Leif Enger Thinks We’re All Unreliable Narrators

The author of ‘Virgil Wander’ on the slippery slope of selfhood

Virgil Wander is the sort of novel you read to remember why you love reading. It’s populated by playful sentences of startling wisdom and unabashed joy. The word “merry” appears multiple times. The cast of characters is expansive and memorable. Visiting and revisiting the fictional northern Minnesota town of Greenstone, I felt like a tourist in some Tim Burtonesque town, part Big Fish, part Scissorhands, a playland for grown-ups where the town clerk, who moonlights as a film projectionist and carries a driftwood staff, screens Old Hollywood classics for locals after hours. Where an elderly stranger with twinkling eyes flies kites of his own outrageous design. Where a scrappy boy fisherman is determined to enact revenge on a massive killer sturgeon. Where the romantic lead is a beautiful neon sign-maker whose irreverent ballplayer husband long ago tragically disappeared.

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But if all that sounds too twee for your taste, there is also darkness here. Not all the characters are Burtonesque sweethearts. The washed up bad boy filmmaker Adam Leer and his wildeyed handyman Jerry Fandeen might have wandered in from another genre altogether.

Our hero, such that he is, has recently suffered some significant brain damage after driving his car into Lake Superior, and he’s having trouble remembering things: adjectives; tasks; why he drove off the cliff in the first place; how he used to be. Virgil is haunted by post-traumatic underwater memories, by visions of himself as a dead man, and by a strange figure he sees now and then standing on the water, seemingly waiting for him to return to the lake.

Rachel Lyon: One of the turns of phrase I love best in this book is the way Virgil refers to himself, pre-accident, as “the previous tenant.” He is confounded, when he returns from the hospital, by relics of his former life — for instance, his shoes. Then there is Jerry Fandeen, who, you write several times, “forgot himself.” While Virgil seems baffled but relatively unconcerned by the changes in his own personality, Jerry’s “forgetting” is the beginning of his undoing.

It seems to me that part of what you are getting at, in this novel, is the slipperiness of selfhood, maybe particularly for a certain type of man (emotionally isolated, Midwestern, middle-aged). Was that part of the project here? Could you talk a bit about it?

Leif Enger: Well, the culture asks men to be a certain way. Out on the cartoon fringe idealized in the in-flight magazines, we’re to be self-made, triumphant, abiding in a place beyond self-doubt, joyfully hammering our professional adversaries by day and enjoying nightly groundbreaking sex while maintaining our abs into our seventies. It’s hilarious. It’s as if the concept of humility has been discarded without a thought.

What made Virgil so engaging to me was that his mind — his actual mind — abruptly changes. It’s a literal shakeup after which he can’t think of himself as he once did. The pieces are scrambled or missing. The interesting question to me is whether — if indeed he’s lost himself — whether the loss is necessarily for the worse. For example, Virgil’s brain injury leaves him less verbally capable, which frustrates him and yet makes him pay a kind of attention to people he hadn’t been paying before. It makes him a careful listener, less apt to judge others, and therefore strangely effective in ways not previously imagined. He’s less polite, but more honest; less prone to defend himself, and therefore less needy of defense. To your question, the big themes of selfhood didn’t occur to me while writing — I was just staying with the flow of the story, trying to go where it went. But those questions (what am I holding onto, exactly? what am I trying to maintain?) definitely inform Virgil’s personality as he rebuilds his life, and bleed into those in his orbit as well.

RL: There are multiple stories at work in these pages. Adam Leer, prodigal son, returns to Greenstone after his career on the outskirts of Hollywood fizzles. Rune Eliassen comes to Greenstone to search for his long-lost son. Those are just two of the main character arcs, however. As a novelist myself I was delighted to find that no character, however minor, appears in this book without going through some major development. My favorite is Ellen Tripp, a fifteen-year-old tertiary character who doesn’t do much, plot-wise, but appears on the page complete with a whirlwind of backstory, front story, and everything in between:

Just a kid of fifteen… got pregnant last year and had an abortion, lost all her friends and her folks kicked her out, although she was back with them now. Ellen was working things through. One week she’d show up plain as a hymnal, eyes cast down and her hair yanked back; the next she arrived in glitter and paint, short and bright as a puffin. Regardless of dress her most piercing weapon was a smile that burst out when least expected, as though too much to contain. Inside of five minutes we all adored her.

I’m curious about the form you chose for this novel, given the fact that there are so many characters, each with his or her own arc. Were you ever tempted to write a novel-in-stories? Or a collection of tales about the town of Greenstone?

LE: Recently when reading the wonderful Olive Kitteridge [by Elizabeth Strout] it struck me that Greenstone’s story could’ve been told in a similar way. In fact I did write an early draft using third-person and shifting viewpoints, but the story didn’t hold together that way, it left me restless and annoyed, there was no satisfaction in it and I had to pitch the book and start again in first-person. Once locked into Virgil’s voice I wanted to simply stay with it and see where it went. John Gardner used to describe the successful novel as a “vivid, continuous dream,” and for me that continuity came through a firsthand narrative and ongoing threads of recovery and engagement. As for Greenstone, it turned out to have such a rich vein of characters I may not be done with it yet. Many of those characters feel to me as though their lives continue beyond the pages, and I’m playing around with ways to use some of them in another project.

Culture asks men to be a certain way: we’re to be self-made, triumphant, abiding in a place beyond self-doubt, joyfully hammering our professional adversaries by day and enjoying nightly groundbreaking sex while maintaining our abs into our seventies.

RL: Given that you did end up writing a standalone novel, I’m curious about your choice of hero. In some ways Virgil makes an unlikely protagonist. He is aphasic. As he recuperates, he is necessarily passive. He describes himself as “foolish” several times. He is not particularly ambitious. He’s unreliable. He sees things that might not be there. In other ways, however, he’s the perfect hub for the rest of the characters to revolve around. He’s the proprietor of The Empress, a tumbledown cinema that still shows reel-to-reel films, where the rest of the characters congregate for the odd illegal screening of a pilfered classic. And he’s nosy. He’s curious about the lives of his neighbors. So tell me about the process of choosing a character to be the reader’s guide — beyond the guide-appropriate name, I mean. What was the process of crafting him like?

LE: A foolish or unreliable narrator is a lovely old tradition and lets a story go where it likes. Memory itself is so mutable that most of us are probably unreliable narrators, no matter how certain we are of our facts.

Virgil only came to life when, in my second attempt at the book, he suffered a brain injury and could no longer trust his eyes, language, or judgment. Then he got interesting. Then I could invest. The aphasia was especially delightful to work with because it allowed for a little presentation whenever Virgil remembered an appropriate word at the proper time. It put me squarely on his side. I’m the kind of selfish writer who wants to love and root for his characters, which means they are underdogs. They’re acquainted with failure and disappointment. World beaters make terrible protagonists except when they lose everything; the same holds for narrators who are smarter than everyone around them and so become contemptuous of their neighbors. For me to write Virgil fairly he had to be in a state of vulnerability — uncertain of himself but trusting enough to tell you his story, like someone you’d listen to in a bus depot, and maybe find yourself confiding in as well.

Memory itself is so mutable that most of us are probably unreliable narrators, no matter how certain we are of our facts.

RL: Speaking of names, this is a novel where words matter. Virgil’s aphasia plays a fun role in the narrative: as language slips in and out of his grasp, so does his sense of himself. And his own “audacious surname” becomes a sort of fortune. As we read, the title of the book becomes not just a name but a challenge, even a command: Virgil, Wander! As another character puts it:

“Wander — what a name. It’s almost a calling. You’ve had some adventures, with a name like that.”

“Not yet really,” I confessed.

“No? Well, watch out then,” she said, looking lightly up and around, as though a whole sky full of escapades were imminent and would soon gush down in a cloudburst of destiny….

The essence of the novel, as an art form, is a version of reality constructed only with words. To an extent, for full immersion in the novel, the reader has to see through the words on the page, and experience only their meaning. But you don’t let us do that. The surface here is just as important as the depths. What are you saying about the relationship between our experience of language and our experience of life?

LE: What an interesting question! Maybe it connects to the old idea that to name something — an enemy, a fear, a resource, gives you power over it. You can enjoy breakfast without applying any language to it, but that slice of toast is so much richer if you also describe the butter melting into its surface, the shingle of white sharp cheddar, the slab of heavy dark tomato on top with its speckling of pepper, and maybe also how your grandfather used ever increasing black pepper on his tomatoes as his age increased and his sense of taste diminished. Language is an opportunity for delight, or for whatever else you want to magnify or intensify in the story you’re telling. As a reader I’m happiest when the writer uses language transparently but also with a sense of play. Maybe all our best work is done for pleasure.

RL: It struck me as I read this that at least some of your language seems to be written in poetic meter. The last four sentences in particular stuck in my mind like a song. Are you a musical person? Do you hear what you write as you write it?

LE: Dad was a lifelong musician, and Mom read to us aloud — both stories and poetry — so I grew up around meter and rhyme. Many books also feel like songs, they have a lyrical quality, a comforting tempo. In all my stories there are times when rhythm comes forward and wants to be part of what’s happening, help set a mood. Remember the old Stevenson poem?

Whenever the moon and stars are set, whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet, a man goes riding by –
Late in the night when the fires are out, why does he gallop and gallop about?

This still raises the hair on my arms. So rhythm — and more rarely rhyme, as in the last four sentences you mention — is something I pay attention to.

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