In Praise Of The Un-Sanded Edges: Joshua Mohr Talks With Colin Winnette About E.L.
Colin Winnette admires the writer Joshua Mohr, so he asked him to suggest a book that they might talk about. Josh Mohr picked The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. Winnette and Mohr met in San Francisco’s Mission District to discuss the book over coffee and pie.
One week after the conversation, Doctorow died of lung cancer. It was a tragic loss. This conversation is now both a celebration and a memorial to a great American talent. He lives on in his work and in the conversations that happen around it.
CW: Let’s start with a brief synopsis, just to ground people who haven’t read the book or, possibly, even heard of it. Can you describe the book in 3 to 4 sentences?
JM: Well, this isn’t a tidy book, something easy to summarize. It’s an (re)-imagining of the Rosenberg children, whose parents were executed by the US government for being found guilty of treason. The eponymous Daniel is their now twenty-something man-boy, trying to sift through their history and make sense of all the anger and confusion and shame thrumming through his life. Of course, it’s also about 100 other things, but that’s the unifying action that allows all the other crazy narrative threads to satellite around it.
CW: How did this book first come into your life? What’s your relationship to it today? Why did you want to talk about it today?
Every rule you’re taught in an MFA program, Doctorow breaks.
JM: It’s sort of embarrassing. I didn’t know about this book until I was in graduate school and I took a class called Architecture of the Novel. I think I felt the way a lot of people feel when they’re in graduate programs, that you’re in some sort of homogeneity machine that’s taking the cool idiosyncrasies that make you all different, and jamming you into one ‘beige against the machine thing’ that we’ve all read a thousand times. This was the book where I saw somebody breaking the rules, in the subversive transgressive sense. Every rule you’re taught in an MFA program, Doctorow breaks. It’s glorious, you know, and it’s why so many people don’t like the book. But that’s how I want to communicate with my audience. I’ve never written a book like [Book of] Daniel, because I don’t think anybody else could write a book like [Book of] Daniel. Doctorow is the only person who could write that book. But this was the book that gave me the mantra I’ve used in everything I’ve written since: “Your imagination is as unique as your fingerprint. Write the story that only you could write.” I mean, I teach now, that’s what I tell my graduate students all the time. Fuck what other people do. I’ve read Toni Morrison, I’ve read Irvine Welsh, I’ve read Amy Hempel. I haven’t read you. So do the thing that only you can do. Doctorow taught me that.
CW: How was it initially received? Do you know?
JM: Critically, it did pretty well. The NYT gave it a good review. But I taught this book a couple years ago so I had to do some research on it and people are so mean about it because they think it’s too pretentious or it’s too arcane. But the nimble pyrotechnics of its point of view, it’s never just Doctorow jerking off.
It’s always there to serve character, which makes Doctorow such a good writer. Everything is in the service of humanizing Daniel. And it’s not an easy task to take a damaged sadist like Daniel and find the empathy. I think a lot of people are just like ‘I don’t want to occupy that mindset.’ But if you actually give it a chance and let the book work its magic on you, there’s so much heart in that story.
CW: What part of the magic worked on you first? Which of the broken rules stood out on your first read?
JM: The first thing that dawned on me — because it happens in the first paragraph — is the oscillation he’s doing between first and third person. It can be off-putting at first but then you realize that there are narrative triggers. Doctorow has rules set up for Daniel. He’s in the first person when he’s cerebral in the library, but when he’s about to dislocate into what might be considered bad behavior or things he’s embarrassed of or things he needs distance from, he switches to third person as a defense mechanism. Like he’s going to burn his wife or when he’s throwing his kid up in the air. Daniel has a moral compass, he knows the things he’s doing are wrong. He just can’t help himself.
CW: And he communicates that formally.
JM: That’s the thing, when you have a damaged — I wouldn’t call Daniel stoic — but he’s not the sort of person to blubber to the reader consciously. He does some blubbering he’s not aware of, but you have to figure out a way to be earnest as the author, to render that on the page so you’re being true to who this person is. It would’ve read totally false if Daniel blamed this consciously on his mommy and daddy. There’s dissonance there so that the reader can figure out things Daniel himself isn’t self-aware. He can remain at a distance while the reader picks up clues along the way. We know things that Daniel doesn’t know about himself. You hear people talk about how the first person is so immediate, and maybe it is, but the thing is if we do our job right in the third person it can be even more immediate, because we can see things the narrator doesn’t. This of course isn’t a strict third person, it is Daniel behind the scenes, but he’s giving himself permission to occupy himself in a way that he never would have been able to do with the first person, because he would’ve called that sort of self-reflection masturbatory.
CW: So you’ve got third person, first person —
JM: — Even second person is in there!
CW: — And then there are those chunks of information that he’s obviously read in something else or heard somewhere and he’s just reporting them. It’s all “Daniel,” but each voice gets at something different, and they all work together to paint a more detailed and vivid version of the story than he could do from any one perspective… Even if it’s all still ultimately…one perspective. Doctorow is communicating things to us about Daniel through Daniel’s failure to tell his story in the way that he desires to. Daniel is supposedly writing his thesis, but if he actually turned this in…
JM: That’s the big sleight of hand, that’s what makes this book such a towering achievement. He’s able to create this sense of dramatic irony and yet it stays emotional. When people criticize the American post moderns, especially this era, you know, that it’s all head and no heart, like all the [Donald] Barthelme stuff — [how] it’s impeccably written, it’s super smart but it doesn’t engage you in its big bloody human heart way. This is meta-fiction but it’s emotional meta-fiction and the fact that he’s able to do that, to involve you in such an emotionally devastating way, is just such a work of art.
CW: There’s also this thing with meta-fictional works that read like critiques, or attacks on narrative or realist fiction. A sort of disassembling or devolution. This isn’t that. If anything, it’s about the possibilities of narrative fiction. How you can work within its limits to make something totally new. Which demonstrates a real knowledge of what it is about narrative fiction that compels and engages readers. What do you think? When the narrative is forced into a different point of view or a thread is broken, is Doctorow showing us the limits of this kind of fiction, or Daniel’s limits as a writer?
JM: I’m not sure if I’d be able to differentiate between those two things. There’s a telling scene toward the end, when he’s getting ready to talk about his parents being executed. There’s a lot of direct address in the book and I think the direct address works really, really well, but there’s one paragraph or beginning of a paragraph in the book where he says, “Oh you don’t think I can do the electrocutions? You don’t think I can do this? You don’t think?” He’s been getting up the courage to talk about it, and we’ve been getting up the courage to hear him talk about it, and it’s an amazing liberating moment for him to finally purge this pain — I’m sorry for the alliteration — he’s been carrying around for years and years and Doctorow is smart enough to know our past will stay animated as long as we’ll keep it alive. When I was in rehab one of the counselors blew my mind one day when he said to me: “You’re the only person who cares about your sob story. Even your spouse, your siblings, nobody really cares except you. Just let it go.” What he said sounds so simple and yet it was this total catharsis for me. I was like: Oh wait, I can stop that. And Doctorow does a similar thing here. Daniel has created an antagonist for his family’s story the whole time. There’s a “bad guy” in the book, and Daniel conjures this passion to finally go confront the monster, and the monster doesn’t even know what he did anymore. He’s this old man with dementia, and he has no ability to know what Daniel is talking about. And he’s been carrying around this fucking rage. And Doctorow sets the scene in Disneyland. It’s the perfect backdrop. The way it’s rendered, I don’t remember the exact page but the way I remember is that there’s a thirty or forty page essay about America, kind of using Disneyland as a framing device, before we actually get to the Alzheimer’s patient who doesn’t remember that he was a key player in the execution of Daniel’s parents.
CW: He’s just there, riding the teacups on an endless loop.
JM: It’s so brilliant.
CW: Talk to me about Disneyland. That was one of the most compelling scenes in the book for me. It was ludicrous, and everything you said about it was brilliant.
JM: What resonated with you that he said?
CW: Specifically, there’s a moment where being in Disneyland sends Daniel off on a tangent about cartoons and animation. He says, “A study today of the products of the animated cartoon industry of the twenties, thirties and forties would yield the following theology: 1. People are animals. 2. The body is mortal and subject to incredible pain. 3. Life is antagonistic to the living. 4. The flesh can be sawed, crushed, frozen, stretched, burned, bombed, and plucked for music. 5. The dumb are abused by the smart and the smart destroyed by their own cunning. 6. The small are tortured by the large and the large destroyed by their own momentum. 7. We are able to walk on air, but only as long as our illusion supports us.”
JM: Each of those rules is emblematic of the journey we just watched Daniel go on. He had to tell us about the electrocutions and he had to go confront the monster. And then the last thing he has to do is leave the library. I think that’s a really important thing, too. It’s not this trivial ending: that there’s a revolution happening outside, he has to leave, get out of the library. The story’s over, he has to stop writing this book. If left to his own devices, I think he’d still be sitting there
CW: By the end Daniel hasn’t resolved everything. It’s messy. Even going to confront the monster is such a confounding scene because in that moment Daniel is equal parts terrifying and harmless and vulnerable and angry and sad. He wants to side with the daughter of this man and also blame her and her family. He hates her and wants to love her at the same time. You also see her fluctuate in how she feels about him, back and forth between being afraid of him and pitying him and caring for him.
I’m so glad Doctorow isn’t one of those writers that cops out at the end. It starts off in the human slop and we end in the human slop.
JM: No doubt. There’s also that really tender gesture that comes after Daniel has worked himself up into the froth — this is going to be the moment where he finally tells Freddy Krueger off, and he walks up to him and Krueger says “Danny” and gives him this gesture of affection, reaches over and touches his hair. It’s beautiful and so plangent at the same time, because a part of us wants him to have this moment. There’s suddenly the thought that he might have this moment to heal — but Doctorow’s not interested in easy answers. Great literature is never going to provide that fucking Lifetime Channel moment, you know what I mean? It’s going to be more complicated than that. I’m so glad Doctorow isn’t one of those writers that cops out at the end. It starts off in the human slop and we end in the human slop. There’s some resolution, of course, it’s a satisfying journey, but it certainly isn’t like, ‘Daniel’s fine now.’ I don’t think anyone would read this and think, ‘I want that guy to babysit my kids!’ Things are not super bueno but there’s the suggestion that there might be the opportunity to change on his horizon. I don’t know that he’s taken it yet but he’s young. He’s in his 20s still. There’s the idea that if he’s able to get that anger under control, he can do a better job than his sister did at taking care of himself. He won’t fall into that trap. The sister tries to kill herself and finally does. It couldn’t have just been a suicide — we needed the attempt first to really set up a pattern of damage, because even though Daniel hasn’t slashed his wrists, it wouldn’t have surprised you, after what he’s been through, if he had harmed himself. He’s so cruel to everyone around him. Why should he be pardoned? He seems like the last person to give himself clemency. But by the end of the story — at least in my interpretation of it — there’s the suggestion he might heal and I think that’s beautiful… Because if he stays in the library it’s a different ending, but the idea that he puts the pencil down and goes out to interact with what’s actually happening now rather than spinning his wheels in the mud of the past.
CW: He’s making a decision that’s based on the present rather than the past. He credits his sister as being better than him, or admirable for her ability to take action and follow through with what she wants. Then when she ultimately what she wants is to die, she takes that action. She follows through. Daniel is very different from her and much more confused about what he wants and what it means to get what he wants.
JM: One of his sister Susan’s mantras throughout the book is ‘they’re still fucking us.” That leads her to end her life. If you’re going to live, you have to allow people to continue to fuck you. At a certain point, everyone has had hardship. Everyone has a sob story. Are you going to let it have clout or are you going to decide — ‘it sucks that this happened, but what about tomorrow?’ It doesn’t have to have that much prowess. I mentioned Freddy Krueger earlier and I actually think the ending of the first Nightmare on Elm Street is so profoundly beautiful.
CW: Where the mom gets sucked through the window?
JM: Not that one. The scene before that, where he’s trying to kill the principal character Nancy and she says, “I take back every scream I ever gave you.” He tries to slash her but it goes right through her. She has taken his power away by not believing in him anymore. Doctorow is doing a similar thing here.
CW: Sidebar on that one: that’s the way that Wes Craven wanted to end it but the studio said ‘no, we need a sequel’ so they made him tack that extra last moment on.
JM: What happens? A convertible drives up…
CW: And all her friends are still alive, she gets in the car, the car cover is the colors of Freddy’s sweater, then his striped sweater arm pulls Nancy’s mom from the front porch and back into the house through the window —
JM: That was my prized hipster possession when I was in high school, a striped Nightmare on Elm Street sweater, and these terrible dreadlocks.
CW: You had dreadlocks?
JM: Twice! Normally people make the dreaded Caucasian dreadlocks mistake once, but not me, I rocked that twice!
CW: Okay sorry. Doctorow. The backdrop is radicalism. Daniel’s parents were 1940s radicals, left-wing activists, or socialists —
JM: Or spies!
CW: Or spies, potentially. And Daniel and his sister Susan are involved in the 60s counterculture, that new breed of activism. I agree that Doctorow is saying that part of life is accepting the fact that things are never easy, “part of living is continuing to be fucked,” but all the characters are deeply invested in trying to change the world. And I don’t think he’s…mocking them.
I always believe that a book is in suspended animation until a reader is generous enough to bring it to life with her imagination.
JM: One of the strengths of the book is Doctorow resists the urge to editorialize very often. It would be easy to turn this into a didactic book. One of the strengths of all the activism is that Daniel’s stepfather represents a certain style of activism, Daniel represents a certain style of activism, and so does Susan. Because they’re all fully embodied, smart folks they can have these really involved cerebral discussions. Then the reader gets to make her own determinations about who is right and who is wrong. Or maybe cherry pick: I like this detail of Susan, and this detail of Daniel. But of course it would be very informed by whatever zeitgeist you’re reading the book in. If you’re reading it during the Vietnam War or the oil embargo it’s different than reading it in Bush’s America, or Obama’s. I always believe that a book is in suspended animation until a reader is generous enough to bring it to life with her imagination. Some of that is because we bring our own system of experiences to it, and certainly the era we live in is going to really charge how we’re reading a political text like this.
CW: There are so many angles from which to approach the book. And, the be totally honest, this was my first time even hearing of it —
JM: Did you dig it?
CW: I loved it! Until now, I had this misinformed idea of what Doctorow was, and I just ignored him. But this book did a similar thing for me that it did for you back in grad school — it reminded me of how you can service a story or an idea by setting your own rules, or fucking around with those already in place.
I want to write like my audience is brilliant the same way Doctorow does with this book.
JM: I’m such a huge advocate of the knowledge transfer. No one ever creates art in a vacuum. We’re always pulling things from our floorboards: not even just books, [also] movies, music, what we’re hearing on the streets, all these sorts of things. We need people to tell us: ‘don’t be stodgy, don’t hold hands.’ This is a really demanding book. When people complain about it, what I’m hearing from them on a subtext level, [is] ‘this book asks me to work too hard.’ And I love authors that tell me ‘I think you’re up for the challenge.’ Like Pale Fire. These are some of my favorite books because the author thinks that I’m smart. I can do the job of a reader rather than needing to have my food pureed for me. I need those reminders every once in a while. It makes me look at my own work, like: am I being too much of a hand-holder here? And I modulate accordingly. There are certain books I go back to to make sure I stay brave in my decision making: Book of Daniel would be one, Lithium for Medea would be another, Pale Fire would be another one. Works of art that have had an influence on me, not on my work directly but just informing the kind of writer I want to be. I want to write like my audience is brilliant the same way Doctorow does with this book.
CW: In a weird way it’s a very internet age book because it’s so scattered and multiple in its approach. If you don’t like his first person account here in a little while, you’ll be in an entirely different place. It doesn’t just stick you in a line of thought or one way of playing with language. It’s all over the place, but it all adds up to something that’s emotional, meaningful, thoughtful, and challenging. But when you’re reading it, there are all kinds of reprieves from the moments of harshness or difficulty.
JM: There’s the passage where he goes into the grandmother’s point of view and I can just hear an editor saying to a younger writer: “this doesn’t belong.” It must be so difficult because, on the one hand, we all want wise editors and we want to follow what they’re saying to us, but sometimes these un-sanded edges are what make books great. They don’t always have to be slick and lacquered and cohesive. Sometimes it’s the mistakes — or however you want to qualify them — that make a work stand out as a vibrant and unique work of art. That’s one of the things I love about this book: I love that it has a lot of problems. I love Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. That’s a book that’s got tons of problems. But the fucking cojones he’s putting on the page scene after scene after scene — it’s amazing. I still think he should be more famous for that than [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest. But if Kesey had taken the time to make his female characters as inhabited as his male characters, I think Sometimes A Great Notion would be one of the best books ever written.
CW: What do you think of how Doctorow handles his female characters? Are they given short shrift? Susan is a really compelling character but she’s compelling largely through her interactions with Daniel and is ultimately made inanimate, imprisoned, sedated, suicidal. Daniel’s wife Phyllis is subject to Daniel, in a lot of ways a punching bag for his sadism, and the mom has this great noble moment at the end when she’s seen as so much stronger than her husband in certain ways — but even then she’s an idealized mother figure, endlessly loving and endlessly upright. Whereas Daniel gets to be good and bad. He gets his own autonomy and his own messiness. It’s his story one hundred percent.
JM: I think his wife Phyllis certainly bears the brunt of that because she’s paying the consequences for his relationship with his mother and how his mother was treated and how his sexuality was awakened, but I think the mother is a pretty well-rounded character. She’s able to have her complexities. We never know for certain whether she’s a traitor and yet I root for her the entire time. She’s strong and smart and loving, and she might also be this really treacherous presence. I like those kinds of inconsistencies because if humans are consistent about one thing, it’s being inconsistent. And Susan, too, has her complexities — especially their disagreements about how they should handle the foundation and their activism. I like all that stuff. I agree that it would’ve been interesting, would’ve made the book a little bit more ‘2015’ if Phyllis had been more rounded out. But I think the immediate family got a pretty good rounding.
CW: Either way, Doctorow pulls it off because we’re living in Daniel’s mind. We’re seeing those characters exclusively through the way he thinks about them. So it’s bound to be a little lop-sided. It’s another one of those things that Doctorow expects us put together ourselves, not something Daniel is necessarily going to give us.
JM: There’s no doubt that he’s a misogynist. No one would ever argue that he’s not a misogynist. And if that’s going to be the lens through which we’re seeing things, it’s up to us to dig through the subterfuge. To really see this clue here, or that clue there. It almost becomes a jigsaw puzzle. I guess characterization is always like a jigsaw puzzle, but now we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator who’s not intentionally lying, but certainly lying along the way. We all do that to a certain extent. So now it puts some extra onus on the audience to then say like: “Well I learned this about the mom on page 49 and I need to remember this because now on page 87 I’m learning something else and I need to put all these things together.” The mom is angry in a really interesting way where she wasn’t necessarily able to express it publicly back in the day. She was expressing it privately in the home. The father was a little bit softer. If they were spies, you have to imagine that she was making the decisions. But we don’t know that part of the story. It’d be a whole different book if we did.
CW: I think it’d be a book I’d be less interested in.
If I can incite a negative reaction I’ll always take that as a victory.
JM: Yes! You might start with a subset of questions at the beginning of a novel and hopefully at the end you’re going to have a different subset of questions. These initial ones have been addressed but it’s okay to have late questions. Everything doesn’t have to be dialed in during the duration of the narrative. I think Doctorow does a very deft job of that, giving us enough of that to think we’ve gone on a complete satiated journey but still there are still things to talk about. If you did this book in a book group, reactions would be all over the place. When I go and talk to book clubs, I love that stuff. Some people like a book of mine, and some people hate a book of mine. I’ll always take that over just ambivalence. If someone says “oh yeah I read that book, it was fine” — that breaks my heart. If I can incite a negative reaction I’ll always take that as a victory. Maybe that’s just some sort of literary bulletproof vest we have to wear in order to do what we do. Basically when we publish a book we cut out our heart and hold it out to someone and say ‘make fun of me’ and they do. And in order for us to continue to do something like that we have to have these sorts of partitions; otherwise it’ll be too painful to take that stuff on and take that stuff in.
CW: When you presented this book to your classes —
JM: They hated it! I will never teach a book that I love again.
JM: I’ll teach a book that I like. But I love this book, and I’ll never subject myself to cursory dismissals. But the ones that read it cohesively, smartly — if they didn’t dig it, I’m fine with that. But the ones who said: “oh, he’s a pig” — that should start a conversation, that shouldn’t end a conversation. But the fact that they’re shutting down a galaxy just because they don’t like the guy’s programming?! This book is about why he’s programmed that way. Our government executed his parents. His parents are considered to be the biggest traitors, probably, in US history. That’s a fascinating topic. It’s based on a real family, but only in as much as there were traitors and they had children, but Doctorow stopped the parallels there and allowed his imagination to take over. I don’t think I would’ve been as interested in it if it was like “In Cold Blood.” I love that he allowed himself to use history as a framing device and then dislocate it from that and allow his imagination to go crazy.
CW: It’s a fascinating crime — I kept asking myself reading this book: do I care if someone’s a traitor? And if I do, why, and how much?
JM: And are we in 2015 capable of understanding what that would’ve meant — to sell nuclear secrets to the Russians back in the 1940s? I don’t think I really understand the authority of that. Maybe in an abstract sense I do, but not in any visceral real sense.
CW: Now nukes are everywhere. It’s something we just have to live with.
JM: For sure. This is pre-all that stuff. We could hoard the bomb then. That’s very odd.
CW: That’s the thing about the book — not really knowing anything about the 1940s or 1960s leftist activism, not really knowing anything about the particular situation that sparked the book, or Doctorow or much about politics at all, I still found it to be a very rewarding book to read. It’s somehow still exciting and surprising and moving. Its concerns are big and small, and he handles the variety with such a light, almost playful touch.
JM: The thing that I really learned from an author standpoint with this book was that as a reader, I love variance and I love to be a little bit off balance. That’s one of the lessons I took away from this book — when you go from chapter 3 to chapter 4, you have no idea what’s coming next. There is a present action, but you have no idea where you’re going to be in space-time, or who’s going to be narrating, or what’s going to be the point of view. All these things are balls that Doctorow is juggling like chainsaws. It could’ve gone so splendidly wrong, and yet he found a way to make it this complete authentic journey. I think about that all the time if I’m being too predictable with how I’m doling out back-story or flashbacks or present action. Am I being too prescriptive with that? We can do anything on the page as long as we do it right. That sounds glib but I love that it always comes back down to us. Being willing to brew our coffee, sit in the chair, do the work. This book proves that you can do anything as long as you do your job right.
CW: What does it mean to do it right?
I always want there to be the opportunity for me to fall on my fucking face.
JM: That’s the cool thing. Each new project is telling you its own rules. I just had a new book come out called All This Life. And nothing I’d done before this prepared me to write this book. The canvas was still blank. It had its own unique system of challenges. It took me more time to revise this one than it had ones in the past. And I’m glad it’s not getting easier. I would quit writing if I were like, “Oh cool, I’ve cracked that novel thing!” Fuck that. I want it to remain as hard as it can be because hopefully, as we become better writers on a project-by-project basis, we’re trying things that are harder and harder. We’re stringing our artistic high wire at a more dire altitude. I always want there to be the opportunity for me to fall on my fucking face. I think that’s important in my work. I remember hearing Vanessa Veselka ask another author: “How willing to fail are you?” I love that question. If we’re not willing to fall on our face we’re not pushing ourselves. If we’re not pushing ourselves, who cares? I can’t think of a better example of that mindset than the Book of Daniel.
Joshua Mohr’s new book, All This Life, is out now, from Soft Skull Press.
Colin Winnette’s new book, Haints Stay, is out now, from Two Dollar Radio.