All the Characters Are Versions of Myself: Justin Taylor
Justin Taylor is the author of the novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, and the story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Both books were New York Times Editor’s Choice selections. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Tin House, the Believer, and other journals, magazines and websites. He co-edits The Agriculture Reader, an arts annual. He lives in Brooklyn and at http://www.justindtaylor.net/.
Michael Kimball: The Gospel of Anarchy opens with a chapter about David’s telemarketing job, his obsession with online porn, and then a description of a walk through the city. I have been thinking about why you started with that material since most of the novel is about a world of punk-mysticism – and I came up with a couple of possible explanations. (1) The reader sees David as somewhat disengaged in each of those instances, though searching for something too. (2) The opening chapter functions as a kind of prologue and juxtaposition to the body of the novel. Are either of those explanations what you were thinking and, more generally, how were you thinking about the opening of the novel?
Justin Taylor: I think that both of your interpretations make sense. I wanted the reader to meet David first, alone, and to have the chance to become fully acquainted with him, the person he is and the world he inhabits, so that the shifts his character goes through later would register as both authentic and deeply jarring. Chapter one, “The Confessions,” breaks pretty evenly into halves. The first half is modeled on Augustine’s Confessions. David’s confession of his life amounts, basically, to an emptying-out. As he tells these things he rids himself of them, and he becomes an empty vessel, therefore ready to receive something new. The second half of the chapter is about him is finding what the new thing will be.
The porn stuff, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since the book came out – which makes sense because (a) duh, it’s porn, and (b) those scenes depict a very particular and ephemeral cultural moment that hasn’t been written about in literature before – the AOL message boards, the pic-trading, etc. The language David uses in his descriptions of the photographs is spiritually-charged language, and the word-choice owes something to Harold Bloom’s Omens of Millennium, his book on angels and prophecy. That’s the same book Katy is reading in chapter two. David’s language in chapter one anticipates not only that he will change but also the nature of that change. A believer in an Augustinian conception of prevenient grace could find evidence for its presence in David and his job and his porn. Gospel is very much about secret messages and scrambled transmissions. There’s a lot of call and response between the major events of the book.
Michael Kimball: I love that you pulled the idea of the opening from Augustine’s Confessions and how that fits in with the transformation that takes place in the rest of the novel. And one of the things that interested me about The Gospel of Anarchy was that you are writing about some things that haven’t been written about in literary fiction, not just that particular point in porn’s history but also, generally, the religious punk world that you’ve represented. But I want to ask you about the narration. The first chapter is first-person narration (by David), as is the next-to-last chapter, but the rest of the novel is third-person close narration (from the perspective of multiple characters). How did you decide to tell the story of the novel from those different perspectives?
Justin Taylor: I wanted to start the book with David telling his own story because I thought it would provide a firm ground on which to begin. His voice is trustworthy and compelling, and he is essentially the reader’s avatar in terms of being introduced to the world of Fishgut and the larger ideas that interest the Fishgut-folk. But once inside that world, I wanted the story to have more freedom of movement than would have been possible if I’d stayed inside David’s head.
The transition from chapter 1 to chapter 2 is meant to be jarring. Here you’ve been listening to this guy as he describes these people and places, and then suddenly you’re confronted with a description of him asleep in bed. Then in chapter three, David’s almost a ghost. Thomas sees him in glimpses, but they don’t interact at all and David has no lines of dialogue. It’s almost as if the book itself has lost track of him in the fray. When he resumes narration in chapter five, it shouldn’t be as jarring, because it’s instantly recognizable as a resumption, but his tone of voice and the things he’s now talking about should produce discomfort and/or surprise. In this novel – which is not to say in every novel – the first-person is the voice of the solipsist, atomized and at odds with the world. It pushes against a third-person that strives for immediacy, intimacy, and common cause.
The book takes David very seriously, and feels deeply for him, but ultimately it disagrees with him – his grim conviction, his self-betrayed beliefs – and Anchor’s chapter affirms the possibility of an escape from the fate of those mistakes. Also, it’s worth mentioning that David’s chapters are written in the past tense, while the third-person chapters are all in the present. Whatever David says is already dead in the telling of it, but with the others you are experiencing a world full of possibility, unfolding and un-foreclosed.
Michael Kimball: One of the things that I admire about the narration is how close the third-person close narration is, a kind of omniscience but so individual at the same time. I saw an inverted echo of it in David’s late chapter, which seems omniscient at times, full of prescient visions, a kind of connected mysticism. I feel as if your choice of narrative perspective allowed that transformation and I’m wondering if the narration led you to that or if you had it in mind all along?
Justin Taylor: Once I hit on using the mixture of first and third, I knew that I would use the closest third that I could manage. A close-third can be as intimate and direct as a first-person narrative, and maybe even more so because it is not limited by the narrator’s self-understanding: it can know the character better than she knows herself. I wanted a narrative voice that would be both omniscient and highly individual. Two helpful guides for my close-third were David Gates’s second novel, Preston Falls, and Dennis Cooper’s novel, Try. It’s worth pointing out that both books are also interested in perspective. Oh, and of course Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, even though it’s all first-person interior monologues – the way it handles the handing-off of the narrative from one character to another. Plus if there’s a better book out there about a circle of friends, I’ve never read it.
The third-person in Gospel can jump into any head it chooses, and its choices always amplify/reproduce the relationships between the characters in the given scene. When everyone’s working together, at David’s apartment for example, the perspective moves more or less democratically among the group. In the menage a trois that opens chapter two, the perspective shifts from Katy’s to Liz’s, as Katy’s own focus shifts to Liz, but you don’t get anything from David’s perspective, because even though he’s a participant in the sex he’s not privvy to the emotional/psychic significance of the episode, in terms of the girls’ relationship with each other.
Michael Kimball: Writing a sex scene can go terribly wrong. There are so many bad examples of sex writing out there – Philip Roth in The Humbling, Jane Smiley in Good Faith, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, John Updike in a lot of different books, etc. So I was impressed when you took on the description of a threesome and I’m wondering how you decided what parts of that action to describe and how you thought about the language choices involved in that kind of description.
Justin Taylor: Of those examples, I’ve only read The Humbling, and that book’s terribleness is so utter and complete that even if the scene had been done well I’m not sure you’d have been able to tell. Roth has written many good books, but that isn’t one of them. The others I can’t speak to. But as far as my own sex scenes go, they’re governed by the same rules as everything else. The threesome scene has to do a lot of work, in terms of the architecture of the novel. It has to start to show the reader what the world of Fishgut looks like, but it can’t extend the “curious outsider”-tone of chapter one, because the people now in our focus are not outsiders. This is their regular life. I wanted the scene to be rapturous, and to fuse the carnal with the spiritual in a way that was true to the nascent belief system at Fishgut. I also wanted it to be less photo-realistic than the descriptions of internet pornography in the first chapter – almost a refutation. I think the most graphic depiction of bodies comes when Liz notes the difference between her own breasts and Katy’s, and the contrast between their bodies in general. The eros in the scene all comes from the extremity of Liz’s love for Katy, how that love is both her weakness and her strength.
Michael Kimball: I’m going to shift topics because I have to ask about the notebook, which is discovered at the end of chapter two and then becomes a foundation document of sorts for the Fishgut world of anarcho-mysticism. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, you mention that this material is “synthesized (and/or collaged) from a wide variety of sources … [and that] Parker’s politics … owe a great deal to the worlds of the CrimethInc. Collective.” I’m assuming that you were familiar with this material before you ever started writing The Gospel of Anarchy. So what I’m wondering is how much that material influenced what happens in the novel, or, maybe better, if that material helped you to figure out what was going to happen in the novel.
Justin Taylor: A lot of the material in the Good Zine is indeed from sources I was familiar with long before this book ever occurred to me. I read the CrimethInc book, Days of War, Nights of Love as a college freshman and it had a big impact on me. I wanted very badly to believe that the things they said were possible really were, but in the end I was more interested in the fact of their faith – and the languages of articulating/affirming that faith – than the degree to which I could or could not match it with faith of my own. Which, incidentally, is more or less the same way I feel about Christianity, and maybe that helps explain why the Good Zine, or the whole novel, looks like it does. The research materials affected what happens in the novel in the sense that these characters are people who try to collapse the distance between what they believe and how they live – “til to love and live be one,” as Parker says at one point, though he didn’t get that from CrimethInc. – it’s Shelley, from the Epipsychidion. So it’s true to say that the texts shaped the novel, but it would be truer to say that I chose the texts that would give the novel the shape I wanted.
I tried to draw a distinction between works that Justin-the-writer found useful/inspiring and works that would realistically mean something to the characters in the book. I borrowed one line of poetry from Paul Violi and gave it to Parker – but that was with permission, and it’s not a reference to Paul’s work, which Parker would never have read. I asked Paul if I could have it, and he said I could, so it’s meant as an original thought of Parker’s. But apart from that, if a character other than David makes an allusion or a reference or quotes something, it’s because that character has read it and thinks it’s important, even if they don’t cite their source. David, on the other hand, makes all kinds references without being aware of them – he quotes Emerson, models Augustine, and paraphrases Bloom in the first chapter; in the fifth chapter he paraphrases, quotes or borrows from everyone from Derrida to Jabes to the Bible. Of course, one of David’s obsessions is with knowledge, self-knowledge in particular. Ultimately he is overtaken by the unknown known – knowledge he is unaware of possessing, which is Zizek’s re-formulation of Rumsfeld, and something else David unwittingly (and anachronistically – which is perhaps to say prophetically) invokes in chapter five.
Michael Kimball: I have one last question and it’s mostly just because I’m curious about the ways in which authors insert themselves into their work. At the beginning of The Gospel of Anarchy, I read David as a kind of stand-in for you, the author. It eventually becomes pretty clear that David isn’t you, though, and then, reading the last chapter I couldn’t escape the idea that you wrote yourself in as Anchor. Am I way off? And, if I am, did you hide yourself somewhere else in the novel?
Justin Taylor: I think it’s fair to say that David is the character most similar to me, though I also identify very strongly with Liz—more than the book itself lets on. But David is set up as the protagonist, and his first name is my middle name, which is hardly an accident. That said, I see him less as a stand-in than a doppelganger, a daemonic double or a bizarro version. David makes choices – like quitting school, or throwing himself wholesale into politics/religion – that I seriously considered at moments in my own life, but for whatever reason did not make. He represents my attempts to imagine what traveling those roads not taken might have looked like. And that “what if”-ing is supplemented by what I actually know from having friends or acquaintances who said yes to things I said no to, who really did live those lives. All the principal characters in Gospel contain attributes or qualities of real people I knew when I lived in Gainesville, but no single character is based on any single person. Similarly, one person’s various traits and quirks might have been distributed to several different characters. I’ve had heart to hearts with a number of people who recognize some version or fragment of themselves in the novel. They’ve been great exchanges, actually, very heartfelt and intense (and nobody suing!) but they typically start with me saying, “Yeah, okay, that’s kind of you there, but …” Because in the end, all the characters are versions of myself. Open the novel to any page, any line, and you will find me hiding there.
This interview originally appeared in the Charlotte Viewpoint.
Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and, most recently, Us (which the Observer calls “powerful and moving … breathless”). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated into a dozen languages—including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and Greek. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, the 510 Readings, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.
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