Why Do We Still Crave Epiphanies?
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David Burr Gerrard on insecurities, the dream of radical transformation, and the enduring power of epiphanies
David Burr Gerrard’s second novel, The Epiphany Machine (Putnam), opens with a user’s manual, a promotional pamphlet of sorts. It is meant to entice and intrigue, to obfuscate and dissuade. Dissuade who? Well, you and me, of course. Like the best paper collateral (and the best openings of novels), there’s a friendly pull and push at work in these first pages. It’s impossible not to keep going and find out what happens next.
The subject here is the book’s eponymous artifact, a tool that looks like a sewing machine and functions like a prophet. The epiphany machine is an antique device that exists for the sole purpose of tattooing epiphanies on the arms of its clientele. ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST is an example of one. Or, SHOULD NEVER BECOME A FATHER. Beware of easy answers, promises, and fortunes: “An epiphany is not a parachute,” the pamphlet warns. It’s almost never a blessing. We follow the machine on its circuitous path through the annals of history, through the tattooed forearms of its detractors and devotees, and into the life of Venter, the protagonist and central figure of the novel. How and why and when the epiphany machine comes to shape Venter’s life is the epiphany we are waiting for, the momentum that keeps this lively novel moving forward.
At its best and its darkest, Gerrard is interrogating the nature of human interaction and human inaction with aplomb. The book, at its heart, is an examination of why people do the things they do, and don’t do the things they don’t, how knowing and not knowing can change the course of a life. “My father did the best he could,” Venter says, “which as a description of human behavior sounds like a tautology but is actually true of very few people.” The people of Gerrard’s novel are doing their best and their worst, and the epiphany of their behavior is the very best kind: the dawning of someone hoisting themselves over the horizon of our expectations. The Epiphany Machine is a tapestry of tattooed souls; the words on their arms become a refrain, a chorus, the twenty-four-hour ticking chyron of lived experience.
I recently spoke with David Burr Gerrard. Over sushi and diet cokes, we discussed writing workshops, John Lennon, and social media. He even prescribed some brand-new epiphany tattoos for a few people who are in urgent need of self-reflection.
Hilary Leichter: When Venter, the protagonist of your book, starts taking testimonials from people who are receiving epiphanies, he gets some advice on giving an interview from a writer named Catherine Pearson: “The only way to get people to talk about something important is to leave them with no other option.” So, this is our interview! This is your testimonial. Tell me something important about this book. What was the epiphany that led to The Epiphany Machine?
David Burr Gerrard: The Epiphany Machine started when I was in grad school, which is now more than ten years ago. I first wrote a short story called “The Epiphany Machine” in spring of 2006, for a workshop in Ben Marcus’s class. I had absorbed the idea that short stories were supposed to have some kind of epiphany, even though actually my professors really never told me that, and I had no idea how to write with epiphanies. On the one hand, I wanted to write stories that had epiphanies, on the other hand I thought it was clichéd and reduced human experience to slogans. On the one hand I thought I was too good for epiphanies, on the other hand I thought I wasn’t good enough for epiphanies. I worried that I didn’t really have any kind of wisdom to share. I couldn’t distill life into that kind of essence. I started wishing for an epiphany machine that would dispense wisdom for me, and then I had the epiphany that I could just write about the machine. I also came up with the idea that the epiphanies would be dispensed by something that looked like a sewing machine, largely because I love Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and I wanted to use a needle.
In my original story, the epiphanies were just written on a piece of wood. And it didn’t occur to me until much later to actually make them written on the body in the way that the judgments are written in “In the Penal Colony.” The story was received well in my workshop, and I thought, this is great! I’m going to turn this into a novel, and I’ll be done with it in about a year or so. And that led to the very painful and protracted epiphany that it was going to be much more difficult than that. I wrote many, many, many drafts that went nowhere, and I had what I thought was my final epiphany over and over again, which was that I was a terrible writer and it was never going to work. Finally, I put it down and went back to this novel I’d written in grad school, Short Century, revised that, had that published. I was very nervous about going back to The Epiphany Machine. Because I thought okay, this is just a trap that’s going to lead to me wasting my life and my writing career.
HL: I have this theory that the longer you have an idea you’re excited about, and you don’t write it, the more it becomes the weight that you wear around your neck.
DBG: It’s totally true. I think in general that’s very good advice. I think the best advice that I could’ve gotten in 2009 or 2010 would have been to stop writing this book and never think about it again. But now I’m glad I didn’t take what would’ve been good advice.
HL: I’m glad, too!
DBG: The fact that good advice is not always good advice is also a big part of this book.
HL: It didn’t occur to me when I was reading, but there is some similarity between the process of a writing workshop and the process of getting the epiphany tattooed on your arm. Waiting to hear people’s critique of your work, and waiting to hear this machine’s critique of your life. And the pain! Waiting to hear while you’re in so much pain! So, it’s interesting to me that when you were writing this, the epiphanies didn’t start out on the skin, on the actual arm, because there was so much about that in the book that brought to mind other things. It made me think of Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project, and how when you’re an artist you’re always told that you should have a “thick skin.” I thought your book was an interesting play on that idea. But what is the relationship, for you, between words and skin?
DBG: I always feel like brutally negative judgments about myself, whether they come from me or from someone else, kind of dig their way into my body. Not in tattoos, and not necessarily in a bunch of words, but certainly on my face. I’ve never had a really good poker face. I sit around worrying about some dumb thing I said at a party a few days ago —
HL: — and everyone can tell that you’re upset?
DBG: Exactly. Or rather, I imagine that everybody can tell. Because really, nobody else cares about you that much. Realistically, somebody sees a tattoo on your arm, in the world of this book, and they might think, “Oh, he’s a weirdo who got an epiphany tattoo.” But nobody really cares. You see a strange tattoo on somebody, in our world, on the subway, and you might think, “Oh, that’s a little weird,” and you don’t think about it again. We really don’t care about anybody else’s interior life.
HL: Why did you choose the forearm as the given spot for an epiphany tattoo?
DBG: That’s a good question — it just seemed to be a place that was both conspicuous, but also concealable. For a while I had them on the face, and it just seemed like too much. A face tattoo is a lot. And it would be really difficult to sort of go through your daily life with a face tattoo. With a forearm tattoo, it’s hard to hide it all the time, but it’s easy to hide it a lot of the time.
HL: The world of the book is so well-built. I really believed that the epiphany machine was a part of the culture, even if it’s a cult-culture. It’s a point of reference in everyone’s life, and that was interesting to me. It’s also a kind of antithetical social media that we don’t have in our world. Instead we have 140 characters that do the opposite of what these forearm tattoos do, concealing instead of revealing who we really are. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between epiphany tattoos and social media?
DBG: It’s so interesting because I started this book in 2006. It was very different. I had Friendster at the time!
HL: That was a thing!
DBG: It was a thing! But I wasn’t really thinking about social media. It didn’t seem that important. And then a couple of years later, I joined Facebook, and I would still say as I was writing these drafts, it didn’t really occur to me that there was much connection between Facebook and what I was writing. That may flatten the way I was thinking, because another thing you do in interviews is you try and create a story about process. So, I probably did, at certain points, think “Oh, okay, obviously on Facebook there’s a certain kind of self-presentation that’s related in a complicated way to the self-presentation in deciding to get an epiphany tattoo.” Once Twitter became so dominant, in maybe 2011 or 2012, it absolutely did become very important to how I was thinking about this book. And that’s part of why I ended it the way I did, with a new device that’s keyed into your internet history. With social media, you’re trying to curate your presentation. But at the same time, I feel that there’s an inevitable failure in that presentation. People can see through what you’re doing. I see people all the time trying to make themselves seem happy, and I don’t buy it. Then again, what do I know!
HL: There’s a character in your book who provides imitation epiphany tattoos. He says that when someone comes and asks him for a certain tattoo, it nevertheless reveals an opposite thing, the real thing that they fear or loathe about themselves. A Facebook post about extreme happiness can maybe leave the viewer feeling an opposite emotion about that post.
DBG: Even if you don’t use social media, we live in a world where everything you do on the internet is widely visible. We are exposed to the world in a way that we perhaps weren’t even when I started writing the book.
HL: The moments from history that you brought into the book were very powerful — particularly moments of violence, moments of war, genocide, slavery — moments where people are committing either emotional or physical violence against each other. And you found a way to insert the epiphany machine into each of those experiences, creating a hidden history for our world. I was wondering what your research process looked like, and how you decided which real historical moments to include, versus invented ones.
DBG: We’re all thrusting through a very long and very violent history, of which we only know a tiny fraction. I was interested in throwing in this device, and changing things a little bit. Because of that, I don’t think anyone would go to this book for history, at least they certainly shouldn’t. I decided to give myself free rein in terms of making stuff up. I would consult books as a last resort, if I were stuck as to how to do a certain thing. These are very clearly fictional fictions, and I wanted to get at how certain preconceptions about history kind of float around and get turned around in our heads, and integrated into our sense of self.
HL: John Lennon features prominently in the book — why John Lennon?
DBG: Well let me turn that back around on you. Why do you think John Lennon?
HL: If we’re still talking about these cultural moments that are punctuated by violence, then that’s a big one. And he’s more than just a singer/songwriter. He’s a touchstone for people. He’s a slogan! He’s an icon on a shirt.
DBG: He’s a big part of walking through the more touristy areas of New York. And he’s part of the mythology of New York in a way that I really liked, and that I wanted to interrogate. Because there are a lot of things about him that are terrible. At the same time, I do admire him for his art. And his art changed so dramatically over a very short period of time, and that interested me as well. That dream of radical transformation that’s so important to the epiphany machine, seemed to be an important part of his life and career. And also, the way that radical transformation was unsatisfying to him, and to others.
HL: I think you probably knew this was coming: if you had an epiphany tattoo, do you know what it would be?
DBG: I’ve had a long time to think about this answer. And to be honest, I think there’s no way for me to know because the essence of an epiphany tattoo is that you both know what it is and least expected it.
HL: It’s a blind spot.
DBG: Exactly — it’s something I think about all the time without knowing that I think about it. That being said, I gave Venter the DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS tattoo because that’s what I’m most afraid of in myself. I am terrified it would be my epiphany tattoo. And when I was thinking about what Venter’s tattoo was going to be, that’s really how I got there. Because I do find that even my opinion of this book can veer wildly depending on how recently I’ve refreshed Goodreads.
HL: This book is your epiphany tattoo! It’s the thing you wear into the world for people to comment on, or not care about, or love.
DBG: In general, I do find myself being convinced fairly easily by other people. And I think that’s something that’s true for a lot of us. I think we try and deny that, because everyone wants to say, “I think for myself. I give zero fucks.” I see this all the time: some article gets attacked [on social media] and there’s a huge pile-on. And I think, well if the first few people who read it had the opposite opinion, then would all of these other people have the opposite opinion?
I hope that writing the book has made me more aware of this. I do find that sometimes I start to get swayed by what someone is saying, and then I think, “There you go, David. You’re DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS.” Being aware of that dependency to has to some extent freed me of that dependency, which is how epiphany tattoos ideally are supposed to work. But as you see in the novel, things can always get turned around.
HL: Since you are the literal inventor of the epiphany machine, and since I fear that questions of truth are very relevant right now in a dire way, I was hoping that you would be willing to prescribe some epiphanies for other people?
DBG: Right. Okay.
HL: Donald Trump.
DBG: I think that there’s nobody who is more abundantly and accurately characterized than Donald Trump. I don’t think I have much in the way of original commentary! The general Google diagnosis of him is as a child who thinks only of himself and thinks only of what he wants at any given moment, and I think it’s an accurate one. That might as well be tattooed all over his body. You can see it in everything he does.
HL: I would think that maybe he’d get the very common epiphany tattoo, CLOSED OFF.
DBG: Most politicians are CLOSED OFF, and closed off to that particular aspect of themselves as well. I think this is key to both Trump’s popularity, and to people like us who hate him and nevertheless can’t stop looking at him. I think he reflects something back in all of us. So, he’s sort of an epiphany tattoo for America. We’re all like him, to a degree. We’re all children who want what we want, and want praise all the time, and instant gratification, constant validation. We don’t want to think about how our actions are going to affect other people. I think that is both appealing and repellent, to a degree that it allowed him to command enough attention to get into the White House.
HL: What about Ivanka’s tattoo?
DBG: Ivanka is a much more interesting case, and I do think that she is very contradictory in many ways. And so, she might be a prime candidate for an epiphany tattoo, because the sense that I get is that she knows the truth about herself, but she doesn’t want to admit it. I think she knows that she helped a fascist become President of the United States. And yet she wants to believe that she is advocating for good policies within the fascism, even though that fascism wouldn’t have been as successful without her apparent normalcy, which I think helped convince people, “Oh, he can’t be that bad if Ivanka loves him.” So, I think her role is really as a cloak of normalcy that her father can wear when he feels like it, but has no actual consequences as to what he does. And I think she knows that’s her role.
HL: So maybe her tattoo is something like, PROTECTS FATHER?
DBG: PROTECTS FATHER AND PROTECTS SELF.
HL: What about Kafka?
DBG: I feel like every sentence that Kafka wrote was an epiphany tattoo for me. I don’t feel worthy of turning it around. The one tattoo that comes to mind for Kafka is, DIDN’T WANT MAX BROD TO BURN HIS MANUSCRIPTS. I think he asked Max Brod because he knew that Brod wouldn’t do it. To generalize: he actually wanted the fame. I’m sure there will be many Kafka enthusiasts who will yell at me for that.
HL: Yes. On the message boards.
DBG: On the Kafka message boards.