Every Age Is a Tender Age for an Artist
Mona Simpson discusses love, art, and inevitable insecurities in her most recent novel, "Commitment"
Mona Simpson’s latest novel, Commitment, is a tour de force that takes place in the early 1970s and follows three siblings—Walter, Lina, and Donnie—as they grow up in Los Angeles, into adulthood, and discover themselves while deciding whether to live an artist’s life, or a stable one. Each character uniquely confronts this question after their single mother, Diane, suffers from a debilitating depression and is committed to a long-term stay in a mental hospital, leaving them alone financially and emotionally. As the Aziz children try to stay afloat with part-time jobs at ice cream shops to cover rent and a little help from their friends, Diane lingers in the background of the book, as present as a ghost, and becomes a focal point for the siblings as they intermittently reconcile and reunite in her hospital room after years of living apart.
Commitment is as much about finding one’s identity as it is about losing one’s self. Simpson’s three protagonists experience self-discovery and romantic love, intricately interwoven in its various forms, while simultaneously risking everything they have for art in its many heartbreaking shapes. Throughout their early twenties, Walter dreams of becoming an architect, Lina studies painting without public success in a graduate program at Columbia, and little Donnie gets caught up in a world of addiction. All three are secretly falling apart until they come together in one room where time stands still. In profound, beautiful, and tragic chapters, Commitment shifts between each Aziz child’s perspective and ruminates on economic insecurity, the inheritance of mental illness, growing up, losing innocence, gaining independence, and how to situate that hazy and elusive idea of “adulthood.”
Simpson and I met at Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica and spoke over Americanos and indie music. Her first novel, Anywhere But Here, was made into a major motion picture in 1999, and now she serves as the publisher of The Paris Review—so we spoke about her thoughts on movie adaptations, the writers’ strike, and where the publishing industry is heading. Throughout the rest of our interview, Simpson discussed writing Commitment with a young consciousness, the perceptions and invisibilities of one’s social class, the secret charms of Los Angeles, and how her perspectives on love and art have changed over the years.
Kyla Walker: Commitment beautifully and, at times, tragically captures the fears, anxieties, dreams that twenty-somethings often have about becoming artists and simply growing up. I was curious—what drew you to write about that specific period in each of the characters’ lives?
Mona Simpson: I think I wanted to write a story about, in part, the mother who struggles with mental illness. And I wanted her to be kind of there, but not there in the book and to see her through each of her kids and how they deal with what happened to her. They accept her loss and her tragedy. That became my organizing principle. I found myself going to the period of their lives where they had to actually come to terms with that. So it was at different times for each of them because they were different ages when it happened. But I think that [one’s twenties] is one of the hardest times of life for various reasons. The two oldest [characters] are especially interested in being artists. The oldest in architecture. The second one in visual art. But I think for those two in particular, especially since the arts are insecure, famously insecure, and they weren’t coming from a world with a lot of stability and safety nets. They really didn’t have any nets. So I think they struggle to do this. It was a risk on top of a risk.
KW: Was it easy for you to access that youthful state of mind again? Did you keep a journal in your early twenties that you returned to?
MS: Oh. No, no, I didn’t think of that. I do remember myself at that age. But also I have two kids at that age, and I teach students [at UCLA]. It is a very tender age. And it’s a brave thing to want to be an artist. It’s interesting now to see enrollment in the humanities drop. Both of my kids are pursuing what they really want to do, and I’m happy although scared for them too. I hope it works out. But at the same time, I also worry about the other group. I’ve seen a lot… I’m always telling my students, I’ve met a lot of unhappy lawyers who construct the whole world and an edifice that they’re going to this job that they essentially do not like, and that is a big problem.
KW: That affects mental health in another way.
MS: Yes, and spiritual health as well.
KW: At times, money feels like another character in the novel and almost feels like the antagonist for the Aziz children. I was thinking about how it serves as a driving force of the plot and a genuine concern for many college students today. How do you think financial concerns shape the narratives differently for Walter than for Lina?
MS: I think it shapes both of them in different ways. It’s funny, I have a friend who said to me, “Your characters are all such believers in education.” And I realized then how far I’ve come from my upbringing. I think that Lina’s and Walter’s mother was a middle class person, but I think that she grew up in a lower class, and she saw education as the only way for her children to have a better life, and yet it’s so intoxicating for Lina when she actually starts working at the department store and has a salary. She found her little niche there. She could decorate windows and was the protégé of the most artistic woman there. It was hard, in a way, for her to give that up.
KW: It seems like all the patients in the mental hospital are treated equally, in terms of resources, no matter what their class is. I found an interesting parallel to the college campuses where Walter and Lina were attending because it seems they were also given the same resources regardless of their socioeconomic status. Was that an intentional parallel to structure the book upon?
MS: Well, in the case of both of them, while they’re there, there might be a kind of equality, but we all bring so much of our past, our constraints, and our anxieties with us. So I think that in a way, Walter felt so close to Ken [his roommate], but his experience in college really was quite different because half of his mind and heart was with his family back in L.A. and with his mother in the hospital. Whereas Ken didn’t have those things to deal with.
KW: It was fascinating too how Walter went all the way to Berkeley to study, yet still fell in love with two girls that went to Palisades High, his old high school.
MS: I know! That was funny.
KW: I was curious if that was maybe because of a deeper insecurity he had. Was it possibly linked to his illegitimate student status and never quite feeling like he belonged at Pali High?
MS: Yeah. I think his goal was kind of what he got. He came back, as an adult, to the neighborhood in which he’d never really been a part of, and he’s now a part of it. It’s nice to see that, though. I think that when I was growing up here, everyone in high school just wanted to get out and go far away. I went to Berkeley and friends of mine went East. We all wanted to be away. We never thought we’d come back to L.A. And now, it seems like all the kids I know go away for maybe a year, a couple of years, but they all plan to come back.
KW: Do you think that’s specific to L.A. or just the case with hometowns in general?
MS: I think L.A. has sort of come into its own. It used to be kind of a cultural idea that it had a negative valence. There was a tendency to put down L.A.—it wasn’t New York. It was Hollywood, in a bad way. But I think now it’s kind of a city you can live in. There’s mountains and the ocean. I love L.A. It’s a well-kept secret.
KW: So in the end, each of the Aziz children do end up finding companionship or love in some way, which is in contrast to Diane’s and Julie’s lifestyle. Do you think that they each sought out a partner, or just someone to share their life with, after watching their mother go through this down spiral that they might’ve connected to loneliness?
MS: Yes. Although, I think they each did it a little bit differently. I think Donnie had the most classically romantic story. And Walter really married a friend. He didn’t marry the one he was dreaming of all through college and afterwards. He came to terms with that and felt good about that. He felt he made the right choice for his life. I think they had varying degrees of romantic capability.
KW: That was a beautiful thing about the novel—it shows you all the different ways you can love someone and share a life with them. On a different note, there’s a quote on page 196 that felt like another central idea in the book:
“Getting ready for a party while still debating whether people who loved what they did for a living ought to be paid less because they received nonmaterial compensation, Lina asked, ‘Do I look alright?’ and Lauren said, ‘Of course.'”
That is such an interesting way to put it— that if you love what you do, maybe you should be paid less. I’m just curious about your thoughts on this.
MS: That’s an old Marxist idea. I think I was thinking of that in terms of the last few years, so much of what we’re probably all feeling, is the homelessness crisis. The unhoused crisis. And there has to be a way that we can arrange society that’s better than this. So that’s one thing that people have posited: why should people who love what they do get that benefit and make more money for it? Maybe it’s not the most unfair thing that artists often don’t make as much money as bankers. You know, it’s probably much more exciting to be an artist. You have much more freedom, you have much more agency throughout your day-to-day life.
KW: Do you think that writing this book changed your perspective on that at all?
MS: I think my perspective has changed a little as the years have gone by. I think that in my lifetime, not yours probably, but really in my lifetime, I’ve really seen the income gap become incredible. And it wasn’t always so huge. In the last few years in L.A., people who are working essential jobs can’t afford their rent because of the housing laws in this city. It’s become insane. Even the writers’ strike… I think they’re really right. So you see it everywhere. You see the vast distance. I think most of us in the English Department [at UCLA] were probably really backing the graduate students, 100%, when they went on strike last fall because lecturers and adjuncts are—to quote one person who wrote in an article in the New York Review of Books—they’re servicing academe. And often these people are teaching the core courses that most students who come to the major want to take. They want to take Shakespeare. They want to take the Bible. They want to take the 19th-century novel. A lot of these essential courses are being taught by people who have huge teaching loads and are compensated for little.
KW: Yeah, it’s really very sad… Do you see any way that this is changing now or could change in the near future?
MS: Well, the strike, the collective bargaining, made a big change in that. I actually took a hike with a friend of mine who was deep into the housing problem in L.A., and there are a lot of ideas but there are also a lot of things in the way of them too…
KW: So what are your thoughts now on the meaning of art and the role it plays in our society? Can it serve the working class in any way, or is it increasingly designed more for intellectuals and academics?
MS: I always think that art is useful just by being art, not necessarily to serve any particular message or any particular ideology because I think that gets dangerous. But I think that beauty is useful for everyone alive.
KW: My last question is—where do you see literature heading in the next five years?
MS: Well, that’s a hard question! I don’t think it’s under one tent. It’s interesting. I just met with a group of booksellers, and we were talking about how we’re at a point where, even for book people now, a lot of times they go to a dinner party or something and talk about what show they’re watching—whereas ten years ago, five years ago, people would be talking about what book they just read. And now they’re talking about television, which is interesting because the good television shows that we all like are often character-driven and a lot more like the 19th-century novel. I know that I like to be subtle, but I want to make sure that I actually am decode-able and accessible. Because I think we do want to engage people about the most important emotional events of our lives, and we do want to be clear to an extent. There’s no benefit to obscuring. So, I’m not sure where we’ll be. We’ll see.