In Conversation with Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor arrived in superlative form on the lit horizon with the February 2010 release of a story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever—not all that long after appearing one day in front of Electric Lit’s table at the Brooklyn Flea. Well, OK, these two events may have had almost nothing to do with each other but, in my mind at least, there’s a tie, however thin. During its uncertain infancy, EL ventured into the Brooklyn Flea every so often: a wobbly attempt to distribute the journal through an unconventional channel. Scott Lindenbaum and Andy Hunter topped the masthead, and I was first in what would prove a series of associate editors, e.g. captains of the Inbox.

Taylor, though: it was a late summer day, kinda lovely, and he clearly grasped what EL wanted to do, in fact seemed like an embodiment of the spirit the publication sought to marshal, i.e., tech-savvy, pop culture-conversant, voracious, and keen. So much so that he ended up sitting with us and helping our soon-to-be mothballed efforts at Brooklyn Flea sales. This was a purely spontaneous act and a gracious one. A good number of copies moved that afternoon, which was of course not the point, is never the point, and yet never exactly hurts either.

Following his 2011 debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, a second story collection, Flings, arrived this August.  It is a work in the spirit of Taylor’s literary idols, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, and Saul Bellow. And nevertheless its own thing entirely. Taylor has created a world unto itself, his characters’ hungers taking them time-zone-hopping (Ohio, Portland, New York City, Hong Kong, Florida), the protagonist of one narrative appearing in cameo in another, currents intersecting just barely. Via e-mail, I spoke with Taylor about Flings, secular spirituality, Slavoj Žižek and Lena Dunham, Mike’s Song and ancient Hebrew chants, the global scope of capitalism, and Florida-centricity.

J.T. Price

Flings

TOTTENVILLE

“A God of Nothing”: this phrase arises from a moment of teenage reverie in your story, “Adon Olam.” A teenager taking some time alone to sing, to lose himself in song, to get high in an alcove-like culvert off the side of a road not too far from home. The song he’s repeating is one from Hebrew school, which is distinct in a story collection that features many of a more secular bent, e.g. from the catalogs of the Beatles, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Dead, and Phish. Many of your stories are concerned with Jewish identity at the secular edge or beyond. Religious histories notwithstanding, do you think that the intensity some of us feel—or have felt—regarding musical allegiances has anything to do with going beyond an inherited religious identity? Or maybe what I want to do is state that question as an observation and say it’s a thought I had while reading your work.

TAYLOR

With specific regard to Jewish identity, I am of two minds. Secular American Judaism is the tradition I was raised in and which I can write about endlessly—sometimes interrogatively and sometimes declaratively, which is to say that I will never stop wrestling with it but am also capable of treating it as perfectly organic and neutral: it’s just my life, as Updike’s WASPs were his and Carver’s hardscrabble Northwesterners were his. But running parallel to that is what seems to me to be the largely disavowed tradition of Jewish spirituality. This is all the stuff I was not raised with, and which even now, as an adult, I have barely begun to understand, much less practice (which I don’t), though I think the stories in this new book represent my most sustained engagement to date with that body of traditions, ideas, and beliefs. Certainly, it can be interesting or fraught when those parallel lines converge—the secular-cultural and the spiritual-theistic.

 

TOTTENVILLE

These themes run through the entire collection.

 

TAYLOR

I think that’s true. It appears over and over all throughout my work. But it’s happening in a particularly literal way in “Adon Olam.” The system of images in that story (the upside-down tree, the orange peels, the dream of the sparks, the hallucination of apocalyptic unraveling, etc.) are all borrowed from Kabbalist tradition, specifically Gershom Scholem’s On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, admittedly a kind of introductory text, but a beautiful one, and one I found more than sufficient for my needs in writing a story that attempts to map a properly esoteric Jewish mysticism onto a set of people—teenage camp counselors at a Jewish summer camp—who have no interest in or awareness of such things, cannot even identify them as such. The divine ruptures unacknowledged into the world of the mundane. My novel The Gospel of Anarchy was preoccupied by the same concerns, though the operative religious system in that book was a version of Christianity.

But coming back to music, I think that for a lot of people, music is the closest we get to religion—or at least to an encounter with the transcendent, in a world where most of us live largely or entirely secular lives. And the history of music—hell, the history of art and language too—is totally intertwined with the history of religion/spirituality. The entire concept of “secular” music is relatively young compared to, say, sacred chanting/prayer/song. And many ostensibly secular songs are less strictly world-bound than they might seem.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Do you have an example?

 

TAYLOR

I happen to be listening to Husker Du at this moment, the album New Day Rising. I haven’t heard the word “God” once yet on the record, but you cannot convince me that the song “I Apologize” is anything less than the ragged and defiant outburst of a deeply wounded soul—which means that God, putative father of all souls and author of all suffering, has to figure in there somewhere. If you believe in any kind of metaphysics or transcendence—which I can’t say I do, but which I can say I would like to be able to do—then you cannot view this as other than a spiritual, if not specifically religious, song. It may even be that the wounded soul’s self-communication of its essential defining pain is exactly what it means to be a God of Nothing. Certainly this is what the narrator of my story has become by the story’s end.

 

TOTTENVILLE

The expression “to lose yourself in song” has lots of connotations, but is it a fair wording? Or can we also find ourselves in song? Or can the losing itself be a kind of finding? Is this beginning to sound like an SAT essay prompt? Many of the stories in Flings seem to spring like Athena from Zeus’s skull, directly from songs. (“Mike’s Song” is the name of one, recounting a concert by “the Phish,” as seen through the eyes of an affluent lawyer and divorcee treating his adult children to a performance by their favorite band.)

 

TAYLOR

I like that idea that losing becomes a kind of finding. So yes, I say, Yes to all of your sub-questions in this question. And yeah, I write a lot about music, and both stories you mention take their titles from songs (just as several stories in my first collection took their titles from snatches of song lyric) but as to the last thing, about stories springing directly from songs, well I can’t go with you there. The stories spring from all the damnedest places, but they’re never fully formed as Athena was, and the music that comes ultimately to inform them or be discussed in them is found through the same process of fumbling trial and error that produces the setting, the character arcs, and all the rest. I wrote at length about the music that went into Flings in an essay for Largehearted Boy, and there’s a bunch of stuff in that piece about “Mike’s Song” in particular. Nothing about it was settled easily or quickly.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Mike’s Song’s refrain—“Maybe So and Maybe Not!”—serves the collection almost like a philosophical cornerstone. Or that’s what I’ll call it. I imagine you’ve given some thought to those words over the years.

 

TAYLOR

Two things about this: First, that’s not from the song “Mike’s Song.” It’s from a song called “Stash” that the characters in the story hear performed during the first set of the show they go to. “Mike’s Song” kicks off set 2.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Ah! Wrong Mr. Pickford altogether. It’s been a while for me and the Phish.

 

TAYLOR

Also, respectfully, you’re missing the first part of the couplet, which reads in full: “Was it for this my life I sought? Maybe so and maybe not!” I have to say that Phish lyrics probably meant more to me when I was in high school than they do now, and the story itself sort of sides with the main character, the father, in his looking askance at how excited his 20-something son gets to sing along with a declaration of “existential uncertainty.”

But the lyrics to “Mike’s Song,” which are not quoted anywhere in the story “Mike’s Song,” actually are a useful lens for looking at this story. There’s a line in it that goes “I walk through doorways / inside my mind…” which sort of describes the movement of the main character’s thinking over the course of the night. Mike is a fairly buttoned-down guy who is not entirely comfortable with the wandering, sinuous movement of his own private thoughts. And the chorus/refrain, which is “Me no are no nice guy,” might be a silly sentence, but it does accurately describe the main character.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Kind of a whimsical string of words. Which pertains to your Mike because…

 

TAYLOR

He is not, in fact, a nice guy. He is capable of love, and tenderness in measured doses, but he has no sustained warmth or understanding to offer anyone.

 

TOTTENVILLE

It’s well-established that you have a gift for portraying the mercurial among your characters, many of whom are young, grasping, and others of whom are older and reeling. Hong Kong figures prominently in Flings, as do well-heeled movers-and-shakers. To quote Slavoj Žižek who presides like a guiding light, or seductive huckster, over the final story, “Gregory’s Year”: “Instability is how capitalism functions.” Anything to what Žižek’s saying there? (My source, the Sophie Fiennes doc.)

 

TAYLOR

Sure. He’s right about capitalism. No question there. It foments various kinds of instability—economic, environmental, etc.—and then exploits it. But of course the world is unstable, and always has been, minute to minute, day to day, era to era. The reason to oppose capitalism is not because you think that some perennially calm utopia will replace it. The reason to oppose capitalism is that life is scary and bizarre and unstable enough already without a kleptocratic thug-class conspiring to exacerbate the situation and fuck us over even worse.

 

TOTTENVILLE

You do the passage of time marvelously and much of what’s exciting and excitingly disorienting about reading your work is how time passes, one paragraph encapsulating either a minute in a life, a few months, a few years, and sometimes all three. The volatility and piquancy of the present comes loose and then, whoa, everyone’s older. Again, that’s more observation, I guess, than question.

 

 

TAYLOR

Yeah, sounds like an observation to me, too. But a poignant one, and I thank you for it. Many of these stories were written to specifically engage questions about the passage of time: what it actually feels like in lived experience, how or whether that experience can be rendered in literature, and then of course the more purely literary interest in how attempting that rendering affects the writer’s approach to form and the sense of what is included/excluded, what is afforded space, “and so on,” as Žižek would say.

 

TOTTENVILLE

She’s everywhere right now—praise be to the marketing apparatus!—but reading your work, at least in regard to subject matter, I thought of Lena Dunham and Girls. Is Lena Dunham the lady Justin Taylor? Actually, no, that’s a terrible question, don’t answer it. But how about this: what would you say are the unique challenges to rendering volatility on the page? Text seems somehow more staid than moving images, even when it’s not, even if it’s what underlies everything.

 

TAYLOR

Lena Dunham is one of the more exciting and original figures to emerge from my generation. I can’t imagine any context in which her body of work and achievement would be understood with primary reference to mine, or her as a version of me. If someone wanted to compare me and my work to hers, however, I’d gladly take the compliment.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Well, then allow me. I meant the comparison mostly with respect to focus: twenty-somethings; the volatility of desire; the portrayal of a randomness that is both terrifying and, at a distant remove, funny; the efforts of the protagonists to find a causal logic where one might not exist; and also the thrill of that logic’s absence. (“A Night Out” seems a prime example from your collection.) And, come to think of it, both you and Dunham place particular emphasis on music, which maybe goes hand-in-hand with the rest of what I’m saying.

 

TAYLOR

Yeah, that makes sense to me. And sure, one reason I admire her work is that I see a lot of my own interests reflected in it. It feels like she’s concerned with—and attentive to—a lot of the same things I’m concerned with and attentive to, which almost necessarily puts me in a position of being a detractor or a fan, even though it’s so ridiculous to be “for” or “against” a human being or a body of work. But to the extent that I enjoy consuming the art that she makes, it makes sense to say I am a fan of hers—the show, first and foremost, but also the movie and her New Yorker essays.

I don’t know about the challenge of rendering volatility on the page versus in other media because I’ve never attempted it in other media. But I’m not above taking a lesson from the visual arts or the moving image. All art-making is scavenging to a certain degree: if you find something that works for you, you reach out and grab it with both hands.

Here’s a very apropos example: there’s a scene in the most recent season of Girls where Hannah, Shoshanna, and Adam are all in the car driving up to get Jessa from rehab. Adam is driving, Hannah is in shotgun, and Shoshanna is in the middle-back seat. It’s a head-on shot through the windshield so to the viewer they’re all in a row. Some pop song comes on and Hannah and Shoshanna both start singing along to it. The thing is, Hannah doesn’t really know the words, so she’s kind of faking and flubbing her way through it—trying to perform the idea of “the road trip singalong” while hiding (from herself as much as anyone else) the fact that she doesn’t actually know this song—while also kind of pointedly ignoring the fact that Adam is growing enraged because he doesn’t think Jessa should be leaving rehab at all and he feels that the girls don’t understand what addiction really means. Shoshanna meanwhile, alone in the back and entirely unseen by anyone, is doing a syllable-perfect singalong with dance moves. It’s such an incredible scene to me, the way Dunham gets the most out of each character, and does it by keeping them exactly true to themselves despite the fact that the episode is built around displacing them from their natural habitat. Dunham realizes—and manages to convey with incredible precision and wit—the way that a crisis is as likely to reinforce roles as to change them. We don’t always rise to occasions; sometimes we fall to them. And as fantastic as the comedy is in that scene, the tensions in it are real too: Adam will blow his stack before the scene is over, but there’s also a later scene being set up here, in which Shoshanna will offer a damning judgment on all of her friends’ lives. It disgusts her how bad Hannah et al. are at getting their shit together at the most basic level.

Shoshanna would never sing along to a song she didn’t know the words to; she would also never allow herself to not know all the words and moves to a song she liked. And I don’t know how observing and obsessively “close-reading” this scene from a TV show could or will translate to my own fiction exactly, but it seems like it would have to, somehow, given how much I’ve thought about it.

 

TOTTENVILLE

Nice. Maybe one more question here. To go from artistic resonances to geographic concerns, let’s let it be said once and for all: What’s the deal with Florida?

 

TAYLOR

There’s this quote of Elizabeth Bishop’s that I’m always trying to share with people but can never find—possibly because I dreamed it, though I’m pretty sure it’s real—so I’m just gonna paraphrase it here, and if I fuck it up then so be it. Basically what she says is that she always admired Flannery O’Connor’s writing, but admired it as satire (or did she say caricature? or something else entirely?) until she happened to find herself at a hardcore charismatic faith church—there may have been snake-handling—at which point she realized that O’Connor was writing realism, what was realism to O’Connor. And I actually think the church Bishop visited was in Florida somewhere, maybe near Miami, but that’s not why I think of that story by way of answer. It’s because coming to the understanding that one person’s satire is another person’s realism is, to me, the essence of what Florida is.

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