The Conceptual Novel: Evan Lavender-Smith
Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks (2010) and Avatar (forthcoming 2010), as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Noemi Press and the Prose Editor of Puerto del Sol. His writing has appeared in the Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, No Colony, Post Road, and many other magazines and journals. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University. Jenny Boully calls From Old Notebooks “dazzling and introspective, meticulous and charming.” Alphonso Lingis says, “Scenes, plots for possible stories and novels. Whimsical, fearful, lusty, philosophical, and scatological notes on books, moods, dreams, domestic events. Carrying this book around, the reader will look into it from time to time to jiggle quiescent corners of the brain.”
Michael Kimball: What came first the 1,000 or so discrete pieces that make up From Old Notebooks or the idea to create a book out of the 1,000 or so discrete pieces?
Evan Lavender-Smith: I had been scribbling random things down in notebooks for a while and at some point I glommed onto the idea of constructing a book out of my random scribblings. (You know you are reading a fun interview when the first question and answer both contain antimetabole!) The book itself attempts to present a formal movement which would serve to index my coming up with the idea for the book: it begins with a slew of entries concerned exclusively with writerly invention; after a while of this there appears a certain mildly self-reflexive entry, something like “A book entitled From Old Notebooks composed solely of entries from these notebooks” (there’s a little in-joke somewhere around there meant to augment this “formal indexing” of revelation: shortly before the entry about the idea for the book there’s a reference to Prokofiev, from whom the title of the book derives); and then sometime not long after that there appears the first entry which departs from the writerly-invention theme, something about my wife or daughter, I believe, a formal movement meant to correspond to the moment subsequent to that of revelation — the moment of possibility, i.e. now that I have the idea for the book, I can start exploring the formal possibilities of the book. And this is more or less how it really went down: I was writing the book without knowing I was writing the book, I realized I was writing the book, I began writing the book knowing I was writing the book.
Kimball: That is definitely the readerly experience that I had reading From Old Notebooks. I loved the way that the various threads of the book accumulated in ways that offered so much story and implication. So what I’m wondering is what do you expect the reader to do with the implication? With an entry like this – “Short story about a church on the ocean floor. Congregation in scuba gear.” – or this – “When I was a kid I thought that mono was caused by excessive kissing.” – do you expect the reader to work out any of that story or that misunderstanding?
Lavender-Smith: That’s a great question, a difficult question. First, it’s hard for me to say that I “expect” a reader to do anything. (Although the book does posit an imaginary reader, a construction which seems to issue from my neuroses.) But I believe there are a number of things a reader might do with entries such as those: she might be compelled to project a narrative from the fragment; she might be compelled to gather these fragments so to project an intellectual persona for their author; or she might be compelled to mine these fragments for clues, for something like the shadows of a narrative that isn’t explicitly presented by the book, a narrative whose protagonist is named Evan Lavender-Smith. Or she might perform some combination of these three operations. Or she might slam the book closed. In any case, part of my intention in constructing a book out of a seemingly haphazard collection of notes was that these notes, by virtue of their accumulation and juxtaposition and patternation, would end up working overtime (not unlike what we might expect of the bits and pieces of a conceptual art). The tenor of that extra work would, ideally, be unnameable, too complex to pin down; just as the tenor of great allegorical writing constantly eludes the grasp of full understanding and interpretation. I suppose my greatest wish would be not so much for the reader to do anything with any particular entry, but instead to read with openness and innocence such that the accumulation of entries results in processes whereby she feels that form alone is producing those intensities we’ve come to expect elsewhere—from character, plot, etc.
Kimball: One of the great things about the book is the cumulative way that the reader is given character and plot. Those elements are much stronger than in David Markson’s late novels, which function in a similar way. That was my segue to using one of the entries in From Old Notebooks as a question for you: “If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would [you] have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would [you] have ever thought to write such a book?”
Lavender-Smith: Markson’s “Author Tetralogy,” as it has come to be called, especially Reader’s Block, alerted me to some of the more exciting possibilities available to the conceptual novel, specifically, new ways in which form could be used as both a veil and a pathway, hiding and leading toward an image of the author. His is a “novel” constructed of apothegmatic miscellany culled from the many thousands of books he read in his life—just a bunch of seemingly random shit about authors and artists and other historical figures—that somehow holds great intellectual and emotional appeal for the reader; we peer through and beyond form, at a vision of an author pulling the strings, naked, alone, crying, trembling, whatever. I don’t want to parrot the postmodernist–pre-postmodernist intellectual–emotional dialectic enacted and championed by Wallace and imitated by a whole generation of writers, because I think that particular “solution” to the “problem” of postmodernist literature is often little more than a cop out, but at the same time there’s no doubt that Markson was doing this—landing on a humanist emotional oomph to supplement what is otherwise a pretty cerebral adventure—and doing it, in both Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block, extremely well. The procedure of imbuing metafiction with pathos
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