A Dog Following the Advice of His Nose: an Interview with Mauro Javier Cardenas
The Novelist on Snakes, Spreadsheets and Revolution
This week sees the release, at last, of Mauro Javier Cardenas’s long-gestated debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press), the coldest hot-blooded book I’ve read in many years. Like its cast of characters, the novel is colorful and disarming, bristling with idealism and disillusionment and profoundly embattled intelligence; like the country it brings to life without ever fully inhabiting, it’s noisy and claustrophobic and a dizzying thrill to get lost in. Because Mauro was beset with other book-launch obligations, we conducted this interview by email. His answers have been translated from his first language (Emoji) and lightly edited.
Daniel Levin Becker: Pretend this first question is coming from someone who knows nothing about you and has done no research whatsoever, including reading your book: why Ecuador?
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Because I missed my friends? Because I can still speak the highfalutin insult Spanish my friends and I would spitball at each other at my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador? Because I can still see Mazinger chasing Maid Killer across the soccer field of Colegio Javier? Or Microphone Head speechifying by Don Alban’s cafeteria? Because I boarded a plane to the United States after graduation and my friends, even the closest ones, ceased to exist for me? Because I wanted to return but didn’t? Is Padgett Powell going to be pissed about this? Do you know what he calls his (my) method of composition? Subconscious accretion.
DLB: How did the novel come to take the form and shape it did?
MJC: One succinct woof answer: I followed my nose. A less succinct woof answer: I like to believe the opening of Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald had tremendous influence on how I assembled The Revolutionaries Try Again. In Austerlitz, you don’t quite know why the narrator is telling you about raccoons and doomed fortresses, but you sense a submerged connection between them. I wanted to understand how he achieved this effect so I searched for everything Sebald and found an interview where he explains his method. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, W. G. Sebald says, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner, invariably finding what he’s looking for. For instance: Cardenas questions the value of Voice of Witness at a dinner — → Cardenas becomes transcriber for a Voice of Witness project — → Cardenas decides his novel must end with a Voice of Witness monologue — → Cardenas can’t explain why this must be so — → Cardenas writes Voice of Witness monologue and hopes for the best. My mother, a transcendental therapist, would call this approach letting the unconscious do its work. My former devoted Catholic self would point out this approach is no different than being a devoted Catholic: always in search of connections and signs. My current sans devotion self would also point out Cortázar assembled Hopscotch the same way. Did I miss anyone? Does anyone else want to weigh in? Ah, yes, the guy with the day job in quantitative data analysis wants to say he (1) hates fiction patterned with pocket rulers, (2) does eventually analyze his haphazardly assembled sections in a spreadsheet, (3) would like to end with a line from Wendell Berry recited by a percussionist at a concert: every day do something that won’t compute.
DLB: Can we see one of those spreadsheets?
MJC: Here’s a spreadsheet for the Leopoldo & Antonio at Julio’s Party chapter. The cumulative % was important for me to keep track of what surfaced when for the characters. The little table below is to keep tab on the balance between modes of narration.
DLB: Same question about form and shape, but on the sentence level. One reason your writing excites me so much is that it often mimics what I recognize as the rhythm of a noisy mind: it feels like I’m reading thought directly, in all its overlap and chaos. But then — if it took you more than a decade to finish this book, can that really be true? What’s the path these words took from your brain to the printed page?
MJC: I was exactly after what you call the rhythm of a noisy mind, Daniel: the dramatization of interiority, the overlaps and chaos and imaginary dialogues and blank memories. In other words the objective (to paraphrase Adam Phillips) was to find forms of incoherence that were readable. In other words I needed extremely flexible high-speed sentences (unlike the last two sentences, which require “in other words” to perform a simple overlap). I began by writing what I will call traditional long sentences, sentences that often rely on affirmations and negations to keep going on, and then I wrote what I will call my emdashed sentences, sentences that look like a horizontal JR by William Gaddis, and then (by trial and error, 100 words a day, year after year letting chance and whatever I was reading and whatever was happening to me interfere with the course of the sentences, thinking of the emdashed sentences, which I’d assigned to Rolando & Eva, as subversives infiltrating the traditional long sentences, which I’d assigned to Antonio & Leopoldo) I combined the two types of sentences, which yielded what I sometimes call long sentences with voices, sometimes performance of an impulse sentences. These, as you know, are the only kind of sentences I write now. I should have called them long sentences with snakes so I could end this question by saying, in other words, mister Levin Becker, The Revolutionaries Try Again can be read as the history of my [redacted] snakes.
DLB: What didn’t end up making it into the novel? Having read much of it in various earlier stages, I’m aware of some things that have changed (the most tragic to my mind being “maidkiller” becoming “maid killer,” a much less priapic nickname for a penis), but what stands out to you, structurally or sentimentally? Which darlings were you sorriest to murder?
MJC: I wish my approach of blanking parentheticals after writing them (coma con Joe, coma con Joe) and then trying to write about their potential content to dramatize my blanks in memory had worked. I was also attached to the following circa 2005/2006 sentence because it was one of the first ones that felt alive with the rhythms I was after, although it was too satirical in tone to keep, but I still love you, satirical sentence of my youth:
Along Rumichaca Street Antonio rushes to his first revolutionary meeting. At least he thinks it will be a revolutionary meeting. Although he knows that there will be no speeches about guerrilla uprisings. No plans to arm the poor on the hills of Mapasingue so they can descend upon a city that’s repulsed by them. No disquisitions about a new socialism penned by the young intellectuals of the Universidad Católica. No proclamations of a new presidential model with the power to bulldoze backward congresses with tanks, although this last notion does appeal to him, and there will be none of these partly because Antonio’s the kind of revolutionary who as a boy preferred clay saints over bronze soldiers (San Ignacio over Simon Bolívar, to his grandfather’s dismay), and partly because those attending this meeting wouldn’t appreciate being descended upon, and partly because all the young intellectuals he knows have either fled to Florida or opted for a career in business administration. Except Leopoldo. And Antonio, of course, who fled but has returned. And what a term, this revolutionary: super whitening toothpaste, triple decker tacos, digital monster tractors: everything around him seems to be revolutionary: on a billboard on the way to the San Francisco airport (the toothpaste), on an inflight magazine on his flight back to Guayaquil (the tacos), on posters on telephone poles along Rumichaca Street (the tractors). And yet despite the term’s debasement, and what to others might seem like a slight radical agenda, he still believes he’s heading to something revolutionary, leading him to conclude that perhaps revolutionary for him means: a protest at the corner of Rumicacha and Boyacá interrupts him, aiding him in postponing the conclusion that perhaps revolutionary for him means: any activity that includes him.
DLB: After such a long construction period, what made the novel finished? Does it feel that way to you now, or have you just moved on because it was time to move on? (I feel like I should know whether or not you subscribe to the never-finished-only-abandoned view of art, but I don’t.)
MJC: I used to think and perhaps still think of a novel as a radius of associations, where associations are like Christmas lights or stars in a constellation (I don’t understand the aversion to mixed metaphors in the USA, by the way, everything’s mixed up inside our brains, no?), and in the beginning the radius is dark so my task consists of switching the lights on, one by one, a task that obviously cannot be completed unless I live inside the radius, and some components like my high school memories will have an easy-to-find light switch, sure, but I’m a fan of the weird wires so most of the time my light switch is magic — do you like magic? — I don’t, Thom Pain says, enough about me — yes, Padgett Powell might have subconscious accretions but I have magic, clap once, twice, feed the radius with everything in the world, clap again, and once all the lights are on, the novel is done.
I don’t understand the aversion to mixed metaphors in the USA, by the way, everything’s mixed up inside our brains, no?
DLB: The book’s title — which I love — seems to me emblematic of the critical (in both senses) distance the novel manifests towards its characters. What was it like living with them for so long? How did your attitude and sympathies toward them evolve over time?
MJC: Someone said to me recently that the women in the book change the book, and I said yes, the appearance of the women in the book coincided with the appearance of my daughters, who have opened doors to rooms I did not know existed — the platypus, tata — rooms from which I like to believe I have been able to approach my characters differently, as if they were at the same time me (let’s satirize these guys!), my children (let’s pretend we’re not afraid let’s keep them safe under a dome of love!), and not me since too many years had gone by and I was no longer the same age as my characters (let’s feel loss and be nostalgic about them!). No wonder I dedicated The Revolutionaries Try Again to my daughters. In other words, mister Levin Becker, The Revolutionaries Try Again can be read as the history of my [redacted] lifestages.
DLB: Which makes me think of our friend Tony Tulathimutte’s various comments about writing a character whose identity is bound to be conflated with your own based on biographical/demographic cues. Antonio’s story mirrors yours at a number of points — which you’re not shy about making known, at least given the publicity materials Coffee House has been using — so how do you anticipate this playing out in your case?
MJC: I read Tony’s always incisive comments and thought aha, yes, that’s why his favorite section of my novel is the monologue in which the Fat Albino, the grandson of the greatest oligarch of them all, rants against Antonio and Leopoldo, two of the so-called protagonists of the novel, who think that, unlike everyone else in Ecuador, they are not fraudulent — I’ll tell you about that duo of thieves, the Fat Albino says — and so I read Tony’s always incisive comments and thought he’s right, if Antonio were a stand-in for me I might have banished his unsavory behaviors and thoughts for fear of being seeing as a bad person, but fortunately Antonio is not a stand-in for me but a stew of fact and fiction, and in any case if someone were to ask me about Antonio and his resemblance to me I would say think of the whole book as my alien child, mister, ripped out of my stomach over a period of 12 years.
DLB: Okay, long one, sorry in advance for being that one reading attendee who talks about nothing for four minutes and then says “can you speak to that?” But: where the book’s critical distance from its characters is most vivid for me is in this deep sense of doubt it seems to have about the ability of ideas — artistic, scholarly, religious, whatever — to change the world. To start a revolution, obviously, much less finish one, but also simply to attain a whole, existentially reconciled life. (Like, it’s satisfying to know and think about David Hume and Arvo Pärt, but what does that do to address economic disparity and lack of potable water, “destitution and injustice,” etc.) So now that you’ve written and published this brilliant novel both filled with and about ideas, what does it mean to you to join the firmament of artists and thinkers who represent that which you both love and doubt? Is success for this book different from success for its author?
MJC: How do we explain the coexistence of death squads and brunch? In How Holocausts Happen: the United States in Central America, Douglas Porpora brings up a condition called pluralistic ignorance, where we reinforce in each other the mistaken conviction that nothing is really wrong so that we don’t have to skip brunch. Will I skip any celebratory brunches if success comes for the book? No. But don’t ask me to stay for the churros (I’ll take those to go, though).
How do we explain the coexistence of death squads and brunch?
DLB: What’s the weirdest textual tic you indulge when you’re drafting? (For example, I rewrite sentences to get rid of ugly gaps in the right-hand margin; another friend of ours abhors sentences that end with the letter R.)
MJC: I don’t think this one is too weird,
but I draft my sentences like this,
one line until I hit a punctuation mark,
which I decided to do after I transcribed a slice of To The Lighthouse by hand the same way so as to learn how Woolf structures her rhythms,
a long line followed by a short one,
almost never a long line followed by a long line.
DLB: Name three authors you’re secretly afraid you’re influenced by.
MJC: Sometimes I am afraid to reread Saramago or Woolf or Antunes because I know I will be able to spot their influence, but most of the time I love to see how I’ve swallowed pieces of them to forge pieces of me.