early forms of prose narrative that they tend to be excessively patterned and symmetrical – I wrote an essay about it comparing the storytelling patterns and parallelisms in certain stories in the Arabian Nights with those found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (you’ll find it in one of the under-texts of EMO). It’s not just something that “mature” novel traditions grow out of, though. Dickens is a classic case of a writer whose stories get more and more elaborately patterned and over-determined as he gets older. If you prefer Pickwick or Nicholas Nickleby to Our Mutual Friend or (extreme case) Edwin Drood, you won’t exactly thrill to my similar addictions.
Richard: There are so many connections. On page 196 - where the chapter is titled “Blinding” you have an image of what appears to be either camera shutter or an Iris (Iris referred to earlier also); this is quite strange and beautiful…and on the next page in another Tristia poem:
If anyone still remembers me
back in the city
think of a wheel of stars
that never sinks
the lines are down
I see here at least three “themes”, such as the sadness of exile, and the cruelty of Augustus-Hitler; questions of history (as in Geoffrey Hill’s work). And exile is effectively death for Ovid-The Poet (especially Ovid as he hated to be away from the city and civilization). The reference to “memory” again, the lack of communication; and another reference to the power blackout (and of course you play with “Black Power” in the same poem!) in Auckland in 1998) previously mentioned (in the subtext; and indeed the connection of the symbol to a “wheel of stars” – almost Poundian line from The Cantos; but of course the symbol is of an eye – or like an eye.
Jack: So many connections, yes. On the one hand the point is that there should be many connections – regardless of their actual nature – since the book is about complex interweaving systems and the curious similarities between them, about (in the final analysis) the possibility of learning by analogy how to solve one problem in terms of another. The problems, misunderstandings, mutual hurts and bruisings of inter-personal relations are at the heart of the book – but then that’s because the personal is the political. The two cannot be separated. Some people feel quite sincerely, I would acknowledge, that it’s quite advantageous to pigeonhole them and consider them in separate terms, but I believe equally strongly that that’s a pernicious fallacy – shown to be so by repeated callous abuses of power on every level. Interconnection, then, is everything in this book (as it is everywhere else, so far as I can see). The fact that you can tease out that particular set of connections so elegantly, though, reassures me that they are coherent in context. There’s a risk of disappearing into a cloud of interconnectedness when you begin to see universal patterns in everything. Specificity is, after all, the job of any fiction.
Richard: It seems that another issue is highlighted especially in the first part of the book when Eva tries to contact her “sister” (from whom she is cloned – and the moral ethical issue of cloning is of course here also); and then we see both the Writer and Eva struggling for contact. So the reader is faced with the dilemma or question: what is it that makes us human? How do we realize or convey love? (This I feel becomes more urgent as the middle section exposes us to scenes of madness, vivisection, sadomasochistic orgies and killings, horror, nightmare and so on.) The pathetic, but surprisingly moving (because so well written), story of the Cat that Eva tries to befriend, is significant here. (I am also reminded obliquely of David Lyndon Brown's novel Marked Men).
Jack: Yes, and I guess that brings us full circle, really. Why on earth would anyone want to write a novel called EMO, enshrining emotionalism, when Emo (as a style) is so naff, so despised by the cool-at-heart? (I saw a great t-shirt in a café the other day with a picture of a great big pale crying face with greasy black hair and the inscription “Cheer Up, Emo Kid!” – I wish I could get one of those for myself …) If you don’t get the bit about the cat in the Eva section, the book can mean nothing to you. It’s over the top, it’s sentimental, but if you don’t feel any qualms at the destruction of innocence, at the suffering of the helpless, then you’re not really human, it seems to me. It’s perhaps ruthless of me to make the test such a severe one – the reign of irony in literature has almost succeeded in persuading us all that emotion must always be approached in a circumspect way, handled with kid gloves, treated like a kind of unexploded bomb. To hell with that, I say. I can certainly see analogies there with David Brown’s work – with his poetry as well as the novel you mention.
If we were in good shape as a culture, a civilisation – just a few little glitches here and there – I’d have no problem with a bit of decent restraint. But we’re not. We’re in deep trouble, possibly worse than we’ve ever been in. Time to take off the blinkers and call things as we see them. Eva and her cat are certainly not in the book by accident.
Ovid was a big cry-baby, too. Critics used to apologise for the “unmanly” tone of his begging letters from exile, but now they’ve rather changed their tune. Not because of any advances in literary critical understanding (perish the thought!) but because history has intervened. How can you understand Ovid if you don’t know about Hitler and Stalin? Augustus’s gulag may have looked a bit better than the Soviet one, but it’s hard for cushioned liberals to understand the pitiful crushing of human personality achieved by totalitarianism throughout the ages. I respect Ovid’s pain. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit in judgement on such a man and criticise his “tone.” How does Shakespeare put it? He jests at scars, that never felt a wound. That’s about right, I think.
Richard: Is Metamorphoses the alternative name?
Jack: It can be if you want it to be. Strictly speaking, Jack’s Metamorphoses is the title of one of the underlying texts in the book, the collection of poems. Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass is also called (in Latin) Metamorphoses, of course – and I guess you can see how much I’ve been influenced by it. It’s certainly in my top ten favourite books, if not my favourite of all. You can see it in this book as much as the more directly invoked Ovidian epic. So, yes, this book is the conclusion to a conversation about the idea of Metamorphosis or change conducted through all three parts of the trilogy, Bruno, Atlantis, and EMO. The titlepage of the first novel in the sequence includes a quote from an Italian book about Giordano Bruno, in fact:
II fine di tutto l’operazione è forse essenzialmente questo, modificarsi.
[The point of the whole operation is perhaps just this, in essence: